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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Interview with the Vampire has been sitting on my shelf for probably around a decade unfinished, as I found myself time and again getting around two thirds of the way through it, only to leave the final part untouched, despite the fact that at no point was I not enjoying. This time though, I decided that it wouldn't defeat me.

Interview with the Vampire follows an interview between Louis, a vampire from the 18th century, and a human journalist who finds himself fascinated by the story that his subject unfolds for him. Louis tells the story of his life, from his brief years as a human plantation owner, through to his interminable centuries as a creature of the night and the few companions that he meets over the years.
In terms of story and pacing, I have little with which to fault this book. Although at times Louis' narration can seem flowery, it fits with the tone of the book, which is pretty much melodrama with more than a hint of melancholy. The characters don't necessarily act or react in ways that are particularly human-like, but then the reason for that becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative goes on, and it really does work: they are not really likeable individuals, but they are fascinating nonetheless. And in combination these characters act in ways that are intensely unhealthy and uncomfortable to read about, but somehow you still don't want them to split away from one another. Really, while I enjoyed each element of the book both in isolation and as a whole, I think I know the reason why I couldn't finish it until now. While the tone is more or less dispassionate, there is still an emotional intensity that I found difficult to stomach at times. There is much made of the vampire race's propensity for detachment, but what that leads to is greater and greater extremes of cruelty and decisive action, made to seem normal by Louis' unusual perspective. All very interesting to read about, but when I had turned the final page, I felt utterly exhausted by the whole endeavour. Perhaps that's just me, but there are few books that have left me as drained as Interview with the Vampire did. And I think I would be interested in reading more of Anne Rice's work, though maybe not right now. Give me some time to rest and all.

Really can't fault Interview with the Vampire in regards to its story and characters, as they are absolutely fascinating. I would be prepared for something quite emotionally draining though, so maybe not a book to read when already melancholy. 5/5

Next review: Das Boot by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim

Signing off,

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Surrogate by Tania Carver

I picked up The Surrogate for the very simple reason that I'd never read anything where the plot occurs somewhere that is local to me, let alone a crime series. As such, I was curious to see how the more-or-less peaceful market town that I'm familiar with would be portrayed.

The Surrogate follows DI Phil Brennan as he is called to the scene of a serial killer's latest brutal crime. This killer has been targeting heavily pregnant women, incapacitating them and then removing their unborn child. With significant pressure from his superiors to get the murderer behind bars, quickly if possible, a criminal profiler is brought in to assist their more traditional police work. But the woman they bring in, Marina Esposito, has some unresolved history with the local police, and with DI Brennan in particular.
I think I might have an inkling how weird it must be for Londoners to keep reading about murders happening practically on their doorstops now. Even though I knew it was coming, I had quite a few moments when reading this initially where my brain would pause and go "I used to go swimming there". Not especially helpful when reading about the killer stalking his next victim, but there you go. It mostly wore off by the end, so I guess it must be a feeling that wears off pretty quickly. For the most part, I did sort of wonder why the author had chosen Colchester of all places to place her murder mystery. There is a line right at the beginning of the book where one of the officers gives the whole "crimes like this don't happen in a town like Colchester" spiel, only to refer to Ipswich not expecting the activities of the Suffolk Strangler back in 2008. The thing is though, I remember the atmosphere back when those murders were happening, and the feel of the book doesn't seem to match up. When I was growing up and the Suffolk Strangler was active, the tension was palpable wherever you went, even if you were trying to carry on as normal. With The Surrogate, I guess I was expecting to see a similar sort of fear and tension, especially considering the brutality of the crimes depicted, but there didn't seem to be any real kind of reaction from the general public shown at all, which I found a bit disappointing. There is tension, certainly, but it doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with the location; honestly, if I hadn't recognised a load of landmarks from personal experience, it could have taken place anywhere, and it seems like a waste of a decent setting.
In terms of the actual murder plot, I thought it held up pretty well. The murders are intensely disturbing, especially when your heavily pregnant coworker is sat right behind you. Quite glad I don't get asked about my reading material much these days, now that I think about it. There are a lot of twists and turns, and a couple of rather clever red herrings thrown in. Really good all in all, but not something that I can really discuss in great detail. The other sizeable part of the plot deals with the relationship between Phil Brennan and Marina Esposito, as they meet as ex-lovers whose last encounter ended more than a little messily. I feel kind of torn about this. On the one hand, the two of them are interesting, incredibly damaged people who I want to read more about. Hell, this was the first time that I've read a book where a main character regularly has panic attacks and just has to muddle along with it. On the other hand, I don't think that the romance was necessarily handled all that well. If I hadn't checked, I would have assumed that I had accidentally picked up the second book in the series, as their prior relationship is kind of skimmed over and felt more like a recap from a previous story. Additionally, I feel like the previous relationship was used almost as a crutch in place of building sexual tension. I mean, their relationship healing is a big part of the narrative, to the point where it begins to feel tumorous and a bit melodramatic sometimes, but there didn't really seem to be much in the way of actual feeling behind it. So yeah, a bit conflicted.

