Friday, July 24, 2015

Book review: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon

Written by: Thomas Harris

Published: 1981

Synopsis: Will Graham stands in a silent, empty house communing with a killer. An FBI instructor with a gift for hunting madmen, Graham knows what his murderer looks like, how he thinks, and what he did to his victims after they died. Now Graham must try to catch him. But to do it, he must feel the heat of a killer's brain, draw on the macabre advice of a dangerous mental patient, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and follow a trail of microscopic clues to the place where another family has already been chosen to die--and where an innocent woman has found the Dragon first. (Via Goodreads)


“It's hard to have anything isn't it? Rare to get it, hard to keep it. This is a damn slippery planet.”

Tom and I started Bryan Fuller's series Hannibal when we heard it had been cancelled. We'd both been wanting to watch it for awhile, but we have so many ongoing shows we watch that it was kind of exhausting to add yet another one to the list. So the cancellation, though very sad (more so now that we know how great the show is), let us feel like we could finally make the commitment to the show. After we finished each episode, I'd look up the AV club review and see what people had said. One thing I hadn't really expected was a continued discussion on how faithful to the book(s) the show is, especially since it takes place prior to the events of the Harris novels. 

Interest piqued, I decided to find out for myself. What I discovered that the TV show is very clever at weaving lines and references from the book into the show, but also, this book is hella cool.

For those of you who have watched the TV show,* Red Dragon takes place four-five years after any events in the show (maybe longer? It's 4 years since Hannibal's capture in the book but I don't know when/if Hannibal will be caught in the show). After catching and then nearly dying at Hannibal Lecter's hand, Will Graham has removed himself from the FBI and settled down and married. He's still troubled by his days in the FBI, but he finds a quiet satisfaction working with his hands and not empathising with serial killers for a living (whodathunkit?). Oh wait, did I say he was content? Enter Jack Crawford, desperate for Will's insight into a new serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. 

At the new moon, the Tooth Fairy kills an entire family. The deaths are quick and mostly painfree, except for the mothers who seem to receive the lion's share of the aggression and attention. Graham is called in to try and make the connection between the two families that no one else has been able to find, but in involving himself in the case he throws his fragile life into a tailspin. His new family is tense and close to falling apart, as is his sanity. Working in pursuit of a serial killer can't be easy on anyone but for Will it seems extra destructive. At one point Will visits the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter to try and get his perspective and this terrible toll on Will is explained, the line between killers and Will is especially thin. Will is gifted (cursed?) with the ability to empathise completely which obviously causes pain, but it also blurs the line about Will's self. Is he able to empathise on a purely scholarly level, or is it because he's the same as them, evil and destructive like them? 

The narrative is primarily framed around Will, however there are chapters that travel back to the Tooth Fairy's (aka Red Dragon, aka Francis Dolarhyde) childhood and adolescence, or spends time with him as he goes through his daily routine and gets ready to attack another family. There is also a section or two framed around Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford or other smaller characters, to help fill out the story without having Will inserted into every single scene. As the book gets closer to its final act, the Dolarhyde chapters increase and we see his fractured sense of self and mental instability which is often mirrored against Will. It becomes a story that's both about the hunt for a serial killer and an introspection into the psyche of people who live on the fringe of society.

Lest those of you who watch the TV show think that this aligns with TV-Will...hold your horses. While his ability to empathise with killers is a part of his character and a leading role in his fragility, Book-Will does a lot more detective work than TV-Will ever does. While he certainly gets a "feeling" that he can't define through actual evidence, he also has an eidetic memory which helps greatly as he spends hours upon hours sifting through evidence. There's a stronger foundation of reality in Red Dragon than in the show, which tends to favour aesthetic and theme over narrative stability.

I found the ending a little unsatisfying. I didn't have an issue with the events themselves, but they were written in such a vague way that I actually wasn't entirely sure what I was reading at first. My other major problem was the absolute lack of female characters in the book. There were two, I think, maybe three. I could have forgiven the small number if they were at least characters with some depth, but I found them decidedly lacking.Ultimately though, these two issues weren't strong enough to effect my general enjoyment of the book and I'll definitely be seeking out Silence of the Lambs when I'm next at the library. Goodbye Will.

*Yes, I know that there is a film adaptation of Red Dragon. No I will not comment on it or refer to it in the review because it is NOT GOOD.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousin's War #3)

Written by: Philippa Gregory

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of 19, she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a new life for herself. (via Goodreads)

*mild spoilers below, but really, it's based on a historical event so this shouldn't be news to you*


“Any woman who dares to make her own destiny will always put herself in danger.”

