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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Along with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, my fiance has been rather forcefully recommending that I get around to reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Fond as I am of him and willing as I would have been to take a look because of that, I had already been intending to read the Dresden Files as I had tried and failed to read Storm Front at least three times before I got to it this time. Nothing was going to stop me this time.

The main protagonist of Storm Front, Harry Dresden, is something of an oddity in his home city of Chicago. He is an openly practicing wizard, even going so far as to advertise his services in the local phone directories. While most of the people who call his office do so to find out if he's serious or not, he does indeed have some magical skill. So when he is called in by the police to consult on a grisly double murder, it means that something is profoundly unnatural about the whole situation. Having started investigating the crime, he finds that whoever is behind the crime doesn't want him to get any further, and they won't pull any punches in trying to impede his search.
I honestly have no idea why I couldn't previously finish Storm Front. There wasn't a single thing about this book that I disliked.
First, the main protagonist. Harry seems quite the likeable main lead, with an unusually grim backstory that we have only so far gotten hints of. He's very much an old fashioned gentleman type of character, willing to let his adversaries play fair before going in seriously, which is nice if occasionally frustrating. There are a few side characters introduced that I could see being quite important later on in the series, Karrin Murphy, Gentleman Johnny Marcone and Susan Rodriguez in particular, but because of the way that the plot proceeds it does become something of a one-man show. As such, I suppose it's a good thing that his character is so strongly written. Admittedly, I will say that his bad luck with women seems to be a bit arbitrary considering that from what the reader is shown, there isn't really anything that strikes me as obviously repelling about his personality. As such the vaguely romantic stuff does seem a bit out of place and not as confident really. I hope that he stays single for the rest of the series, because romance does not at the moment appear to be Butcher's forte.
As for the plot, it's a pretty solid crime story with a fantasy twist. While I wish that I could have learnt a bit more about where the magic in this universe stems from, so that I could get a better picture of what is and isn't possible for one wizard to achieve, I thought that what was included was pretty solid. Mostly it was stuff fairly familiar from European ideas of magic throughout history, things like the power of true names and casting spells using a person's hair or blood, but then the whole thing seemed to come together well enough that there wasn't much that needed reinventing. In particular I liked the potion-making scene, where the ingredients are more vehicles for symbols of what the potion should do than a specific recipe. I thought that was a nice touch. Additionally, I liked the hints of things that have yet to become important in the series. I'm told that some of these things get extra explanation and context, so I'll be looking forward to that.

A great start to a series, all things considered. Storm Front does well by creating a likeable protagonist and loading his world with all kinds of interesting magic that I am keen to learn more about. The writing does get a little clunky with regards to Harry's relationship to women and romance, so I'm hoping that further into the series Butcher either gets better at it or just abandons the romantic angle altogether. More than happy to recommend the series to fantasy readers or crime fans willing to suspend their disbelief a little further. 4.5/5

Next review: The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Now this was one hell of a nostalgic book to re-read. Wild Magic was a book that I first bought while I was in high school, and it has been revisited enough that the front cover is almost more crease than card at this point. After the intense and not wholly pleasant experience that was reading Stalkers, I needed something familiar.

Following the deaths of her mother and grandfather at the hands of bandits, Daine Sarrasri decides to make a fresh start in the country of Tortall. Signing up with Onua, horse trainer for the elite soldiers known as the Riders, she soon finds that what she always assumed was a knack for dealing with animals may in fact be a magical talent known as Wild Magic. With supernatural creatures returning to Tortall and the threat of war from overseas, Daine must master her newly discovered abilities and confront the possibility of madness if she wants to protect her new friends.
I've had Wild Magic in my collection for around 10 years now and I've re-read it multiple times within that decade, so I'm hardly going to write a negative review of this. Daine is a wonderful main protagonist, both headstrong and willing to speak her mind, whilst still retaining the kind of uncertainty and lack of confidence that a lot of girls her age exhibit. It's nice that she just kind of falls into the whole role of hero, as opposed to actively seeking it like a lot of protagonists do. All she's trying to do is get by on her own and so her acquisition of power feels more like the kind of self-improvement that you naturally go through as you grow and mature.
Since animals are a big part of this particular series, I think it would make sense to briefly mention how they are depicted. There's very much an emphasis on people and creatures acting according to their inherent nature, and that comes out very well with the animals that turn up. There's a battle scene towards the end of the novel, where Daine is given a warning about encroaching enemies by a collection of bats, but when the other characters ask her to get some more precise reconnaissance she opts for consulting with owls, who are less naturally skittish. There's enough detail to make the animals seem intelligent in their own ways, but not to the point where they could be mistaken for human or supernatural characters. The exception to this is Cloud, Daine's mare, but then the two of them have been together long enough that Daine's magic has made a significant impact on the horse's mind. And Cloud is delightfully sarcastic and stubborn, so I'm not especially bothered by her unusually human-like intelligence.

Wild Magic is one of those books that I will always go back to when I want to read something comforting and entertaining. The characters are charming and likeable, the animals are portrayed really well, and it makes a great set-up for further adventures with Daine. 4.5/5

Next review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Stalkers by Paul Finch

It's been a while since I've read any police procedural novels, mostly because my tendency when buying is to drift towards cosy or historical mysteries first. My mum, on the other hand, is very much a fan of police procedurals, so I ended up stealing this book off of her once she'd finished reading it. Which raises the question, have I been missing much in the genre?

The last thing that Mark Heckenberg needs to hear from his superiors at work is that the case that he has spent years building is to be shut down. When said case could potentially find almost 40 missing women who had no reason to disappear, he is even more unwilling to just let this lie. So he ventures out on his own, soon attracting the attention of Lauren Wraxford, the ex-army sister of one of the missing women, who forces herself into his investigation. Unfortunately, his investigations also attract the attention of the dangerous group responsible for these disappearances.
Right, so I have some mixed feelings about this. On the surface, Stalkers is a very competent thriller. It has a tense premise, with some very intimidating villains and the tension is kept high throughout. I guess the thing that kind of bothers me about Stalkers is the way that the subject matter is handled. You find out pretty quickly that the women abducted by the main villains are targeted to be raped and murdered, after being picked out by a rich man close to them. Considering how sensitive a subject rape is, and how often it involves specifically female victims, it has a weirdly "she had it coming" vibe at times. While the rapists involved are rightfully depicted as the scum that they are, the victim that the narrative follows at first has a line of thought that is distinctly male. She's going through her daily routine and thinking to herself how fortunate she is that she can rely on her looks to put her above women who are just as qualified as she is. Speaking from my experience, that does not sound believable. Women don't really think in that way, and honestly, if a woman is attractive enough to garner sexual attentions from their boss or coworkers, that shit is often entirely unwelcome. For the victim to be portrayed even slightly okay with her male coworkers leering at her invites the reader to think that she unwittingly encouraged her attacker. That will never be an acceptable attitude for me. So while Stalkers does get a lot right, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, because it introduces an element of grey into rape, which should be as black and white as it gets.

While technically a good thriller, it portrays the victim as "encouraging" her attacker, and for me that just isn't acceptable. Maybe you might be able to overlook that, but it just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth that ruins what would have been an otherwise tense thriller. 2.5/5

Next review: Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

Signing off,

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Batman: The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn by David Finch & Jason Fabok

It's been quite a while since I read any comics and am thus quite behind with general lore, but since my sister was kind enough to get me this as a gift, I figured that I could try it and see how well it read. And considering it's a Batman comic, one of my favourite superheroes growing up, at least it's a hero that I can try and get invested in again.

