Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Genre: Paranormal
Main characters: Miriam Black
Time and place: present day, US (some of it is North Carolina, but there’s more)
First sentence:Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.

Verdict: Okay but forgettable.

Summary
Miriam Black has a strange ability: the first time her skin touches another person’s skin she sees how that person will die. At first, she tried to act on it, prevent unnecessary deaths. It didn’t work. So now she’s sort of going with it, sometimes trying to be there when people die so she could steal their money.

And then one day she met Louis. A truck driver, “sweet, sad, damaged“. She likes him, and the feeling is mutual — and then she accidentally touches him and sees that he will be brutally murdered very soon. And apparently she will be there when it happens. She cannot warn him, of course, and she knows that the future she sees cannot be changed… but she has to do something, right? If only she knew what that something was.

General impression
I picked this up from NetGalley (thank you NetGalley!) on a whim, as I thought the premise quite interesting. A quick read, I finished it in less than a day. I have no idea why I thought it YA, but it is definitely not so — it has lots of foul language and some gore. Thing is, it was quite interesting, and yet I kept feeling like it was missing something I cannot put my finger on, hence the “okay but forgettable” verdict mentioned above.

Setting
You know how sometimes I read some books and notice that all characters were kind and nice, and I like that about them? This book is the very opposite: everyone in it is “damaged goods”, having faced traumas that more often that not turns them psychotic. The language, the actions, everything is brutal, and people are getting maimed or murdered without a second thought. Everything feels… gritty, for lack of a better word. Not precisely my cup of tea, yet the book was well written enough, and the world building was good enough for me to read on.

Characters
Miriam is quite an interesting character. In her own words, she’s “a bad girl, not a bad person“, which I think it’s the perfect way of putting it. She grew up with a very religious mother, and her upbringing reminds one of Stephen King’s Carrie. One wouldn’t know this by seeing her today, as Miriam has every ‘small’ vice there is: she smokes, she drinks a lot, she curses like a sailor, she enjoys casual sex and has a violent streak (admittedly, this comes in very handy when she needs to defend herself, but there is at least one instance when she physically hurt someone for the sake of it). She steals dead people’s money for a living, taking advantage of her peculiar gift that allows her to be present at various death scenes. She doesn’t sound like a very sympathetic character so far, does she? There are some parts of her I really did not like.

And yet, despite her flaws and despite the fact that I could have done with less foul language, I ended up rooting for her. She’s been through a lot, and was damaged in the process, but underneath the outer layer she is neither mean nor evil. She could make a fortune exploiting her gift, and yet she is not fully without scruples, and I liked that about her. She has witnessed countless deaths, and yet she has not become indifferent to it, even as the people involved are total strangers. And, of course, what I liked most about her was her inner struggle regarding Louis — should she save him? Can she save him? Should she even care? After all, people die all the time, don’t they, and the future cannot be changed. But she cannot sit around and not even try to do something either, can she? And so on. It would have been so easy for her to just let go of the idea, but she doesn’t (or at least not for long), and herein lies the source of my appreciation for her, such as it is.

Which is funny in a way because I am not sure I actually liked Louis. As far as these characters go, he is definitely the sanest and the nicest of them all — and yet, it felt to me that the crazy, dark, gritty setting dirtied everything in it (ah, and the language, of course, never helped), which is why my interest in Louis never got past the idea that he has to live because Miriam wants him to. I didn’t much care for him otherwise, although he probably was nice enough to be likable if I had given him a chance.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re interesting, as the author has provided some of them with backgrounds that partly justify their current inclinations, but… let’s just say we didn’t click, take from that what you will. Perhaps “I hated all of them, and Ashley most of all” would be a better way to put it :)

A quote, showcasing both Miriam’s wry sense of humor (which I liked) and her somewhat violent approach to life (which I wasn’t a fan of) :

[Ashley comes and sits at her table and she is not pleased to see him]
“I’m just going to pretend you’re a pink elephant. You’ll kindly take this opportunity to get up and slink out of this place like a rat before I open my eyes, because if I open my eyes and still see you there, oh Figment of My Diseased Imagination, I’m going to stab you in the neck with my fork.”

