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Friday, 27 May 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 6

Wow, already at the halfway point. Or it will be by the time I finish this chapter. To be frank, I wasn't expecting it to be quite so episodic. I mean, so far it could be seen more as a collection of a short stories that happened to feature the same cast. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I'm just a bit surprised. Anyway, last chapter was pretty much a stop-gap chapter, with a bit of mocking at Himmelstoss' expense and a stolen goose.
So we start off a couple days before they go on an offensive, and things aren't looking good. From what they can gather from the sounds from the other trenches, the British and French have increased their artillery, which is never helpful, plus their superiors haven't exactly made morale any easier to keep up by piling up hundreds of new coffins. Subtle guys. To make things worse, shoddy upkeep on their own artillery means that they accidentally get shelled by their own side. I don't see this going well somehow.
There's a short discussion/monologue about chance and how you can never tell when you're going to die. It's all rather depressing, really.
We then get a section where the soldiers try to protect their bread rations from the rats, which sound absolutely repulsive in all honesty. They end up gathering scraps of bread together, then when the rats come to eat them, beat the little beasts to death with shovels. I really hope that imagery is gone soon so my stomach can settle.
The next day, they're all given big chunks of Edam cheese and issued liquor, which is presumably their superiors' idea of a decent last meal should anything go wrong. Again, hardly comforting. They check their weapons and prepare themselves for the possibility of a gas attack. Despite all this, it's quiet for a few days, all except for the constant rumbling of vehicles bringing more artillery to the British and French line. Ominous. They eventually hear that the British and French will be using tanks, aircraft and, most ominously (if you watched that episode of Time Team, you will know exactly what I'm talking about), flame-throwers. In the middle of the night, the shelling starts and all they can really do is stay in the dugout and hope for the best. It extends well into the day, pulverising their trench and preventing them from getting more food down there. So yeah, they might still be alive, but the situation is still pretty grim.
The night is difficult, especially when the rats invade. I had been hoping that we wouldn't see the rats again. Then the recruits start to go crazy and try to escape. I was waiting for that to happen, it seems to be a staple of war fiction. They get some more bread, but that's not much help for the recruit that managed to escape the dugout, then get blown up. So overall, a pretty horrific experience for all.
The shells eventually stop, but that was just the beginning of the offensive, as now they have to defend against the other side raiding their trenches. The French are now advancing, but even they're taking casualties, such as this gruesome bit:
"I see one of them run into a knife-rest, his face lifted upwards. His body slumps, and his hands stay caught, raised up as if he is praying. Then the body falls away completely and only the shot-off hands and the stumps of the arms are left hanging in the wire." 
No bloody wonder so many of them came back with no idea how to function in society. After seeing things like that I'm surprised they weren't all carted off to mental asylums. But at this point it seems that they've all fallen back on instinct and are fighting to survive. It'll hit them later. In any case, they abandon the front trenches, seeing as it's a lost cause.
They get back to the reserve trenches and eventually begin to fight their way back, so that they actually manage to get back to the front trenches again. They actually get to the enemy trenches, which was unexpected. That offensive didn't work too well for the French really. There's some fighting in the French trench, but by this point, the fighting has pretty much stopped. Which is why there's an odd change of subject where they still the French food supplies. Fair enough.
So now we're in the post-offensive bit, and for whatever reason this means our narrator has flashbacks to his home and youth. They're all characterised by absolute quiet, devoid of the sounds of the front line, which must be very odd. It's quite a melancholy passage, as there's an understanding that even if he goes back to the places in his memory, it won't be the same and he won't know how to handle it.
There's a short paragraph that summarises the night that goes by while our narrator is on look-out, which sounds generally unpleasant, but otherwise not too bad.
This pattern of attacks and counter-attacks goes on for a few days, with them occasionally going out to try and recover their wounded from no-man's land. There seems to be one guy who they can hear, but because he's on his front they can't pinpoint where he is, so he stays out there for days, just getting weaker and weaker. It's even worse than the French guy I quoted about before.
As it gets quieter, they start collecting parachute silk and copper from the used French shells, for no real reason that either I or the narrator can think of. Haie tries to give a reason for collecting the copper bands, which is to send home to replace his girlfriend's garter. Not a bad reason in all. The parachute silk seems to be of more actual value. There's still some shelling, but nowhere near the same amount. Although, that said, the recon planes still make things difficult, causing another batch of casualties.
Another set of attacks and counter-attacks start up and there are more new recruits being sent straight to the front. But they don't really seem to be doing anything other than getting in the way to be quite honest. It's rather sad, but the overall feeling I get from this is frustration at the stupid tactics the superior officers seem to be using constantly. It's especially irritating to know that a change of tactics could have prevented all the casualties suffered in the First World War. Quite why I'm raging at people who aren't even alive anymore, I'm not entirely sure. Oh well.
There's now a short section where Himmelstoss acts like a coward and tries to avoid the fight while there are all these young recruits dying, and is beaten up to get him outside again. I'm not sure which feeling is greater: disdain for this pompous idiot, or satisfaction that he's been beaten up. Probably disdain.
There's another section of fighting and more men dying. Mostly recruits still, even though the older hands try to show them the ropes a bit. Haie is carried off with a big enough wound in his back that you can see lung through it; my medical knowledge is pretty patchy, but I think he's not making it back alive. And after it's all done? They lost about 200 yards. That's a pathetic amount of ground compared to the amount of people they must have lost along the way.
They're finally pulled back from the front and replaced with relief troops and things have not gone well. They went out with 150 men in their company and came back with 32. I can't imagine losing that many people in such a short amount of time. And it's where the chapter ends. How depressing.

Wow. That was an absolutely brutal chapter. I thought it wouldn't get much worse than the shelling scene from earlier, but was I ever wrong. Again, I can't imagine how they didn't just become a bunch of gibbering wrecks after all that.

Signing off,

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 5

Hi guys, finally back to do another chapter review. My exams have technically been over since Friday, but I just haven't been in the reviewing mood, what with fall-out from exam tiredness, registering for new courses next year and sorting out an interview for a job. But now I'm back, and I was wondering about what people thought about the little book discussion I did last entry. I mean, I enjoyed looking back at what affected my development as a reader, but thus far I haven't had any reaction to it, so I was wondering whether I should include more entries like that, or whether I should just stick to chapter reviews. Well, with that said and done, I just need to recap the last chapter, although considering that that was the reader's first experience of the front line, I don't think it needs all that much of a recap. To cut a long story, anything that could go wrong went wrong. 
And we start this chapter talking about lice. Well, that was an odd change of pace. We go from shells exploding everywhere you look to throwing lice into a boot polish lid/makeshift frying-pan. Weird. Anyway, while they flash-fry lice, they're contemplating the fact that Himmelstoss, the one nobody liked from earlier, is actually at the front now. Again, this might just be evidence that I have a vicious mindset, but I'm looking forward to this. 
But instead of elaborating on the Himmelstoss thing, we instead get a discussion about what they would do if peace were suddenly declared. The overall answer seems to be "find women and have some fun". Nice to know that they still appreciate those simple pleasures in life. And then oddly enough, the idea of continuing in the army come peace-time comes about. Now I realise that after the war there won't nearly be as much danger present, but I would have thought that staying in the army would be the last thing I'd consider doing. There are a few more answers considered, then Himmelstoss turns up. My god, I don't think this scene could be any more awkward or hostile if it possibly tried. Tjaden insults him, as he's been meaning to do for a while, and it's all very satisfying, but there is the possibility that Himmelstoss can get him in trouble for that. So it doesn't feel entirely satisfactory. 
We go back to the previous discussion about what they'd do if peace were declared, and they consider going back to school. For all of about 5 seconds before they tot up how many are left from their class and decide that the teacher would never be able to control them anyway. Cue making fun of their old teacher. Then cue a rather depressing realisation that the war has essentially ruined the psyches of an entire generation of young men. Thanks guys, I was beginning to hope that this would be a comparatively happy chapter. 
So, of course, Himmelstoss has kicked up a fuss and tries to find Tjaden to knock him down a couple notches. It doesn't go so well, with the company's lieutenant giving him a dressing down, while Tjaden and Kropp get periods of open arrest each. Considering that open arrest is essentially being locked in a room that's allowed visitors, it doesn't sound all that bad. They reckon that Himmelstoss will last 3 days. Please let there be a pool set up. 
After roll call, Kat and Bäumer decide to go steal a goose that they noticed on the way to their job on the front last chapter. It doesn't go as well as they'd hoped, but they do get the goose, which is the important thing I suppose. They have an intimate moment of silence as they cook the goose in a hut with blacked out windows in the middle of the night. It's all very sweet and affectionate, if a little bit trippy at points. Granted, he is half asleep, but it's still a bit odd to read. They eventually get round to eating it and, having had their fill, even bring a bit back to give to Tjaden and Kropp in open arrest. And that's pretty much where it ends, with that little show of camaraderie. 

