Thursday, 28 December 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind book review

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read as part of The Infinite Variety Reading Challenge, based on the BBC's Big Read Poll of 2003.

The first thing I want to say is that, even though I didn't really enjoy it, I do fully recommend you read this book. It has a wonderful concept and will make you think so much about a lot of things-life, people, senses, smells, the way you see the world-that I think the enjoyment of the story is a little unimportant.

This is the story of a late-Seventeenth-Century French man who is born with an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell, but does not smell of anything himself. This unusual concept means the whole story is wrapped tightly around the theme of smell: all about it, smelling it, knowing it, seeing it, wanting it and remembering it.

I did want to enjoy this book and I thought the beginning was quite wonderful. It really set up the themes of the book, and the plot, and the character, to such an extent I went through it with hope. Sadly, it falls away quite dramatically. It was unapologetically brutal and harsh; brash, brazen, quick, dark. The ending in particular I found exceedingly pointless, though I think that the ending itself was appropriate not only for the character but also, metaphorically, for the book, too. It was a disappointing ending, but I thought it very fitting that it were as abrupt as it was.

The concept of a man seeing the world and everything within it as smells is wonderful but I don't think it was executed to its full potential. In fact, I think it was so mis-used that it left the work a bit hollow at the end. Grenouille doesn't think like other people and as a result he is a social outcast, which both hinders and emphasises his talent for smelling. He sees everything as smells and, through him, we do, too. But I think there were many times when we didn't get the full sense of what he was smelling: I wasn't convinced of some of the smells-the description of a place-it wasn't evocative to me. Perhaps because I don't have as powerful nose as others, or perhaps because I'm a visual person, but there were times when it didn't read as wonderful descriptions of people and places in the medium of smell, but instead was just an obvious statement of what had already been described before. Unfortunately, Grenouille and other characters are neither likeable nor particular fleshed out. Even though I believe the 2D nature of the characters was done on purpose to illustrate Grenouille's own view of human beings, the fact that the book was in 3rd Person narrative meant it was felt wholly.

What I didn't like was the idea that virginity is something so utterly important that it has a special kind of scent. This is such a man idea of what virginity is-and weird from a character that has no concept of religion and god-that, whilst the idea of sexual desires and senses is intriguing, it holds no bearing on virginity and the act of losing it. It has nothing to do with puberty, with the beginning of the menstrual cycle or the end of it. It is simply a bit of skin that, quite often, isn't even there. Whilst I understand the concept of the need for virginal scent in this character, the whole idea really infuriated me, particularly considering this was written in the 80s and not, in fact, in the 18th century: you can have ideas of what virginity is in the 18th century but you cannot alter the proven fact: the scent of it. That made no sense. It probably shouldn't have annoyed me so much, but it did, and the book lost a lotof it's meaning. The obvious sexual themes of the book-wherein Grenouille uses smells as a proxy for sex, intimacy and other such things-were rendered completely meaningless by this, despite their intrigue.

The other things, the art of perfume making, the way Paris smelt back then, the way a man can lose himself in a hole completely, all felt a little lacklustre and simply ways to make the story get to where it was heading, as opposed to being part of a journey. It is a wonderful concept and I really enjoyed that part of it, but otherwise it was just another bloody book.

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Blood of Elves (Witcher #2) by Andrzej Sapkowski book review

Blood of Elves (The Witcher, #3)Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Considering how well-written and quick-paced the short story prequel collection The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski was, this was ridiculously disappointing and underwhelming. We have the same characters as was to be found in The Last Wish, and we had their personalities expanded and explored further, but we had none of the excitement or fantasy that was found there.

Blood of Elves is very slow and very closed-off. We spend far too much time in one place alone, and we follow conversations at a snail's pace to the point where what they're saying is no longer important but pointless chit-chat. It takes over half the book for us to leave Geralt and Ciri, who have taken up most of the book doing pretty much nothing in one place. The narrator is supposed to be omniscient, but it feels more like first-person narrative with just one or two dips elsewhere to move the rather vague plot along.

