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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dawn by Elie Wiesel

So, same guy as last time, but with a fiction title, as opposed to a memoir. This should be somewhat easier to critique than Night due to this, but I seem to be kind of distracted at the moment (I will be happy when Christmas prep is over); regardless, I shall make a damn good try at reviewing Dawn.

Dawn takes place in British-controlled Palestine, during the conflict between the Jewish residents and the British occupants. Elisha, the main character and narrator, is a member of the Jewish resistance movement and a survivor of the Holocaust; his faith in the movement is challenged when he is charged with killing a captive English army officer as a response to the execution of one of their comrades. For the majority of the book, Elisha is left to question whether he has it in him to kill someone in cold blood, especially in the name of someone he has never even met.
I liked Dawn primarily because the internal conflict that Elisha goes through seems very true and is great for creating sympathy for him. For me, it was an interesting dynamic, especially following on the heels of Night: in Night, it's obvious who the audience is meant to sympathise with, while Dawn takes the same sympathy and complicates it with the always complex question of terrorism and political violence. It does get a little bit odd when he starts seeing dead people, but otherwise I thought it worked really well.

Overall, a well-written, interesting examination of guilt. It's also encouraged me to do more research into the situation in that era of Palestine, especially having realised that my Grandfather would have been carrying out his compulsory military service out there at around that time. Definitely worth a look. 4.5/5

Next review: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Signing off,

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Night by Elie Wiesel

This is going to be a tough one to talk about. Trying to take a critical view of an autobiography always is, seeing as obviously there is no "plot" to speak of, just life events; that Night is an autobiographical account of  life in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, that becomes even harder. But I have a little while before life catches up on me again, so I'll give it a go.

As I mentioned in the introduction there, this is author Elie Wiesel's account of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps as a teenager. It depicts the rounding up of the Jews in his small Romanian village, his separation from his mother and sisters and the gradual break-down of normal life and human dignity, until American soldiers liberated the camp. It's a sobering experience, and definitely an important text from a social aspect. I'm just not sure that it would really create the same effect as it would have done when people first started trying to deal with their collective history.
Let me explain. I am not saying that the events depicted are not horrifying or deeply damning of human nature; the events still hold a lot of significance. I just think that the impact of them may well be diluted because, well, who doesn't know about the Holocaust? Who hasn't seen at least one film dealing with the Holocaust and its consequences? I just think that, in this day and age when the atrocities carried out against the Jews and many other groups that were considered "undesirable" are well-known and taught to children across the world, it can seem perhaps too familiar. It's an odd thing to argue: on the one hand, people need to know because the day we forget the deaths of over 6 million people is the day that we reach rock bottom as a species, but on the other hand, too much exposure and we risk getting bored by it, sad as it is to say that. I think that perhaps this book has lost some of its power because many of the images are familiar to us through film and literature.
Another thing that I think goes against this book is that the Holocaust is not an experience that can be transferred to other people through mere words. Words are a seriously imperfect tool, and the Holocaust is one of those things that I don't think anyone who didn't experience it for themselves will ever understand, not anywhere near it.
Please don't misunderstand, I don't mean these points to be criticism of the book itself; these are more points of criticism for the society that it will be reaching in years to come. In the next few decades, we will most likely lose the last of the survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust; I honestly dread that day, because at that point, the only things that we will have will be records like this and the films that we have made to try and understand what happened. And admirable as they are, they will never be enough.

This review kind of went off track, and I didn't really talk about the book all that much. Probably because it is the kind of book that is beyond the realm of criticism. I would recommend that people read Night, if only so that we can see the signs when history inevitably repeats itself again. 5/5

Next review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel.

Signing off,

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Of all the Hesse novels that I have in my possession, Steppenwolf was the one that I was most looking forward to reading. It was the first novel that I ever really associated with Hesse as a figure in my mind, and for me the psychological aspect was one of the more interesting that I had heard. So the only question remaining is whether it lived up to my expectations.

Steppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a seemingly normal intellectual living in 1920s Germany. In reality he is a mess of a man, almost crippled by gout and the beginnings of old age, and alienated from the rest of bourgeois society by his personal neurosis. This neurosis takes the form, initially anyway, of the Steppenwolf, a man harbouring the souls of a man, representing higher thought and reasoning, and a wolf, representing physical urges, that are in near constant opposition. Wishing to end his life, he reluctantly begins a journey of self-discovery that promises to cause as many fresh joys and miseries as it assuages. By the end, it reaches the point where you're never quite sure what is real and what isn't.
I loved this book. As I've mentioned before, I love a good character study, and this one is probably the most in-depth, scathing and sympathetic portrait of a man that I have ever seen, if a little slow to begin with. Steppenwolf is one of those books that I would urge everyone to read at least once in their lives, as there is something there for everyone regardless of age, gender or race. For me, it strikes a chord with Harry's belief that he is destined for greater things, but the feeling that those greater things are no longer applicable in the world that he lives in; I think that everyone at some point has dreamed of being special, not just to the people you care about, but special in such a way that the whole world sits up and takes notice. At the same time, I think that everyone has had to deal with the realisation that most of the time dreams and destiny don't intermingle, and had to deal with that in their own way; Harry's problem is that he's still stuck at the stage where he's despairing for lost dreams, and so the novel is a journey for him to learn how to live in such a way that he can find satisfaction and harmony within himself. Well, that's how it seemed to me; I think if I read this again several years from now, my opinion would have altered.

By far my favourite of Hesse's work that I've read thus far. It's a book that I think should be read at least once, and I'm sure that I will read it many more times in the future. 5/5

Next review: Night by Elie Wiesel.

Signing off,

Friday, 30 November 2012

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

So, to another edition of the Hermann Hesse analysis hour. In this edition I'll be reviewing Narcissus and Goldmund, a title I'd never even heard of until I chose Hesse as a dissertation topic. I had high hopes though, considering the interesting theme of opposition that was touted on the blurb. I only hoped that it wouldn't disappoint me like Demian did.

Narcissus and Goldmund is, at its heart, a story about the friendship between the two title characters, both of whom start out as boys attending a monastery school in medieval Germany. Narcissus is the more scholarly and wiser of the two, but very reserved and moderate in his emotions as a result. Goldmund, on the other hand, is artistic and emotional. Their friendship sort of takes a back seat though when Goldmund leaves the monastery to seek out his destiny, having realised that the life of a clergyman is not for him; thus we spend a large chunk of the novel following him in his life as a wanderer.
As you could probably guess, there isn't really much of a plot for this one. It's more a character study of the two title characters, particularly the artistic Goldmund. To be honest, I don't think that the comparative simplicity of the plot harms it at all. In fact, I would say that it helps, as it leaves more time for the reader to get a sense of these characters and ultimately come to love them. And I did honestly come to love these characters. In Narcissus, I could really sympathise with his more reserved, simpler needs, as well as the difficulty he has getting close to others, while in Goldmund I couldn't help but admire his gregarious nature and his need to express the images in his soul in some way; they felt kind of archetypal, as they each embody the qualities of the Scholar and the Artist respectively, but at the same time their interactions with each other influenced their personalities, which I thought was really interesting. Especially touching are their interactions in the final chapter, though I leave that to you to find out.

Once again with Hesse's work, I find that there's so much that I want to express about how Narcissus and Goldmund affected me, but I find that words are an imperfect medium. So I guess that I'll leave you with the assurance that it is a book that deserves wider recognition and that it affected me in a very personal way. My recommendation might sound odd, but I would say that it's a book that I would recommend to those who are at a point in their lives where choices have to be made. It's definitely what I needed after finishing the behemoth that is Don Quixote. 5/5

Next review: Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

Signing off,

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Don Quixote, Books 4 & 5 by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

It's done. After three and a half weeks, I am finally done with Don Quixote. Those who read my review of the proceeding parts will be well aware that I did not like it, considering it an exercise in horror and poor attempts at humour. Did I fare any better in these parts?

