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The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula
The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula
by Roderick Anscombe
Edition: Paperback
Price: 4.87

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dunno about the blood, but it certainly sucked ..., 29 Oct 2008
I don't mind `bad' as in lurid, disgusting and vile. Wicked has its appeal. In my teenage years I read dozens of books where hapless wenches unwittingly unleashed dark forces that ravished them in a most graphic manner, until said forces were banished back from whence they came by some wholesome hunk who then ravished the wench in a wholesome, hunky manner, and where people had their heads ripped off and used as lavatories by eldritch things. I'm not overly squeamish, is what I am trying to say.

Books like that might be trash but if they had no merit other than of their lack of pretension, well, there is something to be said for that. The Secret Life Of Lazlo, Count Dracula, by Roderick Anscombe is bad because it thinks it is something good.

"Re-invention" is a dirty word to my mind. It usually entails someone who isn't as clever as they think making a grab for someone else's laurels and trying to make off with them. This is a re-invention of the Dracula story. Dracula is perfect as it was. You could talk for days about the imagery and subtext, the fear of contamination, the allure of the other, Dracula as a supreme Oedipal figure who can only be killed by driving a phallus, sorry, stake through his heart. What we don't need is a psychiatrist turned writer to do it for us.

In a nutshell: Drac isn't a vampire, he's an ordinary aristocrat with a fondness for rough sex, so rough that his amours don't always survive. He dabbles in the infant science of psychiatry which allows him to ponder on his condition in a tedious manner.

I'm not one to rush to judge too quickly. It wasn't until page 178 that I decided I was definately infuriated, when the good Count asks a friend `and that's where we come in' - an odd phrase for a 19th century Hungarian aristocrat to utter.

Of course, once I decided I was not `bored' but `infuriated' by the book, I showed it no mercy. I started folding pages over to mark things that annoyed me particularly - and I count a further 19 folded up corners. 20 blunders might not sound a lot, but remember this is from halfway through the book, and they are only the outstandingly bad examples. Add on top of that a poor quality of writing, staging (the characters seem to spend most of their time at breakfast) and plotting (not content with the violation and murder of four women, Anscombe throws in a plague, a treasonous conspiracy and a murder investigation).

The book is full of sloppy writing. We are told that one woman wants to `show that she wears the pants.' A few pages later, this woman and Mrs Drac have `hit it off.' Again, this is 20th century colloquialism and out of place.

More. Talking to the dogged Inspector Krause, probably the only convincing character in the book, Drac declares `if you look here and here you will see the small flaws which are the mark of manufacture - which however, superior, can never match the careful application of the craftsman to his art.' Try saying it - people just don't talk like that, particularly people who use phrases like `And that's where we come in.'

I'm not going to list all of the top 19 bad things. I will, however, ask if you, knowing that your husband had killed two young women, would invite a third to stay at your home and watch indulgently while she flirts with the monster? Mrs Drac does just that.

And now, because I can't resist it, the topper. This is a book that has been written badly. Worse, it seems never to have been re-read either by the writer or by anyone else. If it had been read by an editor, and that editor had not been rendered unconscious by the overwhelming monotony of the prose, surely the phrase `Grief does not come naturally to her nature' would have been struck out? 'Naturally to her nature'?

There is so much of this sort of thing. Vampires are so on-the-money, with spooky castles, dark capes, wolves, bats, oodles of sex, how is it possible for it to go so horribly wrong?


Baudolino
Baudolino
by Umberto Eco
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.79

12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful book by a writer capable of much better, 29 Oct 2008
This review is from: Baudolino (Paperback)
Baudolino promised to be good. It is set in the Dark Ages, culminating with the sacking of Byzantium by the rabble of the Fourth Crusade. I like the (so-called) Dark ages. I like tales of adventure and warfare, and this book promised all this. I also like clever writers, and Eco is certainly clever.

The first chapter of Baudolino is fantastic. It is supposed to be the narrative of Baudolino, scrawled on parchment filched from his mentor. He has scrapped it clear of what was written on it, but imperfectly. Also, Baudolino, at this stage, is only semi-literate. So the opening chapter is confused and exhilarating, as we pick our way through the jumble of Latin fragments from the text that preceded Baudolino's, straining to catch the meaning of his erratic syntax and spelling. It is a treat. This, surely, is what clever Professors turned writers should be doing - showing us, in a playful way, what a delight the simple act of reading can be.

Unfortunately, after that fabulous opening gambit, Eco decides not to bother with the shambling prose of his peasant boy hero, and fast forwards to his dotage, where he recounts his life to Niketa, a Byzantium official recently rescued from maurading Crusaders. So out goes the teasing muddle of the opening chapter, and it is replaced by a very long, eventful tale, which is rendered lifeless by the bland and spiritless style in which it is told.

