Saturday, 29 August 2015

Four months later...

And I seem to have given up. I hate to call this the end of the line, so I won't, but who knows at this point? I probably could make the time to resume this (albeit having missed a ton of my recent reads) but it really comes down to how much satisfaction I get out of it. Maybe if I'd actually tried to advertise it somewhere I wouldn't be in this limbo, but then it also seems to me through my experiences in life that not enough people really care about literature, or any kind of art medium that takes time to understand. TV is the enemy.

I'm a grumpy old man now.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Anthony Burgess- A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
Penguin Modern Classics

Anthony Burgess

“If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange—meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil.”

Another long-term installment on the I-always-meant-to-read-that plan, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is of course well-known as an iconic piece of subversive, counter-cultural fiction, unarguably a household-name and as such a touchstone for anybody looking to up their alternative reading credentials. Unfortunately for Anthony Burgess, a great, great proportion of this reputation is due to the cultural influence of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film adaptation, such is the power and reach of Hollywood and all that. I'm not a film buff by any means, but even I can comfortably state that Kubrick was a genius, A Clockwork Orange is an amazing film, and the growing realisation that his popular legacy was to be the man who wrote the book that became the film likely drove Burgess a little bit nutty.

Anthony Burgess
As a result, it's fairly well known that Burgess wasn't enamoured with the film (though nor was he overly-critical), and also that these days most critics point to his later novels as superior in their composition. My experience with these is limited only to his 1978 Orwell-themed novel 1985, which I read many years ago and probably didn't give a fair shot to due to youthful exuberance, but I remember not particularly enjoying it. It was mostly because of that that I didn't rush to find a copy of Orange, only eventually coming across a cheap second-hand copy by chance. It was a strange, possibly even unique feeling also to be worried if a book would live up to the quality of the film, but then Kubrick's work was just that good.

Considering how highly I value almost everything Kubrick made (though, whisper it, I never quite *got* Dr. Strangelove) to the point where I think he's probably the best filmmaker of all time, I'm not spoiling any suspense by admitting that no, I did not find Burgess' A Clockwork Orange to be as powerful or as absorbing as Kubrick's adaptation- and now I'm prepared to be ritualistically sacrificed by the book reviewing Illuminati for saying that- but that's not to say I didn't find it to be a thought-provoking and entertaining story.

Since it's an easy touchstone to reference, let me describe the novel by saying that it isn't much different to the film bar one crucial point, something that Burgess found infuriating, that the film concludes one chapter early. Personally I don't know if that chapter makes the story of the book any more better- in fact it may render it s message somewhat less powerful, but let's not get into spoilers- but in every other regard things are generally identical in terms of plot. The major difference, and something I worried would completely put me off, was down to Burgess' prose through the words of his main character, his well-spoken twinkle-eyed protagonist, so brilliantly bought to life by Malcolm McDowell. 

Alex narrates the entire story using Burgess' fictional youthful dialect named 'nadsat', a language intentionally confusing to adults comprised of pieces of slang derived from a number of places. Burgess doesn't provide a glossary, and so reading the first few pages were quite annoying until it all clicked into place that most of these phrases don't need any sort of translation to speak to the reader. Burgess is simply mimicking the intentional divergence of rebellious youthful terminology that occurs naturally with every new generation. For the most part, I read A Clockwork Orange as the depiction of a huge generational gap between parents and children, but it's not necessarily that specific.

The message of A Clockwork Orange isn't really very complicated, nothing that hasn't been done a thousand times before or since. The obvious influence is Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four, while a contemporary (-ish) comparison, and one that popped up in my mind several times as I read, is with Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. Orange supposedly had a similar effect in regards to offending public decency, but I think I've been far too desensitised in the past for something like that to effect me. The anarchic violence of Orange seemed to me to be too meaningful to be truly offensive, while Alex's almost constantly jovial tone adds a hint of black comedy. I also found it hard to dislike him despite his obscene behaviour- he seems partly like a chaotic force of nature, an almost naturally evil predator born of his surroundings.

