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Darker Fables

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Review: Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

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Well. That was different to the film.

Oh, I know. Sinner, sinner, sinner. How could I commit such a monstrous wrong as to not read the book first? The answer is even worse.

For a long time, I didn’t even know there was a book.

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Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

But find out I did, and I have since made amends by reading the thing.

It’s a strange old novel, which I liked more than I disliked, and which I think perhaps I didn’t entirely understand.

‘Oh, tonight I gave you my soul and I am dead!’ Christine replied.

‘Your soul is a beautiful thing, child,’ replied the man’s grave voice, ‘and I thank you. No emperor ever received so fair a gift. THE ANGELS WEPT TONIGHT.’

The Phantom of the Opera is not the romance it is made out to be, but a Gothic novel about an outcast genius and his obsession with a naïve young singer, whose virginal personality is more like that of a child than an adult woman.

As far as the classics go it is, in my opinion, easy to read, and the writing is in places very beautiful, making this a highly quotable text.

The plot is also by turns exciting, inventive, and unusual. Unfortunately, it falls down on realism, with over-dramatic dialogue and a cast of (mostly superfluous) two-dimensional characters.

And, despite the care which she took to look behind her at every moment, she failed to see a shadow which followed her like her own shadow, which stopped when she stopped, which started again when she did and which made no more noise than a well-conducted shadow should. As for Raoul, he saw nothing either; for, when he had Christine in front of him, nothing interested him that happened behind.

This is a good book, but in my opinion it’s not one of the best when it comes to Gothic literature. As sort-of-fascinating a character as the Phantom is, I think this novel lacks the depth and nuance of its contemporaries.

Also, for all its romantic themes (love between father and daughter, young love, selfish love, obsessive love, etc.), I found this book quite cold. In my opinion it lacks tenderness, and as such there was no one I really ended up rooting for.

And then there’s The Persian, who is the definition of a plot device in character form, endlessly appearing to deliver his lines, and then disappearing, without need for motive, convincing backstory, or indeed, an actual place in the narrative.

‘I have invented a mask that makes me look like anybody. People will not even turn round in the streets. You will be the happiest of women. And we will sing, all by ourselves, till we swoon away with delight. You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself. If you loved me I should be as gentle as a lamb; and you could do anything with me that you pleased.’

However, The Phantom of the Opera does feature some delightful description, particularly in regard to the setting, which is an exaggeration of the Paris Opera. I have actually visited the Palais Garnier in real life, and I can tell you, this book really does it justice as an otherworldly, magical palace in which all sorts of strange, glamorous things might happen.

And I did enjoy the plot, which is a good deal quicker-paced than most classics.

So, all in all, an inch shy of disappointing. Not the best, but not the worst. I’m glad I read it, anyway.

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Jennifer Cody Epstein’s ‘The Gods of Heavenly Punishment’

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I don’t usually read WWII novels, simply as a matter of preference. I think the sheer scale of the events is something I find hard to relate to, and though I have grandparents who grew up with ration books, it’s a time which seems so far removed from now that I can’t quite grasp it in my thoughts.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is not the standard fare for the genre. For one thing, its focus is Japan, and for another, it’s not about Hiroshima. This novel focuses instead on the fire-bombing of Tokyo, and the way a handful of fictional lives, both American and Japanese, intersect.

It is a little predictable (a feature of the genre, in my opinion), but features a cast of interesting, conflicted characters, none of whom are good people, but none of whom are inherently bad, either. Epstein has real skill when in comes to portraying emotions, and for the most part I enjoyed her writing style.

He found her at a windowside table, in a slim-fitting white suit and broad-brimmed hat, her lips and nails a striking but tasteful maroon. When she saw him she smiled and raised her cigarette holder like a tour guide raising an umbrella. Anton had to admit that he saw not a trace of desperation or confusion in her face.

The era-hopping fashion in which the novel is structured also works surprisingly well, and some of the scenes are glowing works of prose. My favourites included a sordid affair, a young girl’s perspective on the horrific bombing, and a scene between mother and daughter, huddling in a Japanese bomb shelter.

It’s just a shame that the ending doesn’t pack the punch it needs to really round things off. The book is less than 400 pages long, and the final chapter suffers from an unsatisfying briskness that leaves many questions answered. Some of this is, I suspect, for effect, but it bypasses critical characters’ resolutions, and skips over pivotal scenes with airy dismissal.

I would have liked to know what really happened to Hana. I wanted Billy to find some resolution with his father. I even wanted to know what became of Anton’s mother, but none of this was covered. Instead the final chapter is a rapid-fire roundup, and tepid as a result.

