"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Monday, 31 December 2012

A Year of Books: 2012

Hello everyone! Firstly I’d like to apologise for the lack of reviews over the last couple of months. I started an MA in October which has become increasingly intense, and Christmas preparations and family visits have kept me very busy, all of which has meant that I have had a lot less time for reading books and writing reviews than I’d like. Hopefully I’ll be able to step it up a little in the New Year!

Overall 2012 has been a brilliant year with regards to reading. I’ve read a lot of fantastic books with only a few duds, and I have tried to branch out a little and read stuff other than classics and horror, which has resulted in some amazing finds. Here are my top 5 reads of the year:

I think I loved this so much because it surprised me so much. It sounded quite dull and uneventful, and while it may lack in action Kitchen was so sad and at the same time uplifting and was a truly beautiful read.

Horns is another one that surprised me; not so much a horror novel as I was expecting but dark fantasy mingled with romance and a deep poignancy that I loved. It really is such a clever, brilliant novel.

I was amazed by how much this medieval fantasy series gripped me. A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold was so exciting and gripping I could barely put it down, with characters dying regularly throughout, I felt almost afraid to turn the page through fear of what might happen next. I whizzed through all 7 books, despite their length. The series is not at an end, however, and after many unanswered questions at the end of A Dance with Dragons, I eagerly await Winds of Winter with great impatience!

This is a novel I had not even heard about until recently, and it’s not the kind of thing I would normally pick up. Geek Love is now one of my favourites, with evocative characters, a compelling and poignant story as well as raising numerous moral and ethical questions, I would recommend this to anybody.

And number 1...

This French classic is my favourite read of the year. This hefty tome (1,376 pages) was well worth the time I committed to reading it. The characters are the best asset the novel has - they are so compelling and richly drawn, and the story is memorable, poignant and moving. There are some rather large yawn-inducing digressions, but you get used to them, and wading through them to get to the meat of the story is more than worth it.

Those are my top 5, but I’ve read many other fantastic books this year - And Then There Were None, my childhood favourites Little Women and The Hobbit, In the Tall Grass, The Book Thief, Howl’s Moving Castle, Jamaica Inn and others were also brilliant. 

I am looking forward to filling 2013 with lots more fantastic reads, here are a few I am especially looking forward to and you can expect a review of them sometime next year:

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
I have been meaning to read this for years, and I think I’ll make the effort to in 2013. It is set in the early years of the Second World War on the quaint little island of Cephalonia, with, I believe, a romance between a resident Greek and the invading Italian officer.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
A talking cat and the devil! This Russian classic sounds so bizarre but I’m very intrigued. I’m confused about which translation to get though.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White / The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I really want to read both of these as I love all things medieval but I’m not sure I’ll have time for both as they are quite long. The Once and Future King is the tale of King Arthur starting with his childhood and the famous ‘The Sword in the Stone’ story. It is considered one of the ‘go-to’ novels on Arthurian legend. The Mists of Avalon is the same legend but follows the trajectory of Morgaine (aka Morgan le Fay), and focuses on the lives of the main women in Arthurian legend such Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause and Igraine, with Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table featuring more as minor characters, giving the classic tale a feminist twist.

The Woman in White / The Moonstone both by Wilkie Collins
Again I can’t decide which I want to read more, these two murder-mystery style classics both sound fantastic, but chances are I won’t have time for both.

Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
Steampunk and vampires in the 19th Century. Hopefully reading something different by George will help to tide me over before Winds of Winter is published.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
After reading Kitchen in September I fell in love with Yoshimoto’s writing and I am now determined to read everything she has ever written; The Lake appeals to me the most.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
I love Japanese literature and Out by Kirino was super, so I have high expectations for crime / horror novel Grotesque. I have both Murakami authors  on my 2013 to-read list too (1Q84, Underground and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki, and Almost Transparent Blue and Audition by Ryu) but I’m just looking forward to this one a lot more.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Joe Hill’s newest novel, due to be published in Spring 2013, is about vampires. Admittedly vampires are very tired, overused bad guys in literature nowadays, but since I loved Horns so much I can’t wait to read it, and the excerpt in In the Tall Grass was well written and intriguing.

These are the books I’m most excited about, but I have plenty more I’m looking forward to reading, such as some Stephen King, Clive Barker and Daphne du Maurier (I can’t decide between The Parasites and Frenchman’s Creek).

What were your favourite reads of 2012, and which books are you looking forward to reading in 2013?

Friday, 14 December 2012

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I,Claudius is an historical novel set in ancient Rome, written in the style of the memoirs of to-be emperor Claudius. Graves decided to write I,Claudius after the overlooked emperor allegedly came to him in a dream, imploring him to write an account of the ‘real’ Claudius. The novel covers the period from the rule of Augustus to the death of ‘mad’ Caligula and the subsequent accession of Claudius to the role of emperor; Graves’ sequel, Claudius the God, covers the reign of Claudius.