This was one of those quieter chapters, where there are little hints and reminders about the war and the damage it's causing, but it's mostly focused on the quiet moments where the group is just relaxing together. I rather like these chapters, because from what I've seen of war films, there seems to be comparatively little of this slow build-up of character development and relationships growing, which I think works to their detriment. But yeah, I liked this chapter, if only for the goose section at the end. 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Some early morning musing

Hi diligent reader, 'tis me. Who else would it be? No chapter review this time, I just felt like talking. Or typing. Whichever works best. In any case, having finished revision for the day (20 minutes after midnight, but that's a technicality I think I can ignore) I've been hit with a sudden sense of...emptiness seems too strong a word, but it seems to be the only one fit for the purpose. So I thought I'd talk with you about books, a subject that never fails to put a smile on my face. That is unless the book is frustrating me beyond all reason. Which is unfortunately a much more common occurrence now that I've grown up and I'm developing more of a taste for books and less patience for irritating ones. So where better to begin a discourse about reading, but at the beginning of a bookaholic's downward descent, to an eventual end that I can only imagine as being crushed by a towering to-be-read pile: the first book that you read that reached into you and defined you as a reader.
Mine is perhaps an odd book to pick, especially considering how young I was at the time. It was the summer holidays between years 5 and 6 in primary school, I would be turning 11 in less than a month, and I spent part of that summer reading Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Looking back, I can't help but look upon it with affection, even if I view it as one of Sherlock Holmes' lesser adventures nowadays. But even so, of all the places to start, it was perhaps the most obvious, the place where Holmes and Watson's singular relationship originated. I think Holmes himself was probably the biggest draw, though I didn't know why at the time. I think it might have been partly down to my circumstances at the time: as an non-athletic individual, summer camp, with an over-abundance of games of tag and bulldog, was hardly an attractive prospect, so I convinced my mum to let me bring a book with me each day. My reading habits before this summer were those of your average, slightly bookish 10 year old, but that summer I decided that I was going to read some classics, to improve myself. Now, despite what I'd told myself, a 10 year old girl with a hard-back copy of Little Women is going to stick out. I hadn't learned that in playgrounds, the nail that sticks out will be hammered down, in one way or another. To cut a long story short, I was bullied mercilessly for my retreat into literature; much as I appreciate now that this probably influenced my choice of reading, it was, and still is today, a very painful part of my childhood, and one which did me no benefit growing up. But in any case, by the time I got to reading A Study in Scarlet, the bullies had been put in their place, but I was still feeling somewhat delicate. So to find a character like Sherlock Holmes, a man who embraced his solitary nature and was celebrated nonetheless, it was something to cling to. To this day, I still love Sherlock. I love him for his determination to not bend to societal norms. I love him for his desire to constantly better himself. I love him for the great love he bears Watson, even if he is loath to put it into words. But most of all, I love his ability to still believe in human morality even after seeing some of the darkest, basest human motivations and actions. Hell, I even love the weaknesses, the typical Victorian upper class elitism, the weakness for his 7% solution. He's been the role model that I've aspired to for almost 10 years now. It's rather sad, but I can't think of many role models that I've held dearer to me. He and Dr Watson have inspired me to read with a passion that I lacked before, and, in their own way, they've shaped my sense of self: sometimes for the better, sometimes not, but I can't begrudge them those less helpful lessons.

So, for me it was the introduction to Sherlock Holmes and his ever faithful Bosworth, Dr Watson that has set me on this journey towards my smothering beneath the books I love so much. Is there a particular book or character that has defined the very person you are? Was there a moment where you suddenly realised that you were stuck with books for the rest of your life? If so, I wouldn't mind hearing of them.