 “I’m not opposed to love, you know. In fact, I keep your famous phrase about it in my heart and mind whenever possible.”

“Famous phrase?”

Hana leaned back and shut her eyes. Her slim fingertips traced the dotted tiger, like a blind woman’s brushing over the word tiger in Braille.

“L’amour conquiert tout,” she said.

Love conquers all.

Heavenly Punishment is a book about the war, but its bigger themes are love, loss, and disillusionment. Sympathetic to both sides without being limp in its acknowledgement of the great wrongs committed by all, and despite its plot holes and gaps, this is a very good read.

At its best, this novel really is heartbreaking. Its depictions of PTSD and the sheer wreckage the war made of ordinary people are harrowing. It’s just a shame the standard wasn’t maintained right until the end. An extra fifty pages, and I think this one would have had me in tears.

Review: Zachary Mason’s ‘The Lost Books of the Odyssey’

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This is a beautiful, intelligent book. A collection of forty-four short stories that serve as retellings, gap-fillers and variations of Homer’s works, The Lost Books is lyrical, and reads with the lightness of a whisked sponge.

If I am honest, it is a little bit too intelligent for me. Much as I enjoyed the reading, there were parts that went higher than my mind can climb. At points this text drifts into a semi-surreal half-poem. It makes for a challenge, especially to one who is no scholar when it comes to the Greek myths.

However, this is a short book. At 228 pages, The Lost Books is not guilty of fluff. It simply delivers what it sets out to, and in concise, eloquent prose that is a real pleasure to read.

“With dauntless spirit you continue to struggle. By infinitesimal degrees, the load becomes lighter and your confinement less. At last, you push away a piece of coarse, heavy cloth and, relieved, feel that it was the last one. As it falls away, you realise you have been fighting through years.”

I am ashamed to admit that I went in narrow-minded, with low expectations. I have tried on several occasions, to read versions of The Odyssey and The Iliad, but without success. This book is the first adaption I have encountered which really struck a chord with me, and among its various passages I have several favourite stories, which I will list.

  • The Myrmidon Golem
  • A Night in the Woods
  • Decrement
  • Sirens
  • Death and the King
  • Bright Land
  • No Man’s Wife

The real talent of this book is, I think, the way Mason characterises Odysseus, the ever-changing, ambiguous protagonist who leads in most of the short tales. Mason succeeds in bringing humanity to a lofty ideal of a person who is more myth than substance, but without losing the ethereal fogginess of the source material.

I am not unhappy, despite the cold and monotony. There are many things to love about this place – the susurrus of falling snow, the tracks of deer and hare encircling the house, the black rooks landing heavily on laden branches and sending down white showers. And at night the wolves prowl my doorstep, their fur crusted with snow, hungry winter revenants howling their hopeless laments.

I have even learnt some new words from reading this book, and they are words I might actually want to find a use for – ‘susurrus’ for one. Could there be a more perfect word to describe the sound of snowflakes touching the ground?

All in all, this is a book that makes the cut. It is perhaps a little too clever for its own good, and therefore destined to a certain literary obscurity, but it is among the most well-written I have ever read, and it moved me, in a peculiar, prickling way.

I am confident that I will dip in again, and again. Perhaps, and this is something I rarely do out of wariness for one-hit wonders, I’ll even seek out the author’s other works.

“But I must come back once more when my days are done and then, finally, you will be waiting for me,” he said and reached out to touch her cheek but she slipped away like a fish in a stream.

Review: A.S. Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’

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For a book about the end of everything, this is a lovely piece of literature. And strange. It’s the Norse version of the apocalypse, but it’s also the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl who believes her father will die in the Second World War.

Byatt’s Ragnarok is actually my first encounter with a more descriptive version of the myth than can be found on its Wikipedia page. I knew several aspects of the tale, but this was the first time everything was connected for me, from Yggdrasil to Loki in his chains.

Succinct, clever, and well-written, it’s a good example in how to write about yourself without writing a book just about you. It’s also about as lyrical as a novel can be before it shifts from prose to poetry, and sings with the wisdom of a mature and talented writer.

‘Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be.’

Often with Norse myth adaptations I find the distinctly non-anglicised names steal attention from the rest of the prose for their unusual pronounciation. Many, like Ginnungagap and Jörmungandr do not ‘fit’ into English (not that anyone should expect them to), and draw attention to the inherent falsity of translation. Byatt’s writing has a wonderful ability to embrace these complex words.

Ragnarok uses an intellectual lexis, delving into old words that are almost, but not quite, forgotten, creating a work that is both foreign and familiar to read. It’s the first time I’ve read a book in which an author has done this without coming off as a walking thesaurus, or imbuing the text with an unpleasant density.

