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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

After I, Lucifer, it seemed somehow appropriate to balance out something that cynical with the epitome of Christian parables masquerading as children's fiction. Hence I am starting my third attempt at reading the Chronicles of Narnia, see if I can get further than The Horse and his Boy this time.

The Magician's Nephew follows Digory and Polly, two young children who find themselves in a strange other world after Digory's obviously evil Uncle Andrew tricks them into helping with his magical experiments. They soon find themselves stuck with the Evil Empress Jadis and must find a way to send her back to her original world.
This is a book that was written in a style much more succinct than I remember. When I mentioned that Polly and Digory are soon saddled with Jadis, I really mean soon. It really doesn't take long for the plot to get rolling and for both magic and Empress Jadis to be introduced. Additionally, it is quite straightforward when it comes to language and character intent. On the one hand, this is quite refreshing after a lot of fantasy novels that need a lot of build-up for the actual plot to begin. Also, the straightforwardness makes surprisingly clear the sort of lies that adults will tell to make themselves sound reasonable or morally right. On the other hand, it means that the first meeting between Digory and Polly goes more or less like this:
Polly: You look like you've been crying.
Digory: Oh really? Maybe because MY MOTHER IS DYING! 
I don't know about you, but there is something about that subject matter that requires a touch more subtlety and build-up than it's really afforded. What should be solemn is made more absurd than anything.
The other thing that struck me reading The Magician's Nephew was that there are two sequences that really stand out from the rest of the book. First is the scene where Aslan creates Narnia, and second is the scene where Digory fetches the magical apple for Aslan. These scenes are noticeably prettier than the rest of the novel, where the pace doesn't feel quite as frenetic and the writing has a little chance to breathe. I can't help but notice that these are the passages with the most obvious parallels to Christian narratives, Creation and the Garden of Eden respectively. Considering how much better these passages are compared to the rest of the book, I can't help but wonder whether these were the scenes that Lewis wanted to write in the first place, with the rest included as a token attempt to give it some context. It does make the rest of the novel feel kind of disappointing.

The Magician's Nephew is a seriously unbalanced book. It's quite obvious that it was only really written as an excuse for Lewis to write his own version of the Creation and the Garden of Eden plot-lines. The rest of the novel seems rushed and absurdly unsubtle by comparison. But, I would still be tempted to say that it's worth reading for those scenes alone. 2.5/5

Next review: Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Signing off,

Saturday, 26 March 2016

I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan

I remember that I read I, Lucifer as a teenager, but honestly my recollection of it wasn't especially clear. So I decided to take a re-read of it to see if it I could remember more as I went along, and to see if my mixed opinion of it had changed.

I, Lucifer focuses primarily on, you guessed it, Lucifer. Fallen angel and Heaven's Enemy Number 1. The novel starts when Gabriel is sent to offer him a deal from God: if he can live a virtuous life as a human, then he can earn the chance for redemption and being accepted back into God's good graces. He manages to reach a compromise where he has a month's try before you buy period, for lack of a better term. One month to see what being human is truly like. Having no intention of taking up God's offer permanently, he takes up residence in the body of an author, Declan Gunn, who was midway through a suicide attempt and decides to use his new body's status to tell his side of history. And in the process, he comes to understand how humanity works.
I'm still mixed about I, Lucifer. On the one hand, Duncan's grasp of how Lucifer would present himself is startlingly convincing, with just that right balance of charm, ribald humour and unrepentant immorality. And it does take an interesting look at where freedom and free will sits when you assume that God has an overarching plan for the universe. There are several points in the narrative that are incredibly entertaining and/or thought-provoking and that's always a plus in my books. On the other hand though, there isn't really much story going on. Lucifer takes over Gunn's body, has a few sensory overload moments, then the book pretty much sticks to drug-fuelled debauchery right up until the last thirty pages. I don't know about you, but I find the whole drugs and alcohol, Hollywood debasing itself thing to be really boring. In small doses, yeah, it can add some tension to a novel. But for a large chunk of a 260 page novel? It just starts to drag and it makes you wonder whether the Devil would really be quite so obvious. The parts where he was exploring the senses, taking inordinate pleasure in 99 ice-creams, getting overwhelmed by the range of colour in flowers, that I liked. The hookers and blow? It was cliche and went on way too long. I mean, kudos for including the negative consequences of it in a kind of matter-of-fact way, but still.

