Change in Update Schedule

This is a quick post to notify you all of some changes. As of today this blog will update weekly, as opposed to every three days. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including the fact that I review books faster than I can finish them. However the main reason for this, is that I plan to do my own personal Camp Nanowrimo (or National Novel Writing Month) challenge this July, starting this Friday.

Hence I will be cutting down to ensure that I can make the challenge, but it is likely that the change will be permanent. I am unsure what day I will be posting but it will likely be either a Thursday or Friday, starting this week. Whatever day I choose, I will probably stick with until further notice. Hopefully this will make writing this blog seem less like a chore to me and will allow me to put more time into picking out books for review.

The Last Four Things (Paul Hoffman 2011)

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The Last Four Things is the second book of the Left Hand of God Trilogy, which I read several years ago. The trilogy follows Thomas Cale as he struggles with his dark nature and his conflict with the Redeemers, a group of religious extremists who believe Cale to be an important figure in their plans. The Last Four Things continues where The Left Hand of God left off, Thomas Cale is left back in the hands of the Redeemers after being betrayed by his lover Arbell Swan Neck. He learns that the Redeemer’s want to undo what they believe to be God’s greatest mistake – mankind. Thomas Cale is believed to be the instrument of god’s fury, the Left Hand of God, an angel of death. Now that he is in their custody he is forced to lead the Redeemers into battle and he seems willing enough, but there is still ambiguity in his motives.

The book expands on the worldbuilding from the previous book. With his book I became even more certain that the novels are set in a post apocalyptic earth, with the parallels between the Redeemers and Christianity becoming more obvious. However there is one notable difference and probably the twist which makes me remember this series, is that the Redeemers are revealed to be an apocalyptic cult who desire to exterminate humanity. The reasoning is strange and makes them seem a bit more alien and different to the religions which they draw from, seeming more like a cult than any mainstream religious groups.

This leads onto the plot holes, namely the question of how they planned to achieve the extermination of mankind. To me their plan seemed to be to simply have Cale exterminate every human with the Redeemer army with no real plan beyond that. The feat of exterminating every single human this way seemed a bit implausible to me. The narrative as a whole was very confusing in that regard as I didn’t seem to pick up on just how they planned to achieve their lofty goal. This was a problem not just with this plot thread but with the novel as a whole, as the plot seemed to become more convoluted. I had similar issues with understanding Thomas Cale’s true nature, is he supposed to be magical somehow? Is he just a boy with an unusual talent for killing things? It wasn’t clear what it was about him that made him the Left Hand of God, and that confused me to no end.

In terms of character Thomas Cale is basically the same as in the previous book, only he’s angrier than ever following his betrayal and his bitterness at the world is at an all time high. This made me question whether or not he actually planned on doing the Redeemer’s bidding for real, or it he was just biding his time for an escape. This was another layer of confusion onto the convoluted plot. On a slightly more positive note, Thomas’ friends Vague Henri and Kleist get more focus now that he is no longer with them. Vague Henri is still boring, but Kleist gets a fairly interesting subplot. They still aren’t solid enough characters though and both seem painfully generic, with neither showing the same trauma of having been brought up in the cult like environment of the Redeemers in the way Thomas Cale does. This bugged me since both characters should, in my eyes, a fair amount of baggage from being brought up in such an environment but nothing they do seemed to show anything of the sort.

As a whole I somehow managed to enjoy this novel even less than The Left Hand of God, something which I didn’t even think was possible. It still had the same problems of its predecessor and introduced nearly a dozen more. I can’t say I found it the most enjoyable reads, and I was glad to put it down. In a rare feat, the book made me more confused at the end than it did beginning. The fact that ambiguity is the book’s defining trait does little to help things, with aspects such as Thomas’ intentions and the Redeemer’s plans remaining uncertain. This was a confusing book, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: CONFUSING

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill 1983)

