Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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I have a confession.

I love Dracula. Both the character and Stoker’s novel.

And I love vampires.

Not the sparkly, fairy, effete version populating Meyer’s asinine attempts at fiction (“Dear Dracula, do you remember that one night seventeen years ago? Well, we need to talk. Sincerely, Tinkerbell”) but full blown raging bloodlust sensual sexual visceral vampires. Buffy’s Angel and werewolves may be a tortured soul trapped in a bestial form struggling to contain their animal appetites (which has its own appeal) but a real true dyed-in-the-wool vampire revels in and relishes their evil.

The concept for this book, then, had an automatic appeal: Dracula had arrived in England; he seduced and turned Lucy Westenra who is dispatched by the forces of light comprising Arthur Holmwood, John Seward and Quincey Morris. As the forces of light attempt to track down Dracula, he turns his attention to Mina Harker. At this point, Newman’s narrative departs from Stoker’s: Dracula kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris; he seduces Queen Victoria and becomes Prince Consort; a world of vampires flocks to England to make a stab at (or to take a bite at) an openly vampiric life.

History and fiction mingle in Newman’s tale: Stoker and Van Helsing are both characters; Inspectors Lestrade and Abberline work side by side; Sherlock Holmes has been incarcerated in a ‘warm’ concentration camp; doctors Moreau and Jekyll investigate vampire physiology. Vampires from fiction abound from Lord Rothven (appropriately for the first literary vampire in Polidori’s The Vampyre now Prime Minister to less familiar names such as Kostaki, von Klatka and Count Vardalek.

As a self confessed geek, there is an undeniable delight in recognising the various recreations and re-imaginings of famous and less famous characters.

Had that been the only pleasure, though, this would have been a thin, poor novel. Fortunately, it is not the only pleasure: Newman’s story remains rooted in the final years of the nineteenth century and focusses on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Ripper’s victims, Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly remain prostitutes in Whitechapel but are now vampire prostitutes and their murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard; Queen Victoria herself; the shadowy Diogenes Club headed by Mycroft Holmes (which exists somewhere between diplomacy and warfare on behalf of the Queen); the criminal spider’s web headed by Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths, and Professor Moriarty; and the philanthropic hospital and charity of Toynbee Hall.

Our main characters are Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard. Geneviève is a four hundred year old Vampire elder who works as assistant director of the Hall under Dracula‘s Jack Seward; Charles is an agent of the Diogenes Club and, through them, the Queen. Geneviève in particular is a quite compelling character: turned at the age of sixteen and remaining in a sixteen year old body, she remains a strong moral anchor in the world. Enough of her history and powers are hinted at that she comes across as indomitable throughout the novel even though we never truly see her unleash that power. Charles Beauregard by contrast is a lesser character: mired in duty and obligation to his Queen, his fiancée and his deceased wife he is so much less confident and compelling than Geneviève.

The novel conjures up all the expected cliches of Victorian London with Hanson cabs, fogs and gas lamps yet manages to remain fresh and convincing. The addition of the vampires into the social sink of Whitechapel, where a threepenny could buy you both a roll in the hay and a blood letting, deepens the griminess of the area. One woman in a particularly unpleasant image trails the streets of Whitechapel with two children in tow (which may or may not be her own) to pimp their blood to passing vampires.

The vampires themselves are not quite the full blooded bloodsuckers I had hoped for. The magic and superstition of Dracula is stripped away, as is their antipathy to crosses and holy water and garlic. These vampires are more natural than Stoker’s: they’re still preternaturally strong, heal almost instantly from most injuries, have a various abilities depending on their bloodlines including almost psychic sensitivity to others’ thoughts or shapeshifting; sunlight can burn newly turned vampires and silver can prevent wounds from closing. It is from this silver that Jack the Ripper is dubbed Silverknife before the Ripper moniker is attached to him.

There is a wider larger plot behind the efforts to track down the Ripper but in fear of spoilers I shall not dwell on that. It did manage to take me by surprise in the final hour of the audiobook!

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So now I’ve finished, did this novel improve?

Unfortunately no!

It is entirely the fault of the narrator I think and just shows how hugely important the narrative voice is in a first person narrative. Here it is the voice of a thirteen year old boy and he just annoyed the hell out of me (and as a parent and teacher, I have quite a high threshold for teenage annoyance!)!

The episode where he stole a ute and drove into a stampede of cattle in order to save his camel left me speechless for all the wrong reasons! He needed a good slap for endangering himself, the cattle and the car. And if he told me once more that being allowed to do something adult made him feel “taller” I may have put the book on the fire!

The descriptions did improve from page 91: the descriptions of the cows being burned – reminiscent of foot-and-mouth pyres – were gruelling. But the language was almost completely bereft of adjectives or figurative language. I do accept that the choice of a down-to-earth home-educated teenage boy narrator limits the literariness of the writing but, even so!

