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

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Gerald's Game by Stephen King

Stephen King is one of my favourite authors and I have read a lot of his books. Until just recently, however, I had steered clear of his lesser known and less favoured works (for example Gerald’s Game, Delores Claiborne, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon) in favour of his more famous, universally adored horror classics such as The Shining and It. But since I more or less exhausted the list of King’s ‘better’ works, I thought it was about time that I tried out some his less famous tales, and that’s how I came to read Gerald’s Game.

Even from the most committed Stephen King fans, I had heard little praise for this particular work, and the novel is often dubbed ‘King’s worst book’. Nevertheless the premise intrigued me immensely: after years of marriage, Gerald’s dwindling libido is kept alive by forcing his wife - Jessie - to play sex games, ignorant of her distaste for bondage. One weekend they visit their remote holiday cottage, and while Jessie is handcuffed to the bed, Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Jessie stuck half-naked in the middle of nowhere and with no-one around for miles. I for one really wanted to know how or if she manages to escape, and knowing that Stephen King’s mind is quite dark, what might happen to her while she is trapped; immobile and helpless.

Let’s start off with the negatives. First off, the protagonist, Jessie, is quite unlikeable. At the beginning of the novel, when Gerald is making an attempt at giving her a sexy smile, she says that she thinks the grin “looked stupid. No...retarded.” I thought that was pretty harsh, so from the off I didn’t really like her. Furthermore, once he is lying dead on the floor she seems to feel no remorse, sadness or guilt whatsoever about the situation; even if she didn’t actually love him, which I think may be the case, she would surely feel something. She also has annoying ‘inner voices’, one of which cannot finish a sentence without tacking “toots” onto the end of it which I found very irritating. The voices’ purpose is to help her to confront a trauma from her past; if Jessie can face the emotional shackles of her childhood and overcome her subsequent misery and self-loathing, then she can find the willpower to escape the physical bonds of the handcuffs. To be honest I find childhood trauma and multiple personalities in novels to be a bit trite, so I didn't really like this aspect of the novel.

Secondly, the book was way too long for the events which occurred. My Kindle version has 417 pages, which is much too long when you consider that the majority of the book revolves around a woman handcuffed to a bed, arguing with her interior personalities, not doing much except remembering ‘the bad thing’ and trying to figure out how to escape. As a consequence, the novel dragged in places; for example, Jessie spends pages and pages trying to reach a glass of water - this was supposed to be suspenseful, but it really wasn’t. I can’t help but think that King wanted his audience to feel like they were trapped with the protagonist, for whom time must have dragged. If this is the case then it didn’t work as the scene did not make for good entertainment and would have benefited from being much shorter. Thanks to occasions such as this, my attention waned at times.

From what I have written so far, it probably seems like I really didn’t enjoy Gerald’s Game, but I did, and there were several positive aspects to the book. I genuinely found this novel to be quite scary. King manages to capture the feelings of isolation and helplessness that this situation would inspire in a person; the impending darkness as night-time slowly approaches adds to this, and is further exacerbated by the noises Jessie can hear outside which highlight her distress, such as a dog barking, a chainsaw whirring and the howling sounds of what she presumes to be a madman. Furthermore, for reasons I won’t elaborate on due to spoilers, I am now terrified of shadowy corners at night!

Aside from the slow parts which I have already mentioned Gerald’s Game does succeed in keeping the reader interested. As the story progressed I found I really wanted to know exactly what had happened in Jessie’s past to traumatise her so, and King constantly switches between chapters, alternating between the story of her childhood with what is currently happening to her chained to the bed.

When compared with King’s other novels, Gerald’s Game is definitely one of the weaker ones, but for me it still outshines Insomnia, Cujo`Salem’s Lot, Bag of Bones and the truly terrible Cell. Furthermore, although it probably takes itself a little too seriously, it is still a lot better than much of the dross that is currently sitting on book shop shelves and I enjoyed it a lot; I think this novel receives such a bad press simply because it doesn’t live up to King’s most famous books, not novels in general. If you are interested in reading some psychological rather than blood-and-guts horror then I think you would enjoy Gerald’s Game.

Rating: 7/10 

My other Stephen King reviews:

In the Tall Grass
The Running Man 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Despite watching plenty of Poirot on TV when I was younger, And Then There Were None was my first Agatha Christie novel, and I have really been missing out! Now that I have finished this gem I cannot wait to delve deeper into Christie’s vast array of mystery novels, and I have several lined up to read in the near future. Unfortunately this is a difficult book to review as I can’t give away many details without spoiling the reading experience for you should you choose to read it - which you definitely should - but I’ll give it my best shot.

In And Then There Were None ten strangers are invited to Soldier Island by a mysterious Mr. Owen. When they sit down to dinner on their first evening on the island, all of them wondering where on earth their elusive host has got to, a strange recording starts playing, and announces a dark secret that each of the guests is hiding. Soon afterwards the murders begin, with the guests dying one by one, and the race is on to uncover the culprit before there is no-one left alive!

