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Monday, 28 January 2013

Nothing Less Than a Man by Miguel de Unamuno

This was a difficult one to get my hands on in English. This was the last university text that I had to find and read, and the fact that the book it came in didn't appear to be in print over in the UK only made it that much harder. Hence why I have an old, battered copy of Three Exemplary Novels that I had to get shipped from the US. So after all that, was Nothing Less Than a Man worth the time and effort?

Nothing Less Than a Man starts with a young woman named Julia, who is renowned for miles around for her beauty. Her father is experiencing financial troubles and sees her beauty as a means of clearing that debt; aware that her father means to sell her, Julia starts having relationships with the men who attempt to court her, in order to find a man who loves her enough to elope with her. Eventually she attracts the attention of Alejandro Gomez, a mysterious self-made man who has just moved into the area. In return for paying off her father's debts, he asks for a meeting with Julia, who is so taken with him that she immediately accepts his proposal of marriage. Thus, things are happy for a time, this happiness only marred by Julia's uncertainty about Alejandro: does he truly love her or did he just want a trophy wife?
This didn't end the way that I thought it would. After certain hints, Alejandro starts to take on these ruthless, Bluebeard-style qualities, based on the little of his life that the reader can gather, but he doesn't really seem to realise the potential of such qualities. It's weird. I'm happy that I wasn't able to predict how the plot would end, but at the same time it's left me in a strange position of being unable to describe just what it was that I read. On reflection, I guess that overall I liked the portrayal of the marital relations of someone who is desperate for proof of their spouse's love, potentially at the cost of her marriage or sanity.

This is another quick read that I would be happy to recommend, should you come across a copy of Three Exemplary Novels. I'd certainly be willing to read other works of Unamuno's, if anyone has read anything of his that they would recommend. 3.5/5

Next review: Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Signing off,

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz

When I decided to re-read Frankenstein to tie in with my university course, I remembered that I had bought the re-interpretation of it by Dean Koontz, largely on a whim; I figured that it might be useful, so I took it with me as a potential read. And, stuck waiting for my last university text to arrive in the post, I was stuck for something quick to read in the meantime. Hence why I have two Frankenstein related posts within a few days of each other. The obvious question is how does this version stack up against the original. 