And the obvious device of using the rain to conclude the book felt clumsy.

I also had a problem with the language here: there are many Australian slang terms littering the book but they didn’t strike me as authentic, more as if they had been shoehorned in to give a veneer of authenticity (to mix my own metaphors!). Cliche was also a difficulty here: Danny’s father seemed to speak in them which Lewis then highlighted by putting them in italics!. The rain at the end of the book, the pathetic fallacy of the deepening drought that reflects the deepening rifts within the family all struck me as cliched.

I feel I’m being unfair! This is not a bad book. I just did not gel with it. Two more on the Carnegie list to go!
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Ok, I’ll be honest, I’m not thrilled with this book. It’s set in the Australian desert in a family run cattle station, not dissimilar to that shown in Baz Luhrman’s film Australia.

It is narrated through a first person voice of Danny, the middle son who is struggling to come to terms with his older brother Johnny’s death (apparently by falling off a roof, memories of The Archers’ Nigel Pargetter spring unbidden to mind) and his sister’s pregnancy.

Actually, that seems unfair: save for a couple of conversations and references the death and pregnancy have been hardly dealt with at all. Perhaps this is because 13 year olds do deal with things by ignoring them – mine does – but it means that the book seems to do no more than recount the day to day minutiae of ranch life… and it’s really rather dull!

And descriptions seem to be lacking. The butchering of the killer could have been described in detail but is instead only obliquely referred to. Again perhaps this reflects the matter-of-fact nature of death on a cattle station. Perhaps it is a nod to the sensibilities of a young adult audience (who have a stronger stomach than this book may assume).

Perhaps I am being unfair: I am only 91 pages into it. But I’m not gripped by the narrator or the writing …

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A lovely and somehow old-fashioned adventure tale. Somehow reminiscent of Enid Blyton… As well as the plethora of games you can get now where you investigate various settings, find clues, use them to unlock new rooms…

This is a Carnegie 2012 shortlisted tale and very much aimed at the lower end of the age bracket: the main character Stuart is 10 years old and that gives a strong clue as to it’s intended audience. Some older readers may find it a little light. Personally, I started reading it at four o’clock and had finished it by nine o’clock, having made tea in the middle!

Stuart is made to move homes at the start of the summer holidays because his mother has a new job. Aside from mild annoyance, don’t expect family angst or emotional trauma from that fact! He moves to his father’s home town of Beeton: quiet, Midlands and rather dull. There he discovers that his Great Uncle was a stage magician (why wouldn’t his dad have said before?!) and had given his father a money box years before. Opening the money box, Stuart discovers a horde of old three penny pieces which then inadvertently lead him onto a trail of clues to discover his long lost secret magic workshop. There are friends made along the way; enemies thwarted; clues deciphered; perhaps even true magic discovered.

Small Change … was, I felt, a good read. Younger readers will enjoy it and I am sure there will be a number of people for whom this is the book that turned them on to reading.

A good book however demands that the reader give it time; a good book has me reaching for a pen to highlight and annotate. The margins of Small Change … are – in my copy at least – as clean as the day it left the print run!

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Just finished My Name Is Mina. Good book, interesting but I don’t think it’s a winner. It tells the story of Mina from Skellig, essentially recording her thoughts in a journal over the winter / spring before she met Michael. I have a memory of her being quite mysterious and enigmatically in Skellig and was looking forward to hearing her voice.

I have mixed feelings about it: it doesn’t feel to me like it is a prequel, more of an extended prologue to Skellig. There was something powerful in her dogged desire to be true to herself and not straitjacketed into a niche in society. There are also moments of genuine pathos… But I didn’t find her voice as compelling as I’d hoped. I also felt I’d have liked to see more of her mum: having lost her father and husband, fiercely protected her daughter, taken on her home schooling and nurtured Mina, I felt HER story would have been interesting. The moment when she is called into THE HEAD TEACHER’s office after the triumphantly disastrous SATs could have been brilliant but seemed anti climactic to me!

There are some interesting things here about education and children and creativity, all of which I personally support. I’m also glad that the anti-education system philosophy was tempered by an understanding that the teachers weren’t all bad too! The Blake references were all there as would be expected; interesting ideas about the power and playfulness of words. But for a book that purports to champion the ‘weird’, I felt it wasn’t quite weird enough…

Anyway, my next book is due and I will probably reread Skellig whilst waiting.

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16.2.2012

Just about to start this: good reviews on Goodreads and an interesting cover… All bodes well!

18.2.2012

Finding the dialogue in this book the most irksome thing. The characters seem likeable enough, the war scenes are impressively described, some of the narrative is genuinely witty and has been read out loud to my wife. But the dialogue is just jarring. The author doesn’t seem to have an ear for how people actually talk to each other! Perhaps because I’m reading The Shipping News by Annie Proulx at the same time who DOES have a GREAT ear for dialogue ….