Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

I think I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself. A gothic mystery/horror story set in Victorian London, featuring Charles Dickens and narrated by Wilkie Collins sounded like exactly the kind of book I would enjoy. Unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to its fascinating premise and I was left with mixed feelings about it.

Drood is told in the form of a memoir written by Wilkie Collins (a close friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, as well as being the author of The Woman in White, The Moonstone and many other novels and plays) and addressed to an unknown reader in the future – that is, to us.

The story begins with the Staplehurst Rail Disaster of 1865, when the train on which Charles Dickens is travelling crashes, sending most of the carriages plummeting over a viaduct into the riverbed below. Luckily Dickens is in one of the few carriages that doesn’t fall. As he helps to rescue people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious figure dressed in a black cape who introduces himself only as ‘Drood’. In the days following the train crash, Dickens becomes obsessed with finding Drood and discovering his true identity. With the reluctant help of Wilkie Collins, Dickens begins a search for Drood which leads them through the dark alleys and underground catacombs of London.

Interspersed with the Drood storyline are long passages in which we learn about the family life and living arrangements of both Dickens and Collins, how much they earned for their various novels, their walking tour of Cumberland in 1857, the details of Wilkie’s laudanum addiction, the story of the Swiss chalet given to Dickens by his friend Charles Fechter, Dickens’ interest in mesmerism and every other piece of biographical information you could possibly want to know. Simmons also incorporates some genuine historical letters and quotes which adds some authenticity to the book. I can see why some readers might find this boring, but I enjoyed these sections – I thought the descriptions of Dickens’ reading tours were particularly fascinating.

Simmons has attempted to imitate Wilkie Collins’ narrative style (including the Victorian habit of talking directly to the reader) but I felt that he didn’t get it quite right. He also uses a lot of words and phrases that just sound either too modern or too American to me (the real Collins or Dickens would have walked on the pavement rather than the sidewalk, for example). This is only a small complaint though, as overall, Dear Reader, I thought his style was quite convincing.

I do like the way the book takes us through the process of researching and writing The Moonstone. However, some important plot points are given away so if you haven’t already read The Moonstone and think you might want to, then I would suggest you read it before you begin Drood. It might also be a good idea to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood first (I didn’t and kept wishing I had). Another thing I liked about the book was the way Simmons deliberately tries to confuse and mislead the reader – at several points in the novel we are made to wonder whether something we’ve just read is real or an illusion.

This journey through the cemeteries, opium dens and underground sewers of London is a good atmospheric read for a cold dark night, but I was slightly disappointed by it and despite reading all 775 pages I still can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not! However, it will almost certainly leave you wanting to learn more about Dickens and Collins and their works, which can only be a good thing. If you like this type of book I would also recommend The Quincunx by Charles Palliser – another book set in Victorian England and written in a 19th century style.

Before I come to the end of this review I would just like to say a few words in defence of poor Wilkie Collins, who happens to be one of my favourite authors. Simmons clearly doesn’t rate Wilkie as a writer (I saw an interview where he described him as ‘mediocre’) and in Drood, the character is portrayed as a not very talented, second-rate author who is consumed with jealousy of the more successful Dickens and becomes increasingly bitter and unlikeable as the book goes on. I admit I’m biased because I’ve absolutely loved every Wilkie Collins book I’ve read; he was a much better writer than Drood suggests and definitely not mediocre, at least in my opinion!

*Pictures of Charles Dickens (top) and Wilkie Collins (bottom) both in the public domain

Genre: Historical Fiction/Horror/Pages: 775/Publisher: Quercus Fiction/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new

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A Short Story for Saturday: The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Owen Warland is a young watchmaker who devotes his life to the creation of a beautiful mechanical butterfly which he presents to his friend Annie as a wedding gift. Annie and her family are not artists and they are unable to appreciate the beauty of Owen’s butterfly or to understand why he wasted so much time making it when he could have been doing something more useful. Each character in the story represents a different side of human nature and it’s interesting to see how Owen’s butterfly reacts differently to each of them.

This is a beautifully written story with the message that not everything in life needs to have a purpose – some things are worth doing just for the sake of doing them. Despite being ridiculed by the other townspeople, Owen doesn’t let other people’s opinions stop him in his pursuit of spiritual happiness.

“Yes, Annie; it may well be said to possess life, for it has absorbed my own being into itself; and in the secret of that butterfly, and in its beauty – which is not merely outward, but deep as its whole system – is represented the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful!”

Read The Artist of the Beautiful online here

* Butterfly picture by Galawebdesign used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

New Book Arrival: O, Juliet

I won O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell in a giveaway at The Maiden’s Court last month and received it today. Thanks Heather! This was the Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table’s featured book for January, so I’m looking forward to reading it.

[From Goodreads]
“Before Juliet Capelletti lie two futures: a traditionally loveless marriage to her father’s business partner, or the fulfillment of her poetic dreams, inspired by the great Dante. Unlike her beloved friend Lucrezia, who looks forward to her arranged marriage, Juliet has a wild, romantic imagination that knows not the bounds of her great family’s stalwart keep.

The latter path is hers for the taking when Juliet meets Romeo Monticecco, a soulful young man seeking peace between their warring families. A dreamer himself, Romeo is unstoppable, once he determines to capture the heart of the remarkable woman foretold in his stars. The breathless intrigue that ensues is the stuff of beloved legend. But those familiar with Shakespeare’s muse know only half the story…”

The Sunday Salon: Labels, Labels, Labels!

