A Book Review Blog

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Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I have a feeling that this is the final book from that Humble Bundle that I had, and I’m rather chuffed with how the whole thing came out. I went into Signal to Noise with fairly positive expectations, as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Neil Gaiman’s work thus far and the comics that he’s been involved with usually end up looking weird and beautiful. I couldn’t seem to get a blurb that mentioned anything about the plot itself, only the rave reviews and the fact that there’s a radio drama adaptation, but I’ve gone into a couple other books on this bundle with similarly vague notions of the premise and come out fine. Besides, if it sucked at least it was under 100 pages.

Signal to Noise follows a director in the months after he is diagnosed with cancer. As he refuses treatment for the malignant tumour, he begins work on his final film, the finished product that he doesn’t expect to live to see. As he crafts a story about a village waiting for the apocalypse to come at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 999 AD, it starts mixing with his thoughts on his own personal, imminent apocalypse.
I kind of regret reading this on a tablet. While my tablet is okay for text, I think I needed to read Signal to Noise as a physical book. Because this is a beautiful comic book, and I don’t think reading it on a tablet did it justice. I want to see the weird, angular depictions of the horsemen in that lovely glossy paper that decent comics are printed on. I want to be able to stare at the pages and really see the transition where the focus on the crowd zooms further and further out until you’re looking at the creases in a man’s palm. Signal to Noise, much like the world cinema films that it seems to be paying tribute to, is one of those pieces that is both beautiful to look at and never seems to stop being interesting in its subject matter. I don’t want to say too much about the plot itself, as it’s more a character piece and it’s an experience that I don’t think I can convey with the sort of grace that it deserves. Just read it.

Signal to Noise is a beautifully weird comic and my only regret is that I didn’t read it as a physical book. It’s the kind of comic book that you show people who try to trivialise the medium as nothing but superhero stories. It’s visually experimental, and would definitely benefit from multiple read-throughs. It certainly feels longer than it’s 80 pages. 5/5

Next review: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

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Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Since my last two books have been more than a little disappointing, I thought that I would go back to an author that has been pretty consistently high in my estimation, Stephen King. I chose Dolores Claiborne because I vaguely remember watching the film adaptation many years ago and rather enjoying it. I wanted to see if the book was as good.

Dolores Claiborne is the confession of the eponymous Ms Claiborne after she had driven herself to her local police station. Widely suspected of killing her long-term employer, she decides that she is going to make a clean breast of it and reveal all: about how she killed her husband and got away with it, and how her employer’s death was an accident.
Stephen King states in his book On Writing that he never starts with a character, always with a “What If…” scenario, and doesn’t have much time for character studies as a result. I can imagine that this will seem unlikely with regards to Dolores Claiborne, considering just how much her character impacts this novel. Due to the fact that it is a first person narrative, and an explicit confession at that, it is an intensely personal and intimate experience to read. I think that, as a result, your enjoyment of the book will depend largely on how much you like Dolores herself. I personally rather liked her, perhaps relating to the fact that she is a perennially-grumpy bitch by her own admission. Throughout the book, she displays a refreshing amount of understanding about herself and an unwillingness to suffer fools kindly, whether that foolishness come from other people or herself. That is a large part of what drives her reactions to the situations that arise from her relationships with both her husband Joe and her employer Vera, so if you like your protagonists to be a little softer and kinder, then you may wish to look elsewhere. For me, Dolores Claiborne was a more or less perfect novel, with some really vivid characterisation and revelations that are flawlessly timed. I personally wish that there was more of Vera, but then I have a bit of a weak spot for characters who almost revel in their own viciously spiteful natures and yet still remain classy as hell.

For me, this was a compelling character study with complex relationships and well-timed plot reveals. I personally found nothing to fault it with. I would say that your enjoyment of Dolores Claiborne will ultimately depend on how much you like Dolores herself though, so if bitchy old ladies aren’t your thing then you may wish to skip this one. I’d be more than happy to recommend this though. 5/5

Next review: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Ah, we meet again Mr Dickens. I’m pretty sure this is the last Dickens currently in my collection that I had yet to read, and I was curious to see what end of the scale it would fall for me. Would I love it like I did Our Mutual Friend or would it be another drag like The Pickwick Papers?

