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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

I first heard of Georgette Heyer in my first year of university, but wholly in terms of her work in Regency romance. So when I was browsing a second-hand book stall and found Footsteps in the Dark, I was somewhat confused to find that she also wrote detective fiction. So, being fond of the genre, I decided to pick it up and see if her writing deserved her good reputation.

Footsteps in the Dark follows a family made up of siblings Celia, Peter and Margaret, as well as Celia's husband Charles, as they move into an old priory that they have recently inherited from their late uncle. Intent on a relaxing summer away from the city, they find themselves almost overwhelmed with local stories of the ghost that supposedly haunts their new home. Stories are easy enough to ignore, but when strange things start to happen around the priory it is enough to prompt investigation. But their investigation brings about increasingly extreme events, until someone inevitably dies.
This is an example of how blurbs can be misleading. In the blurb, the murder that occurs is given quite a bit of emphasis, despite the fact that it doesn't actually happen until over halfway through. The emphasis throughout the majority of the novel, even after the murder, is that of who is trying to scare this family from their home and for what reason. It puts a slightly different spin on things. I went into the novel, expecting a murder mystery tempered by some very gentile aristocratic society. What I got was gentile aristocratic society tempered by a little bit of murder. It felt maybe too gentle as a result. Certainly not the fault of the book itself, but I feel that more realistic expectations wouldn't have gone amiss. As it was, I felt kind of disappointed, if only because it was less a matter of sifting through various delicious scandals and more trying to figure out who has the most unexplained absences. It's not a bad book by any means, the cosy detective popcorn book at its best, but it's not what was advertised and suffered for it. For people looking for a gentle read with some mild humour and a decent amount of adventure towards the end, then this is perfect.

A little underwhelming, but a perfectly enjoyable mystery novel. I feel kind of sad that this is my first experience of Georgette Heyer's work, but the fact that the actual writing was witty and well-crafted gives me hope for her other work. 3.5/5

Next review: Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham

Signing off,

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Portrait by Iain Pears

It might be a bit weird to consider something a pity purchase, but I can't really define the circumstances that I got The Portrait in as anything but that. I was browsing a charity shop's book section, as is my wont, when I saw almost an entire shelf's worth of this book. All identical spines, all yellowed pages, but otherwise in pretty good condition. Confused by the sheer volume, I was informed by one of the workers that sometimes local bookshops give them old stock that they can't shift. I don't think that I have ever felt quite so dismayed on an inanimate object's behalf before. So before I could really think it through, I bought a copy. Only for it to sit largely undisturbed on my shelf for years. So, is this a case for or against impulse pity purchases?

The Portrait is the monologue of a reclusive artist, by the name of Henry MacAlpine, as he paints a commissioned portrait of his former friend, the prominent art critic William Nasmyth. Having retreated entirely from the fashionable centre of English painting to the grim, windswept island of Houat, this is something of a surprise. But what starts as an attempt to rejoin the art world and reconnect with an old friend becomes something much darker as he ruthlessly picks apart their shared history.
I wasn't sure quite how I was going to receive this when I began. My interest in art is superficial at best, with only a few painters like Salvador Dali really catching my attention, so I was kind of worried that my lack of knowledge in art history would be to my detriment when reading The Portrait. My worries were largely unfounded, though there were a few movement names that I was entirely ignorant of; I could gather the sort of paintings they would have produced, but wouldn't be able to tell you anyone who made up said movement. Not that it mattered hugely. The emphasis is on MacAlpine's specific experience within these movements, under the influence of his critic friend and mentor. And after a few chapters to settle down in, it rather reminded me of Camus' The Fall. Anything that reminds me of The Fall has to be doing something right, especially when there's such an eerie relationship between painter and subject unfolding as the narrative progresses. I can't really say much about the actual content, as it would most likely give away the ending, but it is a perverse joy to watch it unfold. There is perhaps less to take from it in multiple readings, as the intricacies of their relationship are pretty thoroughly explored in the text, but it's an absorbing journey nonetheless.

Not a particularly illuminating review perhaps, but The Portrait is the sort of book where the first read-through is key. If I were to say anything concrete about its plot or characters, it would give away things that are revealed in such a well-timed manner in the actual book. The relationship between the painter and his sitter is the heart of the book, and to see it unfold organically is more recommendation than any cut-and-dry analysis I could write would do. It is perhaps apt that a book with a less than favourable view of critics should be so resistant to in-depth criticism. 4/5

Next review: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Signing off,

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Velocity by Dean Koontz

I seem to remember that Velocity was another of those book that I bought whilst at my grandparents' house over the summer. I'm beginning to notice that an alarming number of my murder mystery books have been purchased there and I am a little worried that that pattern in particular should even emerge. In any case, I purchased this largely because the premise was simple, but really intriguing. Having now read some of Dean Koontz's work before now, I was pretty sure that I was going to like Velocity, but my instincts have been proved terribly wrong before.

