HARD TIMES by DICKENS

This is the second novel written by Dickens that I meanly give only three stars. The Dickens chemistry, his verve, and his charisma are not here.

Don’t get me wrong – all the characters are typically his, as well as his pathos, his satire, and his WORDSMITHERY. Despite his typical Dickens features, it was one of the most unlikable novel – the characters were all detached from the me, and their inner world eluded me all the time. Their heartbeats, their desires, and their hopes that his characters usually wear on their sleeves were mysteriously and unfavorably missing.

The novel was cold – some of his characters were unreachable and unrelatable even on the level of rejection. Sometimes one relates to characters by simply hating their guts, and in this novel, I felt absolutely nothing.

I can not even pinpoint the reason of this emotional failure – the language was inventive and the imagery is highly original, the zeitgeist of the small industrial town is perfectly captured, the social issues are burning and their exploration is truly visionary, but the chemistry between this novel and me is nonexistent.

Sorry, Maestro.

Up to a point, it was an expected slack after the powerful and masterful gem of Bleak House. It happens to the best of us :-)

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Invisible by Paul Auster

We are often birds of impulse buying, and a blurb can be a genuine bait for a reader who is willing to spend some money to immerse oneself in the world of thinking, meditation, good story, or send a reader on a journey of profound self discovery. On the other hand, I always wonder why and if any post-modern book needs a plot-driven blurb because – let us be honest here – a plot is a gimmick, a trick, a device to entice people to read an eclectic and often labyrinthine work.
Invisible by Auster is a perfect example of the over-discussed pros and cons of post-modern fiction. It does have a plot, but the mystery at the core of the book is not solved and should never be solved; it has a complex narrative structure, but an unprepared reader could be slightly taken aback and confused, and no one has ever banned or cancelled a good, interesting, dynamic character.
Conversely , in the eternal opposition ‘form vs. meaning’ the former can occasionally win with flying colors, and that is exactly what I witnessed in this novel. Auster skillfully demonstrates that one and the same story told by one and the same person can and will look different if it is presented by different pronouns. The first part, told my Adam Walker, is more relatable and more involving because of the first-person narrator; we implicitly trust this young man and what he is telling just because we are all under the spell of ‘I’.
The second part is more complex in its structure, involving frame stories, the same plot line continues, but the same narrator relies on the present tense that does give an unmistakable feeling of edginess, discomfort, and even an imperative. This is all ‘you’ doing. I am talking, of course, about the second-person narrator with the pronoun ‘you’, quite an orphan in fiction.
The third part features the third-person narrator with syncopated, uneven, telegraph-style writing, fragmented sentences, typical syntactical confusion, and … well, you guessed it … a stream of consciousness.
One could easily think that the book can hardly get even more experimental without sacrificing the plot, but then there is chapter four for you where Auster uses an unreliable diary to tell us the final elements of the story.
The experiment continues not only with the form, but with the meaning as well. A discerning reader can pick up Biblical allusions, elements of different genres – bildungsroman, travelogue, epistolary genre, spy story, thriller, post-colonial literature, and even sensational romance.
Despite the multiplicity of form and a game of genres, the underlying message is clear – the invisible is a big part of our life, and this invisible can be occasionally unearthed, but there layers after layers of other truths or what is truth for other people as we are all mired in the timeless debate of ‘implication vs. inference’. Literature itself is a shining example of this game – an author implies and we readers are free to infer. The truth is out there … An interesting meditation on literature and a compellingly readable example of meta-fiction.

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Les Miserables by V. Hugo

A huge, humongous reading marathon has come to an end. There are hardly enough words and sentences to clearly delineate my impressions. It is the book that can be defined with virtually every literary adjective from the word bank. The book made me cry, made me feel, made me happy, made me euphoric, ecstatic, made me mad, and befuddled me on a number of occasions.

