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Sunday, 29 March 2015

All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

I got All You Need is Kill so many years ago that it's actually quite shameful that it took me this long to actually read it properly. Hell, there's even been a film adaptation in the meantime, not that I was especially impressed with the look of Edge of Tomorrow. In any case, I thought that I should finally get round to reading this and seeing if I've kept it so long for good reason. 

All You Need is Kill follows Keiji Kiriya, a new recruit in the fight against alien invaders known as Mimics. As is possibly expected for someone who's only had six months of training, he is killed in his first battle, but not before taking out one final Mimic before dying. The fact that he wakes up again, safe and alive in his barracks before the battle even starts, is something of a surprise. After dying a second time, he realises that he's stuck in an eternal loop until he can find a way of breaking out forever. It is only several iterations in that he finds out that the ace female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch may know a way out of his predicament. 
I was not expecting this to be quite so readable, especially since my last experience within the military science fiction genre was The Forever War, which I was not overly struck by. In comparison, All You Need is Kill seemed a lot tighter and more focused, without any of the weird world-building elements that bothered me in Haldeman's book. Instead it's very much focused on the main characters and how they are gradually worn down by the futility of reliving the same battle over and over. The characters themselves aren't hugely detailed, but there's enough there to get attached to and create an impression of. It might well be the popcorn reading version of military science fiction, but it is an infinitely better starting place for a beginner. The alien race is pretty interesting too, although the audience only ever knows as much as the characters do. So if you were looking for an enemy that has nuance and subtlety, then you may want to look elsewhere. 

Overall, definitely a book that I would recommend if you're a fan of war fiction or science fiction, and in particular if you're looking for a quick read. The narrative is focused on the brutality and futility of war and emphasised by the time loops. Maybe look elsewhere if you want something more complex. 4/5 

Next review: Out by Natsuo Kirino 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson

I knew that I had to read The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy when I saw a quote of the author's above the blurb, which read as such: "I prefer villains to be nice, refined people, the sort who quote Shakespeare and knock off their nearest and dearest between rubbers of bridge." There's something quite quaint about genteel murder mystery and I haven't read any Agatha Christie in a while, so this seemed like the perfect choice.

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy takes place at your typical Golden-era detective mystery style aristocratic home by the name of Alderley, where an informal party goes horribly wrong. In attendance are politicians and diplomats attempting to carry out top secret negotiations, an American millionaire who has come to Alderley to view the resident earl's gun collection, along with his wife who has brought her thief-temptingly expensive diamond necklace with her. Add to this an unexpected guest who is hiding more than she's telling, and things can only escalate from there. Unsurprisingly, one of them turns up in the nearby lake in the same night as several thefts and a lot of chaos, at which point the self-deprecating Inspector Wilkins makes an entrance.
I feel kind of conflicted about this one. On the one hand, it is competently written and is very readable. On the other, it is riddled with things that feel utterly wrong in a murder mystery. The first thing that comes to mind is the pacing. When you have 37 chapters and a prologue, it should not take until Chapter 16 for something in any way criminal to happen. It sort of felt like there was a lot of focus on interactions that could have been condensed or cut altogether, especially with some of the stuff about the gun collection. It also means that Inspector Wilkins, the only character to be named on the blurb, has very little time to actually be characterised in. About the only thing I can really say about him by the end is that he constantly underplays his own abilities and grumbles quite a lot about how he'd rather be working traffic. Not especially impressive character building. The same could be said about the other characters: they're given enough personality to create an archetype of sorts, but nothing to really give them flavour. And that's a real problem when it comes to trying to solve the mystery. When all the big twists came up, I could see the logic behind them, but felt cheated because there wasn't really any way to predict them coming. Often, reasoning would stem from certain lines and odd slips of behaviour noticed by more perceptive characters, but there's nothing in the text itself to really highlight them as being important enough to be clues in the first place. The biggest example of this is the final revelation of the killer's identity, as it reworks an established bit of character backstory that I had no reason to consider at all after it had been mentioned, let alone question. It felt kind of entirely out of left field and I still don't know how anyone was supposed to have guessed it.

