5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectiv...more5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively there is no way Dracula would get 5 stars. Love it as I do, it’s got some glaring flaws. The reason Dracula is regarded as a ‘classic’ isn’t because it’s a literary masterpiece on par with the greats – it’s really not – but because it’s really good at what it is; crowd-pleasing horror, and because it helped create the popularity and features of the ‘modern vampire’. Thankfully however book reviewing is all about opinions and I can be as unobjective as I want.
I first read Dracula when I was about 12 and this was my first time going back to it. I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. If I read it today it would probably only get 4 stars, but nostalgia and the love of gothic novels it inspired mean I just don’t have the heart to take that star away from it. Flawed as it is, I still love it.
And there are bits that are truly deserving of 5 stars. The whole first section where Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania visiting the Count’s castle is just wonderful. Told through Jonathan’s diary, the slow realisation of what his host is and the danger he is in makes for intense reading (or listening). However it’s easy to get a spooky atmosphere going when your setting is a deserted, ancient, castle sitting atop a cliff in a foreign and superstitious land, once the action moves to England the atmosphere suffers. Whitby is windswept and beautifully grim enough that the build up to, and events following, the Count’s arrival there still feel tense and scary, and for a while John Seward’s madhouse and his dealings with Renfield – a patient who believes that by eating spiders and flies he absorbs their lifeforce – is creepily compelling. But…well after the first vampire staking the book loses steam.
A lot of the tension in these first parts is tied over from the cliffhanger of Jonathan’s diary and not knowing whether he survived or not. The characters in England are not too compelling all by themselves. Harker’s fiancé Mina is alright, she’s a strong independent woman in a way that’s acceptable to the Victorians – which means she can write shorthand and use a typewriter. But then there’s her friend Lucy who is your stereotypical damsel in distress, going sleepwalking round graveyards in her nightgown, and the three almost interchangeable men who fancy her. Dr. John Seward, already mentioned, owns a madhouse and is one of the main narrators – the story being epistolary, told through letters and diary entries – Quincey Morris is a Texan who knows a lot about guns and uses amusing ‘slang’ but is actually quite fun, but Arthur Holmwood, the rich son of a British Lord, is a total snorefest. So guess which one Lucy goes for…
It’s all a bit too coincidental and neatly connected to take entirely seriously – Jonathan Harker is engaged to Mina – who is best friends with Dracula’s first victim – who turned down a proposal from John Seward who lives next door to Dracula’s new house – and was taught by Van Helsing, who is the only person in the Victorian world to recognise and know how to kill a vampire. But well, I don’t think it’s a book you’re meant to take entirely seriously. One thing I did like about the characters though; these blokes manage to stay friends and not get pissy at each other after Lucy makes her choice – they respect her decision, stop pursuing her romantically, and stay friends with both each other and her without being all grumpy about it. Can you imagine that happening in a modern vampire novel?
Up until the first staking the gothic atmosphere of the first section remains, if in slightly lesser form, as John and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy’s life from her ‘mysterious wasting disease’ and near constant blood loss every night. After it’s been established what’s causing it however the book slows down to a bit of a crawl. There are lots of conversations where the characters inform each other of facts the reader already knows and seemingly have endless discussions about what to do without actually doing very much. Instead of trying to hunt Dracula down it becomes a ‘destroy them all’ quest surrounding some of the objects he brought with him from Transylvania. Also while John Seward, Quincey, and Arthur all love to gush about Lucy, Van Helsing seems to have a raging hard-on for Mina (and I am so sorry to have given you that mental image). After he meets her he barely seems to go two sentences without praising her in some way and instead of being ‘Mina’ she’s always some variation of ‘that wonderful woman’. It gets a bit old after a while and I kinda wished the characters would stop praising each other by the time I reached the half way point.
Eventually though, the stakes get raised again with a threat to ‘wonderful wonderful Miss Mina’ and we get the gang finally heading out to take on Dracula himself. They’re no Buffy though so don’t expect too much in the way of action. And the hunt, like the middle section, tends to drag on a bit before the rather sudden conclusion.