Velocity follows a reclusive bartender named Billy Wiles as he leaves work one night to find a troubling note stuck to the windscreen of his car. The note reads as such:
"If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County. If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work, You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours."
At first, he assumes that the note is just a sick joke, but when he hears the next day that a teacher has indeed been brutally killed, he finds himself caught in a contest of wills as more notes come in, with the deadlines and conditions only becoming more dire as time goes on.
This was nothing if not a page turner. The situation that Billy finds himself in is fascinating in a morbid way, like watching a car crash unfold. The killer that he faces is devious, consistently several steps ahead of Billy and utterly ruthless. The situation is only compounded by the fact that Billy's unconscious withdrawal from the world ever since his fiancee fell into a coma means that he has almost no friends to rely on and an uncomfortably long list of people that he now wishes he could definitively rule out as a suspect. Occasionally there were plot holes that gave me pause for thought, and a fair few of them aren't really addressed by the end. But really, when the plot goes by at such a breakneck pace that you don't really have time to consider them in great detail. It's mainly through hindsight that they became more apparent. I only have two main issues with Velocity. The first is that there is obviously a lot of suspense built up towards the final meeting between Billy and the killer that has spent several days tormenting him non-stop, and the actual ending felt a bit underwhelming in comparison to the tense events that have gone on before. Admittedly there are still some nice twists in there and it does make sense as an ending, but it still felt a little disappointing. The second thing that bothered me is that some of the quieter moments felt out of place. For example, there's a point where Billy visits a co-worker, to find out why she's been visiting his comatose fiancee. Having explained why she was there, they have this really weird conversation where events briefly threaten to turn occult, only for him to leave and there is never any hint of the supernatural thrown about again. Additionally, Koontz feels the need to sometimes overwork the clues that are gathered during these quiet moments; there are only so many times that you can contemplate the murders as a performance before the line begins to get stale.

Overall, a very competent thriller that is fast-paced enough that its flaws are, for the most part, easily ignored, If you like the sound of the premise, then there is a pretty good chance that you will enjoy this. There are some plot holes that still niggle with me, but they're minor enough that I'm willing to overlook them. 4/5

Next review: The Portrait by Iain Pears

Signing off,

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

This book was something of an oddity for me to pick up. I knew that I had read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets before, I knew that I had finished it in a matter of days and I knew that I had enjoyed it. Could I remember a bloody thing about it? Not on your life. And that really puzzled me. I know that I tend to have a better memory of things after I've written about them, but even so, to forget so completely what the book was like was a feat of some magnitude matched only by my patchy recollection of my dad reading The Hobbit to me when I was very young. I picked this up mainly to find out what on earth my memory was playing at.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets follows Penelope Wallace, a young woman in the mid-1950s, as she tries to navigate her life with some semblance of decorum and just a little bit of daring. At home, she must contend with her pop-music obsessed younger brother and her incredibly beautiful and petulant widow of a mother on top of increasing debts that threaten to evict them from their ancestral home. But things start to change after she meets and, on a whim, decides to share a taxi with the chaotic Charlotte. She is in turn introduced to Charlotte's flamboyant aunt and her cousin Harry, who enlists Penelope's help in trying to win back the American woman he was previously wooing.
I think there are two main reasons why this book failed to stand out in my head. First, it's very much a slice of life sort of book. I have nothing against this style of narrative, but I personally find them a bit difficult to keep straight in my head. With the majority of plots, there's a clear progression of events and tangents tend to be few and far between, so it's easy to keep them neat and segmented in my mind. Slice of life narratives tend to lack these a little, so the story becomes fuzzier and vaguer in my head as time goes on; I'll remember little bits, especially as I approached them in the narrative, but the whole picture is patchy at best. It also makes plot summary paragraphs really difficult to write, so thanks for that.
The second reason that The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was almost entirely forgotten was because it was, for lack of a better word, safe. There wasn't really anything that stood out as daring or exciting or really felt like it would have consequences. Instead it seemed to take place in a magical rose-tinted version of the 1950s, where youth and beauty is all you need to get ahead in life, where all the people that Penelope meets are utterly fabulous in some manner, and where all our aristocratic main leads aren't quite impoverished enough for surprisingly regular trips to Harrods to be out of the question. It has no real bite to it, but I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. I have used the term "popcorn book" before, and this is a prime example of that. It's not a book that you have to try particularly hard to read and can be perhaps inconsequential. It is a vital part of being a reader though, because it can get immensely tiring to always be reading intense, challenging books. And this one? As inconsequential as they come, but fun and charming enough that it doesn't matter at all when you're reading it.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a gentle, charming book that will work perfectly for you if you're looking for a quick read to switch your brain off for. There's no real bite or staying power with it, but it's a nice experience while it lasts. If you're a fan of romance or the aesthetics of the 1950s, then you're likely to enjoy this, if not remember it afterwards. 3.5/5