Parts 4 & 5 continue the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they travel across the country in search of wrongs to right. And while most of the problems that were present in the previous parts are still here in force, I will admit that these parts are more enjoyable.
So, I shall get the negative out of the way first. It's still asking you to laugh at the plight of a mentally ill man. Not only that, in Part 5, when Don Quixote's adventures from the preceding parts have become widely known to people, there are those that would purposely create false scenarios designed to trick and humiliate said mentally ill old man and his idiot squire. The jokes become more deliberately cruel, as opposed to merely absurd with a cruel streak. I still can't get behind that.
Now for the positive. It actually contained some really interesting side characters and stories, such as "The Curious Impertinent" which is the source of the term lothario. These side stories are perhaps your more traditional courtly romance kind of story, but they make a nice change from the aforementioned cruelty. The other thing that I liked was that Don Quixote actually seemed to get better as he went along. While he was still convinced of knight-errantry and enchantments, he began to see things as they really were and was ready and willing to compensate the people who he had inadvertently wronged. It was refreshing to see him confront the consequences of his actions, considering some of the harm he had wrought before.

Overall, while I still don't like it, I can at least tolerate Don Quixote in the later parts. It is evident that Cervantes was a talented writer and it just annoys me that he should be remembered and celebrated by what I can't help but of as an exercise in cruelty. Perhaps this is something to be appreciated, but I still wouldn't recommend it. 2.5/5

Next review: Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse.

Signing off,

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Demian by Hermann Hesse

Well everyone, it's that time again: it's the Hermann Hesse analysis hour. I'm sure that would make more sense if this were a video, but never mind that. I'll admit, this book is not one of Hesse's that I was wildly excited about reading, considering the pedestrian sound of the blurb. I'm not sure what kind of impression my review will give, but I can at least attempt something cohesive and sensible.

Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair, the pseudonym which this was originally published under, as he grows from a young boy to adulthood. As a child he boasts of a fabricated theft to a bully, a story that the bully decides to blackmail him with; terrified of what the bully wants him to do in order to pay his silence, but equally terrified of his pious parents' reaction to his lies, he suffers in silence for several weeks. That is until a strange boy, Max Demian, takes an interest in him. That is the start of their intermittent association and the self-discovery that accompanies it.
Demian is not a book that immediately grabbed me. At first I found it rather slow. By the time I got to the middle, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was some kind of prototypical Siddhartha, considering that both are concerned with self-realisation and at first their protagonists take remarkably similar paths in terms of their exploration of the world. After a while though, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the book. The use of dreams and Jungian symbols, as well as the attempt at achieving an equal of binaries such as good and evil or male and female, kept this from being a slog. Granted, these things aren't always implemented all that subtly or with much critical evaluation, but it's certainly made me more interested in further reading on the subject.
As a narrator, Emil is sympathetic, if a bit more analytical and critical than most first-person narrators I've read before; considering that he is writing all of this in retrospect, it does make sense, but it can be kind of jarring reading an undeniably adult voice during the period in which he describes and analyses his childhood thoughts. Despite this he is sympathetic and at no time do his actions seem unnatural as he travels down an incredibly difficult and fraught path of self-discovery. The other major character, the title character Demian, is something of a different story. He's a little bit harder to pin down, probably because he is clearly presented as an idealistic figure; I personally found him a bit difficult to like him all that much as he felt just a bit too much like a Mary-Sue sort of figure. At no point can I remember any of his faults that would make him feel human, at no point was he ever in the wrong; I realise that he does embody the ideal that Emil is striving to achieve, but Demian seems to embody this self-possession and perfect understanding of himself and other people at an age that I find utterly unbelievable, and it kind of pulled me out of the story. I honestly want to describe him, but all that I can remember about him is how perfect we as an audience are supposed to find him and how devoid of other personality features he was.

I feel somewhat conflicted about this book. On the one hand, there is a lot here to like, with the Jungian and philosophical slants, as well as a sympathetic narrator. On the other hand, there is this character of Demian who just does not feel right. I suppose I feel more disappointed because I had such high hopes of Hesse, considering how much I enjoyed the other books of his that I've read. 3.5/5

Next review: Don Quixote, Books 4 &5 by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra

Signing off,

Monday, 22 October 2012

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

This is an odd one. I don't even know whether I can really call Invisible Cities a novel or not. This isn't the first time I've read Calvino's work before; no, my first introduction to his work was 'Night Driver', a short story that firmly places his work into the postmodern. Even knowing that, I'm still not sure what to make of this.

The blurb of my edition states two things. First, that the book is Marco Polo talking to Kublai Khan about the cities within his realm, all of which are actually aspects of his home city, Venice. Second, a quote from Gore Vidal that states, "Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of [...] Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant." I would be more inclined to believe Gore Vidal. While you do get scenes of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talking, it is pretty bare and lacking conflict as a "plot"; in my head, Invisible Cities is more an exercise in world building than it is an actual novel. The majority of its chapters are 1-2 page descriptions of a fantastical city. How many of them are supposed to relate to Venice, I'm not sure; the only ones that rang true for me was one with canals (obviously) and one which is constantly under construction for fear that it will crumble once construction ends (it brought to mind the rapidly crumbling foundations). Just because their relation to the real world is tenuous at best is not a criticism from me. Far from it, in fact; whilst I was discussing what I was reading with my boyfriend, we realised just how much potential each of these cities contained. There was something about their weirdness, their unique spin on a city, that really captured my imagination in a way that I haven't experienced for years now.

This was a pretty short review, all in all. I would definitely recommend Invisible Cities, especially to those who read as an appreciation of writing as a craft, and those who enjoy the world-building aspect of it in particular. I can see it boring people who insist on deep and involving narratives, but I would recommend giving it a go. 5/5

Next review: Demian by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

Friday, 19 October 2012

Clarimonde by Theophile Gautier

With little to fill the late evening, I decided that I might as well read Clarimonde, a short story set as part of my university course on the Gothic. At 24 pages, it was hardly an arduous task to take up. So, how well did it hold up with the other gothic fiction I've been reading recently?

Clarimonde is the story of a young priest, Romuald, who falls madly in love with a courtesan, the eponymous Clarimonde, on the day of his consummation as a priest. Despite his desire to be with her, his duty dictates that he become the cure at the church of a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. It is only when he is summoned to the bedside of a dying Clarimonde is he given an opportunity to be with her; unfortunately, it is not one that sits well with the part of him still devoted to God.
As a short story, there isn't much room to really work with, but I really liked what was there. At first I wasn't entirely sure what exactly was going to qualify Clarimonde as anything gothic, but Romuald's strange double life was certainly a pleasant surprise. The reveal about Clarimonde's true nature towards the end did seem a tad tacked on though, as the story doesn't really go into the lore or the technicalities of how she functions in that condition.

As it's only 24 pages, this is more than manageable to read. I'd definitely recommend it, particularly to readers of Gothic fiction or those who need something a bit lighter or who are in a reading slump. 4/5

Next review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Signing off,

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Well, on to dissertation stuff now. Yes, be warned, you will be seeing a fair bit of Hermann Hesse in the next month or so, as I need it for work. Although I probably would have gotten to Siddhartha eventually, considering that it's one of the books that made Hesse known worldwide and I had thoroughly enjoyed Beneath the Wheel before this. So how did it measure up?

Siddhartha is the story of a boy, the eponymous Siddhartha, who is born as the son of a Brahmin (essentially someone in the priest caste in India), but feels that there is something missing in the holy chants and rituals that he has known all his life. In his desire for enlightenment, he leaves his home village, along with his childhood friend Govinda, in order to discover fulfilment in his own terms. It's an interesting look at the Buddhism, but at its heart, it is the story of one person's will to get out into the world and find out his own path to enlightenment.
As a story, it's incredibly simplistic: it's pretty much a look at a man's spiritual journey as he grows from a youth to an old man. I would say that it's a strange mix of character study and book of Buddhist philosophy, which works very well. It's frustrating, there's so much about Siddhartha that excites me, but I can't seem to put it into words. As an enlightened Siddhartha states at the end, "Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish." I suppose that what I like most about the philosophy in Siddhartha is the feeling of potential and attainability that I feel it has. The way that I interpreted what was said was that because everything is of the same nature and is thus of equal importance, there is the potential to become anything: it states that within the criminal there is the seed of enlightenment, a part of them that is perfect, and that it's just a matter of finding it and letting it grow. I rather like that. I don't know whether it's possible to enact in everyday life, or how you would do it if it is possible, but I think it will stay with me regardless.