Batman is on a new case, looking into the disappearance of beautiful socialite and childhood friend of Bruce Wayne, Dawn Golden. While he soon finds that Killer Croc and the Penguin are involved with her disappearance, there is something stalking the streets of Gotham that is far more dangerous and is inextricably linked to Dawn Golden. Can he find her and unravel the mystery in time to save her?
Golden Dawn just left me so unsatisfied, which is really disappointing considering that I really do like Batman, as well as the fact that it was a gift. So, where to start.
I guess I will start with the fact that despite this apparently being the beginning of the Batman The Dark Knight series, I was left really confused because despite needing a fairly in-depth knowledge of Batman the book doesn't really try to bring new readers up to speed at all. For me, this was primarily the presence of the character Etrigan. Up until now, I had never come across anything where he was a prominent character, so to just drop him into what I was expecting would be a Batman-only story was most disconcerting. To more DC-savvy readers, his presence might make perfect sense, but to me it was like "and now, a demon in your regularly scheduled Batman comic". And considering that it turns out that the whole demon thing is really important to the main plot of finding Dawn Golden, it does make proceedings that little bit more confusing. It might just be me though, I can never quite get my head around Batman having magical enemies. I can accept that he lives in a world with magic, but usually that stuff gets sent to characters like Wonder Woman or maybe Zatanna. To put Batman against a demonic cult just seems jarring and inappropriate somehow.
Additionally, I'm not quite sure why the writer thinks that I will be especially concerned about Dawn Golden's fate. I mean, ignoring the fact that her name is all kinds of awkward and irritating in the light of the comic's subtitle, there isn't really anything there to latch onto with her character. They try and raise the stakes by having her be one of Bruce Wayne's childhood friends, except that there's only one scene of the two of them as children and all it told me was that she was a sullen girl who loses her friends' toys. Thrilling stuff. Her secret backstory is told later in one rushed, uninteresting splurge that didn't really add much to her as a character.
The final thing that bothered me was an art issue. While the general quality was very polished, the artist seems to have an issue when it comes to drawing women. At one point, a woman steals the Batmobile and for several pages I could have sworn that it was Dawn. It was only when Batman found Dawn that I realised my mistake. When your character faces and designs are that indistinguishable from one another, it doesn't matter how pretty they are because you have just hobbled the clarity of whatever your story-telling is trying to achieve.

Really, this disappoints in pretty much every way. The story is confusing and poorly laid out. It sets Batman against a magical enemy, that still feels jarring to me. The missing woman is so colourless that it is difficult to care about her one way or another. And there is no differentiation between the female characters' designs, which is just lazy really. 2.5/5

Next review: Stalkers by Paul Finch

Signing off,

Friday, 25 November 2016

Weekend by Christopher Pike

When I was a teenager, I used to stay around my grandparents' house a lot over the school holidays, and they would always allow me to use their library card. Whilst exploring the library there, I first discovered Christopher Pike, whose books I would have a love-hate relationship with from that day. I have previously read Weekend, but it has been a while and I wanted to see how it held up.

In Weekend we follow a group of friends who are spending their last days before graduation on holiday in Mexico. But what should be a dream holiday is made tense by memories of an unexplained accident that left one of their party severely ill. These tensions are ramped up as things go wrong one by one, starting with the phone lines going dead.
I'd forgotten just how 80s this novel feels at times. These days you'd have to write in why no-one is using a mobile phone for one thing. But mainly, the characters feel very reminiscent of the kind of teenagers that you got in films from that generation, both in teen dramas and slasher films. None of them are really all that likeable, but they're entertaining enough that you want them to stay alive. While that can be really cheesy here, it does feel kind of comfortable. Like nothing new has been made here, but the stuff that does come up is handled at least competently. After the irritation that was The Benson Murder Case, I think I needed a bit of comfort reading.
Admittedly, I'm not sure why Weekend is labelled as horror, considering that it only barely flirts with the genre in the most minimal way possible. And of Christopher Pike's work, it is also one of the least scary. If you start reading it expecting scares, then you'd be disappointed. If you're looking for a pretty decent thriller and mystery, then you're probably on safer territory.

Overall, pretty cheesy and very 80s in feel, but quite good if you're looking for something comforting and easy on the brain. One of Pike's less tense books, but still one of the most tonally consistent of his works. 3.5/5

Next review: Batman: The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn by David Finch & Jason Fabok

Signing off,

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

Having done a bit of research into the Golden Era of detective fiction, I primarily knew S. S. Van Dine from his article "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories". Since the rules seemed sensible enough, when I came across some of his writing I thought that I'd check out how well he could put his teachings into practice.

When playboy stockbroker Alvin Benson is killed, his social circle are in a furore trying to figure out who could have murdered him. Enter art enthusiast and amateur detective Philo Vance, who immediately notices some interesting features of the crime scene that the police seem to be overlooking. But will he be able to convince the police of the right culprit before an innocent citizen is arrested first?
This could have been a decent enough detective story, if it weren't for the detective. There is nothing even remotely likeable or interesting about Philo Vance. Admittedly, the fact that the first chapter does nothing but sing his praises and talk about his art collection didn't incline me positively towards him, and I found that further reading only confirmed my worst fears. Philo Vance is the snob that is quite happy to watch you work through a problem slowly and steadily, only to trash your work and declare that they knew from the start what the solution was. He bases his workings entirely on psychological profiling, despite appearing to be entirely alien to actual human emotions and drives. His singular emotion appears to be smugness, perhaps cynicism if I'm generous. I couldn't hate him more if I tried.
Additionally, the author-named character, Van Dine, is entirely pointless. He makes a big deal about his experience as a lawyer, and then does nothing with it. In fact, I forgot that he was even a character until right at the end, because he contributes absolutely nothing to the storyline. His entire purpose is to follow Vance around like an obedient puppy with a notebook and an obsession with noting down every possible detail about an encounter.

What could have been at least an average murder mystery is completely ruined by having the detective be an odious snob with no redeeming qualities, joined by a chronicler who might as well not be there. Don't bother with it. 1/5

Next review: Weekend by Christopher Pike

Signing off,

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

The Dice Man was another book that I picked up because I adored the concept as presented by the blurb. Having had that method of picking books to read backfire on me more recently, I came to this perhaps a little more warily than I may have initially picked it up. But I am ever optimistic, so the book was not to be abandoned regardless of wary preconceptions. 

Presented as an autobiography, The Dice Man follows Luke Rhinehart, a respected psychiatrist and happily married father of two, who finds that despite his life being successful in all areas deemed socially acceptable he is unhappy and bored. Whilst drunk one night, he decides to base his next decision on the roll of the dice: roll a one and he is to have sex with his colleague's wife, roll any other number and he is to go to bed and continue life as normal. When he gets a one, he finds that leaving the decision-making to chance has opened up possibilities that he could never have expected. 
Having now finished reading The Dice Man, I find myself a little lost with regards to how it should be reviewed. Because the issue with a main character who compulsively bases his decisions and behaviour on dice rolls can't really have a character arc as such. While your average novel would focus on a change from one status quo to another via a period of conflict. So when your main character has their character arc within the first third of the novel, transitioning from regular socialised human being to a diceman, the rest of the novel becomes watching the rest of the world reject or accept the radically different main character. While that can be an interesting prospect, I will admit that it does make the events of the novel blur somewhat. It was by no means uninteresting, but when your protagonist's reaction to every major decision is "as the Dice wills" then the only way for them to have any meaning is by measuring the reactions of secondary characters, all of whom are essentially pitied by not being dicepeople. So yeah, I can see why a lot of readers would find this a bit on the bloated side. 
Another thing to consider when picking up The Dice Man is that it is set in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and the attitudes really reflect this. It's weird how things like black-suffrage and the anti-Vietnam protests are mentioned, but don't really get much focus beyond "I work in a mental facility and many of these people are sectioned". Honestly, it can get a bit uncomfortable with how unsympathetically they can be portrayed at times. Probably not a thing that you'd want to focus on for your psychology novel, but perhaps a bit unfortunate. 
The only thing that honestly bothers me is that the book doesn't so much end as stop. In the middle of a sentence too. While I don't think that the subject matter would ever really allow for a proper, satisfying ending, I do somewhat object to stopping in the middle of a sentence. 

A weird novel that kind of defies definition. While an interesting concept, it does suffer from the fact that the main character's changes are all artificially dictated, so the majority of the novel's events suffer from blurring together. Might still be worth it if you are ready for this when first picking it up. 3/5 

Next review: The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

So, Hesse. Not a name that's been heard around this blog for quite some time now. I was quite fond of his works, but after writing a 4000 word essay on a selection of his works I found myself a bit tired of him, oversaturated as I was at the time. After some time had passed, I found myself hankering for a bit more of his work, and I still hadn't gotten round to reading The Glass Bead Game yet.