It shouldn't be like this. There are endless sieges, battles, a murder mystery, a quest, sex with fantastical creatures and Parisian whores, debates about the nature of the world, faith, and enough major characters to populate a small Balkan country. Just typing that list makes me think, "This must be a great book!"

But the flaw is the way in which the tale is told. It is like Eco used up all his energy in that first chapter, and after that can't be bothered trying to make the subsequent tale challenging, or even interesting. One is tempted to speculate that he dreamed up the idea for the opening chapter, then had to come up with a story to append to it.

It might seem odd to accuse the author of a five hundred page book of not bothering, but that's what it feels like. Scenes and events seem to bore him, so he trundles on another dramatic happening to see if that one will be more amusing. It isn't, so along comes another, and another. Soon, one realises, a lot of stuff is happening, but nothing important is occurring. The treatment of Baudolino's wife is an example. She is introduced on page 228. By page 231 she is dead. We've barely had time to learn her name, and she is out of the book. In between, she hasn't had time to develop as a character, so we don't feel much sorrow at her passing, so the references Baudolino makes to her lack emotional power.

A lot of the problems of the book lie in the style of writing. This is a serious charge to level at a semiotician. But the writing is bland and uninteresting. Some of it is told in the first person past tense, some in the third person, but neither perspective has impact, interest or tension.

Sometimes, it gets plain careless. On an epic quest, the companions confront many dangers. Here is how one of them is described:

"At midnight, as the men were thinking they might get some sleep, crested serpents arrived, each with two or three heads. With their tails they swept the ground and they kept their jaws wide open, with in which three tongues darted. Their stink was perceptible at a mile's distance, and all had the impression that their eyes, which sparkled in the lunar light, spread poison, as for that matter, the basilisk does ..."

There are several problems here. First of all, the passage is boring. An encounter with giant serpents at night should be terrifying to read, not bland. People should be yelling, all our senses should be used to convey the intensity of combat. Apparently, however, no-one even bothered to utter a word during the skirmish. Second, there is little description. What do the serpents smell like? Burning tyres? Sewers? Boiled cabbage? Third, Eco forgets one of the first rules of creative writing - show, don't tell. How do the companions discover the serpents are mutli-headed, multi-tongued, and possessed of a lethal gaze? The description above reads more like a cargo dispatch. DELIVERY: One dozen triple headed serpents, stinking. Finally, Eco presents the information in the wrong order. The first thing that the companions would have become aware of was the smell (whatever it was). Then perhaps the sound of things moving in the darkness, the hissing of all these multiple heads. Then something moving in the shadows, then the realisation that they were confronting something unnatural and terrifying.

Now, imagine this encounter is one of several, each recounted in the same bland style, each offerring no hope that this one will be the last. At one point, Eco indicates he has tried to use different voices in the writing:

"As he [Baudolino] had been tender and pastoral in telling of Abdul's death, so now he was epic and majestic in reporting the fording of that river."

Only, there is no noticable difference in tone between different sections. The whole book, apart from the excellent first chapter, is told in the same monotonous voice, as far as this reader can judge.

The book is very long, and through out it is written in a boring style devoid of drama and interest. the characters are unappealing and the polt, though trying to be reminiscent of Cervantes, Swift and goodness knows who else, is alternately either just boring or silly. Read (or as I intend to, re-read) The Name of the Rose, which is a much better book than this.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 4, 2010 7:20 PM GMT


Harlot's Ghost
Harlot's Ghost
by Norman Mailer
Edition: Paperback

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mailer's Monster, 29 Oct 2008
This review is from: Harlot's Ghost (Paperback)
I suppose Macho Mailer thinks size is everything, which would account for the vastness of this tome. It's a seriously big book. Parts of it are good. Vast swathes of it are not.

The first hundred odd pages are fascinating, and the same could be said of the last hundred. Normally, two hundred exciting pages would amount to a bloody good book, but in this case, these two hundred pages are only a small part of the (for want of a better word) story. It was the eight hundred pages in between that were the problem. Yes, 800 pages. Harlot's Ghost is one of these books where you can spend an afternoon reading, only to realise that your efforts have made no discernable difference to the thickness of the unread portion of the book.

And, boy, did that book take some reading. The book is about the CIA and the identification of a traitor within that organisation, but there is no way it could be described as a thriller. Mailer happily doles out page after page of transcript of taped conversations, in the most trivial detail possible, and endless analysis of said trivia. It might be an attempt to demonstrate the banal reality behind the glamour of Hollywood's ideas of special ops, but I'm not sure he wasn't doing to just so he could brag about having written a bigger novel than his peers. Beat that, Gore! What's up Saul, too chicken to try?

Worst of all, having finally reached the end - where nothing has been resolved, naturally - you are confronted with the dread words "TO BE CONTINUED."