This mammoth book is a political, religious, and social stand, historical fiction, a compendium of lectures, Greek tragedy, Hugo’s commentaries, and an interesting story of rebirth and compassion, self-discovery, and love. Hugo is using a very unusual narrative voice. On one hand, it is a traditional third-person narrator whose story of Jean Valjean, Cosette, and Marius touches the hearts and minds of many readers. On the other hand, it is the voice of a political and historical commentator who often takes forays into the fields of philosophy, history, and even linguistics. It is also the voice of an editor who comments the intents and motives of his main characters. In general, the book is an eclectic and weird combination of a heart-breakingly beautiful story, implacable political and social opinion, and populism.

The spiritual debate is one of the strongest in the novel, and one can see how Hugo is torn between the two parental influences: a devote, nearly mystical Catholic mother and a pragmatic, atheistic father. Of course, he had to placate his reading audience, but one can feel quite unmistakably how behind the curtain of religion, Hugo in fact is relying on kindness and love as universal concepts and NOT religious ones exclusively. Religious values are turned into universal humanistic values, and maybe this is also a part of the long-standing clout of this novel.

The other greatest achievement of this novel is than despite the number of revolutionary battle scenes in the book, the main and most palpitating scenes take place in hearts of its main characters: moral emotional struggles of Jean Valjean and even Javert are on par with Dostoevsky’s passages.

On a side note, Hugo is a master of suspense: there are multiple scenes that are executed and written with the breathtaking precision that makes Hollywood writers envious and keeps readers on the edge of their reading seats. Hugo is also in total and perfect control of the main plotline with not a single character left forgotten, in oblivion, or returned out of nowhere.

As a personal discovery, I believe the novel is also a tragedy a la Grecque: a limited number of people can not escape Fate and meet each other again and again in new circumstances and sometimes under new names. Javert even has his own hamartia (a personal flaw) – Criminal Law is the only guidance book – that eventually, like in any Greek tragedy, leads to his demise, literally in his case.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the novel and Hugo’s ability to appeal to his readers’ hearts and minds even many years after his death. It equally appeals to history buffs, social reformists, thinkers, intellectual elitists, and romantics who enjoy good story-telling.

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The Kill by Emile Zola

It is one of the earliest novels in the cycle, but it definitely shows the glimpses of author’s talent and Zola’s firm social stand. 
The novel is twofold – it is a story of a young woman’s social and emotional unraveling and the picture of financial and moral corruption of the Parisian upper middle bourgeoisie. 

Zola is brave and audacious even by modern standards – he tackles issues of moral dissipation of the humongous size, sexual near incestual relationship (stepmother and stepson), homosexuality, and even androgyny. His scathing criticism interestingly, but not disruptively, mingles with sensual passages of sexual seduction and pages full of high tension and edginess. Of course, some descriptive passages are beautiful but excessive and slightly tiring, but they do convey the verve of city life, urban existence, and the sense of indulgence. 

Zola’s naturalistic approach allows to chronicle the moral decomposition of the society, and the brunt of this scathing criticism is on Aristide Rougon (Saccard) who can pawn everything, including his wife’s trousseau and her reputation. Another example of the same moral downfall is Sidonie Rougon, who is more than happy to condone the sexual affairs of her sister-in-law if they guarantee her extra profit. 

Renee, whose unraveling becomes more and more obvious by the end of the novel, and who dies young, is a sympathetic victim despite her numerous faults. She is the one who understands her shortcomings and feels betrayed and misplaced while others indulge themselves in dissipation and debauchery. 

Zola’s neutral and naturalistic style makes it hard for some readers 
to relate to the novel emotionally, especially for those who like to form an emotional bond (obviously one-sided) with characters, but it also allows to chronicle the everyday life with the disaffection and fairness of a historian

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The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli

It is a novella with the paramount importance of three Ls: love, life, and loss. The setting is unbelievably believable and the atmosphere is nearly tangible. The author manages to modernize the Gothic concept of a castle turning it into an outpost of death, life, desperation, help and hope.
The narration is powerfully gruesome and very dark, but the seemingly brusque character is, in fact, vulnerable and full of compassion. His callous shell harbors a passionate and kind heart. He is in a semi-exile, grieving the loss of his child. His self-imposed madness when the character forgets his true name, alienates from his wife, and lives on the massive premises of a hospital, called the Castle, is quite belieavable despite the seeming incongruity. In his voluntary incarceration in this casle, he saves the family from an abusive husband, helps other patients, and gives us an excellent lesson of compassion and kindness.
The novella also conveys a very powerful social message. It is not the leading one, but it is clearly visible and read between the lines.
If you like Robin Hood-like characters that fight for justice for others and eventually find peace for themselves, if you enjoy the passages with virtually haunting atmosphere, this novella is for you. It is a well-written oxymoron of a compassionate character and hard-boiled dark fiction

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Hunting Mr. Old Sack Bones by A.D. Bloom

I do feel bad leaving a two-star review, but the two stories in this ebook do not deserve more. The first one is typo-ridden with the mistakes that my Remedial English students are prone to make. The other one is cleaner when it comes to language, but the stories are ‘too conceptual’. I have nothing against conceptual art and conceptual literature. Moreover, I find it challenging, intriguing, and stimulating.
This is not the case. I appreciate the author’s diversity in the selected topics for his stories, and I also like the social criticism his second story conveys: we as human beings, even if we are warned beforehand about our demise, will ignore the message and indulge ourselves in the decadent life.
But these are the only positive messages. The stories are so small that they look like sketches, so we are not talking about character or plot development. I am not complaining about the size. Many writers write sketches that have a powerful aftertaste and are beautifully written. Again, I feel bad leaving a negative feedback, but these two stories do not even fit into the sketch category. Oh, well, I was beguiled and tricked by the Amazon review and the intriguing title because I love discovering self-published authors. This was not the discovery with the feeling of accomplishment.

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The Black Bird by R.L. McCallum

Being mired in my chunky and long novels, I have nearly forgotten the pleasures of reading a novella, especially a novella so masterfully written. This novel was again my foray into the world of indie and self-published authors, and overall, I am happy with my choice.

The novella is a stylish compilation of recognizable moves in the horror genre and allusions to the very foundations of this genre. It is also a deftly written Victorian period piece with the language imitating the famous early ghost stories. The imitation goes beyond the level of wording and vocabulary, but rather successfully attempts to follow the syntax and even ideas and values of this epoch. Some fans of the splatterpunk might consider this a softie, a sub par performance, BUT I FOR ONE really enjoyed its deftly linguistic fabric of the text.

The author also masterfully used recognizable allusions (allusions to Poe, the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, and definitely the image of the raven). Ravens conventionally are used to create the unpleasant murky feeling of something sinister but hardly tangible. This raven gains even more power and turns not only into the harbinger of disaster but also the extension of something immeasurably darker.

Allusions to Jack the Ripper are key if you want to create this dark, Gothic world of Victorian England. The ever-used mystery of the serial killer is also given a new supernatural explanation in this novella. The Gothic setting of the novel is another commendable point. The aura of an old, ramshackle, dilapidated, haunting place perfectly recreates the chilling atmosphere of the Wuthering Heights.

The most important thing is that the horror, experienced by Mr. James, the protagonist, and a famous poet, could have a logical explanation of him being addicted to the laudanum with the subsequent hallucinations and gradual descent into madness. It could be explained, but who would settle for the banal explanation of hallucinations caused by this drug. It is indeed much more exciting to entertain a darker idea of the raven as the embodiment of evil, of a beautiful woman, who is THE killer and whose skin is as cold and cadaverous as of a corpse.

Dreams and nightmares in this novella are very visionary in their nature, but also very Victorianesque when they were interpreted as a certain affinity bond with the inexplicable part of our nature, our subconscious mind, and our dangerous potential to cross the line of normalcy and madness. I really enjoyed the Victorian interpretation of madness as a dangerous and a dark gift into which Mr. James tapped to create his poems with the eerie and otherworldly feeling.

Overall, a novella that deserves four stars for its stylish intertextual literary content and a really spooky and eerie atmosphere. A job very well done!

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Filed under Book Review, Classic, Gothic, Historical Fiction, Horror, Indie, Victorian