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The Woman in Black is a novella of some repute, having spawned a number of adaptations, of which the latest is the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe and its sequel Angel of Death (the less we speak of the latter, the better). The Woman in Black is a classic modern ghost story, following Arthur Kipps as he narrates his experiences in Eel Marsh House, where he stayed whilst sorting out the affairs of the late Mrs Drablow as a junior solicitor. There he starts to experience strange going ons at the house, attributed to a strange Woman in Black seen at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. The local townspeople seem to be aware of the woman’s existence but seem reluctant to talk about it. Arthur Kipps is subject to supernatural goings on in the house, including screams of a woman and child coming from the marshes amongst other things. He resolves to get to the bottom of the haunting mystery and determines to find out the truth about the Woman in Black and her connection to the late Mrs Drablow.

The first thing I noticed about the novel was the writing style, which is written in a wordy gothic style reminiscent of the traditional gothic novels. The style was so prominent that I hardly recognised it as a modern novel at all and without the benefit of research I could easily have mistaken it for a novel written in the nineteenth century or early twentieth. Hence I was taken aback by the fact that it was written in 1983, since the novel read so old. While the novel is in some ways nostalgic the writing style works against it in some ways. The novel feels like the thousand of ghost stories which have come before it, and since the Woman in Black is at her core just another vengeful ghost archetype, there isn’t enough to make the plot stand out. In a modern ghost story that follows the traditional conventions, I would expect the narrative to compensate for this somewhat by bringing something new to the table such as a more direct and dynamic narrative style. Also, the narrative of The Woman in Black was a little bit wordy and I felt myself yawning while reading through the long paragraphs. I’ve always been more of a fan of more direct prose, as opposed to flowery purple prose so that factors into my opinion as well.

The frame narrative was a nice addition but I did question whether or not it was necessary as it serves only to provide a platform through which Kipps can tell his story. The biggest problem with the frame narrative is that the story never fully returns to it aside from a few lines at the end. To me a frame narrative should serve as a bookend, with the end of the novel having a scene at the end which uses the frame narrative and connecting it to the rest of the novel in some way. The frame narrative in The Woman in Black takes place after all of the action has taken place and never really adds anything to the story aside from showing that Kipps eventually recovered from all the stuff that happened to him and to foreshadow the ending scene. To me the frame narrative sounded like a clever plot device but its execution seemed to fall flat to me somehow.

The Woman in Black herself is a bit of a polarising character. She is a ghost with a personality, which is good and by the end it is very easy to understand her motivations. The novel is ambiguous as to whether or not she acts out of malevolence or whether she simply acts out a purpose, though the end suggests that she acts out of anger and may seek to kill children in act of revenge since she seemed to cause the carriage accident involving Kipps’ son deliberately. I did like the twist though, that leaving the house and going to London wasn’t going to keep the Woman in Black at bay, even a year after the events at Eel Marsh House.

Overall I’d say that the story was decent, but fell short of my expectations. To me it was just another ghost novel that tried to be literary by padding itself with purple prose to extend what was already a fairly short piece of fiction. The prose actually made the whole situation less scary since I find that I didn’t take it as seriously as I would, for example, the direct kind you’d find in a Stephen King novel. It is a decent enough read but doesn’t do anything both with its prose, or its plot for that matter. It is a neat callback to the gothic fiction of old, so I will discount it but I certainly feel like there is room for improvement.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

The Jasper Forest (Julia Gray 2001)

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The Jasper Forest is the second book in Julia Gray’s The Guardian Cycle series. The series follows the adventures of the enchanter Terrel as he travels while trying to figure his role a prophecy relating to the Guardian, a saviour who stars point out to being either Terrel or his twin brother Jax. The Jasper Forest follows on from where The Dark Moon left off, Terrel finds himself adrift in the ocean after being betrayed by Jax. He is rescued by fishermen, having drifted to the land of Marcul. He becomes accepted as a healer and gradually assimilates himself into the strange new land, but eventually he finds that his role in the prophecy is not yet over and is forced to continue his journey in the strange new land of Marcul.

