2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, British Literature, Detective Novel, Fiction, Mystery

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Plot/Story:

“The darkness was rising, but much was still hidden by the shadows.” From the Moors of Devonshire to 221B Baker Street comes Dr. James Mortimer. His aged and aristocratic friend, Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall, has died under mysterious circumstances. It seems a vicious hell-hound has returned to the grounds, reigniting an old family curse that appears to be extinguishing the Baskerville heirs one-by-one, until only one—Sir Henry—remains. Mortimer and Sir Henry explain the family history, and a threat against Sir Henry, to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, begging for help and for answers. After spotting a bearded man following Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer around London, the famous detective and his equally famous partner soon realize the threat is real. Holmes, too busy with a number of cases to leave for Devon, and worried that he has been spotted by the criminal anyway, elects to stay in London, asking Dr. Watson to play the role of primary observer, detective, and bodyguard to Sir Henry. But can Watson alone keep Sir Henry safe from a supernatural evil, especially when a new love enters the picture and threatens to further endanger the heir’s life?

Characterization:

Being one of the few novels in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is more opportunity to introduce multiple characters and for those characters to develop somewhat over the course of the 160-ish pages. That being said, I did not find the same depth or detail as in A Study in Scarlet. I was blown off course slightly in the early part of the book by the circumstances of one character in the Baskerville family lineage, but as it turns out that was a clever red herring, which caused me to mistake the real villain (although I was close and it became obvious not much later). Some have claimed that The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit lazy for Doyle, that there is not as much heart or interest in it, possibly because Doyle had hoped to be finished with the series but felt pressured to continue it (pressured by a rabid fan base and by his publishers). I cannot agree with that opinion, although I do believe that The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely different from Doyle’s previous installments. This feels a different kind of mystery, a different kind of detective story, and with a different kind of hero and villain.

Dr. Watson, for example, gets the most amount of page time. As the usual narrator for these stories, it is not unusual to get his perspective most of the time, but in this case, he is actually the first-hand protagonist, too. Sherlock is present only in the beginning and, of course, in the end, to take the credit as usual. Nevertheless, Holmes is much more genuinely complementary of his partner and even the Inspector than ever before. Could he be growing up? And the villain, who/which shall remain nameless, is both what he/it appears, and not. The secondary characters, from the crotchety old telescope man who sues everybody in town for the fun of it, to the two female characters, and the Baskerville housekeepers, are interesting and add something to the universe being created in this little moorland scene.

Prose/Style:

Something I will never get used to is how quickly I sink into a Sherlock Holmes story, and how rapidly I move through it. This one came in at 160 pages in my edition, a Bantam Classics with tiny font. And yet, I read the entire thing in less than 3 days. The reason for this is not just that the stories are always gripping, clever, and humorous, but that the writing is special, too. I think Doyle was a kind of anthropologist-philosopher who always had unique and enlightening things to say about the human race. An example that struck me came late in the book, when the speaker remarks, “[it] may have been love or may have been fear, or very possibly both, since they are by no means incompatible emotions.” What a special little insight there, unexpected and yet so wholly relevant both to the plot and to human nature more generally. As a master of pace and suspense, clever logic and word play, and good old-fashioned human psychology and emotional insight, Doyle has few peers, particularly in this genre. It makes reading the Sherlock Holmes tales both fun and meaningful.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD! If you have not read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmesand/or “The Final Problem,” you might want to skip this next part. Understood? Well, then, if you are ready, let’s carry on:

This is the first Sherlock Holmes installment following “The Final Problem” (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) wherein the detective apparently gives his life to end Moriarty’s evil machinations. As it turns out, Holmes did not die, but readers will not be treated to an explanation in this first “return.” There were certainly enough reasons why one might conclude, after reading “The Final Problem,” that Holmes might still be alive. One thing I would have liked to see, here, would have been a reckoning of that particular series plot hole, even though it might not have anything in particular to do with this specific installment. That aside, the novel is filled with insights into science and mythology, superstition and the nature of evil. What I think I found most appealing about this particular installment is that it balances a history of bad luck with the opportunities that arise for a true villain to capitalize on myth and on peoples’ fears. A small castle in a small town on the moors of Devonshire seems a perfect setting for the story that unfolds in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is the reality of daylight, where one can walk safely through the moors if one follows the visible pathways, juxtaposed against the true danger of the night, where even a lifelong resident might get lost in the fog and disappear forever. The metaphor is a treat. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

