Review: Full Dark, No stars

3/5

 

 

Four novellas of revenge from Stephen King:

1922 – A farmer murders his wife who threatens to sell his land.

Big Driver – A murder-mystery writer is raped and left for dead.

Fair Extension – A man bargains for his life – at a cost.

A Good Marriage – A woman discovers an alarming secret about her husband of nearly thirty years.

Sometimes, I think King tries too hard to be taken “seriously” as a writer. It feels like the pin of “master of horror” starts to dig under his skin, and he can’t stop rubbing it. Then he tries stories like this, more literary attempts at story telling than his usual horror. Sometimes they work, and sometimes – most times for me – they don’t. That’s generally how I felt about these.

 They were too flat and two dimensional to make me care enough.

There was a detachment from the characters I felt throughout every story: I was watching them, but not feeling them. They were too flat and two dimensional to make me care enough about them or the motives for their revenge. There’s a lack of closure with the stories which seemed missing as well.

In 1922, for instance, I was more interested in the farmer’s son who goes off the rails than the tale of the farmer himself. The horror level in this one is awesome though.

Big Driver didn’t move me as much as it should have, and the messy revenge didn’t feel like it worked at all.

Fair Extension felt like a story fragment expanded past its novelty. King is clearly having fun with the genre-savvy main character talking to the Devil, but doesn’t know what to do with it after that. It’s also oddly unsatisfying to have a character make a deal with the devil and not be punished for it somehow.

A Good Marriage was the strongest of the set. The depth of characterisation is better than the others, and the pacing is excellent. There’s even an emotional third act epilogue which works very well and brings the only sense of closure in the set.

A disappointing collection on the whole. I’ve read a lot better from King.

What do you think King’s short stories and novella collections? Let me know!

Review: Fahrenheit 451

1/5

 

 

Guy Montag burns books for a living, those heretical, contradictory, awful things that encourage people to think…

The thing with the Ray Bradbury’s I’ve come across: They aren’t really novels, or stories. Bradbury writes dense, metaphorical blank prose, and the story and everything else is dragged along behind it.

There really isn’t any characterisation to speak of and world building is slender. No one is physically described beyond a metaphorical level. The city and country where Montag works isn’t named. When you’ve read a few, you just accept this and move on.

Some of it is quite beautiful:

The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward.

And Guy’s phallic relationship with his fire hose and fire department (“With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world”). He also slides and grips the firemans pole a few times.

And, then, some of it doesn’t work at all. Be warned: Bradbury never uses a metaphor when he can use six.

He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact.

Starts off fine, but then he pushes it too far. Are her eyes bright water or violet amber? His writing is like this throughout the story: metaphors and similes pushed until they break, then another and another. His dialogue is more of the same.

Bradbury isn’t someone I’m ever going to enjoy reading, I don’t think. He’s a dessert that’s far too sickly to stomach a large serving.

Luckily, this only took me a few hours to read. Without the dense paragraphs of metaphor, this would be a short story fleshed out to novella length. Curiously enough, in the afterword that’s exactly what Bradbury says happened.

Have you read any Ray Bradbury? Did you enjoy it? Let me know!

Review: The Last

 

2/5

 

 

Civilisation blows itself apart in a nuclear war, and a small party of survivors begin their new life in an isolated Swiss hotel. Only one of them may be a murderer…

Reading a premise like that, you’d think this was a murder-mystery. Reading reviews on the back that say this is like “Ten Little Indians” you’d think the twenty guests would drop like murdered flies every night. You’d think the other guests would flitter and scurry about the hotel in fear of their lives.

There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on.

But no…there’s actually only one murder, and the only person who cares is the narrator. There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on. How do you construct a civilisation in miniature? Who decides: death penalty or exile for a crime when there are no police or courts to take the burden? There are also existential conversations on the nature of religion, both as a source of comfort and as a source of antagonism.

There are conversations about what happens when every single thing you love and work for has disappeared in a nuclear fire…who do you become after that? Some good explorations on the different natures of shock and trauma. Some guests give up, some hoard and prepare, while others obsess to the point of mania.

So most certainly not a murder-mystery, and I find it odd it was ever advertised as such. In a typical rolling-eyes-give-me-a-break murder mystery move though, the murder is resolved in the last five pages with information we didn’t have. The main drive of the story feels like a casually thrown in afterthought.

