The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 22, 2013 at 18:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )




It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.

A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.

“‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.'”

-The Hound of the Baskervilles

Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.

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War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )




It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.

Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-War and Peace

This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.

The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!

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Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

August 3, 2013 at 19:00 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , , , )




This is as difficult a book to review as it is to read. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this weblog what a rare pleasure it is to finish reading a book, and only recollect afterwards that one has been forced to overlook no clumsy grammar or contrived plotline, and forgive the author for no grave errors. We can talk about a willing suspension of disbelief: perhaps the time has come to talk about a willing suspension of criticism. Conrad is another of these talented authors for whom this willing suspension of criticism is unnecessary. His novel is brisk and rich in language and in detail. Heart of Darkness reads like a stone plunged into a calm pool: sudden, abrupt, harsh, and without apology. It is delightful to read, simply for the eloquent lavishness of the author’s pen. On that account, it is a very good book indeed.

“‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the darkest places of the earth.'”

-Heart of Darkness

The structural conceit of the unlikely narrator regaling a boat full of dozy sailors with his tale is an uncertain prospect, and can seem like a vague annoyance when it crops up for a sentence or two at rare intervals; nothing else in the manner in which the book is laid out can possibly cause dismay. It is the story itself that seems a little unsatisfying, after a while. There is a heavy atmosphere of leaden inevitability, borne out stolidly and without much in the way of relief. Almost everything in this short story happens as if it were predestined, and happens very quickly at that.

“The horror! The horror!”

-Heart of Darkness

If the darkness is in a hurry to gobble the narrator and all his accomplices up, then it is in a greater hurry to belch them all up at the end. While there is a certain amount of dramatic tension, it all takes place so rapidly that there is really no time for the reader to either digest what has happened, or adapt to it. This is an important book, and deserving of its place in literary history. It is a pleasure to read, but not necessarily a pleasure to reflect upon.

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Candide, by Voltaire

June 8, 2013 at 08:01 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Comedy, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Philosophy) (, , , )




Voltaire’s controversial masterpiece is an impressive chunk of book; none the less considering it is still able to provoke strong reactions two and a half centuries after its initial publication. That alone does not make it worthwhile or amazing: strong emotions can be conjured by simple things. But there is no denying its cleverness. Cursed cleverness sometimes, and seldom in the service of anything clearly noble or even clear. Voltaire’s mockery of altruism is as plain as the nose on one’s face, but his derision for any who might dare to read his tragicomedy so straightforwardly shows through in many places, leading astute readers to suspect that he is equally contemptuous of pessimists, who might nod sagely at his farcical series of mishaps while he laughs behind the backs of both.

“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.'”


It is the great trick of snide writers to be able to sneer at any strong belief their readers hold, regardless of what that belief is. An excellent review (for which this review is at least partly an apologetic) makes the very salient point that Candide paints so black a picture of the worldview it seeks to emasculate that it becomes useless, and distorts everything into a caricature. But Voltaire’s clumsy straw man is a pastiche not only of altruism, but a cruel sketch of those who would themselves construct such straw men.

It is very unpleasant to be laughed at, and for that reason it is tempting to adopt the same distant aloofness and join Voltaire in his ivory tower. He is a misanthrope, and it is very difficult to see things from a misanthrope’s point of view without also joining him in his pathology. This can cause problems for readers unwilling to enter into conspiracy with the author. Several writers both modern and classic exhibit this same disagreeable trait of being unbearably clever (and sometimes even witty) without being at all likeable or honest: Joseph Heller, for instance; or Will Self.

There is a great deal of parable in Candide, and a hallmark of a parable is its licence to dispense with logical storyline (“and then, because it suits my purposes, an Ogre appeared in Grimsby”), dispense with a willing suspension of disbelief (“and just as her pursuers caught up to her, she grew great wings and took to the sky”), and dispense with solid characters (“once upon a time there was a wicked witch”). Because of this, if one is unwilling to enter into conspiracy against the public with Voltaire, there is very little in this book that will be at all interesting. Because of this, the author clearly expects shortcomings in his story to be forgiven at the behest of his message. One’s willingness to do this (or at least to feign it) will be directly proportional to one’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this book.