A Clockwork Orange was by no means a book that changed my life or even stood out in a particularly meaningful way, but had I read it ten years ago it probably would've been. Regarded as sinister and ground-breaking at least in image, I actually found it deceptively simple, surrounding a standard anti-societal horror story with very memorable characters and prose with enough quality to hide the details of this decomposing England behind evocative insinuations. Unlike Winston Smith of 1984, Alex never gets too close to the full details of the larger picture surrounding his capture and rehabilitation, nor is he seemingly intelligent enough to conscientiously rebel.

As a result of its simplicity, I'd say A Clockwork Orange deserves its reputation as a compelling and undeniably influential piece of punk literature, but it's too limited in scope and design to fully reach classic status. I doubt I'll make the time to go back to the author in the future, but I won't soon forget the style and visceral energy that make up his most famous work.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jack London- The Call of the Wild, White Fang & Other Stories

The Call of the Wild, White Fang & Other Stories
Oxford World's Classics

Jack London
1998 (Collected)

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” 

The inebriated autobiography of John Barleycorn (1913) was an... interesting way to introduce myself to the work of perhaps the strongest name in American literature. Its increasingly bleak and seemingly honest nature had the effect of humanizing and quantifying the writing style and moral basis of Jack London, whose large body of work and immense reputation had previously seemed slightly off-putting without a good jumping-in point. With the ice broken, the next step to properly exploring London's work was quite clearly to read the subject of this review; a widely-found collection of by-far his two most famous works and a few short stories.

Jack London
To quickly review the short stories by essentially not reviewing them; I unfortunately didn't pay too much attention to them, and their proximity to the two classics put them into further obscurity. They undoubtedly make the book seem better value to those buying it, but I honestly feel that the effects of the collection's headliners made them seem so inconsequential that they would have been better served elsewhere in another collection.With that said, I say all of this in hindsight, as prior to diving in I really didn't know if I was going to enjoy any of this. It took the efforts of the first key work in this collection, The Call of the Wild (1903) to fully draw me in to the true powers of Jack London's fictional portrayals of the wild and the wolf.

I have to admit I was cynical about the maximum potential of a supposedly classic novella written with a dog (or a wolf if you prefer) as the central character, but I think that cynicism came from modern experiences with popular culture, specifically the unbearably cliched over-personification of animals as funny-looking humans (all of which whom are themselves unbearable racial or regional stereotypes). I should've assumed so beforehand, but London's style is far more Paul Auster's Timbuktu (1999) than your average Dreamworks borefest.

First edition cover
At only half the size of its more famous companion piece, The Call of the Wild is a fairly straightforward, truncated coming-of-age tale, where the immensely strong and powerful dog Buck survives a bucket-load of hardship and mistreatment to eventually find his true calling as a wolf in his ancestral forest surroundings. It's a simple and almost believable plot that requires a careful balance of typical narrative fiction tricks and techniques combined with enough authorial restraint to create the reader's suspense of disbelief. Personally I found Buck to be a little too strong, independent and basically perfect to fully immerse myself in his story, since it felt to a certain extent like a wish fulfillment fantasy, if not only for the reader but for London himself, who seems to marvel in the evocative power of nature.

In that sense I could see why it might not be considered by some to be a true American classic in the same respect that much more complicated novels by the likes of Hemingway are, but I do believe that stylistically it's absolutely top-notch work. London's ability to take a character with essentially no inner monologue besides that of instinct and then make him a figure that I cared about was no doubt entirely due to his select prose, resembling a high-class folktale of classic Americana ilk, like a Washington Irving story.

Though Call of the Wild was very good, I found White Fang (1906) to be exceptional, simply because it took the aspects I most enjoyed about Wild and gave them twice the space to fully form. Though the two are generally distinguished through their key plot points of returning to and then from nature, the emotional resonance of them are the same in that the antagonists are essentially finding their true selves. Most crucially, the increased time London spends on depicting the youth and development of White Fang compared to Buck is mostly spent on emphasizing the harsh cruelty of life, both in the wild and the world of man.