Bleak House is something of a difficult novel to summarise, but I’ll be giving it a damn good go. The novel ultimately centres around two major plot elements. The first is an ongoing lawsuit named Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, a will dispute that has been carrying on for so long that no-one has any idea what the actual case involves anymore, and the people who are sucked into the whole grim process. The second is a secret kept by one Lady Honoria Dedlock and the attempts that are made to uncover it. Other smaller plots are related at certain points during the novel, but those are the two that inform most of the motivations for other characters and the other plot lines would take so much setting up that I might just as well copy and paste the entire novel into this review. Which would be cumbersome at best. The story is told via two narrators: Esther Summerson, a ward of the chief suitor involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, and an anonymous narrator who takes a largely pessimistic viewpoint to contrast Esther’s overall optimism. Like Our Mutual Friend, the novel takes a look at corrupting influences within society, with Bleak House concentrating on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Law and the harmful effects of misplaced or self-serving charity.
To hear some people talk, you would think that this is a novel so dense and complex with its interweaving plotlines that it would be impossible to follow. And while I will grant that it is very dense and complex, it is told in such a way that I at least managed to follow the narrative with relative ease. A large part of this is down to the cast, which is vast and the majority of them are important several times over because of the surprising number of connections that there are between characters of all social backgrounds. I was personally rather mixed about these connections. On the one hand, it does mean that the plot is richer and more layered because one character can embody several different roles depending on who the viewpoint character of the moment is. On the other hand, it is awfully convenient that this character just so happens to be, for example, another character’s long lost mother and will be key in getting him re-established in the world. Sometimes these connections will just sort of pop up without much in the way of prior establishment and it does sort of drag you out of the narrative because of the obvious nature of it. On balance, the good outweighs the bad points, but it can be quite distracting at times.
Many of the good points that I can recommend this for will be quite familiar if you’ve already read my review of Our Mutual Friend: Dickens seems far more comfortable as a writer when he is tackling social issues, which in this case is largely failings of the law. More interesting to me though was the examples of bad charity, as it were. It’s interesting to contrast what I termed above as misplaced and self-serving charity. In regards to the former, it is presented as a flaw, but an understandable one: if you’re a good-hearted person who wants to help someone, it can be hard to see when you’re doing more harm than good because the person you’re helping just isn’t or can’t learn to change their self-harming ways. The latter is presented more curiously, as it is seen solely in characters who could be seen as full-time philanthropists. These are characters who have devoted themselves to a cause, and in pursuing that cause they inadvertently cause more harm than good. An example of this is when one of these philanthropists, Mrs Pardiggle, visits a brickmaker’s house whilst accompanied by her sullen, downtrodden children. She essentially marches into their house at will, leaves leaflets that none of the people there can read, preaches at them for longer than anyone would wish, and then leaves, completely missing the traumatised woman holding her stillborn child in the process. It was a passage that really stuck with me, as it reflects a tactic that a lot of people will still use today. The tactic argues that “charity is good, so if I am seen to be charitable then I am a good person”. It doesn’t take into account either how that contribution to charity is implemented in the real world context or how the charitable person acts to people in direct proximity to them. You don’t tend to see much critical analysis of our culture of charity and the perception that we as a society has of charity, so quite frankly I would recommend Bleak House just for that dialogue.

As with Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House is one of Dickens’ stronger works because of its focus on social issues and the cutting insights that he makes about them. The characters are well-written and vivid, although the fact that all the characters in the cast are connected in some way regardless of class can be a bit distracting. 4/5

Next review: The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

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Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Part of me was a bit wary about starting Our Mutual Friend considering how little I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers, but after the almost insulting level of simplicity to be found in my last book I needed something a bit chunkier. Besides, it was Dickens, I felt I kind of had to give him another chance.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel consisting of several interweaving storylines, all connected to the mysterious circumstances surrounding a man named John Harmon. A young man returning to London in order to claim the fortune left to him by his miserly father, his corpse is instead fished out of the River Thames in what appears to be a murder. And so the plot branches out to focus on characters such as the Boffins, the people who inherit John Harmon’s fortune in his absence, and the Hexams, responsible for fishing the body out of the Thames. Through these plots, the effect of materialism is examined on various sectors of Victorian society.
This is a bit slow to start, but I would highly recommend this. The characters are, for the most part, well-written if a little on the simplistic side. The main draw for me though was the way that Dickens managed to tackle the social issues that he had focused on, and the way that several of them still resonate uncomfortably today. One in particular that felt particularly relevant to today’s Western world was the way that he spoke about the Poor Law and the workhouses. For me at least, it reflected modern society’s uncomfortable attitude to the Benefits system, especially when it comes to Disability Benefit in the UK. I couldn’t help but do a double take when Betty Higden, a character terrified beyond measure of the workhouse, said,