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

June 1, 2013 at 09:19 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror, Literature) (, , )




The chief and noticeable feature in Frankenstein is the peculiarly direct route that Shelley takes from the beginning to the end. With the possible exception of the brief Shetland adventure, both the eponymous doctor and his creation turn neither to the left nor to the right on their individual paths; but pursue each other without hindrance or pause from one fixed point to the next.

The monster, therefore, sets its mind upon one thing, which is sought until it is achieved or until it is forever out of reach. The doctor, likewise. This straight highway of a narrative leads to very few surprises for the reader, and the impending doom of tragedy is lessened by its visibility–and simultaneously heightened by its inevitability. For this reason above others, the book has a tendency to drag its feet. Any attempt by Shelley to create suspense is largely futile–and she seems to recognise this, and aims at pathos rather than tension.

” I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm.”


Stylistically, Frankenstein is not a displeasing work. For all its gothic legacy, it reads generally like any of its contemporary works of literature, with the only distinction being that the tragedies mourned and the victories celebrated have a supernatural patina to them. It is not a very atmospheric book, nor is the monstrous horror of the grinning demoniac particularly prominent. A lengthy monologue by the creature is presented in much the same way it would have been had its narrator been a normal human, and besides a few physical descriptions of his diabolical aspect, the creature is remarkably unremarkable.

This is a book with a very strong concept, whose author under no circumstances allows the story to get in the way of that concept. It is not possible to find any grave flaws with the writing, but it is almost as difficult to find a great deal of beauty in it. The book is unlikely to conjure up any very strong emotions in its readers, and must rely instead on its competency and its novelty. This might well be a classic book, but it perhaps deserves to be called good literature, not great.

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The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

September 29, 2012 at 14:31 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


An infuriating and disjointed recasting of the Arthur legend, yet one that has its own wisdom and its own profundity. The four books that make up The Once and Future King are strikingly different from each other, and narrative threads are picked up and dropped without any regard for the sanity of the reader. T.H. White has a habit of telling a character’s story avidly and with deep interest for a hundred pages, and then offhandedly remarking that so-and-so was killed in such-and-such an indistinguished manner. He jarringly veers between whimsical lyricism and darkly savage tragicomedy without warning, and he has a habit of inserting lengthy lists and parades of commas quite purposefully and utterly shamelessly into his prose, obfuscating honest attempts to snuggle into his story.

“It is generally the trusting and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.

-The Once and Future King

This is one of those books whose excellence is found principally in single-line quotations in which White demonstrates his keen intellect and fascinating insight, and also in the grand scope of tragedy as a whole. It is not a book that is enjoyable to read as a story, nor is it easy. Irrelevant tangents abound, crucial characters slip in and out of view, and White seems much more interested in slipping in philosophic observations than in structuring a novel.

Readers of fantasy looking for a comfortable world of sugarspun hamlets and parochial squires had better look elsewhere. Likewise, fantasy readers searching for dragons and wizards and knightly quests will not find satisfaction here. This is a grown-up fantasy book, which is to say it is bleak and merciless, and contains jewels of cleverness (though not always wisdom) sprinkled sparingly throughout. There are passages which show off T.H. White as a master writer, and passages which show him off as needlessly convoluted, or stylistically hamstrung. Appreciate it for its merits, and by all means underline passages; but to devote oneself to this book–to absolutely fall in love with it–seems to be a difficult task indeed.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

June 27, 2012 at 17:12 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


The worst thing that can be said about this book is that it is ridiculously sentimental. It is at least as much of a romance as it is an adventure of incredible proportions, but it is the sort of romance in which every single chapter has the swooning heroine declaring to herself that her bosom yearns for the sweet embrace of death, if only she can catch but one glimpse of her beloved; even a cruel word would be sweet, and even a bitter meeting would be as paradise.

“‘And you have let them escape,’ shouts the captain furiously. ‘You’ll go to the guillotine for this, citoyen sergeant! That cart held concealed the ci-devant Duc de Chalis and all his family!’

‘What!’ thunders Grospierre, aghast.

‘Aye! and the driver was none other than that cursed Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.'”