As a result, White Fang is a much harsher tale, surprisingly so I found. White Fang himself is warped into a hateful, unloved creature, thanks to a series of realistically-cruel humans and rival dogs, making his eventual redemption that much more rewarding for the reader than that of the much stronger Buck. Towards the end of the novel a couple of the set pieces are perhaps a little too cliched in a Hollywood sense, but I think without some sort of feel-good factor the earlier events of the story would've been unpleasantly pointless.

While neither of these iconic works has enough scope in total to really be compared to far more complicated twentieth-century US classics, London's pure writing talent evidently ranks alongside the very best, as his powerful, clear and evocative descriptions of an extremely difficult subject to realistically portray make White Fang a genuine classic, with The Call of the Wild at least a classic novella. While I don't expect to find anything else by London that's as good, my respect for his writing ability has grown exponentially and it won't be long until I pick up more of his books.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter- The Long War

The Long War

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

“Fear generates big profits.’
‘You’re very cynical.’
'Joshua, cynicism is the only reasonable response to the antics of humanity.”

Upon hearing and somehow absorbing the immensely saddening news Terry Pratchett's death, I had the creeping feeling that I'd need to write some sort of personal obituary. The news hit me as hard as the death of a person I'd never met possibly could; I'd grown up alongside Pratchett's words, he influenced my writing, my sense of humour and even my own ways of thinking in inestimable ways, and the thought of a future without him seems cold and alien, to be a tad melodramatic. Still, I haven't been able to write it, at least not yet, simply because I realised that this reviewing odyssey- which started as an attempt to just cover the core Discworld books but has since expanded to include Pratchett's entire bibliography and adaptations- is itself a much larger tribute... even if it might take a while to finish at my speed.

Stephen Baxter
To today's book- after a gap following reading its predecessor, I delved into the second installment in the The Long Earth series. Based on an incomplete Pratchett project named The High Meggas (now published in The Blink of the Screen collection), Pratchett and science-fiction author Stephan Baxter explore the concept of humanity collectively gaining access to infinite parallel universes through a planned series of five. The first mostly dealt with a small group of characters delving further into the depths of this unlimited multiverse, while hinting at further social and philosophical quandaries now facing the human race, who, as far as they know, remain the only truly intelligent species inhabiting these Earths. I enjoyed it, but it could've benefited from a lot of editing for length.

To cut to the chase, I enjoyed The Long Mars to an equal extent as The Long Earth, no more, no less. Obviously it's only going to appeal to people who read the first installment, but it's also only going to appeal to people who enjoyed said installment for what it was- and it's certainly not going to appeal to the many, many Terry Pratchett fans who read The Long Earth because his name was on it and then found it to be too dissimilar to the author's regular, more introspective and humorous style. If you're one of those people, I'd seriously consider reading something else. Oh, and if you don't like science fiction at all, give it up already. To be honest, I don't know for a fact how much input Sir Terry had in writing this book beyond contributing to the plot. I hate to insinuate, but by 2012/13 Pratchett was increasingly ill and somehow incredibly productive, seemingly determined to put as much of his imagination in print as he could before his final day eventually came. While I have no doubt Pratchett constructed the key aspects of the overall plot and characters, I think it's safe to say that Baxter put in the heavy lifting while Pratchett focused his solo novels.

I prefer this French edition
For me that was fine. I'm a long-time fan of science fiction and Baxter's style reminds me of genre luminaries Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. It's descriptive and imaginative, with a wry sense of humility in the face of the power of the unknown. It's far from lyrical, imaginative, or evocative, though it is occasionally witty. None of the characters resonate particularly well beyond the basics; all are essentially boring genre archetypes, though I did find them mostly realistic. As sequels are want to do, the authors add a handful of new figures central to the story, and ostensibly turn the focused aim of The Long Earth into a wider ensemble piece, as various characters play their part in a slow-moving plot.