“Do I never read… how the worn-out people that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar, and pillar to post, a purpose to tire them out? Do I never read how they are put off… grudged the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?” 

To read that and remember both the soul-crushing experience known as claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the recent scandal about the number of people who have died after being deemed “fit to work”, it did seem to hit far too close to home for my liking. I think that might be a key difference in my feelings towards Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers: the latter keeps matter far too safe and doesn’t really feel relatable, while the social issues that Our Mutual Friend examines lends itself far more relevance regardless of time period.

With so many characters, you’re pretty certain to find some plot-lines that you get really invested in. Additionally, the social issues discussed still hold water today, making it really interesting and relatable. 4/5

Next review: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking 

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Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Wow, this is embarrassing. I did not expect to fall behind schedule quite so dramatically. Having made the first few steps toward becoming more organised though, I finally got round to reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not quite what I was expecting, I will admit.

Plotwise, Two Gentlemen of Verona was a lot sillier than I had initially assumed. It starts with two friends, Proteus and Valentine; the former begins the play in the process of proclaiming his undying love to the fair maiden Julia, a sentiment that the latter finds utterly ludicrous. Valentine sees no value in courting love, instead choosing to move into the court of the Duke of Milan to see and experience more of the world. As if God were just waiting for the most ironic moment, Valentine soon falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Silvia. All seems to be going well until Proteus finds himself inadvertently sent to the same court, so that he might benefit in similar ways to Valentine, where he too falls in love with Silvia. Literally the scene after he has sworn undying love with Julia. This was the point where I realised that this might be a tad on the ludicrous side. Not as rife with unbelievable coincidences as Comedy of Errors was, but still firmly on the silly side. I can very much get behind a play that looks at the conflict between what you want in relationships with different people: Proteus’ betrayal of his friend to further his own suit with Silvia could be a really interesting and in-depth character study of a deeply conflicted person. The thing that makes it feel silly is the pacing: while the right dramatic beats are there, they feel shallow at best. Maybe this is something that would work for me better if I saw a production of it, but having only read it, it feels like Shakespeare was racing through these scenes as quickly as he possibly could. As a result, nothing really seems to go beyond the surface and that was a bit disappointing.
The comic relief could have been better. I realise that Proteus’ idiot servant, Launce, was just a dramatic means for the main actors to have time to change between scenes, I just wish his monologues could have been more entertaining. As it is, they seem more like confused ramblings than anything actually funny. Though that may well be the Elizabethan sense of humour being lost in translation. Or maybe it’s funnier on-stage. Either way, my loss, I’m sure.

Overall, a pretty harmless play. It’s restored my faith in Shakespeare somewhat after the disaster that was Comedy of Errors. It would be nice to have something a little more involved next time though. 3/5

Next review: White Cat by Holly Black

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The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Hey guys. It’s been a while since my last update, huh? Well, turns out that job searching is a lot more draining and distracting than I assumed it would be. So a large part of what I’ve been doing over the last couple of months has been a cycle of “look for a job -> fail at a late stage of an application -> feel my soul die a little -> look for a job”. Add to that Christmas and my fourth anniversary to prepare for, it’s been a tad hectic. I’m hoping the upcoming months will be less stressful, but I shan’t get my hopes up.

Anyway, I just finished reading Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. I had heard that this was one of his weaker plays, but I thought to myself, “This is Shakespeare, author of some of my most favourite plays ever, so it can’t be that bad.” Oh dear god, how wrong I was. I haven’t actually gotten round to watching the BBC adaptation that I have, that’s how pissed off I am about it.

