Saturday, 28 June 2014

Fangirl



Fangirl
Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell
"Cath and Wren are identical twins, and until recently they did absolutely everything together. Now they're off to university and Wren's decided she doesn't want to be one half of a pair any more - she wants to dance, meet boys, go to parties and let loose. It's not so easy for Cath. She's horribly shy and has always buried herself in the fan fiction she writes, where she always knows exactly what to say and can write a romance far more intense than anything she's experienced in real life.

Without Wren Cath is completely on her own and totally outside her comfort zone. She's got a surly room-mate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can't stop worrying about her dad, who's loving and fragile and has never really been alone."

   I started out absolutely loving this book. It’s the story of twin sisters Cath and Wren who are taking the first steps toward adulthood by moving out of their childhood home to go to University.
   Having roomed together their entire lives Cath is surprised when her sister tells her that she doesn’t want to be roommates anymore leaving Cath, the more introverted and socially awkward of the two, to fend for herself.

   What makes the book so interesting is Cath herself. She is obsessed with a book series about boy wizard Simon Snow, an obvious play on the Harry Potter series and writes fanfiction about the series, garnering quite the following online.
   I absolutely loved this part of her character. I never thought I’d ever read a novel where fanfiction plays an important role, it’s simply not a subject matter that you’d expect to see in a mainstream release. Especially not slash fiction, a genre of fanfiction where two normally heterosexual characters in a series are paired off in a romantic relationship.
   In the novel, Cath pairs of Simon Snow with his roommate and rival Baz.
    What’s really interesting about the fanfiction side of the story is that, online, Cath has a huge following. Thousands of people read her work everyday. This created an interesting duology between her online life and real life where she’s so introverted that she’s afraid to visit the cafeteria alone.

   Between each chapter is a short section, either from Cath’s fanfiction of the Simon Snow series itself. These sections aren’t great, they occasionally tie into the plot itself though the connection is often tenuous at best, however they do give the reader a decent understanding of the Simon Snow universe which is much needed to help you relate to Cath’s love of the universe.

    Aside from the fanfiction element, the novel is a fairly typical coming of age romance. Cath is quickly introduced to her roommate’s friend Levi who, of course, she falls madly in love with.
    Despite risking running into cliché territory, the romance and characters all feel pretty natural. The characters are all flawed in some way and feel pretty well rounded. It’s a style similar to John Green’s work though it never quite reaches the same level in my opinion. But with both the main characters and Wren, I found elements of their personalities I liked, others I disliked and some I could relate to personally.
   Not all characters fair too well (I kept waiting for Cath’s roommate Reagan to actually become a character instead of just a presence, which never happened) but most are well-rounded and enjoyable.

    Unfortunately, just after halfway through the book, something happened and I just hit a wall. Somewhere along the line I just got totally sick of Cath and her constant self pity. She’s so neurotic that she’ll wander the hallways for an hour before going to see her professor and shut herself in her room for weeks eating nothing but protein bars so she won’t have to go outside, but everyone in the novel just indulges her.
   Want to stay in for weeks on end? No problem Cath, I’ll try not to wake you when I get home. So neurotic about your relationship that you won’t let your boyfriend touch your shoulder, let alone kiss you? No problem Cath, I’ll just sit over here on the other couch. Can’t be bothered to write the short story that makes up half your grade? No problem Cath, take another six months to write it instead of the six weeks the rest of your class gets.
   People continually hand her things and she continually shakes them off and continues to moan about her lot in life as if the world grinding to a halt on her behalf is an inconvenience to her. She constantly causes problems in her own life and acts as if she’s somehow the victim, like the scene where she basically swears off fiction writing forever because her lecturer won’t let her submit fanfiction for one of her assessments.

   All of this goes on and on and you constantly wait for the moment where she realises she’s in the wrong, but it never comes. The world keeps making exceptions for her and indulging her and it became incredibly frustrating to read, to the point where I struggled to finish the book.