-The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is difficult to have patience with this level of melodrama, and so it is all the more impressive that Baroness Orczy manages to match her incredibly wet romantic plot, not only with a level of adventure to exceed it (for this would not be a masterful achievement), but with some genuine moments of pathos, and a believable relationship between the star-crossed lovers that is deeper than swooning and soliloquising.

It ought to be made clear: this is not a work to be judged on complex multifaceted characters, or even on serious development or growth. The plot that grows up in the midst of the romance is one of desperate and dastardly deeds by cruel flinty-eyed despots; of dashing and debonair heroes festooned with capes and cutlasses; a thing of death-or-glory last chances and low cunning. The personalities are all rather simple, and are some rather perfect examples of what it is to be a stock character.

But the reader will be along for the ride, and forgive every trope and each predictable scenario that comes trotting by. The surprises are scarcely surprising, but then who ever thought that Long John Silver would slay Hawkins and inherit the treasure? Who ever imagined that Edmond Dantès would rot in his chateau, or that Phileas Fogg would be not be vindicated? The success of The Scarlet Pimpernel is not its novelty or its subtlety, but its heart and its bombast, and the constantly excellent recasting of the age old battle between good and evil, where the foul mask of evil is as immutable as the solid foundation of good.

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Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

June 14, 2012 at 09:32 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


Nobody writes like this any more, and more is the pity. Had Herman Melville handed in this 200,000 word monstrosity today, he would surely have been laughed out of his publisher’s office. A more kindly-disposed editor would have brought up a few of the obvious problems with the book, and would surely have slashed the lengthy encyclopaedic descriptions of whales and their relations in the first edit.

Undoubtedly these encyclopaedia sections are one of the most difficult characteristics of the book to trawl through, and it is impossible to help wondering whether they were strictly necessary, even if one is otherwise captivated by Melville’s thick and heavy pen. After all, the pesudo-scientific asides spaced with deadening regularity through the story are either unnecessary peripheral fluff, or else ham-fisted exposition.

“The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower…Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all brokem and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset.”

-Moby Dick

Take but a moment to linger in one of these parenthetical partitions, however, and subtler flavours begin to leach out. Arrogance and starry-eyed wonder, bitter racism and pompous buffoonery, tender joy tempered with excitement; all these are available in spades, within the driest explanation of prehistoric aquatic mammals, and while they do not make these sections exciting, they do smooth the edges marvellously, and ensure that the asides are not gratingly different from the pace of the book. They are written in a different voice and different style, and yet are clearly the thoughts and earnestness of Ishmael.

An apologetic for one of the hardest things about this book, then. But Melville does not shine in the sections that must be explained: he shines in the thick and visceral settings of scene. Writers today are warned against spending an entire chapter describing the inside of a tavern, let alone the countenance of a gloomy man. But Melville proves that this is because writers today seldom possess the skill to do so lyrically and imposingly, capturing the attention and the imagination of a reader and refusing to let go. He proves it can be done, if done well.

Any writer desiring to improve his prose would do well to study Melville: borrow from him if necessary. He strikes a perfect balance between shifting the attention of his gaze, and drawing attention to a particular detail and there holding it implacable.

“Call me Ishmael.”

-Moby Dick

Everything about this book is as bold and stubborn and unreasonable as its iconic captain, and even the searing slowness and lack of fulfillment, the cry for meaningful action, places the reader in the shoes of wicked old Ahab, so that reader and character alike will be crying, “just give me one glimpse of that accursed whale!” This is not a modern novel, and is missing so many of those things that have come to be staples and expectations. There is no romance and precious little adventure, for all that it is so clearly a mammoth of an adventure novel. Ishmael serves as an impartial observer for the most, and there is very little change or growth in Ahab himself. The entire thing is a journey towards inevitability, and whenever character or plot waver slightly, it is only to emphasise the inexorable path of the fates, or the demon will shared by Ahab and the whale alike. Again, this is the sort of plot that will lead quickly towards impatience in the reader (and perhaps rightfully so). But it is masterfully told, expertly written, and a finished work of stunning beauty.

