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Monday, 20 February 2017

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like many people, I read The Great Gatsby as a set text for my classes in English. And while it didn't have the impact on me that books like The Outsider, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. So, while browsing the shelves at the independent bookshop that has parted me from more of my money than I would like to admit, I noticed a book that combined F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seemed like a good way to look into more of his works. Plus, I have a fondness for the Roaring Twenties, so what could go wrong?


This Side of Paradise follows Amory Blaine, the only son of wealthy parents, from his early adolescence to young adulthood, a period of time that covers his time at Princeton, fighting in the First World War, and several love affairs with beautiful but unattainable women.
If you're a dedicated reader of any kind, it sometimes occurs that you are hit with the unassailable certainty that you are reading the first piece of long-form writing that the author has published. Oftentimes this is due to some part of the construction being noticeably unpolished, and after a lot of practice I have found that the feeling is very rarely wrong. It was certainly on the money with This Side of Paradise.
Normally I would split the critique of plot and character, but since there is no plot beyond "How is Amory developing as a character?" it feels redundant splitting the two elements, as I would ultimately be parroting back the same issues with both. My issues with Amory then. Despite reading about almost nothing but him and his personality for over 200 pages, I don't think that there is much to actually pin down about him besides the impressively hard-wired traits intellectual arrogance and fay selfishness. The narrative desperately wants you to think that he is brilliant but flawed, but quite honestly there is so little human warmth in him that all of his poetic ambitions seem hilariously out-of-touch considering that you need to be able to feel things in order to express them. Honestly, it feels kind of embarrassing having Amory as a lead character, as he doesn't seem to have either the drive to do the great things that he sort of assumes that he will inevitably achieve or the emotional range to be quite the ladykiller that he proves to be. The nagging feeling that Amory was based on Fitzgerald himself somehow just makes this worse. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that I've found an author stand-in character that actually works.
So, despite the emotional lack of depth and the plot that gets less and less defined the more Amory puts off making actual adult decisions, I would say that there is something that prevents This Side of Paradise from being a complete waste. The actual writing itself. While there are long stretches where it does little more than adequately depict the events of the book, you do get flashes of really interesting writing that makes you realise why people really loved this book when it was first published. It's things like changing the format from prose to script for certain romantic sections, or a particularly striking line of prose, and you get that whoever wrote This Side of Paradise is going places, even if he isn't there yet.

This Side of Paradise is quite obvious as a first novel as you read it. The act of following Amory Blaine is an effort that doesn't really pay off, as the plot can only be interesting when he actually has some kind of direction in life, which is seldom. There are moments of brilliance in the writing though, so some definite promise to save it from being a totally wasted effort. 3/5

Next review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Around the Moon by Jules Verne

So last time I was looking at From the Earth to the Moon and found myself pleasantly surprised despite the dodgy 19th century science. Presumably then I would be similarly taken with its direct sequel, Around the Moon, right? Yeah, about that.... 


Around the Moon follows Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan as they journey to the moon in their projectile. All seems well, until they realise that they have been knocked off course and may miss the moon entirely. 
As a lot of my previous review covers suspension of disbelief, I will quickly address how Around the Moon compares in that regard. It is so much worse. While I could kind of wave away a lot of the previous installment with the sentiment that the principle is more or less sound, when almost the entire plot focuses around the characters noting down their observations of the moon, or what the 19th century thought the moon would be like, it is extremely difficult to ignore or wave all the ways that this is wrong. Like the point where they open a window in order to dispose of an animal carcass into the vacuum of space. It is points like that that make the suspension of disbelief so much more difficult this time around. If you can deal with imaginative departures from fact, then you may find this less distracting than I did. 
Now to the part that is special to Around the Moon when compared to its predecessor. The action, bar the last few chapters, all takes place within the confines of the projectile fired at the end of the previous installment. Now, when you have a story occur in entirely one place, your writing skills are pushed to the limit, especially if none of the characters can leave said place. There are two things that need to work near enough perfectly for such a situation to work: the pacing and the characters. To say that Verne dropped the ball may be an understatement. In regards to the pacing, it kind of settles on a slow trudge due to most of the action being the observation of the moon and space. There are a couple of points where the projectile is almost hit by asteroids, but there's nothing that the protagonists can do in the face of it, so it doesn't really stop the monotony of watching a huge deal. As such, the characters become even more important, and it couldn't have been a bigger catastrophe if it tried. Of the three main characters, two are flat caricatures of the practical American stereotype that Verne seems to love, and even their supposed intelligence is put to question considering that they only consider how they are meant to get back to Earth once they are well past the Earth's atmosphere. They are nothing compared to the irritation that is Ardan though. You know in some series you get those characters that are meant to be charmingly whimsical but end up being a vacant ninny infatuated with their own stupidity? Michel Ardan is that character. He keeps suggesting things that are blatantly ridiculous or dangerous for them to do whilst on the journey, only to moan that his travel companions are too practical and boring when they inevitably poke holes in his ideas. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that he would ignore them at the point where he wondered what it would be like to float along in the wake of the projectile. By all means Ardan, throw yourself into the icy vacuum of space, it will be the most use you've been all trip, especially after sneaking a flock of chickens on board for no real reason. 