I’ve made it sound really bad now I’m afraid…it’s not. It’s a good fun book and I have a lot of affection for it – I wouldn’t give it 5 stars if I didn’t – but I’m not blind to its flaws and don’t think they should be glossed over when writing a review. The story starts off very strong and gets increasingly weak, but there’s still enough to sustain it, and no one can doubt how influential a book it is. Dracula is a very compelling, if simplistic, villain and I would take him over a certain other vampire who isn’t killed by sunlight any day.(less)
Read a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall s...moreRead a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall star rating: 3.5
A Study in Scarlet - 3 stars
There are some truly brilliant parts of this novel, the growing relationship between Holmes and Watson, the interactions between Holmes and the police, the deductive reasoning that sees Holmes pulling solutions almost from thin air, the mystery itself...Why then only three stars? Well... once the mystery is solved – at around the halfway point - all those good enjoyable things that one reads a Holmes story for disappear and the narrative shifts into a third person account of the murderer’s backstory explaining his motives and relationship with his victims.
It’s a jarring change and not really a very welcome one. After spending the first half of the book invested in the relationship between Holmes and Watson and being fascinated by the correct conclusions Holmes could leap to based on almost nothing, I didn’t particularly care to get invested in this second set of characters. The most explanation of motive I needed was a quick monologue from the murderer summarising the key points – not a multi-chapter epic of lost love. But a multi-chapter story-within-a-story was what I got, and it simply didn’t quite work. The third person narrative seemed awkward and ill-fitting with the rest of the book, which reads as a personal account told through the eyes of Dr Watson. If the Holmes canon is meant to be written by Dr Watson, then this section doesn’t quite fit – the information is a bit too detailed for someone who wasn’t there, even if they have received a second-hand account, and the tone is completely different from Watson’s bluff, amiable style of writing. I kept asking myself where this omnipotent narrator had come from and wondering when we could get back to Holmes and Watson.
It didn’t help that none of the characters in this story-within-the-story were very interesting. There was a typical older mentor figure, his adopted daughter Lucy, and a rough handsome young hunter, all felt rather sketched in and none of the other characters were fleshed out even enough to be worth mentioning. The father was fatherly; the daughter was one of those annoying perky orphan kids who say things like ‘Oh! but why didn’t you tell me we were going to die? We can join mother then’ but eventually grows up into the most beautiful woman ever whilst still preserving her childish innocence and ‘charm’ (I use that term loosely); and the hunter was rough, young and handsome and well…you can totally see where that story is going, right? Insta-love! That’s right! Don’t you just love that trope? It’s all very disappointing and predictable, especially as the reader already knows what has to happen and already knows that Doyle is a much, much, better writer than this who can actually write fully developed characters because we’ve just cut away from them to read this second-rate part.
I’ll be fair on Doyle though. This was his first Sherlock Holmes book and it didn’t actually receive any real attention until his short stories were already a hit and he had solidified his style and characters a bit more. When it’s good it’s very good, and he does learn from this mistake in future books. Dodgy flashbacks and inaccurate portrayals of Mormonism aside, it’s worth reading for Sherlock Holmes alone – the mystery is just icing on the cake. He’s a wonderfully real character, even as he manages almost inhuman feats of observation and deduction. He has his flaws – a rather superior attitude being the major one and very patchy knowledge on anything that doesn’t pertain to his own narrow interests in solving crime for another. He’s not ‘perfect’, he’s as occasionally frustrating and annoying as someone with superior skills really is but he is amazingly charismatic. (Watch as these traits change until he becomes a caricature of himself in future stories though).
Now that many of his methods have been adopted both by the police and fictional detectives, you might think he would have lost some of his unique appeal – but I don’t think he has. The style of detective fiction may have shifted to ‘show the reader all the clues and see if they can work it out’, but Sherlock’s cold, calculated analysis of clues the reader (and Watson) weren’t even aware of until he mentions them, are still a joy to wonderful to read.