For over three-hundred pages of this five-hundred plus book, plot progression is delayed for as long as possible in lieu of attempting to establish the new characters and an ominous, foreboding mood. The real meat of the action only kicks in closer to the end, where the plot lurches forward with the inclusion of a new set of antagonists. I won't spoil specific details, but I have to say that with this the entire tone of the series shifts somewhat into a more outrageous, fantastical  science-fiction that I imagine might be the final straw for non-science fiction inclined readers, though it didn't put me off particularly, as at least it gave a solid direction to the meandering plot, assisted by the incredibly dramatic ending.

With three books remaining in the series, The Long War suffers from Two Towers syndrome most of the way through, relying on the readers' interest in world-building for now. It may seem far more relevant eventually depending on how the story continues, but by itself I ultimately found it to be a by-the-numbers affair, just good enough with its prose and imagination to keep me reading. The title of the next book, The Long Mars, promises further sci-fi interest, but I doubt the series will ever be considered more than an interesting curio from a man driven to put his entire imagination to print before his departure, and his capable but unspectacular co-author.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Obligatory 'I've just been busy/lazy recently' post. I just need an empty day off.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Not Books XIII- With Extra Added Sci-Fi


Prometheus (2012)

The first time I saw Prometheus I was disappointed that it didn't immediately seem like the blow-away sci-fi instant classic I think we all wanted from a new Ridley Scott film of this type, and I undoubtedly underrated it without considering that it had more depth than my bad attention span could cope with. The second time I saw it, any ambiguities regarding the plot were quickly cleared up, and it also automatically became more enjoyable that I wasn't constantly waiting for any massive revelations, nor for a legion of Aliens to suddenly run from the hills. This was the third time I saw Prometheus, and this time it was pretty damned great.

I should admit that I'm often not the most attentive of movie-watcher, and so any increased enjoyment found in a re-watch will naturally take me a few more goes than the average person, which is why it only really clicked this time just how much of an impact Michael Fassbender's android David has both on the direct plot and the thematic exploration of the film- as the human beings so desperate to meet and understand their makers completely forget about their own sentient creations. Fassbender was the star of the film for me, and watching it this time with the clear knowledge that he was pulling the strings leading to the demise of his creators gave it a sadistic black humour.  There's no great plot twist, nor much of a sense of existentialism, so I don't think it matches classic sci-fi like Scott's own Blade Runner, but I'm still very much looking forward to the eventual sequel.


Star Trek- The Motion Picture (1979)

Despite wasting way too much time from my life on episodes of Star Trek, for some reason I'd never seen films I-III or V before- probably because I worried they'd be terrible. After mostly-enjoying every episode of The Original Series, and particularly being sold on the Kirk/Spock/Bones trinity, it seemed the time to change that. From the very beginning the ten year gap between series and film and presumed huge budget increase gave the proceedings a very different vibe. The sight of the older, fatter cast-members covered in infinite layers of make-up was not a good sign- Nimoy aside as a never-changing icon of course- and things just went down-hill from there as soon as things started to happen.

The transition from TV to film essentially ruined everything about James T. Kirk for me, as the ravages of time and the growing eccentricities of William Shatner transformed the character from a dynamic young space hero to a doddering, wry old bore. Not that I'm claiming he was ever a good actor in the typical sense, but the difference here is that before every line reading he pauses to adopt a thoughtful, smug look as if he can't quite believe how great he is, and it's massively annoying. Kirk is made twice as boring by the inclusion of new character Captain Decker, Kirk's replacement after he ascended into Admiralty. He is nothing more than a black gravity vortex that sucks any subtle remnants of charisma out of every scene.

The plot has a decent premise but doesn't really go anywhere, and its history as an episode for the cancelled Star Trek: Phase Two project is horrifyingly exposed as the writers try desperately to extend the script to two hours. The visuals, while an obvious 'homage' to 2001, are at least interesting, although I may have been watching a digitally remastered edition. Whatever the case, it didn't stop me taking three attempts to get through this phenomenally dull and disappointing film.