There's a lot more in this book that I think makes it an important book to read, but I think that it's the sort of thing that works best when seen as a culmination of all the events in the book. It's something that is best experienced first-hand. Definitely something that I would recommend to all, even if you aren't of the Buddhist persuasion, as it's an important statement about the potential of human nature. 4.5/5

Next review: Clarimonde by Theophile Gautier

Signing off,

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My initial reason for wanting to pick up Carmilla is actually kind of shallow: it stars a lesbian vampire. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that five word clause allows for; I knew that it pre-dated Dracula by a few years so I wanted to know how the books differed in terms of vampire mythology as well as how a Victorian author would tackle same-sex attraction, considering the social norms of the time. It was an interesting read.

The story is narrated by Laura, a young girl living in an isolated castle in Styria with her father, nanny and governess. After a visit from a family friend and his niece is cancelled due to the premature death of the niece, Laura is desperate for the companionship of a girl her age. This wish is unexpectedly granted when a carriage overturns near the castle. The carriage contains a girl named Carmilla and her mother. The mother states that her journey is urgent, but she cannot take Carmilla any further due to the impact that it may have on her already fragile health; thus, it falls to Laura and her father to take in Carmilla. At first, things seem fine, but odd deaths start occurring in the area, and Carmilla may not be what she claims.
As a vampire story, it's a pretty standard plot. In this case, I'm willing to overlook that issue, seeing as this is one of the prototypical vampire stories that even Dracula takes influence from. From a plot point of view, I have very little to complain about. Considering how short this book actually is, it builds tension nicely and does manage to be rather spooky, despite the over-saturation that I've experienced with vampire lore in the media. I guess the one point that I have to nitpick about is the ending. Obviously, the vampire has to die for real, that's standard form for these early vampire stories; my only problem is that Carmilla's death is told to us second-hand. As a teenage girl in Victorian times, I'm not surprised that Laura wasn't directly involved with the death, but I feel it would have had more impact if she had actually been present for the death; so instead of her reading their written account of finding her coffin, etc, Carmilla had decided that she couldn't stand losing Laura as prey and making one last-ditch attack, during which she is killed. I admit, this is a fairly minor point though, and the ending is definitely fitting for what the story is.
The thing that interested me more about Carmilla was the little interesting interpretations that it made regarding vampire lore. First, there's the idea that a vampire must return to their coffin for a few hours every morning. Granted, that makes them more likely to get caught, but it's an interesting twist on the "vampires must rest in native soil when they do rest" rule. But what was probably my favourite aspect of the vampire lore in this was the point that the novel states about prey: vampires have to feed regularly, but they will often be obsessed with one particular victim, the signs of which can be confused for love and affection towards the victim, and will thus prolong the feeding process for them. I really like this idea, mainly because it explains the strange love affair that people seem to have with vampires; on paper, a reanimated corpse really shouldn't be that attractive, but if their interest in prey is interpreted from the outside as love, then I can understand the idea of "they just crave love and affection" that seems to have obsessed modern audiences. Unfortunately, this whole love as a front for bloodlust thing makes the lesbian overtones really awkward in retrospect. Carmilla only ever targets female victims in the story, even those victims who she just kills after a few days. That point plus the fact that at no point is she ever portrayed as regretful or sympathetic in her role as a vampire, makes it seem as though her lesbian overtones are as a direct result of her being an evil undead creature. That's just unfortunate. And it's a shame, as the romantic overtone that Laura's friendship with Carmilla is actually really well written and would be quite sweet if the context was different.

While possibly dated by the standards of the average reader, I would definitely recommend Carmilla to readers who are particular fans of classic vampires and want to read other fiction from Bram Stoker's contemporaries. It's definitely an enjoyable book, and well-written considering the length and the over-saturation that modern readers must deal with. 3.5/5

Next review: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre

Considering that I'm studying Camus as part of my university course, it's only natural that the same course would cover a close associate of his, Jean-Paul Sartre. I've been meaning to read some of his work for a while now, kind of as a comparison to Camus. I'm not sure what to make of it. 

Dirty Hands covers a similar subject matter to Camus' The Just Assassins. The play starts with a revolutionary, Hugo, returning to a safehouse after spending two years in prison for an assassination. There he meets a former colleague, who decides to listen to his story to find out his motives for killing who he did; was it for political reasons or was it a crime of passion? It then flashes back to the time building up to the assassination. 
I have one major problem with this play: the main character. I could not stand him. The main conflict of his motive for killing sounds interesting, right? Except that it doesn't really add up either way. In terms of politics, he is utterly despicable: he states that so long as power is seized for the working classes, it doesn't matter that people have to die, caring more about the ideals than the people behind them; that could be an interesting character to follow, except that he doesn't have the courage to actually back up those ideas, meaning that he just sounds like a whiny brat. So he wants the world to burn for his ideals because he was never loved by anyone? Boo hoo, go cry in a corner while the more interesting characters, or at least the characters with any kind of agency can do something instead. If you think of it as a crime of passion, then that doesn't make much sense either because the only people he seems to care about are himself and maybe the guy that he kills. It's just frustrating, as the ideas behind it, like the tactics of revolutionary groups during war and the question of whether it is to a political party's best interest to be installed by a foreign power, were almost completely eclipsed by my utter loathing for the main character. If the play was meant to make me think about assassination and whether it can be justified or not, then it failed because all I was doing was hoping and praying that someone would finally kill this idiot. 

While I haven't really read enough of Sartre's work to really judge this properly, if I were just going on Dirty Hands alone, then I would say that Camus is the superior writer by far. The philosophical ideas behind this are interesting, but they are obscured by a loathsome and really rather boring main character. Read The Just Assassins instead. 1/5 

Next review: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio

I honestly had no clue what to expect from The Child of Pleasure. I had heard of its author before in history class back in college, but up until now I had never read anything of his work. I was under the impression that he wrote poetry, a medium that I'm less fond of. Of course, this is where university comes in again.

The Child of Pleasure follows the life of a young Italian aristocrat named Andrea Sperelli as he seeks beauty in every aspect of his life; this includes his love life as he pursues two women throughout the book. One is a young widow named Elena, who lives a life of luxury and flirts her way through scores of salons and parties, but has to suddenly leave him. The other is a married woman named Maria, who dotes on her daughter and has essentially forsaken earthly pleasures to pursue virtue. At first, he courts them separately, only meeting Maria after Elena has been absent from his life for over a year; later, when they are both near enough for him to court, he decides to try and initiate affairs with them both, incensed after their separate pleas to him to love them as sisters.
I suppose that what I ought to mention as probably the best part of this novel is the writing. The skill with which this world of decadence is described is par none; I can't think of an author, off the top of my head, that has managed to describe sensuality with this much skill and detail. Reading The Child of Pleasure actually feels decadent, simply because of the detail that is given to the clothing, the scenery, the smells, all of that stuff that a lot of novels tend to skim over a bit. Even filtered through translation, the author's skill in this respect is clear to see. I would recommend this to anyone who is happy to read something with beautiful writing.
Onto the other big aspect, the plot. It's pretty strong on its own; the aesthete who is so wrapped up in the lies that he has convinced himself off fooling those around him. I only have two problems with it: one is general, the other is a specific thing that I found out regarding the translation. Okay, so first, the general problem. I thought the ending lacked punch. You would think that after lying to two women in order to get both of them to have affairs with him, he would get his comeuppance big time, except he doesn't, not really; okay, so it's implied that society somehow knows what he was doing and mocks him for it, but so what? That's hardly the heavy payment that must be made for a life revolving around the aesthetics and the senses. Now to the translated version's problem. When I started reading this, I had been told by my lecturer that the translation has some problems, but not how. I later learned that the English translator changed the order of the chapters, so that it would be chronological; the first chapter in the Italian is over halfway through the book in the translated version. Looking back at the chapter in question, I can definitely see why that one was the chapter that D'Annunzio started on: it sets up a mystery around who this woman Elena is, as well as showing some of the Count's later selfishness. Don't get me wrong, the translation is in other ways very good, especially when it comes to the writing, as seen in my previous paragraph. I just don't see the point of changing the order: I mean it's not as if novels haven't started in medias res before. I guess I just wish that I could have read it in the order that the author had intended it to be read in.