The deaths themselves are very inventive and are linked with a nursery rhyme which is printed at the front of the book itself, and is also hanging on the wall in each of the guests’ bedrooms (not that they actually realise its significance for some time):

“Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in half and then there were six.

Six little soldier boys playing with a hive;
bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little soldier boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little soldier boys going out to sea;
red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little soldier boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little soldier boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.”

What I loved so much about this novel was its ability to draw you in and keep you hooked right through to the last page. Each time I thought I had figured out who the killer was, they were murdered! I racked my brains trying to figure out how the murders were being done and who was behind them, and with the nursery rhyme as a constant clue to what the next death might involve I felt excited to discover how a kill would fit with a particular line, for example the line about the bear hugging somebody!

This little mystery was really gripping, with many twists and turns, and I could barely put it down. There are quite a few characters but don't let this put you off because you get to know them all quickly enough, and besides that, the number diminishes rapidly anyway. I highly recommend this, particularly if you enjoy a good murder mystery, but I think anyone could easily fall in love with this brilliant brainteaser.

Rating: 10/10 

My other Agatha Christie reviews:
Murder on the Orient Express

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

Despite being a fan of scary stories I had never read anything by the legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson until last year when I stumbled upon and was completely blown away by We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Upon finishing this wonderfully creepy novel, I felt eager to read more by Jackson, and immediately added both The Lottery and Other Stories and The Haunting of Hill House to my ‘to-read’ list.

The Lottery and Other Stories is a collection of strange, ambiguous and at times unsettling short stories. Many of them feature a mysterious ‘Mr Harris’ character; In fact it was originally published as The Lottery: The Adventures of James Harris, but he doesn’t actually appear in all the stories so I’m unsure as to why this should be the case.

I cannot deny that Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb; she certainly has a real way with words and succeeds in creating an atmosphere and sucking you in to her tales. However, contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t enjoy this collection. As I have already said, a key element the majority of these tales share is ambiguity, which can be fine, but these particular stories take this to the extreme; so much so that many of them end abruptly without anything being resolved and oftentimes without anything having happened at all! Apart from the recurrence of James Harris, there seems to be little that ties this group of stories together. For example, on the one hand we have ‘The Lottery’, which is very mysterious and has a shock reveal at the end, and it keeps you hooked and intrigued about what on earth is going on in the little village. However most of the others I would barely qualify as stories at all, and are what I can only describe as random segments of life or filler scenes from a longer novel, and I found this quite infuriating since well over half of the collection is of this nature. The tales that fall into this category include: ‘Like Mother Used to Make’; ‘The Villager’ and ‘An Afternoon in Linen’, amongst others. Even one of the longer ones, ‘Elizabeth’, which initially I thought was pretty decent and intriguing just sort of, well, ended at a really peculiar point in the story and I was left feeling thoroughly dissatisfied with it.

Despite the negatives there are some enjoyable stories in this collection: the title story ‘The Lottery’ was brilliant, and I would also recommend ‘The Daemon Lover’; ‘The Witch’; ‘The Renegade’ and ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’. Even so, apart from ‘The Lottery’ itself, these stories are not anything particularly special, and are not commendable enough as to render the entire collection as good; I felt that the poor stories certainly overshadowed the better ones.

This collection of short stories is generally well reviewed, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Perhaps Jackson is more skilled as a novel writer, because We Have Always Lived in the Castle was truly fantastic and I am still looking forward to the prospect of reading The Haunting of Hill House. Unfortunately though, The Lottery and Other Stories just didn’t do it for me; I found I was bored for most of it, and it was a bit of a struggle to get through. I would, however, recommend reading some of her short stories individually, such as the ones I listed above, but I wouldn’t bother with the entire collection.

Rating: 4/10 as a collection, 9/10 for 'The Lottery' alone.

My other Shirley Jackson reviews:
The Haunting of Hill House

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort is the fourth instalment in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (although the novels can easily be read out of sequence if you prefer). The eponymous Mort is a young, gangly teenager unsuited to life on his parents’ farm, and after failing to secure work in any other field he is chosen to become Death’s apprentice. The novel details the disastrous and often hilarious consequences of Death’s choice to employ him, and follows Mort as he learns that being Death is not as simple as it might at first appear.

‘Death’ is a personification of literal death, and is a central character in the book. The character is a play on the stereotypical grim reaper figure, who plays cameos in the Discworld novels previous to Mort, and has leading roles in several later ones. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Discworld, Death’s speech is indicated by CAPITAL LETTERS AND THE ABSENCE OF SPEECH MARKS, which lends the character distinction and individuality. Death subverts the readers’ expectations, coming out with lines such as I COULD MURDER A CURRY, and attempting to try his hand at human life; he is an interesting and entertaining character and he was one of my favourite aspects of the novel.

However, the main draw of Terry Pratchett’s books is their comedic value; an aspect which makes the Discworld series stand out from other fantasy books, which tend to be quite severe in tone. His novels are full of wit and British humour, and Mort is no exception, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and it succeeds in keeping the reader entertained throughout. The humour resembles that of Monty Python, although less ridiculous and more low key; for example, here are a few of my favourite quotes:


“How can you eat things, sir?...THERE ARE TIMES, YOU KNOW, he said, half to himself, WHEN I GET REALLY UPSET.

