Review: Charles Dickens’ Five Novels

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: January 1 to 31, 2014
Read count: 1

This leather-bound Dickens collection is a must-have for any Dickens fan and any fan of Victorian England. It looks great on the shelf, especially next to those other leather-bound classics, if you have any. The stories included are: A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist.

Every time I reread Dickens, the experience is not so much like reading, but being lectured by a stuffy English prof. on the inner workings of Victorian England. Of course the extensive details and social commentary are necessary. I just don’t think there’s room for them in a novel. Essays? Yes. Letters? Sure. Biographies? Absolutely. But a novel? Maybe in the introduction section. Maybe.

It was while reading Great Expectations in high school when I realized I didn’t like Dickens’ particular style of writing; there were too many words per every point made. While I liked his stories overall (still do like them), I didn’t (still don’t) like his way of telling a story. It’s too blunt, too on the nose. It makes his motives too obvious to the reader. I prefer subtly in storytelling and stories that aren’t so adamant in “teaching society a lesson.” But I gotta hand it to Dickens though. No classic lit. author could tell a story of street smarts, excess wealth, hardship, and destitution quite like he did.

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Review: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: January 22 to 27, 2014
Read count: 1

This is a book for book clubs, which is fine since it’s advertised as such and even got a stamp from Oprah herself. What I like about that is it doesn’t lead you to believe it’s anything other than a book written to be discussed in book clubs. I like to call them “book club bait” because book clubs just love ’em.

The story is about a WWI veteran, his wife, a lighthouse, an infant, and some moral complications following the couple’s decision to keep the child and raise her as their own. The veteran, Tom, marries a young woman, Isabel, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, on the tip of Antarctica, south of Australia. The scenery and life on the island are described in lovely flowing language that takes on a sweeping effect that’s so often found in turbulent historical fiction romances. The only thing steering this story away from becoming another sweeping romance is infertility. Tom and Isabel have trouble conceiving and suffer through many miscarriages which leave them childless. The truly crushing thing here is they are on an island in the middle of the ocean with only each other for comfort. What follows is lovely flowing language about isolation, desolation, melancholia, and ultimately hopelessness. Isabel spends much of this period weeping, and Tom spends all of it trying to console her.

Just when all hope seems lost, a “miracle” happens in the form of a boat washing up on the beach carrying a dead man and a living child. They name the infant Lucy, and together they become a family. Every few years, the couple return to the mainland to visit friends and family and gather news of the world. This year they bring Lucy along only to find out that she has a mother, stricken with grief and madness, who still searches for her and her dead father. And issues of debatable morality ensue.

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Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: February 01 to 10, 2012
Read count: 1

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This was my first full-length Gaiman novel, and it was OK. Well, it started out OK, then became interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying near the end. I think I was expecting a… better ending, something that’s more in line with Gaiman’s short stories but on a grander scale.

With all the hype surrounding this book, I originally thought there was something in it that’s widely appealing, other than Gaiman’s prose and fantastical yarns. I really thought I’d be blown away by this book because his short stories were so well done. Maybe I set the standards too high and became disappointed when the story turned out to be just OK overall. Maybe a little better than OK, maybe ‘s all right. I’m glad for the experience now that I know what a Gaiman novel is like, but still… I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The hook is certainly interesting and reels you into the story, a mythological yarn set in contemporary times, but it suffers from having an aimless main character at the center of all this fantastical chaos. Shadow Moon (yes, you read that correctly) floats aimlessly along, unattached to various unsettling things happening around him. For a guy who just learned that mythical gods exist, he took it pretty well. Then again, he just finished a stint in prison. Then again, if only he’s a little bit sharper, a little more alert, he might have sensed something not quite right or worse that he’s a pawn in a cosmic con. If only. I fail to see the point of setting up a powerful story with a desensitized main character. He not only slowed the plot down, but made most of the resolution pointless in the end. But perhaps that’s the point of it all?