The Glass Bead Game is the story of Joseph Knecht, an elite academic in a province known for its intellectual prowess and mastery of the eponymous glass bead game. Set out as a biography of him following a mysterious scandal and subsequent death, it follows his struggle between maintaining the intellectual purity of the Castalian society that he has grown up in, and preventing it from becoming irrelevant in its detachment from the politics of the outside world.
I wanted to like this more than I did. After feeling so moved by his writing in books like Beneath the Wheel and Steppenwolf, I had hoped that something similar would happen with The Glass Bead Game. As it is, I can appreciate it as a well-crafted critique of academia, but I'm not sure what appeal it would have to the everyday reader.
I feel that part of the reason that The Glass Bead Game resonated with me emotionally was the biography format. Firstly, this means that the structure is a bit on the odd side. While you'd normally get world-building and side stories woven throughout the narrative, the structure means that the main narrative is preceded by a general history of the glass bead game, and appended by the collected writings of the main character. As such, Joseph's story doesn't begin until page 47 and ends on page 425 out of 558. While I can understand wanting to use a format like a biography for immersion purposes, but it does feel very strange and disjointed. Secondly, I found that the academic tone meant that at times it does get very dense and slow-going. If you're looking for a book that challenges you, then this probably won't be a huge problem, but I could see it being a barrier for those looking for something lighter or more traditional.
For me personally, I found this more interesting in relation to the rest of his work, especially considering that my prior focus on his work was to do with identity and growth. If you're already a fan of Hesse's work, then The Glass Bead Game has some interesting parallels to other protagonists from his earlier work. I wouldn't start off with this if you've never read Hesse though, as it has a bit of a steep adjustment curve.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to everyone, but if you're already a fan of Hesse's work, or you're willing to look past a rather disjointed and dense experience, then you could probably gain something from this. If you're looking for an introduction to Hesse's work though, I would recommend one of his earlier works before you tackle The Glass Bead Game. 3.5/5

Next review: The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

Signing off,

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

While I wasn't as enthused about the last installment as I had perhaps hoped, I was still quite looking forward to reading Wyrd Sisters, as Pratchett was definitely getting into the setting last time and I wanted to see what he would do with the witches as characters instead. 

Following the murder of the King of Lancre, the duplicitous Duke and his wife are determined to remove any evidence of their crime. This would normally mean killing off the late King's infant heir, but the infant ends up being protected by three witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. This intervention on their part is only the beginning, as forces beyond their control conspire to push them into bringing the rightful heir to the throne. 
I had met Granny Weatherwax previously in the Discworld novels, but she works so well against other witches, especially Nanny Ogg. Even if the plot of Wyrd Sisters had been as weak as the last Discworld novel, it would have been well worth it for pretty much every scene that the witches are in. There aren't enough words to convey just how much these three characters work together, and I think I could possibly have been happy just reading their scenes. As it is, the rest of the plot is really quite strong, with some interesting riffs on the Macbeth style of coup d'etats that the story focuses on, and the beginning of a rather sweet romance. 
Honestly, I think the only weakness is that the parts dealing specifically with the acting troupe don't really work for me as much. But even that is kind of a stretch, seeing as they are still very entertaining and only really suffer for not having witches in it. 

Probably my favourite thus far. I would definitely bear with the weaker entries in the early part of the series if only for this entry. The witches are absolutely the best part of this and their chemistry would sell the book for me alone. The fact that the plot is pretty strong is an added bonus really. 5/5 

Next review: The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

There were two main reasons why I picked up The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. Firstly, the title is really eye-catching, and it implied an equally interesting premise. Secondly, I remember reading the first of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series and enjoying it. So I thought that this would be a safe enough book to peruse.

When Eva Beaver's twins leave for university, she gets into bed after having to still pick up after her children and husband, even when they aren't there. Not intending to stay there for more than a few hours, she finds herself unable to bring herself to move out of her surprisingly comfortable bed. Now her husband, children and matriarchs on both sides of the family must figure out what to do with her, while Eva herself contents herself with thought and the unexpected sympathy of Alexander, the white van man.
The quotes on the front cover lie. Honestly, I think that this premise could have gone quite well. It's the old adage, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." If this had been well-written, it could have been a touching lesson about valuing people for their contributions to the lives of those around them, and not by salary or intelligence. There could have been some comeuppance for the adulterous husband or the protagonist coming out of the experience with a new sense of what she wants in life and the drive to get it. What we instead get is the story of a woman who stays in bed for a year for no real reason other than she can, and in the process proving to be the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to keeping her dysfunctional family together. I don't see what is funny about that. I don't see what's funny about a middle-aged man who can't properly look after himself and doesn't have anywhere near enough emotional intelligence to maintain not one, but two affairs whilst still a little in love with his wife. I don't see what's funny about two autistic teenagers who have to deal with university life in general, a psychotic compulsive-liar for a room-mate, and the extremely public fallout of their mother's choice to hermit herself away. And I certainly don't see what's funny about a woman who is so determined to stay in bed that she pushes away the entire world, to the point where her doctors find no other option but to section her. Honestly, anyone who actually laughs because of this book must come from another planet, and I say that knowing that my sense of humour can be both utterly black at times and utterly bizarre at others. This is not a funny novel. End of story.
The other main thing that bothers me is that it just ends. I was hoping for an ending that would tie everything together and make the whole story make sense, but what I got instead was a year of Eva's life, no more and no less. What does it matter that the husband has given up completely and gone off to live with one of his mistresses, we never find out which. Why would we want to know what happened to the twins after they were apparently arrested? What possible reason would we have for wondering how they're going to stop that whole sectioning business from happening, because that shit doesn't just go away because hey you stopped doing the weird thing now. The ending is the mess that just tops off what was already a bit of a car crash anyway.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a complete embarrassment of a novel. Irritating characters with weak motivations do pretty much nothing but complain over the course of a year, and the ending adds to the pointlessness of the whole reading endeavour by wrapping up precisely nothing that had come up over the course of the narrative. It's a completely unfunny waste of time. Don't bother. 1/5

Next review: Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett time again. Having enjoyed the previous installment from the Discworld series a great deal, I had understandably high hopes for Sourcery. In addition, it would be revisiting Rincewind, a character that I hadn't seen for some time and who might hopefully get a bit more of an even characterisation this time around.

In the Discworld, the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to become a wizard. The eighth son of a wizard, a wizard squared if you will, is destined to be a sourcerer, a source of new magic in the Discworld. When a powerful wizard breaks his vow of celibacy and creates a sourcerer in the process, the child makes his way to Ankh-Morpork and the Unseen University to claim the mantel of arch-chancellor. And the only wizard to stand in his way is Rincewind, the hapless protagonist from Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.
I'm probably not going to make any friends saying this, but Sourcery is at best a mixed bag. It's a really weird thing, because I've been gleefully quoting parts of the story that amused me, and they were plentiful. But when I turned the final page and actually finished it, the overall impression that I got was kind of average. Thinking through it though, I can more or less pick out what did and didn't work so well.
So, what worked? First, the asides are absolutely brilliant. These will be, for the most part, points where Pratchett puts the narrative on hold in order to explain a little bit about how the Discworld works. They are always amusing, and a lot of the time really interesting from a world-building perspective. For example, there's a bit about how ideas and inspiration work, where an idea is already formed out in the ether and must make an almost impossible journey through space and time in order to appear in the right head at the right moment for the inspiration to make everything fall into place. When it works, great things are done and understood. When it doesn't, you get a very confused duck with grand ideas about clean electricity generation, if it doesn't miss entirely. Stuff like that is great, and I think that I would have enjoyed Sourcery a lot less if there hadn't been as many of these witty asides.
Second, there is the eternal delight that is the Luggage. It was by far my favourite part of the previous installments including Rincewind, and that has not changed in the slightest. It is still my favourite murderous walking bag of holding, and the little adventure/extinction-filled rampage that it has on its own is wonderful. More Luggage is always appreciated, especially when it's drunk. Likewise, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were great, although not strictly needed narrative-wise.
Now, onto the not-so-great parts. Firstly, the plot has a tendency to meander a hell of a lot more than some of the previous Discworld books. I mean, in Mort, the perspective was either with Mort, Death or briefly Albert. By the end of Sourcery, we had sections with Rincewind, sections with the non-magical companions that he meets on the way, sections with the sourcerer Coin and the Unseen University, sections with the Luggage, and sections with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Trying to keep all of these in check and equally interesting is not something that Pratchett succeeded with, quite honestly. If the plot had stuck to two, maybe three groups at most, it might have tightened the ending up and made it feel less anti-climactic.
Secondly, the majority of the characters didn't really appeal to me. There's Rincewind, who I want to like more than I do. I mentioned in my review of The Colour of Magic that Rincewind probably wouldn't work as well without a character like Twoflower to bounce off of, and I think that Sourcery kind of proves my point. Rincewind is a character that needs a source of manic energy and recklessness to bounce off of, and when it isn't there it becomes a mystery what he's even doing in the narrative. Pratchett makes no bones about how much of a coward he is, so it just doesn't sit right with me that he continues to be involved in the plot after the initial reason for joining the quest is no longer an issue. As for the non-magical characters, I just wasn't impressed. Conina, the barbarian woman who just wants to be a hairdresser but can't resist getting into fights, should have been so much more interesting, but wasn't consistent enough characterisation-wise. Nijel, the skinny wannabe barbarian hero, was funny at first, but quickly became irritating. The less said about Creosote the better. The sourcerer, Coin, was probably the best character-wise apart from Luggage, as a ten-year-old with powers beyond anything anyone else can conceive and guided by a malevolent presence and will to use said powers. I wish there had been more of him, as opposed to the weak-willed wizards surrounding him, so he feels like something of a wasted opportunity.