While From the Earth to the Moon was a fun thought exercise where human ingenuity causes something amazing, Around the Moon was the space equivalent of setting out on a journey only to realise you only have fuel for a one-way trip and everyone left their money at home. Sorely disappointing. 1.5/5 

Next review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

When you have a fondness for steampunk as I have, two authors above all others are cited as influences on the sub-genre: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The former brings the influence of technology as a springboard for great advancement and adventure, whilst the latter brings the more socially aware aspect of science fiction to the genre. As such, it's a little embarrassing that until now, I had read neither of their works. Seeking to fix that for at least half of these important writers, I picked up a collection of From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon by Jules Verne. And at the halfway point, how does the writing stand? 


From the Earth to the Moon follows the Baltimore Gun Club, a collection of men known and respected throughout the United States for their innovations in the field of firearms and artillery. But, with the American Civil War over, their golden era appears to be coming to an end, as there is no need for overpowered cannons until war breaks out again. At their lowest point though, the club president, Barbicane, presents an idea for an experiment that will test the Gun Club's credentials: they will attempt to build a cannon powerful enough that you could send a projectile to the surface of the moon. And with that announcement, a furore spreads across America and the world. 
This is a rather strange book to read, for several reasons. The first thing that I will mention though is the focus of the narrative. It isn't the firing of the projectile to the moon, which happens less than 20 pages before the end of the book. The actual narrative focuses on the process of making the cannon and the projectile in the first place, with the moon-based shenanigans presumably taking place in Around the Moon. As such, it does feel weirdly paced, as this is the sort of prep work that books usually condense down to a paragraph or two at most. In From the Earth to the Moon, that prep work is pretty much the whole story, with chapters dedicated to steps such as: consulting with astronomers when the best time to fire said projectile would be when dealing with the moon's elliptical orbit, appealing for funding from overseas, and the process by which the cannon is forged, to name but a few. It's bizarre to read, but not necessarily a bad thing. You don't usually get into the world-building in quite such detail, and it is an interesting change from the norm. 
The problem with going into details is that from the perspective of the modern reader, whose concept of space travel is probably vastly different to that of a contemporary reader of Verne's, is that when the dodgy science turns up, it's a heck of a lot more noticeable. This isn't necessarily so obvious in the first half or so, where the intent is more or less to just shoot the moon to see if they can. When the French adventurer Ardan comes along insisting to be part of the experiment though, it becomes an attempt to send people onto the moon via the projectile. At that point, the suspension of disbelief becomes significantly harder, sometimes to the point of unintentional humour. They pack a year's worth of food rations but only enough water to last them a little more than the journey's expected length, because of course the moon has water on the surface. At some points it becomes a struggle to stop trying to figure out which part of their ridiculous plan will kill them first. In addition, there are some non-scientific points where the narrative takes a turn for the weirdly funny, again probably not intentionally. My personal favourite is where the three adventurers have to break it to the overly excitable secretary of the Gun Club that they won't have room for a fourth person on the voyage, only for the narrator to mention that the three men will be accompanied by a Setter and a Newfoundland. A Newfoundland is pretty much a tame bear, and Setters aren't that much smaller. 
But, while it is difficult to take seriously at times, I still couldn't help but enjoy reading it. Ignoring the unintentional laughs, it was nice to read some science fiction that wasn't about someone attempting to undo some great evil wrought through maliciously-applied science or some new technology going terribly wrong. Here, it was the process by which someone took a concept that seemed far-fetched at best, and by applying the best of what science understood at the time, achieved something fantastic. The science may be out-of-date, but the boundless enthusiasm for the endeavours of the human spirit is something of a breath of fresh air. 