There are a lot of things that don't work for me, and it can be primarily boiled down to a lack of detail in the clues and the extent to which the audience's knowledge is undermined by poor characterisation. At the same time though, it is still an enjoyable read. If you're a fan of the cosy mystery, then this should make a harmless enough addition to your reading list. Just don't pick it up if you want an equal chance of solving it at the same time as the detective. 3/5

Next review: All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Signing off,

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I've been put off reading Jane Austen's books for a long time, because I tried reading Pride and Prejudice when I was probably too young. But, as I've grown older, I've heard nothing but praise for her work, and so my university self couldn't help but pick up Persuasion. Why this one in particular? I had heard very good things about it, and I found myself warming to the idea of a shy and ignored heroine.

Persuasion follows Anne Elliott, the daughter of a baronet whose vanity and desire for high living far outweigh his finances. As a result, he finds it necessary to move his family to cheaper accommodation in Bath and rent out their ancestral home to bolster their finances. Anne is not consulted in this or anything else, and so it is with dread that she finds out that their new tenants will bring her back into contact with Captain Wentworth, the man that she was persuaded to reject by friends and family who thought he wasn't rich or important for her attention. Eight years have passed and she finds that she hasn't found his equal in all their time apart, but will he have any affection left for her after being so thoroughly rejected? 
The main positive point to be made about Persuasion is undoubtedly our protagonist Anne. She's a refreshingly sensible and perceptive character, surrounded by people who only really listen to her in times of crisis. And while she wants more than that, wants to feel the love and connection that she felt in her youth with Captain Wentworth, and it's something that she most definitely deserves. But it's nice to see a character in a romance story who doesn't seem to feel entitled to their love interest's romantic attentions; in fact, for most of the book she's convinced that the man she loves has his attention turned elsewhere. I also like that she's a character in her late twenties, positively an old maid by the standards of the time it was written. Captain Wentworth is a little harder to comment on, as he's in surprisingly not a lot of the book all things considered. I was kind of expecting him to have a much bigger presence in this, but the biggest impression I got was of how disappointing other people seem to Anne in comparison. Which kind of works. Kind of. I'd have liked to get more certain an impression of him, but what I got was thoroughly likeable and sensible enough to match Anne, though maybe not as perceptive. 
The writing overall was very enjoyable to read and there was a general pleasantness that was refreshing after a fair few books that were either serious or grim in tone. I found myself getting caught up in Anne's slowly repairing relationship with her first love and the scheming of other, older nobles in their intentions for their children's marriage prospects. There are a few other couples getting together that add extra notes of sweetness throughout the plot, which were perhaps a bit predictable, but nonetheless heartwarming. My only real issue is that once the main romantic conflict, that of Anne and Wentworth being aware of one another's rekindled feelings, has been resolved, the other plot threads are neatly summarised in a few pages. Apparently the extended schemings of people who are less than well-intentioned are a pathetic challenge to the power of a couple wanting to get married. Literally, everything is solved by them going up to the people who rejected their match years before and saying, "Hey, still want to get married, and he's rich now." It seems a tad too simple, especially after one character was so hyped up as a villain. But it's far from a deal breaker. 

A very gentle romance that is nothing but a pleasant experience from beginning to end. While I'm not a fan of the very brief ending, I would still readily recommend this to any fan of classic literature who hasn't read this yet and to romance fans looking for something quieter and considered. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson 

