Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: 'Midnight Crossroad' by Charlaine Harris

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It's a pretty standard dried-up western town.  There's a pawnshop (where someone lives in the basement and runs the store during the night). There's a diner (although those folk who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there's new resident: Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he's found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own).

If you stop at the one traffic light in town, then everything looks normal. But if you stay a while, you might learn the truth...


Review

Just before I started this blog back in 2010, I spent a couple of months binge reading the Southern Vampire series. I read all of the books that had been released at the time pretty much back to back and (although I actually haven't read the last two books yet) reading new instalments was like comfort reading. So when I got offered the chance to be one of the first to read the first book in a brand new series, I just couldn't resist. I've been reading pretty slowly since I've been busier at work but, just like the exploits of the residents of Bon Temps did a few years ago, the exploits of the residents of Midnight had me hooked.

I read Midnight Crossroad in less than a week, which, compared to my pace before that, is blistering.  I don't know what it is about Harris' writing but there is something about the way she tells a story that I find unbelievably easy to get tangled up in.  This series is more subtle than the Southern Vampire series and, rather than marching right up to you and grabbing for your attention with raunch and gore, sort of sneaks up and before you know it, it's past your bedtime and you're still turning the pages.  Or, in my case, you're scrambling through the last pages sat in your car and desperately trying to finish it before you really do have to go to work!

I haven't read any of Charlaine Harris' other series (although this has reminded me that I probably should...) so a lot of the cameo appearances from characters from those series passed me by a little bit.  Much though I'm kind of sad that I didn't get to play the character spotting game and might have spoiled a couple of other books for myself but mostly I'm pleased that I got to read about these characters in Midnight. The town has a nice, kind of warm feel to it, even while everybody is making such a big deal about keeping themselves to themselves.  They're what keep the story going and really what made it one that I wanted to keep coming back to.  When I think about it, it was the characters that kept me reading the Southern Vampire series long after I was really interested in what was happening to them so maybe that's where the magic happens in Harris' series.  Go into this if you want something with a whiff of magic and paranormal, sarcastic talking animals, political gangs and fledgling witches but not so much if you want an innovative plot or mind-bending mystery.

One minor criticism that may well just be because I'm British but there was something about the names that I found a bit off-putting at first.  I don't care how many descriptions of someone's athletic physique, bronzed skin and pearly white smile you include, if you call a character Bobo, there is no way I am going to be able to think of him seriously as an object of desire.  It just wasn't working for me, even among the funkier range of names in Midnight...it's tiny now that I've written it out but it bugged me while I was reading it so there we are.

So I liked Midnight Crossroad well enough. It's fun, there are plenty of secrets and a few twists but there's still something lacking on the mystery side. I preferred the sides of the story that were about the residents and their hesitant relationships but there was something a bit lacklustre on the whodunnit side.  I say that but I didn't see the ending coming and I really did have to know the ending by the time I got to it so maybe I should give it more credit.  Either way, the characters are pretty great and the whiff of the supernatural was a nice change from some of the more in your face series. I didn't care about the murder and I wasn't really bothered who'd committed it (and wasn't really that sold on the big reveal after I knew the 'who' part) but the getting there was enjoyable enough.

Overall:  If you were a fan of the Southern Vampire series or any of Harris' other series (I'm guessing there...), I probably don't need to tell you to pick up her latest.  It was good to get to enjoy Harris' writing again without the angst of the later outings of Sookie Stackhouse and the series is one I'd try again, mainly because I'm intrigued to see if it keeps on the mystery path or heads more in the paranormal direction.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 08 May 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review - thanks, Gollancz!
Genre: Mystery; Paranormal
Pictured edition published: by Gollancz London in May 2014

Midnight Crossroad was published in hardback and eBook format on May 6th!  Fancy a cheeky peek at the first four chapters?  Head HERE!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Game of Thrones Confession

When I sat down to my ever-increasing list of books that I need to review, I saw that A Clash of Kings was next up and felt a little bit stumped.  When I read the first in the series, I enjoyed it but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was that made George R. R. Martin’s series the acceptable face of fantasy.  For a while, it was rare to get on a train and not encounter someone putting their wrists in mortal peril and reading one of the Song of Ice and Fire tomes.  It’s still a fairly frequent occurrence, although the initial flurry does seem to have died down a little.  All of which is why, as someone who would list ‘fantasy’ as one of my favourite genres to read, I find it strange that, instead of writing a review and a glowing recommendation of a new favourite series that I’m waiting on with baited breath, I'm writing a post that is more like a resignation and a confession:  I’m not going to be reading any more of the series. 