TV Shows-

Red Dwarf IV (1991)

I was surprised to find that Red Dwarf IV was made so long ago; if you'd have asked me I would've labelled it as mid-90's, partially due to my first exposure to the show during childhood, and partially because of how much better this series looks than the three prior. In mine and most people's opinions (or so it seems, anyway), Red Dwarf IV marks the beginning of a two-season golden period of the show's peak. Most Internet reviews suggest to me that the majority of people prefer Red Dwarf V, but I've always slightly favoured this iteration. Whatever the case though, it's notable how all the elements of the show come together to create a fantastic sci-fi comedy that I think as good as Douglas Adam's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Things kick off well with Camille, a strange but hilarious sci-fi take on Casablanca, where the crew respond to a distress call and find a female who appears differently to each crew member, existing as their own personal fantasy- a pleasure GELF (genetically engineered life-form, I feel I must add). Despite really being a giant green blob monster she and Kryten fall in love, leaving Kryten to make a tough choice as to their future. It's both completely ridiculous and quite touching, expanding upon Kryten's personal evolution into more of a free-thinking individual.

DNA, the second episode isn't quite as good. First of all it's another Kryten-centric episode, which is just bad episode arrangement. This time the Dwarfers encounter an amazing machine on a derelict spaceship that can transform DNA molecules into pretty much anything, and thus Kryten temporarily becomes human. The biggest annoyance is the way how Kryten, formerly an intelligent, capable android, suddenly becomes a massive idiot as a human, incapable of understanding the basic tenants of human biology. It might be a nit-pick, but it really does hurt the episode for me.

Smoke me a kipper...
Justice continues the trend of getting the cast out and about, to an abandoned (as everything is 3 million years in the future) prison complex in which they must fight for their lives against an insane rogue android. Not the funniest episode, but the action is a cut above anything the show had ever done before thanks to the much more convincing sets and props. The fourth episode White Hole continues on the theme of visual improvements with some much tidier digital editing than ever before, as an attempt to boost Holly's intelligence leaves them dead in the water.

Dimension Jump
is my favourite episode of any Red Dwarf, as the crew encounter Ace Rimmer- a version of the hapless Arnold from another dimension who just so happens to be the greatest adventurer of all time. Both hilarious, poignant and iconic, Dimension Jump put the Rimmer character in a whole different perspective for me, and is the greatest example I think of the writing team of Grant Naylor using alternate versions of their characters to full explore the original's psyche.

The final episode, Meltdown is another funny action adventure, though not without a few plot holes. Kyrten discovers hiding away on the ship a piece of experimental technology that allows them to teleport great distances across the universe. They head to the nearest planet with life and an atmosphere, and wind up in the middle of a wax-droid theme park (full of famous historical figures from Hitler to Ghandi) run amok and at war. The guest actor look-a-likes are all pretty funny, making this a pretty memorable gimmick episode, but I'll never get over the logic hole where the crew never use their incredibly-useful transportation device ever again.


Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997)

Yes, I am a nerd. Dragon Ball GT is easily the most unloved installment of the Dragon Ball franchise, the follow-up to the anime juggernaut that was Dragon Ball Z. The show was handicapped from the start by virtue of not being based on an original Akira Toriyama manga, with Toriyama having little to do with the project. Of course that wouldn't have really mattered so much had Toei Animation actually been able to come up with at least a competent story for it. Running for only 64 episodes compared to the 291 (and legion of films and spin-offs) of DBZ, before this recent re-watch I'd only seen half of them at most simply because it just wasn't worth the effort to try and get home at the same time each day to watch Cartoon Network. Thanks for helping me out, Internet.

The younger version of myself was one of many DBZ fans put off by the lack of quality and awkward style displayed from the very first episode. DBGT attempts to recapture some of the spirit of the original Dragon Ball series by having old enemy Emperor Pilaf and chums turn lead character Goku back into a child through use of the magical Dragon Balls- which then disperse themselves across the universe, leaving Goku and friends to the task of finding them again before the Earth explodes for some reason. That kind of back-tracking annoyed me a little, but what it essentially resulted in, at least to begin with, was a series of self-contained stories slowly leading towards a larger plot, as Goku explores the universe with his immensly annoying grandaughter Pan, and former DBZ bad-ass turned DBGT pathetic nerd Trunks. There's a massive focus on humour, again going back to the original DB series style. That's not necessarily bad by itself, but as a sequel to the steroid-fueled super-heroics of DBZ it simply doesn't match up.

