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

Thursday, 31 October 2013

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed opens with a haunting folktale, told in the form of a bedtime story by the impoverished Saboor to his children, Abdullah and his beloved little sister Pari, of a monstrous div who visits a poor household and demands one child from the father, or it will kill all of his offspring. The child is chosen and taken away in a sack. Years later, wracked with guilt and half-mad with anguish and sorrow, the father sets out on a quest to find his son, whom he finds living in luxury at the div’s palace, much better off than he would have been living at home, and with no memory of his original family. The story serves as something of a heartbreaking allegory; it swiftly becomes a nightmarish reality for the young siblings, as shortly after the tale is told, Saboor sells his small daughter to a wealthy family in Kabul.

The novel deviates somewhat from Hosseini’s first two novels in that it does not focus on one character alone, nor is it set mostly in Afghanistan. And the Mountains Echoed is instead reminiscent of a collection of short stories as each of the nine chapters rotates in perspective and follows characters all over the globe, from Afghanistan, to Paris, California and Greece.  

All of the separate narratives are linked by the devastating event that occurs at the beginning of the novel - the brutal separation of Pari and Abdullah - which forms the foundation of the main plot.

The novel begins strongly - Hosseini’s beautiful, lilting prose eases you into the tale, telling the story with a gorgeous simplicity. The folklore story of the div made for an innovative opening, and the tragic removal of little Pari so early on was reminiscent of the shocking and tearful events of both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns; I thought this was going to have me bawling.

Nonetheless, this is where the positive aspects end. The adoption of so many different voices meant Echoed lacked the depth of character that brought his first two books alive. Since the novel does not focus as much on the plight of one character, it is not as emotionally wrought or as intricate and personal. Some of the stories felt a little unnecessary - such as the one set in Greece - which was a touch boring, seemed to come to nothing, and had little to do with the main story. All I cared about was Pari and Abdullah; I was desperate to know if they would ever find one another again, and I think Hosseini might have benefited by focusing on this a bit more, as overall the plot is not very strong. 

What’s worse, this is the only Hosseini novel which has failed to make me cry! I think this is because it lacked the subtle complexities of his other two novels, as well as a character we get to know on a personal and emotional level. It is undoubtedly a sad book, but it is not as deep, meaningful or tear-jerking as I was hoping and expecting it to be. 

If you liked Hosseini’s first two novels, don’t expect quite the same with this. I was beyond excited when I heard Khaled Hosseini was releasing a new book, and although this one is - despite my grumbling - very good, it doesn’t have the same magic and emotion which make both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns so special. It’s definitely worth your time and is a solid novel, but if you’re new to Hosseini, I would recommend trying his other books to begin with. 

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 25 October 2013

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

NOS4R2 is an intelligent, thrilling and highly imaginative supernatural horror novel, which in spite of its title has nothing to do with traditional vampires; no, Charlie Manx’s leaching power is far more sinister and insidious. Manx drives around in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith which bears the license plate NOS4R2 (a reference to the vampire of the classic 1922 German silent-film enititled ‘Nosferatu’), capturing children after murdering their families to take them to a place called ‘Christmasland’. In Christmasland, it is Christmas every day and unhappiness is against the law; it is a place that exists solely inside Manx’s head, it is his ‘inscape’. Manx traps the children there forever and ever, stealing their life to retain his youth, leaving them as empty, soulless, hook-toothed monsters.

But other people have inscapes too, such as Maggie Leigh, who can read the future in her magic Scrabble tiles and the protagonist Victoria “Vic” or “The Brat” McQueen, who uses her inscape - a magic covered bridge - to find things which are irretrievably lost on her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike. As a child Vic encounters Manx, and is the only person to ever escape the Wraith, but now Manx is on the road again; Vic is desperate to forget, but Manx has not forgotten her, and he has acquired a new target - Vic’s own son, Wayne.

In NOS4R2, Joe Hill achieved something that most would consider to be impossible - to make Christmas into a scary concept. This inversion of an archetypal Christmas is very clever and I must salute Hill for his intelligence and inventiveness. The story is incredibly well thought out and interesting, and it is actually frightening. Manx’s ability to spirit children away into his own private inscape is chilling, as it is virtually impossible to retrieve anyone from Christmasland; the evil place existing only inside Manx’s mind. The transformation of the children into creepy little demons is also horrifying and visually written. There is a particularly unnerving part when Wayne has been kidnapped and is travelling to Christmasland with Manx, his teeth falling out to make room for the hooks, and some of the things he thinks are downright disturbing:

“Wayne waved. The little girl saw him and waved back. Wow, she had great hair. You could make a rope four feet long out of all that smooth, golden hair. You could make a silky golden noose and hang her with it. That was a wild idea! Wayne wondered if anyone had ever been hung with their own hair.”

Despite the inspired and twisted nature of the story and the sharp writing style, for me the characters let this book down a little: Vic’s personality in particular prevented me from really loving NOS4R2. I understand that Hill wanted her to be troubled and to highlight the difficulties of mental health issues, but I found her to be very self-pitying, whiney and overall quite unlikeable. She is also purposefully quirky and unconventional as a protagonist - for example her love of motorbikes and the fact that she’s covered in tattoos - as though this should make her interesting, but it doesn’t. Furthermore, this sort of character has already been done in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Although the concept of Christmasland and the creepy soulless children are terrifying, the villains themselves are not very scary. In fact they sometimes act like bumbling idiots - particularly Bing, or the Gasmask man, who works for Charlie Manx. Bing is an unhinged, sociopathic individual; he uses Gingerbread flavoured gas to put the parents to sleep and then will do with whatever he pleases with their unconscious bodies until he finally decides to kill them; he constantly yearns for Manx's approval. Manx for the most part seems like a rather jovial old man - albeit one who can turn at any second; he reminds me of a fairy-tale creature who can transform from an kind elderly woman into a wicked witch at whim. He genuinely seemed to think he was doing the kids a favour by taking them away from their parents, which makes him more mad than evil; he didn’t seem to have coherent motivations.