So despite the low rating I really do think this is a worthwhile read. Just remember though; they do get better! (And then worse...)
The Sign of the Four - 3.5 stars
A much more satisfying read/listen than A Study in Scarlet and one that seems to have learnt from the truly dire mistake of that story. Whilst there is a flashback here to the antagonist’s past and the motivations for his actions, it’s a lot shorter told as a confession – with all the bias and slant to be expected in first person narration – and fits in almost seamlessly with the style of the rest of the story. Also in its favour is the fact that the backstory is a lot more interesting in its own right. But there’s a whole mystery to solve before we get to that part so I’ll backtrack towards the beginning.
The Sign of the Four opens with the introduction – and actually one of the few mentions – of Sherlock Holmes cocaine habit and exploration into his psychology. It’s one of the things I love about Holmes that I don’t get with my otherwise beloved Poirot – he’s not just a thinking-machine but a complex person. He’s a man of extremes and, if he was non-fictional and alive today would probably be diagnosed with a serious form of mood disorder; if there’s an interesting crime he’ll be in the middle of a rush of activity but as soon as it’s solved he can flip, in an instant to lethargy and (then legal) drug abuse. At the start of the story he’s been in this lethargic, melancholy state for several months. Holmes is too clinically detached a character for him to be very likable or relatable on a personal level – even as someone who suffers from depression myself – but it does make him a more interesting and human character to read about than the earlier version in A Study in Scarlet.
Following a pattern that becomes relatively common in the short stories Watson does his best to get Holmes out of this funk by prompting several small examples of Holmes’ deductive genius – that Watson had gone to a specific place earlier in the day, the family history of Watson’s pocket watch etc. etc. These mainly serve to either show or remind the reader of Holmes’ skill and competence before we get to the real mystery, and it works – though I have to say I do get a bit tired of the ‘this type of mud is only found in one place!’ solutions as they do seem a bit of a cheat and I don’t always agree with Holmes that his explanation is the only one, even if it is the most likely. However, it is only with the arrival of Mary Morstan and her strange story of her father, who disappeared several years ago, and the anonymous pearls she started receiving several years later, that Holmes snaps out of his lethargy and starts getting interested.
Here again, you can see Doyle developing a framework used in later stories – the odd but seemingly but non-criminal story, that leads to something much darker and nastier than it first appears once untangled. Not that a mysteriously disappearing dad isn’t pretty dang dark, but that it isn’t a straight up simple crime such as being called to a murder scene – detective work needs to be done to even discover the crime in the first place. It’s a more complex, and arguably more interesting, device than the relatively straight forward plot to A Study in Scarlet and has the benefit of a more emotional core in trying to find the truth for a living character than A Study in Scarlet’s quest to identify the murderer of a character only introduced as a corpse. Of course Holmes gets the basics in about five minutes flat but it takes a while longer for the full story to be revealed, by which time the character’s have themselves a real crime to deal with and we get to the meat of the story.
And the meat of the story…well it sounds almost Robert Louis Stevenson/’boys own adventure’ in places; wooden legs, stolen treasure, hidden murders, and exotic weapons. It’s got action and adventure tropes in spades – there’s even a chase sequence! But the mystery itself well… Holmes sums it up best himself when he says that normal everyday crimes that offer no distinctive clues are harder to solve than the big ones with lots of unusual elements are. And here there are so many clues; footprints, exotic weapons, poisoned darts, the motif of a man with a wooden leg. Holmes is hardly drawing his conclusions from small inconsequential elements – the basic story (ignoring specific backstory elements only the villain would know) is practically written over the crime scene for anyone with eyes and ears to draw conclusions from. But, of course, the police and Watson are both baffled,
The backstory, when we get to it, though, is fascinating – perhaps more so to me because it focusses on a period of colonial history that I’ve studied; the India Mutiny of 1857. Even if you know nothing about it though it’s a more wonderful and exciting backdrop than Mormon Utah, and there’s a lot more going on than a few blokes all fancying the same girl. There are some, unpleasant, elements of exoticism and Victorian racial theory however – one apparently universally bloodthirsty and violent tribe is described as ‘naturally hideous’ by an anthropology textbook and ‘monstrous’ in appearance by the narrator. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and remember the time period if you find yourself being too annoyed. But there’s also an, admittedly not entirely sympathetic, depiction of Sikhs as being worth a white man’s loyalty that redeems it slightly (many Sikhs fought alongside the British in putting down the mutiny and they were favoured by the Victorian colonial regime set up afterwards). It’s a dark and brutal chapter of colonial/Indian history though that works as a perfect backdrop to the crime and sets a much better and more atmospheric tone for the whole book than is ever achieved in A Study in Scarlet.
