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Review of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have long loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, since I was introduced to them when I was pretty young. I was so enamoured by the stories that it played a big part in my deciding to go to UK for my tertiary studies, just so I can steal a trip down to London to visit 221B Baker Street (I was a little bit of a let-down, looking back after so many years, but it was a dream come true nonetheless).

As big a fan as I was, however, I have never yet managed to completely read the canon of stories from Doyle, despite owning multiple editions of the stories, including my absolute treasure: The Original Illustrated ‘Strand’ Sherlock Holmes, which is a compendium of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle, reproduced with all the original illustrations from the pages of the Strand magazine as they first appeared!

I was pleased to find not to long ago that Audible held a sale and I saw The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2 being sold at a very tempting price, and seeing that I’m getting a lot of reading done on the road, and relishing the chance to rekindle my love for the detective, I got them both.

Volume 1 consists of two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, followed by a collection of short stories entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

What can I say, aside from the fact that if you haven’t yet sampled Sherlock Holmes, what the heck are you doing reading my silly reviews than to head down to your nearest bookstore (or online store), buy the darn books and start reading? The short stories are in an easily digestible format, and leads you on to a great adventure in detection. Delightful stories that will have you thinking long after you’ve finished them. Classics such as A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, The Adventure of the Speckled Band are all here.

What struck me was the quality of the stories of those that aren’t so famous in this collection, and I’ve always wondered about the fact that some of these stories must be of variable quality to be excluded from the general mindset (unlike say Speckled Band, which I think most English readers would have heard of at one time or another being associated with Sherlock Holmes). On a whole, however, I found the stories to be more or less pretty good.

Because I’m listening to them one after another in a continuous fashion, and maybe due to a most excellent reader in Charlton Griffin, I’m picking up some very distinctive Doyle mannerisms in the stories. Sherlock Holmes has a tendency to say ‘pray continue your most interesting statement’, or some variation of this when a client starts to tell their conundrums. And the word ‘singular’ comes up in almost every story – a most ‘singular occurrence’ or most ‘singular event’. And the deductions – sometimes to my jaded mind that some of the deductions seem far fetched. But not nearly as much as the ones from the latter stories.

In all, my favourite stories from this collection include:

  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band (this is a classic, and rightly so!)
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

More from the succeeding collections, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Review of 2666, by Roberto Bolano

Really, I don’t know why I persist in calling these posts ‘reviews’. They are more like thoughts. Anyway.

Unlike most people, I did not have problems reading the book, in fact I rather enjoyed it. That’s because I didn’t *read* it, but rather listened to it as an audiobook. Facetious, I know, but hey, I got through the book. And the experience was generally positive. I can imagine that as a book 2666 would present a huge challenge to me, because it’s very testing in places. But it was very easy to digest this monster of a book during my daily commute, as the story was being read out by supremely talented actors. Even as an audiobook there are sections of the novel that was hard to get through, but I did manage to get the complete 40 hours it required. But a little more on that later.

A bookish background then. My previous Bolano was By Night in Chile, which was the first 100-odd-page novel to defeat me completely. It was laced with so many South American literary, historical and cultural references that was just too much for your average Malaysian Chinese reader to truly relate to, not to mention the fact the book was narrated by a character who would fit right in with the Mad Hatter (if Bolano was an eccentric, slightly crazy Englishman). The psychedelic experience didn’t stop me from leaping at the chance to try 2666, though, as the waves of good reviews for the book meant that it was something that I had to sample. But I braced myself for a wild, barely coherent, ride.

Imagine my surprise that I actually could understand the novel this time. Not that it was easy, mind you.

There are 5 interlinked stories within this huge tome, each pretty much an own book in it’s own right. These stories are very varied and loosely tied together by a few commonalities. But the largest character in the story isn’t even a person; it’s the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, which is Bolano’s version of Cuidad Juarez, a place infamous for its rapid industrial growth and high crime rate. There’s a singular chain of violent events in Juarez that clearly inspired the backdrop for 2666.

The first story is about 4 literary critics of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi (and after a quick wiki search, I ascertained that Archimboldi was also fictional. Hey, Bolano sprinkled names of actual authors in there, ok?). They travel to Santa Teresa in hopes of finding this elusive author, and in the course of the story learns something of their journey and of themselves. The second, a story centered around a supporting character in the first story. The third is of an American journalist, who arrives in Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but ends up working towards a story about the violent events in the city.