I probably should write a bit about Ashley too, after having mentioned him quite a few times already. Thing is, he’s nothing but a small time crook, cocky, rotten to the core, and with no redeeming qualities at all. Meh.

Relationships
Miriam is attracted to dangerous people. And alas, I am not a fan of dangerous people, who don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings. Which means it should go without saying that I did not approve of Miriam’s relationship choices (except, of course, when she got close to Louis, whom, while I did not perceive as nice, at least had the potential to be so, which is far more than I can say of Ashley). Sort of a waste of time, this part, although I did like the way Louis grew on her despite the fact that she did not want him to.

Plot
Someone is on the run and there are killers after him and Miriam ends up caught in the middle. Louis too is unwittingly dragged into it. And that’t about it, plot wise. To be honest I didn’t care all that much about any of it (how could I, given that I couldn’t stand any of the people involved), all I cared about was seeing how things with Miriam’s vision would unfold — will she be able to change the past and save Louis? If so, how? The rest was more or less background noise.

What I liked most
There’s something else out there. After having her vision of Louis’ death, Miriam starts being haunted by his ghost (despite the fact that he is still very much alive). At first she thinks he’s nothing but a figment of her imagination, but sometimes it turns out he knows things she doesn’t. Whatever he is, I liked both the mystery (the fact that I get to theorize about what he may or may not be :) ) and the way the relationship between ghost Louis and Miriam evolves — sure, he’s very creepy-looking, but since he always showed up in times of crisis I think that Miriam actually welcomed his company near the end; when times are tough any company being better than no company at all and all that. Also, another reason why I think she grew quite comfortable with him (notwithstanding the way he looked) is that he is able to know what she’s thinking, so around him she never needed to pretend she was anything else. Sounds like a comfortable dynamic, and I enjoyed discovering this one more than I did the one between Miriam and the real, live Louis.

What I liked least
The nitty-gritty of the way Miriam’s power works is revealed to us via her answers to an interview, of all things. Try as I might I cannot imagine why someone with her strange power and not-quite-pleasant personal history would want to see any of these revealed to the world. Sure, nothing is printed in the end, but all I could think of while reading was what a bad, bad, bad idea this was, for all sorts of reasons.

Also, this is of course a personal preference and YMMV, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the imagery in the book. Okay, I get the reason for the foul language, as someone as damaged as Miriam and the rest of the cast would probably talk like that, if not worse. However, some of the things that the author chooses to conjure via the said language were a bit too aggressive for me — like saying that a car “gallops forward like someone’s trying to stick a riding crop up its a**“, or that the traffic was “locked up tighter than a handful of tampons crammed up a nun’s a**hole“. Eeek.

Thoughts on the title
I actually loved the title :)

Blackbirds [...] are cool birds. Symbols of death in most mythology. They say that blackbirds are psychopomps. Like sparrows, they’re birds that supposedly help shuttle souls from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

Although I am not quite sure why the plural form was preferred, since as far as we know now Miriam is the only person with these abilities. Or perhaps the term should be expanded to include all killers?

Thoughts on the ending
Somewhat far fetched and a tad overdone. Reminded me of the movie The Ring, in a way.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
The book’s current Goodreads rating is 4.20, so despite the fact that I felt it lacked something to make it truly memorable, I encourage anyone who is not put off by foul language and/or some physical violence to give it a try.

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  1. Admittedly, this is only a theory of mine, that can turn out to be disproven in the next books. Until then however… []

The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Genre: Dark Fantasy
Main characters: Harvey Swick
Time and place: the Holiday House — somewhere outside our reality
First sentence:The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.
Verdict: Loved it!

Summary
One bleak and boring February day Harvey Swick receives a surprise guest: a strangely dressed man who tells him about this great place to vacation in. Happy for the break in his routine, Harvey accepts to visit this mysterious place — so magic and mysterious that is hidden behind a wall impenetrable to the rest of the people. Everything turns out to be even better than he imagined and, together with two other children he met there, Harvey loses track of the days he spends happily playing one game or another.