Signing off,

Monday, 16 May 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 4

Well, with 'The Heritage of Dante and the Renaissance' out of the way now, I only have one exam left. It's probably not a good thing to do, but I think I deserve a bit of a rest before I start preparing for my last exam. Hence why I'm here, with you lovely people, with All Quiet on the Western Front in my hands. So last chapter was surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances, thus the chances for it to all go downhill from here are probably fairly high.
Our fourth chapter starts with the group going up to the front on "wiring duty", whatever that means: much as I love retro technology and gadgets, I have no clue how most of them work. They keep up good spirits, shouting jokes to overtaking lorries and making plans to steal a goose, but you can tell that this isn't a pleasant job that they're about to do. Mainly because they don't mind being thrown off the truck they're on and ending up in hospital with a broken arm. The only bone I've ever broken is a toe, and that really bloody hurt, so it must be pretty damn unpleasant if they don't mind that happening. Although it may just be the fact that they're going to the front. Painful injury or threat of death? Yeah, that's pretty unsurprising now that I think about it. They get to the gun line, pretty much as far away from the actual action as the front line can get as far as I could tell from this, and things get noticeably more tense. It turns out that something big is likely to happen that night, as the British have started battery fire an hour earlier than normal. Is it just me, or does it seem really odd that the trenches were run on a timetable? Something along the line of "so long as we're just staying where we are, start shelling at 2200 hours sharp". I was expecting a bit more chaos somehow. In any case, there's a bit of a discussion about how being at the front immediately puts you on alert, but I think that's an obvious enough side-effect that I won't over-discuss it.
We now get a discussion about how earth is the most important part of life in the trenches. I'll admit, I was surprised at the importance it's given. When Bäumer talks about ducking down to avoid shell-fire, there's almost an intimacy with the earth, which I really wasn't expecting; it's like it's taken on both a guarding and consoling role for them. I mean, read through this bit and try to tell me that, despite the horrific circumstances, this is not beautiful: 
"When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and with his limbs, under fire and with fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety" 
Maybe it's just me, but I imagine that that will stay with me for a while. There's a shorter section leading on from the earth part, where Bäumer describes how instinct comes to the fore when you get on to the front line, and he uses an interesting turn of phrase: 
"We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful - we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals." 
It's possibly the first time I've heard humans likened to animals in a good way. When you describe someone as an animal, it's usually to do with savageness and lack of civilised behaviour (essentially a description that can be applied to the majority of professional footballers), but here it's a reference to being in tune with your basic instincts and self-preservation. Another unexpected metaphor.
The group gets to wherever they're doing their wiring duty, there's a little bit of description about various different things going on behind the trenches, a quick stop to pick up equipment and they're on their way. They're close to the trenches now, and the tension is rising. I almost don't want to go any further, because it's one of those scenes where you can just tell that something bad is going to happen.
So it turns out that I've not been thinking literally enough, and wiring duty is literally setting up lines of barbed wire. In any other circumstance, I would probably have some kind of sarcastic comment about this like "riveting stuff", but it just seems wrong here. They finish after a few hours, but there's still time until the truck comes back to retrieve them, so most of them settle down to try and get a nap, our narrator included. He wakes up just in time to crawl away from some shelling. Knew it. Only one shell lands in amongst the group, so they're safe for now, but Bäumer is still stuck with one of the new recruits huddling into his chest, which is rather sweet. 
So the shelling stops and people are safe for now, but the group are now subjected to the haunting sound of wounded horses screaming. Much as I want to be really affected by this scene, I'm feeling only slightly sympathetic. I have no idea why: I like animals, I get affected by lives lost in wars and the graphic detail here is pretty shocking, but I'm just not all that sad about it. I guess because I was so anxious about the characters themselves dying or getting hurt, horses getting hurt doesn't have the same impact; if I'm honest, after worrying about the human characters, the horses are pretty much a relief in contrast. It's a horrible thing to say, and I know it's bringing up the issue of animals in warfare, but if Remarque wanted me to care so much, then he should probably have focused on them a bit more before they were all killed. 
So they go back to where they're supposed to meet the trucks, when another round of shelling starts up, forcing them to hide in a military graveyard. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting that round. Bäumer gets knocked around a bit and ends up taking shelter in the grave he was hiding behind. I would say something about the sanctity of the dead, but it's extreme circumstances. He's then told by Katczinsky that there's now a gas attack to worry about too. Wonderful. Whoever came up with gas must have either been seriously unlucky or a total sadist. It's the most horrific thing I remember learning in History of Medicine, simply because of how bloody effective it is at killing you. So, while Bäumer's lying in the shell crater with Kat, Kropp and another guy, the barrage of explosive and gas shells is still going on, so staying in the crater is, unfortunately, their only option. Gas is heavy so it sinks into the craters, but they can't lie on higher ground because there's a chance they'll get hit by explosives; damned if they do, damned if they don't. To make things worse, the fourth guy gets his arm trapped when a shell blows a coffin through the air. If it weren't so tense, I'd laugh. Eventually though, the gas disperses and the shelling stops. Good lord. 
So after everything's calmed down a bit, they get on with treating their wounded. They find one lad whose hip joint is now just so much torn up pulp. Turns out he's the one Bäumer comforted earlier on. Ouch. They consider mercy-killing him, seeing as he's unlikely to survive being moved, but a stretcher arrives before they can do it. 
They eventually get back to the truck, but it's pretty plain to see that it's been a tough night for all of them, even if their losses are small. Their main job on the way back is to avoid the telephone wires that have dropped down low enough to take their heads off. What a lovely way to end a night's work. 

So yeah, that's the chapter over, and what a chapter. Christ, I don't think I've been that tense in a while. Hell, I don't think I was that tense before my exam this morning. So really, reading has failed the intent of relaxing me this time, but I don't think it really matters. I really loved this chapter, even though I was fearing for their lives. I mean, it shows the work of a good author when they make you scared for the life of a fictional character, isn't it? 

Signing off, 

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 3

Hey there. Managed to squeeze a little time out of my revision to update on here; there's only so many past papers and notes on the Tre Corone that one can do in an evening before going absolutely barking mad. In any case, I'll be alleviating my exam/revision related boredom with a little bit of misery. Don't get me wrong, it's been good so far, but WWI isn't the cheeriest subject matter available to write about. Anyway, I believe we left off just after Kemmerich had died, so presumably we can draw the line of cheeriness from death now, and hope that it rises at least a little off the base line.
This time, we start of with some reinforcements to the company, including 25 new recruits; what's the likelihood that about 80% of them will be cannon fodder before this book is over, do you think? In any case, Katczinsky decides to treat one of the new recruits with some beans and bully beef that he managed to get off of the cook-sergeant from when they all got double rations in chapter 1. Which is rather nice of him. Like I said before, I do love the camaraderie that the soldiers seem to have here; it's a little spot of brightness in amongst the misery of war.
So now we get a section dedicated to Katczinsky. He seems to be the smart, intuitive one out of the characters that have appeared so far, doing stuff like finding hay for comfortable sleeping and food when there's no-one and nothing else for miles around. For some reason he reminds me of Red from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, he can get almost anything within reason. He seems to have the same sort of attitude as Red as well, finding humour where he can in tough situations. A useful kind of guy to have around, regardless.
We now move on to the company relaxing on the sunny side of camp. And before I forget to mention it, I just love this description of the camp here:
"It smells of tar, summertime and sweaty feet." 
I don't know why, but that just brings a smile to my face; there's no more description than that here, but it really evokes a sort of carefree feeling about the place, maybe because what we've had so far has been so downbeat. In any case, while they're there Katczinsky and Kropp have a bit of an argument about what the war essentially is like: Kat is off the opinion that after it's finished, people will just forget about it, while Kropp disagrees, arguing that if countries insist on going to war, their respective leaders should be the ones to fight, not soldiers. That idea would be pretty cool, if it could only be implemented; it would also give us more excuses to play Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" at official events. The conversation then sort of drifts along into discussions (and probably a lot of bitching) about drill. Most of which I still consider useless. From drill, we move to Himmelstoss (the horrific instructor from chapter 2) and the idea that putting a man in uniform and a position of power over other people turns them into horrible people. Which is pretty much true. Well done for figuring that out before the psychologists, guys. In any case, our paragraph ends with the revelation that Himmelstoss has been called out to the front. I'm going to sound very cruel, but if he dies, there will be part of me cheering.
So the soldiers who had trained under Himmelstoss are rather pleased that he's now at the front, presumably because they can get some payback on him. Indeed, we're shown a rather satisfying revenge that Bäumer, Kropp, Haie and Tjaden carried out the night before they left for the front: namely beating him up in a back alley. Not the most honourable of schemes ever, but damn that has got to be satisfying. And on that satisfying note, we end our chapter. And we're quarter of the way already. 

My favourite chapter so far, because we get to see more about some of the other men in the company and I presumably have a lot to look forward to with Himmelstoss now at the front. 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 2