A character study that makes some interesting points and has a suitably persuasive and charming narrator, but spends way too much time on the hookers and blow to keep the interest going. I'm disappointed that it didn't do some more interesting things with the premise. 3/5

Next review: The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,

Monday, 21 March 2016

Blood Work by Michael Connelly

I think that Blood Work was probably one of several crime novels that I have picked up during my trawls of the second-hand book stalls while staying with my grandparents. As such, this was probably more or less a whim purchase, picked up for a striking blurb.

Blood Work follows Terry McCaleb, a retired FBI agent who is taking time out to renovate his late father's boat whilst he recovers from a heart transplant. The last thing he is looking for is someone knocking at his door asking him for help. But when the sister of his new heart's donor comes by, he finds out that he is only alive as a result of a murder and he cannot bring himself to refuse the woman's request for help in finding the killer.
I wanted to like Blood Work more than I did. At its core, there is a solid enough mystery with some interesting turns and some genuine surprises worked into the mix. My main problem with it is that there are some pretty big departures from reality that are difficult to ignore, for me at least. You see, in my day job I work as hospital administration. So when the book makes all these errors about how hospital systems and security works, it makes me more than a little antsy. Firstly, there's the fact that Graciela, the victim's sister, meets up with McCaleb a mere two months after he's had his transplant, but only a couple of days since she actually started looking for him. Considering how much emphasis healthcare systems put on keeping donations private, you would think that it would take her years if she could figure it out at all. But nope. One article and the knowledge that he got a heart transplant right around the time that her sister was murdered and she rushes out to meet this guy on a hunch and just completely bypasses a system of anonymity set up in order to protect patient confidentiality. Later on, there's a particular system at the hospital that McCaleb needs to take a look at, and since he can't get an official warrant due to being retired, he manages to persuade two separate healthcare professionals to completely ignore their duty to protect their patients' confidential information and gets them to pull both patient and donor records. I'm sorry, but I call so much bullshit here. It's quite funny really, because mere paragraphs later he feels guilty for committing a crime by briefly impersonating a police officer, when he's already made his friends do far worse. I read this and had to conclude that Connelly either didn't know much about how hospitals work or just didn't care to be accurate, because I can't think of a single consultant or nurse who would risk being struck off or be stuck with a civil/criminal lawsuit all on the word of one civilian working on their own with no court order. He'd be kicked out before he could even finish introducing the idea. Considering that the law enforcement bit seems to ring more or less true, it disappoints me that the healthcare system is written so poorly. I appreciate that this may be a minor thing to most readers, but after two years in the NHS this stood out like a sore thumb and it just pissed me off to no end.
My other issue with Blood Work is that the ending seemed a bit clunky compared to the rest of the novel. For the majority of the book, there's a nice consistent pace that's fast enough to be gripping, but not so fast that it becomes exhausting. Then with about 40 pages to go, it has a moment where everything screeches to a halt, lull you into thinking that it's ending, then start up again. The last 30 pages didn't fit right because the pace seemed so uneven compared to what had gone before. More of a minor quibble for me, but for people not pissed off by basic misunderstandings of how hospitals work, I would imagine that this is the more pressing issue.

Really, I think I would have enjoyed this a hell of a lot more if Connelly had put the same effort that he puts into depicting law enforcement into his depiction of healthcare systems. As someone who works in a hospital, the liberties that he takes with patient confidentiality and the consequences of breaching it are glaring enough to completely distract me from the narrative itself. Not a bad crime thriller, but it has a lot of creative liberties taken that don't pay off. 3/5

Next review: I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan

Signing off,

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi

I've read Vampire Hunter D before and I remembered rather liking it the first time. So I decided to find out if it stood the test of time.

Vampire Hunter D follows Doris Lang after she is bitten by the vampire lord Count Magnus Lee. Desperate to avoid the fates of the average victim, she enlists the services of a dhampir vampire hunter known only as D. They find that the vampire may not be their only obstacle to overcome however, as they must contend with the Count's elitist daughter, Doris' jilted suitor and a beautiful but sadistic bandit.
Wow, rereading this put into stark detail just how low my standards used to be. There is a decent enough story buried in here, but there are just so many issues that make it really kind of incompetent. Where to start. I suppose I would start with the writing style, which just struck me as really stilted and overblown. How much of that is the fault of the translation or whether it was like that in the original Japanese I don't know, but it gets really distracting really quickly.
Second, there is some fairly detailed world-building, involving a pretty decent mix of high-tech and medieval as part of its post-apocalyptic setting, and an interesting origin of supernatural creatures as a result of widespread nuclear war. Unfortunately, the author has decided that the best way to get that across is in huge chunks of information dumping text. I don't mind detailed back-story, but it tends to come across better when it isn't squeezed into as little a space as possible.
Third, there are the characters themselves, who are more than a little unbalanced. On the one hand, we have our heroine Doris, who is meant to be both strong and independent with experience fighting the supernatural, but also have moments of vulnerability due to her relative age. What we actually end up with is your standard damsel in distress, whose combat abilities are so massively dwarfed by basically everyone they meet that she might as well not have them. Additionally, it is intensely aggravating for the narrative to basically imply that following the experience she is now totally defenceless and entirely dependent on her eight-year-old brother. On the other hand, we have the stoic vampire hunter D, who must battle with his own vampiric tendencies as a trade-off for his superior skills. What we actually get is a hero who is so massively overpowered that it removes any tension whatsoever from any scene where he is present. In particular the climactic final battle between him and the Count is sapped of any tension that it may have had earlier in the novel, seeing as the reader sees him bring himself back to life after being stabbed through the heart. If death can't stick for more than a couple of hours, then there are no stakes, it stops being interesting.