The situation however is bleaker than the kids realize. One day Wendell, the other boy, gets sick of playing and wants to go home. And, as it was only to be expected, he finds no way out. He calls Harvey to his assistance — but can two kids defeat the magic guarding the house?

General impression
The book grabbed me with the very first sentence and it didn’t let me go until the last. It’s a short book (267 pages), easy to read in one sitting (which I did) and quite captivating too. And did I mention the beautiful writing?

Characters
The main character is a ten year old boy, Harvey Swick. He’s quite everything one would want in a hero of such a book: a bit reckless, yet smart and courageous and willing to help and do the right thing whenever the need arises. What’s more important, he does not give up easily — once he has noticed there is something wrong, he never lets go of the idea of escaping; later on, likewise, he does not let the house distract him from his purpose. Which is probably why he is the one child able to defeat Mr. Hood, all the others before him having been sidetracked :)

As for the villains, methinks the author has done a great job with them. Both their physical appearance and their behaviour made a perfect “wolf in sheep clothes” impression, as they cannot help giving off a disturbing, menacing vibe even when they want to seem friendly and nice. In my eyes the whole book has great cinematic potential, but if a movie were made it’s the villains I’d be most curious to get to see :)

Setting
Ah, the Holiday House. The very reason I like Clive Barker’s books is that at times he has some fascinating ideas :)

Imagine a house where four seasons pass every single day. In the morning the trees are blooming, for there is spring. Later on, the sky clears and the temperature rises, as summer has arrived. The clouds come back then, and leaves start to fall; each evening there is Halloween. And then, the snow starts falling and a huge Christmas tree appears in the middle of the house; and each day there are presents under it, and perfect ones too, as the house can read minds.

And let’s not forget that, of course, at Holiday House there’s always holiday — the children are free to spend their time playing and generally doing whatever they please. I don’t think it can get any better for a ten year old than that :)

Relationships
First of all, I liked that Harvey, although delighted with the prospect of a holiday in a magical place, has remembered to spare a thought about his parents, and even calls them periodically. Other than that, there is of course the friendship that forms between him and the other two visitors at the house, Wendell and Lulu. I didn’t feel it to be a central part of the story though (although they do matter for him, especially Lulu, after her change at the end). It seemed to me that Harvey’s motivations were a bit more general than just relating to his two friends — he wanted back what he lost, and he also wanted to help the rest of the children (the scores that have fallen prey to the house in previous years), not Wendell and Lulu alone. Or perhaps I am misremembering and it’s the other way around, he wanted to help Lulu and helped the rest as a side effect. :)

Plot
Ever since Harvey first sets eyes upon the house, the reader is treated to certain clues that all is not as it should be. The theme itself is similar enough to Pinocchio’s Toyland, so it is obvious almost right from the start that Harvey is about to learn that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, most likely the hard way. However, this knowledge does not dim in any way the joy of reading — getting to discover the Holiday House’s domain is fun enough by itself. Not to mention that, while it is obvious that someone wants something from Harvey, I personally was very curious to see what that something is (this curiosity being one of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down). This mystery will be revealed halfway through the book, and then another will replace it: Harvey wants to take back what the house has stolen from him — will he manage to succeed? And if so, how?

What I liked most
The cats :) I liked the idea of having three cats named Stew-Cat and Blue-Cat and Clue-Cat, and the fact that Blue-Cat was blue and Clue-Cat had a tail shaped like a question mark was also a nice touch.

My absolute favorite moment however is somewhere near the end:
show spoiler

What I liked least
Clue-Cat’s accident :( I kept hoping that he will be resurrected somehow :(
Blue-Cat’s fate too :( :(

Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :) The very idea of a “thief of always” sounds quite cool to me. Even more so since both the hero and the villain are referenced as such inside the book, and I like the fact that we cannot be certain who the title refers to :)

Thoughts on the ending
Could the ending be anything but positive and cool? I knew that all along, of course, and yet still I was taken by surprise by how much I enjoyed it :)

show spoiler

I very much liked the last few sentences — the idea that one would treasure every moment from then on may be a bit cliche, but the wording is anything but:

He’d fill every moment with the seasons he’d found in his heart: hopes like birds on a spring branch; happiness like a warm summer sun; magic like the rising mists of autumn. And best of all, love; love enough for a thousand Christmases.