Overall, definitely a book to be picked up, simply for the writing alone. If you're interested in this, and can speak Italian, I would try and read it in the original language, simply to appreciate the author's intent better. As it is, I would still recommend the translation, just with a few criticisms in mind. 4.5/5

Next review: Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre

Signing off,

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Fall by Albert Camus

I didn't really know anything about Camus' book The Fall when I picked it up for reading. All I really knew was that it was the last of his works to be published before his death; as such I suppose I was expecting something that was perhaps more complex than what I'd read in The Outsider and The Just Assassins. I certainly got that at least.

The Fall consists of the confession of a man named Jean-Baptiste Clamence. He meets another Frenchman in the bar in Amsterdam that he has taken to frequenting, and over the course of several nights confesses to his sins. Basically, it's a character study. And it's certainly an interesting one.
The main topic that is often referenced is that of judgement and penitence. Clamence's main issue with life is that he becomes convinced that everyone around him is judging him, and in the process mocking him; thus a lot of his confession is the lengths that he goes to either to stop the judgement occurring or to make himself superior to it. What it adds up to is a fascinating character portrait that is sympathetic and yet utterly self-absorbed at the same time. For example, one of the things that he mentions is that he used to be incredibly generous and helpful to people in need, as it made him feel morally superior; while the motives are selfish, can one really judge him negatively if the results of his actions are good? I say that, but at the same time there are things that he confesses to, like walking away after hearing someone fall off of a bridge, that are harder to justify, even if it does feel like it rings true to life.
The translator's notes bring up an interesting viewpoint for the novel: the idea that Clamence is either a satirical portrayal of a former friend of Camus', Jean-Paul Sartre, or a self-portrait of the author. Although I only know the basics of the disagreement between the two men, I can certainly see why people see the former interpretation working. I think it would be more interesting to look into the latter interpretation more, as it's very much removed from the idealised version of oneself that authors are tempted to write into their stories; it takes a lot of courage to write a version of yourself that is this morally ambivalent.

This is the kind of book that I really want to talk about more, but struggle to. I don't for a second believe that I've understood it all in this reading, so I would say that those looking for books that benefit multiple readings will probably enjoy this. What I can say from my initial reading is that those looking for a well-written, in-depth character study will like The Fall. I would also say that those who were put off of Camus by The Outsider might want to take a look at this, as the narrator is more noticeably charming compared to Meursault. Definitely a book to try at least once. 4.5/5

Next review: The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio

Signing off,

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Just Assassins by Albert Camus

I needed something short after the slog that was That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. I got that with The Just Assassins, a five scene play. Considering how much I enjoyed The Outsider, I was very much looking forward to reading more of his work. So were my expectations met?

The plot of The Just Assassins centres around a group of revolutionaries in Russia, presumably some time at the beginning of the 20th century, as they plot to assassinate a prominent member of the nobility in order to bring Socialism to the land. This is one of those problematic plays, as it makes one question their own personal moral code. It puts forward the question of "Is murder justifiable, if it is for political reasons?", and that is a question that is rather uncomfortable to consider in a post-9/11 and 7/7 society; granted, the murder committed in The Just Assassins has its limits, but my point still stands. What makes it an especially uncomfortable question is that it doesn't really give us any answers. On the one hand, the revolutionaries are very much dedicated to the ideal of social justice, which is admirable considering that they mention the tsars, a regime not much remembered for its fairness; additionally, the majority of them draw a line at casualties including children. On the other hand, we get to see the personal damage that this man's death creates on his loved ones, specifically his wife; at no point does a man become purely a symbol, and that is a fact that the revolutionaries seem to forget.
It's definitely an interesting play, so if you happen to see an adaptation of it advertised, I would definitely recommend it. There's only one thing that bothered me, and that was the way in which the revolutionaries are referred. They're referred to in the stage directions as terrorists. While this is a legitimate view of them, it seems a bit too emotionally loaded a word to use, especially in such an oddly neutral play. I don't know what kind of word was used in the original French version, but it seemed a bit leading to use the word in the translation.

So, to finish. This is definitely a play that I would recommend seeing, or at the very least reading, if you're looking to have your perceptions played with. I'd also recommend it if you're looking for something to mentally stimulate you, but at the same time not be too taxing. 4/5

Next review: The Fall by Albert Camus

Signing off,

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

This is the kind of book that I would probably never have even have heard of were it not for my university courses. And of all my books, this one had one of the more intriguing premises. So how did it hold up?

So, to the premise. It's Mussolini's Italy, around 1937 to be precise, and in the Via Merulana in Rome, there have been two crimes in the same apartment building in quick succession. The first is a robbery in which a widowed Countess is robbed of her jewellery, while the second is the brutal murder of a young married woman. The main character, Doctor Ingravello (also known as Don Ciccio), who is investigating these crimes with the police was a secret admirer of the murdered woman, as well as friends with her husband, so he is particularly keen to find the culprit. At the same time, the book aims to portray and criticise Mussolini's Italy. Sounds like a great premise, right? Well, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana doesn't really live up to it.
As a mystery novel, it leaves much to be desired. Mainly because neither plot thread has an ending. The robbery plot thread is more closed, as the jewels are found, but otherwise the reader is left with a feeling of incompleteness as neither story feels like it was given adequate attention. The other thing that left the mystery fan in me cold was that there is only ever one possibility that the plots follow; there is never any sense of tension because the author only ever gives us one suspect to consider at any one moment, presenting no other alternatives. It says on the blurb that Ingravello finds that everyone in the apartment block comes under suspicion, but this is an out and out lie; there is a grand total of one other person in the building who comes under suspicion, the rest being outsiders who have had dealings with the building in the past. I just feel that the mystery novel aspect, which is the one advertised on the back, is poorly developed and more meant to be a vehicle for the social commentary.
There's a lot of social commentary. Social commentary on a society that had died out about 11 years before the book was published. Social commentary that cannot get to the point. You see, Gadda wraps up most of his social commentary in LOADS of symbolism and metaphor, to the point where a lot of what he's saying is completely lost; as far as I could tell from the translator's note, this was due to timidness and not wanting to offend people. So he wrote what was meant to be criticism of a long dead regime in Italian history and he muddles it so as to not offend people. One, who in their right mind defends Mussolini of all people? Two, how much of that regime remained to be offended by Gadda's criticisms? I just fail to see the point of loading your book with what I imagine to be witty commentary in its original form, only to then change it so that no-one understands it. It's especially frustrating, as the writing is evidently very good; granted, the translation apparently loses some of the original flavour due to the inability for people to translate dialects, but what makes it through is promising stuff.

So overall, a frustrating read. I wanted to like this book, considering its premise, but by the end all I can see is an unfinished narrative that is confused about just what it wants to be. 2.5/5

Next review: The Just Assassins by Albert Camus

Signing off,

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Don Quixote, Books 1-3 by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I'll admit, I was quite looking forward to this. I like reading classics and I like reading foreign literature, so this should be right up my alley, seeing as it ticks both boxes. That was until I figured out that it shares a problem that I highlighted in my review of Pamela.

Don Quixote follows the misadventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a wealthy landowner who deludes himself into thinking that he is a knight-errant after he reads too many courtly romances. It's meant to be a satire of the courtly romance genre, which was so popular at the time.
The problem with this is that, for me at least, the satire fails by not being amusing. There is a reason for this: it's the one that I alluded to in the introduction. My main problem with the events depicted thus far is that they're utterly horrifying when you consider them with a modern perspective. The protagonist is a mentally ill person who lets himself loose upon the countryside and potentially ruining many people's lives. Here's an example that sprang to my mind: you see the hat that he's wearing in that book cover up there? That was the spoils of charging at a barber surgeon, totally without warning, with a lance; if you think of that in more modern terms, that's the news story when someone gets attacked by a crazy homeless man with a knife after he decides that he's taken a liking to the traffic cone that the victim decided would be a good idea to wear after a party. That's far from the worst of it either: he tramples an entire herd of sheep because he thinks that they're a pagan army in one instance, and in another he sets loose a group of convicted criminals. Am I just supposed to forget the consequences of his actions here? For all I know, that flock of sheep was someone's only means of sustenance and those criminals could have wreaked havoc following their release. I fail to see what I'm meant to find funny here; certainly, it's absurd, which can count for comedy, but in this case it's just sad to watch the delusions of an old man who has no idea what he's doing.

