Review: The Hobbit

4/5

 

 

Coerced into accompanying thirteen dwarves on an adventure to kill a dragon and grab some treasure, the home-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins eventually has the adventure of his life…

I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time.

Well, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one, hasn’t it? Most people read this as children, and I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time. What took me so long?

Mostly, I really don’t do stories where they name swords, just on principle. It’s just one of those things, alongside avoiding books where muscular men don’t wear shirts on the cover. It’s just not my bag, baby. I tried Lord of The Rings once and got halfway down the first page before I gave up.

Fortunately, there were only three swords named.

I also think if you’re naming a sword, you might want to think about your fictional life a little more. Having said that, I read all of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, and there’s lots of sword and axe naming in there. Fortunately, there were only three swords named in here, so I’ll give that one a pass.

If you know The Hobbit, as most people seem to, you really don’t need much of a plot recap than the title. What kept me interested was the blistering pace that Tolkien sets: Only a chapter for each creature – goblin, elf, man-bear, whatever, before he was moving on to the next.

I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon.

It wasn’t until Bilbo and company reach Smaug that it started to drag for me. I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon once he got there.

There’s not much to fault it. It’s a clever mixing of the everyday and the fantastic, something Harry Potter learned well. It touches our childhood imaginings of creatures under bridges and hiding in holes in the ground, just out of sight.

The story is charming and funny and very entertaining, and I can see why people develop a lifelong bond with Tolkien, Middle Earth and fantasy after they read it.

How old were you when you first read this? Let me know!

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: Before I go to sleep

2/5

 

 

(I apologise in advance for the use of caps lock. Never a good sign when a review makes me use caps lock…)

Chrissie wakes every morning and does not know where she is. She doesn’t know who the man sleeping next to her is, and why the face in the mirror is twenty years older than it should be…

They really made a movie out of this? Well, it started with a strong premise, fair enough, but then quickly ran out of steam. Most of the book is section-break repetition of “Can I trust my husband? Yes. Oh, no, I can’t. Oh, yes, I can. Nope…changed my mind again.”

It really slows the pacing down.

I understand that Chrissie’s mental state is fragile and easily unbalanced, but it gets pretty wearing after two hundred pages, sometimes when it happens from one paragraph to the next. And when it’s essentially the only thing happening, it really slows the pacing down.

So, yes. Let’s talk about pacing. The writer seemed to think thriller means filler. Here’s a paraphrased example:

“I started washing the dishes in hot, soapy water. I made sure the bubbles were frothy before I started. I washed Ben’s breakfast plate. The doorbell rang. I put down the sponge. I dried my hands on a tea towel. I walked to the front door. There was a man there.”

GET. ON. WITH IT.

And I was wondering what about the narrative voice was annoying me until I realised that Christine doesn’t use contractions, making her stilted and artificial:

“I think Ben does not hear me walk into the kitchen. I do not hear him move from the sofa. He has walked into the kitchen behind me. But he does not talk.”

For most of the story, there’s not much else going on but stilted narrative and clumsy dialogue (“It’s your novel,” he said. “The one you wrote”. As opposed to her novel she didn’t write?).

By the time the last third came around, I just wanted to be finished and done. Which is a shame, because the last third is where all the good stuff happens. But by then, it’s too late to save it.

Have you read any books where the story starts off strongly then fades out? Let me know!

Review: The Quiet at the End of the World

4/5

 

 

Shen and Lawrie are the last humans to be born…or will ever be born. A global infertility epidemic four generations ago made every woman sterile, and the human race destined to die out within the next hundred years. They spend their days mud larking and cataloguing the past, until an accident reveals a truth about their world…

Another solid and remarkable story from Lauren James. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers, even though this is only the second book of hers I’ve read. Her world building and characterisation is elegant and subtle, and her research feels solid and reliable. This is an end of the world you can feel and touch.

Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn.

Delightfully, Lawrie is bisexual, and it isn’t her defining characteristic. I’ve read too many YA books recently where it’s the only thing about the character that exists in any solidity, but not here. Lawrie and Shen are both rounded and fully developed characters in their own right, despite their preferences. Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn of low heat, of shared touches that eventually turn into something more.

There are deeper themes as well about what it means to be human and what it means to love and exist on the edge of extinction and about how it feels to have the responsibility to the rest of your species behind you. How your parents can coddle you or let you experience the world for yourself – and more importantly fail for yourself.

I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked the twists out.