   There’s some really great stuff here, it gives a voice to a subset of fandom that is absolutely huge, but never gets any representation in mainstream media and has an enjoyable style, however the problems I had with Cath herself left a really bad taste in my mouth and ruined the experience for me towards the end of the book.
   If you’re a fan of YA contemporary in general or Harry Potter or fanfiction in particular I’d recommend giving this one a go, but expect some frustration along the way.

Rainbow Rowell
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Monday, 23 June 2014

The House of Silk



The House of Silk
The House of Silk 
Anthony Horowitz
"It is November 1890 and London is gripped by a merciless winter. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are enjoying tea by the fire when an agitated gentleman arrives unannounced at 221b Baker Street. He begs Holmes for help, telling the unnerving story of a scar-faced man with piercing eyes who has stalked him in recent weeks.
Intrigued, Holmes and Watson find themselves swiftly drawn into a series of puzzling and sinister events, stretching from the gas-lit streets of London to the teeming criminal underworld of Boston and the mysterious 'House of Silk' . . ."

   Once an author dies, any continuation of their work is always going to be controversial. On one hand, there’s the audience to consider, those fans that will always want more, that will never be satisfied, that crave new adventures for their favourite characters. But then there’s the author themselves, whose life and work are being carried on without their permission, perhaps to areas they might not have wished to go.
   It’s also a tricky descision to make for the writer of the new material. Do you attempt to mimic the style of the original work or strike out in another direction? Do you keep the story in line with the other works in the series or do you take them further than the original author would have dared? Death Comes to Pemberley or Pride and Predjudice and Zombies? There are pros and cons to both sides and it can be a fine line to walk to get it right.

   Thankfully, in my opinion at least, Horowitz does get it right in The House of Silk, his attempt at gifting a new adventure to legendary detective Sherlock Holmes.

   The House of Silk is a “lost chapter” in Sherlock Holmes’ career; a case which his assistant and biographer Dr Watson felt could damage the very fabric of society with what it reveals. In the introduction, Watson says he’ll write the story on the condition that it be locked away and not read for a hundred years, hence we’re only able to read it now.

   As for the story itself, it’s the usual stuff you’d expect of Holmes. He and Watson are tasked with tracking down a mysterious figure that has been hounding an art dealer. When they do so however, it leads to a series of murders and the uncovering of a horrifying conspiracy, the mysterious House of Silk.
   The mystery is well placed and, while I did have an idea of where it was eventually heading, Horowitz manages to throw in enough red herrings and twists along the way to keep the reader guessing.
  
    He writes Sherlock very well. I’ve not read any of Horowitz’s other works so I can’t comment on how different the style of this book is to his usual feel but he manages to capture Arthur Conan Doyle’s voice very well here. Holmes is as ever, loveably unlovable, brilliant, but cutting and cruel, and he manages to avoid the mistake many others have made in making Dr Watson a bumbling idiot. Here, Watson is a well rounded character, lacking intelligence on par with Holmes, but more than smart enough to figure out a lot of the case for himself.
  
   As with many of Conan Doyle’s original work, the most enjoyable moments of the novel are the quiet ones. The conversations between Holmes and Watson where Holmes is able to read all manner of information from small details in Watson’s appearance and piece together a narrative. Here, these sections are written perfectly and are as entertaining as anything of the sort Conan Doyle wrote himself.

   I also loved Horowitz’s attempts to canonise the story. Watson constantly refers back to more of Holmes’ adventures like The Greek Interpreter or The Red Headed League. These touches really help to place the novel within the pre-established universe and stop it from ever feeling like another unofficial cash-in novel.

   If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan. The House of Silk is the next best thing you’ll get to a new work by Arthur Conan Doyle himself. It’s an interesting, fun mystery that breathes new life into one of literatures greatest legends. It’s well worth a read. 