Stereotypes fill the hotel: A Japanese woman is described as delicate and graceful, speaking with a calm voice; the black security guard is aggressive and the dominant male; the beautiful woman is a loner and a bitch.

Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other.

Towards the last thirty pages, the plot became unravelled and started to break. Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other as it hurried towards a weak anti-climax.

What started out as a solid and intriguing idea ran out of steam in the second act and rolled to a complete stop by the end. There’s a curious note added to the end as potentially a sequel hook, but I won’t be looking out for it.

Have you ever read a book advertised as one genre when it’s not? Let me know!

The Book Thief

2/5

 

 

The place is a suburb of Munich and the time is World War Two. Watching the small life of young girl Liesel Meminger is Death, but it’s not her he’s here to collect…

This was a re-read from 2012, and I’m confused as to why I rated it four stars last time. Death cannot keep himself from interrupting this story and robs it of all momentum.

*** A Small Note ***

Momentum: noun; plural noun: momenta

1. Physics: The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.

2. The impetus gained by a moving object.

3. The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.

Yeah, kind of like that. Except those inter-textual notes are every other page. Just when you’re feeling like you’re digging into the story and relaxing, one of those notes pops up and throws you back out again. It’s like a book full of footnotes, destroying the flow of the story. Or like someone blowing one of those party poppers into your face every page or two. It did the story no favours whatsoever.

There’s little character development or story arc.

Not that there was much story to start with. It’s more like a series of vignettes of Liesel’s life, most of which was simple repetition: She would get shouted at by her mother (The author also seems to have learnt one German swear word, saumensch and the masculine saukerl and is determined to use it five times a page), she would go somewhere with her friend Rudy. Repeat this for three hundred pages or so. There’s little character development or story arc for Liesel or anyone else, and what there is becomes fractured by the annoying asides of Death.

Death also has no idea what a metaphor or a simile is either, coming out with some absurd images: “He watched the parade with the blinds drawn across his face.” – “Liesel sat with her hands between her knees in the long legs of the day.” The metaphors aren’t effective, and only make the prose pretentious.

Did anything work for me? Only the last thirty pages or so had any emotion woven into them and I teared up as I read them. Tellingly, those are the same pages where Death shuts up for a change.

Have you ever rated a book lower on a re-read? Let me know!

Review: The Girl on the Train

 

1/5

 

 

Commuting to and from a fictional workplace on the same train every day, Rachel gets to know the backs of the homes she passes and has time to imagine the people who live in them. She even names them and gives them lives…but then reality comes back with a crash when one of them is murdered…

Ugh. That was deeply unpleasant. Hawkins seems to have decided that “thriller” means “plot from East Enders soap opera”. So we have a woman slipping into alcoholism; lots and lots of vomit (Seriously: Hawkins loves the word and loves the grossness of it); women being serially unfaithful – every one of them; men being abusive physically and psychologically just for fun; screaming and crying all around and generally unpleasant behaviour.

There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency.

There isn’t a character in here I was rooting for. There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency. We have a man whose wife died and he’s sleeping with another woman inside of a week. We have a therapist who sleeps with his patient.

Everyone seems fine with this, by the way: The therapist is still seeing patients after this is discovered, rather than…gosh, I don’t know…being suspended and struck off. We have a man with a very small child sleeping with the babysitter while his wife is asleep upstairs.

Ugh and ugh again.

There are quite a few points I wanted to scream at the people in this book. Rachel is our girl on the train. Not woman on the train, girl.

No woman in this book is defined in any other terms than their relationship to the men in it. Rachel is defined by her abandonment by her husband (Tom) for another woman. Anna, Rachel’s replacement, is a weak and feeble shadow of a woman who can’t put her foot down and does nothing about Rachel’s semi-stalking. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Rachel sometimes phones Tom when she’s drunk. Anna and Tom tolerate this rather than…gosh, I don’t know…changing their phone number.

I figured out who the killer was on page ninety (nothing really happened for the first eighty pages or so), so it came as no surprise at all when the reveal rolled around.

Grimly unpleasant characters with no morality, lots of running mascara and emasculated women only defined by the men in their lives. I could go on, but this book has taken up too much of my life already.

How disappointing does a book have to be to rate one star from you? Let me know!

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 Loneliest Girl in the Universe

Warning: Unmarked spoilers!
4/5

 

 

Romy Silvers is the most isolated human in the history of humanity. For six years, she hasn’t touched another human being. She’s never felt the rain on her face, or sat under a tree. Her only company has been a TV show beamed to her from NASA, two light years behind her lonely spacecraft. But someone is coming, catching her up…

I don’t like to drop reviews under such a full spoiler tag, but this book makes me feel like it would be impossible to talk about without it. Look away now if you haven’t read it.