This book, as a whole, is simply more grown up in every way than its predecessor; the narrative issues have been ironed out, more humanity has been given to the characters, the tone is much more consistent, and there’s an emotional heart to the story. Now I don’t actually rate this emotional heart particularly highly or find it remotely necessary for this type of book – it consists of Watson rather fancying the female client and if there’s one thing Doyle isn’t good at, it’s romance – but it succeeds far better than the romantic insta-love storyline in A Study in Scarlet. This is a lot to do with the fact that we’re privy to Watson’s thoughts and understand his bias but mainly because Mary is a fundamentally more interesting, complex, and less annoying character than Lucy ever was. It may not be my favourite thread of the storyline but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
It’s not a ‘perfect’ Holmes story – but the elements of the character and storytelling technique are still being introduced and developed. However you can see here, far more than in the first Sherlock Holmes book, why the Holmes stories took off the way they did.
Random almost unrelated recommendation!The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman – a victorian-set mystery novel that also features the India Mutiny as a key element of the backstory. Aimed at children/teenagers but an enjoyable read that features both a pretty awesome female protagonist and a female villain who isn’t a femme fatale.
For anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a forma...moreFor anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a format that suits both the characters and the mysteries far better than the slightly drawn-out novels (with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is ace) and has the blessed relief of absolutely no obscenely long and involved story within a stories. It’s also, from memory, the most solid of the short story collections as a whole – Memoirs containing a couple of duds and later collections a little bit lackluster in comparison – even so, it’s a mixed bag. On second reading (or rather listening) there were stories I liked rather less than on my first read, but none that I actively disliked.
The Adventure of the Red Headed League, despite Doyle apparently regarding is as one of his best, is probably the one that comes closest. It’s one I never particularly took to on first reading either; the solution being to obvious, the ‘mystery’ too farfetched, and the apparently highly intelligent villain too completely unsubtle in his agenda. But then I do have to give Doyle some leeway for not living in an age where people were so exposed to these sort of scams on an everyday basis (what person using the internet hasn’t been told they could earn ‘$500 an hour’ by signing up to some obviously dodgy service?).
A Scandal in Bohemia is also one I don’t have that much time for. Maybe I should; it’s the one with ‘the woman’, Irene Adler in and she famously outwits him but… well he isn’t that hard to outwit here. His plan to get her to reveal where the photograph he’s been asked to retrieve is is brilliantly simple, but it’s also very obvious and kind of stupid. It’s pure dumb luck – and stupidity on Irene’s part – that the plan works in the first place, and her ‘outwitting’ him consists of realising what Holmes was doing (which wasn’t subtle) and making a contingency plan while Holmes sits about wasting time not acting on his information. Holmes isn’t meant to be sympathetic for most of this story, I realise, and it’s meant to show him underestimating female intelligence, so far so successful, no problems there – but it would have been nice to give him a decent female adversary rather than simply rely on him acting stupid for the plot to work. Even in a story about Holmes overcoming his sexism there’s a lot of pretty implicit sexism. Irene is ‘the woman’ because she’s different from ‘other’ women. Yawn, move on. At least there isn’t any sexual tension there.
