Friday, October 23, 2009

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.

After the travesty of Dracula the Un-Dead, Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book was a breath of fresh air. It was intelligent, visual and entertaining. It is a book the has found a place close to my heart, as it ties in with my own chosen career path, and my love of history.

The novel follows the story of a book conservator from Sydney, who is called to stabilise a very rare Jewish Haggadah rescued from a bombed library in war-torn Sarajevo. As the book is studied certain marks and objects are found within its pages, each telling a story which shows how the book came to be, and how it came to be in Sarajevo at that time.

The novel is perfectly paced, with just the right amount of technical detail. The reader is able to understand the work of a book conservator, without being inundated with too much technical knowledge. The relationships as conveyed in the book are real, not romanticised, and the characters are well rounded although, especially toward the end of the book, their motivations are not always as clear as they could be.

This book is rife with wit, intelligence, tragedy, and hope. Each new story the book unfolds tells us something about our own history, and makes the reader think about their own objects, and how each of the events in our lives helps shape us.

My only gripe with this novel is the ending. It felt a little forced, almost as if Brooks had tried to put a plot twist in for the sake of one. It was completely unnecessary, and in my opinion cheapened a book that up until that point had such integrity. It was by no means a terrible ending, I just didn't feel it was in keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel.

While not part of the novel, the acknowledgements is where this book had it's one true down point. Geraldine Brooks thanks her advisers for helping her determine whether a book conservator was a realistic career choice for an Australian. Really Geraldine? Really? It is this Americo-centric attitude that makes the rest of the world angry. Do we not have history worth conserving? Do we not have top notch universities who teach chemistry and accurate conservation practices? The answer to all this is of course, yes we do! We are not so backward that we are unable to protect our heritage, in fact we are one of the world leaders in heritage and conservation. There we are. Rant over.

All in all this book was fantastic. Without a doubt one of the best books I have read in a long time. It was intelligent without being pretentious, and fast paced without being formulaic. Perhaps it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but as a lover of history this novel really spoke to me.


Dracula The Un-Dead, by Dacre Stoker with Ian Holt.

The publication of this book has had me in great anticipation for quite some time, and the reading of this book has prompted me to rethink the entire format of this blog. This book is impossible for me to review objectively and professionally, and from now on my thoughts on the books I review will be far more along the lines of train of thought.

I will have to begin by telling you all a little about myself, and where I'm coming from. I am a student at Monash University, in Melbourne, and am currently doing my Masters in Public History, studying to be a Museum Curator. Before I began my Masters, I did my Honours Thesis on, believe it or not, Vampire mythology. I did an analysis on how different forms of media affect the development of mythology with Vampires as my case study. I therefore did a lot of research into Vampires, read practically every book on the subject, watched every film on the subject, even read obscure gnostic gospel verses that are thought to reference them. While doing my research I read a lot from, and about Ian Holt, the co-author of Dracula the Un-Dead and was generally impressed by his knowledge and his depth of research.

Through my own research I found inspiration, and while writing my thesis also started to write my own novel, with my own ideas. Inspired by the general ambiguity in character, and time that could be seen in Bram Stoker's Dracula, as well as the interesting character of Stoker himself. Reading his biographies are entertaining in themselves, even before reading not only Dracula but some of his other works, which never really afforded him any recognition (regrettably for good reason).

Imagine my dismay then, when after working on my own novel for over a year I heard that a Stoker relative was collaborating with a Dracula historian working around the basic premise that I had thought of. Basically in having Quincy as the protagonist and Bram Stoker as a character is where the similarity between Dracula the Un-Dead and my own work ends, but it was enough for me to have to completely re-think what I had written, which I promptly did.

A few short weeks ago Dracula the Un-Dead hit the shelves here in Melbourne, so naturally I snapped up a copy. Snapped it up, devoured it, and nearly cried with utter disappointment at the book that these two men have produced.

The plot centres around Quincy Harker, the son of Mina and Jonathan Harker, the protagonists of Bram Stoker's Dracula. He wishes to be an actor, but in an attempt to protect their son, the Harker's deem it necessary to send him to Paris to study law, which Quincy sees as a punishment, and wallows in churlish teenage angst against his parents throughout the entire novel, making him seem like a petulant child who doesn't get his own way, and making him unsympathetic as, as a reader, I expect more of any human being already in their 20s.

Each of the original Stoker characters are still haunted by their encounter with Dracula and the death of Lucy Westenra so many years before, and Jonathan and Mina's marriage is strained by Dracula's constant presence between them. When the Jack the Ripper murders grip London the group must once again face their demons with the fear that Dracula has returned to exact revenge.