Signing off, 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre

It's probably not a good habit to read a book before going to see its screen adaptation, especially when there is mystery involved. But, after I had been refused entry to a screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at my local cinema (because why would my 20-year old self think to take her ID to a certificate 15 film?) I decided that the next best thing would be to get the book, as opposed to watching the Alec Guinness boxset that my parents already owned. It was then promptly forgotten in all the other reading that I had to do at the time. But, after a long time waiting, I've finally read it and does it make me keen to watch either of the screen adaptations? 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows George Smiley, a forcibly retired spy who is asked to investigate the potential of there being a mole in the British Secret Service, after the retrieval of a Russian defector goes wrong in ways too convenient to be chance. After taking possession of what few files he can get his hands on, Smiley must narrow down who the mole is out of a pool of four high-clearance members of the service, and in the process get one step closer to the mysterious Soviet spymaster Karla. 
I had two main reactions to reading this book. First was "How on earth did this manage to get adapted for screen twice?" This is not a reflection on the book's quality: I, in general, rather liked this. It's just that it didn't really feel like it would translate well to a visual medium, simply because quite a bit of the book is people sitting at desks whilst reading files or conducting interviews, and a lot of the information that is needed to piece the mystery together is told through those files and interviews as flashbacks. I'm honestly kind of struggling to see how Smiley cooping himself in a hotel room to read secret files over the space of a week can be adapted to screen. 
My second reaction was "Why don't I like this more?" Because on the surface of things, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is filled with things that I really like, but I don't find myself bouncing around the walls with the excitement of finding a new and interesting thing. So there's a mystery to solve, and the reader is given just as much of an opportunity to guess the mole as Smiley has, since we're privy to the same information: an absolute joy, considering the amount of crime and mystery stories that don't provide this simple courtesy. Perhaps it was this that let me down, because my experience of serious spy novels was largely James Bond-related before picking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy up, so I was going from a crime reader's point of view. The thing with this novel is that Smiley doesn't get a huge deal of information come his way. At every step, he has to contend with the problem that nobody really wants to talk to him, or give him the whole truth when they do want him there. So it becomes a question of how you think a spy should act, and this is really a lot harder than you would think. But then this feels like a weird criticism to give, considering that I also like intrigue and trying to keep track of other characters' manipulations. There is certainly plenty of that, albeit in a more subdued and bureaucratic manner than I'm used to. On top of that, the writing itself is very competent and I like Smiley as a protagonist. I suppose that it might just be the type of book that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is. There is little in the book that is big or flashy, blatantly favouring the understated and subtle instead; even when there are recollections of being shot, it's told in a very subdued manner. So it seems fitting somehow that my feelings are similarly subdued. It's not a book that you gush about, but one that you go to for quiet reflection and a slow burning read. Perhaps a little anti-climactic, but then it never promised a flashy finale. 

A very well-written novel that definitely stands the test of time. I'm not sure how it's been adapted for the screen twice, but that's just made me more interested in seeing them now. Definitely recommended for mystery and thriller fans who haven't read this and are willing to read something that's a lot quieter and considered. If you're looking for debonair men in suits and lots of flash, go elsewhere. 4/5 

Next review: Persuasion by Jane Austen 

Signing off, 

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Complete Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm

Grimm's fairy tales have been the source of a fair bit of fascination for me ever since I was a teenager. That was around the point where I found out that the stories that I was told as a child were really quite sanitised and comparably tame to their original sources. And the source for quite a lot of these tales, at least in their written forms, was the Brothers Grimm. So, when I saw a book touted as the complete works, I picked it up mainly to see what I missed as a child.

I can't really say that many of the tales in there were new to me. As there were 279 noted in the contents, I was hoping that there would be a lot of new tales that would surprise me. Admittedly there were some new tales, but it seemed to be that a lot of them were more the result of mixing and matching elements used in other tales. Possibly this is a result of them being passed down by word of mouth, but when there are at least four different stories where the princess wins back her unfaithful/enchanted betrothed by bribing his new bride with pretty dresses and weeping outside his bedroom, then there seems little point in listing every single one of them within the collection. Really though, I think this is as much my own heightened expectations interfering with my reading of it. While there were some tales that seemed so similar that they might as well be the same thing, there was enough variety to keep my interest up.
One of the things that was really noticeable was the weird mix of themes. I was always taught that fairy tales were a method of teaching children moral lessons, so the fact that there seemed to be two main lessons that were taught and conflicted with one another. The first was that if you are hard-working and virtuous then God will send good fortune your way, and if you are likewise mean-spirited and lazy then your cruelty will come back to hurt you later. The second was that if you want to get ahead in life, you should rely on your wits and a little bit of luck. While the two lessons needn't be mutually exclusive, more often than not the protagonists from the second type of story wouldn't necessarily be the sort of sweet, good hero or heroine that you would necessarily want to see succeed. I'm not even going to get into the stories that seemed to have neither moral nor point; these are few and far between, but very confusing when they do occur.
The main thing that I can see putting people off is the anti-Semitism. Fortunately it doesn't turn up all that often, but when it does appear in stories like “The Jew in the Thornbush” it hits you like a Glasgow kiss. It really isn't subtle. I had an inkling that there might be some attitudes present that aren't so well tolerated now and my basic knowledge of German history gives me a bit of contextual background, but that really doesn't make it any easier to read. I would say that if you're really bothered by this particular brand of discrimination, then you may wish to be very careful when reading this. If a Jew appears, the likelihood is that things won't go well for him, so it's at least easy enough to avoid if you're truly determined to read this collection.

