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

Friday, 26 July 2013

Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

On an insufferably hot day in secluded Elkwood, Claire Lambert stumbles half-blind, battered and severely bloodied towards the road in search of help. She is the sole survivor of a vicious attack by a family of backwoods cannibal lunatics who have claimed the lives of her friends and boyfriend. Luke - a member of the cannibal Merrill clan - witnesses Claire’s roadside rescue, and now he has to answer to his menacing parents: murderous and mad Papa-in-Grey and stinking, repulsive Momma-in-Bed - his failure to recapture their prey holds tremendous consequences. Claire, back home and on the mend but gravely traumatised, cannot rest until she returns to Elkwood to exact grisly vengeance on the family who murdered those close to her.

Kin is not your average cannibal story; it begins after all of the grisly events have transpired, and instead focuses on the aftermath of trauma: the haunting memories, the guilt of survival, and the intense hunger for revenge which inevitably leads Claire down a dark and dangerous path.

A further aspect of Kin that breathes life into the cannibal story is the rotation of perspectives. We have Claire’s perspective and that of other characters such as her rescuers, but most interestingly, those of her tormenters. Burke allows us inside the heads of the villains, and we realise they are not all they seem. Luke, in particular, is not inherently evil and has been moulded into the role of hunter by his grotesque parents; I almost felt sorry for him as it becomes clear that he and his siblings are as much subject to the terrifying whims of his father as the holidaymakers whom they track and hunt. 

Despite Burkes original take on the somewhat stale cannibal genre and the positives I have outlined, for me something was lacking from Kin and I was left feeling underwhelmed after I’d finished reading. It didn’t excite me; the side characters are a little dull and whilst I found the parts focused on the Merrill family to be the most interesting and insightful, these sections are not as regular as I’d have liked. Nonetheless Burke’s innovative twist on the red-neck cannibal story is refreshing and clever, and the novel has plenty of sick, twisted and disturbing moments for me to comfortably recommend Kin to any horror fan. 

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.”

Coraline is a horror/fantasy novella about the eponymous Coraline; an adventurous and curious young girl who stumbles upon a mysterious and terrifying other world through a locked door in her family’s flat. Coraline’s parents are kindly but busy people, who are much too preoccupied with work to entertain their inquisitive and exploratory daughter. She amuses herself by adventuring among the trees and flowers of her garden, but on a rainy day, with the garden off limits, Coraline decides to explore every nook and cranny of their flat. She discovers a door that when unlocked, has nothing but a solid brick wall behind it; however the next time Coraline opens it she finds that the wall has disappeared and has been replaced with a dark, foreboding tunnel. When she ventures inside the mysterious passage, she discovers a world on the other side very similar to her own, but with small, disturbing differences - for one, everyone has large, shiny black buttons in place of their eyes. With the help of a sardonic, talking black cat, when Coraline discovers that her ‘other mother’ has kidnapped her real parents, she must save them and free the ghosts of the previous children the ‘other mother’ has trapped in the other world. Can Coraline defeat this disturbing contortion of her parent before buttons are sewn onto Coraline’s own eyes, and she is trapped in the other world forever? 

Coraline is a dark, creepy and imaginative children’s story; the horror elements are strong and some of the imagery is quite terrifying; particularly the emotionless, black button eyes. The prose is endearing; it reads like a modern day fairy tale, and is written in a simplistic manner in order to capture Coraline’s childish way of thinking and speaking. The narrative voice is not Coraline’s, but rather is a third person perspective; however we are only told about Coraline’s thoughts and feelings, so she is very much the focus. Coraline herself is a commendable protagonist: she is self-reliant, independent, adventurous and brave yet at the same time is frightened, doubtful, and unsure. Gaiman captures her youthful naiveté and fear with expertise. 

And so we have it: after my disappointments with Stardust and The Graveyard Book, I have found a Gaiman novel that I love. Coraline is strange and scary, with a charming writing style, a persistent atmosphere of spookiness, and a host of entertaining sub-characters, such as Coraline’s eccentric neighbours. Coraline is a character to be admired and adored, and her ally - the talking cat - injects some humour into Coraline’s terrifying predicament. The story also has a lovely message about bravery and overcoming monsters - those of fairy-tales and real life:

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Much like The Graveyard Book is in numerous ways a macabre version of The Jungle Book, Coraline is a twisted, dark version of my childhood favourite Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Coraline is a delightfully dark story that adults will love as much as the children for whom it was written.

Rating: 9/10

My other Neil Gaiman reviews:

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is at its core a gothic romance, but also something of an autobiography of the eponymous heroine. Jane is an orphan with a fiery, independent spirit who has been sent to live with her cruel Aunt and bullying, abusive cousins. The novel follows Jane as she leaves her Aunt’s house to become a pupil and eventually a teacher at Lowood Institution, a charity school. She decides to leave Lowood after spending eight years there, and takes up the post of governess at Thornfield Hall - abode of brooding, arrogant and mysterious Edward Rochester. Just when Jane comes to think that Rochester might love her in spite of her plain looks, she discovers that he has a dangerous and bewildering secret which will shake the foundations of her new life at Thornfield...