I want to like Sourcery more than I do, but as a novel it's only average. The asides dealing with world-building and the sections with the Luggage and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse had me laughing out loud, but the overall plot and characters are too weak to stand up by themselves. It just needed a little tightening really. 3.5/5

Next review: The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year by Sue Townsend

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

As is my wont, I have left reading one of the most touted books of 2012 until now, long after any kind of hype has died down. I even put off seeing Gone Girl in the cinema because I don't like seeing the film adaptation before the original book. So after all that, was it worth the staunch praise, and can I say that suffering through Mr Turner was worth not having it spoiled? 

Gone Girl follows Nick Dunne, a former writer and current bar owner, on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to Amy. He hasn't been looking forward to the day due to their marriage hitting a few bumps, but things look to get a lot worse when he goes home after work to find the door to his house wide open, signs of a struggle in the living room and Amy nowhere to be found. The police are soon involved and quickly find that maybe Nick and Amy's marriage isn't as rosy as he would like to present it as. 
This book is messed up in so many ways and I absolutely loved it. There isn't much I can really say plot-wise beyond the summary provided above for risk of spoilers, but I will say that it is really worth going into Gone Girl without any prior knowledge of the plot. The twists and turns are spoon-fed to the reader over the course of the narrative, so while there were several parts that I hadn't expected, it never felt like the revelation was unnatural or forced. 
The character development is similarly solid. Flynn has a real talent for balancing positive and negative qualities in characters, then bringing out certain elements in order to create a certain caricature depending on what the narrative needs. Only towards the end do you get a real grasp on what makes certain central characters tick. And it really explores just how far you can stretch a husband-wife dynamic before it stops being real. 

A very short review this time, but only because there's only so much that I can say without spoilers and you really need to read this with a fresh perspective. If you like thrillers in any way, then you need to read this if you haven't already. The plot and character building are pulled off masterfully. 5/5 

Next review: Sourcery by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 

Friday, 26 August 2016

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

First of all, just an apology for taking so long to review this one. It has been a hectic three weeks, as I have just moved into my first home. As you can probably guess, this is a long process of settling in, and as of yet I haven't had as much time to sit down and read as I used to have.
As for Birdsong itself, I picked this up because I had previously read it in high school, but couldn't really remember it terribly well. I remembered snatches of it, and have found reviews to be generally positive, so I found myself wondering if I would enjoy it the second time around.

Birdsong follows Stephen Wraysford, a strange and intense young Englishman, in the years of the First World War and those immediately preceding it. The narrative starts with his passionate and scandalous affair with the wife of his host whilst visiting France on business. Following that are the years spent in the front line of the Western front and his growing apathy towards the war effort. Additionally, there are sections set in the late 1970s, with Stephen's granddaughter attempting to piece together his life whilst also trying to deal with her complicated affair with a married man.
Re-reading Birdsong, I realised why I could only remember parts of this book. It is somewhat uneven in tone and quality. The narrative can be roughly divided into three strands, all of which have their own separate issues. The first is the pre-war section, with the focus on Stephen's affair. This is by far the best part of the novel, with an engaging and intense affair between two very suppressed, unhappy people. The second strand is the 1915-1918 period, which I found to be mostly positive, but not as engaging as the pre-war strand. While the mood is appropriately grim and deeply uncomfortable, I found it made less impact than it possibly could have done, because while the slaughter of trench warfare is very well expressed, it's difficult to keep track of the cast of characters when almost none of the average soldiers get character development beyond being given a name. While the sheer amount of bloodshed and the awful living conditions are impressive and sobering to read about, it lessens the impact when it's happening to a cast of cardboard cutouts. The third strand is the 1970s section about Stephen's granddaughter Elizabeth, and honestly it's a complete waste of space. If there is a particular era of films that I remember disliking from my university studies, I found that they all seem to have been made in the 1970s. There's something about that decade that lends itself to ennui and a conscious level of detachment, and it's really quite grating to me. In terms of the plot itself, it's only really relevant in its penultimate chapter, where you get some closure in regards to what happened to Stephen after the war. As for the rest of it, it follows a woman who has by all standards a wholly uninteresting life. Sure, she's having an affair with a married man, but compared to her grandfather's affair it comes off as boring, because no-one seems to want to upset the status quo. Her quest to piece together Stephen's life could have made a good story by itself, but here we know far more about what she's researching than she does for pretty much the entirety of her plot. It was an exercise in wordcount padding.

A powerful novel let down somewhat by some poor characterisation and an entirely useless and irritating plot strand set in the 1970s. While still powerful, it does hit harder when you give people more character than just a name before sending them to be mowed down by machine-guns. The less said about the 70s sections the better really. 3.5/5

Next review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Signing off,

Friday, 5 August 2016

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I had been looking forward to Mort out of all the Discworld novels, because then I would finally meet Death properly. I haven't watched all of the Discworld screen adaptations, but I vividly remember my best friend putting the adaptation of Soul Music on and I was intrigued by what I saw of Death and his strange family. How much of that was down to the perfect casting of Christopher Lee I don't know, but from the moment I actually read some of Pratchett's work, I was most looking forward to reading about Death. It was what made the eye-searingly ugly front covers bearable at any rate. 

Mort follows a young man named Mort, oddly enough, who finds himself starting a very strange apprenticeship. After being sent to the job market by a father desperate to find him a trade to flourish in, Mort is chosen by Death to be his apprentice, to help usher the souls of the dead into the afterlife and possibly be company for his adopted human daughter, Ysabel. On his first night solo, however, Mort finds that he cannot bring himself to kill a young princess, leaving her alive in a world that is determined to believe that she is dead. 
I know that I'm only four books into the series at the moment, but Mort is definitely my favourite so far. As expected, the humour is brilliant, with a nice sprinkling of some appropriately black humour considering the subject matter, and the highlights are as always the little side notes that Pratchett throws out throughout the narrative. I got some odd looks on the bus, which is always a sign of quality for me anyway. 
The main character Mort was perhaps a little on the generic side for me, but there was an interesting transition from awkward teenager who is all knees and elbows to a would-be personification of Death (I'm not sure whether the anthropomorphic part of the title fits in his case) that felt both natural and appropriately eerie, which I wasn't expecting. I would have like to see more of Ysabel, because there's something incredibly endearing about a teenage girl who has maybe had one too many sweets trying so hard to emulate all the willowy tragic romantic heroines that she's read about in her father's library. My favourites by far though were Death and, much to my surprise, Albert. Death I was expecting to like, because there's something wonderful about the anthropomorphic personification of Death trying to understand what life is like. It's fantastic to see him experimenting with things that humans are supposed to like and being left more confused than ever because there seems to be no purpose to them. Albert though. I love Albert's moment in the spotlight when he returns to the world of the living, remembers what life and power feels like, and promptly falls back into the life of a crotchety, petty tyrant. It's brilliant and ridiculous and faintly rubbish even when he is causing chaos at the Unseen University. I am really looking forward to seeing those two again in later books. 
The plot is perhaps a little weaker, with the stakes feeling a bit underwhelming right until the end. I mean, it's one human life compared to quite a few that are snuffed out over the course of the narrative. But then I suppose teenage crushes don't necessarily take the pressures of fate into consideration, so it does sort of work. 

Mort is an absolute gem of a novel. I got to see a lot more glimpses of the Disc further afield than Pratchett has strayed before, which makes me excited for later books. I met Death, the character I had been most looking forward to seeing in action and my expectations were more than sufficiently met. And the plot, while perhaps a bit weak at points, is very engaging and even touching at times. I'd definitely recommend it. 4.5/5 

Next review: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Rose Madder by Stephen King

Rose Madder isn't a Stephen King novel that gets talked about much, especially when you consider how much attention some of his work does get. Honestly, until I found this again on my shelf, I had kind of forgotten that it even existed, let alone what the book was actually about. I think the only thing that I sort of remembered was reading that King himself was kind of disappointed with Rose Madder. So I guess I was curious to see how it would pan out.