The prose is impressive though. Gaiman definitely knows how to keep the narration from becoming dull or slowing down. The thing is Gaiman can write great prose–there’s no denying that. But does he pull the story together at the end? I don’t think so, this time. I enjoyed the read all the way up until the tables were turned and the final confrontation was set on a carousel. It was as if Gaiman hacked off whatever original plans he had for the ending and replaced it with a family-friendly version suitable for readers of all ages. Everything in the story was fine until the end; a familiar theme in most Gaiman books, as I’ve come to learn.

Review: Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date read: January 13 to 17, 2014
Read count: 1

After finishing this short story collection, I now understand why Elmore Leonard is considered a classic in contemporary Western. He’s a skilled writer of viable dialogues that keep his stories moving forward even when there isn’t much happening.

Leonard’s style can be described simply as punchy because it can pack a punch and punctuate a seemingly simple story with lots of undertones. His writing might look like straight-forward pulp fiction, but there’s a sense of “literary literature” in his prose. He definitely knew how to turn a phrase half-way through a sentence to change the whole atmosphere of a story.

Most, if not all, of Leonard’s characters are morally corrupt and/or understandably self-serving, with the exception of the good US Marshal Raylan Givens from the titular story “Fire in the Hole.” The good Marshal is a light contrast to the criminal figures he deals with in that he has a conscience, but assumes the persona of someone who doesn’t. At first glance, it can seem unsettling to see him playing along with outlaws because you, the reader, can’t figure out where his loyalties lie. As the story unfolds, however, Givens’ motives and intentions become a little clearer with each encounter with another character, which is usually an outlaw. This is a running theme in Leonard’s writing. You don’t know, upon first introduction, what each character in the story represents until you read further.

There’s a subtle, simmering sense of something (unintended alliteration) not quite right in each of Leonard’s short story that’s sometimes a little on the violent side–violent in the sense of tense atmosphere, not bloodshed. The prose, dialogue, and characterization all take after the atmosphere and have a tense undercurrent running through them which heighten the plots’ progression.

The criminal figures and lawmen featured in Leonard’s stories are familiar and somewhat staples of the crime fiction genre. What separates Leonard’s characters from those of his peers’ is his handling of moving dialogue. His dialogue actually moves the plot forward, and a lot can be resolved in a passing conversation between an outlaw and a deputy. Leonard is Old West crime fiction in its most interesting contemporary form.

Western is not my preferred genre, and I don’t often read crime fiction unless it’s interjected into sci-fi/fantasy. With that said, I must say this collection of Leonard’s stories is a satisfying read.

Those who’ve seen the TV series “Justified,” based on the character of Raylan Givens, will find the story “Fire in the Hole,” which is also the name of the pilot episode, very familiar. The events in this story set off the series and reignite Givens’ clash with the opportunistic Crowder clan, just like in the short story. The first season follows Leonard’s writing, and the rest of the series afterward, while staying true to Leonard’s creations, veer off into new story arcs by introducing new “victims” and “villains” for the good Marshal and friends to deal with. Raylan Givens in the show is younger and more charismatic than Raylan Givens in the story, who is rougher around the edges and isn’t as articulate. Overall, though, I think Justified’s showrunners have done Leonard’s stories justice by incorporating Leonard’s unique, yet realistic setting and atmosphere into the show.

Some thoughts RE: Gone Girl (the movie)

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(Cover and article can be found here)

I have a few concerns about casting and the age difference between the two leads, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

This question has been asked before by numerous people more articulate than me regarding the newest Batman.

  • Isn’t Ben Affleck too… Ben Affleck to play [insert any leading male role here]? In this case, it’s Nick Dunne.

Now on to the age difference.

  • Isn’t Rosamund Pike a bit young to play Amy Dunne against Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne?

(Review of book can be found here)

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Review: Eragon (Inheritance Cycle, #1) by Christopher Paolini

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Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: August, 2011
Read count: 1

Flimsy knockoff

*cough* might as well be plagiarism *cough*

You know that insult, falling off the ugly tree and hitting every ugly branch on the way down? Well, this book fell off the cliche tree and hit every single over-done and beaten-to-death cliche on the way down and then it landed in plagiarism. Every cliche or trope in sci-fi/fantasy is present in all 500+ pages of this… I hesitate to call it a story. The page count may not seem like a lot, but when it’s a story or a poor mash-up of several stories you’ve read before, the read seems to go on forever.

