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Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The image of Pinhead from the Hellraiser films is an iconic one, to say the least. So, while I don't particularly have the temperament necessary to enjoy most horror films, when I found the book that the Hellraiser films were inspired by I couldn't pass up the opportunity of reading them. And was it worth it? Well there are certainly worse things to pass the time with.

The Hellbound Heart is certainly a quick read, clocking in at only 128 pages. To be honest, that's all that the story really warrants, considering the simplicity of the material. The gist of the story is that a man named Frank discovers the solution to a puzzle-box that is rumoured to grant whoever solves it with pleasure beyond their wildest imaginings. What happens instead is that he is pulled into a parallel world by creatures called Cenobites, who provide him with moments of great pleasure amongst moments of torture and pain. The other main character of the story is Julia, Frank's sister-in-law, as she finds what is left of Frank and attempts to bring him back to the real world through the gift of blood. It's a short, but creepy little book. To be honest, there's not much to really add other than a quick summation of the plot. The characters aren't especially sympathetic, but then part of the fun is watching their selfishness and arrogance bring their doom upon them. It's not fantastic, but it does it's job quite well, bringing entertainment and visceral gore by the bucket-load along with some pretty nifty suspense. Perfect for a horror film then.

I'd elaborate, but there's not much to say really. A quick read that delivers what it set out to do and is very entertaining along the way. Perfect popcorn reading on a dark and stormy night. 3.5/5

Next review: Pamela by Samuel Richardson.

Signing off,

Friday, 30 December 2011

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

The reason I picked up this book is incredibly shallow. I liked the title. There was really no other real reason: I read the title, thought the premise was interesting and so I bought it. I'd never heard of it or the author before, so I had no clue what I was in for. It was an interesting experience, to be sure.

The premise is an interesting one to be sure: a murder investigation is going on as the story alternates between the characters involved now and what they were like during primary and secondary education. For me, the idea of previous ideas about people, especially those that you knew as a child, affecting your present day interactions with them was really interesting. The experience overall has even made me reconsider how I view people that I went to school with. The main way that I can explain this is through the characters of Robbie and Martin. At the beginning, I hated Robbie. He was every bully in primary and high school that picked on me because I cared about learning concentrated in one person; but as the novel progressed, you find out that he acts like he does because he's trying to live up to the images of his father and elder brothers, all of them criminals of the worst kind and all of them considering him to be not worth the effort. By the end, Robbie was my favourite, because underneath he was this insecure guy who wanted to belong with someone. Then you have Martin, who actually reminds me a lot of myself. At the beginning, he's the conscientious boy who thinks that by being a nice guy life will be good to him. After school has ended, he's bitter and contemptuous of those who have bullied him for being smart, an attitude that I can understand perfectly. But in the modern day storyline, he's still treating his old schoolmates as he would have twenty years before, at the end of high school, after the majority of them have moved on and become different people, some for the better and others not. It made me think about my own attitude; there are still people that I would be terrified to meet in the street, even after three years have passed since high school, because my opinion of them is solely defined by how they bullied me. There are people that I haven't seen since primary school, whom I regard with utter contempt because of their attitudes, and although it seems an elementary thing, I had never considered what these people would actually be like if I met them now, as an adult. In some ways it's a humbling and disquieting feeling, but in other ways it's quite liberating; for years I have struggled to get close to people, simply because I never knew if I could trust them fully. I have been getting better, but the consideration that change is given here has made me think that there shouldn't be any real reason that I should be scared of people after finding out that they were mean as a child. It's a good feeling. Those two characters are only examples of the similarly stellar characterisation that carries the entirety of the novel.
As you can tell, I really like this book, even though I wasn't all that impressed at first. I probably should mention a couple of things about the writing that may well put people off reading it that I noticed along the way. First of all is the language used in dialogue: considering that the setting is in Scotland, there is the use of dialect to denote strong accents; this can be a tad confusing at times, especially with the slang, but a glossary is provided at the back, so this is catered to within the text (or at least it was in my edition). The other thing that I noticed was the use of the present tense. Personally I had no issues with it other that a little confusion at first, but I have seen quite a few people complain about it, so I thought it a good idea to mention it.