Anthony Horowitz

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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane



The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
    It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed - within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it.
  His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.
   THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac - as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly's wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark.

   I’ve wanted to read some Neil Gaiman for years now. The only pieces of his work I’ve seen are his movie MirrorMask and the cinematic adaptation of Corraline, both of which I loved. The problem I’ve always found with his his books is that there’s so many of them, Gaiman’s an incredibly prolific writer and it can be a difficult canon to find a way into. However, I’d heard nothing but good things about his latest offering The Ocean at the end of the Lane, his first return to adult fiction since 2006’s Anansi Boys.
   The book seemed uniformly loved, garnering hundreds of five star reviews and seemingly nothing but gushing praise. It was incredibly deflating therefore, that I found the book really disappointing.

   The book sees an unnamed protagonist return to his childhood home to attend a funeral. While there he visits the home of his friend Lettie Hempstock and recalls a long forgotten memory of a series of magical events which he experienced as a seven year old boy.
   The rest of the book is a flashback to the events in question, where a mysterious and malicious spirit takes up lodgings in the boy’s house.

   One problem I had with the book was the style itself. Despite Gaiman’s claims, it certainly doesn’t feel like adult fiction. The setups, characters and plotting all feel pretty basic, with the lack of detail and exposition you expect from fiction for much younger readers.
   None of the characters are very developed, the mysterious Hempstock family have a massive past, the oldest member of the family claims to have been around for the birth of the moon, but there’s no delving into this backstory. There’s no real explanation of who they are or where they come from (though, in fairness, these characters do appear in a couple other books by Gaiman so there may be a little more info there).
   Even the human characters seem lacking, the boy himself doesn’t seem to go through much of a journey at all, despite the amazing things he goes through in the book.
   There’s a moment where the boys father, under the influence of Ursula Monkton, the spirit, nearly drowns the boy in the bath. Later on it’s hinted that Ursula’s powers don’t affect their subjects but bring out their innermost desires making the scene even more disturbing in hindsight. However, things like this are also never really touched upon within the narrative, and upon finishing the novel, despite the mysterious creatures and magical adventures the reader has just been witness too, it feels like the really interesting stuff, the real meat on the bones is almost entirely absent.

   The story itself has interesting moments but overall feels a little clichéd. As I was reading I constantly found myself thinking that I’d seen this all before. The mysterious little girl. The magic hiding just behind the veil of modern life. An evil entity entering a home but only the child can see that it’s evil. It’s the same thing you’ve seen in a hundred different books and movies before. I was also struck by how similar I found it to the limited work by Gaiman I’d already experienced, it felt very similar to Coralline and MirrorMask and while that’s understandable, it’s obviously a theme and setup Gaiman enjoys writing about, there just wasn’t enough of a difference to keep me interested.

   That said, while I didn’t enjoy this book my experience wasn’t so bad as to put me off reading more of Gaiman’s work in the future. There were some passages here that were beautifully written and stuck with me after putting the book down. It’s just that, overall, I felt I’d seen everything in this book done before and done better.
   I look forward to reading more of his work in the future, but I really can’t recommend this one. 

Neil Gaiman
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Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Swan Gondola



The Swan Gondola
The Swan Gondola

Timothy Schaffert

   This book started off really well, with main character, ventriloquist, Ferret, falling from the sky in a stolen hot air balloon, crashing into the farm owned by the Old Sisters Egan, to whom he tells the tale of how he got there.
   Unfortunatly, like Ferrets balloon, the book plummets quickly.

   The main problem with the book is the central romance that lies at the heart of it. It’s simply not interesting. Ferret’s love for the glamorous Cecily is love at first sight (always a bad sign), when he meets her backstage at a play. He bumps into her again when he sneaks into the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair and their relationship goes on from there.
   Cecily herself resists Ferret for a little while, but not too long. For Cecily it’s more like love at fourth sight…

   Sadly, despite the four hundred pages dedicated to it, the relationship still feels incredibly underdeveloped. Both Ferret and Cecily are boring characters from the off and remain so throughout. It’s hard to see what anyone finds interesting about Cecily, the only character trait she seems to have throughout the whole novel is that she dresses unusually. But even that wears thin quickly when the writer constantly breaks the narrative to tell us what she’s wearing. Cecily has dresses decorated with paper butterflies, flowers, lace, swans, insects….that’s all she has to offer.