There are two books left of this, but I'm not sure that I'll get round to reading them. Technically, I suppose this counts as a DNF, but I feel that I should still rate this. I didn't like this because it felt wrong to laugh at the misfortunes of a mentally ill person. I suppose that those who can get past that might enjoy it, but for me it just presented too big a problem. 1/5

Next review: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Signing off,

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Outsider by Albert Camus

The Outsider is the other book that I have had to re-read for my university reading list. It is a book that I first read in college, so about three or four years ago. My classmates at the time, who also had to read it, were less than enthusiastic about it; for me, it was something of a revelation.

The plot follows the life of a French Algerian named Meursault in the months after the death of his mother. His reaction is an unusual one to say the least: while many would have spent months grieving and adjusting to the loss of a parent, his response is to continue life as he has always done, with little to no remorse. This oddly muted behaviour continues to baffle his friends, but is otherwise considered harmless, until one day he kills a man for no reason; but now, in the public eye, his behaviour appears monstrous and his muted emotions evidence of a complete lack of human feeling. From the premise, I can see why many people would be put off; certainly, the lack of empathy with Meursault is the one complaint that I always hear. But for me, feeling empathy for Meursault isn't why I like this book: I already know that I won't ever understand him as a person. I like this book because I admire Meursault's guiding principle, even if I understand its limitations. What I admire about Meursault is his adoration and strict adherence to the truth, at least as he is able to express it; he doesn't exaggerate or lie about his feelings for the benefit of society or to make life easy. I may not agree with his reactions to situations, but at the same time I can't help but admire his straightforward attitude. In terms of personal philosophies, I can also admire his habit of living in the present, appreciating what he has and not deluding himself with the idea that if he somehow had a different life everything would be wonderful.

I suppose that this review has been more of a personal retrospective than an actual review. What I would say is that this is worth at least an attempt at reading. For me it was a light after several years of bullying and other socialising issues, and I'm sure that it can mean a lot to many other people. It can, on the other hand, seem completely alien and uninteresting. But at the very least, I would at least give it an attempt. 4.5/5

Next review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Signing off,

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Well now, onto my reading list for university. I decided that I would start it off by re-reading the ones that I've already read through at one time or another. Hence why this review was changed last minute from Windfall to Dracula, a title that I haven't actually read in full since high school. I had some issues with it then, so a large part of me was wondering whether I would still have problems with it now, or whether it was part of being young and stupid.

For those of you who have really been living under a rock for years, Dracula chronicles the stories of a group of people whose lives are changed completely by the intrusion of Count Dracula, a powerful vampire who has grown tired of feeding in his home in Romania and decides to make a new feeding ground in Victorian London. Our plucky group decide that this just isn't on, so they band together to stop Dracula from filling London with the undead. It's a pretty basic story really: monster enters, monster is destroyed by pinnacles of society at the time. But Dracula does have several factors in its favour that stop it from being boring. First, is Count Dracula himself; he is still genuinely creepy after all these years. I suppose it's the fact that he starts off acting so charming towards Jonathan Harker that when he shows his true colours, he is all the more chilling because of his former charm. The other aspect is that this is an interesting kind of time capsule in regards to Victorian society, particularly the characters and their roles in society. The people that make up the intrepid group hunting Dracula are taken from various important groups in society: for example, there are Jonathan Harker and Dr Seward, a lawyer and a doctor respectively, representing the growing middle classes, and then Arthur Holmwood representing the traditional aristocracy; the fact that they are embracing the new technology that comes of the industrial revolution is also very interesting, especially in the way that it is juxtaposed with the traditions and superstitions that were slowly being phased out at the time.
The one real con that I have with the book is one that may surprise you. It's the Count. Well, not the Count as a concept, more the Count's actions in the book; his conduct as an antagonist is moronic. This is actually the problem that I had with Dracula the first time I read it. In choosing his victims, Dracula doesn't seem to do his homework all that well. First he torments Jonathan Harker by locking him in Castle Dracula with three undead women; his first real victim upon reaching England is the best friend of Jonathan Harker's fiancée. Having turned said best friend into the undead, he proceeds to target the group again, this time most definitely on purpose, by biting Mina Harker. If you're trying to set up a new life spreading death and disaster upon a new country, surely the last thing you want is to make your presence known to a specific group of people that you happen not to like? And even if you do insist on persecuting a particular group of people, why on earth a group of people with an insane amount of pooled knowledge and assets? Seriously, there are no lower-class heroes or heroines in Dracula; if there had been, the vampire would have won. As it was, the targeting of a group who can afford to chase you back to Transylvvania was a monumentally stupid idea. The afterword mentions the idea of persecution as a leftover from his life as a Romanian prince, but that just seems like trying to defend an element of the novel that is ridiculous no matter how you look at it.

Overall, I would definitely give Dracula a try; it's a classic for a reason and has more than stood up to the test of time. Dracula's actions are kind of stupid when you really think about it, but as a whole it is a very solid read. 4/5

Next review: The Outsider by Albert Camus

Signing off,

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Richard III by William Shakespeare

I've been looking forward to reading Richard III for a long while now. Why this one in particular? It has one of the most gleefully enjoyable villain protagonists that I have had the pleasure of reading; having found a comic adaptation of an abridged version of the play whilst in high school. Having now read the full play, my expectations were more than met.

For those who have lived under a rock for many years, here's the plot. Richard Duke of Gloster, having helped his elder brother Edward to claim the throne (events that I covered partially in my reviews of the Henry VI plays), decides to usurp his elder brothers and their offspring. In his plot to become king, he decides that the best course of action is to kill anyone and everyone who might be a threat to his claim, and for a time it does work very well. It is only when he goes a step too far that things start to fall apart. But by god, it is fun while it lasts: as a villain protagonist, Richard is just so enthusiastic about being evil that it's really rather infectious. Granted, it means that the Richard III fan-club burst a collective blood vessel whenever the play is performed, but I think that the writing and characterisation for Richard is by far the strongest aspect of the play, regardless of the dubiousness of the play's historical accuracy.
My high opinion of the text was probably to the detriment of my enjoyment when watching the BBC adaptation. The text created such vivid visualisations for me that the actual film adaptation jarred with what had been floating around in my brain. As it was, this was still a very good adaptation in all but one aspect: sound. Almost all the dialogue was incredibly loud at some points, then unintelligibly quiet at other points; it was most frustrating to have to strain to hear Shakespeare's fantastic dialogue, with the knowledge that I'd be deafened if I turned up the volume any louder.

I did consider writing a defence for the real Richard III, but I decided that, interesting as history may be, I am here to assess the merits of Shakespeare's reinterpretation of the man, not compare the two versions. As a play, it's fantastic; it's the rise and fall of a man who doesn't learn when he's made one corpse too many. As a history lesson, it's flawed at best, but if you're consulting Shakespeare as a historian then you have other problems. 5/5

Next review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Signing off,

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Marshmallows For Breakfast is not the kind of book that I usually pick up. To be honest, I can't actually remember buying this for any better reasons than it was cheap and I liked the title. After Gillespie and I though, I think I needed a simpler read, something that would leave me in a clearer state of mind; a comfort read if you will. In that capacity, Dorothy Koomson has certainly delivered.