The science behind the project is absolutely ludicrous at times, but considering that From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, over a century before a moon landing was even remotely successful, then you can forgive it somewhat. If you can overlook the massive holes in logic and physics, then you have a book that documents a group of people trying to do what no-one has attempted before, and the concept of their failing is never even considered. There's something about that positivity that makes this endearing, where normally the plot-holes would annoy me more. 3.5/5 

Next review: Around the Moon by Jules Verne. 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

After a good dose of depressing Russian literature, I was in the mood for something a bit more comforting. As such, here comes another Discworld review! It was going to happen eventually, especially with my husband encouraging me to pick up the series again. 


As a young boy, the prince of Djel is sent to Ankh-Morpork in order to learn how to be an assassin, and possibly earn back some of the money that their ancestors spent on building pyramids. Upon completing his assassin training, the prince Teppic is called back to his home country to take on the role of King. In attempting to be a good and progressive monarch though, he is foiled at every turn by the traditional High Priest Dios. And in the necropolis, the pyramid that is being built for his father's mummified body is starting to cause strange, possibly quantum, phenomena. 
I found Pyramids to be kind of average actually. Now don't get me wrong, Pratchett is his usual very funny self, with some truly awful names cropping up and barely a page going by without the writing eliciting a laugh or a smile of some kind. And there is a lot about it that is quite clever and interesting in regards to the world-building. I just can't get excited by the main character. I really wanted to like Teppic, and in the first part of the book I honestly thought that he could be a quirky main character who would be a joy to follow. I mean, his first appearance is him getting ready for the final exam that will allow him to join the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork; having strapped on everything that he can think of to help him, he falls over from the sheer weight of it. The parts where Teppic gets to show off his assassin skills are by far the best part of it, but for maybe two thirds of the narrative he doesn't get to use it. Instead he sits around while his country is run without him even being necessary, which, while frustrating in-character for him as well, isn't exactly what I was hoping for out of a main character. In addition, it means that when he clashes with Dios, to the point where the High Priest is actively threatening to kill him, the fact that Teppic doesn't automatically go to kill his obstacle is kind of bizarre. I suppose that there may be some Assassin Guild code that I'm missing involving only inhuming people under certain circumstances, but even so. What's the point of making the main character an assassin if he never actually inhumes anyone directly? 

Overall, kind of average for Pratchett, but that's still quite a bit better than most other people's average. It's a stand-alone novel within the wider Discworld series, so possibly a good one to start with or see if you like Pratchett's style. And of course, if you're looking to read all of the Discworld series, then you can hardly leave this one out. 3.5/5 

Next review: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So my last experience with Dostoyevsky was not brilliant to say the least. But I still had just under half of the book left to go, so there seemed little reason to abandon The Gambler just yet. In any case, the subject matter of gambling looked to be less dry than The House of the Dead, so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a total waste.


The Gambler follows a tutor by the name of Alexey Ivanovitch as he accompanies the family that he works for to a German spa town. Whilst there, he is witness to the damage that roulette can do to a family, eventually falling prey to it himself. Combined with his unhealthy passion for his employer's beautiful but cruel step-daughter, Alexey finds himself succumbing to a mania that overrules all other interests.
If there had been no names listed with these novels, I would never have guessed that The House of the Dead and The Gambler were written by the same person. Whereas the former was dry and poorly constructed, The Gambler is clear and engaging. The fact that the majority of the plot is the kind of social backstabbing that I love was a real bonus. It's not quite the quality that you can find in books like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it's still entertaining to watch everyone desperately making plans around money that might or might not be available. The protagonist Alexey isn't really likeable or unlikeable, but that's not such a huge problem in this kind of plot. The only thing that I would criticise is that the plot itself is a bit on the simple side, but that's made up for by the characters, the scheming and the engaging description of gambling addiction.

The far superior novel in this collection, The Gambler is a fascinating look at the dangers of gambling, as well as the kind of social scheming that I'm a great fan of. Perhaps a bit simple at times, but well constructed and engaging. 4/5

Next review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If you have any interest in reading the classics, then Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a name that will eventually come to your attention. The problem in trying to pick up his work is that most of his well-known works seem to be roughly equivalent to a breeze block in size. As such, when I found a book that was a collection of two of his lesser known works, The House of the Dead and The Gambler, I thought that this might be a good place to start with.