This is the first book completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Book Review, British Literature, Charles Dickens, Classics, Fiction, Literature, Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

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Book Review, Cleo Coyle, Coffee, Contemporary, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Thoughts: On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

303639On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

On What Grounds is the first novel in the popular Coffeehouse Mystery series by Cleo Coyle. In it, we meet Clare Cosi, former manager of one of the most historic coffeehouses in New York City, “The Village Blend.”  Cosi had moved away from New York City with her husband and young daughter, in order to find a quieter, calmer life in the New Jersey suburbs. But after divorcing her husband and seeing her daughter off to college, Cosi is convinced by the owner of The Village Blend to come back and take over management of the store, with added benefits – such as building up equity toward becoming the eventual owner.  All seems to be going well for Cosi at this middle point of her life, but everything changes when she gets to New York City and, upon reentering The Village Blend for the first time, finds her assistant manager at the bottom of the Blend’s basement stairs, unconscious and surrounded by suspicious evidence of foul play.

Characterization:
3 – Characters very well-developed.

This first book in the series introduces us to an interesting and eclectic set of characters, some of whom are likely to return in future books. Clare Cosi, being the main character, is the most developed of the cast.  She is relatively well-rounded and developed, with interesting flashbacks and histories (and romantic inclinations) provided, particularly for a mystery novel (which I find tend to be lacking in character development).  In addition, her mother-in-law and owner of The Village Blend, “Madame,” is great fun, though not a prominent figure.  Cosi’s ex-husband, Matt, has memorable traits, and we also learn about the victim – Annabelle – through interviews with her teachers, dance colleagues, roommate, etc., all of whom add some depth and complexity to the story by virtue of their being there (none are wonderfully developed, but they do add the necessary “ah, who had the better motive, indeed?” moments).  Finally, the detective assigned to Annabelle’s case, Lt. Quinn, brings with him some flirtatiousness, rivaling Matt, somewhat, for Cosi’s attention – their love triangle is entertaining.  What I appreciate most is that Cosi makes even the minor characters have character, but I am left hoping that future books continue to develop the main characters who manage to stick around for any length of time.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I most enjoyed about On What Grounds was probably Coyle’s language and style.  It is perfectly fitting for a Contemporary Adult mystery novel, but it is also tightly crafted, fluid, well-constructed, and simply interesting overall.  Coyle infuses various elements, too, which are not typical of the genre (discussed below), and she manages to incorporate these elements, which are really of equal importance to the plot, seamlessly into the narrative.  This mystery is a page-turner not just because of its classic “whodunit?” pacing, but because the balance of all of the competing themes and elements is spot-on.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

It seems clear to me that Cleo Coyle has some background in literature, even if simply as a voracious reader.  There are certain styles she uses, references she makes, and quotes that are dropped which fit in too neatly with the given situations to have been cribbed or looked-up simply for effect.  Although I am not typically a reader of mysteries/murder mysteries, any which go to lengths to reach beyond their “genre boundary” (yes, that’s partially me exposing my bias, but it’s also true that genre writers often write within their conventions because they quite thoroughly understand their audience’s expectations) and add unique perspective, especially literary, to their works get a nod of recognition and gratitude from me.  It is not just this added element, though, but also the inclusion of such passionate exploration and explanation of coffee, coffeehouses, related products and processes, recipes, etc. which make this book so much fun to read, especially for a coffee addict like me.  If you love a good mystery with a diversity of characters, a relatively well-designed plot, and some added features, and if you happen to be a coffee-lover, well, this book (and series) is probably for you.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Mystery, Coffee, Fiction, Contemporary.

