As with some of the other reviewers, this was my introduction to John Connolly, and I was pleased to make his acquaintance. "Hell's Bells" is written for the pre-teen audience, with plenty of innocent comedy, but touches on some of the larger moral issues that you might not expect to see in a children's book, with a very (unstated, but obvious) Christian emphasis, despite there being no mention of the other side ("God", Heaven, angels, clergy, etc). There are obvious nods to Dante's Inferno and Pilgrim's Progress in the architecture of Hell and the episodic progression of the various characters through Hell; the clearest stylistic comparison would be Terry Pratchett, and yet I am also strongly reminded of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. In particular, I loved the footnotes, with their quirky emphasis on the history of science, and wished there were more of them (I am still thinking about the one involving Marat and Lavoisier).
Connolly has two characters "saved" from Hell, in a way: one through willingness for self-sacrifice which indicates repentance; the other implicitly through his friendship with Samuel. The other characters in Hell remain there, damned by their own attitudes, both devils and souls. The nature of the devils and imps was sometimes used for horror, and at other times for comedy; this is an uneasy mixture, resolved by keeping the horrific devils well separated from the comic ones. Glimpses of the Great Malevolence were scarce, rather like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, and therefore not entirely compelling as the opposition, leading to the question: if he is mad, then can he really be the Devil?
This books is very clearly book two in a longer series: I was content enough to read it without having read the prequel, although, as is the nature of most series, I reached the end without feeling that there was a proper resolution, hence the four stars rating.
I'll keep an eye open for other books by Connolly, and I may still go back and read the first book in this series. If you're a parent or a teacher looking for a fun book with some very serious points for discussion, I can think of few better.
Hell's Bells is a book that has a good storyline with the odd unusual twist, plenty of quirky characters and a bent towards educating young and old alike. There are also some similarities with other books which left me with an odd sense of deja vu when I finished the final pages. I also found myself making double-takes when presented with the various moral concepts within the main plot. This does not mean, however, that I did not enjoy the whole experience hugely.
The plot concerns Samuel Johnson and his dog, Boswell, who get pulled into Hell by Mrs. Abernathy, a fiend bent on using him for her own ends (they met in a previous book). Along with Samuel, by mistake, come two policeman, an ice-cream man - complete with his van - and three rather naughty dwarves. The story gives the reader an account of how they all attempt to return home and also a vivid tour of Hell and its innermost workings. The account is extremely engaging, well written and the humour tremendous, so much so that I found myself laughing out loud. I also thought that the tale unfolded sufficiently carefully so that the reader was drawn through the book and the action did not flag.
It is important to say from the start that this story is aimed at children of eight and above. I think, however, that some of the vocabulary would be a little too difficult for the younger ones and many would require input from both adult and dictionary to interpret the text. This does not mean, however, that they would not enjoy the story and the writing style, which is very good indeed. Older children (and adults) would get more from it, however, especially with regard to the reasonably lengthy footnotes covering scientific and background material: I actually applaud the inclusion of these because there are some who may wish to read around the subject matter and this will get them started.
I felt that the book carried more than a few allusions to other authors' works. I can see more than a hint of Terry Pratchett in the pages, not to mention Tolkein. I also kept on detecting a heavy influence from C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan. This did not bother me particularly but was simply intriguing. There is a point in the story where a character actually feels true remorse but it was only by making an act of sacrifice that he manages to escape the bonds of Hell: now, where does that come from, I wonder? Indeed, there are quite a number of references to the nature of evil and good that would appeal to an interested audience.
The real question is whether I would buy this book for a child - or, indeed, recommend it. I think the answer to this is a resounding "yes". The writing is sound, the plot is well constructed, it is genuinely funny writing and there is science education thrown in. In the tradition of many tales, there is also a mirror held up to the nature of life and this is to be applauded.
Oh, and for the adults, there is home-brewed beer!
John Connolly seems to be trying to tell a story here.
It might even have turned out to be a good story. The
novel revisits territory laid out in his earlier invention
'The Gates', with which I am, admittedly, unfamiliar.
My struggle with the novel rests with Mr Connolly's
persistent, some would say compulsive, interruption of his
own narrative, with asides, parethetical observations and
footnotes which, after a very short while, become irritating
in the extreme. These intrusions are meant, I am certain,
to be both witty and informative but they dislocate the progress
of the adventure to an inordinate and highly frustrating degree.
He laughs at his own jokes and made it impossible for me to laugh
along with him, like an embarrasing uncle at a Christmas party.
It is a shame. Some of his creations, particularly the wicked
Mrs Abernathy and obsequious demon Ozymuth, are well-drawn and
full of potential but are ultimately suffocated by the author's
inability to just let them get on with their dastardly business.