Recommend it to?
Everyone — kids in particular, but I bet it can hold the interest of adults too :)

I loved the first page so much I just have to quote it here:

Harvey, Half-Devoured

The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.

Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter. He didn’t think much of his chances. More than likely he’d become so bored as the hours crawled by that one day he’d simply forget to breathe. Then maybe people would get to wondering why such a fine young lad had perished in his prime.

It would become a celebrated mystery, which wouldn’t be solved until some great detective decided to re-create a day in Harvey’s life. Then, and only then, would the grim truth be discovered. The detective would first follow Harvey’s route to school every morning, trekking through the dismal streets. Then he’d sit at Harvey’s desk, and listen to the pitiful drone of the history teacher and the science teacher, and wonder how the heroic boy had managed to keep his eyes open. And finally, as the wasted day dwindled to dusk, he’d trace the homeward trek, and as he set foot on the step from which he had departed that morning, and people asked him-as they would-why such a sweet soul as Harvey had died, he would shake his head and say: “It’s very simple.” “Oh?” the curious crowd would say. “Do tell.” And, brushing away a tear, the detective would reply: “Harvey Swick was eaten by the great gray beast February.”

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Written by the same author:
Books of Blood, Volume One

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Genre: Young Adult
Main characters: Theseus Cassio Lowood, Anna Korlov
Time and place: Thunder Bay (Ontario, Canada), present day
First sentence:The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway–no pun intended.
Verdict: Captivating. Want sequel now. :)

Summary:
I think of her again. Anna. Anna Dressed in Blood. I wonder what tricks she’ll try. I wonder if she’ll be clever. Will she float? Will she laugh or scream?
How will she try to kill me?

Cas Lowood is a ghost killer, like his father and his father before him. He dedicated his life to this pursuit, moving around with his mother and cat to any place he finds out there’s a ghost in need of sending to the other side. At first, his next mark didn’t seem like much. A sixteen-year old girl, savagely murdered in 1958 on her way to a school dance; she bled so much that the white dress she was wearing was soaking red. Her name was Anna. She was known from then on as Anna Dressed in Blood.

However, as Cas is about to find out, Anna is not an ordinary ghost. She is strong enough to tear people’s limbs apart. Cas is no match for her, physically. So, much as he hates involving ‘civilians’ in this kind of matters, Cas must try something else…

General impression
An interesting book with just enough horror elements to make it captivating without making it too frightening to enjoy. And yes, I read it at night, in the dark :)

Reading a few reviews, I noticed that people generally are not fond of Cas and his confidence. For me it was the other way around: one of the things I liked most in the book is Cas, and the way he never questions his ‘job’ and his ability to see it through. Although he’s not yet out of his teenage years, Cas already has his life figured out. I imagine he’s not particularly fond of his gruesome task, but he accepted that he is who he is; the job needs to be done, very few people in the world can do it but him, so the matter is settled. And if this means forsaking almost all others — he cannot make friends as he keeps moving around — then so be it. I thought it very mature of him, and I enjoyed his unselfishness1 and total lack of doubts.

And then there’s his first day in his new school. His confidence never wavers — I wouldn’t have liked it any other way. After all the things and adventures he’s been through, after getting beat up by dead people quite a few times, having to fit in at a new school should be a breeze, especially if, like Cas, one does this for the n-th time. It’s only natural to become jaded after a while. On the whole, Cas is quite the good guy, surprisingly normal for a kid who lost his father when he was seven and he has spent his life moving from one place to another ever since. And did I mention I liked his self-confidence very, very much? :)

Anna is somewhat of a paradox: a killer ghost, and an innocent girl all at once. She cannot leave her own house, and she’s compelled to kill everyone who enters — and she does so, violently. She does not know why she’s the way she is, why she experiences that unstoppable thirst for blood and revenge, yet deep inside she still is the same girl who all those years ago made her own dress, dreaming of going to a dance. Anna the ghost is very strong; she’s also aware that she’s dead and that few things can actually harm her. Even before she died she was a courageous girl, who stood up for herself. Now she is fearless and untouchable, her confidence level being as high as Cas’s.