By the time the writers seemingly realised this, it was already far too late. About half-way through the run they bring the action back to Earth and create a series of super-powered villains to threaten the world, while also bringing back many popular DBZ characters in prominent roles. In a sense this was the lazy and safe option to fix the show, but it doesn't quite work thanks to the generally awful plotting, although things do get better further in. The final saga of the show beings with about fifteen episodes left, and is easily the most entertaining and compelling of everything GT thanks to its success in re-using elements of DBZ but with a few fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the very last episode, essentially an epilogue to the whole Dragon Ball concept that I personally thought in terms of writing it was a level above almost anything else the franchise ever produced, in terms of providing a great,thematically-relevant and even emotional finale.

Still, now with the new DBZ film series looking like it'll be successful for a good long while, DBGT sits in a curious position within the DB continuity- Battle of the Gods was particularly careful never to actually ret-con (or should that be future-con?) the events of DBGT (which take place after all of the DBZ action, including the new films), though certain aspects of the plot and the promise of more to come does suggest that a full ret-con might be in the series' future. That doesn't bother me too much, since as a fan I'm happier for them to re-write the post-DBZ series events rather than continue on past those of DBGT, though I am disappointed that the GT final will likely be wiped out of continuity with it.


Video Games-

Full Throttle (1995)
LucasArts (PC)

Though I've played through Full Throttle more than a couple of times in the past, this current run of adventure games I'm on quickly led me back to it, one of LucasArts most popular and stylish efforts. Released during the heyday of the greatest adventure games development team of all time, Full Throttle was the first game to give the position of project leader to now-iconic designer Tim Schafer, who'd previously co-designed the first two Monkey Island games and Day of the Tentacle. Developed with the trusty SCUMM graphics engine (and the help of some 3-D extras), Full Throttle places the player in a Mad Max-style future world, in control of grizzled biker outlaw Ben- leader of the Polecats biker gang.

After a chance meeting, Ben and the Polecats get caught in a vicious battle for control of bike-makers Corley Motors, as cartoon villain Adrian Ripburger (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to seize control of the last motorcycle manufacturers in the country to build minivans instead. At the start of the game Ben is stranded with a trashed bike in a town in the middle of nowhere, and so the player must exploit the usual adventure game mechanic of 'find thing, combine it with other thing' to get him back on the road and after the villains.

The voice acting, dialogue and visual style of Full Throttle are all superb, absorbing the player into an atmospheric and edgy cinematic universe from the start. The puzzles are inventive, and the interface is one of LucasArts' best. The game offers a couple of opportunities for simulated action, giving the player limited control over driving sections and disguising a simple puzzle sequence as an action one. What there is of Full Throttle is slick, dramatic and funny (if not laugh out loud) stuff. Unfortunately there's just not enough of it.

Comfortably the shortest proper adventure I can remember playing, Fully Throttle is extremely, notably short. Compared with your average LucasArts adventure it's twice as short as most, and in comparison to, say, Double Fine's Discworld game it's positively minute. The game fits a lot of story into the time through a series of excellent lengthy cut-sequences, but in exchange there are very few puzzles, none of them particularly challenging, and even fewer non-player characters, with little interactive dialogue. As a result of its shortness, I found Full Throttle to be a quick burst of solid entertainment, but realistically from a gameplay standard I can't consider it a true classic of the genre. 


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

W. Somerset Maugham- The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham

Other Maugham Reviews- The Magician - The Moon and Sixpence - Cakes and Ale - The Narrow Corner - The Razor's Edge

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art."

