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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: J.K. Rowling, October 22—November 2, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

HarryPotterandthePhilosophersStoneJ.K. Rowling’s smash hit series begins with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This rather unassuming title introduces us to Harry, Hogwarts and the magical world that would take the world by storm.

It is easy to see the appeal of this book. Clearly aimed at children, Potter #1 is written in an accessible, light-hearted style. Rowling uses Harry’s plight to tap into many feelings that children will understand: fears about fitting in, adequacy and family strife. Despite the madcap plot, it’s easy to sympathise with Harry, and to root for him.

Writing a magical story about a wizarding school, Rowling embraces the utter insanity of it and goes full pelt into the craziness. The characters are colourful and almost caricatured at points, much more so than the film. The school –  a character in its own right – has been carefully planned. In fact, the whole wizarding world has been created with so much detail that it really does feel like you’re stepping into a bona fide, if bizarre, world.

Kudos to Rowling for making Harry’s ignorance of his heritage a plot point. This is a masterclass in how to use an audience surrogate.

The Philospher’s Stone notably trumps the film when it comes to pacing. Where the film rushes through from one thing to the next, the source material is much more even, and allows both Harry and the reader time to absorb and respond to each new idea before presenting the next. Having said that, it is never slow or boring – it’s just right.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is a very engaging, moreish introduction to the series, and it’s easy to see just why it took off so rapidly.

(NB – According to the Pottermore website, I’m a Ravenclaw!)

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2014 in 3 star, Harry Potter

 

Room

Room: Emma Donoghue, October 7—21, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

RoomRoom is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who has lived forever in the titular Room with his mother, Ma. He considers the room to be the extent of the planet and he, his mother and ‘Old Nick’ who brings food to be the only inhabitants. Everything changes when Ma admits she lied; there’s a whole world outside the door.

Jack’s narration features the syntactical misunderstandings you souks expect for a child of his age (“She putted it down/The tree is twice my tall”), but it’s easy to read. After a very short while you get used to his voice. More than just enhancing the character, Jack’s narration helps the reader understand what is an enormously different paradigm. For example, Jack speaks almost entirely in general nominatives; the rug is Rug, the wall behind the bed is Bed Wall and so on. These inanimate objects are treated as proper nouns, bestowed genders and are generally given far greater status than normal, because when your world is a room, it’s composite parts are much more significant.

Although I found Ma alternately tragic and unlikeable, given that events are told from Jack’s point of view we are perhaps not always encouraged to feel as much sympathy for her as we otherwise might. More prominent is her relationship with Jack and the way it evolves over the course of the book.

Donoghue writes with skill and passion. As well as being truthful to Jack’s cognitive and emotional development, she writes with depth and emotion. Some parts are heRtbreaking, others incredibly tense.

Nothing very important happens during the first full act, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to be inducted info this bizarre situation. This wanes, and throughout the second half of the novel Jack’s challenges become more and more minor. It seems the climax is somewhere around the two-thirds to one-half mark, and the fourth act verges on, dare I say it, dull. Rather than build to a climax, Room slows to an eventual stop.

A fascinating concept with intelligent and emotive writing, Room is let down by its awkward structure and variable pace.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in 3 star

 

Along Came A Spider

Along Came A Spider: James Patterson, September 21—October 7, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

AlongCameASpiderDetective Alex Cross is introduced in this first instalment in James Patterson’s series.

Along Came A Spider sees Detective Cross investigate the kidnapping of two children by their schoolteacher, Gary Murphy/Soneji which is heavily inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. Unlike Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient ExpressSpider makes explicit reference to the case, with Murphy/Soneji referring to himself as the ‘Son of Lindbergh’, and expressing a desire to emulate the notoriety of Richard Hauptmann.

Cross is a likeable lead character with a background in psychology. Using his background to analyse his nemesis makes for an interesting dynamic, and hopefully this will be used more as the series progresses. His tragic backstory is quite run-of-the-mill, but Patterson has crafted him with believability. We accept Cross was alive before the events of the first book.

There was a bloated supporting cast of representatives from various agencies. Although the most important ones – Sampson and Flanagan – become more prominent as time passes, it’s unclear for the first third of the novel who we should be investing in and who is merely a stock character. As Cross’s partner, Sampson is underused in favour of his relationship with Jezzie Flanagan. Despite this, their ‘buddy cop’ friendship looks set to be enduring and Patterson will do well to explore this further in future instalments.

The stand-out supporting character is actually Nana Mamma, Cross’s grandmother and family matriarch. A strong-willed character who always gets the last word, she is tough and caring in equal measure. Her racism towards white people would not be tolerated were it inverted – which she almost acknowledges herself – and that bothers me a little. However, race is a predominant theme in the first book and doubtless the series, and it’s an attitude I hope is challenged or at least justified with more context.

Soneji/Murphy is a wonderfully creepy villain. He is clearly psychotic and at times chilling. Patterson cleverly builds elements of doubt into what is real and and what he is faking, leaving questions dangling beyond the book’s end. I like that the reader can make their own mind up, even if there are strong hints as to what the truth is.