Rose Madder follows Rosie, a woman who decides to leave her physically abusive husband Norman after a 14 year loveless marriage that has already caused her to miscarry once. Armed only with a few hundred dollars that she took from their joint account, she journeys to a new city, where she slowly starts to regain friendship, independence, self-respect and even a little romance. But her newfound happiness may be short-lived, because Norman isn't the type of man who can handle the thought that Rosie not only left him, but took his money in the same move. And even he may pale in comparison to the danger that Rosie lets in herself without even realising.
I can definitely see why King refers to Rose Madder as a "stiff, trying-too-hard" novel. I don't know if this is the best way to describe it, but I would say that there was a real sense that Rose Madder was deliberately constructed, at least in comparison to some of King's other novels. With King, I always got the sense that the bulk of his stories come out in one lump, with some tidying up done after the first draft. You know, making sure that characters act in ways that make sense or highlighting thematic links, that kind of thing. In comparison, Rose Madder felt more like the IKEA version of King: competently constructed, but hardly his best work.
Whilst I'm talking about how the novel doesn't work, I should probably mention the supernatural element. So it's a painting that Rosie finds, from which we get the novel's title, and it is somehow the most stiff and awkward part of the narrative, and yet the flimsiest as well. It is when the painting comes to the fore that you really start to notice how obvious the construction is, because it's this clumsy mish-mash of Greek mythology references that really don't mesh well with the modern (at the time of writing anyway) American feel of the novel as a whole. It's all the more noticeable when you're like me and read a LOT of Greek myths as a child, and you get the references. So yeah, while the Ancient Greek angle could have worked quite well, it needed to pick a particular myth and expand on it instead of cherry-picking. As it is, we have a weird mix of Theseus and the Minotaur, the River of Lethe, Persephone in the Underworld, and a blending of the Furies with the Cretan Bull, all of which have very different tones and themes. So that's the stiff part, now for the flimsy. While King's books rarely explain the supernatural elements in great detail, it's usually understandable from a thematic point of view. He had devil surrogates in The Stand and Needful Things representing ways that people can stray from the path if they don't pay attention, and the eldritch monsters from Hearts in Atlantis were a nice metaphor for the loss and fear experienced if we grow up too quickly. Here, there is no theme that the whole painting marries with. Sure, the image of the bull works nicely as a metaphor for her brutish husband, but the rest of the painting could do with a bit more explaining. Maybe the woman in the painting is her, maybe it isn't. It's never really explained and it just makes the climax confusing and conflicting with Rosie's story as an abused woman. Because while I can accept Rosie regaining confidence and beating her husband through wiles, I find the whole "suppressed rage" thing that comes up towards the end to be unsatisfying. It doesn't fit the character arc if she sinks to her husband's level.
One thing that I will concede works well is Norman's sections. I have found some reviewers who consider him to be a bit of a one-note villain and I can see why (the corrupt cop who is happy to dish out police brutality is also a domestic abuser, really?), but the sections that followed him in his search for his errant wife were by far the most vivid and creepy of the novel. There is a line of reasoning in his inner monologue that is utterly awful, but makes him feel so much more immediate as a villain. Honestly, I think that Rose Madder could have been so much stronger if it had done away with the supernatural stuff and just focused on the cat and mouse game between runaway wife and abusive husband. It might not necessarily be the most original novel without the supernatural element, but a more solid and even-toned read perhaps.

Rose Madder is the first of Stephen King's books that I find myself not recommending. It's disappointing, because there is a very solid basis for a great book in Norman's increasingly deranged hunt for his wife, but there are just so many things that don't work that I can't really say that it's a necessity to read. A large part of that is a supernatural element in the eponymous painting, because the mish-mash of Greek mythology references and uncertain origins do not marry well and just leads to a tonally confused ending. I suppose entertaining enough if you're looking to complete reading King's works, but by no means one of his best. 3/5

Next review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Friday, 29 July 2016

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

I picked up Empress Orchid for one kind of shallow reason. I know practically nothing about pre-Communism China, and this seemed like an interesting way to dip into some history that I have been intrigued by for some time without getting bogged down in text-books of varying dryness.

Born into an impoverished family of aristocratic blood, Orchid decides to compete to be one of the Emperor's wives when the alternatives are to marry her cousin or become homeless. Winning a place as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's concubines only proves to be the beginning of her troubles though, as it soon becomes apparent that being one of his wives is to be part of a treacherous race to be the first to bear the Emperor a son. And those who are favourites today can easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I vaguely remember hearing about the woman who this novel is about, Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi. What I do remember was basically that she essentially ruled China via her son during the final years of the Qing dynasty, and that she was something of a person to be reckoned with. I remember my teacher telling us about her with more than a little admiration. So it was nice to learn about her life in more detail, if perhaps a bit embellished. I'm happy to say that Anchee Min's depiction of her is utterly absorbing, and I am more than a little interested to read other books that she's written. Certainly, if you're after a book that has both tragedy and courtly intrigue up to the hilt, then Empress Orchid is definitely one to consider. The ways that the concubines in particular fight amongst one another is probably my favourite aspect of the novel, because it can be utterly devastating in its effect whilst still being so much subtler and unassuming in appearance.
Orchid herself is also very well written. I can't tell for sure how accurate her depiction is compared to what we know about her from historical records, but I certainly found her to be an engaging protagonist. Developing an iron will in order to flourish in an environment that she is incredibly unhappy in, she is fascinating if not always entirely likeable. Likewise, the people that she interacts with, like her fellow Empress Nuharoo and her personal eunuch servant An-te-hai, are a varying mix of fascinating and repulsing. Nuharoo in particular is brilliantly written, if only to see how easily she hides her spoiled and jealous nature.
The one thing that bothers me is the ending. It doesn't so much finish as screech to a halt once the word count is filled. I know that this is the first in a duology, but I still feel that the ending of Empress Orchid could have been handled with at least a little more grace than it is.

Empress Orchid is fantastically written with some really nasty court rivalries and some impressively evoked characters. The fact that it's based on real events only makes this more interesting, and I wouldn't mind learning more about the era depicted. My only issue is that the ending is too abrupt, a move that is surprisingly clumsy compared to the elegance of the rest of the novel. 4/5

Next review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

Signing off,

Monday, 25 July 2016

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

It's been a while since I read anything Discworld, and considering that I have a rather stressful move looming on the horizon, I thought that now might be a good time to continue with the series, as I have enjoyed Pratchett's work in the past and I wanted something that I could relax with.

Drum Billet is a wizard who knows that he is going to die. Armed with this knowledge, he sets out to pass on his magic staff to the eighth son of an eighth son, as is traditional amongst wizard circles. It is only after the wizard has passed on the staff and departed this mortal coil that people find out that the newborn is, in fact, a baby girl. Absolutely mortified by this turn of events, the local witch Granny Weatherwax decides that the girl will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary witch. But when young Eskarina starts using magic that is decidedly unlike witchcraft, it becomes evident that she will need to be taught at the Unseen University, home to a wholly male alumni.
I knew that Equal Rites would be funny, I mean it's what Terry Pratchett was known for throughout his writing career. Even the essays that I've found of his are funny. What I had kind of forgotten was just how insightful and utterly relevant Pratchett could be. That second part might seem a bit of a weird choice of wording, but I think it's the closest I can describe it. I mean, if you boil Equal Rites down to its base themes, it isn't about magic. Sure, the magic is a big part of it, but it is ultimately part of the setting, and you could probably rewrite this plot within a different genre or universe. Ultimately, Equal Rites is about the struggle of women entering the world of academia, specifically fields that are traditionally male-dominated. I know this will sound over-the-top, but that just blows me away. I absolutely love that this is the focus that Pratchett went for, because I cannot think of any other stories like it. And considering the fact that we still get news stories about how difficult it is to attract women to study STEM subjects, there really should be more stories tackling this subject. I think that while Terry Pratchett's humour is the element that people will recommend his books for, and I reiterate that it is very good, it is his social commentary that keeps his novels memorable and relevant even after nearly 30 years.
I will mention that Equal Rites does still feel like he's working out how the Discworld works sometimes. It's an issue that I had with the first two installments of the series, but it's less noticeable here. Having heard so much enthusiasm about the witches from my fiance though, I was a little surprised to only meet Granny Weatherwax. I can only hope that he settled into the groove a little more with the next few novels, as I do want to explore more of the Discworld soon.