If you want a tense, dark thriller, then The Surrogate really delivers with its disturbing murder plot. The romance subplot feels a bit rushed and tacked on, which is a shame because the characters seem likeable and definitely made me want to read more about them. For those readers in the Colchester area, this may be of some interest to you, although it doesn't fully realise the potential of the setting. I would probably still be interested in getting the next volume to see how the series progresses, despite its flaws. 4/5

Next review: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Signing off,

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Dracula the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

I seem to remember receiving Dracula the Un-Dead as a present, from a relative who knew that I had enjoyed the original Bram Stoker book and noticed that this was a sequel written by one of Stoker's descendants. I've always been a bit ambivalent about the prospect of reading it, because on the one hand it's a sequel to a book that I enjoy, but on the other I couldn't help but think that Dracula had ended on a pretty final and happy note, so couldn't really conceive of what the sequel could possibly run with. But, like many of my books, it has been on my shelf long enough that it has guilted me into finally picking it up.

Dracula the Un-Dead follows Quincey Harker, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, who decides to defy his father's decision for him to follow him into the realm and become an actor instead. He finds himself falling in with an actor named Basarab who is taking Europe's theatres by storm; Basarab's patronage leads to his inclusion in the troubled production of a little-known gothic novel named Dracula, headed by its author Bram Stoker, and the revelation of a whole host of secrets that his parents have kept from him.
I have some seriously mixed feelings about Dracula the Un-Dead, especially when considering it as an official sequel to the original 1897 novel. If I were to sum up my feelings, I feel that this novel had the wrong audience in mind. This is where the author notes at the back really help, because without them the book could seem somewhat incompetent. Basically instead of feeling like a true sequel to Dracula, it feels like something that you would get if Hammer Horror were given permission to make a direct sequel to the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, and they also had a surplus of fake blood that hadn't been used in an earlier production. This is due to the fact that the authors make several alterations to the original canon and almost all of them have their origins in the various film adaptations that have been made of Dracula and the vampire fiction that it inspired. The two that are most egregious are as follows: first, that vampires burn up if exposed to sunlight, and second, that Mina Harker and Dracula had a romance. They are direct references to F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula respectively, and they encompass the main problem that I have with the novel: it is aimed squarely at the fans of the film adaptations, and not at the fans of the original novel. I somehow doubt that out of all of the people who have watched and enjoyed a Dracula film adaptation there are many who decided that they would read the source material afterwards, and if they aren't reading the original novel, who on earth would assume that they would pick up the sequel. The people who would pick up the official sequel are people like me, who enjoyed the original Dracula and won't necessarily have watched many of the film adaptations; we're going to notice the alterations and there's a strong possibility that the only reaction you'll provoke is one of irritation.
The other main issue that I have with Dracula the Un-Dead is the presence of Bram Stoker himself. The authors state that his inclusion in the narrative was meant to be a tribute to a man who was little appreciated beyond his friendship with eminent actor Henry Irving while he was alive, but the overwhelming impression that I got was not terribly favourable towards the author. While I can concede that depending on how it is written, Bram Stoker could well share the page with some of his own creations. But the way that the narrative unfolds, revealing that Stoker got the inspiration for his novel from some drunken stranger's story at a pub in Whitby and managed to get quite a lot of details wrong in the process, it gives the impression that he didn't actually have any decent ideas of his own. Combined with the way that the narrative quite happily alters or reimagines parts of the original Dracula, it seems less a tribute to a man poorly received in his own lifetime and more like a seriously backhanded compliment at best.
Honestly though, I feel bad that these issues were so big for me, because by itself Dracula the Un-Dead is actually a pretty decent vampire novel. There's intrigue, double-crossing, interferences from the police, violent deaths and blood up to your eyeballs. If it weren't trying to be an official sequel to one of the most influential Gothic novels ever, I could have enjoyed this a lot more.