Prodigal Son has several plot-lines. First you have the Creature, here named Deucalion, who travels to New Orleans after an old friend of his reveals that his creator, who has renamed himself Victor Helios, is still alive after 200 years. Second you have a murder mystery plot, in which Detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison try to track down a serial killer who is removing body parts from his victims. Third you have Victor Helios as he does all kinds of creepy things in the name of creating a utopia, as well as the reactions from the fourth version of his wife-creature. And finally, you have Randal Six, a creature created by Victor who was deliberately designed to have a severe form of autism, a condition that he believes he can remedy by meeting another severely autistic teenager, Arnie O'Connor. 
For the most part, these plot-lines are woven together with skill, and for the most part they do meet a temporary form of resolution by the end, but considering that this is the first part of a 5-book series, I'm not too worried about the loose plot threads. In terms of the review, I think it would be an idea to look at each in turn, as they tend to deal with one or two major characters each. 
So, Deucalion. I like him about as much as I liked the Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I like the fact that he is at once very human and sympathetic, but at the same time holding back a lot of murderous rage that had gotten the better of him in the past, events covered in the original. I also liked the history that Koontz creates for him in the interim between the events of Frankenstein and those of Prodigal Son, primarily the idea of him being part of a carnival freak show; something about that makes a really sick kind of sense and makes for interesting acquaintances. There is one major problem though: it almost felt like he was a cameo in his own story. He's introduced at the start, then doesn't really turn up again until Carson and Michael get in over their heads, making him feel a bit like a deus ex machina. I really hope that this is addressed in later books, but at the moment it's something that left me disappointed. 
The murder mystery plot is very well handled. At first the solution appears simple to the reader, but then there are certain revelations about the murders that complicate what the reader thinks he knows. The outcome makes sense and the ultimate show-down is well-paced if a little disappointing because of the aforementioned Deucalion-deus-ex-machina bit. The characters of Carson and Michael are well-written, if very familiar, characters. Carson is the serious, driven one with family to avenge and protect, while Michael is the wise-cracking sidekick who carries a torch for his partner; pretty standard stuff, so much so that I ended up hearing the main characters from Castle in my head when they spoke. Regardless, their chemistry was fun, despite the predictable nature of it. 
Now to the other re-interpreted character, Victor. Oh my lord, has Victor changed almost completely in this. The version of Victor that Prodigal Son uses is undoubtedly a villain, as opposed to the original's more misguided nature. There are good things and bad things about this monumental change. I'll start with the good. On the plus side, it does bring an additional horror element to the book, as Victor is by far the creepiest thing in it; after 200 years, he has become a sadistic monster obsessed with achieving perfection, whether it be at the dinner table or in his lab trying to create the perfect race with which to infiltrate, eliminate and replace humanity with. He has plenty of moments that are somewhat reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, which is fun. Unfortunately, one thing that this version of Victor is not is subtle in any way shape or form. Firstly, Koontz seems to feel that he needs to include things to show just how evil he is; there are three main things that come to mind. One, he needs to beat the crap out of his wife in order to get aroused, which is why she is the only creature he makes that is designed with the capability of shame. Two, he is an atheist so aggressive that he considers decommissioning the current model of his wife because she appears to enjoy the poetry of Emily Dickenson. Three, he eats live baby rats; at that point in the book, I couldn't help but feel that Victor had crossed the line from creepy complete monster to cartoon villain. To be honest, I can see why Victor is irredeemably evil here, as it creates a long-term villain for the good guys to fight. The one thing that did irritate me about Victor was that he actually mentions Frankenstein in his internal monologue, because apparently this is supposed to be our version of the universe, and he insults Mary Shelley's characterisation; I know that this is a villain's point of view, but it rubbed me up the wrong way a little as it seemed a bit disrespectful towards the source material. Perhaps I'm looking into it too much, but oh well. The only other character of note from Victor's storyline is Erika, the creature made to be Victor's wife. She was sweet and likeable, but ultimately it felt like she was just there to show how evil Victor was through his treatment of her. 
Finally there's Randal Six. He's an autistic creature who Victor is experimenting on to figure out how to cure autism. He's confined to his room not by locks, but by the intense agoraphobia brought on by all the information that he is bombarded with by the world outside; his only means of calming himself down is by filling in crossword puzzles. I found these chapters to be very uncomfortable, simply because of the severity of his symptoms. It's odd, but part of me can't help but feel that Randal's mindset is probably the most alien out of all the various viewpoint characters that are showcased; while Victor is creepy and undeniably evil, I can understand why he thinks the way he does. I can understand Deucalion's mindset despite his widely different experiences. The best I can do for Randal's character is pity him, because I honestly have no concept of a mindset that non-neurotypical and I don't think I ever will. It leaves me confused as to what to think of Randal at the end of the book as he is both pitiable and a very real threat. It feels strange that Koontz should have Victor, a villain as subtle as a brick to the face, juxtaposed with a character as ambiguous as Randal Six. Much as I would like to see how this character develops further though, I must admit that as a work by itself, Randal's chapters in Prodigal Son feel by far the most superfluous. I hope he gets more plot significance later on though. 

So, there's the end of my very long review. So what did I think overall? It was okay. Nowhere near as good as Shelley's original, but it's definitely a good popcorn book. Victor's characterisation is changed so much that it almost becomes an exercise in cartoon villainy, but otherwise it works well with the source material. 3.5/5 

Next review: Nothing Less Than a Man by Miguel de Unamuno 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton

This is a play that I had never even heard of until it was set as part of my course on the Gothic; apparently there's also a film version of it that I had never heard of either. But, after reading the premise, I was intrigued about where it would head. So, after a very quick read-through, what did I think?