A very funny novel about women entering and struggling with the predominantly male world of academia. Very insightful and I would be more than happy to read more that the Discworld had to offer. 4/5

Next review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Signing off,

Friday, 22 July 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

There are two main reasons that I can think of why I picked up Perfume. Firstly, the idea of a man who kills in order to preserve the scent of a young virgin is kind of fascinating in a sickening way, and there is a part of me that does relish narratives like that every once in a while. Secondly, I have very little sense of smell myself and I was curious to see what a novel with smell as its primary sense would read like. I guess I wanted to see if it could be conveyed clearly even to someone with my dulled olfactory sense.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an intensely strange and disturbing man throughout his equally disturbing life. From the moment that he is abandoned by his mother to die beneath her fish stall, he is seen as different by those who meet him, though they couldn't necessarily be able to explain why. Whilst growing up, he realises that he has an unusually heightened sense of smell, and he develops a desire to become the world's greatest perfumer and to recreate the particularly exquisite scent of a young virgin girl. And he will do anything in order to possess that scent.
Perfume is an odd book to try and review, because while there is nothing that I can point to within the novel and say that this part is badly written or included unwisely, there is something about the work as a whole that left me a bit cold.
I suppose that I can start with what definitely did work, which was the writing itself. It is kind of unusual for me, most of the time I can point at characters, scenes or even themes that endeared me most to the book. But here, it was the style itself that really caught me. In some ways, it reminds me a little of The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele d'Annunzio, because the two have a similar way of enriching their comparatively simple narratives with grandiose sensory accompaniment. Where d'Annunzio focuses on visuals, Suskind brings this world to life through a cavalcade of different scents. I keep trying to think how to describe it and the word lush always seems to come to mind: rich and abundant, if not always (or indeed often) pleasant. It is an enthralling experience to imagine that crush of scents and definitely makes up for some of the lesser elements of the book.
I suppose that my main issue is with the main character, Grenouille. Don't misunderstand me, in his own way he is an interesting and well-written character. It was certainly refreshing to have a villain protagonist at least. I suppose my issue with him is that he is more or less a static character. While he creates conflict and has epiphanies about himself throughout the novel, I didn't feel that there was much real change in him at all. At various points in the narrative, he is compared to a tick, parasitic and infinitely patient. Neither of those key personality traits change at all, and considering that his is the perspective that the narrator sticks to for long chunks of the novel it does start to feel a little flat and one-note at times. It's not a huge issue, but I found it noticeable enough to bother me.

I found Perfume an odd book, but a mostly satisfying read. I would give it a shot simply for the lush sensory element of the writing style, although I did find myself a bit bothered by the static characterisation of the villain protagonist Grenouille. A book that I would recommend maybe reading once, but I can't see myself re-reading it any time soon. 3.5/5

Next review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Ever since starting my blog, I had heard good things about Edith Wharton. She wasn't an author that I had heard of before then despite being what one could class as a "classic" writer. Considering that the praise for her writing was immense from the blogs that I followed, I thought that it might be an idea to try out one of her books that I had seen particularly touted, The House of Mirth.

The House of Mirth follows Miss Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman who seeks to climb the ladder of her social circle amongst New York's nouveaux riche. Brought up with a strict aversion to dinginess despite her family's comparatively modest means, she aims to marry a husband who can provide her both with luxury and endless admiration. She finds herself, however, meeting a succession of obstacles born out of missteps of conduct that would be harmless enough were her peers not morally bankrupt to one extent or another.
I already mentioned that I had heard good things about Edith Wharton's books, but damn could that lady ever write. It has been a long time since a book has been well-written enough that I have been so torn between putting it down because it's too tense, and continuing reading because I need to know what happens. Admittedly, I do have a weakness for books that fall into the comedy of manners, especially those that are particularly sharp and backstabbing, but there is something particularly engaging about The House of Mirth. I believe that the key to its success is the main character, Lily Bart. She is the feminine epitome of the classic tragic hero: have a particular flaw that causes her to make a mistake great enough that she suffers a great fall and enough pride that she cannot undo the mistake once she has made it. What makes Lily interesting is that her flaw is essentially that she has scruples. At the beginning of the novel, she knows that in order to attain the wealth that she wants, she needs to act in a certain way to attract a particular rich gentleman. But she fails at the last hurdle because she finds herself unable to tolerate the idea of the vapid life that she would lead as a result, always having to keep up these lies in the process. And this continues throughout the novel: she meets an obstacle or fixes on a goal, gets most of the way there through scheming and manipulation, but is brought up short by an abhorrence towards the very underhanded tactics that can only benefit her. It's a fascinating inner struggle to watch, but certainly not an easy one to stomach at times. Towards the end, it also becomes increasingly obvious what the end has to be, but it is no less enthralling because of that .

A fascinating look at one woman's struggles with the social mores of her peers, and her incompatible needs for integrity and wealth. Fantastically written and definitely one to pick up if you have the time. 5/5

Next review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Signing off,

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those novelists that, as an avid reader, I have felt kind of compelled to try for several years now. This was only made worse by studying the film adaptation of her novel Orlando. I loved that film, and I felt kind of intrigued then about what kind of writer she would actually be. Because while I had obviously heard of her, I didn't really have much of an idea what sort of books she actually penned. Being somewhat stumped there, I decided that it might be better to start with one of her more famous novels, Mrs Dalloway, and see how I got on from there. 

Mrs Dalloway focuses on a single day in June in 1923, a day that Clarissa Dalloway spends preparing for a party that she and her politician husband will be hosting that evening. While the reader follows probably around 20 different characters during the course of the narrative, the main two characters are probably Clarissa and Septimus Warren Smith. The former spends her day preparing for her party whilst thinking back on her youth when she is reacquainted with the man that she almost married. Meanwhile, Septimus is accompanying his wife to the doctors, who she believes will help him recover from the shellshock that he has developed following the Great War. 
Having now read Mrs Dalloway, I find myself in a rather unusual position. I seem to have found a book that I would much rather study than read for pleasure. It is a position that I actually found myself in with Don Quixote back in university: while I hated that novel with an unrelenting passion, as my reviews on this blog will attest to, I found it incredibly easy to write about, and I don't think I would be far wrong in considering the essays created in analysis of it to be some of my finest critical work. I imagine that, had I been given Mrs Dalloway as a set text by one of my lecturers, I would have had a similar reaction. And I find that that bothers me. 
So, why would I want to re-read it for study? Well, first of all the writing is absolutely stunning, a stream-of-consciousness style that is both extremely fluid and yet also dense with description and observation. It is quite difficult to interpret at points, and I would imagine that it would benefit from reading it in long uninterrupted stretches. There's also a kind of equivalent density of ideas and connections by theme, that I could well see being fascinating to pull apart and compare in an academic setting. So definite plus points there. 
Emotionally though? For me it falls flat. A whole host of characters are followed and examined in great detail, but the fact that everything happens in one day means that for the majority of them, nothing really sticks. There are a couple of characters that end the day in monumentally different circumstances than those they started in, but even then that huge change feels very much like the logical chain of progression with regards to their personalities as they are presently. And it annoys me that this is the case, because the academic part of me wants to love Mrs Dalloway, while the reader in me is annoyed because in some ways it feels like a huge waste of time. 

I can only give Mrs Dalloway a mixed review in the end. While there is an analytical part of me that wants to go through the narrative with a fine tooth-comb to pick apart the language and the themes, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it because emotionally it left me absolutely dead. I'm sure that there are those who could read this and love it without a problem, but I was not one of them. Mrs Dalloway is a clever book certainly, but also in some ways a bit throwaway. 3/5 

Next review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 

Signing off, 

Friday, 8 July 2016

A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Continuing in my literary vein, I decided to pick up A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde. I am something of a fan of the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, and the theme of duality is always an interesting one to explore. Add in the promise of a bit of the supernatural and I was really looking forward to this.