The grim reaper seems to have curtailed any effort on Mailer's part to continue the story. But you never know what might be lurking among his unpublished papers. Best avoided. Life is too short to read really ridiculously long books.


Credo
Credo
by Melvyn Bragg
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

2 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Longer than the Dark Ages themselves, and not as interesting, 29 Oct 2008
This review is from: Credo (Paperback)
Credo is a big book, about 900 pages, but after about 9 pages it rapidly becomes clear that this big fat book is going to be a long and rather dull experience. It becomes so fustrating that you actively want BAD THINGS to happen to the characters, and cheer on the malevolent fate that keeps them apart.

The book is about the rise of Christianity in Dark Age Britain. It has a cast of saints and heroes. Its writer is neither, he is the true villan of the piece. Its a potentially interesting story but Braggs lumpen prose turns it into an unbearably stodgy mess. It might have merited two stars if it had been half the length.

I paid just 1 for this book and I feel the price tag was unjustified. It should be pulped, and possibly its writer as well.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 3:04 PM GMT


The Daughters of Cain (Inspector Morse)
The Daughters of Cain (Inspector Morse)
by Colin Dexter
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.39

3 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Banal, with silly bits, 29 Oct 2008
Earlier this year I read The Daughters of Cain by Colin Dexter, one of the Morse series. Now, I've always had a liking for Morse, mainly because the much-missed John Thaw played him and John Thaw was fantastic. I had assumed that because Thaw played Morse, there must be something inherently worthy about the books. After all, on the TV screen, Morse seemed interesting. Surely the books would prove, if not as good, at least not bad?

Not so. The Daughters of Cain is a wholly unconvincing book. It doesn't really count as a murder mystery as there is very little mystery around the murder - the title is a bit of a give away for a start. It is rather stupid, I think, to hint at the identity of the killers in the title. If Conan Doyle had named The Hound of the Baskervilles something like Stapleton's Murderous Scheme Involving a Phosperescent Hound, a similar effect would have been achieved.

Random bits of information are thrown about - one character alludes to a rape or attempted rape, but nothing is made of it - it looks like Dexter forgot about it. There is a somewhat clever bit of 'how it was done'-ery, but as the 'who done it' and the 'why done it' had ceased to be mysterious a hundred or more pages before, this isn't enough to save the book. And it was only somewhat clever, as I said.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the handling of Morse. Morse, without John Thaw's brooding avuncularity, is simply an old fart. He lacks charm or charisma. Worse, Dexter seems convinced he has created a fascinating character, and makes another character fall wildly in love with Morse - even though she is a twenty something whore and he is a rather pathetic old sod. Yes, she fals in love with him, not the other way around. Sad, and unconvincing, and it blows away whatever final scraps of credibilty the story might have had.


From Potter's Field (Scarpetta Novels)
From Potter's Field (Scarpetta Novels)
by Patricia Cornwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Silly, 29 Oct 2008
I worship Tom Waits, and he wrote a song called 'Potter's Field' and I though the novel might be related to it in some murky post-modernity way. You have to approach these things with caution. The part of me that continues to have faith in human nature maintained that so many people revered Cornwell that she couldn't be bad.

She is, I'm afraid. Not a bad writer as such - but From Potter's Field shows she is a poor plotter and her characters don't act or speak in a belivable manner.

Her plotting technique seems to involve exaggerated withholding of a key piece of information or action. The classic example of this is The Hound Of the Baskervilles, where Conan Doyle keeps Sherlock Holmes off stage for most of the novel, and once he turns up he reveals everything in 5 minutes. All crime stories rely on withholding - it wouldn't be much fun if the criminal admitted to the crime on page 5.

(Though then we might have space for a proper investigation into motive for and consequence of the crime, both of which rarely feature in crime literature, and particularly in From Potter's Field).

In Cornwell's case, it is the crucial plot element could have been realised at almost every point - characters talk about it early in the story, then seem to forget about it for a couple of hundred pages, until the bland and unlikable Kay Scarpetta remembers it and decides to put it into effect, at which point the plot resolves itself in a most helpful manner. This wouldn't be too awful, if the intervening 200 pages were more interesting than the are. As it is, Scarpetta just looks like a fool for not sorting it out earlier.

Avoid.


The Sea
The Sea
by John Banville
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.79

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is more to this than meets the eye, 25 Oct 2008
This review is from: The Sea (Paperback)
The Sea is a very odd little book. On the surface, it is very simple. An elderly man, Max Morden (Morbid - geddit?), revisits the dingy little town where he grew up, recalling his relationship with an odd family that holidayed there, and the recent death of his wife.

On my first reading, I found the novel disappointing. I am a Banville fan. I've read several of his books, and this has given me a sense for what he is about. Even so, The Sea seemed weak at first encounter. I imagine that readers drawn to him for the first time, perhaps seduced by the MAN Booker prize award, will be deeply perplexed as to what is going on.