Gaslight starts in a dark and dingy Victorian house, where we meet married couple Jack and Bella Manningham. Tension is running high between them, due to a series of objects going missing around the house, only to turn up hidden in strange places; Bella is assigned the blame for this, but because she doesn't remember doing anything of the sort she believes that she has inherited her mother's madness. It is only when she is visited by a former police detective while her husband is out that Bella is given reason to suspect that he might not be the man she thought he was.
For me, the plot would have been more suspenseful if the blurb hadn't summed up the entirety of the play. As a plot though, it's well executed, if a tad predictable at times. Rough, the police detective, tends to lay the hints on rather thick. Although I will give the play credit for the fantastic final monologue that Bella gets, which is most satisfying considering the stuff she goes through in this.

Overall, a quick read and what I would imagine to be a thoroughly enjoyable play to watch. It's certainly made me interested in watching the film version with Ingrid Bergman. 4/5

Next review: Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz

Signing off,

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I suppose that I should have expected to see this come up as part of my studies. The Yellow Wallpaper is quite infamous for anyone who has any interest in Gothic or Feminist literature; I happen to like both, so let's see how this turned out.

The story follows an unnamed female narrator who has temporarily moved out to the country with her physician husband so that she can carry out the rest cure that he has prescribed for her. She is installed in a former nursery, with a hideous yellow wallpaper that she can't help but dislike. Unfortunately, due to her husband and her nurse's dislike of her writing, she is left with really only one option with which she can stimulate her mind: following the pattern in the wallpaper; this preoccupation with the wallpaper becomes something more when she starts seeing shapes moving behind the pattern.
This was honestly a lot creepier than I had assumed it would be. The idea of having all mental stimuli removed for long periods of time is something that I can't really imagine, so I can fully believe that she starts to go crazy as a result. I guess I just keep underestimating the power of the short story, although I keep being proved wrong.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a very quick read and definitely worth your time checking out. 4.5/5

Next review: Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton

Signing off,

Monday, 21 January 2013

Frankenstein (1818 text) by Mary Shelley

After Dracula, this is probably the most famous Gothic text ever written, and with good reason. Like with Dracula, this was not the first time that I had read Frankenstein, I just haven't read it in a long time. As you can see, I've specified the edition of the text that I re-read, as there are differences between the two; the more widely read 1831 edition apparently toned down a fair few elements from the original edition, which I was quite glad to avoid. Anyway, on to the question of how it held up compared to my memories of it.

Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus starts with an explorer making an expedition into the Arctic, in an effort to map it. Along the way, he and his crew pick up a man stranded on a chunk of ice: this man is Victor Frankenstein, and his narrative explaining his life and how he ended up in the Arctic. This story is one that everyone knows: as a young student of natural philosophy, Frankenstein creates a creature from the body parts of the dead and brings it to life, creating a being that will eventually destroy everything that he holds dear.
I love this book. In my eyes, it is probably the pinnacle of what can be achieved in Gothic fiction, as well as a perfect example of a tragedy. While it is easy to sympathise with Frankenstein in the beginning, it is only when we hear the Creature's side of the story that we begin to see that his actions are by no means entirely good or commendable. On the one hand, I can understand Frankenstein's horror at realising the inhuman nature of the creature that he has created and accidentally let loose, especially considering the physical and mental exhaustion following the Creature's birth; on the other, the Creature is initially a benevolent and rational being, forced into a role of villain after being shunned by every human whose path he crosses. It is a conflict that could be easily solved, but the obstinacy of both parties prevents that from happening, with tragic consequences. I would discuss this in more detail, but it is a story that I think must be experienced personally; besides, who in the world doesn't know this story in some capacity?