By far the most striking feature of the novel was the contents of the fourth book, which is made up almost entirely of a catalogue of murders that occurred in Santa Teresa. Clearly inspired by the real life events, in the book Santa Teresa is the setting where hundreds of women were killed in a short period of a few years, and Bolano took to listing out, almost hypnotically, how each of the murder was carried out.  How the body was found, how old the victim was (most were young), at what state the body was in, whether the victim was sexually assaulted or not, and so on and so forth (probably not every murder, but by the fiftieth killing you kind of lose track). The result was a hugely bleak and depressing novel. A lot of the victims were young teens barely out of their childhood, and this did not make easy listening. This section of the novel served, as a friend commented, to numb the reader to the violence, and by jolly did it succeed brilliantly. By the end of the section you have a sense of complete and utter helplessness, a silent fury at the authorities who seem impotent at addressing the issue. At parts the book even hinted at those in power being complicit in these crimes.

To tie it all up, the fifth story centres around a young German soldier called Hans Richter, who eventually grows into an author of some stature, and later in life discover ties that sends him to Santa Teresa.

The story is sprawling, with lots of jaunts to places that you aren’t always entirely sure whether it belongs to the larger narrative. In the first book, there’s an underlying history about a fatalistic artist who chopped off his own hand, had it embalmed and set it as a centrepiece of a huge work of art. The text goes some way into explaining the backstory of this fascinating individual, but there’s nothing there to indicate he’s directly involved in the main plot, besides serving as an allegory or as a metaphorical symbol that I cannot grasp.  And the dreams. Everyone dreams here, and the dreams are strange, haunting, frightening.

The writing is pretty interesting. There’s a languid, not quite plodding quality. At times rambling when describing the most mundane of coffeeshops, other times sparse like the desert surrounding the maquiladora in Santa Teresa. Bolano took his time with the words, and the one thing that I realized was how much more effort it would have taken to digest the work when actually read, as opposed to it having performed for you.

Speaking of performance, a word on the voice actors. Each of the 5 books were narrated by different male actors, and they did a magnificent job. The characters had at turns German, French, Italian, Spanish, American and English English accents, and the actors did a fabulous job on them.

The novel doesn’t have an ending in the traditional sense, as Bolano actually originally planned to have these five books to stand individually. Still, the novel attempts to bring the events in all the books to a full circle, and seemed to me managed it to some extent. I’m a stickler for a very tidy summation, and I have to say the story doesn’t answer all the questions, but still it made many people deliriously happy at this monument of a novel.

I cannot say I loved the novel, as it lays a little beyond my literary comprehension capabilities at present. It was surely enjoyable and incredibly educational journey.

And one last thing. The fifth book was about Archimboldi’s early life, his start into writing and his emergence as a prominent writing. Early part of his career his publisher asked a critic what he thought of Archimboldi’s work. The critic thought his work was reminiscent of a Malaysian writer! I’m not kidding – I almost fell off my chair when I heard this (except I was driving, and falling off my seat in the car would… nevermind). A couple of things crossed my mind: First, Bolano mentioned Malaysia, how cool is that! Second, Bolano almost certainly pulled that out of his ass, because there were no Malaysian authors of prominence that I could think of that would warrant a comparison (even to a fictional author!) at the time, unless he read Malay, which I’m willing to bet that he did not. Even then it seems unlikely.

Review: Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

I suppose it’s fitting that the first review I have for the site is Sanderson’s Mistborn, for several reasons.  First is, of course, the word ‘born’ is really apt considering this review marks the start of the Languid Reader reviews, which is the main objective of the site anyway (hey, I didn’t say they weren’t inane reasons).  The second reason is this really sets the tone of who I am as a reader at this stage of my life – I’m a curmudgeonly person who finds it hard to like something for the smallest of reasons.  I gripe and I nitpick, and will generally be disagreeable for silly reasons.  Perhaps I’ve gotten too jaded, or maybe it’s the inability to process things intellectually in a complete and careful way that is making me feel this way.  To risk the cliche, I say “but this is my blog…”.