I don't tend to read it too often, but I really do love historical fiction. There's something about reading a fictionalised account of a family or event from long ago which just ticks a lot of boxes for me. The Lady of the Rivers is actually the third in Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series, but it's a prequel that takes place during the years prior to and during Henry VI rule. It focuses on Jacquetta, a real life fascinating woman, who began her life in English-occupied France, the daughter and niece of Luxembourg royalty (and a Goddess), before marrying one of the most powerful men in England, John of Lancaster.

Jacquetta is a perfect character for this type of book because while she's involved in a lot of the critical events that led up to the Cousin's war, she's removed enough that the book isn't just another rehash of a very famous family feud. Instead we see life on the outskirts, how her first husband ruled France and how he tried to guide his young nephew, the king. We see the early days of Henry's rule and the follies of youth as he and his young wife play favourites in court and have zero understanding of how to run a castle, let alone a country. And we get a little insight into raising a child (or 14 as is the case with Jacquetta) during these tough and troubled times, especially as a lady of the court who is forced to spend months away from their children. This peripheral view, I imagine since I haven't read the following two books, also helps to set the scene quite well for the really character-driven narrative that is to come*.

One of the best things about this book was how focused it was on women in this era. Through Jacquetta and the women in her life, we see how few options they had. And not only did they have far fewer options in life compared to men, but their futures were largely out of their control. If they were from wealthy families like Jacquetta, their marriages were often to form alliances or to solve land feuds. Jaquetta's first marriage to John of Lancaster is never consumated, instead she is an object for him to use. Jacquetta, as their family myth says, is gifted with the "sight" because their oldest ancestor was the water goddess Melusina. John, obsessed with alchemy, wants Jacquetta to see the future in a mirror and help him guide his nephew to success and prosperity. And while her talents puts her in his favour, as the reader sees with Jacquetta's brief interaction with Joan of Arc and another woman of the English court, this favour can quickly turn sour when it no longer works in someone's favour. A talent at forecasting the future or making herbal remedies quickly becomes signs of witchcraft and can lead to an unfortunate end tied to a stake. In a less supernatural sense, a woman failing to give her husband a child and heir just as quickly turns from favour. It was a time where women were balancing on a tightwire, hoping to keep their husband, their father, their brother, and their King happy.

In spite of this, Jacquetta, and several other women in the book, are shown to be independent and strong characters. They make themselves heard and they make their own choices, even though they face dire consequences. After John's death, Jacquetta marries his squire and almost loses everything in the process. But her marriage is one of love, and not only do they survive, they rise high in the court. Henry's wife and Queen, Margaret, is ruled by her emotions and is a passionate and fiery woman. Many of her decisions could have risked her her crown and her head, but she lives as she pleases regardless. Joan of Arc, although only in the book for a short while, is an absolutely beautiful and principled girl. Her trial and death is utterly heartbreaking, and the weight of it effects Jacquetta long after it happens. The women are the focus of this book, so we see a lot less of the wars and fighting than many books that deal with this era typically show. This I am eternally grateful for because, ugh, I don't need more battle scenes in my life. I get enough of them in Game of Thrones thank you very much.

Now this isn't to say this book is perfect. It falls into many of the holes historical fiction struggle to deal with. There is an insane overuse of titles in the book. Every time John is mentioned, it is "John of Lancaster, first Duke of Bedford". While I know it's hard to keep on top of all the characters, especially since they all seem to be called John, Richard, Edward and Henry, but when you have a 10 page chapter that only involves a discussion between Jacquetta and her husband, I think the reader can be trusted to understand which John this is. It also struggles at times with covering so much. I loved that it gave glimpses into life in court, away from court, during pregnancy, during birth, during war etc etc, but this did mean that sometimes things were fairly shallow in their depiction. A few times Jacquetta brings up her pregnancy and then gives birth 200 words later and then you don't hear of the child for another 40 pages. A tightening of the focus, just a bit, may have helped here. Building on this...I hated Margaret. She was an insipid and obnoxious brat who plunged two countries into ruin because she wanted to play favourites at court and didn't have a proper grasp of money or time. Because the book is so focused towards the women in the narrative, all of the blame ends up heaped on her shoulders, probably unfairly, while Henry is barely discussed or depicted as a pious and naive young man. Because Jacquetta is one of her ladies in waiting, we spend so much time with her, especially as the country falls into war between the two factions of the family. I didn't like spending so much time with her scheming, although I guess there wasn't a lot else that could be depicted since we were following Jacquetta. But to further infuriate me, the book depicts Margaret as this horrendous woman but then Jacquetta will dote on her or excuses her terrible actions. I couldn't get a read on how Jacquetta truly felt. When she talks about a shallow or dangerous decision made by Henry and Margaret, is she simply being nice because it's her job to be loyal, or does she truly not understand/care how terrible that decision was? Jacquetta was shown to be so intelligent before this part of her life, and suddenly I couldn't tell if she was playing it safe or naive or foolish or simply blind. At the end of the book I was firmly on the York side, which I don't think was Gregory's intention.