One of the things I like the most about keeping this obsessive blog flowing is the ability to look back at the past few years and map out my own progress, altogether giving me a better understanding of my typical reading habits. On top of that, it stops me from finishing one book and rushing straight into another, instead forcing me to more fully contemplate each book with the goal of producing a blog review so that I feel like I've achieved something. No author has benefited more from this process under the gaze of my critical eye than one W. Somerset Maugham (I'm sure he'd be very proud), whose bibliography first captured my imagination almost three (!) years ago with the hastily-reviewed The Razor's Edge. Since that fateful moment I've become more and more appreciative of each Maugham book I've read, with the pinnacle standing as the sublime The Moon and Sixpence.

Furious Maugham
Still, despite all that, when I sat down to begin reading The Painted Veil (chosen randomly from the four Maugham books on my to-read pile) I wasn't expecting to do something I haven't done since 2007 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and sit and read the damn thing start to finish (well, with the odd break to make coffee and such)- and I only did that with Potter because I had a six hour window before the book's owner, who had just purchased it on midnight release, took it away on a bus journey, so that's my excuse. But anyway, I didn't intend to read The Painted Veil so quickly, but found it so engrossing I couldn't help myself, and at roughly 250-pages it was just the right length to finish in around 2-3 hours. Oh, and before I started reading I dropped my copy and broke the spine, so I had to literally hold it together to read.

It's not even as if I was blown away to the point where The Painted Veil became my new favourite Maugham novel. For the first thirty-or-so pages I thought I was set to be very disappointed, as Maugham led me down a false path in regards to the genre before opening up into his usual quality. Written in the third-person, The Painted Veil is the story of lead protagonist Kitty Garstin, a pretty young girl living amongst the British gentry of colonial Hong Kong. The opening segments of the book duped me into assuming the worst, that this book might be an uncomplicated romance novel. Maugham described Kitty, unhappy with her boring, inattentive scientist husband Walter, throwing herself into the arms of the witty and dashing (but also married) Charles Townsend- and all that was left, seemingly, was for them to find a way to get free of their partners (what with divorce being difficult back then and infidelity being illegal) and they'd be set for a future together.  

Pocket Books
When Kitty spills the truth of her affair, Maugham finally pulls back the wool from his reader's eyes to reveal the characters in a far more detailed light. Kitty, reveals her naivety by failing to realise Charles is simply one cad of many, promising Kitty a future life together to get her into bed. Walter, meanwhile, transforms under the realisation he is a cuckold, abandoning the image of a loving, devoted husband to reveal himself as cynical, dangerously intelligent, and unpredictable. He tells Kitty that he is to travel to China in a seemingly-selfless attempt to use his medical knowledge in the fight against a deadly outbreak of cholera. With nowhere else to go, she follows him to the sight of a convent acting as a make-shift hospital, where death is a constant presence.

Maugham uses these morbid and depressing surroundings and its characters to effect a transformation in Kitty, to replace her immature naivety with tougher worldly experiences. The eccentric new characters Kitty meets here essentially shape her personality, giving her increased strength through opening her up to alternate ideas about the world. Maugham's carefully-selected prose is outstanding and compelling,  shifting the his writing style to represent the changes experienced within Kitty. I mostly followed and enjoyed her transformation, mostly admiring Maugham's ability to hold such a delicate, changing character study so carefully, but by the end I must admit I hadn't been completely sold on the character, mostly because despite growing as a person as she does, Kitty still has the propensity to cry at every available opportunity, which became somewhat annoying closer to the end of the novel.

I think that's down to Maugham's insistence on never making his central characters too appreciable- he avoids a predictable heroic outcome or much of a happy ending by resisting the temptation to ultimately make his creations too successful, leaving the reader ambiguous as to their eventual fate. His character development is so focused that I think Maugham would have  done himself a disservice through writing a happier ending; as always he leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate and no hard answers. Though I raced through the book I wasn't left with the same sense of thoughtful awe that I was with Moon and Sixpence or The Narrow Corner- part of that because I wasn't as emotionally invested in the central characters- probably because, as good as Maugham is, I can't buy into his portrayal of female characters as I do his males.

In conclusion, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil as anyone's first Maugham book since there are better ones available, but after I had become immersed in his style and themes from prior books this was another interesting take on his central themes of human obsession and spiritual discovery.