Similar to The Dark Moon, The Jasper Forest progresses at a very leisurely pace. A lot of time is devoted to Terrel’s recovery and eventual assimilation into a village in Marcul, where he is introduced to their culture. The novel’s real plot doesn’t start to kick in until later in, and he isn’t trust into any real danger until he leaves the village, which happens far later than it should do. The pacing is nothing new, and a bit dull but to be honest I had come to expect this after the dull affair that was The Dark Moon. The pacing is basically the same as what I’ve come to expect from the series so far.

The Jasper Forest seemed to be boring in terms of characters. I already had a sneaking suspicion that Terrel wasn’t going to remain in Marcul by the end of the book and as a result I had difficulty getting behind the characters which were introduced in this novel. A handful of them were interesting for a few moments but most of the time they were just generic bit time characters. The only positive is that unlike the side characters from previous novels, some of these characters actually got development for their brief appearances. My biggest disappointment is that support characters such as Alyssa seemed to disappear for certain chunks of the novel, presumably to give the novel room to establish the characters based in Marcul.

One positive aspect was the reappearance of Jax, Terrel’s half brother, who has figured out a method of taking over Terrel’s body at times when Terrel is lacking control such as when the latter is drunk. The interaction between the two made me more intrigued by him as a character, wondering which side he is on. He ultimately seems to be on his own side, caring more about himself than others but based in the interactions there is room for him to come into a more heroic role by the time the last book roles around. Sadly, like the other major support characters he now talks to Terrel from a distance and lacks a physical presence in the story. This is something that bugged me with the previous book and the fact that another character has fallen victim to this annoys me to no end.

In terms of threat level the novel is still on the same level as The Dark Moon, with the book being a leisurely journey. As a result it felt kind of boring, similar in nature to the previous book and I suspect that this is the formula that the series is going to take. Like the previous book, The Jasper Forest to me represents one of the ways in which classic high fantasy can be done in a flawed manner and why the genre seems to have been left on the wayside in favour of more modern genres such as Dark Fantasy. The book had its okay moments but most of it was kind of boring and to be honest it’s unlikely that I’ll ever read this particular book again.

SCORE: 3/5

IN A WORD: DULL

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes 1966)

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Flowers for Algernon is a strange little novel, and one that has been scraping around near the bottom of my reading list for a long time. Then not too long ago I finally picked up a copy, and breezed through it at an unusually quick pace. Thus here I am, reviewing something I thought I probably wouldn’t touch for at least another decade. Flowers for Algernon is a short but simple novel revolving around the story of Charlie Gordon, a floor sweeper at Donner’s Bakery born with subnormal intelligence. He is brought into an experiment on human intelligence, where he is subject to a procedure which increases his intelligence. The process is documented through a series of progress reports, written by Charlie throughout the course of the novel. The process seems to be a success at first, but things soon start to go wrong and the now intelligent Charlie dreads returning to his original self.

The novel is told through diary entries, labelled as progress reports intended for use by the people behind the experiment. The narrative flows in a stream of consciousness manner, especially early on when Charlie isn’t too bright. Charlie’s lack of intelligence is shown through bad spelling and grammar. This was something that I considered a brave literary tactic, since logic dictates that bad spelling would be off putting to the reader but since the character writing can’t spell it gives the work an extra layer of immersive reading and I’ll admit there were times where it was quite easy to forget that Charlie was even a fictional character, something which rarely happens to me when reading a novel.

I enjoyed Charlie as a character, and I felt like he was very interesting psychologically. Most notably is how the intelligent Charlie views his previous self as a different person, frequently viewing himself as a different person borrowing the old Charlie Gordon’s body. This viewpoint becomes more and more pronounced as the novel progresses, especially once the smart Charlie becomes aware that his condition is going to deteriorate. The novel goes out of its way to show that intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean emotional maturity, which is something I found to be a logical addition to a person like Charlie suddenly gaining intelligence. Despite his growing intelligence Charlie is shown to struggle with the consequences of having intelligence, and a lot of the conflict revolves around the fallout of him not realising the effects his intelligence is having on those around him. It showed that he still had to learn some things, even with his increasing intelligence, and that was something I loved about him as a character.