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The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

May 16, 2012 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Whatever creature or vermin Gregor Samsa was truly transformed into in this dark and dragging novel, the stamina demonstrated by Kafka in pinning the entire story so claustrophobically inside the one location, in stolidly sticking with his sole absurd obsession and subject, was both an impressive feat and also a painful conceit. Just as Samsa’s nameless father dreads the room, so the reader grows to dread the pages of the book that offers little relief from the initial terrific premise.

It is a curious thing that when reading works of literature like this, even novice readers are expected to glean some meaning from the story (in contrast to the scorn that would be readily available for any reader trying to analyse a pulp novel, for instance). This sort of expectation can easily grow tiresome, and distracting. A first question ought not be “what was it about”, but “was it any good”. After all, newspapers are about some very interesting things, but are seldom any good. And The Metamorphosis? Certainly it had little of the breadth that The Trial offered, nor did it even offer the reader as much in the way of sympathy or false hope; but authors should hardly be compared only to themselves, and it would not be wise to compare this book too closely with any of his other books.

“Must the manager himself come, and in the process must it be demonstrated to the entire innocent family that the investigation of this suspicious circumstance could be entrusted only to the intelligence of the manager?”

-The Metamorphosis

Perhaps the real triumph of this book is that it is truly never dull, in spite of its inertia. Although it is not long, it is darkly brooding and fixed in one place, and the characters flow through the story like sand through an hourglass, once gone never to return. There is little that is familiar or gripping, except for the pen of Kafka himself (and of course his capable translators). This book is filled with entertaining and delightful interior monologues, which act beautifully as a showcase for Kafka’s poetic side, as well as his true acquaintance with the hopes and private turmoil of his hero. It might be said that this is a very good book, if not a very good story. Certainly worth reading, and fortunately not very difficult to manage. Kafka’s prose is its own reward, and his bleakness its own punishment.

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Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

April 12, 2012 at 17:56 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature) (, , )


A story about horses, as told by horses? Nonsense! Surely a simpering, unbearable litany of velvet-nosed, gentle noncharacters, each more awful than the last. Puritanical preaching and a hastily scribbled version of the olden days; and certainly only elbowing its way into the “classics” collection due to a disappointing number of animal lovers prepared to accept tawdry literature and cloyingly sweet stories only because of the content, and without a care for the quality.

“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.”

-Black Beauty

It is remarkably easy to judge this book extremely quickly, and write it off as a depressing relic without real substance. It is about horses, so surely it is about nothing but horses. This expectation will not easily survive past the first few chapters (where admittedly little exciting happens). But in spite of this being a slow starter, the reader is immediately plunged into such a rich landscape with characters at once exciting and powerfully captivating, both equine and human. Perhaps that is the saving grace that opens this book up so readily: it is about horses, but not only horses. It is a thick and vivid cross-section of early Victorian life, from the grim rain-lashed cobbles of Dickensian London to Austen’s world of polite genteel society. In every sketch of life is a unique blend of tragedy and triumph; and although the story makes no secret that it is a crusade for the betterment of animals everywhere, Sewell expertly joins the fates of Beauty, Ginger and the other animals to the fates and fortunes of the full and lifelike human characters.

“One day two wild-looking young men came out of a tavern close by the stand, and called Jerry.

‘Here, cabby! look sharp, we are rather late; put on the steam, will you, and take us to the Victoria in time for the one o’clock train? You shall have a shilling extra.'”

-Black Beauty

This ultimately sets Black Beauty apart from other animal stories (even high-quality authors like Jack London). She manages a dual focus on both her sympathetic horsey heroes and on the world around them, never once forgetting who it is her heroes are, but refusing to spend her novel frolicking in grassy meadows and mossy barns. There are heroes and villains in the animal world and the human world, and both sets are given the same careful attention. A gentle book, but with clearly defined peaks and troughs, and sharp moments of crisis and climax to offset the pastoral setting. Plainly, this will not appeal to every reader (even the most tolerant). But just as plainly, there is more to this book than meets the eye. If ever there were a book more susceptible to being misjudged by its cover, this is it. Readers ought to go into Black Beauty with their eyes open as to the sort of story it is, but they should not hesitate to go into Black Beauty at all.

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