It all sounds very exciting; a topical historical novel based on the events of a 19th century work. This novel was so clumsily executed however that I actually felt angry at moments. Both writers completely fail to convey a sense of time. The novel could have been set in the modern day, but for a few clumsy references to things we take for granted these days as being 'new'. There is even one scene where Mina trips and her keys and purse fall out of her bag. I half expected there to be a mention of mobile phones ringing. On top of this, in order to convey time the authors have resorted to simply name dropping anything of note from the time period. It starts with Jack the Ripper, escalates to name every single actor or author that was famous at the time, and even goes so far as to use the Titanic in one scene. There is no excuse for this kind of clumsy writing in today's day and age. I believe a novel should be able to stand on it's own feet, without having to resort to name dropping the famous associations of the author's relatives.

Using Bram Stoker as a character quite frankly served absolutely no purpose. He appears in very few of the chapters, and in the chapters he does appear he comes across as bitter, jaded and generally talentless. It even attempts to remove his authorship from the original, claiming he simply got the idea from a drunk in a bar.
What perhaps made me angriest about this book was using Elizabeth Bathory as the villain of the piece. Un-originality, thy name is Dacre Stoker. While I am aware that much of the novel was written based on Bram Stoker's notes, it appears the authors of Dracula the Un-Dead authors never thought that there was a reason that Stoker chose to leave these things out of the novel. That he was aware of the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess, I have no doubt, and as he created the legend of Dracula I am aware that he used elements of her to create his Dracula. However, since that novel has been written Elizabeth Bathory has become part of the Vampire legend in her own right, and using her, especially in the way she was used, is simply un-original and shows a severe lack of imagination on the part of the authors.

I could write for hours on the historical faults of this novel, but I will refrain from doing so. They are too glaring and too numerous to put down in a few short paragraphs. All in all I think this is a clumsy work, with virtually nothing to recommend it. I almost feel that Dacre Stoker never even bothered to read Bram Stoker's novel, and if he did, he certainly didn't understand it. Dracula has so many undertones, and images, not all of them positive, but they are there nonetheless. He was making an observation on society, on class, on politics, on women and the dangers of sexuality. As a society today we may well be offended by some of his views, but they were his view nonetheless, which he chose to share through the medium of the novel. Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt choose to completely ignore what Bram Stoker was trying to convey, and simply write a voyeuristic gore-fest (and even manage to fail in that, and frankly most of the 'gore' comes across as humour, rather than anything serious) which panders to the modern conception of the 19th century as a novelty.

I am completely unable to give this book any rating over 1.5. The plot was weak, the characterisation even weaker. Not a single character was likeable in this novel, nor even believable. While this novel could possibly stand on it's own two feet as a piece of cheap pulp, destined for the $5 paperback table, as a sequel to one of the world's best known, and best selling books, this book fails. Miserably. There are no traces of the original novel anywhere in this work, and if Bram Stoker knew what had been done to his novel he would turn in his grave.

I think I can categorically say that this is one of the worst books I have ever read.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips

Christi Phillips' The Rossetti Letter is a valiant effort for a first novel. It tells the stories of two women; the modern day Claire Donovan and the historical Alessandra Rossetti. Claire Donovan is a PhD student writing a paper on the Venetian courtesan Alessandra Rossetti who wrote a secret letter to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. When she discovers a rival historian is presenting on her very topic at a prominent Venetian university she takes the opportunity to play chaperone to the 14 year old student of a friend in order to attend. Her story is mingled with the tale of Alessandra Rossetti herself. We learn her story as Claire's research progresses.

The story itself was gripping and engaging, although incredibly formulaic. The writing brought nothing new to the genre of historical fiction, and followed a linear narrative that failed to surprise. Many of the plot twists were contrived to the point of being unbelievable, and yet somehow still managed to be predictable.

The historical portions of the novel where descriptive and well researched. The same however could not be said of her modern context. All her modern characters were awful cliches. Each person in the modern context was nothing but representatives of the stereotypes of the countries from which they hailed. I felt that very little thought went into rounding them out as characters, in fact most of them weren't even likable.

Where the author loses most credibility is in her protagonist, Claire Donovan. I don't think a more bland character could ever have graced our pages. She lacks personality and flair. She is never adequately described, and yet we are meant to believe her beautiful. Frankly the fact that she is an academic who has never visited the city she is writing a dissertation on defies belief. Not only has she never visited Venice, but she also reads abridged and translated versions of her most important texts and expects to have credibility in the academic world. Quite frankly, for such an otherwise well-researched book, Phillips completely fails to write about the academic world in a believable, or even realistic fashion.

This aside however, it was a joy to read the historical portions of the novel. Phillips describes the sites and sounds of Venice in such a way as to make you feel part of the history. Her historical characters are accessible, and properly motivated, making them believable and sympathetic.

Ultimately this book is an enjoyable read. It's entertaining and fast paced, although rather superficial and contrived at times. It's worth picking up and reading for the entertainment, but it is certainly not a brilliant work of fiction.