A decent enough vampire romp that shoots itself in the foot by taking on the mammoth task of following Dracula. For me, the unnecessary concessions to the film adaptations and the unexpectedly backhanded way that it deals with Bram Stoker himself proved to be far too distracting for me to appreciate it more. 3/5

Next review: The Surrogate by Tania Carver

Signing off,

Friday, 15 January 2016

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn

If you've been following my blog for the last few posts, you'll probably have noticed that I seem to be on something of a mystery and period piece kick. Good thing for me that the two seem to gel quite well. As such, it probably won't surprise anyone that this installment is Death at Wentwater Court, the first novel in the Daisy Dalrymple series, a series of cosy mysteries set in the interwar period that I admitted to being so enraptured with a couple reviews ago. Evidently all I need do now is finally get round to watching the version of And Then There Were None that the BBC broadcast last month.

Death at Wentwater Court follows the series heroine Daisy Dalrymple as she visits the eponymous Wentwater Court in order to write a story for Town & Country magazine, about the stately home, its surroundings and history. Whilst there, however, she soon finds that all is not well with the family in residence, largely taking the form of Lord Stephen Astwick who has taken it upon himself to seduce the Earl of Wentwater's new wife. So when he is found dead in a skating pond, with evidence that it wasn't purely accidental, Daisy finds herself assisting Scotland Yard in their investigations.
Good Lord, this was the period cosy mystery that I've been looking for. After books tainted by either some unfortunately backwards attitudes, or principle leads who make less-than-convincing turns in the role of detective, this was a nice bit of harmless fluff that was nonetheless engagingly written and absorbing.
So, first thing's first. the detective. This role is taken more or less equally by the aforementioned Daisy, and the Scotland Yard inspector brought in specifically for his discretion, a man by the name of Alec Fletcher. The two of them work well together, as they take different approaches to the whole investigation: Daisy has an unusual talent of appearing approachable and kind towards listeners, while Inspector Fletcher has more experience asking the tough questions that Daisy would perhaps consider too delicate to broach. It's a nice balance, and enables the narrative to take a break from Daisy's viewpoint, which quickly becomes anxious and conflicted as it becomes more evident that she will find out that one of the people she has come to care about is a murderer. For a little while, it looked as though there might be a bit of a romance brewing between the two of them, but it was subdued at best. Perhaps something that will develop in later novels, but I'm glad that it didn't overshadow the main mystery.
It's easy to sympathise with Daisy's growing anxiety, as the majority of suspects are thoroughly likeable, or at least understandable. With the victim being the kind of cad that makes you wonder how he survived this long as it is, it makes the process of narrowing down who the guilty party is more difficult because most of the characters have motive to have him bumped off, leaving you to figure events out purely by opportunity.
Additionally, the period details are prominent enough to give some nice historical flavour without necessarily drowning out the narrative. It's a nice balance.

