Hi guys, posts on here have been pretty sparse lately and seem likely to continue that way for a while. There’s a lot of University-based work that’s just kind of piled up and… Well, I should probably get it done. When things quiet down a bit, expect regular posts to return – as there a lot of things I really want to write about!
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 23… The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler
I’ve wanted to read The Big Sleep for quite a while, being a big fan of the whole ‘semi-alcoholic, hardboiled private investigator’ genre. There is just something I love about these types of stories, each one featuring a snarky protagonist that stops the material from becoming too serious. And Marlowe is about as snarky as they get.
After General Sternwood, a rich and dying man, receives a threat of blackmail he decides to hire a private investigator to sort the matter out for him. Marlowe is more than happy to take the job, but soon discovers the case is much more complicated than it first appears. The investigation soon becomes more than a simple matter of blackmail, involving Sternwood’s two curious daughters, a well-respected gangster and even murder…
Before I get to the many positive things I want to say about this book, I think it’s worth addressing the time it was written in. The Big Sleep is very much a product of the early twentieth century due to its slightly sexist and homophobic nature. The novel’s attitude towards specific groups was probably more acceptable during its time, but read today some parts are pretty cringeworthy. Though not all of the female characters are poorly written, pretty much all of them throw themselves at Marlowe at some stage in the novel – and share a kiss. The gay characters, while not stereotypical, are referred to with words such as ‘fag’ and ‘queen’. It’s aspects such as these that make the novel feel even more dated than the many Victorian ones I’ve been reviewing lately. (Not to say that these issues weren’t prominent in that era, but they generally stayed off the page.)
But if you’re able to look past these problems then you’ll be rewarded with an incredible crime novel. The plot is as twisty and turny as it gets – piling on complication after complication – but still manages to wrap everything up neatly. The novel is also very ‘straight to the point’; no scene feels out of place in The Big Sleep and Chandler uses every word wisely. And the dialogue… The dialogue is where Chandler really excels. About 90% of Marlowe’s lines of dialogue are quips at other characters. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more quotable character in any other book; his lines are slick and easy to read. And really, that’s the key to why this novel is so great: it reads so easily. It’s the sort of book that you pick up with the intention of reading a few chapters, and then end up reading the whole thing. It’s a book that begs not to be put down.
Like I’ve said, Marlowe is great; despite them being poor role models, smart-mouthed, whisky-drinking, chain-smoking investigators like him are incredibly likeable. He’s an asshole, but he’s an asshole you want to spend time with. He walks a fine line between being driven by morals and being driven by money. He frequently remarks that he’s just in it for the money, but the way he acts – such as trying to protect the elderly Sternwood – suggests that there’s something good inside him. In comparison to him, all the other characters are quite a bit less interesting. They’re just there so he has people to outsmart and make quips to. Many of them feel like they’re there just to complicate the plot, but I didn’t mind that too much. Marlowe is definitely entertaining enough to carry the novel.
This book met the expectations I had for it and then exceeded them. I could happily read about Marlowe wandering through a dozen more cases – explaining why I’ve already started reading this novel’s sequel, Farewell, My Lovely. The Big Sleep isn’t that deep or thought-provoking, it’s just incredibly fun to read.
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 22… Julius Winsome (2006) by Gerard Donovan
Julius Winsome is not your standard novel. Unlike a lot of books I’ve reviewed recently – such as The Silence of the Lambs – it isn’t that heavy on plot and doesn’t really have many twists. Its cast is tiny, with there only being one character that we spend an extended amount of time with. It doesn’t easily fit with narrative theories such as Field or Propp, and just seems to do its own thing. And that’s why it’s great.
Julius lives in the middle of the woods, in his father’s old cabin, with no one for company but his dog, Hobbes. One day he discovers his dog dead, murdered with a shotgun. Julius sets out to discover who murdered Hobbes and to exact his revenge.
I seem to stress the importance of story quite a lot in these reviews, but this book works incredibly well despite the simplicity of its plot; a guy’s dog gets shot, he tries to get revenge. The novel demonstrates the importance of how a story is told and presented. You could have the finest plot ever written, but if you don’t present it well, then… I went into this book wondering how Donovan would be able to keep such a simple plot going for 200 pages. What complications would he introduce? Would the story end up going somewhere completely different from where it started? But the story doesn’t really change. It’s the fact that the author is able to keep it powerful all the way through that’s really impressive.