Notable Quotes:

“Though coffee may seem a small thing, it is a ritual that reflects the daily standards we set for ourselves throughout our lives” (31).

“Darkness can’t hide. Not forever. Not even in the vastness of space” (174).

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2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, 2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Adventure, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Classics Club, Detective Novel, Fiction, Mystery

Thoughts: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1065804The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 55

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the third in the Sherlock Holmes series, following two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) and a collection of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). It contains eleven stories, in total, which, much like the previous titles in this series, tackle a range of social, political, and ethnic topics, all the while entertaining the reader with witty narrative and engaging, sometimes surprising mysteries and detective work.

My edition is, unfortunately, true to the revised original American edition of the collection, which edited out a story called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The story is now printed in American editions of the collection titled “His Last Bow,” which I do have, so I’ll get to it eventually. Of course, I’m a purist, though, so it irks me very much to have to read stories out of the order of original publication or author intention.

That being said, the collection is a good one. I particularly enjoyed “The Yellow Face,” which was a story of ahead of its time, in my opinion. This one tells of a young American woman who meets a young British man, they marry and move to England together. Soon enough, the woman’s secret history is uncovered, and the revelations are (for the time) shocking. As a modern reader, however, there is a certain delight and admiration for the risk Doyle took, here, and for the stance that the narrative takes on issues of equality and human decency. It was a pleasant surprise.

Others in the collection which I rather enjoyed include “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” both of which had interesting elements of darker, Poe-esque mystery; also, “The Reigate Puzzle” and “The Naval Treaty,” both of which had elements of heightened daring, danger, and suspense. Finally, of course, there is “The Final Problem,” which is not only a wonderful short story, but, knowing the history of the series, a moving read. It adds a very deep, personal element to the character of Sherlock Holmes, a human side which his character sometimes (intentionally) lacks. Even knowing that the series continues, it was a difficult read and a sad ending!

All this taken into consideration, I still prefer, over all, the first collection in the Holmes series. I was bothered by the very close similarity of “The Stock-broker’s Clerk” to an earlier Sherlock Holmes story (“The Red-headed League”). The two stories seemed like the reworking of a very similar plot. Of course, Doyle wrote from a standardized formula of sorts, but even still, it felt to me much too similar, in this case. Perhaps to Doyle, too, considering where he tried to go with “The Final Problem.”

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection is an interesting piece to the overall Holmes collection. As in the previous works, this one is narrated by Watson, but many of the stories find Watson specifically trying to point out just how unremarkable Sherlock Holmes is – how lucky he sometimes gets, how even he can be stumped, at times. The purpose of this is probably two-fold; first, to set up readers’ expectations for the last story in the collection and second, to round out and make more realistic the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Perhaps there had been some instance that Doyle make Sherlock Holmes seem less of a superhero – how interesting can a character with no flaws be, after all?

Ultimately, I continue to be pleased with these stories and every time I revisit the next book in the collection, I find myself wondering what took me so long to get back to it. These are always some of the most fun, entertaining, and engaging reading experiences, and it rarely takes me more than a few days to get through the entire book. Doyle’s writing, in Memoirs, remains fresh and accessible, and he continues to push certain boundaries, which adds depth and intrigue to books which might otherwise be simply light, “pleasure” reading.

One final note: I may or may not have known this (though I certainly didn’t remember), but the title from another favorite book of mine, by Mark Haddon, actually seems to have come from one of these stories! In “The Silver Blaze,” Colonel Ross asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” and Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Wow!

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Detective Stories, 19th Century Britain, Social Justice, Crime, British Fiction, Short Stories, 1,001 Books.