Graves brings ancient Rome alive. Through the eyes of poor old belittled and stammering “Clau - Clau - Claudius” we are made privy to the many debaucheries and scandals of the ancient Roman Imperial household. Moreover, Graves’ account is largely accurate - or at least adheres very much to the images promoted by the ancient source material - with falsities usually being gross exaggerations for the purposes of entertainment rather than pure fabrication.

Graves was classically educated and he really knew his stuff; the novel reads a lot like an history textbook, only much more exciting. Graves is very much concerned with giving a fairly detailed historical overview of the Julio-Claudian period, making I,Claudius a great place to start if you have an interest in Roman history.

Our narrator, Claudius, is typically remembered as a stammering, lame fool but he has a wonderful and very entertaining narrative voice that makes this historical novel anything but bland. Despite the largely negative memory Claudius has, Graves manages to write a sympathetic Claudius; he is clever, sensible and likeable. The other characters however are for the most part very unlikeable; Graves uses ancient sources extensively, so they tend to stick to the image the ancient authors have written. Augustus is under the thumb of his scheming and vile wife Livia - who is presented as having the true control of Rome - and Caligula is as mad as a hatter, who believes he has been reborn as a god and is famously known for appointing his horse as consul.

I, Claudius is definitely worth a read, but I’d say it’s essential if you have even a slight interest in Roman history. It is a little bit slow and heavy in some parts, but it is beautifully written, funny, educational, highly original and clever, with a host of horrible characters you just love to hate, and some amusing anecdotes from ancient authors. All aspects of which combine to make I,Claudius accessible and entertaining for the average reader as well as the history buffs, and a novel that I would recommend to almost anyone.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, 30 November 2012

Harbinger by David J. Bright

A thick fog has descended on the small, quiet town of Rowley. This is no ordinary fog, however, and no matter how hard the inhabitants try, they cannot leave town. With the fog thickening rapidly and urged on by the mysterious murky cloud, the towns folks’ hate and anger bubbles to the surface. Not only do they have to be afraid of what each of their neighbours are now capable of, but also of the dark deadly monster lurking within the sinister grey shroud...

Harbinger is almost a psychological study of what might happen to a small town when long-standing hate, conflicts and jealousies are brought to the surface, wreaking havoc in a town and turning its once good-natured inhabitants against each other.

The novel started out strongly and the first chapter was brilliant; it hooked me and left me eager to read more. It opens with a man venturing outside to embark upon his daily jog when he notices an unusual amount of ominous fog has settled over the town. The tension builds slowly, and it is a very intense and exciting prologue. After the opening, however, I found the plot to be rather slow and it doesn’t pick up again until about the midway mark, about 200 pages through the novel.

Harbinger is overall very well written, with the exception of spelling and grammar errors on most pages, but these would be down to editing rather than Bright’s talent as a writer - nonetheless I found them annoying. The dialogue is a little forced and awkward at times, especially where the central character - Ben - is concerned.
The horror aspect is enjoyable and has plenty of gore to satisfy fans of the genre. However, on top of the high level of terror and blood involved, Harbinger also contains a facet which I rarely enjoy in horror novels - romance. I really disliked this aspect of the book, and although I can appreciate that it was important to the plot, it ruined the novel for me. The romantic aspect felt incredibly forced and unrealistic - Ben and his long time ‘friend’ Elise go from constantly assuring their parents that they are ‘just friends’ to not being able to refrain from declaring their love for one another every few minutes, which was irritating as well as cheesy.
In conclusion, for a debut novel from a 22 year old, Harbinger is a success. Bright clearly has oodles of writing skill and I think this is a novel that a lot of horror enthusiasts will enjoy. It is well written and has a very unique and interesting premise that forces you to consider the condition of mankind - with a strong message that hate and jealousy have sufficient power to destroy people, perhaps even more so than the monstrous Harbinger itself, and I appreciated this added depth. I would have really liked this book if it wasn’t for the contrived and cringe-worthy ‘romance’ between Ben and Elise, plus the fact that the conclusion fell a little short for me. Other than these two gripes, Harbinger is worth a look.
Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Off Season by Jack Ketchum

When a group of friends stay in a lonely cabin on the coast of Maine, they are unaware of the horrors that will ensue when they unwittingly catch the attention of a local family of cannibals who live in a nearby cave. Silently stalked by the animalistic tribe, the group of six rapidly diminishes...the cannibals are hungry, and they won’t stop until they have fully sated their appetite for human flesh!