It's such a huge disappointment because the inclusion of our own folklore and fairytales in The Last Wish was a very good idea and following Geralt as he went about the countryside tackling monsters and demons (which is the job of the Witcher) was exciting, refreshing and kept the stories moving along. In Blood of Elves we meet one monster and little else.

It is mostly full of political intrigue, none of which is that interesting, nor does it deviate from the generic fantasy trope of races warring with races, crossing borders and sacking cities. But even then, with the generic fantasy tropes, we barely even get in to them because the characters are too busy having inane conversations whilst, presumably, just standing about being targets.

There was, however, a better set of female characters in this, though it was a bit too James Bond-esque how they all seemingly dropped their knickers are the mere sight of Geralt of Rivia. If one can get past this obvious High Fantasy trope and author-projection, we see some female characters that are developed beyond their breasts, but only just.

It's a relatively fun fantasy day-out. A quick read, won't challenge you much and will give you a good dose of non-YA fantasy goodness if that's what you're looking for (it's why I gravitated toward it) but it is by no means anything brilliant or ground-breaking. I will, however, finish the series, maybe pick up the other short story collection I haven't gotten around to and possibly play the game that was inspired by it.

(It's worth pointing out that this book is the first of a series, despite GoodReads naming it the third. This book is the first full-length novel and makes up the trilogy, with two anthologies of short stories taking up 1st and 2nd in the series.)

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The Last Wish by Andzej Sapkowski book review

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #1)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used to read pretty much nothing but High Fantasy, with a dash of Dickens here and there, and the occasional other classic, but High Fantasy was where I mostly lived. Deciding that there was more to reading than High Fantasy (which I absolutely and truly believe) I moved away and left it alone for a little while. Magician was really the first book I read that broke the High Fantasy drought, but it wasn't very good and I was disappointed. But it did make me hunger for some fantasy again...

And so we come to The Last Wish. It being one of the 1100+ books on my kindle, I didn't go out of my way to read a blurb or find out what it was about. All I did was find out which book in The Witcher series was the first book and started on it.

It was confusing at first, as very well it should be. The Last Wish is a collection of short stories that are set in the world of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia and they follow his trials, from battling monsters to falling in love. I went in thinking it was the first book of a series-a general High Fantasy Trilogy that are so prevalent in that genre. That was wrong and it knocked me off my stride. But once you figure that out, you find yourself reading something pretty special.

The writing was pretty good, though how much of that is original author and how much is translation is something I don't wish to get in to. The action was fast, the pacing was good even for short stories. I dislike short stories as a rule but still read them if I don't have a solid reason not to. These short stories are different in that there is one story that runs throughout and the rest act as flashbacks.

The mingling effect of having re-written well-known fairy tales from our own world was really effective and very enjoyable. It was fun to see these stories almost set in a time and place where they actually belong-a world that has actual magic and monster, as opposed to our world where these things are only metaphors. It was fun to see how these tales were mingled, twisted and done and they were done really well, but they weren't really changed in to anything that very different and that let it down a little.

The humour was often times lacking and felt forced most of the time. I enjoy humour in what would be considered as serious books, but it wasn't particularly great here. I'd describe it as generic fantasy humour. I also thought the dialogue was fairly pathetic in most cases and let the stories as a whole down. Whilst I like people to speak normally instead of "thee" and "thou", this went too far and each character was a potty-mouthed arsehole most of the time.

And finally, to keep this short (it's getting longer than I intended it to be) I'd like to re-iterate some things. These stories are probably more of a 4-5 star read for what they are. High Fantasy, sword slashing, myths, magic and Mordor. They're fun and just what Fantasy is perceived to be. But for me, and why they're only 3 star, is that they only conform to the standards of High Fantasy and aren't breaking the mould. There's a minimal effort to create really good female characters. Having one female character who is in charge of her own destiny isn't good enough, particularly considering she's used magic to make herself "beautiful" and ends up being just a Vagina in the end anyway. The other women are mostly naked, whores, or victims, or mysteriously beautiful beings with magic powers but little else. Or old wise women who just sit and be wise. Magic powers and wisdom alone does not make a strong, interesting character. Strong, interesting characters do not need only be the protagonists.

And, similarly, male characters who are solely obsessed with tits and big swords is getting a little old, too.