Spook Country, by William Gibson

Let me first state that I have always been a fan of William Gibson. I found Neuromancer wholly original, and Pattern Recognition an absolute joy to read. With this in mind Spook Country left me entirely underwhelmed.

Perhaps this feeling I have comes a lot from the way I approach this book. By this I mean my cultural milieu. I approached it from the point of view of a ‘young Australian’. It felt like there were so many things in this book I could simply not relate to. My youth made the language seem strained, almost like Gibson was trying too hard to be ‘hip’, and the consumerist driven action was far too – for wont of a better word – ‘American’.

The Plot follows three groups of people; Hollis Henry and her employers Blue Ant, as well as the rock band she used to be part of; Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese man (or is it boy? His age is only passingly mentioned, and then as a ‘he looked like’ not a ‘was’) and his underground crime family; Brown and Milgrim, a claimed DEA Agent and his captive. These stories seem separate but naturally are working to the same conclusion which will lead them from their bases in America to the final showdown in Vancouver, Canada. This said however I think Gibson failed to give each group enough of a story or background. There are connections that are hinted at, but too cryptic for the reader to be certain. Perhaps this was intentional, but throughout the whole work I felt that I missing some fundamental point to each of the characters.

The characters themselves I found empty. I got no sense of motivation, or even appearance, from any of them. Rather than give his characters any personal definition Gibson instead chose to define them by the products they used, consumed, or had the money to acquire. Once again this was most likely intentional, but it made the characters very hard to relate to. The protagonist, Hollis Henry, is the only character with a defined past, but even that is superficial and shallow. Perhaps Gibson was attempting to draw attention to the culture they are currently in, rather than the characters themselves, but as a reader I personally find it difficult to relate to a novel, or even enjoy it enough to want to grasp its meaning if there is not even a single character with whom I can identify. I was irked by Gibson’s failure to let me know what the characters looked like, what their personalities were, or even where they were situated or what time it was. I could never tell if it was day or night. The ‘noir’ was simply so much that I just assumed all the action of the novel took place at night.
All motivation in this novel was pure which with a huge undertone of ‘because I want to’, or ‘because I can’. While this is a criticism of today’s Western society it is a very shallow look at a very complicated world. There were parts of the narrative that excited me, like the GPS driven locative art created by the artists it is originally Hollis’ objective to investigate. For me this was completely original and I wanted more investigation into this side of the world from which the characters originated. Imagine my disappointment when this wonderful concept turned out to be completely incidental to the plot, which drives us toward an ultimately disappointing conclusion.

The plot is so full of incidental information. I felt often it was placed in just to give the characters some rudimentary sense of identity, rather than to say or advance anything really substantial. The only thing I could derive from these hastily constructed artistic backgrounds was that art needs to enter commerce to survive. Was this the amazing revelation that this book claimed it would give me about the society in which I live? I certainly hope not. I am not above admitting that there may be a deep and complex point that I simply may not have understood. I am however an intelligent, educated human being. I very rarely feel that a book is ‘over my head’ so to speak but perhaps this one is. If I delved deeper into it perhaps I might find the promised revelation of my reality staring me in the face, but to be frank the book was not constructed in a way that gave me any interest or inclination to re-read it, let alone pull it apart and find its hidden meanings.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘terrible’ book. I simply found it un-engaging and alienating. The constant product placement made me even more unable to relate. I don’t wear Adidas, I don’t us a PowerBook, and I simply don’t think that using an iPod for data storage instead of simply music is an original concept.

Frankly Spook Country is readable, but far from Gibson’s best work. The overall experience was underwhelming and disappointing.


The Historian

Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian is a work that spans many centuries, as well as numerous settings and cultures. The narrative opens in 1972, in Amsterdam, when the young protagonist finds in her diplomat father’s library a pile of yellowed letters, and medieval book containing nothing but a woodcut dragon. Over the course of the novel her father gives fleeting glimpses into the convoluted tale, and his search for Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler. When her father goes missing, leaving only a note, she is forced to take on the search for herself, which leads her into dangerous and uncharted territory.

The book is well written, with a brilliantly conceived and researched storyline, and yet one gets the impression that Kostova had simply far too much information than she knew how to deal with. The ensuing result is a convoluted plot that stretches from the 15th century to 1972, from the East Bloc to London. The plots are not at all difficult to follow, showing Kostova a very capable writer, and yet many of the characters seem to become superfluous. What we end up with is a story, within a story, within a story. Her main character is in fact the most unnecessary of all, serving nothing to advancing the plot, and in fact making it more confusing than it needs to be.

The research is vividly evident. The images of real historical horror are perhaps the most astounding of the book. Our narrator says of her father; "For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth." Kostova masterfully blends the horror of history with the human element in each of her characters, resulting in a gripping read.

Although its narrative structure could have been tweaked a little, The Historian is an astounding novel. It is historical, real and full of human emotion, with a satisfying ending that makes the novel a pleasure to read.