Overall, a slow starter that won me over completely with its complex characters and their individual development as people. Also probably the only murder mystery that has made me reconsider myself as an individual. 5/5

Next review: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Signing off,

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

I'm still not quite sure what made me pick up this title. Historical fiction hasn't really turned up on my reading lists all that much, despite the fact that I do enjoy history a great deal. I suppose the setting might have been something to do with it: a harem in Constantinople in 1599. Not your standard setting for fiction set in Elizabethan times, to be sure. In any case, regardless of whatever reason I have for picking it up, was The Aviary Gate worth the intrigue? 

The Aviary Gate is the story of two women separated by 400 years. In 1599, there is Celia Lamprey, a English woman who is sold to the harem of the Ottoman Sultan after she is presumed dead. In the present day, there is Elizabeth Stavely, a student researching Celia's life as part of her thesis. I personally don't think that the two separate narratives really worked together. Don't get me wrong, they're both very good, very well-written story-lines; I just don't think they quite mesh together properly. Let me elaborate. In the Celia story-line, the focus is very much on intrigue and mystery, as Celia tries to figure out who poisoned the chief black eunuch, Hassan Aga, and how it could be linked to the English ambassadors outside the palace; the focus occasionally switches to Paul Pindar, an English merchant who was Celia's betrothed, as he tries to ascertain whether his lost love is in the Sultan's harem and if she is how he can rescue her from it. All in all, quite exciting stuff. You then have the modern story-line, which is completely different in tone. The main thrust in Elizabeth's story-line is her trying to escape and recover from an unhealthy relationship with one of the lecturers at the university she attends, as opposed to much actual research; this necessitates a slower tone, as you're looking at a person's internal growth and change, as opposed to the more frenetic pace needed for stories about political intrigue. As I said before, both are well-written stories, I just don't think that they really belong together, considering that they do use wildly different tones and paces; though I did like both stories, I thought that the modern day story lost out somewhat, as it seemed less interesting when compared to the more exotic and exciting Constantinople of 1599. 
As for characters, I must reiterate that the modern story suffers for being added on to the historical story, as the modern characters are nowhere near as interesting as the historical ones. The only ones of any real importance are Elizabeth and Marius, because they are the main character and the cause of her emotional growth respectively. Elizabeth is quite irritating at times, as she is quite weak-willed and responds to a relationship that is causing nothing but uncertainty and heartache for her, but is overall a nice character. Marius is your stereotypical unhealthy love interest, charming but ultimately selfish and inconsiderate. The real stars of the book are the characters in the historical plot-line. The main characters of note are probably Celia, Safiye and another character who I can't discuss without focusing on their role in the central mystery of the plot. Celia is what I would consider a model woman by Elizabethan standards: prim, proper, quite shocked by the customs of the harem and still devoted to the memory of the love that she can't reach whilst in the harem. Safiye is probably my favourite character in the entire novel, simply because of how cunning and crafty she is. Safiye is the Valide Sultan, the Ottoman equivalent of the Queen Mother, who makes it her business to know the goings-on of every woman in the harem, so that her position of power can stay secure for as long as possible; she is an example of the most fascinating part of the historical setting, namely how an individual can use slavery as a career opportunity by marrying into or creating alliances with important members of the Ottoman court. It is a little unsavoury by today's terms considering that this is essentially prostitution as well as slavery, but very interesting nonetheless. 

Overall, an interesting and well-written book, but the fact that two very different story-lines are included as one narrative drastically weakens what could have been a completely absorbing and intriguing novel. 3.5/5 

Next review: A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre. 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

To be honest, I'm not sure what made me pick this book up. Obviously I remembered the huge hype that there was when the film adaptation came out, so I was in two minds about The Time Traveler's Wife when I picked it up second hand. On the one hand, often there's something prompting the hype meaning that it's probably pretty good, but on the other hand hype is very bad for raising impossibly high expectations, thus causing disappointment when the book doesn't live up to the hype. But, considering that it's been years since the hype died down, I decided that this would be a safe time to take a look. 