Robert Lewis is a young actor currently rehearsing for the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde in a new production of the Stevenson play. When he is the victim of a bike accident one foggy morning in his home city of Edinburgh, he leaves the hospital and finds the world stranger and darker than he remembered it. He must try and resume his life as best he can when the world seems to be actively conspiring against him.
I hated this novel so damn much. There are two principle reasons for why A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde just does not work, and conveniently it works out as one reason for each part that the novel is split into.
So, the reason I didn't like Part 1? The main character Robert. He was a reasonably well fleshed-out character, but that didn't matter, because apparently all this guy could do was whine and gripe about how much better an actor he is than everybody else and why does nobody love him?! When your plot for the entirety of the first part is a complaining two-bit hack being repeatedly humiliated by similarly awful people and planning to get revenge on his not-quite-ex-girlfriend, it gets really pathetic really quickly. I had hoped for it to improve as he got more into the role of Jekyll and Hyde, but then Part 2 happened and it just plummeted even further in my estimation than I ever thought it could.
The reason I didn't like Part 2 is some major spoiler material, but at this point I doubt that I am selling this piece of trash to anyone, so here goes anyway. Part 2 is where you find out that it was all a dream. Honest to god, it turns out that the entirety of the previous part was a dream experienced while a writer was in a coma following a bike accident. I didn't think that a twist this hackneyed and cliched actually passed through publication houses. I don't think I've actually seen this twist played out since I was in pre-school, and that was only because people assume that children have ridiculously low standards. So not only have I suffered through Robert's bitching and snivelling in the first place, but it then turns out to be entirely pointless because he's not actually real. Great. I am still considering burning A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, it pissed me off that much. You cannot pull bullshit like this and then parade it around like it's high art. No.

I am just so angry at this book for wasting my time. The first part is marred by a protagonist so up his own arse that he could probably count as a genuine ouroboros, and then the second part manages to make it even worse with a twist that is usually confined to the worst and most patronising of children's fiction. Don't bother with this at all. 1/5

Next review: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Signing off,

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

The last volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. After so much time spent overlooking the series, I was finally about to the read the last installment. I had some pretty decent hopes considering that I had thoroughly enjoyed the last three books that I had read of it. And the idea that the plot would be sparked by a false Aslan was too intriguing to pass up.

In The Last Battle, Jill and Eustace find themselves summoned again to Narnia to assist King Tirian against a false Aslan who has sold the Talking Animals to the Calormenes as slaves and cut down the Dryad forests. Facing odds never before seen in Narnia's history, they must prepare themselves for a momentous battle in the darkest hour.
I wanted to like this so much, but The Last Battle just manages to fail in two ways that are massive dealbreakers for me.
First, I had kind of hoped that the racism thing might have been more or less contained within The Horse and His Boy, but oh boy was I wrong. Turns out that The Last Battle is the installment that decided that blackface was needed. When Tirian and the children decide to darken their skin to infiltrate the enemy forces at page 60, I knew with a sinking feeling that this would not be one of the Chronicles of Narnia that I would be able to recommend. Just everything involving the Calormenes felt so uncomfortable, because it's the whole "evil dark people" bullshit without any real examination. They embody the worst parts of both heathens and non-believers in one set of characters, and I would be hard-pressed to think of a depiction of PoC characters that is worse than this without being created by the KKK. When the dwarves start insulting them and calling them "Darkies", it was a startling reminder that this story is being told by someone who would be our equivalent of a bigoted older relative that you tolerate out of familial duty.
Second, there was the ending. The Last Battle has an ending that you know is meant to be the happiest of happy endings, but it just comes across as weird and wrong and utterly terrifying instead. So Narnia has its end of days after King Tirian makes a final doomed stand. While I will give kudos to Lewis for actually depicting Narnia's apocalypse, it feels really wrong to read about a world that you've spent seven books in just get washed away. Then they travel to Aslan's home, where they find that he has the best of all possible worlds all packed into one presumably non-euclidean space. And all but one of the children who had adventured in Narnia can now stay with Aslan forever because they died in a train accident. Yeah. Lewis just sort of jams that bombshell in on the last page, and the reaction is surprisingly calm. They all just sort of accept this right off the bat, none of them wondering how their surviving relatives are coping with this tragedy. I mean, they insult Susan to no end, but for her this is the day when all three of her siblings, both her parents, one of her cousins and the old man who looked after her during evacuation die in a tragic train accident. No-one asks after her. Apparently liking lipstick is enough to get you barred from heaven. And another thing. That's a great lesson to teach kids: no matter how good life gets, once you get a glimpse of God's graces you will never be truly satisfied until you're dead. If that doesn't creep you out, then you are obviously the audience that C. S. Lewis was aiming at.

A really disappointing end to the series. Unremittingly racist in tone and with a creepy bombshell ending, I can't really find anything to recommend here. End the series with The Silver Chair, it only goes downhill from there. 1/5

Next review: A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Signing off,

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott

I picked up The Upright Piano Player at around the same time as Hotel du Lac, as I was evidently in a literary fiction kind of mood. This does contrast nicely with my last read though: older vs within the last decade, established writer vs debut writer, that kind of thing. And with a hint of a thriller about it, I had some moderately high hopes for this one.

In The Upright Piano Player, the reader follows Henry, a man well known for both his business sense and his strong set of principles. After he takes early retirement, however, he finds his well-ordered life beginning to fall apart around him. His ex-wife contacts him with news that she's terminally ill, his son reappears in his life after years of estrangement, and he finds himself the victim of sustained harassment starting with an assault on the eve of the new millennium. All of these stand to test the defences that he has built up over the course of his lifetime.
After all the cover quotes describing The Upright Piano Player as wise and moving and elegant, I was severely disappointed by the jumbled mess of a book that I actually got. I think that the main problem that this book has is a lack of focus, a flaw that mires the entirety of the book in self-congratulating meandering that believes itself to be deep words of wisdom. Mostly this can be seen in the two main plot strands that trouble Henry throughout: his turbulent history and reintegration with his estranged family, and the harassment that he suffers at the hands of a stranger. If this were a competent debut, the two plot threads would at some point become entwined with one another and feed into each other's tension. As it is, the two never meet in any meaningful way, often being split by a literal ocean. It feels very much like the author was torn between writing a thriller and writing the next great novel about the human condition. Apparently unable to pick between the two, he slaps both of them onto the page and cobbles together a semblance of a plot where both could maybe happen simultaneously.
Another example of this lack of focus is the glaring difference between the main body of the novel set in 1999-2000 as described above, and the brief section of Henry's life in 2004 that is narrated at the beginning. I am in two minds about this section. On the one hand, it is the only section that isn't desperately pedestrian in writing style, and it actually manages to convey a startling amount of emotion in a very short space. When I read that first part, with Henry attending the funeral of his own grandson whose death he feels more that partly responsible for, I was really excited for the rest of the story. On the other hand, it is completely and utterly pointless in regards to the actual story. It never comes up again. I don't know, maybe Abbott had to bump up the word count or something, but I cannot forgive the way that such a heartfelt piece of writing could just be stapled on at the beginning like that, with no intent to resolve anything brought up as a result of that funeral scene. I would have read the novel about a grandfather trying to deal with guilt and grief, that could have been interesting. As it was, it is an impressive opening to a damp squib of a book. Highly infuriating.
The last thing that bothers me is the weird way that the characters act sometimes, especially Henry's family. There are times during the novel where characters do things that seem to serve no other purpose than to cause Henry suffering, even if it was something that people generally wouldn't do in those circumstances. The most obvious example of this is the breakdown of Henry's marriage to his ex-wife Nessa, and the subsequent estrangement from the rest of his family. So, Henry's marriage ends when Nessa has an affair to make up for her husband's frequent absences at work; when it comes out publicly and her new squeeze leaves her in the lurch, Henry rejects her when she tries to come back to him. All well and good so far. It's tragic, but I can understand why he wouldn't want to be with someone who can so easily betray his trust. What I can't understand is his son's decision to side entirely with his mother to the point of cutting off all contact with Henry. Sure, the man is curmudgeonly and a workaholic, but this is not something that people decide to do lightly and it certainly isn't a cruel decision of his regardless of what the book would like us to think. As such, the son's decision is utterly mind-boggling, especially when you find out that Henry was a grandfather for 4 years without even knowing that his son had gotten married, let alone had children. That the son doesn't once consider whether that was a bad decision is kind of horrifying. That's a level of callousness that I would hope most people would never deliberately inflict on their family. The fact that Nessa appears to be characterised as only a step below the second coming of Christ only makes this whole family debacle all the more frustrating. Just because she's dying doesn't mean you can't depict her like the flighty bitch that she is.