Last year, I read A Game of Thrones and then persuaded Boyfriend that he wanted to watch the series with me.  The television adaptation turned out to be excellent and Boyfriend showed an uncharacteristic degree of enthusiasm for carrying on watching it.  I made a valiant effort to play for time while I listened to A Clash of Kings in my car, driving to and from work amidst a blaze of incest, death and dragons in a bid to stay ahead of where we were in the series.  The audiobook I listened to was absolutely wonderful in terms of quality (even though I was harbouring a deep resentment of Audible for separating the novel into two parts and charging as much for each half as they would for other complete novels) and I enjoyed it.  What I came to realise, though, was that even while I was enjoying it, I was listening to it in large part just so that I could assure myself that I had “read” it first when I was watching the TV series and could say with smug certainty at various points, “It isn’t like that in the book”.   Then I also realised that I was picturing the actors from the HBO series and was starting to find the differences between the audiobook narrator’s performance as Tyrion Lannister with Peter Dinklage’s a bit annoying (particularly given that the screen version was my preferred version).  Gradually, Boyfriend and I were watching the series faster than I could read/listen to the books and I loved the series enough to let that be the winning medium.

I know full well that I am denying myself some of the intricacies of the novels and that the version I am watching does differ from the version that I would have read but the bottom line is that I just don’t think that I care.  I'm not bothered that in the TV series, rather than losing his nose (as he does in the book), one character instead bears a hefty scar on his face because making an actor that has a nose look like he doesn’t would be tricky.  I'm not concerned that one character in the book broaches a negotiation that is taken up by another character in the TV series.  And the reason I don’t care is that the story that viewers see on screen is gripping, both funny and tragic and as epic as the books that I've read.  The books are undeniably impressive and the plotting and sheer volume of background are staggering.  I have nothing but the utmost respect for Martin for the political and historical detail that he has no doubt painstakingly created but they aren’t the aspects of the series that I was drawn to.  It was the characters that adored, their relationships that fascinated me and the many (many, many) tragedies that I cried over and each of those is superbly rendered on screen.  The books are good and undoubtedly more involved and more intelligent in many ways but the series is addictive and scandalous and brilliant.  The other fact is that I will gladly sacrifice some warring faction chat for getting caught up in a new series with Boyfriend. 

And now that I know what's coming?  I just don't know if I can face it again in book form.  Can I read upward of 2,000 pages when I know at least some of what I'll have to go through again?  Goodness me, no.  If I hadn't been watching the series, I would almost certainly carry on reading the series because it has a heck of a lot going for it and the end of every book/series is perfectly designed to have you dying for more pages of trauma to lose yourself in.  I would also carry on reading if it were possible to find out what happened next now that I've watched all there is to watch but sadly there's also nothing left to read (I think...).  

One last point before the purists unleash their wrath: I feel as though I should mention that I have read epic series in the past and have absolutely no problem with stories that span thousands and thousands of pages so that’s not it.  Sadly, life is just too short and my propensity to confusion too great for me to be at one point of the overall story in TV form and at another in book form.  Especially given that the books follow a different timeline than the series that could in theory have me way ahead on some characters’ stories while also being way behind on other characters’ stories…that, friends, is a recipe for a muddle.  And so this is where A Song of Ice and Fire and I part ways.  Until the next book is released, that is.  I do have to know what happens next to my favourite characters, after all...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Thoughts on 'Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe was my Classics Club spin choice way back in February and I was due to read it by 2nd April, which just goes to show how far behind I am in the reviewing stakes! I actually listened to it comfortably by the time I was “supposed” to but by that point I was deep in new job territory and didn’t get chance to revel in the success. Let’s revel now....

Surprisingly, these thoughts aren’t going to be a bit scrappy because I’m talking about something that I read back in March but because, although I didn’t completely hate Robinson Crusoe and found a lot in it to exercise the old grey matter, I didn’t love it either. If somebody told me they were going to read it, I wouldn’t be inclined to wrestle it from their grasp and hurl it far away but I also wouldn’t be begging them to get started and talk to me about it. I’m a little ambivalent about the whole experience, I think.

As with so many classics that have spawned great numbers of adaptations, it turns out that I knew very little about the actual plot of this particular novel. Had I been inclined to pretend that I’d read it on the basis of the few versions that I’ve seen, I would have looked a plonker. I had no idea about the circumstances in which Mr Crusoe originally wound up marooned on a desert island (although I’d given it little thought beyond assuming some kind of shipwreck) and I definitely had no idea how long he was so marooned (we’re talking multiple decades, not months or years). One way or another, I’d got the impression that Robinson Crusoe was more of an adventure type novel than it actually is. After an initial flurry of activity (that included a whistle stop tour of Crusoe’s slightly chequered past and, surprise surprise, a shipwreck), Crusoe is stranded on a pretty small island with little to occupy him but a Bible and the local wildlife for a considerable time period. 