Notable Quotes:

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” (“The Gloria Scott”)

“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” (“The Yellow Face”)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.” (“The Final Problem”)

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” (“The Naval Treaty”)

“It’s every man’s business to see justice done.” (“The Crooked Man”)

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Crime Novel, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery, Stephen King, Supernatural

Review: Joyland by Stephen King

13596166

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Joyland by Stephen King

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 43


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Stephen King’s Joyland is the latest in his massive repertoire of what I will hereafter describe as “really cool reading stuff.”  In this supernatural mystery crime thriller (yep, it is all of that), young Devin Jones, fresh out of his first year of college, heads down the eastern U.S. coastline to take a summer job at an old-fashioned amusement park called, you guessed it, Joyland.  While trying to get over “that” girl, the devastatingly beautiful tease who became his first love and who broke his heart for the first time, Devin soon finds himself involved in the very peculiar life of a dying boy, his bombshell mother, and a decades old murder that all of them must somehow solve together, or else.  What starts off as a curiosity – a folk legend and a hobby- for Devin and his Joyland friends, soon turns into a terrifying nightmare which will change Devin’s life forever.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the areas where I tend to find King lacking is in his character development.  His stories and their connection with the reader are always at the forefront, so his characters seem to be there only as means to an end.  What King wants for his reader is self-immersion – the stories should be happening to you.  He does manage to accomplish this, better than most, but, still, characters are one of my favorite (and, in my opinion, one of the most important) aspects of any good novel, so I do look for their strengths, weaknesses, growth, etc.  Joyland is a short novel, without much room for growth, but King does allow his main character, Devin, to experience certain major life events and to learn from them. Most of the minor characters (which includes everyone except Devin) are relatively flat throughout, except for Annie.  Her story, along with that of her sick son, Mike, are the very touching secondary support that the primary story needs to make this book just complicated enough – just emotional enough- to touch the reader on a deeper level. Devin’s growth coincides with his relationship with these two, and Annie’s growth, too, happens only because Devin comes into their life.  The other friends, park workers, and even the primary antagonist are sidelined for the majority of the story but, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Stephen King obviously knows how to write a story – his prolific body of work, permanent best-seller status, and massive personal wealth (not to mention all those page-to-screen adaptations) can attest to this.  Typically, though, something about King’s writing will irk me.  I sometimes find it a little bit too pedantic, or a little bit too graphic, or a little bit trying-to-hard-to-be-shocking.  This time, though, King seems to be deeply in love with his story, and his writing reflects that.  The book is a page-turner, not because it is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller or horror novel, like so many of his others.  Yes, you do want to find out what happens next, but it is because you are engrossed with Devin’s life.  Sure, you realize there are things happening beneath the surface – secrets that are bound to be revealed, soon. But, also, you just want to be a part of Devin’s life.  You are happy for him when he finds enjoyment in perhaps the most un-enjoyable job imaginable.  You are thrilled when his relationship with Annie starts to progress, and when you learn more about Mike.  King’s dialogue is believable, Devin’s awkwardness is believable, and the descriptions of people, places, etc. are interesting enough to engage the reader and drive the plot forward.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Joyland is not as scary, nor as suspenseful, nor as gory, nor as crude as I expected it to be.  I mean, this is King, after all.  Where is the horror?  Where are the blatantly graphic sexual episodes?  I realize that I always anticipate something from King, and yet he always manages to surprise me.  This has happened with every King book I’ve read, from Christine to Gunslinger, from Carrie to “The Body.”  Although King sometimes uses the fantastical, the terrifying, and the unbelievable to get his point across, his stories are, at heart, very much about human nature and the human experience. Joyland is no exception; in fact, it might just be King at the peak of his storytelling ability.  This book left me with a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt since seeing the Spielberg film Super 8 just a few years ago.  It reminds one of “the good old days” – where innocence and experience begin to meet, where love has crushed us, but the future still shines bright; where mystery entices us and, despite our better judgment, we dive for it only to find ourselves in over our heads.  The book was, really, a delight.  It is sad, but hopeful; fantastic, but real; and current, but elegiac.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Crime Thriller, Mystery, Supernatural, Coming-of-Age.