There’s chemistry between these two: they are a good match, and their values are surprisingly similar. I very much liked the way their story developed. At first, she’s just another ‘mark’ for Cas, yet another ghost to be taken care of. Then, when he tries to kill her, they have their first conversation. Cas doesn’t let the fact that he finds her cool and intriguing get in the way of doing his job, but Anna is so strong she swats him effortlessly, like a fly. Despite actually liking her, Cas knows his duty is to destroy Anna; she becomes all he thinks about. He interacts with her again and again; he never found girls his own age truly interesting, but Anna is something else. Cas doesn’t even realize when he stops thinking of her as Anna Dressed in Blood — the feared name on everyone’s lips — and starts giving her pet names (“Anna, my strong, terrifying Anna“) in his head.

Speaking of Anna, I loved the way the author imagined her:

Anna is descending upon me, coming down the stairs without taking any strides. Her feet drag horribly along like she can’t use them at all. Dark, purplish veins cut through her pale white skin. Her hair is shadow-less black, and it moves through the air as though suspended in water, snaking out behind and drifting like reeds. It’s the only thing about her that looks alive.

She doesn’t wear her death wounds like other ghosts do. They say her throat was cut, and this girl’s throat is long and white. But there is the dress. It’s wet, and red, and constantly moving. It drips onto the ground.

While Anna does not always look like this — when she’s not angry she usually looks the way she did while alive — I found all the descriptions of Anna that involve her transformation to be actually beautiful. Sure, if they were in a movie they’d probably have me scared, all the dark veins creeping on her face, and all that; yet in my mind’s eye they look great.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re all promising, yet far less interesting than Cas and Anna. I liked Carmel, the beautiful, popular girl, who’s more than her high school persona. There’s also Thomas, a teenage witch who can read minds, but only in the right circumstances — sadly, this talent of his goes mostly unused. Perhaps we’ll get to see more of it in the sequel :)

Thoughts on the title
Hands down, one of the best titles ever. So very cool.

Thoughts on the ending
I cannot decide whether I like it or not. Scratch that, I think the way things ended is the best thing for everyone involved. It’s the fact that the author decides not to let things alone and hint at a sequel that has me less than satisfied.
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Anyone who can handle ghosts and a bit of violence. I usually shy away from mentions of ghosts with eyes sewn shut, but at the moment this particular character was introduced I was way too engrossed in the events of the book to care :)

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  1. he’s basically giving away all his life for the sake of others []

Drood by Dan Simmons

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, “the Phantom named Drood”
Time and place: London and its surroundings, 1865 – 1870
First sentence:My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.
Verdict: Four stars out of five.

Book read as part of Charles Dickens month over at Fig and Thistle. The occasion? Charles Dickens’ Bicentennial anniversary! (he was born in February 1812)

Summary:
This true story will be about Charles Dickens’s final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—-if man he was—-—named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.””

Thus begins Wilkie Collins’ manuscript. These are his memoirs of the strange things happening to him (and his friend Charles Dickens) after an unfortunate event caused an encounter between Oliver Twist’s author and a mysterious character calling himself (or itself) Drood.