I can’t say there is a lot that can be said negatively. I felt like his relationships within the novel were rather clumsily handled and I found myself questioning whether he would enter a relationship within anyone during the course of the novel, as I would personally believe that even with his increased intelligence he would have to go through some sort of second puberty. I would personally assume that the process would take several years, and thus I found myself wondering if it was unrealistic for Charlie to not only understand sexual relationships on a theoretical level within the space of several months but also have one during this time. Yet as a work of science fiction, this is something that could easily be handwaved as an effect of the operation and thus it didn’t bug me too much.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flowers for Algernon, and it made me sad that Charlie ultimately lost his intelligence, even though he did his best to try and keep it. At its core the story is one I would class as a science fiction story, but it is a very low key one and the work ultimately focuses on the personal relationships between Charlie and the rest of the cast. This is a very literary science fiction novel, in part because of the epistolary format presented by Charlie’s progress reports and this is one of the reasons why I liked to read it so much. A truly great novel and one I would almost certainly read again.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: HEARTRENDING

The Left Hand of God (Paul Hoffman 2010)

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The Left Hand of God is a dark fantasy novel and happens to be the first novel I read in the genre, having read it several years ago. The novel is the first in a trilogy of the same name by Paul Hoffman. The novel is set in a world where a religious group known as the Redeemers rule the land. The Redeemers are a twisted, extreme religion with many obvious parallels to Christianity, such as a belief in a Hanged Redeemer who functions as a parallel to Jesus. The setting is highly implied to be a post apocalyptic earth but nothing is explicitly stated. The Redeemers are constantly at war with their enemies, who are referred to as the Antagonists. The plot follows Thomas Cale, a fourteen year old boy serving with the Redeemers, who is forced to flee the Redeemers after discovering secrets within the organisation. Unbeknownst to him, he is actually believed to be an important figure within their belief system and the Redeemers want him back. Thomas Cale establishes himself in the Matterazzi town of Memphis and begins to fall in love with Arbell Swan-Neck, the Matterazzi princess but things are not set to last as the Redeemers close in on Thomas Cale and his friends.

The first thing that struck me was the worldbuilding. The world was very much unique. As previously mentioned, it is highly implied through the cultural similarities that the work is in fact set in a post apocalyptic earth, and since magic is treated in a very ambiguous manner it may well be the case. The ambiguity of the setting was somewhat confusing on my first read through but it upon reflection it provided a lot for the story. I did feel like the parallels between the Redeemers and Christianity were a bit blatant, and at times I found myself wondering if the author was trying to use the novel to comment on the hypocrisies within the church, both historically and in the present. I tend not to be fond of works which have strong ideological themes, even if I agree with the point they’re trying to make, and as a result the possible ideological bias served against it. Yet the ideological bias didn’t work against it to the extent which I thought it would, and I found the parallels between real world Christianity and the Redeemers to be interesting.

I was also quite fond of the characters. Thomas Cale, the main character, is shown to have a wit and brutal sarcasm common to many dark fantasy protagonists, and since this was the first story I had read in the genre I thoroughly enjoyed him on my first read through and still enjoy him to this day. His friends are a bit bland as characters but still have a dark wit about them which managed to just barely endear them, though not the extend as Thomas Cale did. Cale’s love interest, Arbell seemed an all right character at first but then in a huge twist she turned out to be self centred and willing to turn on Thomas when things go south. As the central female character in the novel it irked me that she was portrayed in the narrative in such a manner, even if most of that comes from Thomas’ biased personal point of view. I wish that they had done more to show her in a more sympathetic light.

In terms of plot I felt like the overall plot was lacking somewhat, with the pace slowing down around the middle of the novel. The twist at the climax, namely Thomas being betrayed and handed over for the Redeemers seemed abrupt and disappointing. The ending was blatant sequel pandering, which is something I tend to hate in fantasy, especially since in this case the climax leading up to it was cut short thanks to the twist. The conflict in the middle didn’t seem that clear either, and seemed to have no purpose in the overall narrative. As a whole I felt like the whole story could be summarised as Thomas Cale leaves the Redeemers, lives a happy life in Memphis then gets betrayed and handed over to the Redeemers ready to be their chosen one. The reveal of being the chosen one also came rather late in the story and thus seemed like an abrupt ass pull to create more conflict for Thomas in the sequel.