The premise of Off Season is familiar, and the story is reminiscent of numerous cannibal stories such as The Hills Have Eyes. However the unoriginality of the plot can almost be forgiven by the brilliant writing; Ketchum succeeds at making the situation feel real and scary, albeit a little bit B movie at the same time. Ketchum’s descriptions of the cannibals are fantastic; he paints them almost as a pack of vicious, powerful animals, and some of the things they do are incomprehensible and shocking. In particular the ‘recipes’ described - such as sausages made from human-meat - were inventive and gruesome.

Despite there being an abundance of visceral horror in this novel, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the level of gore - after the hype surrounding Ketchum’s debut novel I was expecting something a little more extreme than what I read. For the majority of people though, Off Season will push their limits; it is definitely not for the squeamish. The original release of Off Season in 1980 had much of the gory parts cut out and it even had a completely different ending - something which Ketchum discusses in his ‘Afterword’ to the novel - yet it remained highly controversial in spite of this. It was interesting to read about how much the novel was changed before its initial publication, as Ketchum outlines some of the specific sections that were cut or edited. However this unexpurgated edition, first published in 1999, is much closer to Ketchum’s original manuscript, and has all the gross stuff added back in.

The characters are quite one dimensional and I kept forgetting who was who at the beginning, but this doesn’t really matter considering so many of them die, and this isn’t a character-driven plot. An aspect of this novel I really like is that as a reader it is impossible to predict who will survive - characters who you think will live probably won’t, and vice versa. Off Season starts with a bang and doesn’t let up until the final page, making for an engrossing read.

To conclude, Off Season is a good read if you’re after something shocking, gory and disgusting, but not much more than that. Once the mayhem begins, a fast pace is maintained that keeps the reader interested throughout, and is very well written as to render this almost clichéd subject matter feel new again.

Rating: 7/10

My other Jack Ketchum reviews:
The Girl Next Door

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches is a children’s book which tells the story of an orphaned boy living with his Grandmamma, who delights in warning her grandson of the terrors of child-eating witches through the medium of some rather scary stories. One day the boy becomes entrapped in the room where all of the witches of the UK are holding their annual meeting, led by the fearsome Grand High Witch herself. Overhearing their vicious plot to turn all of the children of England into mice, the boy is caught by the evil witches and swiftly transformed into a mouse himself. With the severe disadvantage of being a tiny rodent, the boy and his Grandmamma concoct a cunning plan to eradicate the witches from the planet.

The story is well wrought and imaginative - it is inventive how in Dahl’s world the witches look exactly like regular women. The way that Dahl makes the tale appear as though it happened in our own world, playing on childish fears and presenting the witches to us as real, normal women not only makes the book much more terrifying, but also may teach children that though a stranger may look nice and friendly they might not be!

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES... REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.That is why they are so hard to catch.”

“For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now. Or she might be the woman with the bright eyes who sat opposite you on the bus this morning. She might be the lady with the dazzling smile who offered you a sweet from a white paper bag in the street before lunch. She might even - and this will make you jump - she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look carefully at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don’t let that put you off. I could be part of her cleverness.”

The Witches is quite dark; like most of Dahl’s work there is a sinister aspect to it and the book certainly has the potential to scare young children. For example at the beginning the boy is being told a story about what witches do with children, and his Grandmamma tells him that one girl became trapped inside a picture for the rest of her life, which I found quite creepy.

The characters are lovely and charming; the boy and his adorable Grandmamma, the detestable Grand High Witch and greedy little Bruno Jenkins make up a compendium of delightful personalities. The close relationship between the boy and his grandmother is heart-warming and one a lot of children will be able to relate to and appreciate.

The Witches is a really delightful, fun and light-hearted story that can be enjoyed by young and old. It is scary, funny and incredibly endearing, with an inventive plot - and on top of all that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are wonderfully charming.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Horns by Joe Hill

Despite there not being enough evidence against him, Ignatius Perrish remains the prime suspect in the brutal rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin. Believing  Ig to be guilty, his friends and family have abandoned him, and in the eyes of the public he is a demon; Ig’s life has become hell. A year on from Merrin’s death, Ig wakes up from a night of heavy drinking with a bad hangover, a blurred memory, and large devil-horns protruding from his temples.

The concept of Horns is strange, original and intriguing, and the plot itself lives up to the premise; it is completely engaging and exciting. There is not a dull moment and I felt eager throughout to know what was coming next; the numerous twists and turns really kept me on my toes.

Horns is brilliantly written and the style is reminiscent of Stephen King's (Hill's father). If you enjoy King’s works, I should say you will definitely appreciate Hill’s genius too. There is a lot of depth to the narrative and it is littered with hidden meaning; every tiny thing that happens is relevant and important to the overarching plot, and it sometimes feels as though Hill is leaving little clues for us to ponder over. The characters are well painted and realistic - I particularly appreciate how well Hill wrote Lee Tourneau, Ig’s ex-best friend and possibly the most interesting character.