Hey guys, time for chapter two of All Quiet on the Western Front. But firstly, a little notice for those of you who follow my blog regularly. Because of my university exams, I'm probably only going to post intermittently until I finally finish them on the 20th. Considering the regularity I've gotten into the swing of recently, it's a bit annoying, but it's pretty important if I want to continue going to uni. Anyway, last chapter we'd learnt a little bit about Bäumer and his companions, and visited one of their dying friends in hospital. Fun times all around. 
We start off the chapter with Bäumer musing about the lack of ties to pre-war lives that the younger soldiers have. An interesting topic, not necessarily one I'd think of either. The implication seems to be that the older soldiers, the ones with jobs, wives and children, have more ties to life before the war, so that they can see past the end of the war to a point where life continues as normal; the younger soldiers don't seem to have that option as they've been sent away at the point where they're just about to start lives of their own and the bonds between parents and girlfriends are at a particularly weak point. If that holds true, going back home will be singularly awkward then. 
The next paragraph is quite a short one and tries to defend Müller for wanting to take Kemmerich's boots: it makes sense seeing as the orderlies will most likely steal them after he's dead and he wouldn't need them even if he did live, considering he only has one leg now. The argument is well-reasoned, but somehow seems a bit out of place. Why insert it into the chapter after Müller has tried taking them? 
There's another fairly short paragraph about the effect that basic training had on them. Having gone in with enthusiasm and naive patriotism, they have all that beaten out of them through drudgery, routine and abuse from above. And while I will admit that discipline is essential for any large group of people, there's usually more chance of discipline actually appearing when you earn people's respect, not just shout at them to respect you. That and I could never understand the emphasis on marching drills in basic training; okay, you're increasing discipline, but you're also not actually training them for trench warfare or modern warfare in general. I mean, strategy would sort of dictate that everyone marching in straight lines would be very easy to kill, wouldn't it? 
It skips in time a bit to when their class is split into threes and fours, and shipped off to different squads. Bäumer and his mates seem to have gotten a real bastard for a squad leader, who seems to hate them for little to no reason at all. Hence giving them tasks like clearing the parade ground of snow with a dust-pan and brush, in response to petty things like having your underwear protrude a little too far when it's laid out for inspection. It seems to stop after they threaten to start an inquiry on him. Got to love turning the system back on people who abuse it. Anyway, despite all that, they seem to appreciate the basic training because it toughened them up. Granted, the marching probably never came in handy, but I imagine the tougher attitude helped. 
So now we switch back to the present, where Bäumer is sitting by Kemmerich's bed as the doctors go round picking out patients that can be moved, in order to send them home. Kemmerich seems oddly lucid for a dying man, realising that his leg's been amputated and that he's probably going to die. There's a slight diversion into how small these boy soldiers are underneath their thick boots and uniforms, and just how fragile the human body really is. So Kemmerich dies and the complete and utter apathy that the doctors and orderlies have is sickening really. He hasn't been dead more than a few minutes or so and they're already bundling him up in tarpaulin. I mean, you can kind of understand them wanting to use the beds for another injured person, but it's still a bit much when none of them could really give a crap. Anyway, that's pretty much where the chapter ends, right after Bäumer gives Müller those boots. 

Again, a very well-written chapter. That I'm vaguely depressed now is testament to that. Thus far not much of a plot as such, but then I suppose this is more a slice-of-life/character study kind of affair. 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front - Part 1

On to my third book now, the first book from my various ill-advised trips to the second-hand book stall (my pile of immediate "to-read" books is ridiculously high at the moment, 14 books after this one, but I can't help feeding the rush that I get from the feel of a new book in my hands). Got this one mainly because it's one of those books that should at least be attempted once in a lifetime.
Anyway, first chapter and I'm already excited by the smell of the old pages. Wow, I'm getting far too excited. We start our story 5 miles behind the front lines, where our main characters, a group of German soldiers (with names like Tjaden and Müller, how could they be any other nationality?) are having a celebration of sorts, to mark the fact that they now have enough food to eat. Well, as far as mildly depressing starts go, that's a good one. They also have double rations of tobacco, which as a non-smoker I can't see the appeal of, but I suppose war could drive you to anything. So we're introduced to the group, who I'll try to differentiate between as best I can (big casts all at once confuse me somewhat), as they line up for food: there's the narrator Bäumer; his friends from school, Kropp, Müller and Leer; a locksmith Tjaden, a peat-digger Westhus and their leader Katczinsky. All of them, apart from Katczinsky, are only 19 years old. So it turns out that the cook-sergeant has cooked for 150 men, the normal size of their company, the day after they've been reduced to 80 men because of long-range shelling from the other side. They seem to be rather blasé about the fact that the food that their eating in effectively paid for by the loss of almost half their group. But I suppose rumbling bellies overcome decorum in this sort of situation. I'll admit, while the hints of the brutality of war do add up to make a rather depressing tone, it does have some great bits of humour and camaraderie between the characters. Like when the company commander comes along and forces the cook-sergeant to hand out all 150 rations to 80 men.
It skips now to Bäumer, Kropp and Müller going out to the field behind the barracks to read their post and to take a dump. A bit odd to read about, I'll tell you that. At this point it seems that they've gotten to the point where this sort of thing as a communal activity is just second nature now. Our narrator even begins to describe the beautiful things you can see while taking a communal dump in a field. And it does sound rather pretty, if in a very odd way:
"The blue sky is above us. On the horizon we can see the yellow observation balloons with the sun shining on them, and white puffs of smoke from the tracer bullets. Sometimes you see a sudden sheaf of them going up, when they are chasing an airman." 
And so on. They play a few rounds of cards and sort of communicate how close they were to dying back there, without actually talking about it. I know that that description just then sucked, but it's all I can come up with at the moment. While they're out there, Kropp finds a letter from a guy called Kantorek, who we'll presumably now hear about.
Indeed we do. Kantorek turns out to be their form-master from back when they were at school, who persuades his entire class to enlist in the army. They all agree, some after some persuasion, mainly because of the wide view that those who refused to enlist were cowards. And while I'm very supportive of the armed forces, whatever nationality they happen to be, it says something about them when they resort to the "coward" tactic in order to get recruits. So after actually fighting out in the front-line and seeing one of their class-mates killed, ironically the one who was most hesitant, they realise that war is not the wonderful, patriotic duty that their teacher told them it was. And I must say, I have to agree with the book here: it's not a teacher's place to force people into following particular paths, it's a teacher's place to prepare their students for whatever path they decide to follow.
Anyway, whilst in the field, they decide to visit another of their friends, Kemmerich, who is currently in hospital with a wound to the leg. They get there and I realised that this wouldn't be the kind of hospital visit where everyone is cheery and optimistic about the treatment these people are getting. Quite why I forgot that after about a year studying the history of medicine, I don't know. Anyway, it turns out that the wounded leg had to be amputated, and that Kemmerich is unlikely to be going home. They try and be cheerful for the dying guy's benefit, but it sounds really forced and just plain awkward. They persuade an orderly to give their friend some morphine, to help with the pain, but none of them are under the illusion that he'll survive the night. The chapter ends with them walking back to the barracks.

Well, that was...depressing, if really well-written. I guess for me it's very poignant of what soldiers used to go through with war, and to be honest I don't think it's gotten much better for them over the years. And the fact that as nations we still don't give them the credit they deserve is, I think, one of the worst things we could possibly do. Sorry, this rant may well crop up a few more times before this review is done, I just feel that strongly about it.

Signing off,

Monday, 9 May 2011

From The Prince of Mist to All Quiet on the Western Front

It's been an interesting journey through the twists and turns of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Prince of Mist, but now it is finally drawing to a close.

So overall, what did I think of this? I think that this is a good book, if quite hit and miss at times.
In terms of the story, it's very engaging and I imagine that if I had picked it up when I was around 13, I would have loved the mystery and the secret history that the characters have. But that isn't to say that it's perfect, far from it. My main problem with the book was the sheer amount of pointless scenes, seemingly purely to show that these characters are as normal as normal can be; an audience should not still need convincing of this around chapter 9, seeing as there are only 18 chapters in total. My other problem is how the ending is dealt with. For a conclusion to the conflict that's as brutal and uncompromising as this, the final chapter and the epilogue did a poor job of dealing with it.
The characters are, for the most part, wonderfully written. Out of all the characters though, the one who seemed to have the most attention lavished on him was Cain, the eponymous Prince of Mist. I'll admit, he was probably my favourite character, if only because he made me laugh sometimes. He goes through a strange process of becoming less scary the more the reader knows about him, which is probably why we're never actually told what his origins are, which is nice I suppose.
Overall, an imaginative, well-written book with plenty of suspense and mystery, that is let down by the occasional weak moment. It's going to sound odd, but I think that if Zafon had written this with adults in mind instead of "young adults", the weak moments could have largely been avoided; having read both of the adult works of his that have been translated into English at around the age of 15-17, I can say with confidence that he is much more in his zone as a writer when addressing an older audience. In any case, the overwhelming sense that I got from my time growing up is that adults seem to think that we're simpler than we are: a story is more engaging when the author isn't simplifying his language for the 13-17 year old sales demographic, because we know that the author isn't pandering to us. But, I will admit that this is Zafon's first published novel, so I can forgive him for some mis-steps, considering he wrote two of my favourite books ever. My final rating: 3.5/5

Now to preview my next book for review. Largely considered a classic war novel, I'll be reviewing All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. My edition is somewhat unhelpful by not providing a blurb with which I can give you a taste of the kind of thing that is to come, so I'll be using one from Wikipedia. It's sad, I know.
"The book describes the German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front." 
Not a very good blurb, but the only one I could really find that got the job done. I'll admit, I'm not going into this one completely blind, as I watched the film adaptation as part of my high school History class, but I don't remember it that well, considering that the class was pretty noisy as it was the last lesson before summer holidays and the teacher looked to be on the verge of mental collapse. So I'm near blind, which is good too. In any case, I hope you enjoyed joining me with The Prince of Mist and I hope that you enjoy All Quiet on the Western Front as well.

