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

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

Jack Kilborn is a pseudonym for J. A. Konrath: he publishes under both names, using Konrath for his thrillers, and reserving Kilborn for his horror novels. Safe Haven is a small, quiet town in Wisconsin, with only one road leading in and out of it, many miles from civilisation. But something horrifying is about to disturb this peaceful, secluded town. In the dead of night, a helicopter crashes on the outskirts of Safe Haven, unleashing a terrifying government weapon upon the quiet town: Red-Ops - merciless super soldiers who are programmed to terrorise and annihilate. 

Afraid is non-stop action, violence and gore from the off. The pace is fast; there aren’t any boring parts, and barely any breaks in action. However, because it starts with such a bang, there is little progression and the latter half fails to live up to the opening; my enthusiasm therefore fizzled out a little by the mid-point. 

Before reading Afraid, I had heard that it was really scary, but it can be much better described as ‘gory horror’ than ‘scary horror’. The violence is unrelenting and visceral, so it’s great if you fancy an intense and gruesome read. If you want to feel really scared, then not so much. Nonetheless the very idea of the Red-Ops is quite terrifying - they are inhuman, huge and incredibly strong; some of the things they do to the poor residents of Safe Haven are vile and gut-wrenching.

Afraid is very well written; Kilborn’s style is easy to engage with and his characters are realistic. The story is character focused: at the start we follow a number of people who are scattered around Safe Haven as they are forced to confront the Red-Ops. Many die, but the few who survive strive to escape their town and get to the bottom of the helicopter crash as the horrific possibility that its landing was not in fact accidental begins to seem probable. Nonetheless there is a boring and contrived love plot between two characters which I felt was an unnecessary dynamic and somewhat dampened the atmosphere.

In conclusion, Afraid is a well written horror novel with some good characters and an interesting plot. It is fast paced, energetic and offers unrelenting brutality, which means this novel, although it is 372 pages, can easily be read in only one or two sittings. I enjoyed Afraid, but for me something was lacking and it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. All in all, Afraid is ideal if you want a gripping, fast read filled with violence and blood.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway is a highly unusual novel about one day in the life of upper-class Clarissa Dalloway, following her as she prepares for a party she is throwing that evening, and as she does so she reflects on her life choices, missed opportunities and a lost love. 

Although the focus of this short novel is on Clarissa, the narrative switches to several other characters throughout. This rotation is done without warning and so fluidly that I often didn’t notice the change in narrator, and it was sometimes confusing to keep track of whose head I was now inside. The writing is poetic and beautiful to read, but in many ways this is the novel’s main downfall: it reads almost like one very long, meandering poem, which hinders reader comprehension. 

The characters are not particularly interesting, with the exception of Septimus, whom Clarissa never actually meets, but who is the most intriguing and complex character in the whole novel and is almost as prevalent as the titular Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus is a war veteran, and has been mentally scarred by his time in combat: he hallucinates regularly, fancying he can see his dead friend and that the birds are singing in Greek. Septimus’ character serves to comment on the treatment of those suffering from a mental illness as well as allowing the reader to view the world through the eyes of insanity.

Mrs. Dalloway is not necessarily a novel I would recommend as leisure reading: it is hard to understand and follow without any guidance. Because of this it is quite boring and disengaging, which in turn means that a lot of important themes and messages can be easily missed. However, I think it would be an interesting novel to study: the prose reflects Woolf’s disturbed and chaotic mind, and underlines controversial issues such as mental illness, suicide, class segregation and homosexuality.

Rating: 5/10

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris - better known by its English title ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ - is a dark, gothic tale set in late-medieval Paris against a backdrop of jealousy, obsession, and medieval witchcraft. Esmeralda is a beautiful young gypsy who has unwittingly captured the attention of troubled arch-bishop Claude Frollo; in turn, Esmeralda has fallen for an empty-headed lout named Phoebus. Residing in the magnificent Notre-Dame cathedral is the ugly, deaf bell-ringer Quasimodo, who lives out of sight of Parisian eyes, under the charge of Frollo.

Being at the pinnacle of romantic and gothic literature, Notre-Dame is essentially a love story, but not the conventional kind. The various forms of love found within the story are not at all similar to the flowery romance between Cosette and Marius in Hugo’s other famous work, Les Misérables. As a contrast, the focus in Notre-Dame is jealous and obsessive ‘love’, centring on lust and selfish desires. On one level the novel explores what love really is: many characters claim to love Esmeralda, but for the most part it is of the envious, poisonous variety that leads to tragedy for all parties involved. Notre-Dame explores numerous other themes too, such as religion (through Frollo’s conflictions between his lust for Esmeralda and his holy duty) and the judgment of people through their observable traits, explored through Quasimodo’s physical deformities and Frollo’s upstanding station in the church, neither of which reflect their true personalities. 

In general, the characters are not quite as compelling as those in Les Misérables, especially the lone female, Esmeralda. Fantine and Éponine are more fleshed out and interesting; Esmeralda is largely a stereotypical damsel in distress, and I found it annoying how utterly besotted she was with Phoebus, even though he was awful to her and more captivated with her pretty she-goat Djali than with the gypsy. Frollo is my favourite character; he is dark, troubled and complex. The bell-ringer of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo, is another well-written, interesting and unusual character. Because of his status as outcast and his ugliness, he is pitiable, but at the same time his oppressed life causes him to act aggressively and to feel confused by human contact. He is hideous to behold, but kind-hearted deep down, and often struggles with conflicting loyalties between his master and Esmeralda.