As well as combining dark fantasy with horror, Horns offers an interesting juxtaposition of dark humour with raw emotion. The demonic Horns give Ig certain powers, with which he hopes to find and take revenge on the real culprit of Merrin’s murder. When people speak to him, the Horns compel them to gush their innermost secrets and darkest desires which at times result in some amusing, if slightly sickening, confessions. At the same time though, Horns is a resonant and emotional novel. Once the story gets going, Hill lays off the humour and focuses on the horrific grief that can shatter people’s lives when trying to come to terms with bereavement. Hill also highlights the devastation that is felt when those you love abandon you when you need them the most - at the very beginning some Horns-compelled confessions are amusing, but later on when Ig hears what his family truly think of him they are extremely saddening. Horns, although enjoyable, was at times incredibly heartwrenching which was something I was not expecting going into it.

Horns is not your average horror novel in that it is not particularly scary or gory, and has a distinct romantic and emotional aspect. Don’t let that put you off though; it is one of the things that make it stand out. This dimension adds another level to the novel that a lot of horror books, focusing more on shocks or carnage, often fail to achieve. Horns is a superbly written, original and imaginative novel, with an interesting supernatural revenge-fuelled plot which manages to balance dark humour, horror, fantasy, romance and poignancy perfectly.

Rating: 10/10

My other Joe Hill Reviews:

In the Tall Grass

Friday, 26 October 2012

In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and Joe Hill

In the Tall Grass is a collaborative supernatural-horror short story by father-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, and it hearkens back to King’s earlier short stories such as ‘Children of the Corn’, when he was at the top of his game.

While on a road trip to stay with some relatives, brother and sister Cal and Becky DeMuth hear a child’s voice calling for help from deep within the ominous-looking field of tall grass by the road. Despite another voice - presumed to be the boy’s mother’s - warning them to turn back while they still have the chance, Cal and Becky decide to venture into the grass to help the boy find his way out. But the grass is not all that it seems; its supernatural nature means that they soon become separated, and can’t seem to find one another again - then panic sets in, and the siblings realise they have made a big mistake.

In the Tall Grass starts out as creepy and disorienting, progressing steadily to a shocking and gruesome final quarter - the level of gore in the latter part is so extreme and disturbing that some readers might find the material highly offensive. The first half is great; it is intense, highly suspenseful and succeeds at tapping into the common fear of becoming lost and separated from our loved ones in precarious or potentially dangerous situations. The grass makes for a foreboding and dangerous foe; it is approximated by Becky to be about 7 feet tall - a suffocating, dense maze of green closing in on the characters as they cycle through several emotions - frustration, fear and panic being at the forefront. The authors play not only on the anxiety of getting lost, but also the uncomfortable idea of lurching into the unknown: the pair have no idea what might be lurking within the forbidding greenery - smelly mud, biting bugs, slithering snakes, a lunatic or two perhaps, maybe even a monster...the possibilities are endless.

This 60 page story is certainly not for everyone; you should not read this if you are easily offended or squeamish. However for fans of King’s oldies who have a strong stomach, this is a fantastic short story that is definitely worth your time. It even includes extracts from King’s upcoming release Doctor Sleep and Hill’s new book NOS4A2, as an added bonus.

To sum up, In the Tall Grass may be sick, twisted and gruesome, but I loved it; the concept is original and scary, and the writing is skilful, tight and engaging. It elicits a profound feeling of disorientation, claustrophobia and panic, culminating in some grisly blood and guts.

Rating: 9/10

My other Stephen King reviews:

Gerald's Game
The Running Man

My other Joe Hill reviews:


Monday, 22 October 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Gaiman’s macabre tale about a boy who lives in a graveyard offers a dark twist on a classic children’s story. Despite being aimed at a young audience, The Graveyard Book opens with a shocking triple homicide by the villain of this whimsical tale called ‘the man Jack’. With his parents and older sister freshly murdered, an adventurous and curious toddler slips out of the house and stumbles upon an old graveyard close by, where he is adopted by a kindly ghost couple and christened Nobody, or Bod for short. For now Bod is safe in the confines of the spooky graveyard, but the man Jack is still out there, and he intends to finish what he started...

I love the setting of The Graveyard Book: a scary old English graveyard, surrounded by ghosts from all time periods and backgrounds - including the ghost of a witch and the spectre of Caius Pompeius, as well as vicious ghouls. In real life, graveyards are normally avoided and people don’t like being there, so I thought Gaiman’s idea of having a young boy live in one was very intelligent as well as interesting and original. Furthermore this macabre setting allows for a juxtaposing of the living and the dead, offering some wonderful tidbits of wisdom shared from the ghosts to the young boy:

“You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

The novel itself reads, at least for the first half, very much like a collection of short stories. They focus on the many mischievous adventures Bod gets up to in his unusual home, and don’t advance the plot a great deal. It is not until towards the end of the novel when the man Jack makes his reappearance and the story progresses.