Honestly, nostalgia goggles made me want to like this, but it was just so poorly written. The language is overblown and stilted, there is far too many sections of solid unimportant background setting information, and instead of a hero and heroine battling as equals against the dark, the reader gets a heroine so underpowered that she may as well not bother and a hero so overpowered that it saps all tension from his battles. I wouldn't bother with it. 2.5/5

Next review: Blood Work by Michael Connelly

Signing off,

Monday, 14 March 2016

Envy by Sandra Brown

I can't remember picking up Envy to buy, but I have a pretty good idea what attracted me to it initially. The way that the blurb played out, it sounded like it would have a lot of suspense and intrigue. All in all, it looked nice and sinister to my jaded little eyes.

In Envy, the reader follows Maris Matherly-Reed, a New York editor who seems to have the perfect life. Working with a plethora of talented writers as part of her job at her father's publishing house, and married to a remarkably handsome and talented man responsible for the creation of her favourite book. Yet when she picks up the prologue of Envy from the slush pile, she finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew as she gets more deeply involved with the story of friendship turned destructive and its mysterious author, Parker Evans.
I feel more than a little torn about Envy. On the one hand, there is a lot to be commended. For one thing, the characters are all vividly portrayed and distinct. My personal favourite was Parker, but that may just be because I have a real soft spot for curmudgeonly characters with a heart of gold, regardless of how tarnished that gold is. The plot is also written in such a way that it keeps the tension high throughout, which is probably the main thing that saves the plot of Envy from sinking under its main problem. My main issue with the book that leaves me torn is that I had guessed the basic structure of the plot probably around the point that I finished the third or fourth chapter. Admittedly, my predictions about the finer points of the conclusion were a bit off, but having guessed the general shape of the plot so early, it was difficult to keep feeling quite as tense as I had hoped. So while I feel justified in saying that I found Envy to be a highly enjoyable book, I find myself wondering if it actually works as a thriller, simply because of the demands of the genre. If your genre dictates that you need to create suspense by introducing threat while withholding crucial plot information, then I don't think that this works terribly well, simply because it's almost painfully easy to figure out what the likely outcome of these circumstances are. While I wasn't expecting certain particulars of the finale itself, I don't think that works in its favour either, because the information withheld from the audience feels kind of cheap compared with the twists that had come earlier, predictable as they may have been. So yeah, I have a weird situation where the novel doesn't work as a thriller right up until the very end, at which point it stops ringing entirely true. I will say that despite the shortcomings, I did enjoy the experience and would probably read it again if I were looking for some high quality popcorn reading.

If I were to sum it up, I would say that Envy is a thriller that surprises far less than it probably should, but it's well written enough that you can kind of gloss over it. Maybe not for those who are looking for more tension, but still a solid enough effort. 3.5/5

Next review: Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi

Signing off,

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton

I had a lot of high hopes going into Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. Firstly, that title. It couldn't be more ridiculously British, could it? Secondly, a blog that I used to follow raved about this series. Thirdly, after the utter disappointment of De Sade's Valet, I was really hoping for something good to make up for it.