A number of reviewers mentioned that the story is a combination of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The setting is basic high fantasy. There is an attempt to create a varied world like that of Tolkien’s; however the creatures, languages, and cultures are poorly done. The characters are so obviously the product of a teenage boy’s mind; they’re supposedly “grown-ups” who speak and behave like clueless children. The dialogues are so juvenile and awkward they made me wonder how this book ever became a movie. The “love story” is unintentionally hilarious; I saw a lot of Luke and Leia in the two love birds. (I know, I know. Ewww. But that’s only because we know they’re twins. Much later in the story.) And the overall writing is obviously that of a kid trying his hands at fantasy but ending up mimicking books and series he admired so much that it’s practically plagiarism.

Not long before I decided to read this book I saw a beautiful leather-bound box set of the Inheritance Cycle in a bookstore and thought maybe it’d be a nice gift for a young cousin who was just beginning to read chapter books. Looking back, maybe I should have gotten him the box set. It would have been his first epic fantasy adventure series, so maybe he would have enjoyed the adventure, seeing as how he’d never read epic fantasy before and wouldn’t have recognized cliches or blatant plagiarism in the writing. His lack of fantasy knowledge and deconstruction skills might have let him enjoy Eragon for what it is, trivial rehashing of other well-known sci-fi/fantasy series.

But I have this rule: never buy a book that you’ve never read for someone else, especially if that someone else is a child; only give books you think are amazing, especially to children. It took me about a month to get through Eragon, and by the time I was done, I was more than ready to burn it.

I don’t usually review books I can’t stand, other than maybe to say why I can’t stand it and why others might want to avoid it. Eragon is special though because everyone should avoid it. You’re better off reading or watching the original works from which the book is lifted. There are countless other fantasy books and series that are more worthy of your time and effort.

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Sort of related note:

As a trend, I keep seeing reviewers refer to Twilight whenever they want to make a point about how terrible a book is, but I rarely see them making references to Eragon, this equally terrible waste of paper. I’m not making excuses for Twilight, of course; it’s terrible in its own rights, but at least it’s a terrible original text (of terrible origins). Eragon is a terrible copy; a cheap knockoff, as I already said, which is arguably worse than a terrible original idea. And yet, whenever book reviews compare books of equal terrible-ness, many of them leave Eragon out of the mix. So maybe as a reminder, next time you want to point out how terrible a book is, remember to include Eragon.

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

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Rating: ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date read: December 26, 2013 to January 4, 2014
Read count: 1

This book was a Christmas present. I always make an effort to finish gift books, and I usually do because it’s the thought that counts, but this one was difficult to get through. I think it comes down to the book being not right for a reader like me, who requires historical fictions and their writers to be smart, or at least smarter than me.

If you’re a writer and you want to bring old legends and ancient creatures to contemporary times, then at least make them interesting. The least you could do is make them a little frightening and somewhat creepy because, after all, these are monsters.

Vlad Țepeș was a horrifying person when he was alive, and his legend as the Impaler is an echo and reminder of who he was. One does not “achieve” the name “the Impaler” and become a legendary monster that lives on in modern horror stories by feat of imagination alone; there’s actual history that shows the sort of bloody monarch he had been.

What Elizabeth Kostova does to Vlad Țepeș is similar to what urban fantasy writers have been doing to vampire tales in recent years: she sanitizes him by romanticizing his history and nature and presents him as a “stranger” with a huge secret living quietly among us. This is a huge disappointment to me not because it’s simple and naive, but because it brings up questions like why would he do that? what’s to gain by living among humans? Unfortunately, the story leaves me with more questions than answers, but none I’d like to explore further.

Another huge disappointment is this book could have been a great contemporary horror story or even as urban legend, and maybe in the hands of a stronger writer who understands suspense and thriller, it would have been something chilling. The problem lies in the focus of the book being on research and setting up events for a Dracula figure that isn’t even a little bit intimidating. I think that’s what bothers me most, that it’s an attempt to bring Dracula to contemporary times, but the elements of horror and suspense are missing, and so the result is a long-winded lackluster tale about unraveling family histories.

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