Marshmallows For Breakfast follows Kendra Tamale as she moves to England after living abroad in Australia. Her hopes at finding a simpler life than the one she had in Australia are quickly dashed when she finds herself helping her landlord's two young children, Summer and Jaxon, as they struggle to deal with their parents' inevitable separation. While the children and their father manage to worm their way into her affections, Kendra is keeping a huge, incredibly painful secret from them.
In regards to the plot, I liked it, but I couldn't help but feel that it was kind of, well, amateurish. The main thing that I can think of is that it feels like the novel tried to tackle too many "big" issues; quite frankly, I think that the pressures of looking after someone else's children and the fallout that comes from divorce are subjects that can easily take up a whole novel by itself. The fact that there are at least three other big issues that get discussed as part of the narrative makes it feel a bit like Dorothy Koomson wrote this more as a way to get her views out to the public. While she does manage to mostly make the inclusion of these issues fit, it does feel a little preachy; the closest character that you could consider a villain is undoubtedly evil and completely unrepentant for what he has done, which just feels weird considering the comparatively balanced and sympathetic way that almost every other character is portrayed in, despite their failings and issues. One thing that I will give Dorothy Koomson credit for is that she doesn't feel the need to force a romance into the already full narrative.
The characters are well-written and sympathetic, especially Summer and Jaxon; I was actually rather surprised to find myself liking the two kids, despite the frequent moments in which they act up like every small child you are ever likely to meet. Apart from the children though, there weren't really any characters that really stood out as such. Well written, but not great.

Overall, this is a comfortable read. It's not something that I would recommend to someone looking for a book that will challenge them or broaden their horizons. This is well-suited for when you've reached a point where you're just emotionally or mentally tired. 3/5

Next review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Like The Mall, Gillespie and I is a book that I won as part of a give-away, courtesy of Savidge Reads. I entered this one less for the premise of the book itself, which was okay; what sold me most, other than the lure of a free book, was the enthusiastic way in which he praised it. So, having finally read it, will it live up to the many good things that made me want it in the first place?

Gillespie and I tells the story of Harriet Baxter, an English spinster who goes to Glasgow for the International Exhibition, following the death of the elderly aunt whom she was nursing. Whilst there, she becomes close friends with the Gillespie family; the father figure, Ned Gillespie, is an artist at the Exhibition, and it is his biography that an older Harriet purports this novel to be. At first glance, it appears to be an innocent enough narrative, maybe something along the lines of a slice of life/historical novel. That's when things start to go wrong; I shan't tell you exactly what goes wrong, but I will say that it comes about incredibly suddenly, tearing apart the family that come to feel very dear to you, as well as making you doubt everything that you had read before.
In regards to plot, it is superbly written. Jane Harris sows seeds of doubt so expertly that you don't even realise they're there until something else comes up that makes you re-examine what you thought you knew. The ending of the novel left me rather shaken really, simply through the doubts that had built up over the course of it; if someone had asked me what my opinion of events was at the beginning, middle and end, I would have given completely different versions at each point, simply because the circumstances changed so much. I honestly can't find fault in this writing.
Probably the most important character in Gillespie and I is that of the narrator, Harriet. She's the most important character, yet I can't actually think of how to describe her. I can think of qualities that, had I been asked towards the beginning, would have come to mind: straightforward, helpful, loyal, intelligent and possessing a barbed wit. As of now, I can agree wholeheartedly about the last item I mentioned there: she does indeed have a barbed wit, which she uses to pepper the narrative with humorous asides. As for the other qualities, I honestly couldn't say one way or the other.
The other main characters worth mentioning are the Gillespie family. There's Ned, an artist who is almost pre-disposed to seeing the best in other people and is devoted to his family, his children especially. His wife, Annie, is a little less trusting than Ned, but is a loyal friend when her trust has been earned. His mother, Elspeth, is largely self-absorbed, but undoubtedly has her family's best interests at heart. Finally, there are his children, Sibyl and Rose, who couldn't be more different in temperament. Almost every character grows on you by the end, which is why what happens feels so tragic and confusing.

I would definitely recommend this to, well, pretty much anyone. Mystery fans will probably enjoy the twists and turns that occur throughout, although this may perhaps end with everything a bit too much on the vague side for some. It is a bit of a slow burner, but it is more than worth the effort overall. 4.5/5

Next review: Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Signing off,

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince was one of those books that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, but thanks to the intervention of my boyfriend I decided to give it a read now, seeing as he seemed to like it so much. Am I glad that I bumped it up the list then?

Seeing as this is more an instruction manual of sorts, I have no real synopsis for this. For those of you who don't know, this is essentially a guide on politics, written with prospective rulers in mind. It has also forever linked Machiavelli's name with the archetypes of the intriguer and, in some cases, the agent of the Devil. And that's kind of sad, because pretty much everything that he wrote down here makes a lot of sense. For instance, when discussing whether it is better for a leader to be loved than feared, a lot of criticism seems to be targeted at his answer of:
"One would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both." 
The only part of that line that I knew of before reading this was the "better to be feared than loved", which seems a lot harsher without the context; it's pretty clear that a combination of the two qualities is the ideal here, but from a pragmatic stance it's good to know which quality you can get away with not having should that ideal be out of your reach. Weirdly enough, it actually reminded me of some of my favourite teachers when I was younger; while they were fun and interesting, the thing that made me respect them and listen to them in the first place was the knowledge that they would not put up with any bad behaviour from me. The whole book is kind of like that. While I can see where the whole "ends justifies the means" perspective can be derived, I would say that the book is more an instruction manual focusing on lessons regarding pragmatism and learning to rely on your own wisdom/judgement/skills instead of the wisdom/judgement/skills of everyone around you.

So yeah, my review of this is pretty short and actually more of a defence for Machiavelli's less-than-stellar reputation. Really, I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in politics, anyone who wants to work with people one day and anyone who is trying to write anything like epic fantasy or other fiction genres involving politics. If you're interested in the context or history of the writing of The Prince, I would recommend the Penguin Classics version, or any version with annotations, as they are very interesting. 4/5

Next review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Signing off,

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Mall by S. L. Grey

I got The Mall when I won a give-away from one of the blogs that I follow, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review; I saw the premise on his blog (which you should definitely check out, hint hint) and thought, "Yeah, that sounds like my cup of tea". It has, unfortunately, taken me over a year to actually get round to actually reading it. So, a year on, am I glad that I won that give-away?

The premise follows Rhoda and Dan, two young adults who meet in a Johannesburg mall. Rhoda is a junkie who has lost the young boy that she was babysitting whilst going to buy some cocaine, while Dan is one of the employees at the mall's book-shop. Convinced that Dan has seen the boy, Rhoda bullies him into showing her the service corridors of the mall, in an effort to find him before she has to get him back to his parents. Instead of finding the boy, however, they find their worst fears come to life, eventually leading to another mall that is a warped mirror of the mall in the real world; all the while they are goaded by threatening text messages, in places where they shouldn't be receiving any.
I genuinely like the premise here. If you can create something that is completely screwed up and weird, then that automatically earns you points in my eyes. The author has to really nail the execution though, if I'm going to love it. I almost loved this one. Granted, I've been talking to friends and family about just how weird this actually got for me, and they've been kinda put off by it; looking at it in retrospect though, it does make sense as a whole, which I really liked. If you actually boil the plot right down, it's incredibly simple; introduce characters, then BAM, horror imagery and situations. It actually kind of reminded me of survival horror video games at first. I guess what I really liked about this was the concept of the other mall and the effect that the experience has on the main characters. I shan't talk about the latter, as that strays into spoiler territory. I think I'm probably safe to talk about the mall itself though, so I'll mention the part that really interested me about it: the satire of capitalism. The other mall essentially embodies the warped version of capitalism's sort of ideal vision, as there are three main options for them there: become a Shopper, become an Employee or drop out of the system altogether. Become an employee, and you become a mindless drone chained to your counter, with a gaping wound in the side of your neck. Become a shopper and you literally live to shop, altering your body in the mean-time to be either morbidly obese, completely emaciated or have parts of your body hacked off or pumped with silicon. Drop out entirely and you risk your life and sanity beneath the mall, taking what you can from the remains left by the shoppers and the employees. This idea just works for me, as it perfectly reflects the excess and unfairness that can be the result of overt consumerism. The only thing about the premise that really bothered me all that much was the logistics of it; there's evidence that Rhoda and Dan aren't the first people to disappear into the other mall, so part of me was wondering just how several disappearances of mall patrons would go unnoticed by the rest of Johannesburg. Unless disappearances are that common an occurrence over there, which is a thought I'd rather not entertain.
In terms of the characters, I thought I would hate them after I'd read the first couple of chapters. On the one hand you have Rhoda, a junkie who pretty much abandons a child in her care to get drugs, and then proceeds to threaten a guy with a knife to get him to help her. On the other hand you have Dan, an entitled, passive-aggressive brat who hates his life because he can't get his gold-digger co-worker to notice him, much less go out with him. At first, I was pretty much hoping that they would both die in the course of the novel, but they did grow on me as I read on. They aren't my favourite characters from a book, by no means, but they do become more sympathetic as they go on.