Overall, a solid period mystery novel and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I shall certainly be looking out for the next installment of the Daisy Dalrymple series if it continues with its strong leads, despicable villains, solid supporting cast and interesting period details. Definitely one to pick up for fans of cosy detective novels. 4/5

Next review: Dracula the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

Signing off,

Monday, 11 January 2016

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy by W. J. Burley

I have always been something of a fan of crime novels, so I'm always on the look-out for series that I haven't tried yet. I picked up Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy, knowing that it was part of a long-running series and had previously been adapted as a TV series, and figured that I had a pretty good chance of finding something that I would like. 

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy follows the eponymous Superintendent Wycliffe when he is summoned to the village of Kergwyns to investigate the murder of a young woman known locally as Pussy Welles. He soon finds that she had a reputation as something of a man-eater, resulting in a multitude of suspects all with credible reasons for wanting her dead, but no-one coming forward to make them clear. A further layer of complexity is added when it becomes clear that Pussy was expecting to die and had left behind a series of pointers for the police to find. 
I expected to like this a lot more than I did. If I were to point out anything that really stopped me from liking Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy, then it would probably be that it didn't really feel much like your average crime novel. Firstly, Wycliffe doesn't make a huge deal of sense as the main detective as he is too much of an introvert. Being an introvert is not in and of itself a barrier to being a good literary detective, as my favourite Sherlock Holmes can easily attest to, but Wycliffe seemed to take it too far. In the entirety of the novel, there is only one other police officer that he interacts with directly, and every one of those encounters is characterised by being antagonistic and rarely all that enlightening as regards the details of the mystery. Additionally, his style of investigation is peculiarly languid, more a matter of pestering the other residents of the village for gossip until it matches up with the physical evidence that his underlings collect on his behalf. It just didn't sit right with me at all. 
I could probably have forgiven it if the suspects were at all interesting. But no, every couple involved consisted of a henpecked, cheating husband and a wife who somehow didn't meet the standards that would make her a "proper woman". Even the gay couple, referred to unflatteringly as the queers, was made up of a screaming queen and yet another henpecked husband. Honestly, the only interesting one was Dampiers, a children's author who keeps to himself due to having a hunchback, but even that is ruined when the book decides that deformity or disability must equal mental instability which must thus equal EVIL. I just stopped caring after a while, because there was no-one that I could honestly say had any depth to them that didn't irritate me in some way. 

If you're looking for a crime series to immerse yourself in, I personally wouldn't bother with Wycliffe. His style of detecting is more or less that of a paid gossipmonger and he doesn't seem to want to be there any more than his suspects do. In addition, the suspects become a homogenous glob of irritation and selfishness. The scenery sounds nice at least. 2/5 

Next review: Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

When you pick up a book promising contents that are like a mixture of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes if it were written by Tolstoy, there has to be at least a little part of you that is intrigued by that description. That's pretty much the sole reason that I picked The Winter Queen up really, curiosity and a desire to see if it can live up to the big claims made on its behalf.