This has been a very short review, but all I really needed to say was whether it is still worth reading after all these years and exposure. In my opinion, it has certainly aged better than Dracula, as the Creature is not just the two-dimensional Gothic villain that Dracula is, but a fully fleshed out antagonist that is equally as sympathetic as the main lead, if not more so. 5/5

Next review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Signing off,

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Taking a quick break from books that are university-related, I decided to finally start on my edition of Batman: The Killing Joke. To comic fans, this is probably one of the most famous story-lines to happen in the Batman continuity, with several far-reaching consequences. As you can probably guess, I had high expectations of it. Which is why I'm somewhat confused. 

Following yet another escape from Arkham Asylum (what must their security be like if this is a regular occurrence with almost EVERY Batman villain incarcerated there?) the Joker decides to prove to the world that anyone can become like him if they have just one really bad day. To do this, he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and subjects him to mental torture. Thus, Batman must confront the Joker before Gordon and his daughter Barbara are harmed any further. 
I expected this to be longer. After hearing so much praise about The Killing Joke, alongside my previous experience of Alan Moore's work (specifically V for Vendetta and Watchmen), I guess I was expecting a heftier story than the 46 pages that I got. Don't get me wrong, I knew it wouldn't be the epics that the previous Alan Moore stuff I read would be, the volume was too slim. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't think it had the same kind of weight to it that I was expecting from all the praise. It's a good story, don't get me wrong, it just seems like it could have been fleshed out a bit more; as it is, it doesn't seem like the Joker really has time to carry out his plan. What he does is dreadful, and I would never wish that on any parent, but it seems odd that he would stop short, as it were. Much as I like Commissioner Gordon and his family, part of me feels that the Joker would continue to torment him and create more misery for Gordon, until he was certain that he'd snapped completely and irreversibly. The other thing that bugged me about this story is the fact that Alan Moore tries to give the Joker a back-story. Much as I am a fan of character back-story as a means of giving said character depth and personality, the Joker is an exception to this; his past is a complete blank and that lack of knowledge just makes him scarier. Giving him a sympathetic back-story just makes him seem less chilling somehow, and I personally don't think that his version of the one bad day really measures up to his psychosis; as the Joker himself says, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!". Maybe if there were several versions of his past that the comic created as possibilities, that I could understand, as it would create more mystery as well as introducing a potential sympathetic element to his character. As is, I like the story in theory, I just can't help but read it and wish that it had been written with more scope in mind. In terms of an introduction into comics, it is a pretty good place to start, as there isn't a whole lot in here that isn't well-known to pop culture at large. 
Despite my misgivings about the execution of the story, there is one reason why I would still wholeheartedly recommend this to new comic readers, other than the ease with which you can understand it: the artwork. The artwork in this is utterly stunning. The Joker in particular is very well drawn, with just the right amount of grotesqueness to his facial features to make him look just fundamentally wrong. The colouring is very good as well, particularly the parts exploring the Joker's past; much like Schindler's List, it's black and white with a splash of colour, a shade of red that just keeps getting brighter as the flashbacks go on. It's an interesting look to be sure. 

Overall then, this vehicle for the Joker was a tad bit underwhelming. I can see why so many people like it, I just think that there were so many missed opportunities that Alan Moore could have explored further within the narrative. For me, it's best point is the artwork, which has pretty much guaranteed that I will look out for more of Brian Bolland's work. I would recommend this if you're just starting out in comics, as there isn't really much back-story you need to know beforehand that isn't already well-known by the general public. 3.5/5 

Next review: Frankenstein (1818 text) by Mary Shelley 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This is going to be a tricky one to talk about. I would have gotten around to reading The Name of the Rose eventually, but university made it a more urgent read. I had heard of it before: when I first became a film fan, I looked up Sean Connery's back catologue, which included the film adaptation of this book; as such, I was aware that it was a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. I think those preconceptions may have been slightly off.