The novel meanders quite a lot, but that’s probably the best thing about it. As I progressed through it, it became apparent that the book is less about working out who killed Hobbes, but how the whole incident affects the protagonist. The majority of the novel is filled with anticipation – anticipation for who the killer is and anticipation for what Julius is going to do next. The long scenes when the protagonist sits in his cabin alone, reflecting on his thoughts, becoming more paranoid, are the novel’s strongest. We spend so much time in Julius’s head, journeying through his memories, that it almost becomes claustrophobic. Donovan favours quality over quantity when it comes to characters; Julius is as developed and complex as they come. He gets built up through the sort of small, odd details that make us human – such as his relationship with his grandfather’s gun and his vast knowledge of Shakespeare’s words. The author avoids painting Julius with broad strokes, instead favouring narrow, intimate ones.
The other characters are less developed – by quite a lot – but I guess that’s what Donovan was going for. The majority of the novel is filtered through Julius’s point of view, so all other characters are viewed through his eyes. The majority of them are strangers to him – people who may have killed his dog – and he isn’t interested in getting to know anything about them. Claire, the person that Julius is most familiar with, is someone we never really get to know either. Despite all the time he spent with her in the past, the novel suggests that he may not have really known her at all. Everyone is a stranger to him.
I found the novel to be a great diversion from some of the more intense, hard-to-follow books I’ve been reading lately. Though the stakes seem incredibly low – finding a dog’s killer – emotionally they’re incredibly high. Julius Winsome demonstrates that it’s how you tell a story that’s most important.
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 21… The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris
Hannibal is back on TV, so how about we review the next book in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series? I reviewed Red Dragon earlier this year and thought it was pretty great – a thrilling crime novel that achieves what it sets out to do. So what about The Silence of the Lambs? Though it’s led to the most popular Harris film, is the book actually any good? Well, let’s see.
Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee, is faced with an extraordinary opportunity when asked to hold an interview with one of the most infamous serial killers ever caught alive… Hannibal Lecter. Through her conversations with the man, she discovers that he may possess vital information with regards to a still-active serial killer: Buffalo Bill, who skins women alive. Clarice sees an opportunity to catch the murderer before he strikes again and is willing to risk her future career in the FBI for it.
Okay, so this is a very good crime novel. The plot is magnificently put together, never moving too slow, comprised of one great scene after another and featuring some excellent, excellent characters. It improves upon its predecessor, Red Dragon, in almost every way… but at the same time it feels slightly like a rehash because of it. I don’t see it as a sequel, not really, but a refinement. It’s as if Harris wasn’t completely satisfied with his first Hannibal novel. Both feature the same basic plot: trying to track down a serial killer in a small space of time; both feature the same core cast: [FBI agent] + Jack Crawford + Hannibal Lecter + [active serial killer]. But I wouldn’t say this is purely Harris’s fault… A lot of these paperback thrillers are very similar in their contents. It’s just obvious here because the author decided to reuse the same world.
Clarice tops Will in almost every aspect. Because she’s a trainee, she makes a much better reader surrogate. She’s also a lot less cynical and bitter than Will, making her a lot more likeable. In short, I enjoyed spending time with her more. Harris also does a great job of fleshing out characters from his previous novel – such as Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter. It’s a wonder how much Jack’s Bella plot does for the character, making him much more human. Hannibal Lecter doesn’t get the same level of backstory – he doesn’t need it – and just gets a lot more page-time. Will and Hannibal only have one scene together in Red Dragon, due to the nature of their relationship, while Clarice gets dozens with the doctor. Obviously the author realised how strong a character Hannibal was and decided to put him in the spotlight a bit more. A good decision if you ask me. I would argue, however, that Buffalo Bill isn’t as interesting as The Tooth Fairy. The deeper I got into the novel, the more it became clear that Harris traded time we could be spending with the killer to hang around with Lecter a bit more. The Tooth Fairy was Red Dragon’s second protagonist, The Silence of the Lamb’s is Hannibal. Given how important he is to the plot, it’s a shame that Bill feels like a very cookie-cutter villain.