The plot itself is unpredictable, perhaps due to the writing. Told in first person from Cross’s perspective, and third person from others including Murphy/Soneji’s, there are often major developments at the end of a chapter, with the following one set days or weeks later. The entire novel covers a time period of almost two years, and the structure means that the aftermath of major events is generally summarised as a historical event. You can’t help but feel a little cheated out of the action sometimes. And because of this, the assumption is that whatever has just been glossed over is not the “main part” of the story, and what comes next will be, however it is a pattern that repeats throughout. This leaves very little tension or immediacy, and instead makes the whole thing seem a little out of the reader’s reach.

Alex Cross gets a decent introduction that I don’t think shows him at his best yet. More psychology, more page-time with Sampson and the continuing presence of Nana could make this an interesting series which is quite unlike many others.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in 3 star, Alex Cross

 

The Blood Tree

The Blood Tree: Paul Johnston, September 14—21, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

TheBloodTreeIt seemed as good a week as any for a story about a murder in an independent Scotland.

In Paul Johnston’s The Blood Tree, Scotland’s cities have split into independent city states. In 2026, Edinburgh is an Orwellian totalitarian dictatorship run by the City Guards and remain fierce rivals of the democratic, and essentially Communist, Glasgow.

Quintilian ‘Quint’ Dalrymple is called upon to investigate a break-in at the former Scottish Parliament building, subsequent murders and abductions. He is supported by guardsman (policeman) Davie Humes and on-off lover Katharine.

The Blood Tree can be divided into three acts: the first set in Edinburgh; the second in Glasgow where Quint meets Helen ‘Hel’ Hyslop and Tam Haggs; and the third where the casts and settings collide. Each is probably a slight improvement on the one before.

There isn’t so much anything to dislike about it as simply not much to like. None of the characters have any depth to them, and they all speak in exactly the same way. In as many pages Quint, Davie and Karherine all say: “Cool it, Name.” There were also a number of word choices I’d question, such as repeated use of “whence” instead of “hence”.

The pace is slow with very little happening in the first act, a lengthy “What’s going on?/I’ll tell you later” fest in act two and a protracted denouement in act three that give a sluggish feel throughout. Johnston fails to build any tension.

The independent city state set up is interesting but underdeveloped. Edinburgh is ripped from the pages of 1984 with contrived links to 1990s events that are over explained as if the reader has no recent history knowledge. Glasgow’s stark difference is a good idea but it’s unrecognisable. I wanted to see the city I know well 12 years in the future (or 26 at time of publication) but it was alien, with a lazy reference to The Old Firm and not much else.

Despite the comments of other reviewers, comparisons to Rebus are unfounded. The Blood Tree shares nothing with it besides the Edinburgh setting but Johnston should have done more research. The likes of Rankin and MacBride work hard to bring realism to their books by fleshing out their settings. There was very little in The Blood Tree that could even be seen as distinctly Scottish.

The theme of genetic engineering runs through the book, and very subtle taps on power and corruption. These could have been explored in more detail but the actual plot was rather interesting. Unfortunately a lot of the meaty stuff was reserved for the last third and couldn’t be as closely examined as I would have liked. Many of the ethical questions had to be left unanswered or, in some cases, unasked.

The climax had far too much of villains bearing their souls and confessing their sins without much prompting, and many of the strands were tied up in a flourish.

Although there were interesting concepts, The Blood Tree underused many of its ideas. Weak characters you didn’t care about, slow pacing that tested your patience and a lack of tension throughout conspired to make this sadly underwhelming.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2014 in 3 star

 

Inferno

Inferno: Dante Alighieri & Robin Kirkpatrick [trans], September 12—14, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

InfernoFollowing its starring role in Dan Brown’s eponymous novel, Dante’s Inferno seems an obvious follow-up.

This classic is surprisingly easy to read. Translated into English, the verse is accessible to the modern reader, although many of the references to Dante’s contemporaries do need the widely available commentaries to have their significance explained. This version (Penguin, 2013 available from Amazon, Waterstones and the publisher’s website) has a great section at the back with brief commentary on each canto that helps the modern reader appreciate Dante’s cultural references without any fuss.

The vivid imagery of Dante’s nine circles of hell is much more disturbing than you might expect. Each sin is delivered just retribution in a variety of appropriate and uncomfortable ways.

It is little surprise that readers of this work on its initial publication found themselves returning in their masses to church. Dante paints a scarier, more real hell than the bible itself; a place nobody would wish to go.

This is a classic text that everyone should read.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2014 in 3 star

 

Inferno

Inferno: Dan Brown, August 29—September 12, 2014
My rating: ♦♦◊◊◊

InfernoThe world’s unluckiest professor returns in Inferno, which sees Robert Langdon wake up in Florence, recovering in hospital from a near-miss bullet wound with amnesia.