The writing isn't verbose or complicated and there aren't great rambling sentences spanning pages but there's still something that is a little bit draining about the narrative - it felt quite repetitive (although I know that in part that might be intentional and could easily be the best way of demonstrating the monotony of living alone with nothing but goats and cats for company...Crusoe loves a list. Be prepared for lengthy explanations of a day's activities when the upshot is: went for a walk, built a fence. There's also a good chunk where Crusoe narrates a few months of his early life on the island and then seems to remember that he'd had a journal for part of the time and then proceeds to "read" out from the journal. It's sufficiently similar that I got in the car to drive home and was utterly convinced that I'd managed to skip back a part. It happens a couple of times and although there is a little bit more information in the journal entries, it isn't really enough to warrant the repetition.

On the brighter side, Defoe uses his island to make some good points about society in a way not dissimilar to Lord of the Flies (although definitely less engagingly) that stop things becoming too dreary. Crusoe seems to have an innate desire to overwhelm and dominate and never seems to question that he (as a white, apparently educated man) is superior to the indigenous people, even going so far as to rescue someone from being killed and devoured by the local cannibals (because obviously they must be cannibals) almost exclusively to satisfy his burning desire for a servant. Given that he was at the time inhabiting a shack of his own making and had little to do with his time beyond maintaining that shack and existing, I assumed that the only real need for a servant was to secure himself as above someone rather than for assistance with general household chores…it doesn't paint the English mentality at the time in the greatest light.

And not only is Crusoe enslaving and generally demonstrating why colonialism wasn't necessarily the best, the way he communicates with Friday is infuriating and I did a lot of ranting in the car while he was insisting that Friday learnt English and and such like (rather than turning his own mind to learning the local language) and mocking Friday's use of the language when it was anything less than perfect English. It seems to me from a browse of the reviews of this book on Goodreads that a lot of the hatred of the book seems to stem from this unfortunately prevalent racism. Although my 21st century sensibilities do balk at slavery and the abhorrent way that Crusoe speaks of other races, it doesn’t make me hate the book. Robinson Crusoe was originally published in 1719 and was immensely popular. According to Wikipedia (font of all knowledge that it is), it was in its fourth edition by the end of its first year of release. Clearly what Defoe was writing about struck a chord with 18th century readers and that makes it a fascinating piece of history itself. One of the reasons I read classics is that there’s an insight into the ideas and attitudes that were prevalent at the time and it would be churlish of me to mark a book down for fulfilling that brief a little too well.

Crusoe also has a bit of a penchant for killing things for no real reason so if you’re particularly sensitive when it comes to animals, you might want to think twice. It isn’t graphic by any means but there is none of the relatively delicate modern approach to animal welfare, particularly where animals that we now see as domestic pets are concerned. It’s another thing that I was fine with marking down to being a sign of Crusoe’s times (or at least part of his character) but I can appreciate that it might be something that would put other readers off.

Readers might not (I hope!) sympathise with what Defoe is articulating through Robinson Crusoe now but they were prominent ideas of the time and ignoring them, refusing to read about them or shouting about how disgusting it all was doesn’t change that. I obviously don’t agree with the vast majority of Crusoe’s social commentary or musings but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book. Actually, it probably enhanced it because it is at least historically interesting as opposed to the intricate details of the planning, execution and revelling in the completion of the construction of a wall out of materials that you are (I am led to believe) likely to find on a desert island, which is somewhat less intriguing.

Overall: I’d expected to either love or hate Robinson Crusoe but instead I find myself sort of in the middle. There’s plenty to mull over while you’re reading and as far as classics go, it says a lot about the time it was written in and the audience it was written for but there’s also plenty of drudgery that the book could do without. I think on balance I do recommend it but cautiously (with health warnings about the treatment of animals and slavery) and only if you’re in a ponderous mood.
 
A note on the audio: I listened to Robinson Crusoe and thoroughly recommend it - Defoe has Crusoe telling his own story in the first person and there's very little in the way of dialogue until later on so it really lends itself to being read out by a single narrator. Also, being entirely honest, listening to lists and one bigoted man's musings on the nature of religion and whether there is a Plan is a lot easier than reading it...