For me, I need to see more progress made in this area. Sure, that might not be why you read High Fantasy and for you this book will probably be 4, no, 5 stars. But I realised how much I loved High Fantasy, and how much I still love it, and I want to see it change for the better and the only way to do that is by expressing my own opinion only and not letting populism get in the way.

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Wolves of the Northern Rift by Jon Messenger book review

Wolves of the Northern Rift (Magic & Machinery, #1)Wolves of the Northern Rift by Jon Messenger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wolves of the Northern Rift follows Inquisitor Simon and his aide, Luthor the apothecary, as they pursue rumours of magical and supernatural beings that have begun appearing after the Rift opened. Werewolves have been reported attacking a frozen hamlet on the outskirts of civilisation, but what they find might not be the normal hoax they've become used to.

This is a very quick and simple read with a fairly obvious plot; an intriguing story-line that is sadly let down by rather atrocious writing. Billed as steampunk, the only steampunk things we encounter are a pocket watch (standard) and a zeppelin. Aside from that, it is purely a supernatural fantasy novel with sci-fi elements.

The characters are decidedly two-dimensional and really lacking in all areas. There's really nothing to choose between them all and they're inter-changeable at any given moment. All female characters are there to either look pretty, say stupid things or be romantic possibilities for the men.

The humour and dialogue were the worst parts of this book: the humour was so forced and lacking that it was almost funny with how pathetic it really was. The dialogue was some of the worst I've read in a long while: everything was a cliché, everything was attempted humour. It felt so childish and unreal throughout.

The setting is fairly ambiguous, as well, as we never really get a sense other than it's bloody freezing here in this frozen wasteland and it's hardly explored. The book itself is full of The-Gun-That-I-Have-In-My-Right-Hand-Is-Loaded kind of obviousness that continually frustrates you as you read, and clichés are abound. There is a writing rule that runs along the lines of "show don't tell" and sadly everything was trying to be shown and not told that it was all completely forced to the point that we are shown everything, and it is pushed up to our eyes so that we don't miss it completely. I will say that the writing improved slightly as the novel went along, but not enough for it to warrant more than a comment.

It is fine if you're after something incredibly quick and simple to read, though if you're hankering after some steampunk I would give this a relatively wide berth. It's nothing to shout about, but it is a round peg that fits nicely in to the round peg of generic fiction for the masses. I won't be reading the rest of the series as there really wasn't much to hold on to, either.

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells book review

The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read as part of The Infinite Variety Reading Challenge, based on the BBC's Big Read Poll of 2003.

The War of the Worlds goes beyond the of-the-time popular military invasion fiction, which took away the standard protagonist/antagonist arc of single characters and popped whole countries or tribes in their place, and brings down to Earth a whole new enemy at a time when science fiction did not exist and science itself was oft thought of as fiction.

In Surrey, a professor is caught up in the invasion of Martians as they sweep through London and its surrounding boroughs after witnessing several explosion on the planet Mars at the Ottershaw observatory. We follow the un-named professor and his brother in first-person narrative, seeing through their eyes this invasion and the destruction caused.

The air was full of sound, a deafening and confusing conflict of noises-the clangorous din of the Martians, the crash of falling houses, the thud of trees, fences, sheds flashing into flame, and the crackling and roaring of fire. Dense black smoke was leaping up to mingle with the steam from the river, and as the Heat-Ray went to and fro over Weybridge its impact was marked by flashes of incandescent white, that gave place at once to a smoky dance of lurid flames.

The first thing one needs to reference is the radio adaptation of 1938, which was narrated by Orson Welles and caused panic due to its news-bulletin style: those listening thought it was the truth. Whilst reading the novel, there is no doubt that the imagery, style and prose of H.G. Wells purported this panic. It is written with such imagination that it's difficult not to imagine oneself standing on the side of a crater as Martians crawl sluggishly out of their spaceships.

It is not often that I can forgive a book its downfalls due to the time of its writing. (It's all very well to accept that, for the most part, racism and sexism and things of that ilk were at many times in history acceptable behaviour, but enjoying a book from a period with those things in this day and age is a thing I find difficult to do.) However, in the case of The War of the Worlds I think it is vitally important to read the book with the exact time and place it was written in history to be lodged within your mind alongside every word you read.