Despite the high acclaim of this book, I dislike the writing style and this major issue made The Graveyard Book a bit of a boring read for me. It was not very engaging, and the dialogue fell a bit flat; I found this was the case with Stardust too - the only other Gaiman I have read. This is a huge shame because the premise is brilliantly imaginative and, as I have already said, the creepy setting really appealed to me; this book certainly had the potential to wow me, but unfortunately it failed to do so.

Ostensibly The Graveyard Book is a children’s story, but it is incredibly dark - the murder of Bod’s family in the opening chapter is not graphic, but nonetheless it is disturbing and sinister in context, and I would not recommend it for young children or for sensitive older kids as it may scare them and give them nightmares.

In conclusion, my second outing with Gaiman was a bit of a letdown, and despite the high acclaim of The Graveyard Book I didn’t enjoy reading it too much due to the dull writing style. However the concept behind this is truly brilliant and it boasts an array of charming and interesting characters; had this been written in a way I can get on with, I’m sure this would have been one of my favourites. I remain underwhelmed by Gaiman’s work but I am determined to find one that I love!

Rating: 6/10

My other Neil Gaiman reviews:
How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Running Man by Stephen King

The Running Man is a ‘Bachman Book’ - one of the 5 novels Stephen King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in the late 70’s and early 80’s to see if his work would sell as successfully without his famous name plastered on the cover.

The Running Man is a gritty sci-fi thriller set in a not-too-distant dystopian future where the poor are viewed as pests that need to be disposed of by the heartless authorities. A key feature of King’s fictional future is the ‘Games Company’, which enlists the lower class in life threatening games for money and the entertainment of the rich.

The protagonist - Benjamin Richards - is one of the unlucky poor folk. He has been blacklisted from working due to his leaving a job that was likely to make him sterile, his baby daughter is dying from flu because he cannot afford medicine and the government does not believe in welfare, and his wife has resorted to prostituting herself to make ends meet. Eventually Ben decides to take matters into his own hands and heads down to the Games Company to try and win his family some money; after rigorous mental and physical tests, he is selected to take part in the most dangerous, challenging and formidable event the company have to offer - The Running Man.

The concept of the game The Running Man is this: after being demonised on TV (or FreeVee as it is called) to rally the public against him, the Runner is set loose and after a 12 hour head start he is pursued by skilled Hunters who once they find him won’t hesitate to murder him. He can go absolutely anywhere in the world, but here’s the catch: the public receive a monetary reward if they spot the Runner and report his whereabouts, making it incredibly difficult for the newly made enemy of the state to get very far. Furthermore, the Runner must send two video tapes of himself each day to the Games Company, or they won’t win any money at all, but will still be hunted. If Ben can survive for 30 days he receives 3 million ‘New Dollars’ - King’s less than imaginative name for future money - but so far this has never happened in the entire history of the game so his chances look slim.

This book is very much about class segregation. King paints a vivid picture of the underbelly of this futuristic America, and the dreadful lives that the poor have to suffer at the hands of a greedy and selfish government. This classic theme makes the story relatable, and King executed it very well. Ben is very bitter towards the authorities and he has no qualms with showing it, making for several quite amusing moments when he displays his rebellious feelings.

The Running Man is an intense story, with the Hunters hot on Ben’s tail and the constant fear that at any moment he could be caught and murdered. To enhance this feeling, each short chapter is headed by ‘Minus 100...and Counting’ and so on until it reaches zero, which is an interesting way to split up the story and adds a sense of urgency. However despite the dangerous and exciting premise - and the fact that it is quite short (my copy was some 200 pages) - to my surprise parts of the story were a bit boring and slow. On the other hand the ending was action-packed, gruesome and immensely satisfying; it boosted my opinion of the novel from ‘OK’ to ‘Wow, that was brilliant!’

In conclusion, The Running Man is a great little read that has a powerful message and good writing; ultimately the slow and dull middle is more than redeemed by an explosive, gory, and truly memorable ending.

Rating: 7/10

My other Stephen King Reviews:

Gerald's Game
In the Tall Grass

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal W. Johnson

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is a horror novel often compared with Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, since they are both loosely based on the Sylvia Likens case. Johnson’s rendition of the case has a much stronger psychological aspect than Ketchum’s, which is much more gruesome and violent. 

20-year-old Barbara Miller has been left in charge of 13-year-old Bobby and 10-year-old Cindy Adams while their parents are holidaying in Europe. Everything is going smoothly and Barbara is enjoying her new role of bossy babysitter however, about a week before the Adams’ are due to return, Barbara wakes up drowsy from a heavy dosage of chloroform and finds herself to be completely immobile. Her two young charges and three neighbourhood children have tied her tightly to the bed, and giddy with their new found freedom, they aren’t going to release her until they have fully enjoyed their ‘game’.