Signing off,

The Prince of Mist - Part 18 & Epilogue

Hi there guys, and welcome to the final instalment of my chapter reviews for The Prince of Mist. Now, as you may have noticed, I'm reviewing two sections here instead of my usual one. Basically, this is because the epilogue is a bit too short to get a decent review out of it, so I'm combining it with chapter 18 (which is also pretty short) to make the review a normal size. Anyway, last chapter Roland was killed. I'm still a bit shocked by it, so please excuse me if I sound a bit more disbelieving than usual.
So it turns out that the day after the storm, Irina wakes up from her coma and is allowed to go home with her parents. But as soon as they get back, Mr Carver can tell from Alicia and Max's behaviour that something happened while they were gone. But there's something in their faces which tells him not to ask, which is handy really, seeing as trying to think of a suitable lie to cover "Roland was drowned by a dead man" might be a bit of a stretch at this point.
We now switch to the train station, where Max has gone to say goodbye to Victor. There's a brief conversation between the two of them about where Victor will go now, but he won't say, only remarking that:
"Wherever I go [...] I'll never be able to get away from here." 
The train is about to leave, when Victor gives Max a box, which he doesn't open until the train is gone. What he finds in there are the keys to the lighthouse. Max seems pleased with it, but it seems a bit of a creepy present to me. Almost like trying to sell someone a house where the last occupant was murdered, or something like that. Anyway, chapter 18 is done, so on to the epilogue.
So the epilogue starts with some historical context, as it seems that the war is on its last legs at last. Mr Carver has opened up his watchmaker's shop in the town, and it seems to be going well. Irina's completely recovered and conveniently can't remember her accident. Max goes to the lighthouse every evening to light the lamp and gaze out to sea. And Alicia goes down to Roland's beach hut to stare out at the sea. I'll admit, the tone of these two last sections doesn't quite sit right somehow. It tries to smooth over the consequences of Roland's death a bit, which feels, I don't know, disrespectful somehow. I mean, a character that we've gotten to know really well over the course of most of the book has died, meaning that our heroes lost to boot, and it's just kind of skimmed over. The only character that really seems to act properly grief-stricken is Alicia, and while I'll admit that she has a bit more reason to be traumatised by this, Max and Victor only seemed vaguely melancholic, which was bizarre. In any case, it does turn out that communications between Alicia and Max have suffered because of Roland's death, but conversely has also tightened their emotional bond. And that's pretty much where the story ends.

So yeah, a bit of an odd ending. In the context of what happened the previous chapter, it feels really weak, which is pretty disappointing really; after such a strong chapter last time, I had hoped that the ending would be equally as strong, emphasising the consequences of his death more. An overall review and an introduction to my next book will be coming up next update.

Signing off,

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 17

Penultimate review for The Prince of Mist. I'm actually surprised at how quick this has been. I mean, it's probably pretty slow compared to how you would read normally (it certainly is at my normal reading speed), but  considering the format, I'd say this has flown by. But anyway, I'm getting distracted. For those of you that came in late, we left off last time with Max on a bunch of rocks, having been flung off the Orpheus by Cain, and our antagonist is probably off to kill our other protagonists, Alicia and Roland. So overall, the good guys aren't doing all that well.
We begin the chapter with Alicia, who is still stuck in the captain's cabin, where she decides to put on a brave face as Cain enters. This probably won't help her all that much in the long run, but I suppose that if need be it's probably better to die with some measure of dignity as opposed to screaming and crying. Then there's one really odd turn of phrase:
"The magician grinned like a dog at her show of arrogance." 
Firstly, since when were dogs grinning supposed to be scary? All I can think of now is my boyfriend's dog, Jasper, who is possibly the dumbest a dog could be without having a frontal lobotomy. Not really a good image to conjure, in all honesty. Secondly, surely it's more defiance, as opposed to arrogance? As far as I was aware, arrogance was the act of being overly proud, which doesn't really work in the context. In any case, he seems to take a liking to her and offers to trade Roland/Jacob's life for the life of her first-born child. To which she gives the morally upright option (and, working on the assumption that she lives through this, the more sensible long-term option) by telling him to go to hell. To which he replies:
"My dear girl, that's exactly where I've come from." 
Now this has gotten somewhat confusing now. Okay, so let's assume that Cain definitely died on the Orpheus all those years ago: presumably that means that he ended up in hell as a sinner of the highest degree. But then how does that explain the powers before his "death"? As far as I could tell, his powers seem just as powerful then as they do now, so does that mean that he's been in hell before, maybe supporting the idea that he's Cain in the Biblical sense? Or is this part of a Faustian deal of his own? Oh well, hopefully this will be revealed by the end . Anyway, having had his offer rejected, Cain leaves, with Alicia still stuck in the cabin, but surprisingly unharmed. Although maybe he would have been more merciful killing her quickly, seeing as the ship is sinking again. Oh joy.
The next paragraph starts with Cain appearing to Roland just as he realises that the ship is sinking. After taunting him with this knowledge, Cain offers to tell Roland where Alicia's being held captive, so long as he agrees to follow Cain's orders. Roland agrees and, while there is a small part of me that is thinking that letting Cain win is a very bad idea, the majority of me can really understand the self-sacrificing bit. So he goes to get her out, with water rushing in behind him. Unfortunately, as he gets Alicia out, Roland's foot gets trapped in the ship's debris and she's forced to leave him behind to drown. I'm actually kind of shocked that it's really gotten to this point. I mean, it feels like the right course for the story to go, but this is a hell of a lot darker than I remember book plots being when I was 13 or so. I mean, letting the bad guy win? That's still rare in Adult novels, let alone the comparatively light and fluffy stuff that you get in Young Adult stuff. There's a little bit where Victor finds Max and Alicia on the shore and struggles to comprehend that his grandson is gone, then the chapter ends.

Again, I'm stunned. I kind of assumed that they would figure out something to ultimately defeat Cain with, maybe a loophole in the original deal. But no, they actually killed off Roland. That's harsh. I mean, I can't imagine giving this to my 13 year old to read. Regardless, a very tense chapter, with an absolutely brutal finish. I honestly don't know what else to say.