‘Loki wanted to learn from it – not exactly to master fire or water, but to map them. But beyond the curiosity there was delight. Chaos pleased him. He liked things to get more and more furious, more wild, more ungraspable. He was at home in turbulence.’

Like all the oldest tales, Ragnarök is an inherently epic story, and Byatt’s novel is part adaptation, part homage to the original myth. Her respect for the folklore sings through every line, together with her burning desire to do it justice.

I think she succeeds in creating something which has just the right balance of originality and intervention, though since the myth is not from my own culture I’m probably not the best judge. My conviction that this is a good version of the story stems from the fact that I would absolutely love to find the Arthurian legends of my native land written like this.

Really the only thing I can find fault with is the creeping way in which Byatt portrays her own critical, slightly condescending attitude towards Christianity. I’m not religious, and I don’t think this text is offensive to those who are, but I do believe the theme would have benefited from taking more of a back seat.

‘The sisters were spinners, who twisted the threads of fate. They were the gardeners and guardians of the Tree. They watered the tree with the black well-water. They fed it with pure white clay, aurr. So it decayed, or was diminished, from moment to moment. So it was always renewed.’

In short, this novel is a really good introduction to the flesh of Norse mythology, especially if you would like to read something with more subtlety and intelligence than might be found in a children’s novel.

And if you already know the mythos well, it’s just as enjoyable as a beautiful, artistic portrayal of the end of Asgard.

Review: Susanne Winnacker’s ‘The Other Life’

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Well the good news is this book made me laugh. The bad news is I don’t think it was supposed to. I reserve one star reviews for books which are truly irredeemable, but I’m telling you, this one doesn’t miss it by much.

It is the epitome of the generic YA dystopian novel. The logical inconsistencies are not so much plot holes as bottomless chasms. The story is at best unbelievable and badly written. At its worst it is chilling evidence for the case that publishing houses employ some terrible editors. Some really terrible editors.

And then there are the characters, who are among the blandest I have ever encountered. Our red-haired (red-haired – we are told this multiple times) protagonist, Sherry, likes to count and think about boys. I can’t tell you anything else, because she is otherwise devoid of personality. The love interest, Joshua, may be an actual robot. His cringe-inducing dialogue is of a similar level to that of a self-checkout machine. And the descriptions aren’t much better…

‘I liked the sight of our entwined fingers, like honey and milk. Joshua gave me a sideways glance and when he noticed my eyes on him he pulled his hand back, curling his fingers around the steering wheel. I missed his touch.’

There are some other characters, but why mention them? Sherry doesn’t really, and they aren’t relevant to the plot. All this girl is interested in is Joshua. He’s blonde (so blonde – he must be, since we are told this ninety-nine times), and says shit a lot. Like, urgh, who wouldn’t want this dreamboat with a troubled past to sweep in and save their life?

And Sherry needs saving. You think you can get yourself into a difficult situation? Well sit down and let me tell you the story of a master disaster.

Sherry’s dad, prior to the rabid mutant zombie apolcalypse, built a bunker under his house with a push-bike generator that has the convenient power to provide a limitless supply of clean water. Pretty neat, I agree. But then Sherry’s dad, the so-called ‘survival expert’, waits until they are sharing the last can of food between six people (grandpa’s dead body is in the freezer and it’s not causing any pyschological issues, by the way), before waiting a further two days, and only then making the spontaneous decision to emerge. Weak with hunger, accompanied by his teenage daughter, he goes to sniff out some more supplies.

Also, the family ran out of soap three weeks prior. Six people, confined in a small bunker, with no soap. Not that maybe this might cause some problems worth mentioning? I guess Joshua has no sense of smell, or Sherry had more important subtle insights to share.

‘His eyes were glassy and red. He must have been crying.’

Anyway, the undoubtedly gag-inducing stink duo head out, and Sherry’s dad gets kidnapped by some rabid zombies. His two-dimensional character becomes, thereafter, a plot device, and we head into the territory of inane teenage romance.

We stay there. There are a few further attempts at action and drama, but whenever Sherry isn’t oogling Joshua’s biceps and blue-eyed blondeness, she’s thinking about doing so. In short, she’s a vacuous bore who doesn’t care about anything but lover boy’s approval, not that anyone really minds, because young (so instant that there’s no reason to question the authenticity) love, is just so cute, right?

You may be wondering why I didn’t just give this sickening lump of words one star and have done with it. I did consider it, but having powered through to the end, I was rewarded by a plot twist. It’s not worth reading the book for, but it’s a vague suggestion that the sequel might be better. Life is, however, too short, so I won’t be bothering.