   It wouldn’t have been so bad perhaps if there was something else going on in the book but sadly it’s not the case. There are a host of other characters, the Cross dressing August, the anarchist Rosie, the mysterious old woman Mrs Margaret, who disguises herself as a dummy and the villainous, one handed, Mayfield.
   All of these characters are great, I’d happily read a whole novel about any one of them, here though, they’re unforgivably underused. They do nothing but put in the occasional line of dialogue, almost always about the relationship between Ferret and Cecily.
   There’s a sort of subplot involving the anarchists planning to assassinate President McKinley but it comes to nothing, as do the constant allusions to the Wizard of Oz which the author admits are only there because he’d recently read the book.

   One thing the book gets right is it’s depiction of the Fair itself. Based on the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exhibition, the worlds fair is a town sized collection of shows, scientific advancements, cultural exports, music, street performers, trinkets, parties, occult curiosities and gambling.
   It’s at once exciting, mysterious, dangerous and intriguing, a character all to itself. I wanted to crawl into the book and experience all the wonders it had to offer for myself.
   Unfortunately, like the rest of the characters, far too often it felt like the interesting thing was in the background and I was glancing around the main characters to see the good stuff.

   I wanted very much to like this book, but with a bland love story that drags on too long and still feels underdeveloped and hints of great things that sadly remained undelivered, I was very disappointed. 

Timothy Schaffert
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I received this book for review through GoodReads FirstReads

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Nosferatu: Eine symphonie des grauens



Nosferatu: Eine symphonie des grauens
Nosferatu: Eine symphonie des grauens
Kevin Jackson

   This book is part of the BFI film classics series, each book in the series takes a different film and offers a critical analysis of its content and history. In this volume, Kevin Jackson talks about F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire classic, Nosferatu: Eine symphonie des grauens.
   The film is the first adaptation of Dracula (albeit an unofficial one) and sees young real estate agent Hutter sell a house to the mysterious Count Orlok. Orlok reveals himself to be a vampire and follows Hutter home to pray on the city and Hutter’s wife Helen.
   I’ve mentioned on my blog before that Nosferatu is my favourite film of all time, so whenever I discover anything like this, I’m always eager to pick it up and learn something new about the film.

   The book is broken into different sections, dealing with the German landscape leading up to the films release, pre-production, an in-depth analysis of the film itself, the public’s reaction to the film upon release and the legacy the film has garnered today.
   At just over a hundred pages it’s pretty short but Jackson manages to cram a lot of information into such a small space.
   He touches on a lot of ground that will be familiar to fans of the film, producer Albin Grau’s occultist leanings, Murnau’s homosexuality, the lawsuit filed against the production company by Bram Stoker’s widow and the theme of sexual repression many critics have read into the film itself.

Orlok's shadow climbs the stairs



   By far the best part of the book is the scene by scene analysis of the film that Jackson offers. He repeatedly quotes from Grau’s original screenplay which offers an interesting insight into what parts of the film never made it to the screen.
   The screenplay makes mention of several scenes not present in the final cut either for timing reasons or the inability to pull of the desired effects with the technology of the time. One scene in particular calls for a man sized raven to fly alongside Hutter’s carriage while the trees of the forest come to life.
   While it’s hard to say whether or not these scenes would have improved or damaged the film had they been included, it’s certainly interesting to see a little more of Grau’s vision for the film.