Signing off,

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 16

Well, this is it, the beginning of the end. Hopefully our final battle should start around about now, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this turns out. Before I start, just a recap of last chapter: Victor finally revealed the truth about Roland's past and Alicia was kidnapped because Max didn't think to forewarn them.
So we start off with Max finally getting to the beach hut, only to find the Orpheus has risen from its resting place at the bottom of the cliff and Roland staring at it. So Roland sets off to confront Cain and hopefully get his girlfriend back, ignoring Max's pleas for him to stop completely. With Max tagging along behind him, presumably because he can or should.
We switch to Alicia's point of view as she's dragged along by Cain, who decides to shut her in the captain's cabin, possibly to keep her out of the way. I'll admit, the description of Cain here seems far too stereotypically evil for it to really scare that much: granted that being in the control of someone who is far stronger than you and hates you to boot, but somehow he seemed scarier when he first appeared, when he was preying on children's vulnerabilities. In any case, Alicia's now trapped in the captain's cabin, which she can't really see in since the one porthole is covered in seaweed and rust. While looking around for something to get herself out of the room with, she stumbles across something that I'm surprised Roland didn't find himself on one of his dives: propped against the wall is the remains of the captain's corpse. Granted, this is a big boat, but Roland's been diving in there at least long enough to fill his beach hut with nautical paraphernalia so he must have covered a fair bit of ground in exploring, yet he never found the human corpse. A bit unlikely maybe, but I'll let it slide. In any case, Alicia's reaction is the standard scream in terror. Standard, but in these circumstances, totally justified.
We switch back to Roland's point of view as he struggles to reach the ship through the stormy sea. Considering that Cain wants him dead, you'd think that Roland would be smart and take a boat, but oh well. In any case, it turns out that he can't climb the sides of the ship and thus the only way in is through the crack in the hull that sunk the ship in the first place, which is effectively a death trap if he times it wrong. Okay, I'll give it to Cain that he does know how to make some good obstacles.
We then switch to Victor's point of view as he finally gets to the beach and sees the Orpheus sailing straight towards the cliff-face. He has his whole moment of darkness/despair/weakness (delete as applicable), then rushes to the beach hut just to check if Roland's there or not. There's a light in the hut, but this turns out to be one of the statues, which distracts him as someone knocks him out with a blow to the back of the head.
We then switch back to Max, who's realised that he won't be able to get to the crack in the ship before he gets too tired to move and gets pulled down by the current. At that moment, the ship crashes into the cliff-face, causing a mast to snap, with the tip landing in the water right near Max. How lucky of him. He starts to climb up it before it's torn away by another wave, unaware that there's someone waiting for him on deck.
Switch back to Roland again. Please let them reunite soon, it's getting tiring switching between perspectives. Anyway, he's gotten into the bilge safely, at which point he rushes up to deck level because there isn't a whole lot you can do at bilge level. He gets up to the bridge where he has a great view of the cliffs moving to meet them. Anyway, he tries to steady himself for the crash, but the deck is slippery, causing him to fall. I almost wrote fail there, which would also work, but is perhaps a bit mean-spirited. In any case, he hears Alicia screaming somewhere close by. Roland to the rescue then.
Switch to Max, who's gotten on-board the ship where, surprise surprise, Cain is waiting for him. Cain does his whole villain routine: show Max his watch, taunt him a little, crush the watch, taunt some more. Again, I'm getting less and less scared of this guy as it goes along. Anyway, Max asks the question of why continue pursuing Jacob's life if Cain has already killed Dr Fleischmann, obviously as a diversion. To which the answer is surprisingly mundane: interest on repayment; Dr Fleischmann's death was the interest that had accumulated on the death, but until Roland is gone, the debt is still unpaid. So basically he's the supernatural version of a loan shark. In any case, this sets him off on a rant that is almost immediately interrupted by Roland's voice calling out to Alicia. So much for Max's diversion. Cain turns to make good his payment and Max decides that this would be a good time to make a run for it. Apparently he wasn't as good with timing as he was with diversions: Cain catches him and throws him overboard. After another bout of taunting. But Max doesn't die, as Cain apparently threw him into a patch of water next to a conveniently placed bunch of rocks which could be climbed. Seriously, you'd think that this guy would take a little more trouble with his murder attempts, but no: he passed up throwing him just a bit more either side, causing Max to either drown or become a broken bag of bones on the rocks. As it is, he's failed to kill a 13 year old boy. Impressive. Anyway, this half-arsed attempt at murder is where the chapter ends.

Overall, a good chapter, but there are a few too many moments of carlessness/idiocy by both our protagonists and antagonist for the tension to really build enough. That said, I still don't know how this will turn out, so I suppose that's a good thing.

Signing off,

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 15

Wow, still reeling a bit from the twist at the end of the last chapter. Oddly enough, while I thus far prefer the other two novels of Zafon's that I've read, I prefer the twist in this one; while The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game were fabulous examples of storytelling, the former gave the reader to many clues regarding the twist and the latter gave too few clues (although this is just my opinion). Anyway, so last chapter we found out that Roland is actually Jacob Fleischmann, which still leaves some unanswered questions, mainly those of 1) what actually happened when Jacob "drowned"? and 2) why has it taken Cain so long to actually try and take him away?
So Victor and Max seem to be taking the impeding crisis fairly well, by drinking tea. How very British. Anyway, Max confronts Victor with his knowledge that Roland is actually Jacob, hopefully prompting a few answers to the few remaining questions that we have. That prompting only gets stronger by Max effectively blackmailing Victor by only promising to tell Victor where Roland is if he's told the truth; while this is certainly an effective way of getting the rest of the answers to this, it is a bit mean considering that Victor's outright stated that Roland is in danger. So it turns out that pretty much everything up to Jacob's birth was true, Victor just didn't finish the story. So little Jacob was born and absolutely spoiled rotten, but Victor knew everything wasn't quite right when he dreamed of Cain the night Jacob was born. Nothing much happened until Jacob was five, when he got lost playing out the back of the house. After some frantic searching, Dr Fleischmann remembered that there was an abandoned animal enclosure behind the house, which is where he found Jacob. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing that he found there: for reasons unknown, the statues has appeared there, signalling that all was not well. So Fleischmann went to Victor and made him promise that if anything were to happen to either of the parents, he would continue to look after Jacob. Max then interjects to find out what happened on the night of Jacob's drowning. The night of the drowning, a large storm starts to brew and the similarity to the storm that wrecked the Orpheus caused Victor to realise that Jacob was in danger. Sure enough, Jacob is walking along the beach, towards the same watery creature that tried to drown Roland that day. Victor wonders why Jacob's parents aren't trying to save him, when he looks around to see that the other statues are holding them back on the porch. So anyway, Jacob is pulled beneath the water but Victor dives in to save him. By the time they get him back to the surface, however, the boy had stopped breathing and there was no sign of a pulse. In a surprise turn of events though, Jacob wakes up again, in shock and hardly remembering his own name. At this point, Eva Fleischmann asks Victor to take care of Jacob for them, as he'll never be safe as long as he lives with them. So he takes the boy home, the Fleischmanns leave and are never seen in the town again. A year later, Victor hears that Dr Fleischmann had died from an infected dog bite and he has no idea what has happened to Eva. For all those years, Victor looked after Jacob, renaming him Roland and creating a new past for what he can't remember anymore. In a final twist to the story, it turns out that Jacob's tomb was put there by Cain, so that one day he can actually be buried there. At this point, Max realises what an idiot he's been spending so much time on this new information and that Roland is probably in extreme danger, as well as his sister by extension.
So we now switch to Alicia's point of view as she wakes up to find that the storm has hit shore and is really getting violent. She also notices that there's a rather worrying amount of mist that brings with it the sound of whispering voices, prompting her to shut the door, like a smart person. This wakes Roland up, who watches as the mist curls in through the gaps in the door and pulls Alicia through. He goes to try and save her, but is blocked by Cain. Who is again, dispatched in one punch. Anyway, the mist starts dragging Alicia away, with Roland following her and trying to get her back. But he's knocked over by a wave, causing her to be dragged away. And this is where it gets interesting. In the light of the storm, Roland sees that Cain has brought the Orpheus to the surface, where Cain stands on the bridge, Alicia at his feet, taunting Roland to come up and get her if he doesn't want to see her die. And with that, the chapter ends.