It doesn’t help greatly that this story is followed by another story which concludes with the quote ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatcheth a delusion from a woman‘ and the decision not to tell a young woman the truth about the mystery she asked him to solve – thus letting her evil stepfather’s plan to pocket her inheritance succeed. But then Holmes is a flawed character who makes flawed decisions and I can’t get too angry with a writer for portraying a complex character rather than going for a boring one with a flawless moral compass. I might not like Holmes’ decision at the end but it’s a solid story and it’s not out of character.
In fact I enjoyed all the stories, just at different levels. None of the three mentioned above are ‘bad’, I just find them less compelling or slightly more problematic than others. Certainly none had me wanting to check how much longer I had to sit through until the end – which happened frequently during A Study in Scarlet. And there are some real highlights in this collection too, particularly ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band‘, neither of which I want to say much about for fear of spoilers, except that they both have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and impending danger and that the stakes feel high.
Not that Holmes always deals with high stake cases, one of the best things about the Holmes stories is the sheer variety. Mundane mysteries (The Blue Carbuncle) through to actual crime (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) and up on to murder (The Boscombe Valley Mystery), he deals with them all with varying success. Often a story will start out as one thing and then morph seamlessly into something much more sinister. And despite his almost superhuman deductive reasoning Holmes can, and does, make mistakes and, refreshingly, the stories don’t always have a pleasant outcome. Sometimes, as in The Redheaded League or Scandal, the solution – or part of it – is not that hard for a modern audience used to detective fiction to reach, but it’s enjoyable to see how Holmes gets all the details sorted so quickly and explains it to Watson, and there are other stories where the revelation is genuinely surprising.
Reading this collection, unlike the earlier novels, it is not remotely hard to see why the public took to Holmes the way they did. Even for someone bought up on Agatha Christie murder mysteries (Poirot, not Marple) Holmes offered something genuinely new and refreshing when I first picked this book up – a complex, active lead, solid foundation of friendship between him and the narrator (why does Poirot stand Hastings? Why does Hastings stand Poirot? It’ the biggest bloody mystery of the whole series), and a variety in both plots and outcomes.(less)
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have...more3 Stars
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have to say is that I like the story itself, but I simply can’t make myself trust Heaney as a translator.
I have no particular reason not to trust him as a translator, let’s get that straight. I don’t read Old English, have never read an unabridged Beowulf translation before, and this one is very highly and widely regarded by people who can and have – so I’m not anywhere near qualified to say anything about how faithful/good a translation it is. I just have a gut feeling that, really, I’d have been better off with a different translation. When I finished the book I didn’t feel ‘yes I’m done with Beowulf, I’m one badass classics reader’ but, ‘I should probably go buy/borrow the Oxford World Classics edition’.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for an edition translated by a poet who’s famous in his own right – but then that never bothered me with Simon Armatage’s translations of Arthurian epics. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for one translated by a poet I studied and disliked at school – but I assumed I’d grown out of that rather juvenile ‘I studied it so I hate it’ dislike and had only heard good things about his translation. Maybe it’s just because it’s fucking Beowulf and I was expecting something truly awesome… Whatever the reason I ended up feeling disappointed with the poem and disappointed with myself for picking this translation. It’s not bad, it’s very readable in fact and the story, as expected, is pretty damn cool. I just simply can’t get over the feeling I’m reading Heaney’s version of Beowulf rather than Heaney’s translation. It’s probably irrational – not being able to read Old English I’ll never know – but reading the introduction, which is lots about Heaney and very little about Beowulf didn’t really do anything to challenge this gut feeling. In fact reading the all about Heaney introduction (in several parts cause I had to keep putting it down from boredom) just reminded me why I found him so utterly unbearable to study at GCSE.
But for people without my anti-Heaney baggage – it tells the Beowulf story and it is very readable. As I said, I can’t speak for its accuracy as a translation, just of my own personal response to it so I’d take this whole review with a massive grain of salt too.(less)