Review: The Shadow of The Wind

3/5

 

 

At the age of ten, Daniel Sempero is taken to a “forgotten cemetery of books” in Barcelona and told to choose one. It starts him on a quest that comes to determine the rest of his life…

I believe Stephen King said somewhere that he considers a story a promise to the reader: I’m promising you a good time, and I’m going to try my hardest to keep that promise when I write. If I fail, I know I tried my best.

I don’t think Zafon gave us his best. He gave us a first draft, full of hard turns that needed smoothing into corners. There were a lot of tangents we didn’t need to read because the story was strong enough without them.

In one instance, an aged nanny of an off-screen, never seen, character relates how her long-ago husband put a bag over her head when they had sex. Did that matter to the plot? No. Was it important? No. Was it in the story? Yes. Yes it was. For no reason whatsoever.

And that tangent was straight on the heels of another chapter of filler about an insane asylum where the nanny was detained. It didn’t do a thing except show Zafon had done his research, and by Harry, we were going to read it!

What it reminded me of…beginning writing guides mostly say the same thing: Compose a little backstory for every character, where they were born, who they fell in love with, etc, before you start writing. Then they go on to say leave it out of the story. The same with research. We don’t need to hear 99% of it.

The main story is set in the 1950s, but I also had trouble believing it. Characters relate details from the 1920s and 30s as though it were a few years ago, not twenty and thirty. It’s off putting as well, the fact that each of them has such perfect recall. One remembers that Carax’s father couldn’t sleep after a revelation. How would they know this?

And: How would someone know how a character smiled to the prostitutes who lived across the hall from him in 1948 or whenever? How would someone relating a story third hand know that a voice on the phone was asthmatic? It strained the narrative to a breaking point at times.

There were a lot of genres thrown into the story: Coming of age, tragedy, comedy, Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, murder mystery. Some of it even felt like a YA story. It lent the whole thing an unfocused quality that didn’t help the narrative.

It’s difficult to separate the characters from the writer sometimes. I sincerely hope that Zafon doesn’t consider women as objects to be smashed and knocked around, or that all he can see in them is sex or purity, with nothing in between. That’s all the women in this story are. It was set in the 1950s, but that doesn’t make the degradation of women easy to read.

And they have no internal lives except as mirrors that reflect the men around them. For example, a woman goes to Paris. She doesn’t marvel at the Metro, or visit the Eiffel Tower. She’s only complete there because a man is with her, and when she leaves, she’s incomplete. And remains so until, again, a man fills her life. Another ends up a desolate aging divorcee who has no life without a man in it. The woman who becomes Dan’s wife is the only one who seems to have a mind of her own.

Every character is torn apart from loneliness and isolation, pushing them to melodrama and desperate acts. It’s fine for the story, but everyone seemed to have their dials up to eleven all the time. Almost every motion and scene felt like the characters were chewing the scenery.

Dan remained the shallowest character throughout the story, a passive player…there wasn’t much depth to him beyond a horny teenager. Comic relief Fermin and the villain Fumero were the strongest. In fact, I was as terrified of psychopathic Fumero as the characters were. Whenever he appeared, he’d invoke a physical reaction of dread.

Counter balancing all this are moments of great beauty, powerful writing and wonderful descriptive passages. Zafon knows how to write weather so well that you feel it on your skin. In the last pages, a character opens a new book and “inhales the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books”. Beautiful. “Books are mirrors that reflect what we already are.” Someone says (Significant, then, that Fumero the villain has so few).

There are three more of these Forgotten Cemetery books, but I suspect they might all be essentially the same narrative voice and tangents, so I won’t be adding them to my TBR any time soon. Run them through an editor first, and then let me know when you have.

 

This was my second buddy read with my good friend Becky. She also hangs out a lot these days on Instagram.

(She’s still not a pancake, by the way!)

She’s always fun to read with, and I’m proud to call her my friend. She spots things I never notice, and vice-versa! It’s like reading a book with someone else’s brain.

And I don’t mean that in a trivial way.

She saw things I completely missed, like the sexism and the degradation of women throughout the story. I think that says a lot about how densenitised I am to it that I didn’t notice. But once she pointed it out, I realised how prevalent it was.