   The book ends with an enjoyable section detailing the films legacy, touching on the 1976 remake by Werner Herzog and the 2000 horror/comedy/biopic Shadow of the Vampire which sees Murnau hire a real vampire to play the part of Orlok. There’s even a mention of Paul Whitehouse’s Monster Monster Monster character from the fast show.

   If you’re a big fan of Nosferatu, chances are you’ll already know most of the stuff included here. The details of the films production and the infamous lawsuit upon its release have all been documented many times before. However, while there’s not a lot here that’s new, Jackson’s essay is definitely still worth a read, there’s a lot of info but it’s presented well and it’s an easy, enjoyable read. The main point of interest is the notes on the screenplay and they’re definitely worth picking the book up for.
   If you’re a film fan in general, it’s definitely worth picking up, Nosferatu truly is one of the greatest moments in cinema and it’s legacy deserves to live on for years to come.

Max Shreck as the horrifying Count Orlok

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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Until I Find You



Until I Find You
Until I Find You
John Irving
 'According to his mother, Jack Burns was an actor before he was an actor, but Jack's most vivid memories of childhood were those moments when he felt compelled to hold his mother's hand. He wasn't acting then.' 

   Upon finishing this book, I completed a near five year journey through John Irving’s fantastic body of work. This, the final novel of his I got around to reading (at least until Avenue of Mysteries is released) is a bit of a controversial one. Many consider it Irving’s magnum opus, while others call it the worst thing he has ever written.
   Myself, I found myself somewhere in the middle. While I liked a lot of this book, I found much of my enjoyment marred by some pretty serious flaws.

   The main problem is the novels length. Irving is no stranger to long stories, but at close to a thousand pages, this is by far the largest work he has published to date. This isn’t a problem in itself, however, the story feels incredibly padded.
   Nearly everything in the book feels drawn out. The first two hundred pages see the main character, Jack Burns, as a four year old boy, dragged from city to city across Europe by his mother in search of his absent Father. It’s a lengthy segment that adds up to little more than a prologue and was almost enough to put me off the book entirely.
    What follows next is Jack’s school days in Canada, his college days in the US and his career as a successful Hollywood actor. Again, everything feels padded, as if no single incident in Jack’s life can pass without and eight page description. It gets exhausting very quickly.
   There’s also a problem with repetition. Every point Irving makes, every memorable quote from a character or lesson to be learned is hammered into the reader again and again as the novel progresses. It’s an odd technique and one that comes across as patronising, as if the reader can’t be trusted to remember all this vital information.

   It might not have been such a hard slog if Jack himself had been a more interesting character, but sadly, despite the nine hundred pages dedicated to him, he still feels oddly undeveloped by the end. Far too often he seems to simply drift through life, lead by the various characters into his various jobs and eventual movies. He makes no decisions on his own. Even toward the end, where he finally seems to show some initiative, it’s at the suggestion of his therapist. I finished the book feeling no real attachment to Jack, something I never thought I’d say of an Irving lead character.

   Despite these flaws, there’s still a lot of really good stuff here. The lengthy beginning does have some payoff when Jack eventually learns that his memories don’t tell the whole story and he goes in search of the truth, though it can feel like too little payoff too late… The way Irving handles Jack’s false memories and reveals the reality behind them is interesting and adds some much needed drama and intrigue into the second half of the novel.
   Issues with padding aside, Irving’s writing remains as beautiful and dense as ever. His style is so just so readable, you can’t help but want more whenever you put the book down.
   I also loved the scene where Jack wins the 1999 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, an award which, in real life, went to Irving himself for The Cider House Rules.

   Until I find You is a mixed bag, there’s some wonderful stuff here, marred down by a dull main character and a high page count. The book could easily have been condensed to closer to the six hundred page mark and would have been all the better for it. In the end, it’s certainly not Irving’s worst book, but it’s flawed, a book I won’t be in any hurry to return to.
   While I enjoyed parts of it immensely, as the finale of my travels through John Irving’s canon, it’s a disappointing one….

John Irving

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