This week I have combined my Sunday Salon post with my Week 3 Blog Improvement Project post.

I haven’t posted any book reviews this week because I’m still reading Drood by Dan Simmons which seems to be taking forever to get through (775 pages but it feels even longer). I’m having mixed feelings about the book at the moment – hopefully I’ll be able to review it for you later in the week. However, I took a break from Drood yesterday to post my first short story review – Chekhov’s The Black Monk. One of my personal reading challenges for this year was to read more short stories, so now that I’ve begun I hope I can make A Short Story for Saturday a regular feature.

[Edited 16th April 2010 to add: This post was written before I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress, therefore its no longer relevant]

This week’s Blog Improvement task is to improve the way our posts are organised by ensuring that we’re using labels that are useful and meaningful. I had already spent some time doing this in January as part of Bloggiesta, but I thought I’d take another look and make some more changes.

You can see my list of labels at the top of my blog’s left sidebar. I’m currently using 12 different labels, as follows:

Author Interviews
Blog Updates: Includes Blog Improvement Project, Bloggiesta and anything else relating to blog maintenance.
Book Miscellany
Features
Fiendish Fridays: My series profiling literary villains
Great Books: The books that I consider to be among the very best that I’ve reviewed – worthy of a 6th star!
Memes: I don’t participate in these very often, so I’ve just used one label to cover them all.
New Book Arrivals: Highlights books that I’ve bought, won, borrowed from the library or that have recently come into my house in one way or another.
Not About Books: Personal or non-book related posts.
Reading Challenges
Reviews
Sunday Salon: I don’t really consider The Sunday Salon to be a meme, so have not included TSS posts in the Memes label above.

In the future I may add more different types of posts which will need their own labels, but at the moment I think these twelve are adequate.

Further down the left sidebar are two more label clouds – Explore by Genre (e.g. Classics, Historical Fiction, Mystery) and Explore by Theme (e.g. 19th century, Afghanistan, Christmas). I don’t know how useful these are but I like them because over time they should give a new visitor a good idea of the types of books I read and make it easier for them to find reviews that interest them. What do you think – is this useful or not?

Are there any more changes I should make to my labels? Any feedback would be very welcome!

A Short Story for Saturday: The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov (1894)

Where do we draw the line between genius and madness? Anton Chekhov explores this question in The Black Monk – the story of a young man called Andrei Kovrin who suffers from an undisclosed mental illness which causes him to believe he is being visited by a monk dressed in black. Even when he becomes aware that the monk is only a hallucination, he is not concerned because his visions make him feel happy and full of energy and creativity. Eventually though, his family begin to worry about his sanity…

This is a fascinating, unusual story which I found easy to read but difficult to fully understand. Chekhov’s poetic writing creates an eerie, disturbing atmosphere appropriate to Kovrin’s descent into mental illness.

“Once or twice a week, in the park or in the house, he met the black monk and had long conversations with him, but this did not alarm him, but, on the contrary, delighted him, as he was now firmly persuaded that such apparitions only visited the elect few who rise up above their fellows and devote themselves to the service of the idea.”

Read The Black Monk online here

Fiendish Fridays #5: Black Jack Randall

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

There are several Fiends I could have chosen from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. This is one of them…

#5 – Friday 5 March 2010: Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall

Name: Jonathan Wolverton Randall

Appears in: Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Who is he? A captain in the English Army during the 18th century and an ancestor of our heroine Claire Randall’s husband Frank.

What is he like? He looks so much like Frank Randall that even Claire almost mistakes him for her husband, although his hair is longer, and his skin darker from years of exposure to the weather.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? According to Jamie Fraser, Randall’s nickname ‘Black Jack’ refers to the colour of his soul. Randall is cruel and sadistic and abuses his position in the army by flogging, torturing and otherwise badly treating his prisoners. As Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie says, Randall is unable to earn the respect of his men so earns their fear instead.

Redeeming features: Of all the Outlander villains (Stephen Bonnet, Geilie Duncan, Laoghaire MacKenzie and others) Black Jack Randall is probably the least sympathetic character. He does love his brother, but that’s all.

What do you think about this week’s Fiend? Who is your favourite Outlander villain?

Blogsplash: Thaw by Fiona Robyn

Today I’m participating in a blogsplash for Fiona Robyn’s new novel, Thaw, which she will be posting on her blog in its entirety over the next few months. The novel follows the diary of 32 year old Ruth. Fiona has asked bloggers to post the first page of Ruth’s diary, with a link to the Thaw blog where you can continue to read the story.

1st of March:

These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It’s a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we’re being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.

The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they’re stuck to the outside of her hands. They’re a colour that’s difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.

I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I’m giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether it’s all worth it. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I’ve heard the weary grief in my dad’s voice.

So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I’m Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I’m sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?

Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat — books you have to take in both hands to lift. I’ve had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I’ve still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.

Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about — princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad’s snoring was.

I’ve always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I’ll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say, ‘It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for,’ before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It’ll all be here. I’m using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I’m striping the paper. I’m near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I’m allowed to make my decision. That’s it for today. It’s begun.

Continue reading Thaw