***

Romy’s follower on his spaceship is a boy called J – or so she thinks. I doubted from the start that J would be as wonderful as he was pretending to be, but when the absolute bombshell of what he’d been doing to Romy dropped in act three, my eyes widened and I swore internally. I never expected it to be so huge.

His manipulation – and downright torture – of Romy is textbook grooming and psychological manipulation. Not only has he isolated her from earth (under the very believable pretense of an imaginary war), he’s sending messages back to earth pretending to be her. He’s also pretending to send messages to her from earth from the “UPR”, a replacement government.

It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do.

He forces Romy to live in the dark, to shower less, to flush the toilet less, all in an attempt to utterly degrade her and control her before he arrives. It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do about it.

You know the best part? Romy doesn’t give in. She never yields or submits to J, even when he tries again to fool her later in the story. Romy is a young woman who won’t quit, despite her insecurities and her self-doubt. She really is stronger than she realises, and she’s a great character because of it.

It’s a wonderful story, full of subtleties and warmth. Parents who try and give their daughter the best life they can, despite the circumstances, and a daughter who loved them and misses them. We really get a feel for Romy and her isolation and cocooned existence. In one instance, she gets cold and doesn’t realise it: She’s never experienced anything other than 24 centigrade temperatures her entire life. Messages sent to earth won’t make it for two years. She really is all alone out there.

So NASA ships run on Windows?

If I have a problem with it, they’re only small ones: The use of zip files, mp3s and pdfs made me frown. So NASA ships run on Windows? And will they really do so in 2048? Mp3s are already being replaced by AACs, for instance. Romy also seems immature for a young woman given such heavy responsibilities. Given her only interactions have been with adults, I would expect to mature faster, not slower.

But as I said, these are only minor points. This is a gripping and thrilling read, and well worth it.

Review: Eve of Man

2/5

 

 

There’s a problem with the human race: For fifty years or so, no girls have been born. Until Eve comes along into the remains of a civilisation that has nearly torn itself apart…

Well, where did that go wrong? The four hundred pages of this seemed to take me forever to read…it seems longer than the two weeks I have it listed as “reading.”

I had hopes something was going to happen as the pace picked up.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, so I wasn’t expecting all the answers to be rounded up by the end. What I was expecting was something more than a painfully slow incremental drip of plot points that tip into something actually happening only 300 pages in. By then, the book was nearly over. I had hopes something was going to happen as the pace picked up…then it dropped off again. So much of this story seemed slow filler that should have been trimmed.

The world building is repetitive and dull. I lost count of the number of times a character describes the waterproofing of their underground home, always with the same details – the rubber panels that drip water, the pipes that snake across corridors. I lost count when we were told something about a character and then had it repeated two pages later. (“They were here to see Eve’s father, Ernie.” A page later: “Ernie – Eve’s father”). The place where Eve is secluded is described as a tower, a dome and mountain-like. Which is it?

A plot-important location falls out of the sky in the later part of the book, and conveniently, Bram instantly knows where it is to the point where they can find it with GPS. How?

Eve often chooses a dramatic course of action as an end–of-chapter hook.

Characterisation is inconsistent. Eve is suddenly aggressive and rebellious, then passive again a chapter later. She is determined to find the truth of her existence, but then gets sleepy and forgets all about it. She often chooses a dramatic course of action as an end–of-chapter hook, then never follows it up. Bram is unable to fight against his father, but manages to kick ass against other males.

There’s no chemistry between Bram and Eve, and the dialogue between them is stilted and insipid. The villain of the piece, Vivian

Spoiler!
(She’s obviously a hologram of Isaac Wells),
is mainly petty and a cardboard thin character.

There are a lot of parallels between this and Rapunzel, obviously: A lone woman in a tower (dome/mountain) with limited experience of the world. But there are also a lot more with The Truman Show, even the ending

Spoiler!
where Vivian even tells Eve as a voice from the clouds, “You won’t be safe out there”.

The most fun I had with the book was Bram out of the tower and exploring flooded and forgotten London. It gave the story a sense of place that was desperately lacking.

I won’t be back for part two or three.

Have you ever been suckered by a pretty cover and an interesting premise that didn’t work? Let me know!