So, you probably know what the novel's about, but this is my turn to talk, so I'll tell you anyway. This is the love story between Clare and Henry. Of course, it isn't that simple, it never is in fiction. The main complication in this relationship is that Henry has a genetic condition that means that he will, often in times of stress, travel back or forwards in time. This is actually quite well implemented, especially when the two first start dating; Henry has never met her before, whereas Clare is well aware of who he is because she has seen several of his future selves throughout her childhood. The time travel itself brings up a lot of questions about the nature of fate and whether the future is already determined or whether we can use free will to affect the past or the future. It can get kind of depressing, but the sheer amount of optimism in Henry and Clare's relationship negates that for the most part. Regarding that, I have to praise the book for its focus on a long-term couple and for making the relationship so...human. What I mean by that last point is that it feels utterly true to life, with flawed characters leading out lives with decisions that aren't necessarily the right ones and having to get one with the consequences. It's a refreshing change from insta-romances and affairs that progress without a hitch (or ones which are plagued with nothing but misery). 
The characters are similarly human. There's Henry, who is a bookish girl's dream (probably on purpose) as he's intelligent and cultured, but at the same time prone to depression, losing his temper and alcoholism. Clare is patient and creative, but gets more and more prone to irritation as the number and length of Henry's absences increase throughout their married life. There are other characters who appear at various times in their lives, such as Gomez, a liberal lawyer with an unrequited crush on Clare; Ben, an AIDS sufferer friend of Henry's and Ingrid, an angry ex-girlfriend. 
To be honest, I'm not sure what else to say, considering that this is quite widely known. The only other thing that I can think of to say is that if you haven't read this yet and want to, I would recommend keeping tissues nearby when you get towards the end; it's the closest I've gotten to bawling in a long while. 

In this case, the hype was well-founded. This is a well-written, genuinely touching love story and I would happily recommend it. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman 

Signing off, 

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Until my boyfriend mentioned it to me, I had never heard of The Midwich Cuckoos before, a lack of knowledge that positively horrified him. So when I found a copy of it at a used book sale, I thought I might as well check it out, as it had an interesting premise. So was it any good? Certainly if you're looking for something unsettling.

The premise of The Midwich Cuckoos is a simple enough one. One day, a small inconsequential English village just stops as an area of two miles in every direction, with the village in the middle, causes all those within that area falls unconscious. When the area disappears, everything seems to go back to normal, until every woman able to have children who were in the village that day falls pregnant at the same time, including virgins. If that weren't weird enough, the children all look identical to one another and appear to be able to influence people around them with just a thought. I absolutely love this premise. What I like in particular is the reaction to the mass pregnancy, simply because it's a relic of another time. This was published in 1957, when there was a huge emphasis on women's virginity being intact when she marries. The automatic reaction in this case would be that these women are quite loose, but the fact that everyone has to band together in order for this reaction to be avoided is utterly fascinating for me. The other part of the pregnancy section which comes up quite a bit is the idea that the women in the village aren't the childrens' mothers, but rather that they were hosts through which the children could be born. That kind of idea is horrific for me. Don't get me wrong, I'd like children some day, but the idea that I had gotten pregnant without intending to is a terrifying prospect in itself; if I knew that said baby wasn't actually mine, I can't even begin to think what I'd do. In comparison, the fact that these children seem to be demon spawn seems less terrifying. Not that the Children aren't creepy, I just think that it's easier to get scared of a prospect that seems vaguely possible and/or you can see it happening to you. But yeah, overall a very eerie plot.
The actual characters themselves are kind of bland in comparison. Like with Philip K. Dick, there's more emphasis on story than very deep characters. I think the only one that really escapes this is Gordon Zellaby, who is a philosopher, I presume, who manages to be very complex and sympathetic, although his monologues can be annoying at times. The Children also escape this, but I hesitate to say that it's because they're particularly multi-layered as opposed to being really inhuman and uncanny.

This creates a creepy atmosphere really well and plays on real human fears, making this quite an eerie read. It's quite intellectual, much like The Man in the High Castle, but I think the character of Zellaby and the moral quandary that crops up towards the end justifies it to a certain degree. A book that I would recommend, as I can see this staying with me for a while yet to come. 4/5

Next review: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Signing off,