The premise might not sound so scary - how harmful can a group of kids be anyway? Well this is what Barbara thought initially, but she soon learns how dangerous it is to underestimate children. At first Barbara thinks the kids are simply playing a prank and will free her soon. She quickly realises this is not the case and, as the youngsters adjust to their new roles as the ‘grown-ups’, they become gradually bolder and more ferocious with their new toy; the mental torture of the earlier part of the book progressing steadily to callous physical abuse.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ starts off very well - the writing flows nicely and is easy to read. Once the youngsters have taken Barbara captive however, the novel moves quite slowly; some parts were a little dull and at times my attention wavered. A great portion of the novel consists of Barbara pondering the situation and for large chunks there was a profound lack of progress; it reminded me of Jessie’s somewhat tedious inner dialogue in Gerald’s Game - Barbara even imagines conversations with her friend Terry much like Jessie talks to her inner voices.

An interesting aspect of Let’s Go Play is that we not only get inside the victim’s head, but we also observe events from the point of view of each of her captors. The childrens' characters are written well and it is interesting to observe their development through the entire process. Dianne is the eldest at 17 and is black-hearted and quite terrifying; her brother Paul is well on his way to becoming a fully fledged psychopath, being very weird and unnerving. The Adams children themselves - Bobby and Cindy - are mostly victims of peer pressure, and once the situation starts to get out of hand it is interesting to watch their very different development in attitude as Barbara begins to deteriorate. Barbara’s slow degeneration is harrowing and sad and, as the novel advances, she becomes less of a person to the children and is more like a giant Barbie doll to them, making for a shocking and deeply disturbing read.

Due to its unsettling nature Let’s Go Play is neither easy to read nor a novel everyone will want to try. It reminded me a little of Lord of the Flies in the way that the children behaved savagely without adults to keep them in check, and did things just because they could - some of the things they do to their babysitter are completely void of emotion and humanity. The fact that the villains in Let’s Go Play are a group of normal children exacerbates the level of horror with innocence being corrupted and completely destroyed when parental guidance is absent. This novel is dark, compelling and highly chilling, and although it is not too graphically violent, it will burrow into your psyche and leave you thinking about its uncomfortable content for days. 

Rating: 8/10 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen contains two stories - the titular tale which is 105 pages long and a shorter one of only 45 pages called Moonlight Shadow. Kitchen is the story that propelled Yoshimoto to fame in Japan in 1988 upon its publication, and I can certainly see why.

Both stories focus on dealing with grief after the death of someone close to you. Yet despite the sombre subject matter confronted in these two stories, and that they are both quite sad - especially Moonlight Shadow - this is one of the few Japanese books I have read so far that is neither horrendously bleak nor paints Japan as a terrifying, dangerous place full of psychopaths (I would not advise reading anything by Ryu Murakami or Natsuo Kirino shortly before embarking on a trip to Japan!). On the contrary, I found these two stories to be very uplifting, enjoyable and full of tidbits of Japanese culture.

In the first and longer story Kitchen, the main character Mikage is confronted with the death of her grandmother with whom she lived. She ends up moving in with a young man who knew her grandmother and helped Mikage with the funeral arrangements, and his transsexual mother Eriko. One of my favourite things about Kitchen is the talk about kitchens and food. I’m not much of a cook myself, but I loved Mikage’s passion for kitchens and moreover I love Japanese cuisine so reading this made me feel very hungry!

Moonlight Shadow is my favourite of the two though; it has more depth and has a sweet poignancy that is rare is novels. This second story is about learning to move on once a loved one has died. Satsuki has lost her long-term boyfriend, Hitoshi, to a car accident. Likewise, Hitoshi’s younger brother, Hiiragi, lost his girlfriend in the same tragedy. A stranger Satsuki meets on a bridge tries to relieve her grief by supernatural means.

The language is simple and charming, and both stories have a very distinct ‘Japanese’ feel to them; they have plenty of Japanese culture and have a hint of Haruki Murakami’s trademark surrealism.

I really enjoyed this lovely, melancholy book. I thought it sounded pretty boring when I first read the synopsis of each novella and wasn’t expecting much in spite of its acclaimed position in contemporary Japanese literature, but both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow were very enjoyable reads. However, the abstract nature of the book means that it is definitely not for everyone, and may seem uneventful for some; this is a book about emotions rather than actions. Though this thin book might sound very depressing, it isn’t and has an uplifting feel to each story, as it strives to show that there is hope and a future for those left behind after a death. Both stories hold an incredible beauty that is worth reading a mere 150 pages to experience.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is set in a dystopian - or arguably utopian - future in which the ‘World Controllers’ have created the perfect society: with the use of test tube babies and hypnotism, the community is based on pleasure without moral repercussions. Bernard Marx, however, through some anomaly, is unhappy with his lot in the new world and sets out to relieve his discontent by visiting one of the remaining Savage Reservations where the old imperfect life continues.