Notable Quotes:

“Age looked at youth, and youth’s applause first weakened, then died.”

“The mind defends itself as long as it can.”

“Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go.”

“Some people hide their real faces. Sometimes you can tell when they’re wearing masks, but not always.”

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping toward you, you hold on to what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.”


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Book Review, Dan Brown, Fiction, Mystery

Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

200px-Inferno-coverInferno by Dan Brown
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 38

Robert Langdon is back again.  After Angels and Demons, The DaVinci Code, and The Lost Symbol, it might be hard to imagine how Langdon could get himself mixed-up in another deadly web of powerful nemeses, megalomaniacs, and centuries’-old tales filled with puzzles, lies, and misdirection.  When will he learn!?  As it turns out, in this installment, we meet Langdon after he has already gotten himself very involved in a plot to save(?) the world, but he doesn’t know it.  He has amnesia, and if he cannot get his memories back – soon- all of humankind could be at risk.  Along the way, he partners with a brilliant woman who is a master of disguise and they will balance between two powerful, opposing forces, both of whom are bent on getting their hands on a secret weapon before Langdon does. But, as always, not all is at it appears and not everyone is who they pretend to be.  Can Langdon navigate his way through the clues and disguises before it’s too late?

In the past, I have been a great fan of Brown’s Robert Langdon books. They have always been fast-paced, interesting, and cleverly infused with mystery, history, and dangerous liaisons, if not the “greatest” or “best” books of all time, in terms of depth, craft, etc.  Still, they are entertaining and thought-provoking on some level, so they serve their two primary purposes quite well and I am perfectly happy claiming them as guilty little pleasures.  Inferno, however, was not as thrilling or satisfying as its predecessors.  Perhaps my tastes are changing, or perhaps Brown just didn’t manage to create the kind of attention-holding plot and prose that he has done in the past; whatever the case, it wasn’t until about half-way through the book that I finally managed to settle in and enjoy the story. 

Some of the characters, like Bertrand Zobrist – the story’s primary antagonist, a brilliant scientist and madman who, though the “bad guy” of the story isn’t actually present in it- are quite interesting.  The same can be said for other outliers, such as Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the World Health Organization, and her direct opponent in the quest to “the weapon,” the Consortium Provost.  Although minor characters, they were interesting and their motives and personalities seemed the most complex.  The main characters, Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks, were interesting enough but, somehow, fell a bit flat.  This could be because their outcomes were expected and also because Langdon, now appearing in his fourth story, is not very surprising (even though the story of his trying to get his memory back did add a few layers, at least).   While there were some surprises throughout the story, the main twists were, for the most part, fairly exposed.

Brown does depart slightly from the more overtly religious themes and takes us into the realm of literary history and humanism.  Although much of this tale has to do with science, technology, and issues of “the greater sacrifice,” it does not completely separate itself from religion.  The journey that Robert Langdon is on is initiated and advanced by clues found within Dante’s Inferno and various works of art which interpret that text.  Considering that the text (and the subsequent paintings) is a depiction of hell, the most famous depiction of all time, themes of morality, sin, and sacrifice/redemption of course come into play.  As always, some of the most interesting elements about this book are its interpretations of history, artwork, historical figures, movements, and, yes, the puzzles.  While there is a great deal of factual information, there is also much speculation and pure invention/fantasy, which can be said of all of Dan Brown’s books.  Understanding the difference is important (as witnessed by the masses of folks who were swept away by what they believed to be the “truth” in Brown’s DaVinci Code).  That being said, his sometimes far-fetched theories are fun to wonder about and, who knows, might just hold certain truths.

Ultimately, for most of the book, I felt myself wishing that I were re-reading The DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons, rather than finishing the book in hand. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Puzzles/Codes, Action/Adventure, Science, Technology, History.