There was a plot twist about a third of the way through which I mentally called about fifty pages in, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me when it turned up. Another twist at the end was telegraphed earlier as well, so neither of them made me jump in surprise. It felt like it took something away from the story to know they were coming; I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked them out.

I didn’t see the ending coming though, or a delightful, subtle echo that had been running throughout the whole story that was revealed towards the end. That was a lovely touch – sorry to be so vague, but spoilers would ensue if I wasn’t.

What didn’t work for me was the dialogue between Shen and Lawrie. Mostly, it felt flat and laboured and slipped towards cliché and overused expressions. Their dialogue didn’t seem as strong as that between Lawrie and her parents, for instance. When that major plot twist happens I was just talking about, James feels it necessary to repeat herself three times in three pages, just to make sure we all got it. It felt a little laboured and repetitive in places.

In all though, a book I savoured like a good wine. I shall be back for more Lauren James!

Who’s the best new author you’ve discovered this year? Let me know!

Review: Truth or Dare

4/5

 

 

When Kam gets in an accident that leaves him brain damaged, his brother Sef comes up with an idea to raise money to help him: Dare him to pull pranks. Enlisting the help of social-media expert Claire, things begin to spiral out of control…

It made it hard to guess where you were in the story and how much you had left to go.

This is one of those books where the narrative splits half way through, comes back together, then splits chapter by chapter until the end. Claire’s “half” of the book is flipped and inverted from Sef’s, which I thought was a nice touch. It made it hard to guess where you were in the story and how much you had left to go, which isn’t something you come across often in a story.

What did confuse me was the different fonts used for Sef messaging Claire and Claire messaging Sef, which were intermixed with their own internal voices. Got a little fuzzy who was talking and thinking there a few times.

And yet they felt so flat and predictable.

First the bad news: Claire’s half didn’t grip me at all. Her friends and her relationships with them felt so exactly calculated, you could almost guess to the page where they would be resolved. Despite that, everyone felt very real and their dialogue and characterisation were all spot on. And yet they felt so flat and predictable. No one acted out of character or threw up any surprises.

Sef’s half of the book though…wow. There’s a real sense of his absolute agony and guilt over his brother’s injuries, the explanation of which is hinted at but never explained until the end. And we’re right there with him, going through it as he does and feeling it all. Sef is unpredictable and wild and will do anything to help his brother. It lends his half of the story a sharp edge, and that edge cut me enough to make me tear up a few times.

His story resonated with me on a personal level as well – I had a brother who would dare to do anything. Only one of his didn’t work, and he never came back from it alive. So I certainly felt more connected to Sef than Claire.

I’ve read Non Pratt before, and I know she does tend to veer towards melodrama at points, but there’s only one instance I noticed it and it only bounced me out of the story for a few pages. It didn’t take long before I was right back in the story.

Pratt is an extremely talented writer, and her characters come alive and off the pages. There’s nothing flat here except the predictable sub-plots in the first half. Apart from that, it crackles and jumps with life…and desperation.

What do you think about Non Pratt? Let me know!

Review: The Pickwick Papers

 

1/5

 

 

“Being an account of the Pickwick Club”, of Victorian London. (Actually, slightly before Victoria. This was written in 1836, and she didn’t reign until 1837).

I’m glad I didn’t start with this one.

Phew. This was the last Dickens novel I had to read before I finished his fourteen novels…and what a drag it was. I’m glad I didn’t start with this one or I would have lost interest much quicker.

For the first third of the book, Dickens isn’t doing much more than transcribing stories he’s heard or has written down from other people. The book goes like this: Mr Pickwick (or his friends) go somewhere by coach. They meet someone. Someone tells them a story. Repeat for the first dozen chapters.

Perhaps that’s the problem: A lot of this doesn’t feel like his story. There was little through line or plot development to interest me.

There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish.

I’d seen reviews where it said the story does get better as it goes along, and to be fair it does. But not by much. Dickens stretches his literary muscles and writes for a few chapters about his favourite topic – the poor and the mired in debt. There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish: brilliant descriptive passages of rainy and foggy London streets, rural coach rides through August fields. There’s some nice wordplay with names – a doctor called Nockemorff (knock-em-off. It took me a while!) and a man called Smorltork (Which sounds like something IKEA might sell to me).

But it’s butter spread too lightly on a thin toast. If you ever feel like working your way through Dickens, start with Oliver Twist and then come back to this one.

Next post: Dickens. Was it worth it?

Do you have a favourite Dickens or classic author? Let me know!

 

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?