The Winter Queen starts with an unpleasant but seemingly innocuous event, when a wealthy student shoots himself in the middle of a public park in Tsarist Russia, amongst scores of witnesses. The papers dismiss the incident as an unfortunate consequence of the youths of the day's seemingly endemic selfishness. But a young police officer by the name of Erast Fandorin sees the incident and, following a weird gut instinct that he has about the whole affair, finds that there may be something far more sinister afoot than initially meets the eye. He begins to uncover a plot that will take him from Moscow all the way to London and back.
I'm really not sure how to consider The Winter Queen. On the one hand, I like that the story is tightly plotted and at times incredibly tense; on the other, I find something of the coincidences to be really quite outlandish even for a cosy mystery. On the one hand, I like Fandorin because he seems genuinely sweet and gentlemanly and kind of dorky; on the other hand, his perceptiveness is easily matched and perhaps overwhelmed at times by his incredible lack of perception when it comes to people and their true motives. The vast majority of me wants to recommend this book, because the plot is genuinely interesting with an ending that is completely out of left field and totally gripping because of it. Additionally, Erast Fandorin is a detective unlike any other that I've seen: a little bit vain, more than a little foppish, incredibly earnest and overwhelmingly sweet and good-natured. These are things that I can look at and say "This is a book that entertained me and left me wanting to continue reading the series." But then I can't deny another voice, almost as loud, that leaves me unsatisfied. While the plot is well-written, it can feel a bit predictable at times, the ending aside. You learn fairly quickly that if Fandorin appears to be doing well, then he's missed a factor and is about to be sorely disappointed. That leads me nicely to my next point: while he is a detective like no other, that's also a fairly major negative for me at times, as it means that he's really not very good at times. Honestly, other than some admittedly good thinking in his few brief moments of peace and quiet, he has a habit of doing some really stupid things. He doesn't seem to understand that he isn't as good at tailing people as he thinks he is, and has a really bad habit of judging people by their appearances even after he should have realised that suspicion is a good trait for a policeman to have.

Overall, this feels a bit uneven. The story and the character of Erast Fandorin are well made, but there are too many points where I feel that Fandorin's flaws outweigh whatever analytical abilities he has. It meant that there were several times it felt like he got out of situations purely by chance, instead of through his own competence. A decent cosy mystery nonetheless. 3.5/5

Next review: Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy by W. J. Burley

Signing off,

Monday, 4 January 2016

Last Dance With Valentino by Daisy Waugh

I cannot for the life of me remember buying Last Dance With Valentino, but I'm pretty sure it must have come from the second-hand book stall that they had at uni. It seems like the sort of thing that I'd pick up on a whim and judging by the order of the reading list, that makes most sense. As for why I picked it up, it's probably to do with my weird sort of fascination that I have with the interwar period. There's something about that whole doomed youth thing, living on the edge because they've survived what they think must be the worst that life can throw at them, unaware that worse is around the corner. Plus, you have to love the whole early Hollywood glamour thing.

Last Dance With Valentino follows a young Englishwoman named Jenny Doyle in the ten years after she comes to America with her father in an attempt to escape the hardships of Britain in World War I. The storyline focuses on her decade-long love affair with an Italian immigrant dancer Rodolfo Guglielmi, who later becomes beloved by millions as the silent actor Rudolph Valentino. It switches between two plotlines, one starting in 1916 where their budding love affair meets with a series of tragic events stemming from their involvement with the de Saulles family, while the other starts in 1926 and focuses on the pair trying to reignite their relationship, unaware that further tragedy is on the horizon.
I'll admit, I wasn't really familiar with Rudolph Valentino or his work, but I'm sort of fascinated to find out what a sex symbol from the 1920s must have been like. Because I didn't really get to see much of Valentino considering that he's our narrator's love interest. Instead of a tragic love story, it seemed more like an experiment on how much misery the author can pile on one person within a set ten year period. Honestly, it got really tiring because there's only so much suffering that one character can go through before you need something to lighten the mood. And there wasn't really anything like that in Last Dance With Valentino. It was more moving from one source of unrelenting misery to another source of unrelenting misery. I think the author tried to add light moments in the form of Jenny getting work as a photoplay writer and being surprisingly good at it, but when you compare it to the death, abuse and addiction problems that she has to deal with it seems utterly paltry in comparison. Honestly, it's a real shame, because the author does have a fair amount of actual writing talent, with a really good ear for dialogue and great skills with settings. But the balance just wasn't right for me.

Not really my sort of thing. An interesting enough premise, just spoiled by the fact that there's a bit too much tragedy to get you properly invested. If you don't have the bright moments as contrast, the dark tragic moments just make everything a murky shade of grey. Well-written, but I wouldn't read it again. Maybe something to pick up if you're a fan of silent movies. 3/5

Next review: The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Signing off,