Next review: Velocity by Dean Koontz

Signing off,

Friday, 15 May 2015

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

I got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at around the same time as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, for largely the same reasons. In comparison to the book that I reviewed earlier though, this has taken off in a big way, to the point where there's actually a film adaptation coming out soon. I guess I decided to read this now because I wanted to see if there was any reason for the difference in general reception.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies follows the Bennet sisters, a group of young ladies who are as proficient in the deadly arts of zombie slaying as they are in more traditionally feminine pursuits. The second sister, Elizabeth, is a particularly skilled warrior and as such derives great pride from her duty to slay hordes of unmentionables. She derives an equal amount of annoyance from her mother's constant attempts to marry off her and her sisters. In their mother's latest attempt, they are obliged to meet with their new neighbour, Mr Bingley. Whilst there, Elizabeth is insulted by one of their new acquaintances by name of Mr Darcy. While her warrior's sense of pride demands that she rend his head from his shoulders and crush his still-beating heart in his chest, she refrains out of respect for her older sister's new affection for their new neighbour. In the course of her association with Mr Darcy, Elizabeth may find that first impressions can be deceiving.
I wasn't as fond of this one as I was of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. In my previous review, I stated that if you like the concept then you will probably like the book. While I still think that that point is relevant to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there are a couple of things that I thought were done significantly better in the sea monster version. Firstly, the zombie addition was kinda poorly implemented. While saying that it could be taken out entirely is something of a redundant statement, I think that the zombies could have been used in a more interesting way. In Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the monster attacks were used to underscore moments of emotional conflict and contrasted nicely with the characters' more frivolous concerns. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the zombies just sort of turn up whenever and don't really pose much of a challenge. I guess I'm so used to seeing zombies used as a metaphor for some fear of humanity's that I was expecting something a little smarter. It screams of a first attempt really badly. Secondly, some of the humour is a bit off-colour for my tastes, mainly the parts involving vomiting. It might fit with the zombie thing, but it wasn't funny at all, just kind of crude and distracting.

Overall, while I enjoyed reading this, I think the parts that I enjoyed most of all were largely from the original Pride and Prejudice. The zombies could have been really fun, but ended up not really lending themselves to the plot well. Additionally there was some humour that wasn't really to my taste. A bit of a disappointment really. 3.5/5

Next review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Signing off,

Friday, 8 May 2015

Ring by Koji Suzuki

This is not the first time that I've read Ring. The first time I read it, I was in my early to mid teenage years, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Since I'm not terribly keen on actually watching horror movies due to the fact that jump scares trigger my sensory issues, that meant reading the book instead. I remembered the ending more than anything, so my experience re-reading it was odd to say the least.

