Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book Review: The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

Having seen the rather laughable film version of this classic black magic thriller, I read this book expecting to find a rather dated and unexciting story - I was quite wrong.

The Devil Rides Out is a dark and gripping novel in which The Duke De Richleau and accomplices attempt to rescue their friend who has fallen under the influence of a powerful black magic sect lead by Mocata - a wondefully stereotypical name for a villian. The story takes the reader around England in chase of the practicers of black magic, with a car chase, an encounter with the Angel of Death, summoned in a pentacle and a sacrifice in the presence of Satan himself.

With a superbly rich text, this novel is as gripping as any I have read, which I found all the more surprising and enjoyable for being a sceptic to begin with, and having finished this story I quickly went on to read other novels by the same author.

The only down side this book may have for some readers is a few rather politically incorrect moments, however this reflects the attitude of the times and will hardly be noticed by readers other than those most hard-core of the politically correct following.

I would recommend The Devil Rides Out to any reader who likes well-wriiten stories, those who enjoy fast-paced, gripping thrillers and of course to any reader who is a fan of the black magic genre. Surprisingly good.

Score: 9.5/10

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic tale of wrongful imprisonment, escape and retribution. Edmond Dantes is thrown into prison (the notorious Chateaux D'If) on spurious charges of treason and left to rot. After years of solitude he makes contact with another prisoner and eventually escapes and vows to use his freedom for revenge after discovering a hoard of treasure. After restyling himself as the Count of Monte Cristo he sets his plans into action.

The first part of this book is a gripping and harrowing tale of imprisonment in inhuman conditions, coupled with brutal treatment and near starvation and madness. How Edmond makes contact with another prisoner who teaches him in a multitude of disciplines, learns of a hidden treasure and escapes makes for compulsive reading and this ection of the novel on its own would have made a complete book; and perhaps a better one than the result.

After discovering the treasure the Count of Monte Cristo becomes a somewhat sluggish story, dragging on for chapters upon chapters where a dozen or so would have sufficed. This novel was orignially a serialisation and this is evident as the reader slogs through a massive book which introduces so many characters, it at times becomes confusing.

After slowly reading through a huge amount of very slow action and dialogue and meeting new characters all the way through the book, the reader could be forgiven for forgetting which book they had started and the manner in which the revenge is executed is hugely disappointing. Largely, The Count's revenge is in the form of embarrassing his former persecutors and robbing them of their good standing in society, something that in today's society seems quite irrelevant and hardly a proper revenge for the suffering the main character endured.

Despite a superb start, The Count of Monte Cristo becomes a very slow and dull book and I found getting to the final page was similar to seeing the finish line of a marathon. Although many people class this as their favourite novel I would suggest that this is a rare occasion where the movie is better than the book.

Score: 5/10

Monday, April 21, 2008

Book Review: The Sneetches by Dr Suess

In Dr Suess's "The Sneetches" there are two kinds of almost identical creatures differentiated only by whether they have a star on their belly or not. Sneetch society operates such that those with stars on their bellies are the elite who attend frankfurter roast parties on the beach whilst those without stars are the outcasts - a sort of apartheid system, racism based upon the smallest of differences. This system prevails until a travelling salesman, Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives on the beach with his star-on machine and convinces the starless Sneetches that for $5 they will get a star and become part of the elite. Later the same salesman convinces the original star-belly Sneetches that stars are out of fashion and for $10 they can take a turn in his star-off machine. So long as the Sneetches have money chaotic scenes of these weird creatures going in and out of Sylvester McMonkey McBean's machines ensues; it's hilarious but with potent messages.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Book Review: The Three Hostages by John Buchan

The Three Hostages is another instalment in the adventures of Richard Hannay, the hero of Buchan’s most famous novel, "The Thirty-nine Steps" and it employs a similarly fast pace. Sir Richard Hannay reluctantly comes out of retirement to help find three hostages held by a gang of international villains intent on financial and political gain. The story revolves around the mental battle between Hannay and the story’s villain, Dominick Medina – a charismatic and deceiving Member of Parliament.

