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Monday, 30 January 2012

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This is an odd one to review. Then again, American Psycho is just kind of weird all around. I guess I picked this one up because it's one of those books which is infamous: it's controversial and the reasons for that controversy are pretty well known, but it's still something you have to pick up and read yourself in order to understand. It's been an interesting nine days reading it.

So, I suppose it makes sense to explain what American Psycho is about first, before I go into the weirder stuff. It's narrated by Patrick Bateman, a young successful banker in New York at the end of the 1980s, so basically he's a yuppie. So, as a typical yuppie, his life consists of things like eating out at expensive restaurants, buying designer brands and working out; basically your standard process of keeping up (very expensive) appearances. What makes Patrick different from your average yuppie is that he's a psychopath and kills people. Maybe. That description is pretty much the whole book. The first half is mainly several dinners with work colleagues and one night stands, described in mind-numbing detail and with the occasionally line of absolute psychopathic violence, which everyone summarily ignores or fails to react to. At around the halfway point, we start seeing Patrick killing people in person. Or at least Patrick says he's killed all these people.
You'll notice that I keep saying things like maybe and might, when referring to Patrick's psychopathic tendencies. That's because he is pretty unreliable as a narrator, including details that both prove and disprove the reality of the murders and other crimes he says he commits. And I find that really interesting. While the violence is a big part of the narrative, and the part that most people focus on, I found the psychological aspect of the novel more interesting. The idea that he could be imagining all or part of the novel is somehow utterly fascinating to me: if he is imagining the whole thing, then would that just make him an average guy who retreats into fantasy and drugs in order to cope with the boring reality that is the high-life? He certainly takes enough Xanax and what-not.
But, of course, the thing that everyone comments on is the unusually high level of violence. That's fair enough, as Patrick describes his kills in just as much detail as the various different outfits of his colleagues and the menus of various restaurants. There's so much detail that it's actually rather absurd. Granted, it might start off nauseating, but then it seems to skip merrily over some undefined line after which the violence just seemed silly and over-the-top. Then again, I might just be that desensitized. In any case, I actually found the more mundane offences like the huge amounts of bigotry and the utter shallowness and vapidity of his acquaintances to be the more offensive parts of the novel. Again, that might just be me.

Like I said, this is an odd novel to review. As a whole, I'm glad that I read the novel, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to everyone; it's what you could call an acquired taste. If you're a fan of social commentary in your novels and/or you possess a strong stomach, I would recommend this. If not, then you probably won't like it. 4/5

Next review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Signing off,

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Angel by L. A. Weatherly

Well, this was certainly a surprise. I'll admit, I haven't read anything termed "Young Adult" for a while now, because the books of that age range that I've read before seem to fail at pitching to a teenage audience, usually writing down as if for a younger reader. And, to be honest, I was a little wary about Young Adult stuff involving romance since the unfortunate Twilight faze that is just about dying down now. But I picked up Angel anyway, as the premise looked good and it looked like light reading. I'm rather glad I did now.

As I said in my little introduction there, it was the premise that caught my attention. Not the whole "assassin falling in love with his sworn enemy" thing that the blurb focuses on, which is a bit of a lie anyway; no, my attention was caught by the fact that in this world, angels are parasites. The idea that a group of beings could openly feed off of people with their victims would be none the wiser, walking away believing wholeheartedly that the angels were loving and benevolent, is something that could be really frightening if utilised properly. But of course, horror is not exactly what most gels with the inevitable romance that this would have. To the book's credit though, it does create a lot of tension as our protagonists, Willow and Alex, travel across America with no way of knowing who they can trust other than with instinct. The plot follows them as they flee from angels out to kill Willow because of the strange gifts that she has possessed since birth. The plot is pretty straightforward as they travel cross-country, trying to find allies and/or a way to get rid of the angels that have invaded our world. But, to be honest, after the last couple of books I've read, I'm more than happy to have a simple plot to read. Besides, it isn't really much about plot, as most of the twists are pretty clearly sign-posted. It's more a character study of our two main leads, as they work through personal struggles with their pasts until they inevitably get together. As leads, they're likeable enough and I would be more than happy to resume reading about their exploits in the next book in the series, should I find it and pick it up. The romance between them is a bit corny and perhaps a bit too instantaneous for my liking, but it's harmless enough. At the very least, they have to sort through some personal issues each before they decide to start a relationship, which is nice. So yeah, I surprised myself by liking this. Go figure.