Overall, I would recommend this heartily to horror fans. The imagery is visceral and imaginative, and the horror elements are well-implemented. I would say that those with a weak stomach should avoid this, along with those who are easily shocked by swearing. It's a book that took me a while to get into, but I'm very glad that I persevered. 4.5/5

Next review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Signing off,

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

This is a book that I picked up on the recommendation of a couple of the more fantasy-oriented book blogs that I follow. I've been a fan of fantasy for a long time, so I decided that it deserved at least a look. I'm glad that I picked it up.

Among Thieves follows a thief by the name of Drothe who makes a living by digging up and selling information about events in the city of Ildrecca to his boss' organisation, as well as a little bit of smuggling on the side. It is during one of these smuggling ventures that he finds himself involved more than he would like in the search for a particular imperial relic that could tear his world apart, with his best friend, the mercenary Degan, getting dragged along with him.
At first, this reminded me a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that I've been a part of in the past. The steady rise from bit part to major player, the irreverent humour between characters, the conflict of these same characters' own private agendas and the slightly more Machiavellian tactics were all too familiar to me. The point where this comparison splits is that the amount of allegiance switches and double-crossing present in Among Thieves would be more than enough to lead to party splits in D&D (trust me, I know that all too well as well). I guess the similarity here is very much a personal thing, but I couldn't help but like this book because of the associations with close friends that D&D has for me.
In terms of plot, other than the D&D thing that I mentioned above, it has all the things that I love about fantasy. First, the opportunity for subterfuge and the equal importance that is placed on a warrior's brawn and a rogue's brains and subtlety; when your protagonist is constantly outgunned, yet still manages to pull through by the skin of his teeth, I can't help but feel thrilled. Second, there's the setting. Ildrecca is your standard fantasy "hive of scum and villainy" sort of city, but Hulick just seems so invested in this place that the enthusiasm sort of catches. In any case, there are a few features that are really interesting that I think will come to play later, should there be any further instalments (something I would be willing to bet money on); the main point that caught my eye was that of the empire itself. The empire is ruled by three incarnations of the same man, all of whom are promptly reborn after they die, purportedly caused by the holy will of angels; unfortunately, in more recent years, the emperors have been going crazy and paranoid in their old age, the onset of which seems to be happening quicker and quicker as the generations go by. While there is some intriguing information that comes out about these reincarnating emperors, they don't really play that big a part in this instalment, something that I hope will be remedied later on. My only real gripe was that with so much subterfuge going on, there is no real climax moment; instead, there are mini-climaxes as Drothe resolves each of his problems in turn, so it can feel a bit like the book just sort of petering out.
In terms of characters, I think that they were perhaps a bit simplistic, but they still worked. Drothe is the honourable thief, who is ultimately going to try and spare his own skin, but will still try and do the right thing along the way. Likewise, Degan is the best friend who happens to be a mercenary; he'll cover you in the most dire of situations, but at the same time he has his secrets and his own agenda that may or may not impact your own goals. Basically, the characters fill a role, and for the most part they fill it well and actually managed to muster a fair bit of emotional attachment for me; whilst I enjoyed A Game of Thrones, I must concede that Among Thieves has it beaten in regards to the emotional attachment.

It's odd; in my head I know that I probably shouldn't like this story half as much as I do. Ultimately, if this were a film, then I suppose I would call it popcorn viewing; make no mistake though, this is definitely one of the better popcorn books. There's a certain comforting feel about it's use of well-defined fantasy tropes, and it's not as if this is a humourless retread of what every D&D session has already done. I would definitely recommend this to fantasy fans who are looking for a comfort read after being burnt out by other books, or to those looking to start reading fantasy. 4.5/5

Next review: The Mall by S. L. Grey.

Signing out,

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

It was going to happen eventually. Eventually I would crack and read the book that seems to have been universally praised. So here you go, a review for A Game of Thrones. Is it worth the hype?

So, the story. The story focuses largely on power struggles in the court of King Robert Baratheon, with lines being drawn between Lord Eddard Stark, the king's best friend and chief advisor, and Cersei Lannister, the queen and mother to Robert's heirs, as well as their respective families. At the same time as the power struggles there are occurring, the last heirs of the previous king, Aerys Targaryen, are living across the sea, plotting to regain the throne that their father was deposed from. That is the story at it's most basic. I shan't be giving any real details here, for fear of spoilers; the reason that I don't want to spoil this is that this is an incredibly well-written plot, one which I think should be experienced first-hand. There is so much that actually happens because of the different characters' subterfuge, that I couldn't give you an impression of the skill that this is brought together with. The one thing that I would mention is that I personally thought that the focus could have been more on Daenerys and her brother overseas, as it involves a more interesting setting than the main plot, which is pretty much just your standard medieval-Europe-style fantasy setting.
In terms of characters, there are a ton of them. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have your personal favourites and people you hope will meet a sticky end. Overall, I thought the character-building was pretty good. My only real problem was with the Lannisters, the main villains of the book. This is very much a personal thing, but I believe that a good villain needs to be entertaining as well as evil enough to make me wish for their defeat; the Lannisters have plenty of the latter, but none of the former, unfortunately. The only exception to this is Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf character. In contrast to the rest of his family, he has to manipulate the situation to his advantage, working for his rewards because of his disadvantages; in comparison, the rest of the Lannister family is just kind of boring, as they've become so sure of their power that they've devolved into using tactics worthy of the average playground bully. That is, of course, a very subjective point, but it's something that I thought I would mention.

Overall, I would definitely recommend A Game of Thrones. It's story is immense and complex, yet is written in such a way that it is easy to grasp. I have been reading fantasy for years now, but I imagine that it would be a good title to introduce non-fantasy fans to the genre, as the high fantasy elements are kept comparatively low. The only people I would not recommend it to are people sick to their back teeth with the medieval-Europe-style fantasy setting or those who aren't prepared to go the long haul, as the majority of the plot-lines aren't resolved in this book. 4/5

Next review: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

Signing off,

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Adventures in Cooking: Australian Apple and Raisin Cake

It's a Mary Berry recipe again. Her most delicious yet.

The actual making of this couldn't have been much smoother. The only thing that I struggled with was coring the cooking apple, but that's because I'd not done it before. As for stewing the apple, that was easy after making a syrup mixture for my last recipe.

As for how this turned out, it was a little lop-sided, but then that was my fault. In terms of taste, it's lovely. The sponge itself tastes quite a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, which might not be to some people's liking. The fruit softened up loads and is lovely and sweet.

I would definitely make this again. It's pretty much all I could ask for in a cake. All I would mention is that the mixture tended towards the sticky side, but was otherwise fine to work with.

Signing off,

Monday, 9 July 2012

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

There's a rather juvenile reason why I decided that I needed to read this. For anyone who hasn't trawled the Internet enough to have found this out, Rule 34 is the rule of the Internet that states the following: "If you can think of it, there's porn of it". Immediately, there will be people closing down this review wondering what kind of hideous pornography I could be reviewing. But you would be surprised by how tame Rule 34 actually is.