Review: Andy McDermott’s ‘The Valhalla Prophecy’

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I have been pleasantly surprised, because I was expecting this book to be truly awful, and it turned out to be not quite so bad. I can’t remember how it came into my possession, but it has lingered in my to-read pile for several years, awaiting a godforsaken, desperate hour in which I would find myself without an alternative.

The Valhalla Prophecy is actually book nine of the Wilde and Chase series, but there is nothing to stop it being read as a stand-alone novel if you’ve read a few formulaic action/adventure stories. This is a cheap cut of Indiana Jones, and not dissimilar to the work of Dan Brown.

It’s not a stellar work of literature, but it’s not trying to be. This book is like a McDonalds meal in a motorway services. Nothing special, but it does the job. It’s a book. You can read it. Your eyes probably won’t bleed.

‘…And I’m still in exactly the same shape I was in when I left the SAS.’

Nina eyed his midsection sceptically. ‘Uh-huh.’

I’m struggling to find anything really worth quoting, but the childish one-liners in this book are not all terrible.

The main characters are quite annoying, however. On one hand we have Nina Wilde, a feisty redhead archaeology expert who makes a lot of noise without actually saying anything. On the other we have Eddie Chase, Nina’s ex-SAS/mercenary chump of a husband, who, if this book became a film, would be played by Bruce Willis.

I don’t know if it’s just the ninth-time-we’ve-repeated-this-formula itch, but their chemistry is off, amounting to the exchanging of smutty jokes. The author has attempted to shoehorn some depth in by making them discuss having children, but there is no development.

Really, we are only saved by the secondary characters. Or, by one secondary character. Tova, the Swedish Norse mythology expert is just sort of there, and the bad guys are stereotypical goons, but Kagan, the grumpy Russian ally, is kind of cool, and only thing saving this book from a two-star review.

‘Are you okay?’

A pause as the other man sat up with a grunt. ‘I am not worse than I was,’ he concluded. 

The main problem with this book is that the main characters (mostly Eddie) are guilty of too much posturing. The secondary cast are there to make them look cool, and this results in the heroes being unflawed bores who steal the limelight.

Also, it’s way too long. 550 pages for this kind of novel is ridiculous. Maybe if the plot was a bit less predictable, and the characters a bit more rounded, I would be willing to wade, but this is just overkill. There wordcount allows for too much action, and not enough tension.

But for all the flaws, I read The Valhalla Prophecy in two days. The ending was a bit disappointing, but I finished it. The themes were not uninteresting, the writing didn’t make me grind my teeth.

If I had to sum this book up in one word, I would say that it’s alright.

Review: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘Fall On Your Knees’

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Hmmm… I’m leaning towards a 2.5 here.

This is a difficult novel to review, because I wanted to like it, and it started out so wellMacDonald’s writing is mesmerising, and her initial setup is fantastic.

We start out with James and Materia, a Canadian piano tuner and a Lebanese child. One controversial marriage later, we begin their unhappy life together, and follow the lives of the actual protagonists – their four unhappy daughters.

This is a big book. If you’re looking for a theme, it’s probably here, from religious fervour to war and racism, from incest to queer sexuality, prostitution and the jazz scene. There are themes of sisterhood, of sacrifice. Ghosts, family feuds, language barriers and revenge. Some Macdonald tackles with great skill and great sensitivity. Others less so.

‘He knows Materia will pray, she’ll pray her fool head off. He’s right, she does. She prays so hard that her head really does seem to get a little wobbly. She prays he’ll be killed quickly and painlessly in Flanders.’

Hats off to MacDonald’s ambition, because every page sings with what this novel is trying to be. For a debut, Fall On Your Knees is a real testament to this author’s ability to tackle complex storylines. The writing quality is excellent, but there’s a big question mark hanging over whether it all comes together.

I’m inclined to say no.

Multiple protagonists is always a risky move, especially in long, third-person narratives, and this book is a clear example of how not to do it. MacDonald seems to have really struggled with who to focus on, because the tension is all over the place, and consequently, lacking.

loved Frances, and Mercedes showed the makings of a great character in places, but Lily is just sort of there, and Kathleen I will never understand why MacDonald left telling her story so late in the novel. After disliking her for 400 pages, it didn’t do to have this girl’s issues fixed in the final fifth. The transformation, though lovely, occurs without any evidence of internal conflict. It’s as though she becomes a new person in the space of a scene, and for no reason other than MacDonald wanted this girl to wind up a good person.