Overall, a very involving, enjoyable story, despite some little snags. I'd be happy to recommend this to those who are after a pleasant read or enjoy romance and I'm sure that I will pick up the next volume should I see it. 4/5

Next review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Signing off,

Friday, 20 January 2012

Henry VI Part One by William Shakespeare

It is probably a bit presumptuous of me to start targeting the Bard himself for criticism, considering that I've only been blogging and reviewing for little over a year. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I've already read some of his plays for various levels of schooling and I've enjoyed the experience every time, so I see no reason why I should put off reading the entirety of his works any longer. My edition of Shakespeare's complete works orders the plays in what can be considered chronological order (much as that is disputed), so I'll just be reading them in the order set out there, as I see no reason to hop around the texts all willy-nilly. Hence why I've started with the first part in the Henry VI series of plays.

Considering that the play is named Henry VI, Henry himself doesn't turn up until the beginning of Act III. Much as he is the title character though, I wouldn't say that the play is much about him. He's a background factor more than anything. The real conflict here is that of Talbot rallying English troops to regain lost French territories, combating the supernaturally aided presence of Joan La Pucelle (known to most of us as Joan of Arc); this effort is threatened from within the English forces by the uprising of various factions, who aim to influence the young, naive King Henry to support their various personal causes. It also involves lots of stabbing and a lot of jokes about cowardly Frenchmen. As a text, I'd say about half of it works really well. Political intrigue and the changes of allegiance work fantastically because it's an opportunity for Shakespeare to really have some grand dialogue, even if the reason for it is petty beyond all reason. Obviously, battles are a visual things and thus are implied between lines of dialogue, which can make it kind of difficult to keep track of what's just happened if you miss the tiny bit of text about one or another character dying. That said, it's a play, so it is meant to be watched. Hence why I watched the BBC's adaptation of it. While the limitations of using one sound stage for every scene, including battles, made the affair somewhat less grand than I had imagined, it was quite well made and very entertaining to watch. It's a shame that I could never really take the French characters seriously as a threat then. First there's Charles, the Dauphin who claims to be the rightful King of France, is an idiot no more fit for the throne than King Henry who is supposed to be a child; a similar thing could be said of Alencon. The other main followers, Reignier, the Bastard of Orleans and Burgundy just sort of blend into the background. Not what I would consider especially threatening. But my main problem with the French characters is La Pucelle. Compared with the men, she's pretty much lain claim to all the potential evil that they could have had as a whole. Communicating with the legions of hell? Check. Biggest gold-digger that side of the Channel? Check. Disrespectful to the dead? Check. This may just be the interpretation of the BBC production, as she seemed less of a conniving egomaniac in the text itself, but I had sort of hoped that La Pucelle would have at least one redeeming feature, but no. I can appreciate that making the French seem anything but evil would have been unheard of in the time it was written, but there is such thing as re-interpretation. Oh well, it's not an absolutely awful flaw, much as I've talked about it, certainly nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of watching or reading Henry VI.

Overall, a solid first entry into the Henry VI trilogy of plays, if a little simplistic in some areas. 3.5/5

Next review: Angel by L. A. Weatherly

Signing off,

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Adventures in Cooking: Honey-glazed Walnut Bread

As you can probably tell from the title, this is not a post about books, shock as that may be. This is instead a post about the various recipes that I will be trying and either succeeding or failing at. Why this new feature? I like cooking and I want to keep a record of what recipes that I have tried to make and my various opinions of what they were like to cook and how they came out at the end. This feature will probably only show up occasionally, as my opportunities for cooking are a bit limited by university and by living with four other people with wildly different schedules.

In any case, I'm starting off this feature with Mary Berry's recipe for Honey-glazed Walnut Bread. Going into this my history with bread has been less than stellar: my last attempt in particular had me misread the recipe and put in about four times the required amount of yeast, resulting in a gooey mess that tasted of yeast and nothing but yeast. Considering this lacklustre history, I don't think this recipe came out badly. 

In terms of the actual process, it put me in mind of power-walks: you're not necessarily working for all that long, but it's a lot tougher than you would expect in that short period. This might just be the fact that I'm not all that in terms of upper body strength, but nonetheless I was surprised at the amount of pounding this dough needs. Speaking of the dough, there are a couple of things that I would do differently, were I to do this again. First, I would use more dry ingredients (in this case flour) because as it was, the dough was far too sticky to actually work with. The recipe does say that the dough should be slightly sticky, but this was just insane. The other thing I would do would be to flour the work-top liberally, instead of lightly as the recipe states. I must have added extra flour about four times because otherwise I'd have had more dough on the work-top than in the oven. 