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?” 

However Pratchett certainly doesn’t beat you over the head with comedy on every page, and it doesn’t feel like he’s putting in an awful lot of effort to be funny either; the humour feels effortless. This level of comedy lends the novel a light-hearted feel in spite of the gravity of the situation Mort ends up creating and makes for an enjoyable and easy read.  

Although some of the characters (with the obvious exception of Death) aren’t too interesting, they are at least likeable for the most part. The novel is also well written, and I particularly enjoyed the vibrant description of the city of Ankh-Morpork.

This book was much more compelling than the other two Discworld novels I have read previously (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic), and it has left me wanting more; I intend to read Reaperman, Soul Music and Hogfather sometime in the near future, all of which relate to Mort and feature Death as a central character.

To conclude, I have nothing particularly negative to say about Mort, but at the same time I didn’t feel as eager to continue reading it like I did with books such as Natsuo Kirino’s Out, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and - a personal favourite of mine - Stephen King’s Christine. Despite the novel being classed as ‘fantasy’, there are some elements of sci-fi lurking in there too, and the humour certainly makes all of the Discworld novels stand out amid your average fantasy book, so if fantasy isn’t generally your thing then don’t be afraid to give Mort a try regardless; it’s not the type of book I would normally go for either yet I really liked it.

I would recommend this book if you are looking for a light and comical read, perhaps after slogging through a particularly heavy classic novel. Mort is definitely the kind of book I would go to for a bit of fun, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes that’s just the sort of read I need!

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

Although previous to reading The Scapegoat I had only read three of Daphne’s works (Rebecca,The Birds and Other Stories and My Cousin Rachel), she is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. The main reason for this is her beautiful writing style; her words flow wonderfully, hypnotising the reader, and she allows you to become totally lost in her world, making her novels and short stories a real treat to read. She also has the rare ability to leave you hankering for more at the end of each chapter, without resorting to cheap, clichéd cliff hangers.

The premise of The Scapegoat concerns an Englishman, John, who is fed up with his dull life as a professor of French, and while holidaying in France he meets a Frenchman, Jean de Gue, who is his exact double. Fascinated by their uncanny resemblance, the pair go out drinking and John ends up passed out in a hotel with the mysterious stranger. When he awakes however, all of his possessions have disappeared - along with Jean de Gue! Dressed in Jean’s clothes, John is escorted to the château de Gue by the family chauffeur, Gaston, who brushes off John’s exclamations that he is not Jean de Gue with the notion that he must be drunk and raving. When John arrives at the family château, he is expected to run the family glass business and throw hunting parties - activities that John has absolutely zero experience with, as becomes evident (at times with comical results!). It soon becomes clear that Jean was in a bit of a pickle with numerous family members, his glass business and its workers, and that he saw an opportunity to run when he met his doppelganger, leaving the unsuspecting Englishman to act as a scapegoat for all his troubles. These problems are presented to John and to the reader through subtle intriguing hints and clues from the other characters as to what might be occurring in the household, and what might have happened to the family in the past. Obviously John can’t just ask outright what they mean when they say something he is unsure about, and when he first gets to the château he doesn’t even know who everyone is or where his own bedroom is, and this makes for an exciting read as you are eager to unravel the several puzzles that John is presented with.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief somewhat when reading this book. I found it a little difficult to comprehend how these two strangers could look and speak so similarly as to fool Jean’s entire family, particularly since the two don’t even share the same native language. I also thought that if I was John I would have tried a bit harder to convince Gaston that I was not the man he thought and tried to get to a police station as quickly as possible. I suppose John was so fed up with his old life that he thought Jean’s might be more exciting, and consequently felt that by usurping his place in the household he didn’t have much to lose even if things did go awry. Furthermore, it is possible that the police would have just thought him mad! Once you look past these things though, the story is decent and keeps you hooked and guessing how events will pan out right up until the very last page.

Like all of Daphne’s works I have read so far, this novel is beautifully written, which heightens the intensity of the situation Jean finds himself in. The characters are all brilliantly real and interesting in their own ways and you feel eager to know who they are and what relationship they have with Jean de Gue. I particularly enjoyed Marie-Noel’s character.

Despite the positives, which are numerous, the ending fell a little flat. This heavily damaged my opinion of the book, as for me poor endings tend to overshadow any previous goodness the book might have displayed. It was actually quite boring and left me feeling dissatisfied; there were several ways the novel could have ended which would have made for a much more thrilling and climactic dénouement.

So although a fabulous, well-written and intriguing story, The Scapegoat was ultimately lacking that ‘wow factor’ that made Rebecca so famous and popular, and the ending let me down. However if you are a fan of Daphne then I would definitely recommend this one as it has quite a different feel from both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, and if you like mystery I also think you would enjoy this. After all my only major qualm with this book was with the ending, and you might happen to like how everything gets wrapped up. Personally I think anything by Daphne du Maurier is worth a read if only for her writing style!

Rating: 7/10

My other Daphne du Maurier reviews:

Jamaica Inn