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 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: 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: 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?

Two for one: Ready Player One, Book vs Movie

Books to movies rarely seem to work. People end up loving one over the other. Well, guess what…me too!

The Book

(From my Goodreads review, 2012)

In the disintegrating world of 2044, Wade Watts, a hermit teenager, dedicates his life to discovering the online clues that could win him the ultimate prize…

The OASIS is the only place to be in the future. The world has fallen apart, and almost every aspect of humanity is pushed onto a massive online, virtual reality. Even schools and public services are in there – there’s a planet with nothing but schools, for instance. Interaction is through avatars. They can be ‘killed’ (more like a restart), but nobody really gets hurt in there. Not physically, anyway.

The man who designed this became the richest man on the planet, and when he dies, his fortune is left up for grabs for whoever can solve the puzzles he left behind, puzzles rooted in very, very obscure 1980s pop culture references.

I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not particularly skilled at computer or arcade games, so the (80s) subculture that the author immerses us in is mostly lost on me. But luckily, he explains every reference as he goes along.

In fact, he seems just to drop references in just to explain them…they don’t really advance the plot much. There’s an example where Wade travels somewhere in a Back to the Future DeLorean with a Knight Rider and Ghostbusters add-ons. It’s never used again and not mentioned, so why do it?

In the movie “Signs” a character says: “…this stuff is just about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend their whole lives. They make up secret codes and analyse Greek mythology and make secret societies where other guys who never had girlfriends can join in.”

That’s what the 80s subtext of the novel mostly felt like to me; obscure references that very few people would understand (or even care if they weren’t there). They’re just secret handshakes for the society the author moves in.

Fortunately, the main character is likable enough to keep you reading – you want this little underdog to win, especially against the corporate bullies who are willing to kill him and his friends. You want him to come out with the girl and the prize and some good friends. There are no real surprises when he does all three.

I have some grievances against the pop culture references. Where was Madonna? Where was Spielberg? Where was Tron? And one the author missed that I caught: Wade references Fantastic Voyage (1966)…why not Innerspace (1987)?

Also, since the references seemed to stretch back and forward decades a little, where was Potter World?

Wade calls his diary for keeping track of all the clues his Grail Diary, a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a nice metaphor, and it carries nicely through the book; as Jones discovers that the search for the Grail is the search for what’s important rather than an artefact, so does Wade discover that what’s important to him isn’t inside a computer, but back in the world of the real.

The Movie

(Watched in 2019)

For a book I felt so frozen out of, the movie was very accessible. It’s one of those films where everything is thrown at the screen, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it, or lose a sense of where the characters were while all this was going on. Because of the nature of the film, you could freeze every shot and spend hours looking for all the 80s references, and still probably miss some of them. And a shout-out for the retro soundtrack, which is awesome.

None of the flashy effects or 80s references pulled me into the movie and made it stick with me, though. What hooked me was the portrayal of Halliday, the man who invented this virtual world. High marks to the actor playing him: He nailed social anxiety.

In the first scene where we get a glimpse of his personality, his only friend is walking out of his life. How does Halliday deal with this? By avoiding eye contact, by fidgeting and moving chairs around, by keep his voice low and his attitude passive. I watched that and said to my wife: That’s exactly what I’d do!

In a closing scene, Halliday explains – while fidgeting and playing with nothing – the he created the virtual world because he was terrified his whole life and couldn’t connect with any of the people in the real world. There’s a solid sense of his loneliness and isolation. Yeah, man. I hear you.

It was so refreshing that Halliday was played straight. This was just the way he was made. No one sneered at him, or laughed at him or looked at him weird because he wanted to go to a movie instead of dancing.

I liked that. 

Verdict: Movie over book!
Book Vs Movie: Any you’d like to see me compare? Let me know!

Review: The Sun is also a Star

2/5

 

 

Daniel decides to take his time getting to an interview that will determine the rest of his life. Natasha has a day left in America, and maybe a little longer if the universe allows it. Watching over all this with an omniscient eye into the past and the future is The Universe. All three of them bump together in one day in New York…

Let me start this with an admission: I am a romantic. I cry at the end of You’ve Got Mail. Every time. Sometimes I mist up when I write out my wife’s birthday cards. I wanted these two to be in love as much as they did.

But they weren’t. Infatuation, maybe…but love is adoring the creases, not just the ironed smooth surfaces. Love is your partner driving you crazy and you love them anyway, moaning at you because they had a bad day at work and they don’t have anyone else to vent to. It isn’t something you can feel about someone in a day. Daniel and Natasha didn’t touch me and their relationship didn’t move me the way it should have.