I’ve walked in Becky’s shoes for a while and caught a glimpse of the red flags she must see every day, flags I never realised were waving.

Because I’m a male, I don’t have to live in a world where every gesture I make or clothes I pick at random can be construed as something sexual or provocative. I’m sorry the women of the world have to live in a world like that. I’m sorry that I’ve let things like that pass without noticing them.

What particularly stuck with me was a rape scene she mentioned that I (and the story) just breezed over…but it caught in her mind.

Seeing the world through her eyes with this buddy read has been a learning experience for me and one I’m going to be considering for a long time.

Review: Brother in the Land

3/5

 

 

Danny Lodge is one of the unlucky ones when World War Three breaks out – he’s one of the survivors…

First up: I don’t usually mention covers of books, which change from edition to edition, but this one was particularly hideous. I feel like someone let their kid play with Photoshop for ten minutes. Small wonder YA was so unappreciated for so long…

 I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out.

The book was written in 1984, so it falls right into the middle of my demographic – I would have been reading this when I was twelve when it came out, right in the middle of my watching Threads and The Day After and I have no doubt it would have left a permanent impact on me if I had come across it.

And since it was published in 1984, it’s an interesting experience to see how much YA has matured since. Characterisation is non-existent and the events are sanitised and far more cosmetic than they would be today. Radiation sickness, third degree burns and nuclear winter are all off page or non-existent.

The last YA I read was Dry by Neal / Jarrod Shusterman, published in 2019, and what a difference that was…

I don’t mean this as a criticism of 80s YA. This is simply how it worked for a long time. There was no perception that teenagers could handle anything more than the slim thirty thousand words this book contains, no perception they could handle more than cardboard characters.

One plus for that shortness is that the book zooms along, event after event, with little pause for reflection or for the characters to catch up.

Swindells decides to really go for it.

Then something happens roughly three quarters of the way through: Swindells decides to really go for it. He pours on the bleakness and desperation and ramps it up. This is the book we should have been reading from the first pages, and it’s grim and sobering stuff.

Even sanitised and cleaned, it’s a brutal exploration of a war that might still happen.

Have you ever found a great book hiding behind a hideous cover? Let me know!

Review: Bird Box

3/5

 

 

 

No one has seen them and survived. No one knows what they look like – or even if they exist as more than mass hysteria. All people know is the result when they do see one: psychotic rage and suicide. Malorie doesn’t believe it until her sister becomes another victim…

Despite there being moments of absolute and complete cold terror in this story, it all felt flat to me. There’s far too much telling and not enough showing going on. I can understand it when the characters are blindfolded (“Tom sounded happy.”), but not when the blindfolds are off.

I’d rate it a lot higher if I felt for these people.

Because of that, there’s a distance between the characters and their fates that left the apocalyptic climax empty and hollow. Which is a shame; I’d rate it a lot higher if I felt for these people rather than had them described to me.

There are other structural problems as well: Malerman also tells most of the story through flashback, and when flashbacks happen inside that flashback, it’s time to look at that structure again. In one instance, a flash forward takes place inside a flashback. There’s a relationship implied between Malorie and another character, but there’s no evidence of it going on in the story.

We only hear the world, not smell it or feel it.

It’s not easy to take a visual medium like a book and turn it into a world of sounds, and for the most part, Malerman pulls that off very well. But again, there are problems: Malerman focuses on sounds, not smells or textures. We only hear the world, not smell it or feel it.

When the characters are outside in the absolute darkness of their blindfolds, we are as blind as they are, and the mere snap of a twig sends them into a fear for their lives and sends a shock from us. It’s a terrifying feeling, and it stems from a very primal fear: One day, we might wake up blind.

As an extra note, I haven’t seen the movie. But I bet this is one instance where it works better than the book.

Have you seen Bird Box? Is it better than the book? Let me know!