Aided by the pretty doctor Sienna Brooks (previous credits include Katherine Solomon, The Lost Symbol and Sophie Neveu, The Da Vinci Code) he is soon zipping round the country on a cat-and-mouse chase to decipher cryptic Inferno-related clues (previously the Lost Mysteries and the Holy Grail) while being pursued by both the local authorities via Agent Brüder (also known as Director Inueto Sato, The Lost Symbol and Captain Benzu Fache, The Da Vinci Code) and a representative of the shady Consortium organisation (previously the Masons and the Priory of Sion) Vayentha (Mal’akh, The Lost Symbol and Silas, The Da Vinci Code) before eventually meeting up with the clever old soul Jonathan Ferris (Warren Bellamy, The Lost Symbol and Sir Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code), all the while saddened by the sudden death of his friend Ignazio Busoni/il Duomino (Peter Solomon, The Lost Symbol and Jacques Sauniere, The Da Vinci Code).

While their is, again, a tiny bit of familiarity in store from his previous books, Brown mixes things up a little more than usual with this one, with varying success. Brooks has more about her than her predecessors, and there’s quite a lot of side-switching and alliances of convenience formed. With the Consortium acting on behalf of a client, whose intentions they plan to remain deliberately ignorant of, there is a very different kind of vested interest from them. The book is at its strongest when it explores the links, connections and complex relationships between all of the various stakeholders.

Also different is the “mystery” itself. Unlike Symbol and Da Vinci, Langdon is not trying to solve an ancient mystery, but is following a deliberate trail of breadcrumbs that has practically nothing to do with Dante’s Inferno other than the fact the clues left for him are deliberately based on it. The same story could have been as easily set in Manchester following a trail of clues about Coronation Street for all the difference it made in real terms.

The storyline is very clever, and there are some great twists (alongside the less great, quite predictable ones). The storytelling is, on the other hand, terrible. Clearly another well-researched piece, each new scene opens with a review of the setting, a detailed description of who built it, why, what they died of and how many paintings of them were hanging round the world in tribute. If you’re very interested in Florentine architecture – happy days, you’ve met your dream book. Otherwise, there is an awful lot of dry minutiae to wade through. In all seriousness, the architecture-to-story ratio is probably 3:1 in the main body of the story.

There are a few other annoying habits too. One is the incessant need to recap everything, over and over again, even at the end of the scene in which it took place. Brown obviously thinks his readers are utter plonkers who can’t retain anything longer than Langdon can maintain a quiet life. It’s irritating and a little insulting.

Second, his idea of character development appears to be to pick on one aspect of their personality that “humanises” them, and bang on about it constantly, as if it is their only thought at all times, without ever really changing – i.e. progressing - it. Yes, Brooks is a genius. Yes, Sinsky is infertile. No, nothing changes apart from the fact they think about it every moment of the day, despite the latter being about twice the age of the Queen by all accounts.

Third, the unrealistic relationships are nothing short of stupid. Langdon, for instance, sulks on numerous occasions about Brooks keeping her “secret” of child prodigy-hood from him. She hasn’t opened up and told him all about it, he complains. Why on earth a young woman would bear her soul to a random professor on the day she meets him, whilst running for their lives in a  time-sensitive pressure cooker, is beyond me. He didn’t mention his traumas in France looking for the Holy Grail, did he?

Fourth, he recaps far too much.

A major theme of the book is the overpopulation of the planet, and the ends justifying the means. Both of these are explored with, naturally, some amount of repetition but they also pose some very interesting questions that will challenge the reader right up to the last page.

While the concepts and storyline are brilliant, extremely poor writing spoils the latest Langdon adventure. With some heavy editing, the strengths could shine out so much better.

Disclaimer: To maintain the integrity of neutrality, the reviewer declares that his image was used by the publishers as part of the marketing campaign for this title in 2013.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in 2 star

 

Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave

Love Virtually/Every Seventh Wave: David Glattauer, David Tennant & Emilia Fox, September 9, 2014.
My rating: ♦♦♦♦♦ 

LoveVituallyIn a first for this blog after more than 100 books, and the first time for me in some 13 years, we venture into the world of audio books. I tend to avoid them; as well as missing the feel of pages in your hands, I find it much harder to concentrate on an audio book compared to concentrating on a “real” book.

Not in this case.

Love Virtually and its sequel Every Seventh Wave originated as Geman novels by Austrian journalist David Glattauer, translated into English novels and subsequently adapted into radio plays for the BBC, performed by David Tennant and Emilia Fox.

The concept is simple: Emmi (Fox) emails Leo (Tennant) by accident when attempting to cancel a magazine subscription. From their chance stumble into each other’s inbox, they begin to correspond with increasing frequency and affection until they become truly infatuated.

The play and, as I understand, the book is constructed solely of the long email exchange between the pair. Like the characters themselves, we have no further insight or part in their lives besides what they choose to share. This gives us not only a shared viewpoint with the pair, but also a taste of the intensity of the relationship.

The story is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s written with passion and wit, and you can’t help but feel for both Emmi and Leo, and to root for them. Tennant and Fox deliver stunning performances and nail the entire rainbow of emotions.

The conclusion of Love Virtually is astounding, and an immediate reach for Every Seventh Wave is irresistible.

I highly recommend this as one of the most beautiful, well-written love stories of the 21st century and especially the version performed by two exceptional actors.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in 5 star

 
 
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