A pretty action-packed chapter, yet it didn't really appeal to me as much as some of the earlier chapters, simply because a lot of the stuff that happened was filling in gaps and the villain setting up the final confrontation. While that is pretty exciting stuff, the heroes are, for the most part, pretty passive, which doesn't quite sit right. In any case, a pretty good chapter, with what looks to be an epic final battle coming up (so long as Cain isn't dispatched by a single punch again).

Signing off,

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 14

So here we go. Chapter 14, only 5 chapters left to read. Plus an epilogue which seems to be only 2 pages long, so I might just combine it with my review of the last full chapter, save some time. Anyway, the last chapter isn't all that difficult to recap, it could be summarised in five words: Cain tried to drown Roland. Simple enough, even if it doesn't quite convey the creepiness of a giant snake with Cain's best clown/paedophile face. 
So we open in Victor's point of view as he visits the Carver house, where his old flame used to live. He's going to go round back and try confronting Cain, isn't he? Yup, that's what he's gone and done. What do you have to do to become a literary character, get a frontal lobotomy? So anyway, he goes round back to where the statue garden is, and a thick mist is already starting to form in there. Because of this, he's decides to hang back and look at it for a bit, presumably until the mist gets to him rather than the other, more proactive and slightly stupider, option of charging straight in. While he's waiting, he muses on how old he feels and how likely he is to die; again, if that's what he thinks, why didn't he tell one of the kids, otherwise known as the only people who actually believe him, what he knows in case the worst should happen? Anyway, he starts to make his advance, where the reader finds out that he was actually smart enough to bring a gun and a torch with him. Maybe he won't die all that quickly then. He enters the garden, only to find that it's empty: the pedestals are there, but the actual statues have disappeared. Well I certainly wasn't expecting that, that's for sure. If that's the case, maybe they knew Victor was out to kill them; now if I were a supernatural evil that knew when my enemy was going to try and kill me, I'd try a pre-emptive strike, targeting his home and loved ones. But maybe I'm thinking a bit too far ahead. This paragraph certainly doesn't give me any clues, as Victor inspects the pedestals for a bit, hears a storm in the distance, then realises something that he doesn't disclose to the audience. 
We now cut to Max as he suddenly wakes up from a nightmare. Presumably into another, real life nightmare, but again I may well be getting ahead of myself. He goes outside to get some fresh air, calm down a bit and again try to figure out what the hell is going on. During his thinking, he realises that the centre of this whole situation is Jacob Fleischmann and whatever events contributed to his death. Deciding that he needs to watch the rest of Jacob's films to figure out the missing piece in the puzzle, he goes back home. Without bothering to wake Alicia and Roland. He's just told himself that they can't wait until the next day for Cain to strike, and then just leaves his sister and new friend totally defenceless. Has there been some unconscious desire in Max for one or both of them to die that I somehow missed, or is he just stupid? 
By the time he gets home and gets the projector working, Max has noticed that the storm seems to have gotten closer and is getting rather violent now. Anyway, he starts the tape to find that this one takes place in the corridors of the house, back when Jacob was living there. The camera goes up to what will eventually become Irina's room, where we see the door slam open and Cain steps out. All that, I was kind of expecting, but this is the point where it turns into a bit of a mind-trip. Cain extends his hand to reveal Max's pocket watch. Since when was time travel part of this narrative? In any case, getting past the weird factor here, the hands of the pocket watch start moving anti-clockwise, gathering speed until the mechanism can't keep up and it catches fire. The film then has a jump cut, to where it's facing a dressing table with a mirror, which we keep getting closer to until it's clear who's manning the camera. Which it turns out is Roland. That was an unexpected twist, to be quite honest. Although looking back at what we knew about Roland's past anyway, it fits pretty much perfectly. At this point, the film sticks and Max sees Victor tapping at the window. And that's pretty much where the chapter ends. 

Well, that was a bombshell. It certainly makes sense now why Cain is back after all this time. I probably don't need to tell you how much I loved this chapter as it simultaneously answers so many questions and ups the ante tenfold. There's only one thing I'm still confused about: how is Max able to find exactly the right film for the occasion? I mean, if he'd found this particular film earlier in the narrative, what would that entail? 

Signing off, 

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 13

And back again for another chapter. Considering last chapter's hints that something might happen to Victor in the night, I'm expecting some exciting stuff to happen this chapter.
So we start this chapter where we left off last chapter, with Max in his room reading to try and distract himself from Cain, just a few hours later. He hears Roland and Alicia get back home, although they don't immediately part ways again. They don't do that until after midnight, which is probably a bad idea for Roland. In any case, Alicia doesn't disturb Max but goes straight to bed. This is probably one of those paragraphs where it could have been shortened a bit, but it isn't as obvious as some of the others, which is nice.
The next morning, Max sets off early to get to the bakery in order to avoid Alicia's version of cooking. While at the bakery, he's asked about Irina's condition as this seems to be one of those towns where everyone knows everybody. He gets back and barges into Alicia's room and they start to eat breakfast. This was yet another unnecessary paragraph. Why bore me with details of their everyday lives? You've shown me walking, face-melting statues and you now expect me to be content with mundane daily routine?
Oh well, let's move on. We presumably skip them cycling, because the next paragraph starts at the beach where Roland is standing next to a boat. On the prow, he's painted on the boat's new name: Orpheus II. That's a bad sign. Last time I checked, in the world of novels naming something after a dead/cursed item mentioned earlier in the book, that new thing will almost inevitably turn out the same way. He might as well have called it Titanic. So it turns out Roland managed to get it from a fisherman who was going to use it as firewood. He intends to use it to get far enough out that they can use his underwater windows (boxes with glass at one end really) to see the original Orpheus without having to dive down. So they lay anchor, have a look through the windows and Alicia and Roland decide to do some actual diving. Kinda subverting the point of the windows...oh well.
So this paragraph switches to Roland's point of view as he guides Alicia along as they dive. It's all rather romantic as he appreciates being able to share this place with friends, at least until they decide to go back to the boat. As they're swimming back, Roland notices a dark shape swimming beneath them; he eventually sees what looks like a giant snake that is rising to meet them. Well that went wrong quicker that I anticipated it would. In short, they manage to get Alicia back in the boat, but the creature wraps itself around Roland and pulls him beneath the surface. And it's moments like this that remind me why I hate swimming in the open ocean.
My fear of the ocean is magnified by this paragraph, which is very short and sweet. In it, Roland realises that the creature is more liquid than solid, but then is distracted by the face of Cain (as if I needed to tell you) as it shows its row of long sharp teeth. He then loses that sight as he's dragged into the hull of the ship. This is pretty much the part where part of my begins to think that Roland's going to die. And I rather liked him too. I would say it's the curse of the dead favourite characters, but for some reason I don't actually have a favourite in this. It's an odd feeling.
So Max starts preparing to dive in an attempt to rescue Roland, even though he barely knows how to dive. I'm sorry, but surely Victor has seen this, considering the amount of time that he spends looking out for signs of Cain. Maybe he'll have a Big Damn Hero moment later in the chapter. As of this moment, we have Max. Goody. So he dives down and reacts fairly badly to the pressure and the temperature down there, which makes sense seeing as most people sort of work up to that point instead of doing it all at once. Anyway, he can see some sort of light down there which he assumes is where Roland is being dragged. So he goes down into the hold, following the light and finds Roland and Cain in one of the rooms in the hold. There's a stand-off of sorts when Roland goes limp and Max grabs him to bring up to the surface, but it has to be said that Cain doesn't seem all that bothered at letting them get away. I mean Max only has to hit him once and he vanishes. Anyway, they get to the surface where Roland is dragged into the boat and given the kiss of life. It all gets rather emotional as Max rows them back to shore.
So they get Roland to his little cabin where he falls asleep whilst Max is tending to some cuts that Alicia got while they were getting Roland in the boat. There are some emotional exchanges then they both fall asleep as well.