This is a mess through and through. The lack of focus is the biggest flaw, with the narrative vacillating between a story about family ties and a thriller, with a partially written study on grief stuck to the beginning with apparently no thought of how it affects or interacts with the rest of the novel. Additionally, it would appear that some characters do things specifically so that the main character can suffer a bit more. And to add the cherry on top, the title of The Upright Piano Player doesn't have any significance whatsoever. It would have been more accurate if they'd titled it "Misery for Misery's Sake". 1.5/5

Next review: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

I vaguely remember picking up Hotel du Lac at a hospital bookshop, though I probably couldn't tell you why. I would imagine that I had heard good things about it from other bloggers that I followed at the time, which would probably go further in my mind than it winning the Booker Prize would. I suppose I wanted something a bit gentler after the cluster of awful that was Keeping It Real, and when one of the reviews calls it "a smashing love story" I had at least pleasant expectations. 

Hotel du Lac follows Edith Hope, a romance novelist who has been exiled by her friends after she commits a social scandal that has left all those involved humiliated. Retreating to the eponymous Hotel du Lac, she intends to take advantage of her arrival taking place out of season by powering through her current novel while she waits for things to die down at home. Without intending it, she is drawn into the personal dilemmas of the other out-of-season residents and finds herself re-examining who she is as a person. 
That quote I mentioned above about this being a smashing love story was from the Times. I am almost certain that whoever they got to review Hotel du Lac didn't actually read it, since this is most definitely not a love story. Unless it was a half-hearted attempt to try and define what it is genre-wise, since that is a bit of a tough question to answer. If I were to try and define it as anything, then I would call it a character study, although it is strangely static and timeless. I hear that there is a film adaptation by the BBC, but I honestly can't see that translating well to screen considering that almost all the actual development is in Edith's head. In terms of her behaviour towards her other guests, she is more or less treated like a sounding board throughout her stay as she plays the quiet and unassuming spinster. So to try and translate major alterations that play out in such an understated character must be difficult if not impossible. It felt weirdly like a long, protracted dissociative episode of Edith's, where everything feels both unreal enough that events must be happening to other people and yet grave enough that she must pay attention to see how it will affect her. I don't think I'm selling it particularly well, but I did quite enjoy it in a muted and kind of unsettled way. I think that if you have the patience to read it and mull over it a little, then you could get a lot out of it, if not necessarily in a way that you could describe with ease. 
I will just mention the gender politics, since that seems to come up as a negative point in some of the more recent reviews that I have found for Hotel du Lac. Edith comes out pretty quickly and says that she prefers the company of men to that of her own gender, which is why it frustrates her a little to find that most of her company both at home and at the hotel are female. And she slowly builds up a picture of her view of gender that is inherently combative: the interactions that one has with their own gender leads them to instinctively seek out company outside of that, and will generally lead to marriage. At one point she states that women bond over shared sadness, but will use happiness as a weapon against other women. I can definitely see why people find that an uncomfortable thing to read, especially given that it was written in the 80s and shouldn't we have known better by then. I would argue though that this is perhaps a little unfair. This is coming from a woman fast approaching her forties, constantly being told by her publishers that her protagonists need to be harder and edgier to better suit the ideal of the era, and constantly having to ward away attempts to set her up by her friends. She is being told on all sides that she does not fit the standards of an ideal woman and will therefore be doomed to loneliness. And given that our society is constructed in such a way that marriage is often perceived to be the ultimate goal for women, a stance propagated both by men and women, it must feel very much like she is under attack for the way that she lives. So while I don't entirely share her sentiments, I feel that it makes sense for her character and that she definitely has reason for thinking as she does. 

A languid novel that shows Edith's character changing in response to the weirdly static nature of her surroundings and the oddly flat characters that live within it. It is a curious read, like stepping into a dissociative bubble where places and events are both momentous and utterly inconsequential. If you have the patience to mull it over, I think you could gain a lot from reading Hotel du Lac. I know that some have issues with some of the gender politics stated by the main character, but while they are not something that I entirely agree with, I think that they make sense for an unmarried woman stuck in a marriage-obsessed world. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

I started Keeping It Real with some rather mixed expectations. On the one hand, I had picked the book up in Forbidden Planet, saw the blurb and liked it. I mean, from the description, it sounded kind of similar to the setting of the Shadowrun games, but with more of a romantic slant to it, so what's not to like? On the other hand, my occasional guest poster has since read another of Justina Robson's books in the meantime, The Glorious Angels, and he absolutely despised it. I think it's the first time that I've ever actually seen him get disgusted that something like it got published, especially by Gollancz, an imprint that he seems to rather like. And having read some of that, I could see why. So what enthusiasm I had for the book initially had waned somewhat, but I still figured that I'd give it a go. What could go wrong?

Keeping It Real follows Lila Black, a secret agent who is assigned to her first mission after being rebuilt into a cyborg body. She is assigned to protect Zal, an elven singer who is causing controversy by being the decadent rock-star that the Elf realm is entirely opposed to. But there is more to this musician than he will admit to her, to the point where the fate of all the other realms may hinge upon his safety. The fact that there is some magically-enhanced sexual tension brewing between the two will only make Lila's job more difficult.
I really don't know why I still entertained a shred of hope that Keeping It Real would be in any way good. I want to try and talk about its failures in a structured way, but honestly there's a lot to cover. Let me just say to start with that my overwhelming impression of the book is that this is the result of telling an alien the basics of writing and certain genres, then telling it to have a go. The elements of a good or at least passable novel are in there, but they only seem to be there in order to push the plot along. The characters for example. I tried so hard to warm to them, to relate to them, but all seemed absolutely futile. Characters will be going along quite happily, sticking to the logical path for their attributed characteristics, only to then go and do something monumentally stupid or weird in order to push the plot along. Then they'll go right back to how they were, as if this were totally normal behaviour. As a result, this makes both the political intrigue and the sex scenes fall totally flat. For the political intrigue, the fact that I had no idea what anyone actually wanted or why made the latter chapters where Lila is pretending to be controlled by a ghost living in her body tedious and confusing; if I can't pick out a motive, connect it to a personality and understand why the two work together, then political intrigue turns into needless complexity. Normally I like intrigue. Normally I don't find myself urging the protagonist to just break the antagonist's neck because that's the quickest way out of this interminable situation. And as for the sex scenes. I should not be bored by a sex scene. Even badly written sex scenes have an element of humour to appreciate them with. The absence of personality from an otherwise decently written sex scene is an absolute kiss of death. It makes you pick holes in the entire scenario. The first one is particularly confusing to consider. Lila and her travelling companion are in a rush and being actively pursued, so why would they pick that exact moment for sexy times? For that matter, why with each other considering that said travelling partner is the reason that she is mostly robotic in the first place? I can appreciate putting differences aside when your goals are the same, but this is ridiculous unless it's hate sex (this isn't). And then it makes me think of more general questions about Lila having sex in the first place. Why would the government agency that put her back together include a fully functioning vagina alongside an arsenal of weaponry in each limb? That is, quite honestly, the last thing I think someone would include in their design for a walking death machine. Additionally, she's powered by a mini nuclear reactor, presumably somewhere in her abdomen. Does that not cause concern for any sexual partners, or does it take more exposure for that particular issue to become evident? In a more engaging book, I wouldn't be thinking about all the downsides of putting your dick next to a nuclear reactor, but here I am.
Additionally, the plot has an unpleasant habit of introducing setting and character details just as they become narratively important, almost like the author forgot until the last minute. Sure, I don't mind the odd surprise cropping up in a narrative, but it has to be properly set up first. The gun needs to appear in act one before you can fire it in act two, otherwise it just looks like the author is making shit up as they go along. For example, I mentioned above that Lila is possessed at one point. Whilst possessed, she destroys a little flower belonging to the ghost possessing her. Said flower was never mentioned before this point despite the rest of his earthly possessions being detailed, and yet it is monumentally important both in terms of the ghostly possession itself and in a more social context. That's just poor writing.

Don't bother. The characters are flat and do hugely stupid things that are out of character for any sane person, purely to move the plot along. The political intrigue is tedious because the motives are difficult to determine or so asinine as to be not worth mentioning. The sex scenes are competently written but devoid of any feeling, meaning you pick holes in the whole premise of the scene and the characters therein. And the plot introduces important elements mere moments before they come into play. It's so poorly constructed that I marvel that it was ever picked up in the first place. 1/5

Next review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.

Signing off,