The novel is quite slow at the beginning, but once you’ve passed the 100 page mark you’re good to go. Though Notre-Dame features some of Hugo’s infamous digressions, they are not as numerous or tiresome as those in Les Misérables; probably due to the large difference in length of each work - Notre-Dame is about 550 pages, while Les Misérables stands at some 1,400. The only significant ones describe in detail the architecture of the cathedral (which is relevant to the overarching theme of change over time, and Hugo’s sadness over the neglect and ruin of old buildings), and another gives a bird’s eye view of Paris, both of which I found quite interesting. The last couple of a hundred pages are fast paced, intense, bloody and wrought with emotion; the final page brought tears to my eyes. 

On top of the well-plotted narrative, Hugo’s writing is beautiful and spell-binding. I especially like his descriptions of Quasimodo’s appearance:

“That tiny left eye obscured by a shaggy red eyebrow, while the right eye lay completely hidden beneath an enormous wart. Those irregular teeth, with gaps here and there like the battlements of a fortress, that calloused lip, over which one of those teeth protruded like an elephant’s tusk, that cleft chin, and above all the facial expression extending over the whole, a mixture of malice, amazement, and sadness... He looked like a giant, broken into pieces and then badly mended.”

Notre-Dame is personified throughout the story, making it not only the main setting of the tale but also a character. I love the idea of Quasimodo being the very soul of the cathedral:

“In Egypt he would have been taken for the temple’s god; the Middle Ages thought he was its demon; he was its soul. So much so that for those who know Quasimodo once existed, Notre-Dame today is deserted, inanimate, dead. There is the feeling that something has gone. That immense body is empty; it is a skeleton; the spirit has left it. You can see where it was, and that is all. It is like a skull which has eyeholes but no longer any eyes to see.” 

In conclusion, Notre-Dame de Paris is a fantastic gothic novel of love, betrayal, obsession and murder. It has a grisly denouement accompanied by a truly devastating and sad ending, with the interesting setting of late medieval Paris and the beautiful Notre-Dame cathedral. It offers plenty of food for thought, and has a couple of very memorable characters. Except for the very beginning, the story is exciting and dark, whilst simultaneously maintaining a melancholy and sombre atmosphere. Notre-Dame is perhaps not quite as good as Les Misérables, but its shorter length makes it more accessible. All of these factors combine to make Notre-Dame de Paris an instant favourite of mine: I highly recommend it.

Rating: 10/10

My other Victor Hugo reviews:

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

Don’t let the title fool you - this is not a teen rom-com, but rather one of the most horrifying and disturbing novels I have ever read. When Meg (14) and Susan (10) are orphaned after a horrific car accident, they end up living with their Aunt Ruth and her three sons. Ruth rapidly spirals into a vicious madness which infects her boys and eventually some of the surrounding neighbourhood, leading to the horrendous abuse and torture of the girls, especially Meg. David, Ruth’s neighbour and a friend of one of her sons, acts as bystander, watching the torture but - as he constantly reminds himself - not taking an active role in the abuse, ignorant to the harmful nature of his inaction. 

The intense scenes of physical and mental torture featured in the novel and its huge emotional impact on the reader make it very difficult to read. At one point I wasn’t sure I could continue - this has never haven’t to me before and I doubt it ever will again - the sheer power of the story is astounding. The Girl Next Door was inspired by the Sylvia Likens case, which makes it much more difficult to stomach, as you can’t brush events off as merely fiction. It is much more violent than Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, which is also loosely based on the Sylvia Likens case, and focuses more on the mental degeneration and the psychology of the victim. The Girl Next Door is told through the eyes of an adult David, who is recounting events through a series of flashbacks. 

Ketchum’s ability to humanise his characters is excellent, leading to conflicting emotions in the reader. David’s narrative style is captivating and innocent, capturing the essence of confused youth. Ketchum’s decision to unveil Meg’s torture through the eyes of David puts the reader in David’s position, forcing you into the role of bystander. I felt absolutely useless in this position - I wanted to scream at David for not taking any action. This choice of narrative also helps to highlight certain moral issues such as the extent that those who watch and do nothing are complicit in a crime. David constantly reminds himself that he personally hasn’t physically harmed Meg, without realising that by not attempting to put a stop to the situation he is causing her the worst harm of all. The novel brings into play plenty of other disturbing questions regarding juvenile delinquency, and whether those who commit crimes as children can be held accountable for the rest of their lives, particularly when they were led astray by an authority figure.  

The Girl Next Door was a very hard book for me to review - the horrifying subject matter might make you wonder how I can say I actually like this book, but the harrowing content reinforces this novel as a brilliant work: it is thought provoking, well written, disturbing and emotional. Since you view events from David’s point of view, Ketchum places you right in the front seat, forcing you to witness the torturous abuse, and making you truly hate Ruth and her sons, as well as others who eventually get involved. It makes you feel angry and extremely sad; the events which transpire will break your heart. I have never felt such strong emotions reading a novel before, and after finishing it I felt completely drained and exhausted. The story affected me deeply and had me thinking about it for weeks; never before have I come across such a powerful work. It is a very difficult book to recommend, but it is definitely worth reading if you have the strength to make it through.

Rating: 9/10

My other Jack Ketchum reviews:
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