Huxley’s futuristic totalitarian world is imaginative, original and incredibly disturbing. Families are now obsolete and instead all babies are grown in bottles and are bred solely to become part of a particular class, in turn each class fulfils a particular job criteria and hence the whole world runs rather like a giant emotionless machine. The classes range from the super intelligent and beautiful Alphas to the mentally stunted Epsilons, who carry out the most menial jobs. Once the babies have been ‘decanted’ - the word ‘born’, along with other words such as ‘mother’, have become vulgar and taboo - they undergo years of conditioning to ensure that they are happy with their particular class:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas...And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write...I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Now that there is no need to reproduce by natural means, sex is purely recreational. In this world “everyone belongs to everyone else” and promiscuity is heavily encouraged and is considered the civilised way to behave; romantic relationships are a thing of the past.

The community are kept happy by the legal narcotic Soma, which people take whenever they feel negative and has no apparent side effect. These two aspects of the setting subvert contemporary social values: nowadays individuals are sometimes judged as immoral for acting promiscuously and taking drugs, so the fact that this is the status quo in the Huxley’s totalitarian state might be shocking to a modern reader - and would certainly have been so to a 1930’s audience, when the novel was published.

What I love about Brave New World is how thought provoking it is. It would be very easy to say that if everyone is happy under this system then is there really a problem? However, what Huxley highlights so well is the question of what would we give up for happiness - is our very humanity worth the cost? Are people truly happy if they are not free thinking and have been brainwashed into thinking particular things and acting a particular way? Huxley underlines these issues through the characters: since they lack humanity they don’t feel like people, but more like robots, and they often repeat phrases they have been conditioned to believe like an automaton might.

However, despite the stimulating subject matter and the unsettling, imaginative setting, the story of Brave New World is quite weak. Once the initial shock and disgust with Huxley’s environment wears off a little, there is not much of interest happening to the characters and at times is dull and disengaging. This is only exacerbated by the robotic characters as they are not exceptionally compelling personalities, with the exception of John the Savage who is definitely the most defined and interesting character.

Brave New World is an incredibly thought-provoking and interesting read. It is often compared to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I think that Orwell’s novel is superior mainly due to the more interesting plot. Huxley’s novel is much more concerned with setting than story, but nonetheless Brave New World has a lot to say, has implicit shock value, evokes plenty of challenging questions, is scary and thoughtful with a harrowing conclusion that will haunt you for days after you’ve finished reading it.

Rating: 8/10 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The Hobbit is a fantasy adventure tale set in fictional Middle-earth and is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, although it can be read as a standalone novel. The Hobbit is often considered to be more of a children’s book than its gargantuan sequel, however it is creepy, exciting and has dynamic characters that older audiences will appreciate and doesn’t read too much like a children’s novel, as well as being written in such a way that it is amusing and charming enough for children to enjoy.

The Hobbit is about an unambitious hobbit (these are creatures very much like men, except they are very small, do not wear shoes due to their furry, hard-soled feet and loathe adventures) named Bilbo Baggins who lives his life very contentedly in the cosy comfort of his hobbit hole - complete with numerous pantries to sate his enormous appetite - until he is reluctantly recruited by Gandalf the wizard to accompany a group of dwarves to steal a treasure-hoard from the lair of the fearsome dragon Smaug.

This novel has one of the most fantastic opening chapters I have ever read and is a strong testament to Tolkien’s superb writing talent. I adore Tolkien’s quaint and cosy description of Bilbo’s home, which sounds like the most marvellous and snug place to live in the whole world. This first chapter is very funny, with Bilbo being taken by surprise at the swarm of dwarves who invade his home for tea, and his horror at discovering they want him to come along on an adventure!

Once the party hit the open road they encounter plenty of scary and exciting creatures such as man-eating trolls, goblins and vicious wargs as well as the daunting prospect of being eaten alive by giant spiders. There is always something exciting happening to the group and the narrative is never dull.

All of the characters are wonderfully entertaining. The group of dwarves don’t have very distinct personalities from each other, but Bilbo is a highly amusing fellow. Tolkien sets him up as a bit grumpy and a person who loves his home comforts and loathes any disruption from his mundane daily activities in Hobbiton; he regularly makes reproachful remarks about adventures:

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

However as the story progresses it is interesting to see Bilbo’s ‘Tookishness’ emerge as he uses his bravery and wits (and, of course, the ‘One Ring’ which turns him invisible) to get out of the several sticky situations the treasure hunters find themselves in.