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

3/5

 

 

Awaking in a forest, Aiden Bishop has no idea of who he is. He has no idea where he is, or how he came to be there. And, in fact, he doesn’t seem to be himself at all. In short order, he’s informed that’s he’s looping through the same day as different people. He has eight “days” to solve a murder that was never solved…

I’m not sure what to make of Seven… I haven’t read many murder mysteries, and when I do, I always think I’ve missed giant clues that I should have picked up. Sometimes I have trouble picking up the subtext in conversations and actions in stories, and it doesn’t help. The detective gets all excited about something small, and I’m wondering what obvious thing I missed.

It’s fairly traditional in its format: Isolated country house, everyone has a secret (including the maids), people being hit on the head, poisoned, and shot with a variety of weapons. Information is introduced towards the end that means you couldn’t possibly have solved the murder before the protagonist, and the murderer or detective often spends a chapter explaining what they did.

I was expecting something more…off the wall for such a fun concept

I wanted to rate Seven higher, maybe four stars, but hiding under the body-swapping and time-looping is a fairly traditional murder-mystery with a fairly traditional resolution. I think I was expecting something more…off the wall for such a fun concept.

I would have liked to have seen all eight hosts converging on the murderer, or more interaction between them. But because the hosts days are linearly explored, it wasn’t an option without giving away the murderer on loop one. I would have liked to have seen more dialogue and situations from (say) host four to host two, and then seen it from host two to host four, to compare their internal monologues. Even so, if they ever make a movie of it, it’s going to be mind-bending trying to keep it all straight.

A character blackmails another in loop two by finding evidence in loop six

There are some fun time-bending things going on though, like when Aiden talks to himself from a later loop, then repeats it the next loop from the other characters perspective. To give a sense of linearity to the whole thing, Turton takes a character and makes them bed-ridden for the whole day. We pop back into them now and then for some exposition and explanations before popping back out again, a nice touch. A character blackmails another in loop two by finding evidence in loop six, which won’t be for four “days”.

To add to the fun, Aiden keeps meeting a secondary character out of chronological order – for her. I’d love to see the story from her point of view!

Murder and life become cheap when the person you kill is alive again in twelve hours.

One of the deeper themes of the book is who we become when we have no consequences to face in the morning. Murder and life become cheap when the person you kill is alive again in twelve hours’ time. There’s nothing like a mask to bring out our real personalities, a character says. Aiden struggles with that throughout the book, trying to find and keep himself in his hosts sometimes unattractive personalities.

Because it isn’t really my genre, some of the nods to Agatha Christie and other murder mysteries may have gone over my head, which is a shame. It felt like there was a sequel hook or two as well – the character running the loop says someone else is investigating a murder on an ocean liner.

Despite how well researched and planned this story was, I still feel Turton could have done even more with it. Next time around, maybe!

If you like murder-mysteries, did this one work for you? Let me know!

Review: Little Dorrit

3/5

 

 

Returning from a long trip in India, Arthur Clennam finds his pious mother as unfeeling and callous as when he left her. Seeking to balance her selfishness with acts of charity, he notices that his mother takes an out-of-character interest in a maid: Amy Dorrit. Arthur decides to get to know the Dorrits and their sad history better…

The story of the Dorrits didn’t seem enough to keep the thing going for eight hundred pages

About a third of the way through this, I was curious as to how Dickens was going to keep me interested. The story of the Dorrits didn’t seem enough to keep the thing going for eight hundred pages, and I was beginning to lose interest. He seemed to have felt the same thing, and introduces a whole raft of intertwining subplots. In fact, in some places, the subplots are the plot. For the first half of the book, the Dorrits rot in Marshalsea debtor’s prison while these subplots mostly run the show (A historical aside: Dicken’s father was put in Marshalsea when Charlie was twelve).

The second part of the story is where these plots start to come together. The Dorrits are released with much fanfare and a small fortune, and re-invent themselves by denying their past. Arthur is estranged from them and investigates a strange Frenchman hanging round his mother’s home, which brings about the final, amazingly convoluted twist to the story.

The whole theme of the novel is one of deception and lies and even self-deception. Arthur revisits his old girlfriend, and discovers she’s become fat (and therefore unattractive!) and fatuous. Deciding to throw in the towel in the love department, Arthur hardens his heart to falling in love again. Which he promptly does with his friend’s daughter, then spends a few chapters agonisingly denying it to himself when she falls for someone else.