One of my major complaints about Red Dragon was the author’s writing style. While this novel is still written in a plain, no-flowery-language way, there are less clunky lines. The simplicity of Red Dragon’s writing, to me, sometimes bordered on being schoolchild-like. Here it always feels like a writer is writing. Again, it feels like Harris is simply refining his previous novel, making it feel pretty obsolete.
Overall, The Silence of the Lambs is a very solid crime novel. It has great characters, a fast-paced plot and plenty of twists. Just about everything you’d expect from it.
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 20… Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
I have a strange relationship with Brontë novels. Though my reviews of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were both generally negative, I do like the Brontës’ books… In the sense that I often find them interesting rather than enjoyable. That is, in short, how I feel about Shirley as well. I plan to review all of the Brontë novels this year (I’m about halfway through them now, anyways) and thought it was about time I covered something written by the most famous of the three sisters: Charlotte.
Shirley takes place during the latter part of the French Revolution, focusing on the effects it had on a Yorkshire community. Robert Moore, a mill-owner, finds himself up against the vast majority of the town when he fires a large amount of his employees in order to replace them with much more cost effective machinery. Though many people despise him, Robert’s cousin, Caroline, has deep feelings for him – longing to be noticed by the man. When the rich, beautiful and witty Shirley arrives in town, it seems as though a marriage to her could fix all of Moore’s problems… and present Caroline with some new ones.
This is a hard novel to summarise the plot for because there’s so much going on. My largest problem with Shirley – by far – is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. If you asked me what genre I thought the novel was, I’d probably just give you an exaggerated shrug. At the beginning it seems like it’s going to be a social novel – like North and South or Hard Times – focusing on the conflict between the wealthy mill-owner (Robert) and the poor who are starving and jobless. But then why is Caroline the protagonist? Though completely inconsequential to the social novel side of things, we spend quite a lot of time with her. Okay, I guess that means it’s a romance then, something more like Jane Eyre. And then the author seems to forget about this romance when Shirley comes along, and the novel becomes about her… And then Robert’s mill gets attacked and it becomes a social novel again… And then Shirley begins to fall in love with Robert’s brother and it becomes a romance… And then Robert gets shot by one of his former workers and it becomes a social novel again… And so on.
And this is what kind of ruined the novel for me. I think I would’ve liked it more if it was just a straight-up romance or social novel. The amount of time the narrative spends flip-flopping between the two just demonstrates that Charlotte didn’t know what she wanted to write about at all. It feels as though she desperately wanted to write a social novel but kept falling back on romance as a crutch. Shirley is a novel trapped in an identity crisis; there are two separate novels in it and, while I’m not sure either of them would be amazing, they’d definitely work better separately. Trying to be two things at once just means that both parts of the novel get wrapped up unfulfillingly. For a novel that clocks in at just under 200k words, it has one of the most phoned-in endings I’ve ever encountered in literature. The social conflict and the two romance plots all get wrapped up in one ten-page summary-based chapter. In the end it seems as though Charlotte Brontë got fed up with her own flip-flopping and just wanted to be done with the book.
Though once you get past the novel’s genre crisis – and its meandering pace – it isn’t too bad a book. Not as good as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but not as bad as Agnes Grey. One of Shirley’s strongest assets is, well, Shirley; she’s by far the novel’s strongest character (although, despite being titular, she doesn’t show up until over 200 pages in…) In a time where strong female characters were still pretty rare, Shirley must’ve felt very refreshing. Though she sometimes feels like little more than a physical embodiment of Charlotte Brontë’s views, it’s still very entertaining to watch her go against gender conventions and see how many middle-class gentlemen she can wind up. She’s just fun – something I don’t usually associate with Charlotte Brontë.
Given how large and sprawling the novel’s cast is, I should probably touch on some other characters. None really come close to Shirley’s greatness, but there are some stand-out ones. Robert Moore grew on me, being grumpy and opinionated yet strangely likeable. Watching him and Shirley bounce off of each other definitely made forvsome of novel’s strongest moments. Robert’s brother Louis – Shirley’s love interest – is less interesting. There are some intriguing aspects to his character, but Charlotte mostly drowns them out with irritating ones – such as his habit of writing pretty much all of his thoughts out on paper. Plus the novel introduces him much too late. He doesn’t come in until over halfway through, so the novel’s late focus on him feels pretty jarring. As it stands, he is a character filled with the potential to be interesting… but just falls short.