Rule 34 is a mystery novel. Set in a near future Edinburgh, the plot is sparked off by the suspicious death of a fetishist, who happens to have served time for scams and identity fraud over the Internet. For the most part, you follow three main characters over the course of the book. First is DI Liz Kavanaugh, the head of the Edinburgh's 'Rule 34 Squad'. It's her job to keep her eye on the Internet, observing memes and chasing down various acts of Internet crime; as such, she is quickly brought in on the case, due to the victim's history. Second is Anwar Hussein, a small-time ex-con trying to go clean; when he gets a job as a consul for a newly created country in Eastern Europe, he appears to have struck gold, although there are a few things that don't seem quite right. Finally, there is a mysterious man known only as 'The Toymaker', an agent of a sprawling organised crime syndicate. He's in Edinburgh to reinvent one of their outposts, but his plans keep getting foiled when his potential recruits keep getting killed; the fact that his meds keep gradually wearing out, causing him to imagine giant lizard people taking over, only makes things more difficult.
In terms of plot, there are quite a few threads to keep in mind. All three plot threads intersect at various points in the narrative, whether it's through main or side characters: for example, The Toymaker ends up having sex with Liz's on-again-off-again girlfriend, as well as meeting with Anwar at the consulate. All of these narratives are necessary to understand how the mystery may be unravelled, and they all provide quite a lot of overlapping information. Fair enough, you say, but this isn't all that uncommon in mystery novels these days. The thing is though, Rule 34 doesn't feel like your standard detective novel/police procedural. In contrast to most mystery novels that I've read, I don't think that this is a mystery that the reader could solve; don't get me wrong, in hindsight it is quite well signposted, but it just doesn't have an outcome that most mystery readers would even begin to consider. I don't personally have a problem with that though: while it caught me off-guard when I first read it, it does feel right and I'm actually kind of impressed at how the solution was reached. My only real problem is with the rest of the ending. You see, throughout the different plot-lines, the main focus characters have their own personal issues that they must attend to: for DI Kavanaugh it's her dissatisfaction with her life ever since her career went down the toilet, for Anwar it's his wife's disapproval with his criminal past and his inclinations for other men, and for The Toymaker it's the aforementioned giant lizard people; those are very basic summaries, with much more intricacy and messiness. Those plot-lines are just dropped, for the most part. In the rush to get to the solution, whatever character development that had occurred during the narrative sort of grinds to a halt, which is disappointing really. When you have such a wide and varied cast, it makes me sad to see all of their development left hanging; granted, it is given justification of sorts in the final chapter, and I suppose it does reflect real life more than most books, it just leaves me a bit disappointed.
The only other thing that I should probably mention is the writing style. It's written in the present tense, which I personally didn't notice until I checked just now, and also in the 2nd person. The use of 2nd person just confuses me. Not in terms of clarity, as it's pretty clear what's happening most of the time. I just don't understand why you would use it in a mystery novel. To my knowledge, the only other things that I've read that use the 2nd person perspective are Choose Your Own Adventure-style novels, as, for all intents and purposes, you are actually the main character in those. Here, it just seems different for the sake of being different; if there was some kind of hidden meaning behind it all, I certainly missed it.

Overall, a generally enjoyable mystery novel with some viciously cutting humour. Unfortunately, I do feel that I have to mark it down for a largely disappointing ending and the use of the 2nd person perspective that just seems pretentious really. 3.5/5

Next review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Signing off,

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Adventures in Cooking: Apricot and Walnut Sandwich Bars

Ah, Mary Berry. We meet again. Why must your recipes look so yummy?

So, my experience with cakey things has been a much smoother road than my overall experience with bread. Give me a cake recipe and 99% of the time, it'll go smoothly. So I wasn't really worried about this one. The only thing that concerned me was the syrupy apricot mixture that I had to make for the sandwich filling, as I tend to be a bit wary about anything that involves burning on the stove.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried so much. It turned out about as well as I thought it would; it was different than I anticipated, but still good. In terms of ingredients, I ended up changing a couple of them. First, I used crushed hazelnuts instead of chopped walnuts as part of the dough. Second, I used white self-raising flour as opposed to the recommended wholemeal self-raising flour, simply because the former was all that I could find. I think that these changes in ingredients might explain why the final product was more cakey than I would have assumed from the picture provided in the recipe book. Not that this was a negative point, it was just a bit unexpected.

What I would mention for those who are looking to make this, is that in spreading out the top layer of dough, I may well have displaced the apricot mixture from the centre of the sandwich bar mixture, so I ended up with a situation where I would have nothing but cake in the middle and all the apricot mixture would be pushed to the edge. As the dough is an odd kind of consistency, due to the oats that make up a portion of the mixture, it needs to be pushed out to make it fill the space correctly. So I'm not really sure how to remedy the problem.

Overall though, I would readily give the recipe another shot at some other time. I would probably change what I did a bit more, but otherwise I'm perfectly happy with this recipe. Now I just have to stop trying recipes with nuts so that I won't kill my boyfriend accidentally.

Signing off,

Sunday, 1 July 2012

ZOO by Otsuichi

There are some books that you just pick up on a whim. ZOO was one of those books: as it was one that was being given away for free at a convention, I was hardly going to pass it up. But now that I've gotten around to reading it, will it be a case of complaining about things that I didn't have to pay for?

Now, as this is a collection of short stories, I will be taking a slightly different approach to my usual one. Instead of discussions of plot and character, I will talk a little bit about each story in the collection. 
The title story of the collection, 'ZOO', is probably one of the more disappointing stories included. When the story is about a man who receives pictures in the post of his ex-girlfriend's body as it progresses through decomposition, you expect it to really wow you. While it is admittedly creepy, I thought that it could have been paced better, to make better use of the tension created by the situation. 
'In a Falling Airplane' is one of the more interesting stories from a more critical viewpoint, as it focuses on the actions of people who have nothing to lose as they are confronted with a life-threatening situation. 
'The White House in the Cold Forest' more than delivered the eeriness that 'ZOO' was missing, as it follows a girl who has grown up with almost nothing but abuse as she is unleashed into the world. The narrator's lack of comprehension regarding her own actions is incredibly creepy. 
'Find the Blood!' is a mystery story of sorts, as a family try to figure out who could have stabbed their father figure in the back as well as finding the bag of blood that could potentially save his life. I was surprised by the humorous tone that it took, but it was unexpectedly effective. 
'In a Park at Twilight, a Long Time Ago' is the shortest of the bunch, and is enjoyably creepy for the two pages or so that it lasts. 
'Wardrobe' is another mystery story, revolving around a woman who hides the dead body of her brother-in-law in his wardrobe. This was actually another disappointment, as I didn't feel that the mystery actually worked. While I did enjoy the twists and turns that events took for the majority of it, when the ending came up, I couldn't help but feel cheated as I felt that I had been denied information. 
'Song of the Sunny Spot' kinds of feels like it should be in a different collection, as it contains none of the macabre features present in the other stories. That isn't to say that this is a bad story though; on the contrary, I think it's one of the stronger stories, with a genuinely touching relationship between the narrator and the dying old man who built her to look after him. 
'Kazari and Yoko' brings the collection back to the nightmarish end of the scale, as it follows the wildly different treatments of the two eponymous sisters. It is a seriously messed up story, with seriously messed up people inhabiting it. I can't help but still feel wary when I look back at it, but then I suppose that is the sign of a good horror story. 
'SO-far' is a strange one. Granted, that statement doesn't mean much in light of the rest of the collection, but even compared to the rest of the book, this story is strange. In it, the reader follows a young boy as he has to act as a mouthpiece for his parents when it appears that they can no longer see, hear or perceive each other. If that isn't odd enough, there is a plot twist at the very end of it that I was genuinely not expecting. 
'Words of God' is another strange one. This one is more on the unpleasant side though, as a teenage boy goes through life, occasionally influencing things through the power of his voice. I couldn't help but feel really uncomfortable with this one; while unpleasant or morally dubious characters are more common here than I'm used to, this was one of the few characters that made me feel really uncomfortable. 
'Seven Rooms', the final story and probably the longest of the collection, is utterly terrifying when you're actually reading it. Considering that it involves a brother and sister as they get caught in a death trap that takes a week to kill you, that's understandable. The problem that I had was that after I had finished reading it, I couldn't help but realise that the killer and his MO are really impractical and would never be able to operate without the police investigating. That might just be me, but if you're going to use horror involving things that are plausible, such as serial killers, then everything needs to be plausible for it to be truly scary. I felt it failed a bit there, but it was really thrilling to read nonetheless. 

Overall, I was very impressed with this collection. The dark tone and macabre characters that inhabit these stories were very refreshing, considering the lighter material that you often find in shorter prose. I would definitely recommend these to someone who enjoyed horror or the darker end of the fantasy spectrum. 4/5 

Next review: Rule 34 by Charles Stross. 

Signing off,