Overall, a bit of a patchy collection, but still something that I would take a look at if you're interested in fairy tales or other traditional stories. I maybe wouldn't advise reading it more or less uninterrupted like I did, instead dipping in and out occasionally. Maybe avoid if you have triggers involving anti-Semitism. 3/5

Next review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

Signing off,


Thursday, 5 February 2015

Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre by H. P. Lovecraft

I picked up Eldritch Tales thinking that it was the other collection that Gollancz have released of H.P. Lovecraft's work, which has most of the more famous stories within. I found out that I was much mistaken very quickly. No matter, I thought. I'd been looking to read Lovecraft's work for a while now, since it tends to be a bit weird trying to run a Call of Cthulhu game when you have next to no knowledge about the Cthulhu mythos. Should I have started with the more famous stuff?

So, the positive stuff first. When Lovecraft's writing is focused, then he can pull off some really fantastic atmosphere and create genuinely tense, creepy situations. Stories that come to mind in particular are "The Picture in the House" (where we find that picking your shelter from the rain really matters), "The Terrible Old Man" (a heist that goes terribly wrong), "The Temple" (supernatural horror on a submarine) and "Two Black Bottles" (a priest's descent into realms that should be left well alone). With those stories, as well as some others in the collection, there's just the right amount of weird coincidences and glimpses of whatever lies beyond the realm of our understanding to create a really unsettling mood. In addition, his poetry (a part of his writing that I had not anticipated) was actually not as terrible as I had feared. In all honesty, I am not really one to pick up a poetry book if a prose alternative is available; I have my favourites, but I don't actively seek it out. Despite that, I found Lovecraft's poetry to be largely well-written, with only the odd dud. People who are more discerning with poetry may not share my opinion, but it is far from the terrible mess that I expect from most prose writers.
Now onto the not-so-great stuff. I feel like there should be a bingo card for whenever you read a Lovecraft story, because there are some things that he re-uses in almost every single story in this collection and there are some things that he keeps attempting that just do not work. So, here is my list stating what I think would be necessary additions to a Lovecraft bingo card:

  • A sensitive, educated male protagonist. All of his characters seem to be these young men, usually the last in an old prestigious family, who are highly read and rarely seem to have a jobs that would make an interest in the occult seem weird. I had the same generic male figure in my head for pretty much every main character. 
  • Racist undertones. If ever there is a non-white, or sometimes even just non-American, appearing in story then they are either servants with little intelligence beyond that of an upright animal, or they are the insidious purveyors of eldritch horror. The fact that the whole "black man = monkey" comparison comes up more than once as a plot point is really uncomfortable. 
  • Elitist undertones. Similar to the above point, if anyone doesn't have an aristocratic education, then they are ignorant peasants. The fact that they seem to be right about most of the scary stuff is largely ignored in story. Often this and the above point combine. Can't educate anyone but the white man, right? 
  • Marble ruins. Just... marble. Everywhere. Seriously, if a ruin of a temple or stately garden is needed, I can almost guarantee that it will be marble. Even ruins from Ancient Ireland. 
  • Terrible, TERRIBLE dialogue. It gets especially bad when he's trying to imitate accents. He uses more apostrophes in his dialogue than he does in the names of eldritch gods. There should have been an intervention. 
  • Bizarre and amusing metaphors. Less common than the above, but always good for a laugh when you find them. My personal favourite is when he describes a sinister laugh as "a deep, guttural chuckle like that of a giant turtle which has just torn to pieces some furry animal and is ambling away toward the sea." I want to know just what he thought turtles were. 
  • Stories that just stop. It doesn't happen all the time, but there are some where it's obvious that Lovecraft got to the end of what he wanted to include in this plot, so he just finishes it there regardless of grace or atmosphere. The dream-related ones tend toward this more than the horror ones, in case you wish to avoid this. 
It ended up feeling like I was reading the equivalent of a B-movie that launched a sub-genre. You know that it is an important milestone in fiction and you feel like you should appreciate it more. But instead you sit there silently mocking the parts that don't quite come up to scratch. I had two main feelings when it came to the negative stuff. First, there's the more problematic discomfort. With Lovecraft, I came into it knowing that his opinions are hardly what you'd call popular opinion these days in terms of racism and classism, but it still caught me a bit off-guard quite how blatant he could be on these topics; the story "The Street" in particular comes to mind, simply because the entire premise is how the noble intentions of the original colonists has been corrupted by Native Americans and foreigners. If you have real issue when it comes to stuff like race politics, then I might give Lovecraft a miss or at least be very thorough in prior research. Second, there's the gentle mocking. These were the stories where the flaws were there, but mostly harmless. They might have taken away from the suspension of disbelief at times, but the stories were the flaws were mockable, I couldn't bring myself to dislike them because it was just so earnest. He overestimates his abilities at times, but at least he tried. 