Problems aside, I did really enjoy reading this book. I spent most of my first day up the Coast with Tom with this book in one hand, and my phone in the other googling names so I could work out everyone's relationship. English family trees give me such a headache! I loved that this book introduced me to a new badass woman in history. Because Jacquetta most definitely was a badass. This book sadly doesn't cover the later years of her life, but she ends up accused of witchcraft (hence the supernatural elements threaded through this book) and manages to escape with her life. And as a mother of 14** it's really beautiful to see how much she fought for her kids and for them to have the best in life. Other accounts of Jacquetta that I've read since tend to depict her as this grabby power-hungry woman who used her children to rise up in station, and maybe she truly was the 15th century version of Kris Kardashian but I much prefer this version. She fought for and risked everything for all of the people in her life, even those like Margaret who perhaps didn't deserve her love and loyalty. Melusina would have been proud.

*Like I said in the intro, this is actually the third in the series and a prequel, but from what I've read about the other two books it does sound like they are more tightly written in terms of focus. 

**I really should fact check this, it's either 12 or 14, but I've already sent the book back to the library and I'm LAZY.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Graphic Novel review #34

Cinema Panopticum

Written and illustrated by: Thomas Ott

Published: 2005

My Thoughts: I first came across Thomas Ott through his illustrated cover for Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I love his scratchboard art style, it adds an enormous amount of visual complexity to his stories, which is necessary since they are entirely wordless. Cinema Panopticum follows a girl at a fair who can't take part in any of the activities on offer because she doesn't have enough money. She finally finds the Cinema Panopticum tent, which has 5 movie boxes that are cheap enough for her to afford. Each movie is another short chapter, and the stories are all fairly dark and foreboding, although some are laced with a wicked wit while others are just downright heartbreaking. It's only a short little book but it packs one hell of a wallop.

Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle (volume 2)

Written by: Gail Simone; Illustrated by: Adrian Syaf

Published: 2011

My Thoughts: I picked this up thinking it was the first volume (I hate when they don't number the spine!) but even so, it clearly sets out all of the major players and recent events at the start of each issue, so that presented no real issue. The story is interesting enough, Oracle (Barbara Gordon, now in a wheelchair) has garnered a little too much attention as a tech-genius and her enemies are now doubling-down on trying to eliminate her. Not only is Oracle a credible threat in her own right, but as Oracle she monitors and supports countless of other heroes so any threat on her life has a knock on effect. The rest of the Birds of Prey are tasked with trying to save Oracle while also having to come to grips with their own dark pasts. This is my, to my knowledge, first Gail Simone and ... I didn't love it? It's a solid story and the characters are well-developed but it didn't wow me. But an (almost) all female team of heroes, some of whom began as anti-heroes or dabbled with villainy, is too good a concept for me to give up on after one middling edition. I'll give it at least one more edition and make my mind up then.

Lady Justice (volume 1)

Written and illustrated by: C.J Henderson; Fred Harper; Daniel Brereton

Published: 2008 (though the collected comics are from the 90s)

My Thoughts: Ugh, this is a good example of making sure you read the fine print. In case you can't see in the cover image, Neil Gaiman's name is written above the title. Awesome!, I thought. Turns out it's not written by Gaiman but merely based on a character of his, and loosely, so very loosely. The concept itself is kinda awesome (kudos to Gaiman). Lady Justice appears to women who have been wronged and implants them with her powers, making them her physical avatar. They then have the power to gain justice for the wrongs they've experienced. The first issue is very violent and very bloody, but when Lady Justice leaves her avatar and the woman cries for her to stay saying she "did everything L.J asked of her," Lady Justice replies that she didn't say how the justice should be meted out and that "the blood and violence was entirely her choice, and she should beware that she isn't revisted in the future by another Lady Justice avatar"*. This I actually really dug, but this story was completely destroyed by the following two or three stories which were equally as bloody and equally as violent. What happened to choosing how to deliver justice? Or that the justice should be proportionate to the crime? I think there was one which actually had the bad guys going to jail instead of dying, but plenty of other people had died by this point. It's just all so pointless. The art is also very '90s pornographic superhero style. Huge gravity defying boobs, tiny waists and the women are always walking on tip-toes. Pass if you ever see this guys, HARD pass.

*my paraphrasing


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