The plot of The Comedy of Errors is a farce involving two sets of twins, separated at a young age and unaware of each others’ existence. When one pair from Syracuse arrives in Epheseus to trade, they find that the people there mistake them for their twins; hijinks ensue. Why doesn’t this unravel at the seams almost instantly? Both sets of twins have the same names. The merchants are both Antipholus, and the servants are both Dromio.
This coincidental set of circumstances brings me to the first reason that I couldn’t abide this. The play actively defied my efforts to suspend disbelief. For one thing, the twins both have the same name? Really?! It’s such lazy story-writing that I can only barely comprehend it. It’s just so obvious that The Comedy of Errors was written for the paycheck that it’s a constant distraction.
The second reason that I hated this play was that I couldn’t help but feel that this was a far less successful attempt at writing Twelfth Night, one of my favourite plays. There are so many elements here that I’ve seen Shakespeare implement so much better elsewhere, like the mistaken identity thing between twins. I don’t want to associate something like this with a play that I genuinely adore.
Third, I couldn’t help but think that the female characters were both really pointless and kind of abused. For example, Adriana, the wife of the Antipholus from Epheseus, is physically attacked by her husband after she unwittingly shuts him out of his own home and he later threatens to put out her eyes because he believes she’s been adulterous. This from the same person who was going to give expensive presents to a prostitute out of spite. It just got really uncomfortable at times, especially when other women were extolling his virtues and telling her not to be such a jealous harpy. It was just unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.

Overall, this is a play that I would avoid. If you’re a Shakespeare completist, then be warned that he has used the same elements in a far more competent manner. The customary clever language only compensates so much. 1.5/5

Next review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

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Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

I was quite looking forward to this. Much as I like things with a bit of subtext to them, I am also a bit of a fan of gore and violence on occasion. So, with one of the goriest of Shakespeare’s plays in front of me, how could I resist? 

The plot of Titus Andronicus starts in the days following the death of the Roman Emperor, with the deceased’s sons, Saturninus and Bassanius, arguing about who should inherit their father’s throne. Returning from war with the Goths with prisoners in tow, the eponymous Titus breaks up their argument, lending his support to Saturninus who is then crowned Emperor. So far so good. The newly crowned Saturninus then makes known his desire to marry Lavinia, Titus’ daughter; at this point, Bassanius absconds with her, stating that she was already betrothed to him, accompanied by Titus’ four sons. Bereft of his bride, Saturninus decides that instead of Lavinia, he will marry Tamora, the Goth Queen amongst Titus’ prisoners. The same woman whose son Titus sacrificed in honour of his dead sons. I’m sure you can see why the prospects of Titus and his family aren’t great from that point onwards. 
If you are going to read Titus Andronicus for anything, then I would say that it should be for the character of Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover. He is unashamedly evil, adding to the suffering of the Andronici with obvious glee. Highly unpleasant, but an absolute joy to watch: why else would he get all the great speeches? This is amply shown in Hugh Quarshie’s performance in the BBC adaptation, so much so that I almost wanted him to win. Not quite, but almost. 
The adaptation overall was pretty solid, with decent make-up effects and very solid acting, especially from figures like Trevor Peacock and Edward Hardwicke. There was an odd focus on the largely incidental character of Young Lucius, although I can see that they were trying to show how much damage is done to the Andronici through him. I thought it was kind of moot though, considering what happens to Lavinia in the course of the play. 
Definitely worth watching or reading, so much so that I will be looking to get the Julie Taymor adaptation with Anthony Hopkins. Possibly not for those with weak stomachs, and especially those for whom rape is a no-go area. Otherwise I would definitely recommend it to Shakespeare fans. 4/5 
Next review: The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland 
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Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton

This is a play that I had never even heard of until it was set as part of my course on the Gothic; apparently there’s also a film version of it that I had never heard of either. But, after reading the premise, I was intrigued about where it would head. So, after a very quick read-through, what did I think?

Gaslight starts in a dark and dingy Victorian house, where we meet married couple Jack and Bella Manningham. Tension is running high between them, due to a series of objects going missing around the house, only to turn up hidden in strange places; Bella is assigned the blame for this, but because she doesn’t remember doing anything of the sort she believes that she has inherited her mother’s madness. It is only when she is visited by a former police detective while her husband is out that Bella is given reason to suspect that he might not be the man she thought he was.
For me, the plot would have been more suspenseful if the blurb hadn’t summed up the entirety of the play. As a plot though, it’s well executed, if a tad predictable at times. Rough, the police detective, tends to lay the hints on rather thick. Although I will give the play credit for the fantastic final monologue that Bella gets, which is most satisfying considering the stuff she goes through in this.