It would make sense to talk about the character of Caroline as well, given that she’s the protagonist. She’s fine – her affection for Robert is pretty sweet – but she doesn’t really become anything more than a stock female protagonist. It other words, as soon as Shirley is introduced it immediately becomes clear why the novel isn’t called Caroline.
If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, then you’ll probably enjoy this. It feels similar in quite a few ways… just with an undercooked bit of social commentary added in. There’s a pretty strong novel hidden in Shirley, but unfortunately we’ll never get to it. If only Charlotte had had a more ruthless editor.
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 19… Cock & Bull (1992) by Will Self
Okay, well, I’m not quite sure what I expected Cock & Bull to be, but it certainly wasn’t this. Will Self is another one of those authors that’s been sitting on my ‘I-should-probably-read-one-of-this-guy’s-books’ list for a while and when I saw this one reduced in a shop, buying it was pretty much a no-brainer. Overall I feel mixed about this book. I thought it was great as well as truly awful. I enjoyed it but also really hated it. I recommend that you guys read this book… but really, really don’t. Does that all make sense? Good.
Cock & Bull is comprised of two novellas. Cock focuses on Carol, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with her alcoholic husband. One day, out of nowhere, something odd happens to her. She discovers that (let’s not dance around it) she has begun to grow a penis. Bull tells the story of John, a sports writer, rugby player and real man’s man. Waking up one morning he is surprised to discover that a vagina has grown behind one of his knees. After seeking his doctor for help, John soon begins a love affair with the man.
…And that’s basically what to expect from this book. Both stories are neck and neck for the most bizarre thing I’ve ever read and not in a good way. Coming from someone who loves weird fiction, this book was just a little bit too much for me. The storylines are pretty dire (though Bull is slightly better than Cock) and it feels as though Self didn’t know what these stories were really about beyond their basic premises. There’s really very little plot beyond what I’ve described above. At times it feels as though Self is simply trying to make his audience uncomfortable just because he can. Graphic penis and vagina descriptions are very frequent in both stories and the first one features two drawn out rape scenes. Sure, this book isn’t like anything I’ve ever read before, but most of the time that feels like a negative factor rather than a positive one.
Due to the farcical nature of these two stories, the characters in them aren’t really characters. They’re just vehicles for the story and themes. Few of them really progress beyond stereotypes. This is something I wouldn’t mind so much if Self was using these characters to try and make strong thematic points… but he doesn’t really. It can be argued that by having both protagonists grow sexual organs belonging to the opposite sex he is making a point about gender – this being supported by Carol growing more masculine and John growing more feminine. But the endpoints of these characters’ masculine and feminine evolutions are very questionable (Carol’s in particular). It’s very hard to tell if Self’s book is actually trying to say something or if it’s just trying to be shocking for the sake of being shocking.
So what did I like about this book? The writing, the writing, the writing. While I found the plot and the characters to be pretty poor, the prose that holds it all together is wonderful. There are so many truly inspired similes, metaphors and innuendos littered throughout these novellas and you can tell that Self has a real talent. It’s instantly obvious that he’s a lover of words. And that’s why I don’t see this book as a total loss. The author’s writing is strong enough for me to take a gamble on one of his other books in future. Hopefully the attempted edginess off Cock & Bull was just a blip.
So overall I don’t recommend bothering with this book… While there are flickers of genius in Will Self’s writing, the central plotlines are awful. Go read something else.
This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 18… The Twenty-Year Death (2012) by Ariel S. Winter
I thought it was about time I reviewed something more recent (the last few books have each been over one-hundred years old…). So here’s The Twenty-Year Death, a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. This is perhaps one of the most ambitious debut novels I’ve ever read… because it’s not really one novel, but three! The book is made up of three loosely connected stories – loose enough that you could read one of them without touching the other two – taking place ten years apart from each other (1931, 1941 and 1951). Each of them is a crime novel in the style of a popular author from the first half of the nineteenth century. And they all add up to a pretty fantastic book.