As for outcome, I think I should have added more yeast. Ironic, considering my previous history with yeast. I skimped on the yeast a bit because I only had self-raising flour, as opposed to the white flour stated in the recipe, but this caused it not to rise that much. Although I don't think that this was a huge mistake, as the bread still tastes good; it's probably a bit heavier texture-wise, but edible nonetheless. At the very least no-one has died yet, so I think my bad bread days may finally be over. Oh, and I would have included a picture of my culinary effort, but I left my camera back in my home town, and I'd feel like a cheat if I stole someone else's photo of it. 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson

I kind of had this one coming. When I bought this, I had already heard that there were a few things about it that weren't popular opinions these days, usually for good reason. So I can't say that I wasn't expecting some instances of really unfortunate implications. I'm just not sure that I expected this. 

Oh boy, where to start with this one? Pamela is the story of a serving-girl, the eponymous Pamela, as she tries to protect her virtue against her less virtuous master. Remember, it's the 1740s. Chastity was something of a big thing back then. And to be honest, as a premise it's harmless enough. It's when we actually start reading it that the modern perspective brings up all sorts of issues that I feel I have to tackle. Firstly, there's the master. I didn't like him. It's hard to like someone when he propositions, attempts to rape and unlawfully detains a girl because she won't put out. I wouldn't necessarily mind that, and it does work in the first half. I say the first half. At the halfway point, the narrator decides that he's had a change of heart, so they get married. And she's more than okay with that. Need I explain why I find it a "jumping the shark" moment, if you will, when she's praising the great goodness of a man who has treated her abominably? Some of the other values in this book are a bit jarring as well, but that was my main niggling point. Secondly, there's Pamela herself. Don't get me wrong, she's a nice, sympathetic girl and I feel for her plight. My problem is that she's too nice, too good; at no point does she harbour any negative feelings against anyone else, despite how horrifically they treat her. There's virtuous, then there's too nice to physically exist. My final problem is the length. It's about 150 pages too long in my view. As I said, they decide to get married at about the halfway point (around page 250). Much as I don't like that scenario, it's a good place to end the novel: Pamela gets her man after working to improve him as a person. Maybe tie up some loose ends after the wedding. But no, instead we get another 250 pages of what is essentially Samuel Richardson following them whilst pointing and saying, "Hey, look at the two of them! Aren't they the most perfect couple that you have ever seen?" over and over again until I decide I can't take it anymore and knock him out. Granted, there was an interesting bit where Pamela's new sister-in-law goes a bit crazy and forces Pamela to dine with her, but that was one all too brief episode amongst the monotony of people practically singing Pamela's praises. It's probably why this took so long to finish, other than essays I had to write. But, despite the numerous and pretty huge problems that I've pointed out, I can't bring myself to dislike Pamela. Granted, I don't like it a huge deal, but it's pleasant enough. 

Overall, some major issues, but I would recommend this to anyone who is interested about the society of the time. Otherwise I would advise you to steer clear of this one. 3/5 

Next review: Henry VI Part One by William Shakespeare 

Signing off, 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Year and Birthday Retrospective

As of yesterday, this blog is one year old. Considering this, and the fact that it's now 2012, I decided to take a look back at what I've already done with the site and maybe look forward to consider what other changes could be implemented.

At the beginning of 2011, this site reviewed books chapter by chapter, in order to capture what I considered to be the most interesting of reactions, that of the initial, ignorant reader. As of six months ago, this is no longer the format, for a few reasons. Firstly, there was the factor that I mentioned when the format change went up at first, that of many chapters not containing particularly interesting events or concepts about which I could discuss. Secondly, I realised that some parts of a narrative can only be appreciated as a whole, after you've read the entire novel and then reflected on it. Finally, there is the factor that sometimes a book is better appreciated after a few days or a second reading, should there be enough time for it.

Since the format switch, it has been a more traditional review blog as it has focused on the whole book within a review. A much preferable system, if I say so myself. If I can get through more of my TBR list, I'm happy. So really I have no real complaints or points to bring up here.

I guess what I'd like to consider for the future would be the kinds of things that get brought up in reviews or whether it would be worth me writing other book-based features, like Top 5 countdowns or the like. If anyone has any suggestions, then I would love to hear them.

Until then, have a Happy New Year and I hope to hear from you.

Signing off,