General impression
I am not usually fond of the idea of having real people act out an author’s fantasies, especially when the book has paranormal elements mixed in. And yet in this case I have very much enjoyed having two of my favorite authors have “their” adventures brought to life. I loved the way the events in the book mingle with the real ones — the Staplehurst accident for example has actually happened (although at first I was tempted to dismiss it in an “yeah, right, of course Dickens’ carriage was the only one to survive, could this be any more obviously fabricated?” kind of way); Dickens’ infatuation with Ellen Ternan was real, as was Inspector Field; if we take into consideration the fact that Dickens’ last (& unfinished) novel was called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book starts to get a sort of an aura of authenticity that makes it very enjoyable to me.
(when I say “authenticity” I do not mean, of course, that the things in the book have/may have actually happened, but that there is no real-life element interfering with my suspension of disbelief when reading the novel; it is one of the things I love most when reading historical fiction novels :) ).

Characters
The characters themselves are part of the illusion, as they behave very much in the way I would have expected them to.
Well, to be fair, I do not know enough of Mr. Collins’ life & personality, but the Wilkie in the book (other than carrying out his personal life just like real life Wilkie, up to and including his “Other Wilkie” doppelganger) acts and thinks in just the way I would have expected from him on seeing his picture:

Not that I usually judge people by the way they look like, nor do I consider myself a great judge of character; however in this particular case the image and the feelings on the inside felt like they matched. Wilkie of the book seems born to be a sidekick (and he himself realizes that) : quite intelligent, and a capable author in his own right, he nevertheless lacks the easy-going confidence that make Dickens one of the most, if not the most  appreciated author of the time. By his own admission, Wilkie does not care a fig about what society makes of him/his living arrangements; and this unwillingness to make some amends to make people like him is very likely one of the reasons for the status quo. In his own words, he’s “small, cherubic, usually pleasant, rarely-taken-seriously“; everything about him seems less impressive than the corresponding traits of his friend’s. In simpler terms, Dickens was born to lead and make people obey his entreats; Wilkie Collins was born to agree to do other, stronger people’s bidding.

It is a pity Dickens (the real one) didn’t dedicate himself to becoming an actor (no, scratch that, I think we — the posterity — are better off having his books rather than not). Thing is, I was always impressed (and am even more so after having read this book) by how much of a performer Dickens was, and how much he enjoyed the spotlight and giving performances. If Wilkie is the type that never stands out — despite his literary successes and his very real talent –, Dickens is pretty much the opposite. People are drawn to him, people admire him, people end up worshiping him; he is a celebrity of his time, and I always was impressed by his managing to achieve that. One hundred years before Michael Jackson, people were fainting at his shows. The Dickens in the book goes on to flesh out these impressions I had. Dickens-the-character is a perfectionist, every performance rehearsed, every book passage rewritten and improved as needed. Even more impressive was his elephantine memory, knowing every one of his novel by heart, being able to recite them at will, while at the same time editing and improving the prose.

Dickens, during one of his readings:

Outside the stage, Dickens was still, in many ways, a child. He loved to laugh, sometimes in the most unfortunate circumstances; he lived to impress people; sometimes he even played pranks. He was not perfect (his pride was perhaps his greatest sin), but his personality shines through the pages in the book. I consider a sign of the author’s skill the fact that, although the narrator (Wilkie) and Dickens grow apart, driven away by their shared Drood experiences and in no small measure by Wilkie’s own jealousy, although by the final chapters the narrator’s feelings for Dickens become less than amiable ones, Dickens-the-character (“a complex, sensitive, and paradoxical man“) is nonetheless a very likable one. Or at least I liked him a lot. So much so that the last part of the book, as the dates approached the day he was going to die in (five years after the Staplehurst accident, to the day), made me grow sadder and sadder, feeling the loss.

Relationships
As the book opens, Wilkie and Dickens are close friends. However, their Drood-related adventures start taking a toll on their easy relationship ever since the night Wilkie found himself, against his better judgment, traversing the city sewers alongside Dickens, hunting Drood. It is the first time that Wilkie feels mistreated by his friend and mentor, and it is by no means the last. Quite the contrary actually; the frustrations pile up and Wilkie’s feelings for Dickens slowly turn into downright hate. I have a theory actually regarding that: perhaps the reason things turn out so is that Dickens and Drood were superimposed into one and the same deep down in Wilkie’s mind (after all, Drood has entered his life via Dickens — people often mistake a cause and an effect); thus his inability to find and destroy the one that ruined his life reflects itself onto the other, affecting W & D’s relationship in the way described. Although of course, pure professional jealousy also has a part in it (as old Wilkie finally manages to acknowledge, his first and foremost problem with Dickens was that in the end, “despite all of his weaknesses and failings (both as a writer and as a man), Charles Dickens was the literary genius and I was not“).