‘Tonight, Frances extinguishes her candle before she steps into the attic. It’s the moon. Four rectangles of light have swooned through the latticed window onto the floor. The moon may drive men mad but it can calm a savage girl, for it is cool, precise, it is lucid. Especially in such an empty room.’

The writing I’ll stand by. But what it writes about…?

So much flitting and so many characters making life-changing decisions with little to no motivation. Overall, a mess, and the ending is weak.

This book has more flaws than can be forgiven, but the truth is I still want so much to say that I liked it, because it is a sharply-defined shadow of what it could have been, in the hands of a better editor.

Review: Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ‘The Descendants’

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I don’t usually go in for first-person narratives. In general, I prefer a handful of main characters as oppose to a clearly defined protagonist whose story is the story. The Descendants is, on this and many other levels, not the kind of book I usually read.

Matt King, a rich attorney, lives in Hawaii, and has two daughters with his beautiful wife, Joanie. The sun sets in paradise, however. Joanie is in a coma, and it’s time to shut off the machines.

And there’s one other thing. Matt loved Joanie, and loves her still, but Joanie was having an affair.

‘What do I want? Just to see him? To humiliate him? To measure myself against him? Maybe I just want to ask him if she ever loved me.’

There are a lot of things I adore about this book, though I’m surprised. I was expecting something like Me Before You when I went in, but this is something much more nuanced than a romance novel. It’s about harder, subtler types of love. Loving someone after they have stopped loving you, loving someone who is difficult to love, and loving someone who you didn’t ask the right questions, when you had the chance.

It’s also a really funny book which, despite its subject matter, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Matt loves his daughters, however wayward they have become, and Matt’s unwilling, comedic transition into the role of sole parent is one of the main themes.

The Descendants is, on one level, the story of a man wondering, not without cynicism, ‘how am I going do this?’

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The Descendants (2011)

There’s a lot of pain in this book, not just in Matt, but in Scottie, his ten-year-old who copes with the situation with by fantasising, and in Alex, his older daughter, who hasn’t forgiven her mother for anything.

The backdrop of the Hawaiian islands makes for a strangely picturesque background to the difficult situations the family must endure, and acts in sharp contrast to the serious, stormy task of tracking down the man who Joanie really loved.

This novel is one of the more mature I have read about modern family life. It’s sensitive without being soppy, kind without being over nice, and very real in its portrayal of just how hard it is to love someone whose betrayal must go unexplained.

Really, I can’t praise it highly enough. Easily my best read of the summer so far.

‘Go,’ she says, and even though I’m on the verge of either snapping or bawling, I go. I take this strange detour and hope for the best.’

Review: Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

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I set myself a challenge to read 100 books this year. Easy, you’d think, for a woman who once refused a man a second date because he didn’t ‘get the appeal’ of literature.

It’s going spectacularly badly, however, and I’ve fallen so far behind schedule that it’s going to take a reading frenzy to get me back on track. The only way now is to find short books and consume them like a fat, hungry man devours a ten-piece bucket in KFC.

I do like short books. I think there’s something very satisfying about finishing a book in general, but short books finish a hell of a lot faster, and if they’re bad, at least they have the decency not too waste so much of your time.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book I know I should have read a long time ago, but late as I am to this party, at least I’m here now.

Arthur remained very worried.

‘But can we trust him?’ he said.

‘Myself, I’d trust him to the end of the earth,’ said Ford.

‘Oh yes,’ said Arthur, ‘and how far’s that?’

‘About twelve minutes away,’ said Ford. ‘Come on, I need a drink.’

This edition of the book features an introduction by Russell T Davies, which states that Hitchhiker’s is a children’s book.

This is probably true. It is also probably true that the best age to read this book is somewhere around twelve, because funny books that are funny in an inneundo-free way are, I think, not best appreciated by adults who’ve heard enough jokes to become cynical of the whole clean laughs business.

Usually, I don’t laugh unless there’s some sex or a grisly death thrown in, and that is a sad reflection of my corrupted mind. But that’s not to say I didn’t laugh at all reading this novel. Hitchhiker’s is a two-jokes-every-page text, full of whimsical, child-like humour and acidic sarcasm (something I can definitely get on board with).

‘Ford,’ he said, ‘there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.’

Basically, for the few of you who don’t know, this book is about the end of the world, and the comic misadventures of the last human man and his alien best friend. Also featured are: the last human woman, the President of the Imperial Galactic Government, and a manically depressed robot.

It is an unapologetically strange tale in which nothing reasonable happens, resembling instead the author’s curious brain vomit after a very strange dream.

It’s one of those books that, before you die, you just have to read.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

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