We have a primitive form of speculative fiction, the very foundations of what we now call science fiction. At the time, H.G. Wells was writing fiction that had scientific and imaginative leanings, but no-one would dare think that perhaps the fiction was not quite fiction after all. There is little mention of the Martians weaponry or technology except when it is in use: any modern-day writer of sci-fi would absolutely be telling you all about the nuts and bolts of the piece. We have primitive science, because that is what they had at the time of writing. Whilst the future may have been thought of, the idea of futuristic technology was as alien to them as the Martians and their technology are in the book.

So, the excitement of the scientific exploration of futures is not to be found here. But the imagination of Wells is so beyond almost everything else that was around at the time and coupling it with popular militarist fiction means that this is an extremely important novel in the progression of English fiction. It is not surprising that Wells was, like Darwin himself, stuck inextricably between the truth of science and the tradition of religion.

The story itself, if put in perspective-removed from its time period and thought of solely as a novel-is nothing special. The narrator is disjointed with his surroundings, the story disappointing in the way it ends and less dramatic and climactic than it could have been. The style of prose is lacking, the dialogue just standard and the characters just slight breezes on a warm day. In that, it would require a mere two or three stars: enjoyable, if a little boring. But this is a novel that should be remembered for when it was written.

The imagination of a scientific man who is at odds with what is right and wrong. The spectacular birth of a new genre of, not only writing, but of thinking, too. The fact that even though my oestrogen levels were almost at zero, the reunion at the end made me cry my eyes out because it was written so perfectly, so unexpectedly.

Of course, that film with that actor was better. Of course it was. We have perspective and technology now that means the original The War of the Worlds is pretty pathetic. It cannot possibly compete with our high standards of today, unless you have half a brain and take this novel for what it truly represents. Unless.

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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Forty Years On by Alan Bennett book review

Forty Years OnForty Years On by Alan Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year. We have become a battery people, a people of underprivileged hearts fed on pap in darkness, bred out of all taste and season to savour the shoddy splendours of the new civility. The hedges come down from the silent fields. The lease is out on the corner site. A butterfly is an event.

Forty Years On was Alan Bennett's very first West End Play, set in the fictional Public School Albion House. The school is putting on an end-of-year play for the parents, which brings forth the medium of having a play-within-a-play. The within-play sees three people living through the World War, whereas the without-play sees the Public School boys and masters try and enact this play, with many interruptions and discourses.

It also sees the old fashioned, last generation Headmaster make way for the new Headmaster who appears to have ways that break and denounce tradition, which reflects the transition of the old Empire Britain in to the new, World-Wars surviving Britain. A changed Britain: a modern Britain, but at what cost? And at what cost to education are new ideas and old traditions brought in and taken away?

You can tell this is one of Bennett's earlier plays because the humour isn't as sharp and quite often there are some very blunt moments, and the whole story itself seems to stutter ever so slightly. The play-within-the-play is a narration of Great Britain as it goes through the changes of coming out of being an excellent empire, through two world wars and falling in a heap out of the other side.

We have Bennett's natural talent speaking for itself, for the most part. There are some very obvious jokes and some you must roll your eyes at, but the humour is both English and Bennett and nothing is better. I find it hard to rate plays, because they include none of the things I love about reading: description, character and world-building, and I need to see a play in order to really rate it, but Forty Years On spoke to me on a level that not many books can do.

"The Battle of Britain was 23 years ago and the world has forgotten it. Those young men, so many of whom I knew, flew up in to the air and died for us and all we believed in and all we believe in has so changed that they needn't have really died at all. It was all a nonsense." - Noël Coward

Great Britain has never known what to do with itself ever since the Empire was dissolved. How can a country even get over something like that, without having been defeated or invaded to the point of changing its identity completely?

This is what Alan Bennett is saying, though being a young playwright he only scratches the surface of it. Forty Years after the war-any war-and it seems as if it mightn't have happened at all, for all the good it seems to have done us. Time moves on a things that happen were only things that happened: things to be discussed.

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