Our protagonist, the eponymous Agatha Raisin, is a middle-aged public relations guru who decides that it is time for her to take an early retirement and settle down in her dream cottage in the Cotswolds. Finding that her entrance to the village hasn't made as big of a splash as she would have hoped, she decides that the easiest way to make an impression would be to win the local quiche-making competition. Not being the baking type, she enters a quiche that she brought at a London deli. Unfortunately, the competition judge is found dead from poison after eating said quiche, giving her an instant reputation as both a cheat and a possible poisoner. She takes matters into her own hands in order to salvage what is left of her pride.
The Quiche of Death was exactly what I needed after my last disappointing read. I make no secret of the fact that I am enormously fond of cosy mysteries, and this first entry to the Agatha Raisin series ticks pretty much all of the boxes for qualities that I look for in that genre. First, there is an engaging main character/detective. Part of me feels that I may like Agatha because she embodies what I imagine that I will be like in my middle age: childless, lacking in both patience and social skills, and more than a little snobby, but with good intentions nonetheless. It is quite refreshing to have a protagonist who manages to rub everyone up the wrong way almost by accident. While her detective work wasn't as focused as I'm used to, it managed to blend into her general attempts to fit into village life rather well and didn't seem so out of place.
Second, the setting is pretty much perfectly depicted. In describing Carsely, Beaton manages to tread the fine line between twee and unnerving that is essential when depicting English villages. On the one hand, it is pretty and twee enough that it feels understandable why Agatha would settle there, being quiet and very traditional, contrasting nicely with her old life in London. On the other hand, it has to have that weirdly insular and unnerving feeling that I can only describe as "localness", the knowledge that you will pretty much be forever an outsider and the shockingly short amount of time that it takes for gossip to spread. There's a great line where Agatha's awful neighbour is being discussed, and within the same statement she's described both as an incomer and having lived in the village for over 20 years. It's that duality that makes Carsely seem believable.
I would say that the actual mystery part was a bit weaker, but not enough that it started affecting the quality of the novel itself. I suppose my main issue with it was that there didn't really seem to be much in the way of suspects or the kinds of big reveals. While it fit with the slower, more tentative pace set by Agatha learning her way around a new home, I don't think the mystery itself could have stood up as well by itself. I wouldn't say that it's a particularly big issue though.

A thoroughly enjoyable first installment to a detective series and I shall certainly be looking out for further entries to the series. Definitely recommended to fans of cosy mysteries and books about village life. The mystery itself is kind of weaker than your classic mystery plots, but I don't think the plot suffers hugely for it. Maybe one to pick up when you're in the mood for something a bit gentler. 4/5

Next review: Envy by Sandra Brown

Signing off,

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

De Sade's Valet by Nikolaj Frobenius

I don't remember picking this book up at all, but it probably ended up on my shelf because of the intriguing subject matter. I've not read anything by the Marquis de Sade, but he has enough of a reputation that I was interested to get a taste of what he and his work were like, without necessarily committing to reading titles of his that are more than a little intimidating.

De Sade's Valet follows the life of a man names Latour, who is born physiologically incapable of feeling pain. Obsessed with finding out how pain works and why he alone seems exempt from the sensation, he immerses himself in the world of the human body and dissections, eventually becoming the close accomplice to the Marquis de Sade.
Honestly, I had kind of expected to finish De Sade's Valet with at least some emotional impression, but apparently not. Considering the salacious subject matter, I would have at least expected to be either outraged or morbidly intrigued, but having finished the novel, it succeeded in leaving absolutely no impression whatsoever. I can't actually believe that a novel where the Marquis de Sade, a historical figure with an infamous reputation for cruelty and unusual sexual proclivities, is a main character can actually be so nondescript. I am almost impressed at this level of incompetence. I think the main problem that De Sade's Valet has is that of tone combined with writing style. Everything is uniformly ugly, from the people to the scenery to the events of the novel itself. There are moments of high drama with arrests and murder, but the writing style is so understated that they don't register as particularly dramatic or even notable. I would call it beige prose, but there is a startling amount of description so it doesn't quite fit the definition. Hell, I made it clear that I did not like Victims by Shaun Hutson, but in comparison to this it seems like a goddamn masterpiece. At least Hutson managed to evoke something, even if it was my everlasting disgust. With De Sade's Valet? What I got here was the literary equivalent of river sludge: unpalatable, but not especially interesting. It's really disappointing. Frobenius has an interesting topic here, with the Marquis de Sade and the desire to experience a sensation that you cannot physiologically experience, but he wastes it. The scenes of murder, dissection and orgies aren't described in enough detail to make them interesting and the characters aren't crafted well enough to save the understated prose. It is a novel that more or less fails on every level and leaves absolutely nothing in its wake.

Don't bother with this one. The tone is uniformly ugly and unpleasant, but not in enough detail to actually make an impression. I would actually have preferred if De Sade's Valet had outraged me, because that at least would be an impression. As it is, I've got nothing. 1/5

Next review: Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton

Signing off,