In contrast to his semi-comedic portrayal in The Lord of the Rings films, in The Hobbit Gollum is a strange, scary little creature; he is a gaunt and emaciated thing, constantly arguing with himself, completely set on gobbling Bilbo up if he fails to beat Gollum in a riddle contest.

Due to the thrilling adventure that unfolds between its pages, the compelling and beautifully illustrated characters (many of whom I haven’t even discussed - witty, clever Gandalf, Beorn the grumpy skin-changer, the terrifying dragon Smaug amongst others), Tolkien’s skill at painting a vivid picture of welcoming Hobbiton, gloomy, dangerous Mirkwood and the other fantastical locations of Middle-earth, The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I can’t say anything negative about this enchanting novel; there are moments of great peril and terror, but it manages to remain light hearted throughout. There is something in it for everyone and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 10/10

My other J. R. R. Tolkien reviews:
The Lord of the Rings

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy novel of 1986 aimed at children and young adults, but is perhaps better known as an anime by Studio Ghibli. I myself saw the anime film last year before discovering that it was based on a book - this annoyed me greatly since I always like to read the book before seeing an adaptation! However, in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the differences between the book and film are so vast that it hardly makes a difference and if anything I would suggest watching the film first in order to avoid being disappointed by the numerous departures that were made from the book. I am not here to focus on the differences between the film and the book in this review though; I am going to review the novel only.

The villagers of Market Chipping in the kingdom of Ingary live in fear of the wizard Howl who lives in a moving castle nearby, as he is rumoured to eat the hearts of young girls. Once her father dies, 18-year-old Sophie Hatter resigns herself to a dull life running the dreary family hat shop while her stepmother gads about town spending lots of money, including Sophie’s wages, every day. Her two younger sisters are sent off to pursue more exciting careers - Lettie is to learn to be a witch while Martha is to be a baker. One night, working late in the hat shop, Sophie is accosted by a disgruntled customer who turns out to be the fearsome Witch of the Waste - confusing Sophie for someone else (one of the many puzzles contained within the novel) she puts a curse on her, transforming her into an old woman! Part of the curse is that Sophie cannot tell anyone that she is under a spell, which makes seeking help rather difficult and puts poor Sophie in a terrible predicament. With limited options, Sophie decides to set out and see if she can find the witch and break the curse. However, she stumbles upon Howl’s moving castle - thinking her situation cannot get any worse, and with night rapidly approaching, Sophie risks her heart being eaten and enters the castle hoping the wizard might help her. Little does she know that her adventure is only just beginning...

Howl s Moving Castle is a really fun, delightful book. There are several moments of humour, mostly thanks to Howl’s flamboyant temperament and his incredible ability to throw tantrums - in particular there is a scene in the chapter entitled ‘In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime’, wherein he gets more than just a bit upset over dying his hair the wrong colour. An original and fun aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle is that it is one large puzzle - Calcifer, Howl’s fire demon, agrees to lift Sophie’s curse if she can figure out how to break the contract between himself and Howl, which the pair forged years ago - as like Sophie, Calcifer and Howl cannot talk about the terms of their spell. Numerous clues on how to break the contract are littered throughout the narrative, giving the reader subtle hints along with Sophie, so it’s fun to see if you can spot them all. On top of this are smaller mysteries to ponder, such as what has happened to the missing Prince of the kingdom, making for a uniquely enjoyable, puzzling and mystifying read.

The characters are wonderful, although I have a particular soft spot for mean-spirited Calcifer. Sophie is very realistic - she makes mistakes and some bad decisions, but she also has a big heart. Before she is transformed into an old woman, Sophie is timid, undemanding and has accepted her small lot in life - she is the eldest of three after all! Once she has been cursed however, her character alters - old Sophie is bold and bossy, busting into Howl’s castle and taking charge, cleaning the entire living space against Howl’s will, and bullying Calcifer into doing whatever she wants. Howl, the likeable but flawed wizard, is a lot of fun. He is an eccentric, vain drama queen and is prone to childish outbursts.

One slight negative is that the conclusion feels a little bit rushed, but I put this down to it being a children’s book, where stories tend to conclude rather abruptly. In addition to this, the plot is perhaps a touch too complex for very young children, who might find it quite confusing, especially towards the end.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an enchanting, original tale with an imaginative plot, wonderful vivid characters, plenty of humour, puzzles, magic, romance and much more. Don’t be put off by this being a children’s book, as it has something for everyone and is a real delight to read. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is a standalone novel, Jones wrote two loose sequels: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, as well as numerous other works for youngsters and others for adults, which - as of reading this novel - I can’t wait to get my hands on.

Rating: 9/10

My other reviews by Diana Wynne Jones:
Charmed Life