'Hells Bells' is a hugely disappointing experience. Mr Connolly
seems unable to make up his mind what kind of a book he most wants
us to read. A thriller? A comedy? A scientific treatise? By the end
of his ramblings I found that I could not really have cared less.
At your own risk.
I enjoyed this book. It is a very good, well-written adventure story, which is very amusing in places and with a good deal of thoughtful and erudite stuff, too.
This book has a distinct voice of its own, but there are echoes of Terry Pratchett, Radio 4's Old Harry's Game, Tolkien and even Philip Pullman in places. The story, of a young teenage boy with his dog and a motley assortment of friends lost in Hell and trying to prevent its demons invading Earth, got off to a rather slow start and I found some of the humour at the beginning a bit laboured, too. I certainly kept reading, though, and once it got going the book was excellent - very exciting, full of remarkable imagination, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places and with some important things to say about good, evil and what it is to be a decent human being.
I thought that the most enduring passages were some Dante-esque encounters which Samuel (our hero) has with people in Hell being punished for their sins by being forced to live them out for all eternity. I found his encounter with the Void very powerful and the episode with The Blacksmith genuinely moving. To include all this in such a gripping and amusing story is quite something, and I think this book will appeal to older children and adults alike. Warmly recommended.
I'd never heard of the author so was surprised by the blurb about how much he's sold.
I enjoyed the tone of the book which reminded me of Douglas Adams - talking directly to the reader in an observational manner with bits of humor added. But it wasn't overly sarcastic and I liked the fact that these communications took the form of footnotes - not at all difficult to read, they connected nicely to imply the style of a science book...Which was convenient as there are sporadic modern scientific theories mentioned accurately as part of the plot...That is not to say this is in anyway 'educational' it just that the science mentioned is (currently) correct; and I like that very much in a book, especially one aimed at young people.
To be honest the only reason this is a 'young persons' book is that the lead character is a 13 year old boy. There are few other concessions and as such if you are a willing adult you should get as much out of this as the next 'young' person.
Really engaging from the offset, easy to pick up when you've been distracted by life getting in the way of reading. I would happily read the next one in the series - although I'm not sure there would be any point in reading the previous one other than purely for enjoyment as the plot outcome is known.
As is always the case with John Connolly, regardless of whether the book is targeted at adults or children, his stories are engaging. I loved the first children's book The Gates that Connolly wrote. The character of Nurd had me in stitches of laughter, and this book again didn't disappoint. I have to admit, it's a little slow to get going, and all the foot notes tend to be a little distracting. Whatever the case, this story didn't disappoint, nor did the characters.
I'd say this book is for children and big kids alike. With the same writing style as his Bird Parker books, all characters are brought to life and really make the story worth reading.
on 23 February 2012
Yes, this is by THE John Connolly - the genial Irish author who has produced a number of brilliant crime-based novels with a supernatural theme. 'HB: SJVTD rII' (maybe I shouldn't have gone for the title contraction!) is fun, picaresque, and naturally it has a supernatural element to it. Oh, and not only is it aimed at children, but is a direct sequel to a previous work, 'The Gates'.
All the big crime and SF authors seem to be producing 'young adult' or children's novels these days, including (off the top of my head): Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ian McDonald, Kathy Reichs... even Carl Hiaasen and John Grisham! So does this mean there's an ever-growing market for young adult fiction out there? That would be very encouraging if it were true.
Anyway, without over-analysing this book, while it's an enjoyable romp that could easily be given to an intelligent pre-teen child, if said child has already sampled the delights of Messrs Pullman, or Gaiman, or Phillip Reeve or Garth Nix, or Pratchett or ... any one of a half-a-dozen other names I could mention, they may find this falls a little flat in comparison to the heady heights scaled by these other authors.
So, I'll stick with your adult stuff for now John (to be fair, this book isn't aimed at my generation!) - I greatly look forward to the next instalment in the Charlie Parker (aided by Louis and Angel) sequence.
* My three star rating is how I personally felt about the book. I have no young adult to consult so I could be doing John a MAJOR disservice.
I chose this because I had already read the first book in the Samuel Johnson series; 'The Gates' and thoroughly enjoyed it. This sequel did not disappoint. It is possible to read the sequel as a standalone novel, as everything you need to know that happened previously is explained briefly at the beginning of this novel, but it would be well worth reading them in order if you possibly can. John Connolly's imagination is rich, exciting, funny and also frightening. He mixes literary allusions with popular science, contemporary cultural references and a quirky world view that makes this story fresh, original and very engaging.