Jane Eyre, a novel I have read several times since my first reading of it when I was 15, is a very important novel to me, and one that is close to my heart; it is my favourite book. Jane is an excellent role model, and as we watch her difficult life unfold, we cannot help but admire her strength, dignity and wisdom. The book is adept at teaching moral values and how to accept and love yourself as a person and to remain strong in the face of adversity. With regards to feminism and classicism, Jane Eyre was way ahead of its time when it was published in 1847. Jane is strong, wilful, and independent; she refuses to cow to bullying men who believe they have the right to exert power over her. She is consistently described as plain, small, poor and too passionate, but she accepts these faults and snubs others’ attempts to judge her by these ‘flaws’. 

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you - and full as much heart!”

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” 

In this way, the book is both powerful and insightful. There is a raw beauty and entrancing captivation in the novel’s romance plot, too. The love which blossoms between Jane and Rochester is not boring, flowery, or sickly sweet. The couple are faced with obstacles which are borne from Rochester’s shady and shocking past, and Jane’s fiery independence and pride which will not allow her to stay with Rochester despite that being what her heart desires. Instead, she faces homelessness and becomes a beggar, choosing this difficult life over remaining in the false comfort of Thornfield. 

The novel is written in a first person narrative by Jane, and reads like a memoir - in fact, the original title was Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is so beautiful and absorbing; it is not at all stuffy like some classics can be, but rather carries a sincere grace. The gothic ambiance pervades each page, and the descriptions of the English country and old grand houses are exquisite and haunting. This atmosphere is exemplified perfectly in a chapter near the beginning when Jane has been locked in ‘The Red Room’, a space supposedly haunted by her dead uncle:

“Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers.”

Jane Eyre is a beautiful, powerful, and brave novel which dares to present ideas which at the time were highly subversive, and boasts timeless themes of religion, class, love, rejection and self discovery. It furthermore possesses a gorgeous, poetical writing style and strong realistic and varied characters. The story is multi-layered and full of depth and tidbits of wisdom. Much can be learned from Jane - she is the most compelling character I have ever read, and I would encourage everybody to read this astounding piece of classic literature.  

Rating: 10/10

Friday, 12 July 2013

11/22/63 by Stephen King

On his deathbed, Jake Epping’s friend Al introduces him to a secret portal in his pantry which leads to 1958, and subsequently enlists Jake to prevent the JFK assassination in ’63. Jake complies, and under the alias George Amberson, he joins a cigarette-hazed world of rock ‘n’ roll and racial discrimination. As the fateful date - 11/22/63 - approaches, Jake begins his surveillance on suspected culprit of John Kennedy’s slaughter - Lee Harvey Oswald, but he also meets a beautiful librarian named Sadie. Will his new love interfere with his crucial role on 11/22/63?

First of all, a warning to those who expect 11/22/63 to be a horror novel, or similar: it’s not. Nor is it a novel much about time travel or the JFK assassination really, despite the misleading title and premise. It is ultimately a romance novel; at least, it is once Jake finally meets Sadie, about 300 pages in. This can be good or bad, depending on you, but for me this was a big negative. Up until Sadie’s entrance, 11/22/63 is a lot of nothing, with a little time travel, and a lot of references to King’s other novels, which fans are likely to enjoy, as I did. Most notable are references to It: some of the novel is set in Derry, and Jake spends several pages in a conversation with Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier in the Autumn of 1958, shortly after the events of It have taken place. Christine - the eponymous bloodthirsty ’58 Plymouth Fury - makes an appearance too.

Despite not knowing too much about American history, the premise of 11/22/63 intrigued me. It’s such a clever idea, but the time travel aspect is not explored in enough detail and feels like a wasted opportunity. The romance trumps time travel and JFK, forcing those elements into the back seat while it takes centre stage. I'm not very tolerant of overblown romance in books as a general rule, but I can enjoy it if it’s done well. Unfortunately, I did not like Jake and Sadie’s relationship: it’s very sickly sweet and cringe-worthy, for example the part when the couple first have sex:

‘“Sadie? All right?” “Ohmygodyes,” she said and I laughed. She opened her eyes and looked up at me with curiosity and hopefulness. “Is it over, or is there more?”

“A little more,” I said. “I don’t know how much. I haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”

It turned out there was quite a bit more ... At the end she began to gasp. “Oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear God, oh sugar!”’

Perhaps my biggest gripe about 11/22/63 though is the sheer size of it in comparison to the amount of interesting events; my copy is 740 pages long. The problem with Al’s time portal transporting Jake to 1958 means that he has to wait for five years until he can attempt to put a stop to the assassination; this means that not much happens for a long time, and much of what does happen is boring and not relevant to the plot. It only started to get interesting for me around the 400 page mark, but even then I wasn’t hooked. I kept reading because I wanted to know if Jake would manage to prevent the assassination in the end, and what the upshot of this would be. 

It probably sounds like I really hated 11/22/63; I didn’t, but it was certainly a disappointment. If I could pick one word to describe it, I would choose ‘frustrating’ - it is bloated, slow, and centres on a gooey love story when I wanted more on time travel and the implications of it. This aspect is highly misleading considering the title of the book and the way in which it has been marketed. Nonetheless, when the fateful day finally arrives, it is interesting, tense and action-packed, and as with all of King’s works it is well written. King had some great ideas here, but I feel he took them in the wrong direction.

Rating: 6/10  

My other Stephen King reviews:
Gerald's Game
In the Tall Grass
The Running Man