Overall, a quick read and what I would imagine to be a thoroughly enjoyable play to watch. It’s certainly made me interested in watching the film version with Ingrid Bergman. 4/5

Next review: Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz

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Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre

Considering that I’m studying Camus as part of my university course, it’s only natural that the same course would cover a close associate of his, Jean-Paul Sartre. I’ve been meaning to read some of his work for a while now, kind of as a comparison to Camus. I’m not sure what to make of it. 

Dirty Hands covers a similar subject matter to Camus’ The Just Assassins. The play starts with a revolutionary, Hugo, returning to a safehouse after spending two years in prison for an assassination. There he meets a former colleague, who decides to listen to his story to find out his motives for killing who he did; was it for political reasons or was it a crime of passion? It then flashes back to the time building up to the assassination. 
I have one major problem with this play: the main character. I could not stand him. The main conflict of his motive for killing sounds interesting, right? Except that it doesn’t really add up either way. In terms of politics, he is utterly despicable: he states that so long as power is seized for the working classes, it doesn’t matter that people have to die, caring more about the ideals than the people behind them; that could be an interesting character to follow, except that he doesn’t have the courage to actually back up those ideas, meaning that he just sounds like a whiny brat. So he wants the world to burn for his ideals because he was never loved by anyone? Boo hoo, go cry in a corner while the more interesting characters, or at least the characters with any kind of agency can do something instead. If you think of it as a crime of passion, then that doesn’t make much sense either because the only people he seems to care about are himself and maybe the guy that he kills. It’s just frustrating, as the ideas behind it, like the tactics of revolutionary groups during war and the question of whether it is to a political party’s best interest to be installed by a foreign power, were almost completely eclipsed by my utter loathing for the main character. If the play was meant to make me think about assassination and whether it can be justified or not, then it failed because all I was doing was hoping and praying that someone would finally kill this idiot. 
While I haven’t really read enough of Sartre’s work to really judge this properly, if I were just going on Dirty Hands alone, then I would say that Camus is the superior writer by far. The philosophical ideas behind this are interesting, but they are obscured by a loathsome and really rather boring main character. Read The Just Assassins instead. 1/5 
Next review: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu 
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The Just Assassins by Albert Camus

I needed something short after the slog that was That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. I got that with The Just Assassins, a five scene play. Considering how much I enjoyed The Outsider, I was very much looking forward to reading more of his work. So were my expectations met?

The plot of The Just Assassins centres around a group of revolutionaries in Russia, presumably some time at the beginning of the 20th century, as they plot to assassinate a prominent member of the nobility in order to bring Socialism to the land. This is one of those problematic plays, as it makes one question their own personal moral code. It puts forward the question of “Is murder justifiable, if it is for political reasons?”, and that is a question that is rather uncomfortable to consider in a post-9/11 and 7/7 society; granted, the murder committed in The Just Assassins has its limits, but my point still stands. What makes it an especially uncomfortable question is that it doesn’t really give us any answers. On the one hand, the revolutionaries are very much dedicated to the ideal of social justice, which is admirable considering that they mention the tsars, a regime not much remembered for its fairness; additionally, the majority of them draw a line at casualties including children. On the other hand, we get to see the personal damage that this man’s death creates on his loved ones, specifically his wife; at no point does a man become purely a symbol, and that is a fact that the revolutionaries seem to forget.
It’s definitely an interesting play, so if you happen to see an adaptation of it advertised, I would definitely recommend it. There’s only one thing that bothered me, and that was the way in which the revolutionaries are referred. They’re referred to in the stage directions as terrorists. While this is a legitimate view of them, it seems a bit too emotionally loaded a word to use, especially in such an oddly neutral play. I don’t know what kind of word was used in the original French version, but it seemed a bit leading to use the word in the translation.

So, to finish. This is definitely a play that I would recommend seeing, or at the very least reading, if you’re looking to have your perceptions played with. I’d also recommend it if you’re looking for something to mentally stimulate you, but at the same time not be too taxing. 4/5

Next review: The Fall by Albert Camus

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