Banville's books seem to be connected in a loose sequence, and this is the latest installment. Though the characters all have different names, they are all very similar, progressively aging males. They share an interest in art criticism, though not as creators themselves. This is significant, I feel. These people are all fascinated by the creation of artifice. They are not to be taken at face value.

And all speak with very similar voices. Some people find Banville's dense language off-putting. I've read enough of his work to say - I THINK - that this stuffy, affected tone is a deliberate ploy on his part, not merely him being monotonous. His characters use language as a shield or a disguise - often shielding themselves from themselves as from the outside. But when Max faces up to his grie in The Sea, he expresses it in short and brutally obscene spurts of grief.

So, what of the book itself? On my first reading, I think I fell for Max's trick. The whole novel is an exercise in misdirection, as Max tries to focus our attention - and his - on the long dead past. Don't be fooled by him. His grief is raw and deeply felt, but hidden under a miasma of postures and fine words.

Overall, a very effective, subtle novel. It may not be rewarding on a first reading, or to those unfamiliar with Banville's work, but it is worth getting to know.


Promised Land
Promised Land
by K. Schoeman
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Promise not realised, 25 Oct 2008
This review is from: Promised Land (Paperback)
Promised Land is a very odd little book. Graham Greene, quoted on the cover, decalres it to be a sort of "African 1984." Other laudatory comments on the back indicated I was in for an experience. I experienced puzzlement.

It is set at an undisclosed time in the near future. An expatriate South African farmer returns to visit the farm his parents owned before they fled into exile. He stays with neighbours, who are still scratching living out of the soil of their miserable farm.

And that is pretty much it. He visits his parent's farm, which is a ruin. Allusions are made to a bad time. It appears there is some form of military government established, but little background information is given. We don't know if it is a white or black dictatorship - when the violent emmissaries of the regime do appear, Schoeman avoids describing them in detail.

In part, this sense of confusion is down to the nature of the narrator, George (an ironic name - George means 'farmer,' but George regards the dirt poor farmers uncomprehendingly). In part though, it is also structural - this is a book constructed without a real plot. Imagine if Orwell hadn't bothered to include Winston Smith's illicit romance in 1984, and the whole novel had focused on the day to day drudgery of his office work. And then make what he does even less interesting and important. Now you're getting the idea.

It isn't that Schoeman is a bad writer - a party scene late in the book is carried off with panache - but whatever idea it was he hoped to explore or ellucidate has eluded me thus far. And I don't think I'm more than averagely stupid. I am, however, more than averagely confused after reading this book.


A Good-looking Man
A Good-looking Man
by Andrew Moncur
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Odd, harmless, pointless, nice, 25 Oct 2008
This review is from: A Good-looking Man (Paperback)
A Good Looking Man is not a bad book, I'm just rather puzzled as to why it was written on this side of the Second world War. Make that the First WOrld War. Or perhaps even the Boaer War. It is old fashioned, and okay, in a sort of sub-PG Wodehouse sort of way.

As George Orwell pointed out, PG WOdehouse was hopelessly nostaligic and irrelevant in the 1940s. SO what on Earth are we to make of this? Nothing, I suppsoe, jsut accept it for what it is - nice, not rude, not sidesplittingly funny, but not at all offensive or challenging. But not at all essential or important, not even in the way that PG Wodehouse is a little bit important, because he illustrated what some people thought the world was like. Surely no-one, not even ANdrew Moncur, thinks Britain is as tweely silly as he suggests here.

Which brings me to my gripe with the book - because it is nice, and at the same time so pedestrian, I can't buy into it. As I get older and more bitter I perceive that the presentation of the British as well meaning, harmless eccentrics is a GREAT LIE. So books about such types can only be a minor diversion. And no-one can claim the excuse Orwell offerred Wodehouse, that of impenetrable naivety.


Animals
Animals
by T. Troughton
Edition: Paperback

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Odd, but not unlikeable, collection of stories, 25 Oct 2008
This review is from: Animals (Paperback)
Understand one thing. This is not a great book. Its a moderately entertaining collection of shaggy dog stories, tall tales and meandering diversions, hung together to form a sort of narrative.

As far as it goes, its enjoyable enough - there is plenty of dark humour (though not real pitch-black stuff), some enjoyably daffy characters (Like Ex-Uncle Nigel the Chiltern Goose Strangler, or Sandra The Village Bike, hopeless slapper turned avenging Amazon on a stolen moped...) and the ending is absolutely spot on.

On the down side, the loose structure does occasionally annoy - you wish that Troughton would develop some of the stories from half arsed ideas into proper tales, and the studied weirdness of the tone can get a bit wearing.

But all in all, not at all bad.


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