The Three Hostages is a fast-paced, plot-driven novel of adventure and intrigue, but one with some interesting and mysterious characters. The style of writing and the structure of this story, with cliff-hanger endings to chapters and moving from The Cotswolds to London to the Highlands of Scotland via Norway make it seem at times that it was written in order to make a movie from it, but unlike many similar, modern novels, the author uses a written style that does not patronise the reader nor becomes repetitive.

The Three Hostages was one of those books that made me keep turning the pages, however, similarly to many such books, I found the ending slightly disappointing, but only in how quickly it was dealt with and not in terms of the events. Whilst there is something of a detective novel hidden amongst the adventure and mind games, I found the riddle surrounding the identity of the final hostage rather predictable whilst it seemed to remain a mystery to the main character right until the end. These small issues aside, this is a well-written yarn that quickly enthrals the reader.

Those that enjoyed the "Thirty-nine Steps" and similar fast-paced, plot-driven novels will enjoy this book but some people may find some of the language used rather politically incorrect, although it reflects the attitudes of the time.

Score: 8.5/10

Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is a novelette about the tragic events that shaped the life of a farmer and miller from Massachusetts – a man trapped in a loveless marriage with a wife who is domineering, scheming and a hypochondriac but in love with his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver. At first this may seem a less than exciting pretext for a story, but the way in which the author gradually and sparingly fleshes out the characters keeps the reader interested. Additionally the contrast between Ethan’s dour and ugly wife and the tenderness of Mattie makes the reader form a real compassion for poor Ethan and hope for a happy ending.

Whilst the mood of this story is largely one of unrequited love, there is a point at which it seems that there may be a favourable ending, but when Ethan’s wife returns from an overnight visit to a highly-rated doctor she transforms from an inconvenience to a truly despicable villain. Towards the end, the pace of this short story speeds up and one becomes wrapped up in this pace and eager to find out what is to become of Ethan and Mattie – but this becomes one of the most truly tragic of novels.

Ethan Frome is a well-written story which uses a nice blend of narrative and colloquial speech with interesting characters and a suitable pace. Many authors would have been tempted to stretch this novelette into a longer book, but that would have spoiled a tale which is well-suited to the shorter format and provides a surprisingly enjoyable read.

Unfortunately, there is not much joy in Ethan Frome, which is a shame as Ethan and Mattie are such likeable characters, but the manner of the ending is what shapes the tale and the telling of this story is very well contrived.

Ethan Frome is a very good short read and whilst it is not a joyous tale it is surprisingly gripping. Readers who have enjoyed novels such as Adam Bede and Silas Marner should take a look at this similar but much more accessible book.

Score: 9/10

Friday, April 11, 2008

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The Jungle is the story of Jurgis and his family who are attempting to make their fortune in the stockyards of early 20th century Chicago. Jurgis is a Lithuanian immigrant who quickly learns that although wages are "high" in America, so are the expenses and is if this were not enough to contend with there is an army of conmen, corrupt officials and greedy employers ready to cheat the family out of their hard-earned wages.

The early parts of this book describe the deplorable conditions in which food is manufactured and workers are worn down and eventually cast aside and the story quickly becomes one of hardship and misery with very few moments of happiness. However, I found that the characters, particularly Jurgis, are ones that I could care about and each downturn of fortune that they suffer made me feel for them and people like them around the world who still work in such conditions.

One fault of the book is that everything that could go wrong for the family does go wrong; family members gradually die off, Jurgis ends up in prison, homeless, injured, adopts the life of a tramp etc. and this stretches the credibility of the plot. Towards the end The Jungle becomes something of a propoganda piece for socialism and loses its way - finishing with a disappointing and idealistic rant. Whilst the story does an excellent job of highlighting the follies of ultra-capitalism the author seems to portray socialism in a rather niaive way.

These faults aside, The Jungle is a great story of woe about a character that most working men can relate to and I found myself turning the pages hoping to find that poor Jurgis would finally get a break.

The Jungle is a thought-provoking story about interesting characters but is not likely to make the reader feel good about the world; possibly the most depressing novel I have ever read but compelling all the same.

Score: 8.5/10