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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Drugs, Gay Lit, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, Lauren Myracle, LGBT, Mystery, Young Adult

Thoughts: Shine by Lauren Myracle

8928054Shine by Lauren Myracle
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 31

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Cat and Patrick are best of friends.  Cat is a tomboy who doesn’t mind getting a bit dirty and who doesn’t realize just how pretty she is.  Patrick is a bit of a nerd and an introvert, though he does have friends.  He’s also openly gay, which is brave considering he and Cat live in very rural North Carolina.  As Cat becomes a teenager, she learns, in a terrible way, just how much her body has changed and how she has begun to catch the eye of boys her age (and older).  Although the disturbing thing that happens to her is only alluded to during the first part of the story, it clearly affects her relationship with her family and with her friends – she, too, becomes introverted and, because of this, is not with her best friend Patrick when the book’s major tragedy strikes.  She blames herself for not being there to help and, on her quest to find out what happened and to bring the criminal to justice, she also begins to repair herself and her old friendships, and even to seek out new ones. 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Although some of the characters, such as Jason, a friend of Patrick’s who, like Cat, is determined to find out what happened to him, seem a bit too conveniently placed to be believable, most of them are integral to the plot, work well with the story, and fit in with the particular group of people in this particular place that Myracle has created.  Mama Sweetie, Patrick’s grandmother, leaves a legacy for Patrick and Cat even after she is gone; Cat’s father, brother, and aunt, all play pivotal roles in developing her character and her response to Patrick’s tragedy; her friends (The Redneck Posse) are realistic in their actions, good and bad, and in the ways they treat one another, as well as any outsiders.  They are complex enough, too, to add further mystery to the plot and to complicate Cat’s investigation, not to mention her own attempt at reintegrating herself with the group.  The minor characters, such as the church ladies, the meth cooker, and the bar tender, are static (some might say cliché), but they do round-out the community environment and serve their purposes.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

For the most part, I found Myracle’s prose to be perfectly suited to the reading level and the tone of the novel.  She clearly knows a great deal about this particular region (or areas like it) or has researched it enough to portray it in a realistic way.  That being said, the dialogue (and internal monologues) sometimes came across as less than natural.  Still, it was well-written and well-executed.  Allowing Cat to be the narrator post-incident, and to reflect on those incidents (her major pain as well as Patrick’s) while she was investigating what happened, was a great approach, as it allowed the protagonist to grow and mature in a recognizable way.  Seeing Cat as a child, through her own memory, and watching her come to terms with difficult things in her life, particularly when she begins to understand the reasons why some of the people in her life may have let her down, provides much of the power and depth of the story, so crafting the plot this way and then delivering it so that it unfolds naturally and slowly was a smart, creative choice.   

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Cat, though the hero and protagonist of this book, also has her own demons to deal with and personality flaws to overcome.  Part of what makes this story such a good one is that it is not just about one mysterious hate crime or one person’s attempt to solve it.  Cat learns a lot about herself along the way – she is forced to admit to herself that even she was sometimes guilty of silent acquiescence, allowing others to bully her friend Patrick because she was afraid that, if she stood up for him, she might become the target.  Similarly, Beef’s story is also moving and doubly complex because of the two major secrets he carries.  This story isn’t just about friendship or a rural town’s bigotry; it’s not just about the rich versus the poor; it’s not about underground drug cartels or incompetent police forces.  It’s about a community steeped in tragedy, a community that is all of those things and more, all at the same time, and about a group of people who are trying to live as best they can when faced with obstacles great and small.   

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Young Adult (13+, with some mature elements)
Interest:  Coming-of-Age; Friendship; Homophobia; Rural South; Identity Issues; Family; Poverty; LGBT; Mystery; Drugs; YA.

Notable Quotes:

“I loved everyone who said yes to the world and tried to make it better instead of worse, because so much in the world was ugly.”

“Knowledge was more powerful than fear. Love was stronger than hate.”

“Girls kept their bodies tucked in tight, while boys took up every inch of room they could.”

“We all mess up.  It’s what we learn from our mistakes that matters.”

“You know it’s them books what make you talk funny.”

Shine is Book #8 completed for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

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