Dorrit senior lies to himself and resists acknowledging that’s he’s come from a debtor’s prison when he’s released. And even when he was there, he relished being “Father of the prison” and people giving him money as though he were important.

Casby, supposedly a genial and friendly guy, is a money grubbing fraud, and his agent turns out to be a decent and honest man. Flora, Arthur’s old girlfriend (she cannot take a breath when she talks!), turns out to be compassionate and friendly. Merdle, a man whose investments cannot go wrong, is a financial fraudster.

The more obvious villains, such as they are, are intense and sociopathic. Miss Wade, who casts any act of kindness as manipulation and replies with malice. Rigaud kills a dog merely because it threatened to bite him and sneers and sings and clicks his fingers through the story. Added to this is Arthur’s mother, a wooden ruler of a woman, upright and rigid, unfeeling and unbending.

They’re a nasty bunch, but are they any worse than the Meagles, whose spoilt daughter abuses their maid? The Meagles who won’t call the maid by her name, and only tell her to count ten when she’s angry, rather than listen to her? Are they worse than Dorrit’s eldest daughter, who marries a man solely to annoy his mother?

Thank goodness our governments are so more efficient these days

Woven into the story is a long diatribe at British efficiency: The Circumlocution Office. Any progress in England must be passed through this engine of uselessness. To quote Douglas Adams, things are “signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.” Thank goodness our governments are so more efficient these days, or where would we be? Even here, the lie that this department is necessary is believed by all to be the truth.

At the back of all this drama and deceit there stands a small figure: Little Dorrit. Alone in the Dorrit household, she remains as untouched by the sudden wealth they acquire as she was untouched by their Marshelsea debts. Tireless and selfless, she works to bring her father food, to find a job for her spoilt sister and wastrel of a brother. She does not complain, she does not falter. She is one of the toughest characters ever to have graced the pages of a book.

And since this is a Victorian novel, her reward for this is to marry Arthur. For what else would a woman want or need?

Review: Gerald’s Game

3/5

 

 

 

Jessie and her husband have a game. He locks her up in real handcuffs, she pretends she doesn’t like it and wants to be set free. Except this time, she really does…

Every time I picked this book up, I was surprised by how far into it I was. I got to page two hundred or so, and realised nothing much had happened. That isn’t, by the way, a criticism, but praise of King’s writing skill. Who else could keep you turning the pages when all that’s happening is backstory? And it’s fairly obvious early on what’s at the bottom of Jessie’s backstory, at that.

So for most of the book, we get flashbacks into Jessie’s life, shifting randomly to her college years and to a solar eclipse when she was ten years old that defined and marred the rest of her life, until she finds herself submissive enough to be chained to a bed in the middle of nowhere with handcuffs she can’t escape from.

But what also kept me reading was how King was going to pull this off and get Jessie out of there. It didn’t seem likely he would kill her off at the end…Likely, but not impossible.

When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages.

So those small things kept me reading for the three hundred or so pages, until something did happen. When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages or so, and…

…that’s when it all fell apart. King spends the next twenty pages explaining the backstory of another character, before we finally get to Jessie’s ending (happy or otherwise, I won’t drop a spoiler).

I saw that giant epilogue when I was finishing this up last night and sighed. It felt very tacked on and unnecessary. Why not leave the ambiguity of what happened open? I hate to be vague, but unless you’ve read what went on, I don’t wish to spoil it.

This was written as a companion to Dolores Claiborne, and was meant to be a shorter story. There are elements there that mix in with Dolores: A single woman desperate and under pressure, incestuous fathers and abusive relationships. Tying them together is the single eclipse that changes both Dolores’s life and Jessie’s. I didn’t feel like I needed to have read DC to have read this though.

I wish I’d warmed to Jessie more and liked her better. I wasn’t rooting for her as much as I was for Dolores, which was a shame. Her passive personality annoyed me more than Dolores, although I understand why she was like it.

And as deep and exhaustive as her backstory was, I still don’t feel like I know her.

What do you think of books that share a fictional universe? Let me know!