Be warned that this story, although it is told with a light touch, is quite dark, and in places frightening. It is not for the younger reader, and I would say you would need to be at least twelve, probably older, for me to be comfortable recommending it as a book for younger readers.
Samuel is a young school boy, who happens to have a dog called Boswell. This allusion amused me greatly. I can't imagine many teenagers getting this at all, and I am not being patronising here. I wouldn't have myself at the time. You don't need to get it to enjoy the story, nor any of the other allusions peppered through the book. They just add to the rich texture of the novel if you do. Samuel, in the previous book, has already had a run in with Ba'al, second in command only to the devil himself, who due to an unfortunate incident with the Hadron Collider has managed to create a portal through to a small, English town called Biddlecombe. Ba'al inhabits the body of a middle aged woman called Mrs. Abernathy and proceeds to wreak havoc on earth. Samuel, with the help of his demon friend Nurd, has foiled Mrs. Abernathy's plot, and she is now infesting the lower reaches of hell and plotting her revenge on Samuel. This ends up involving several policmen, some dwarves and an ice cream van that plays How Much Is That Doggy In The Window. An excellent book.
It is worth coming clean up front: this is a book aimed at teenagers and probably around the 11 - 14 mark. I am not 11 - 14 but enjoyed it none the less. It is not in the same cross over bracket as Philip Pullman's Dark Materials etc which appeal on many different levels but is entertaining all the same. The style is pseudo Pratchett although it does seem a little forced.
In summary (without spoilers) it is a sequel where Samuel Johnson is transported to Hell and in finding his way home travels across and vivid and entertainingly strange landscape of Hell complete with imaginative demons and a large dose of irony. He is accompanied by 4 dwarves, 2 policemen and an ice cream van. There is plenty of comic gore, acid rain and talking heads to name but a few things.
What I liked: it's fun, the landscape is vivid and the demons imaginative and it flows well. Hard to relate back to being a teenage boy but I probably would have liked it. The irreverence of painting a picture of Hell in this way would probably be lost on most children!
What I didn't like: the sentence construction certainly at the beginning of the book felt a bit odd. The sentences were long and jumbled and I found it really hard to get on with. It may have been designed like that and may appeal to some readers but I just found it annoying. Likewise with the footnotes Pratchett style - they come across as a bit patronising and seemed forced into the text rather than flowing with it like they do in Discworld.
Overall: definitely worth a read although maybe not one for pride of place on the bookshelf.
Having been a fan of John Connolly since the very first Charlie Parker novel Every Dead Thing I have been fascinated to see his progress from hard gritty noiresque genre fiction, with always the hint of "Otherness" which has made him so readable and into full blown fantasy fiction with his own interest in science and the physical world (see interview on Amazon Connolly page), and not only fantasy fiction but a blend of age group demographic i.e. knowing adolescent and kidult. The footnotes in the current novel are a real give way.
There are broad hints in Nocturnes (2004) that Mr Connolly has more than Charlie Parker up his sleeve and this is later proved in the volume The Book Of Lost Things that should have been illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley.
Any reader daring to have omitted to read the first Samuel Johnson adventure is roundly slapped within the first chapter and you just know that Connolly is not going to leave you alone to read this book but will be constantly chivvying you along with these footnote interjections. Does this appeal to an adolescent reader who, in my experience, will not do what he is told if anything the reverse?
Mr Connolly does however have a little problem in that his influences are very visible as his Hell is located geographically/literary somewhere the other side of Narnia and beneath the lowest depths of the cellars at Hogwarts. It is probably impossible for any writer in this genre not to be compared to Ms J.K. whom I assume has a Faustian pact with her own Grand Malevolence for lending her the whole Harry Potter ideas in exchange for her soul!!
Connolly's discussion in this series ~ I just know there will be many more ~ is the age old one of Good V Evil, it is a storyline that will never be old. Indeed he opens this second volume with a Hawkinsesque* debate on the birth of Evil along with the Big Bang Theory and concludes correctly and morally :
"All things considered, its better to be on the side of Good, even if Evil occasionally has nicer uniforms"
and like much of this book aimed at children he winks at the adult reader who has stumbled upon the volume (like me) and can see the Alan Bennett/stand up comedian bursting through. Indeed the overriding effect of the book is one of humour, the kind of humour a dad might share with his kid if this is their bedtime book or an uncle with a sweet little niece with a taste for the macabre.
Any book that has a character that is a multi-tentacled demon with a taste for drag (dressing up as a lady i. e. Mrs Abernathy) has my vote! Thank you Mr Connolly...
* or should that now be Coxesque ~ see how footnotes are contagious!!