The Name of the Rose follows two monks, a former inquisitor named William of Baskerville and his novice travelling partner Adso. Whilst travelling across Europe, they stop at a Benedictine monastery in order to participate in a theological dispute between the Spiritual Franciscans and representatives of the Pope of the time on the subject of poverty. Their visit is given extra purpose when the abbot asks for Brother William's assistance following the mysterious death of an illuminator.
So I guess what I should talk about is my opinion of the plot. That's where I have to stop and mention that I am still trying to figure out what I just read. I suppose the simplest way that I can put it is that The Name of the Rose is part murder mystery, part examination of politics within the Catholic Church of 1327. It's an odd combination to say the least, but that does at least give me a structure with which to look at the plot with.
In terms of a murder mystery, it's well-structured and makes sense, but part of me is still unsatisfied with it. On the one hand, it has some interesting red herrings and a twist that I would never have seen coming, as well as ultimately making sense; on the other hand, I'm of the opinion that a good murder mystery will allow the reader an opportunity to piece together their own theory about the murderer, a process that is made difficult when some of the clues provided are in Latin. I don't know about you, but I can think of only one person I know out of my entire circle of friends and family who knows Latin to any great degree, and most of the Latin that pops up isn't translated; I kind of feel like the audience is put at a disadvantage because of this. Now that I think about it, the inclusion of particular Latin phrases doesn't necessarily make sense, seeing as the implication is that, unless stated, everyone is speaking Latin anyway, it being the common language used in the Catholic Church of the time; if you wanted to draw attention to a particular phrase, then why not use italics or speech marks as opposed to Latin? It seems less out of place and doesn't confuse the majority of your audience either.
In terms of the examination of politics, it's an interesting look at corruption within the Church, and the thin line that separates a pious saint from the crazy Bible thumpers that we are still unfortunately stuck with. In the past I have made obvious my liking for explorations of the internal politics of social strata or organisations, and this is no exception, although it is a little more blatant than I am used to. The explicit discussions about politics is largely to do with the question of whether monks should practice poverty as a means of emulating Jesus; on the one hand, there is no Scripture specifically stating that Jesus was poor, but on the other, it looks kinda bad if you tell people to practice charity whilst hoarding gold and jewels for yourself. The more implicit examination of politics is the question of what lengths should people go to in order to accumulate or censor knowledge. I would discuss this one further, but it's sides are somewhat less well-defined.

Like I said at the beginning, The Name of the Rose is an odd one to talk about. It's undeniably a well-written book, if a tad slow in parts, but there is a fundamental question that I'm finding difficult to answer: who would I recommend this to? I suppose I would recommend it to people who are looking for a murder mystery with a bit more challenge to it, but I would also say that they should keep in mind the many discussions of doctrine; if you just want a pure and simple mystery, then this probably isn't for you. I guess I would recommend it to people who are looking for something to challenge the mind, so long as you're willing to put in the extra work of translating the bits of Latin left unchanged. Personally, this has made me want to watch the film version, as I'm utterly confused as to how this got adapted to film. 3.5/5

Next review: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Signing off,

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Return of the New Year and Birthday Retrospective

So, another year of blogging. It's been a busy year, compared to 2011, so I haven't had the chance to read anywhere near as many books; at the same time though, I think I read more door-stopper books, so it probably even out more.

In terms of change, I think that has been more apparent in my non-book-related life: I started my last year of university, bringing with it the dreaded dissertation, for one thing. For another, I got engaged recently, so now I have to start acting like a grown-up; while I'm happy about this turn, it does feel weird and kind of daunting.

This year, the blog will probably be very slow during the first five-six months while I finish university, but I'm hoping to increase my output in the second half of the year: by then I will either have a job, in which case I'll read on public transport, or I will be unemployed and thus have more time. I really hope it's the former, I have a wedding to fund. I'm thinking I might post monthly Top 10 lists on various book-related topics as well, so I'm hoping that works out.

So, I hope everyone has had a wonderful new year, and if anyone has any suggestions or comments about the blog then you are more than welcome to let me know in the comment section below.

Signing out,