Of the three authors whose writing these novels are based on (Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson), I’m only familiar with Chandler. Though that feels like a good way to approach this book; it acts as a delightful selection of different crime-styles, offering tasters for you to find a new favourite author. The Twenty-Year Death did a fantastic job of satisfying my hardboiled crime novel craving, offering stories from the perspective of a police detective, a private investigator as well as an accidental criminal. They also seem to take inspiration from more modern fiction as well, with Malniveau Prison having a very clear Hannibal Lecter vibe. Each of the stories are strong enough to stand by themselves and I’m sure Winter would’ve had little trouble getting published if he’d only written one of these novels. To avoid just making general points, I will touch on each of these novels individually with the most minor of minor spoilers.
Detective Pelleter arrives at the titular prison in order to conduct an interview with an infamous serial killer who may possess vital information. While there his attention is drawn to a series of mysterious stabbings that have left several prisoners dead… With the help of some officers from a local town, Pelleter tries to unravel the mystery of Malvineau Prison.
And The Twenty-Year Death gets off to a very solid start. The novel is dense with plot and the central mystery is interesting, ending in a satisfying manner. I found myself becoming really attached to the world and characters that Winter creates in these pages. I would love to see another story with this cast (despite how very unlikely that is). Pelleter makes a great, if slightly typical, lead – a hardboiled detective interested in getting to the truth. Martin, the plucky and enthusiastic officer that the detective takes under his wing, was another favourite. Mahoisser – the sadistic killer that draws Pellter to Malvineau – gets very little page-time but makes a big impression. To be honest, most of the novel’s strengths come from what Winter chooses to keep off the page. He leaves plenty to the imagination with regards to the relationships between characters, such as Pelleter and Mahoisser, allowing them to maintain some mystery. The author knows how to keep people wanting more – and I definitely wanted more of these characters.
The Falling Star
The second story focuses on Dennis Foster, a private investigator hired to look after a high-profile actress who fears she’s being followed. What seems to be an easy job soon becomes complicated when the actress’s co-star turns up with her throat cut. Foster soon finds himself tangled up in an investigation that’ll take him to the dark underbelly of Hollywood…
This was by a fair amount my least favourite of the three stories. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t click for me in the same way the other two did. While I managed to barrel through the others in a day each, this one took quite a bit longer. My main issue was that the central mystery felt nowhere near as compelling as Malniveau Prison’s. I won’t go into spoilers, but where the first story’s resolution felt both surprising and inevitable (like the best conclusions do) this one felt slightly less well-planned. The characters didn’t really feel as strong either. Foster the wise-cracking private investigator made a great protagonist, but no one else really made much of an impression. None of the other characters really get fleshed out that much. Overall, The Falling Star is still a great, enjoyable story… it just didn’t impress me as Winter’s other two pieces.
Police at a Funeral
Shem Rosenkrantz, a washed up author, returns to his ex-wife’s hometown to attend her funeral and the reading of her will. After many years of being distant from his son, he is keen to try and fix things up with him. However, shortly after arriving in town, a fatal accident passes that lands Shem in huge trouble with the law. In order to escape the consequences of his actions, he must do unthinkable things…
This one was easily my favourite. While I enjoyed the investigative style of the previous two stories, a tale from the perspective of a criminal was a nice change of pace. And boy, does Shem make a great protagonist! While Pelleter and Foster have clear, positive intentions, Shem is a bit more morally ambiguous. He’s built up of so many unlikeable aspects – such as his ego and alcoholism – yet I still found myself rooting for him till the end. Police at a Funeral definitely benefits from having a smaller cast than the previous two stories. With its large cast, The Falling Star never really got that much of a chance to develop any of its characters. This story does. Vee, Shem’s partner in crime, acts a great foil for him. Rosenkrantz’s relationship quasi father-son relationship with Montgomery also made up one of my favourite parts of the novel. This is as great a way for the trilogy to end as I could have hoped for.
I could say a lot more about The Twenty-Year Death, but I think what I’ve already said is a strong enough recommendation. It’s not a short book by any means, but its well-plotted storylines and engaging characters make it easy to burn through. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this.