Furthermore, the book is long - nearly 700 pages, and it feels a little padded and not very well-paced; the story spans from when Vic is a little girl in 1986 all the way to present day, which means some parts are boring and drawn out. 

NOS4R2 does not live up to Horns, but it is enjoyable, clever and inventive. The characters were mostly lacking for me - except for Wayne and his father, the superhero fanatic and horrendously overweight Lou - and it is too long. Nonetheless, NOS4R2 manages to be both a horrifying story and emotionally rich at the same time. The writing is engaging, the concept is spine-chilling, and the story is captivating.

Rating: 8/10

My other Joe Hill reviews:

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

When two pre-teen girls are found murdered and toothless in the small Missouri town of Wind Gap reporter Camille Preaker, now residing in Chicago, is sent to her home town to gain the inside scoop for her paper. Camille is reluctant to return to Wind Gap, origin of her deeply troubled past, which left her both physically and mentally scarred; due to her trauma Camille used to be a cutter, and now bears the scars of hundreds of words she gouged into herself during her youth. Even less inviting is seeing her cold, hypochondriac mother again, to whom she rarely speaks anymore, and her strange half-sister Amma, whom she barely knows. Nonetheless with her job on the line Camille returns to her mother’s Victorian mansion where she discovers that, like her, almost everyone in Wind Gap has dark secrets, and ugly scars to hide too...

After my sheer amazement with the brilliance of Gone Girl earlier this year, I could hardly wait to read another of Flynn’s novels. Sharp Objects is her debut, and although it is a good book for various reasons, it is flawed and I did not enjoy it as much as Gone Girl at all.

The characters are the highlight of the novel; everyone is nasty and disturbed, they are creepy and complicated, and you want to know more about them; even as you want to know less about them. Camille is an ugly and damaged character - refreshing traits for a protagonist. There is something very unhealthy and almost dirty about this book; a miasma of vileness hangs over it and the novel revels in the dark side of humankind. The writing is surgically executed and hooks you in, whilst the story is focused and stays on target, never meandering or leaving you wondering where the hell you are.

However, although Sharp Objects is dark and edgy - an aspect I like - it sometimes tries way too hard to be unique by using this almost Chuck Palahniuk level of darkness and weirdness. As such, it ends up being a bit too odd and disgusting in parts. Furthermore, behind the murk of hideous secrets, murder, drugs, abuse and mental health issues, Sharp Objects is really just an average thriller, with a very predictable outcome, and no interesting plot turns.

Sharp Objects is a book with numerous positives, but remove the pervading dark tone and you are left with a straight-forward, predictable plot. It is worth a read and I did enjoy it, but Flynn accomplishes so much more in her latest work, the thrilling and highly unpredictable Gone Girl.

Rating: 6/10

My other Gillian Flynn reviews:

Friday, 11 October 2013

How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a 28 page story which parodies the awkwardness and confusion of teen life - more specifically, learning to talk to the opposite sex, who seem so alien to us at this confusing age - with a sci-fi/horror twist.

Two teenage boys - one exuding a cool confidence, and the other full of nerves - head out to attend a house party, where they hope to chat up some girls. They accidentally attend the wrong party however, and when they start to work their magic on the girls there, it seems that something is not quite right...

This story is amusing, endearing and very clever; Gaiman’s writing is flawless and perfectly captures the essence of the characters’ youth, naivete and inexperience. It is a rare sort of tale, managing to be both disturbing and poignant at the same time, and can either be taken very literally in order for it to be read as a full blown science fiction story, or it can just as easily be taken on a figurative level to render it realistic.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties can be found in Gaiman’s collection ‘Fragile Things’, the entirety of which I have not yet read. I downloaded this story for free as an ebook promoting Gaiman’s new publication, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I don’t think it is available on its own anymore; but if you can get hold of it I would recommend it.

Rating: 7/10

My other Neil Gaiman reviews:

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Scary Fucking Stories by D. F. Noble

Scary Fucking Stories is a collection of short horror tales which started out quite strongly but ultimately failed to really “fucking scare” me. The foreword was gripping and a lot of the stories began wonderfully, the author managing to create both a creepy atmosphere and an air of distinct dread. However, the endings of most stories were abrupt and anticlimactic, as well as some being rather predictable. Furthermore, the outlandish title of the collection is misleading and much too extreme for the stories contained within, which are somewhat tame; with a title like this I expected a truly horrifying, trashy gorefest.

An unusual aspect of this collection - and one I didn’t really understand - is the interludes in which Noble addresses the reader directly. In ‘Contact Schematic’, we are informed about a psychic experiment involving lots of mirrors which we are warned not to attempt if prone to panic attacks, mental illness, or if you are faint of heart. At the end Noble asks that if you do attempt the experiment to email your experiences to him. I couldn’t tell if he was in earnest or if it was just another little story - albeit a very odd one. These segments seemed out of place and I remain unsure of what to make of them.

This is a fairly decent compilation of scary stories, with some sound writing and several inventive ideas; but the endings lack substance, failing to deliver scares, and for the most part it will probably not inspire much terror in hardened horror fans.

Rating: 6/10