 

I’m not new to Sanderson, having read his debut novel Elantris which arrived amidst general fanfare in 2005 and enjoyed it (more or less).  There’s also the small matter of Sanderson being appointed to finish the run of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series after Jordan’s untimely demise.  Apparently, if reports are to be believed, that commission came based on the strength of this very book I’m about review.  So there’s a lot to imply that this book will not be a disappointment.

However, Mistborn was a bit of a disappointment. 

I suppose I came to the book with high expectations.  Having recently flipped through Elantris prior to this review, Sanderson does have the ability to tell a simple but effective story, and I came away generally impressed with what he accomplished with that one book.  Mistborn, however, is the first of a trilogy, and perhaps Sanderson had to, uhm, watch the pace.

Mistborn is set in an apocalyptic world that is either in a fantastical past, or far-flung future as ashfall perpetually blankets the earth.  The story begins with Kelsier, an unnaturally cheerful character for a leader of a bandit ring (complete with emotional baggage!) as he assembles a team to take down the supernatural Lord Ruler, leader of the Final Empire.  Kelsier happens to be the only one who has ever escaped from the Pits of Hathsin, which is the Final Empire’s equivalent of Alcatraz, albeit without civil liberties for prisoner rights.  As if that wasn’t enough, Kelsier is also a Mistborn, a rare manifestation of an innate ability to ‘burn’ metals to gain supernatural abilities. 

A 16-year old street urchin called Vin is recruited along with the rest of Kelsier’s crew, and during the course of the adventure, discovers not only that she is also a Mistborn, but an incredibly powerful one at that.  The story continues to follow her as the book progresses, as she discovers her destiny and place in the world.

I must admit I was compelled to stop reading several times early on in the novel.  It wasn’t so much that the novel was incredibly badly written, it’s just the initial tedium of the prose and the clumsy scenes.  There was one near the start where the thieving crew leader has a honest-to-goodness meeting that features perhaps the only medieval brainstorm session in literature (complete with a meeting secretary to take minutes!) to discuss ways to take down a ruling regime in place for thousands of years.  The action items from this meeting was so open-ended and, in corporate parlance, ‘high-level’ that I literally laughed out loud.  I have been party to many a corporate meeting, and having to read about one in a fantasy world is just wrong

It’s also too long in length.  I liked the progression of the plot, but Sanderson took his time doing it. 

Sanderson also had opportunities, I felt, to make a more pronounced emotional connection as his heroes play in this world’s feudalistic society.  As it stands, it’s very simple – the vassals to the Lord Ruler are evil bastards with carte blanche over the land or property in which he rules, and is possessed with a propensity to bully and oppress the slaves who work within the fiefdom. 

There were saving graces to the book, of course.  Sanderson spent some time developing a very unique magical system for this universe, totally different from the one he developed for Elantris, or anything else that I’ve yet encountered.

As a fantasy geek, one of the things that I really look forward in a new fantasy book is the technical engineering that goes into construction of the magical system.  The author faces a unique challenge in that besides the obvious requisite skills in writing pleasant prose and a coming up with a good storyline, there is also the magical element.  Some authors go into the minutiae (Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Farland’s Runelords series), while others gloss over the details (Harry Potter series, LOTR).  Some authors ignore it completely; George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Guy Gavriel Kay’s fares are examples where magic is nearly absent, yet does nothing to harm the quality of the stories they tell.

Sanderson invented a unique magical ecosystem that revolves around the consumption and the ‘burning’ of metals, known as Allomancy.  Magic users in this world (called Allomancers) ingest trace amounts of metals, and then using them to fuel the different powers available to magic users.  Different metals allow different abilities (pewter enhances strength, tin endows superhuman senses, etc).  Mistborn are Allomancers who have the ability to multiple types of metals at once, and apparently Mistborns are very rare.

Sanderson’s system of Allomancy is novel and imaginative, although throughout the book I keep, for some unknown reason, conjuring up images of characters scraping their teeth against discarded pipes.

Having said all that, I’m cognizant of the fact that I did complete the book.  Somehow I persisted, and 4353 clicks later (yes, I read this on my Blackberry, and no, it had no bearing on my thoughts of the book) I concluded that Sanderson did enough to keep me interested.  The unique magical system helps keep the book interesting for a while more, at least..

If you’re on the lookout for an easy-to-pick up fantasy, then this will keep you purring with contentment.

I close knowing I will probably give the second book a go.  Just not right away.