The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Russian penal system. Taking inspiration from the four years of hard labour that Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia, the plot follows Alexandr Petrovich Goryanchikov after he is arrested for murdering his wife.
If I were to sum up this book into one overarching impression, the word "meandering" comes to mind. And when you're writing something that is supposed to be criticism of your country's penal system, slow and considerate is sometimes not the most effective way to express your concerns. The writing itself is decent enough, but when the subject keeps changing track whenever the narrator has a new train of thought it becomes difficult to form a definitive picture of what happens when. Additionally, the narrator will go into great detail about certain prisoners several chapters before their presence actually becomes important, so it gets interesting trying to remember exactly which of the largely faceless horde the narrative is referring to. And it really bugs me that this is the case. As I said before, the writing is good, but it's brought down by the mild tone and seeming inability to tell the story in chronological order. If it could focus more, then it could have been a truly powerful and striking narrative. As it is, The House of the Dead is interesting, but very slow-going and ultimately a bit lacking in bite. There did also seem to be a bit of internal inconsistency as it would appear that the main character is later referred to as a political prisoner, which conflicts with the assertion that he was arrested for murder. Not that his crime actually makes any actual difference to the narrative, so it isn't necessarily a huge issue.

Overall, The House of the Dead was a bit on the disappointing side. For something that was inspired by his own imprisonment, I had hoped for something with a bit more passion. What I got was a meandering, timeless mess of recollections that left practically no impression whatsoever. The writing was good, but if the structure isn't there, then it leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5/5

Next review: The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Along with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, my fiance has been rather forcefully recommending that I get around to reading Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Fond as I am of him and willing as I would have been to take a look because of that, I had already been intending to read the Dresden Files as I had tried and failed to read Storm Front at least three times before I got to it this time. Nothing was going to stop me this time.


The main protagonist of Storm Front, Harry Dresden, is something of an oddity in his home city of Chicago. He is an openly practicing wizard, even going so far as to advertise his services in the local phone directories. While most of the people who call his office do so to find out if he's serious or not, he does indeed have some magical skill. So when he is called in by the police to consult on a grisly double murder, it means that something is profoundly unnatural about the whole situation. Having started investigating the crime, he finds that whoever is behind the crime doesn't want him to get any further, and they won't pull any punches in trying to impede his search.
I honestly have no idea why I couldn't previously finish Storm Front. There wasn't a single thing about this book that I disliked.
First, the main protagonist. Harry seems quite the likeable main lead, with an unusually grim backstory that we have only so far gotten hints of. He's very much an old fashioned gentleman type of character, willing to let his adversaries play fair before going in seriously, which is nice if occasionally frustrating. There are a few side characters introduced that I could see being quite important later on in the series, Karrin Murphy, Gentleman Johnny Marcone and Susan Rodriguez in particular, but because of the way that the plot proceeds it does become something of a one-man show. As such, I suppose it's a good thing that his character is so strongly written. Admittedly, I will say that his bad luck with women seems to be a bit arbitrary considering that from what the reader is shown, there isn't really anything that strikes me as obviously repelling about his personality. As such the vaguely romantic stuff does seem a bit out of place and not as confident really. I hope that he stays single for the rest of the series, because romance does not at the moment appear to be Butcher's forte.
As for the plot, it's a pretty solid crime story with a fantasy twist. While I wish that I could have learnt a bit more about where the magic in this universe stems from, so that I could get a better picture of what is and isn't possible for one wizard to achieve, I thought that what was included was pretty solid. Mostly it was stuff fairly familiar from European ideas of magic throughout history, things like the power of true names and casting spells using a person's hair or blood, but then the whole thing seemed to come together well enough that there wasn't much that needed reinventing. In particular I liked the potion-making scene, where the ingredients are more vehicles for symbols of what the potion should do than a specific recipe. I thought that was a nice touch. Additionally, I liked the hints of things that have yet to become important in the series. I'm told that some of these things get extra explanation and context, so I'll be looking forward to that.

A great start to a series, all things considered. Storm Front does well by creating a likeable protagonist and loading his world with all kinds of interesting magic that I am keen to learn more about. The writing does get a little clunky with regards to Harry's relationship to women and romance, so I'm hoping that further into the series Butcher either gets better at it or just abandons the romantic angle altogether. More than happy to recommend the series to fantasy readers or crime fans willing to suspend their disbelief a little further. 4.5/5

Next review: The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,
Nisa.