Not necessarily the masterpieces of fiction that I had come to expect, but I'd still recommend this for those who like cosmic horror. When he gets it right, Lovecraft is truly unnerving and will create a mood and payoff that you won't soon forget. When he gets it wrong, it can get uncomfortable, but the majority of it is at least stuff that you can get a good laugh from. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Complete Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

I have no idea where I picked this up or why. All I know is that I found the title on my reading list last month, drew a complete blank and then decided, "Eh, why not?" So no pre-reading impressions this time, because my memory has shown its true colours for once.

River of Gods follows a large ensemble cast of characters, all converging on the Indian city of Varanasi as it approaches the centenary of Indian independence. Together, their individual plots combining to create a story of political intrigue, civil unrest and the dawning of new technologies that no-one is quite prepared to face. There's Shiv, a penniless gangster trying to claw his way back to power; Mr Nandha, a civil servant who polices illegal AI programmes, and his wife Parvati, who is trying to find happiness in her new marriage; Shaheen Badoor Khan, a prominent political advisor and furtive admirer of the controversial "nutes"; Najia, a journalist trying to find her big news scoop; Lisa, a scientist contacted by the US government to observe a strange phenomena in space; Tal, a nute who ends up with all the wrong people at all the wrong times; Vishram, a comedian summoned back home after his father makes a critical business decision; and Lull, a once-prominent AI researcher who just wants to disappear.
So, the good stuff. Holy cow, does this ever get involving. I was sceptical at first, as it does start quite slowly and does throw you into all the Indian terminology and slang. But as time went on, and these disparate characters got ever more intertwined, it just became so absorbing and interesting. There was little of what you could term wasted words, with the majority of plot points brought up returning later with greater significance and importance. If there was anything that could have been cut, then I would say that Parvati's plot thread might not have been strictly necessary; but at the same time, I would argue that she is the most normal, sympathetic and tragic of the characters presented, so she acts more as an emotional grounding, the everyday person caught up in the chaos. I know that one of my complaints in my last review, for The Difference Engine, was that it took too long to get to the plot, but somehow this gets the balance right; while I spent a good half of River of Gods wondering how everything all tied together, the way that it kept each character fresh and vivid in my mind and the regularity with which they were revisited helped to bring everything into something cohesive a lot quicker and easier than Gibson and Sterling managed. Additionally, it might just be me, but I found the change in setting to be quite refreshing. There's something about India and its culture that kind of fascinates me, so I was glad that the setting actually felt like it was in India, rather than generic American/European sci-fi set #42 with a spray of South-East Asian paint. Now I can't be 100% sure about the accuracy, but I thought that the religious divides, largely between Hindus and Muslims, in the country were particularly interesting to read about, and definitely something that I would consider reading more on.
On to the more negative aspects, I thought that towards the end McDonald started to focus more on one or two specific plot threads, leaving some feeling a bit unfinished. It's not a book-breaking point, but I do feel like these characters had their closure while I wasn't looking or something. Secondly, I thought that some science fiction elements included could have been written with maybe a little more depth. For example, you find out that genetic engineering has reached the point where some children are being born who will live twice as long and grow up half as quick, named Brahmin by the population at large. Their presence in the novel seems to largely be background flavour with no real significance, but you wouldn't know it by the attention that is focused on them sometimes. Again, a pretty minor point, but it does bug me a little.

Overall, a fantastic book that I would thoroughly recommend to any science fiction fan. It's a little slow to start and the glossary at the back is an utter necessity, but otherwise it's a really engaging read that presents interesting ideas and concepts in simple and uncluttered language. Definitely one to pick up. 4.5/5

Next review: Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre by H. P. Lovecraft

Signing off,