Overall the novel was somewhat decent, with an entertaining narrative. Yet I felt like the world could have been fleshed out a bit more. The plot also needed a lot of work, not just in pacing but also in the way the story was handled as a whole. That being said, the novel gripped me just enough to get me reading the other two novels in the series and made me hopeful for the dark fantasy genre as a whole. At the time I read it I had fonder opinions of the novel but those opinions have changed with time, and as a result I’d probably say it was a fairly average read.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn 2012)

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Gone Girl is a novel which has received a lot of good press lately, more so after the release of its film adaptation, which I have yet to watch. Yet, when I originally picked this book up a few years ago I had no idea that I was picking up a bestseller. It was just an ordinary book to me. As a result I went into it without any set opinions and have formed a reasonably objective opinion. The book revolves around two characters, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Nick Dunne wakes up on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife missing. He is subsequently roped into a police investigation, with himself as the primary suspect and he soon learns that Amy claimed to be scared about him. He swears he is innocent. Yet Amy’s personal diary entries seem to contradict this theory. The question is raised as to who is telling the truth and who is lying, and more importantly what really happened to Amy?

The novel is primarily told through Nick’s point of view, set in the present day, and through Amy’s diary entries, which go back to the time running up to her disappearance. The two entries seem to contradict information shown in each one and the reliability of both narrators is called into question. One is constantly asking the question, how much of what they are saying is the truth and how much of it is lies? As the story develops both characters are shown to be archetypal unreliable narrators with something to hide. Nick is shown to be anything but the perfect husband he claims to be, having an affair with another woman, and Amy is revealed to be petty and obsessed with being perfect.

The novel is one of those filled with twists but the biggest is the reveal of the culprit behind Amy’s disappearance, namely herself. In her biggest unreliable narrator moment, the entire diary is revealed to be fake and designed with the intent of implicating Nick in a for her “murder” for the sake of revenge against him cheating on her. In reality Amy is still alive. As Nick begins to discover this, he realises she has done this to a number of people who had previously wronged her. The reveal of Amy’s true nature was probably the biggest reveal of the entire novel and it changed the tone of the story from murder mystery to thriller. The twist provided a lot material for those reading a second time, and upon rereading I noticed a lot of foreshadowing which flew over my head the first time.

The ending was suitably twisted and satisfying, as it gives both characters their much needed desserts. Amy’s plan unravels as she begins to run out of money following a robbery and stays with a former boyfriend. Yet she soon realises that her only option is to return to Nick, something helped by a TV interview in which he begs for her to return home. She murders the boyfriend and goes on to claim that he kidnapped her. When she returns to Nick, they have no choice but to stay together thanks to the media attention surrounding her “kidnapping” and are forced to stay together in a loveless marriage, in part because of the lack of better options. For Amy she is stuck having to pretend to love a man who lied and cheated on her, while Nick is stuck knowing full well that she framed him but cannot do anything to prove it. Thus in some respects they both get the retribution they deserve, ironically enough by being forced to stay with each other. This was a brilliant twist, as it gives the story a twisted sense of closure without seeing either character “win” the battle in the end.

Overall the novel was very twisty and a true thriller. At the same time I found it thoroughly enjoyable, more so than I was actually expecting. The twist was genuinely surprising, though a bit inevitable in hindsight. It plays on a lot of common found fears and insecurities in order to get you to root for both characters. Though I empathised with Nick more since he was mostly a victim, I felt enough for Amy that I was able to acknowledge that both needed equal amounts of karma at the end. Probably the best thriller I’ve read in a long while and one I will read again and again.

SCORE: 4.5/5

IN A WORD: TWISTY