Setting
The London we come to associate with the world of Drood is a side of London I have not noticed being mentioned before: a stinky city with a sewer system that sent all human waste into the Thames. Even the citys cemeteries are overflowing, and it does not improve the atmosphere one bit. And then there is the Undertown, the ‘town’ below London, where people live like rats, or worse. I dont think I can properly imagine the sights there — and yet a human being can get used to anything, as proven by Wilkie himself, whose quest for opium attracts to the area again and again and again.

A very picturesque description:

Twenty thousand tons of horse manure per day were gathered from the reeking streets and dumped in what we politely and euphemistically called “dust heaps”—-huge piles of feces that rose near the mouth of the Thames like an English Himalaya.
The overcrowded cemeteries around London also stank to high heaven. Grave diggers had to leap up and down on new corpses, often sinking to their hips in rotting flesh, just to force the reluctant new residents down into their shallow graves, these new corpses joining the solid humus of festering and overcrowded layers of rotting bodies below. In July, one knew immediately when one was within six city blocks of a cemetery—-the reeking miasma drove people out of surrounding homes and tenements—and there was always a cemetery nearby. The dead were always beneath our feet and in our nostrils.

Plot
For me, the book was character driven, as I loved discovering bits and pieces of the two authors lives. Which is why I did not pay that much attention to the plot itself. What I did find interesting about it was how fluid it was, everchanging. There wasn’t one big arc (or at least it was not an obvious one), but many smaller ones, developing from one another like so many plan Bs.

Example: Dickens sees Drood and takes Wilkie on a hunt for him; the two of them do not discover his lair *but* Dickens does, behind the scenes; enter Inspector Fields and his own quest to discover Drood, getting Wilkie entangled in the story almost without his will; however Wilkie’s spying on Dickens offers no useful results, so the detective rennounces their collaboration *but* about that time Wilkie meets Drood himself, and is irrevocably changed by the encounter; and so on.

What I liked
One of the things I enjoyed the most consists of Wilkie’s ruminations about his future books, and the way he ‘put aside’ in his head all sorts of events and characters, for future use. My favorite such thoughts were the ones regarding The Moonstone (initially The Eye of the Serpent or maybe The Serpents Eye), and the various iterations it went through until reaching the shape it was published in. Alas, Wilkie’s feelings/themes/ideas were probably quite interesting in regards to the other novel he writes in the course of the book too (Man and Wife), but I have not read that one so I couldn’t enjoy comparing the drafts with the finished form, like I did with The Moonstone.

Speaking of which, my reading list has lengthened with no less than three books after reading this one: I added Our Mutual Friend (written at the height of the writer’s infatuation with Ellen Ternan and showing a passionate side of Dickens I never saw of thought of before), Armadale (Wilkie’s pride and joy prior to writing The Moonstone), and Man and Wife (if only to discover what was the way our female hero, a representation of Wilkie himself, was forced by law to marry someone she did not want).

What I did not like
Two things, both more or less spoilers (and both more or less nitpicks) :
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Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :)
Everything that happens in the book can be traced to Drood, one way or another. Which makes the title nothing less than perfect :)

Thoughts on the ending
Ah, the ending. The ending is… sad. The kind of ending that makes me like the book a little less (remember Atonement?), despite the fact that it makes the book better, not worse.
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Recommend it to?
People who like dark, Gothic novels :)
Also, people who enjoy Wilkie Collins’ plots, as the book did remind me about him and his novels now and then, for more reasons than the obvious fact that ‘he’ was the narrator.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | An article about Dickens’ public readings | a site about Wilkie Collins (with details about Dickens and some of the events in the book) | read Dickens’ works online