Anyone who doesn't at least have a concept of the plot of Ring, then they have probably been living under a rock for the last decade or so, but I've set a precedent, so here goes. Ring follows a journalist, Asakawa, who discovers that, seemingly by coincidence, four teenagers all died of sudden heart failure at exactly the same time and with no prior history of heart trouble. The fact that they all died with looks of astonishment and terror on their faces whilst frantically clawing at their hair only makes the similarities more striking. It is only when he finds out where they connect that the situation becomes deathly serious; he finds a video tape that they watched exactly a week before their deaths with the following message at the end:
"Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly..." 
The only problem is that someone taped over the part of the tape with the instructions for survival. Having inadvertently shortened his lifespan quite drastically, he desperately tries to work out what he needs to do to break the curse, dragging his best friend Ryuji into the search in the process.
The first time that I read this, I loved it. The pacing was great, the mystery behind the tape engaging and the horror elements were fantastically eerie and just often enough to keep the appetite whetted. The final twist at the end was the cherry on top, leaving a real sense of dread and a really vivid memory of the reading experience. That twist is also the reason why Ring had little to no re-read value to it. I went into it this time with a pretty vivid recollection of what happened, and boy does it spoil a lot of the fun. When you re-read things, you notice things that were previously little and seemingly unimportant in a whole new light. There are many books that benefit from this and Ring is not one of them precisely because the majority of the suspense is dependent on the reader being ignorant of what the origin and reason for the video tape's existence. When you read it with the full knowledge of what is going to happen to these characters, your attention is drawn to the things that make it unintentionally uncomfortable or distracting. For me, this re-read ended up being an unsatisfactory experience watching two rather unpleasant men on a rather bumbling journey across Japan, as I had no real sense of suspense left. It brought to light that the two protagonists aren't really given many positive features to endear themselves to the audience, and that there are some statements that are uncomfortably sexist in feel if not overt purpose.

I feel conflicted about this. If you are in any way familiar with more plot details than the bare concept of Ring, then the reading experience is less suspense and horror than plodding through a weird sort of manhunt. Not one for repeat reading. 2.5/5

Next review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Signing off,

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Stand by Stephen King

I think one of the big reasons that I picked up The Stand, at least when I first ever got it, was because Gary Sinise was one of the actors in the mini-series adaptation, and I was deep in my fan-girl phase. Some girls have Leo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt as their celebrity crushes, and Gary Sinise was one of mine, you don't get to judge. Anyway, shallowness aside, I still wanted to read the source material before I sat down in front of the mini-series. The first couple tries ended with me putting The Stand away and resolving to return another time. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it, I like Stephen King as a writer. But King is an author that I am a self-confessed fan of, yet whose novels I rarely finish the first time (not counting short stories); as of yet, Carrie is the only one of his novels that I've completed first try. And I can never figure out why. I guess that was my main motive for picking up The Stand this time: find out what it is that makes me keep faltering. 

The Stand follows a group of survivors after a weaponized strain of the flu is accidentally released into the world, killing 99.4% of the population in a matter of weeks. In the wake of this devastating plague, the survivors are beset with two startlingly similar reoccurring dreams. The first involves the figure that many call the dark man, a figure that simultaneously terrifies them whilst also offering the dreamer the fulfillment of their darkest desires. The second involves an immensely old black woman going by the name Mother Abagail, inviting them to her home. Two communities start to form as people gravitate towards these opposing forces and conflict seems close on the horizon. 
Oh boy, I'm sure I could talk about this book for absolutely hours on end. Partially I guess that's because there's just so much in there to talk about, seeing as it was King's longest novel by quite a margin until Under the Dome was published (if I remember correctly anyway). And, bar a few things that are more niggles than anything, I can't actually think of anything major that I disliked about this novel. The characters are engaging, ranging between the genuinely creepy (Randall Flagg and Trashcan Man), the infuriating (Larry Underwood), the too good for this earth (Nick Andros, be still my beating heart) and everywhere in between. The narrative morphs from a tense account of the last days of humanity in its current form and the way that the government (at least in the United States) tries to brutally suppress any and all information about their mistake leaking out, to a spiritual journey in which the last dregs of society take sides in an honest-to-God conflict between good and evil. In the later stages there are a few deus-ex-machina moments as the plot begins to come to its close, but they are they only ones that I have seen that are simultaneously this blatant and yet completely in keeping with the tone. If I had known quite how strong the religious allegory would get towards the end, I'm not sure what kind of outlook I'd have taken with me; if I'm honest, religious overtones leave me a bit dubious considering how preachy they can get. Overall though, while the action can get seriously Old Testament at times, the actual message seems to be that goodness will get humanity through the hard times despite the additional suffering that happens along the way. 
If I'm perfectly honest though, The Stand won me over by having not one but two fantastically written disabled characters. Nick Andros and Tom Cullen were a breathe of fresh air and I wish that there were more characters like them. I did have a couple issues with their characterisation at times, but honestly I adore those two so much that I couldn't really dwell on them for terribly long. 

I could sing the praises of this for as long as anyone would care to listen, but I can now see why The Stand is so highly regarded amongst Stephen King's works. You need to be in for the long haul, but the result is well worth the effort. I honestly can't think of another reason why it wouldn't appeal to readers, beyond the obvious genre ones. 5/5 

Next review: Ring by Koji Suzuki 

Signing off,