Another chapter that was slow to start, but ended up being excellent. I thought that the fact that Cain's threat is now more than just standing around grinning at them was really well timed, but I thought the actual confrontation bit between Max and Cain was a little disappointing.

Signing off,

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Prince of Mist - Part 12

Hey guys, back again. I've just realised how odd that greeting is: of course I'm back again, and it's not as if I was away for any significant amount of time either. Oh well. So, just to recap, last chapter saw Max review some (well, one anyway) of Jacob Fleischmann's films, only to find that everything that the reader confirmed the chapter before was true regarding Cain and his troupe. I almost caved in and did another review yesterday, partly through being stir-crazy and partly because it's getting really interesting now. But anyway, on with the review.
So we start the chapter with Max waking up the following morning, only to find that he's actually indulged in many a teenager's favourite activity, the lie-in, hence the fact that it's actually noon and therefore afternoon (just about anyway). He goes downstairs to find a note from Alicia who says that 1) by the time he wakes up she'll be at the beach with Roland and 2) Mr Carver called earlier that day with the news that there's been no change in Irina's condition but the doctors think that she should come out of the coma in a few days. Max decides to join them and ends up diverting to get something to eat at the bakery. I'm getting a horrible feeling that this is going to be one of those chapters where nothing seems to really happen. That and the last line of this paragraph just doesn't seem right to me:
"Two sweet buns and two chocolate bars later he set off for the beach with a saintly smile stamped on his face." 
Why a saintly smile? Maybe this is a translation problem and in the original Spanish is makes more sense, but that line did one of the worst things that a straightforward novel can do: it reminded me that I was reading a book. You might think that's a bit odd of me to say (considering that I'm reviewing it and all, therefore knowing full well what it is) but I think one of the most unfortunate things a book can do is use vocabulary and phrases that don't quite make sense in context or that just feel clunky, reminding you that this is a book and destroying the suspense of disbelief. The only kind of novel that can get away with that is metafiction, but then that's more an example of a very fragile fourth wall. But I digress.
So Max gets to the beach and ends up seeing Alicia and Roland kissing in the sand. Fairly tame, but pretty awkward on his part all the same. Now, I'll admit that while I may have complained a hell of a lot about some of the quieter moments, I think one of the things that has been consistently good was the Alicia/Roland romance sub-plot, especially when it focuses on Max's feelings about it; Zafon has caught the feeling of being the fifth wheel of the group really well. But anyway, Max ducks back, obviously not wanting to be seen as that tends to bring up awkward conversation. Still, he decides to take one more peek at them through the grass, which is a bit weird but I'll run with it, and thus we see that while Roland seems to be enjoying the view, he's also very nervous about it. A fair enough reaction. Max goes in for another peek, but realises that spying on them is a bit of a weird, creepy thing to do, so re-traces his steps to his bike and leaves them to it. As he goes, he does a bit of soul-searching about how he actually feels about their relationship and eventually comes to the conclusion that if Roland makes Alicia happy, then he's fine with it. I've just realised what an uncannily mature kid he is. Most of the boys I knew when I was 13 were immature little brats who would have made a huge show of their disgust at people kissing. Oh well, it's a nice change and certainly prevents he awkwardness getting any worse. Anyway, he rides back to the town centre to find something to occupy himself seeing as his beach plans are pretty well scuppered, where he finds a map of the town. On the map, there's the location of the local cemetery. So, obviously, he decides to go see if he can find Jacob Fleischmann's grave. Thus we transition from sweet to macabre.
So he gets to the cemetery, which is your standard small-town graveyard. Although I love this line that comes up in the description, if only for the absurd connotations it has:
"There was nothing particularly original about it, he supposed." 
Original? Really? Last time I checked, a graveyard only really has one purpose, so you don't really need them to be "original". I mean, for the most part graveyards aren't exactly what you'd call tourist spots, or at least they weren't last time I checked. Anyway, he eventually finds Jacob's grave, a mausoleum that has been seriously neglected over the years. The gate to the tomb is slightly ajar, so Max decides to become a more benevolent version of a grave-robber and enter. Anyway, on Jacob's tombstone Cain's six-pointed star has been carved underneath Jacob's name, which is a little eerie, but not totally unexpected. Anyway, this freaks him out just a little bit and is about to leave when he realises that he's not alone. He looks up to find that a stone angel, much like the one outside the tomb flanking the gates, is walking on the ceiling. While that is vaguely surreal and a little silly, it still works. It works even more when it stops, grins and has its features melt to match Cain's features. I'd say that Max has two smart options: run or panic. Maybe both. He chooses the second option and panics, but for some reason Cain leaves without actually doing anything to him. Regaining the use of his legs, he gets out of there as quickly as is humanly possible. Deciding that he needs to talk to Victor some more, he sets off to the lighthouse, realising part of the way there that he'd dropped his pocket watch in the tomb. Quite what relevance that will have later on, I'm not sure. in any case, it seems kinda weird that the watch wouldn't have a clip of some kind so that losing it like that wouldn't happen. Oh well, never mind. I'm sure it'll come up later.
Anyway, he goes to see Victor and explains what just happened in the graveyard. He then accidentally accuses the old man of lying to him, which I can't see going down well. Apparently I was wrong, with Victor taking the accusation fairly well, kind of implicitly agreeing with Max at one point as well. So Max surmises that everything that has happened so far are signs that Cain is about to make a move of some kind. Although personally I'd say causing Irina to fall down the stairs was definitely a move by him, but I suppose Max hasn't made that connection quite yet. But, while Victor admits that he's hiding something, Max is effectively told to stop investigating and to stay away from Roland. Which is kinda harsh considering Max has taken all that's happened so far pretty well.
So Victor watches Max cycle away and the reader begins to find out why he was so harsh in his rebuttal. Overall, it's well thought out and quite realistic: because of Cain, Victor has lost friends and the only woman he ever loved and also had to live for 25 years with the knowledge that one day Cain will come back. Why would you allow a 13 year old boy to get involved in a mystery that has already caused so much misery? Anyway, that's the main gist of this paragraph, but it ends with a rather ominous bit of foreshadowing:
"There were still a few hours of sunlight left before the darkness crept in and night fell - perhaps his last night of vigil in the lighthouse." 
Presumably this is still effectively Victor's inner monologue. If so, then why the implication that he might not live the night. If Cain is that big a threat that Victor might not be able to stop him, then why keep it to himself? Surely if Cain is that dangerous, he should pass on some knowledge to someone else in case the worst happens. So that well thought out and realistic reason for sending Max away has just been made redundant with the implication that he won't actually be able to stop Cain.
The last paragraph basically chronicles Max getting home and trying to put together the pieces of this puzzle about Cain but failing but Victor won't tell him that one bit of info that will presumably make everything fall into place. That's pretty much where the chapter ends, but there's one thing that is sort of mentioned and then brushed aside that feels somehow important. Near the beginning of the paragraph he finds that Alicia's note is still where he left it, so he assumes that she's still with Roland. It might just be me, but there's part of me saying that Alicia's not actually safe anymore. I've been wrong before though, so she might actually be with Roland still.

Overall, a pretty good chapter. A bit of a slow start and frustrating because of the lack of new evidence, but that's more than made up for with the additional questions that it's presented. I can see things really start to heat up next chapter.

Signing off,