Let’s start at the beginning. The way Daniel and Natasha meet is just plain creepy. Dan decides to follow Nat on a whim, and despite his claims he’s not doing it to stalk her, he clearly is. Please don’t encourage this behaviour, writers. Please don’t make some impressionable teen believe he-she is going to win his-her heart by following someone around. All they’re going to get (and deserve) is maced.

By the end, I had to check the pronouns to see who was talking.

The narrative switches between Daniel and Natasha chapter by chapter, and towards the middle of the book, I came to realise how similar they were. By the end, I had to check the pronouns to see who was talking. Daniel is supposed to be poetic, but his inner dialogue is the same as Natasha, the hard headed scientist. There were no verbal tics or mannerisms that separated them. Nothing made them stand out.

The most enjoyable parts were the little asides by The Universe, a cool and dispassionate voice of a removed narrator. A woman Natasha meets at a government building who wants to commit suicide; the security guard they meet on a roof. The backstory and forward story of Daniel’s brother and his family. I kept seeing this as a play where the stage would darken and a spotlight would rest on The Universe and the highlighted minor character while the other actors froze in place.

The chapters were short and the writing staccato, in brief bursts of sentences, and that pulled me through the story in only five days. Perhaps that was one of the problems with the dual narrative: I didn’t spend enough time with Daniel before head hopping into Natasha, and then back again.

There were good parts though – Natasha’s delight at explaining the grandfather paradox and the Novikov self-consistency principle. Any book that manages to get those into a YA romance deserves a nod just for trying it. I enjoyed seeing the lives that interacted with Daniel and Natasha as they dropped into their own bubble world for the single day they had. There was a nice mirror relationship between Daniel’s father and Natasha’s.

But it didn’t move me. I should have been reaching for the tissues at the end of this, not the book I’m going to read next.

How many fiction books do you know mention the Novikov self-consistency principle? Let me know!

Books you’ve probably missed (And should be reading!)

There are a lot of books out there. And there have probably been a lot added since you read that sentence. But here are some I bet you’ve missed and I think you should be reading sooner rather than later…

 

V

It might seem odd to start the list with a TV tie in book from a show that aired in the 80s, but this book is brilliant, and engrossing enough to be read as a standalone without having seen the show. Crispin could have slavishly copied the script, but she pours characterisation and backstory into a well-rounded experience. Superb.

The Chrysalids

One of my candidates for “Where’s the movie?”, and the first of my John Wyndham choices. The Chrysalids concerns a strict restrictive religious community long after a nuclear war has decimated the world. This orthodoxy despises mutation in any form – extra toes is a cause for exile. Which is a problem for the teenagers born with telepathy. Just brilliant.

 

Day of the Triffids

Imagine waking up blind one morning. Now imagine waking up blind and everyone else is as well. Now imagine a rogue carnivorous plant is somewhere outside your front door, and you don’t know where it is. How do the few sighted survive in this silent and new dangerous world? There are scenes from this that still haunt me on dark nights (“Bill. There’s a light.”).

This book deserves better treatment than the dodgy two BBC adaptations (One too low a budget, the other nothing like the book) and the feeble 60s Hollywood movie.

(Special shout out to my man Wyndham for The Kraken Wakes: He was talking about the effects of the ice caps melting in 1953.)

House of Stairs

My wife put me on to this one. She remembers reading it thirty years ago, and the ending has still stuck with her. From her brief summary, I tracked it down and ordered a copy and then devoured it. If you want to know how easy it is to brainwash someone, read this and be very afraid.

Jumper

Although dated a little now – there are terrorists in the later part that hijack a plane and keep it on the runway – this still manages to be a powerful and rewarding story. Gould admits that the trope of teleportation is an old one, but he manages to give it a fresh and invigorating spin. Just don’t watch the terrible movie or bother with the book sequels.

The Great Train Robbery

Now this one has been made into a movie, even though it wasn’t very good. Crichton takes a train robbery of 1855 and spins a fanciful (and mostly fictitious) host of rogues, ne’er do wells and scoundrels into the mix. He adds historical notes (Did you know Victorian women were deemed mentally incapable of committing crime?), and lets it all whisk and blend and then simmer for a few hours before serving. It’s a hoot and a blast.

… And these are just a few of the books I know about. Do you have any favourites that the rest of us missed? Let me know!

 

 

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!