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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,

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Ever since I got heavily into Steampunk during my time at college, The Difference Engine has been one of the books that constantly comes up as one of the genre's forerunners, something that everyone interested in Steampunk should read. So, when I actually got round to reading it, I was really looking forward to getting sucked into a world of adventure, fantastical science and bright hopes for the future.

I really should have kept Gibson and Sterling's background in Cyberpunk more in mind. This wasn't the bastion of optimism that I had been expecting, given the values of the genre. No, this was focused very much on the "-punk" part of the genre's name, set in a world of great progress and ingenuity that is hampered by class wars. Admittedly not as grim as many cyberpunk novels and films that I've seen, but it was still something of a shock. The main action follows three main viewpoint characters. The first is Sybil Gerard, the daughter of a former Luddite politician who has fallen on hard times in the years since his death. The second is Edward Mallory, a palaeontologist at the peak of his career after discovering a complete dinosaur skeleton. And finally, there is Laurence Oliphant, a journalist/spy based on a historical figure of the same name. The thing that bring these three people together is a set of punch cards that have been attracting significant attention due to their association with Lady Ada Byron, though no-one seems to have any real idea of their contents. I personally found it very hard to get through this, simply because the plot was so slow and circuitous. So many names and events turned up over the course of the novel that it was hard to keep track of when someone returned in the narrative; as such, I'm sure that there were events that should have seemed more significant, but weren't in my mind. And at the end of it all, I still had to consult Wikipedia to find out what those damn punch cards actually contained, as the reference that the narrative makes is somewhat outside of my sphere of knowledge. So would I recommend this? Yes and no.
Okay, so on the side of yes, I would say that if you're interested in the technological and political history of the Victorian era, the history of the Internet age and modern Science, then this will be utterly fascinating to you. I can only lay claim to these in passing, so there was a lot of content that completely passed me by, probably to my detriment. Despite this, even I found the world that Gibson and Sterling had created to be utterly fascinating. If you're looking for a completely comprehensive world that is simultaneously familiar to us as Victorian Britain and yet alien and weirdly advanced, then you can't go wrong here.
On the side of yes, it does meander quite a bit in its quest to follow the path of these punch cards, and can lead into sections that feel both pointless and kind of uncomfortable. Much as I am sure that a character would be reasonably sure to get drunk and stay with a prostitute overnight in the course of their life at that point, I am equally sure that I do not want to see said encounter. It seemed like it needed slimming down, especially in Edward Mallory's section of the narrative; I was honestly wondering whether it would ever end at some points.

Overall, it very much depends what you're looking for when it comes to novels. If you're looking for world-building and a more critical examination of the Victorian era and the Steampunk genre, then I'm sure that you'll get on with The Difference Engine like a house on fire. If you're looking for something a bit faster paced and the more optimistic side of Steampunk, then I would perhaps look elsewhere. I can appreciate both types, but I think that this might have been aimed at someone perhaps more intellectual than me, so I can't help but feel that I missed out on a lot. 3.5/5

Next review: River of Gods by Ian McDonald

Signing off,

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This one came with some mixed expectations. On the one hand, my track record with military science fiction is pretty much non-existent, so I really had no idea what I was getting myself in for. That's just a little bit scary. On the other hand, I'd heard almost nothing but praise for it, so at the very least I was starting with some of the most highly regarded military science fiction. My reaction at the end is pretty mixed too.

The Forever War follows William Mandella, a physics student in the halcyon days of 1996, who gets recruited into a war against an alien enemy, the Taurans, after an exploration ship is destroyed in deep space. The catch is that every time they travel to a new world to defend, their rate of time gets increasingly disparate from that of Earth's. When Mandella returns to the planet after what seems to him like two years, it has actually been over two decades; this time dilation only gets worse the longer he stays in space, with each new batch of recruits or civilians that he meets only seeming more and more alien in comparison to the time that he came from.
So, the good bits. First, it managed to make physics at least passably interesting, which is always a feat for me. And you really need to have at least a passing interest in that area of science for The Forever War to have any appeal whatsoever, considering that the main concept is hinged on it. Second, the combat scenes are fantastically written, with just the right balance of excitement and overwhelming sense of futility. They are utterly brutal, for varying different reasons each time, and Mandella is basically just thrown in at the deep end and praying for the best outcome each time. If you're more interested in the military aspect of the genre, I'd definitely recommend this. The main character is largely well-written too, likeable enough that the audience sympathises with his conflicting desires for the war to end and to not face what Earth has become, but detached enough that his survival makes sense.
So far so good, right? That's where my modern, liberal sensibilities come in to make things thoroughly uncomfortable for me. I didn't think that the sexual politics were written in a great way, which is why I hated how unavoidable it became as the book progressed. Okay, so minor spoiler here: when Mandella goes back to Earth, he finds that after a population boom that has taxed resources, the world's government is encouraging people to partake in homosexuality. Mandella is not comfortable with this, so when this element of society becomes more and more prevalent, it kind of feels like the book is making the point of "homosexuality = big, bad future". Add to that the implication that we will get to the point where sexual preferences can just be turned on and off? It's just all kinds of homogenous, stereotyped and uncomfortable. I know it was written in 1974, but come on. It's a book about a war in space. At what point would I have cared what the majority of the population's sexual preferences were? At what point would I have assumed that it was any different from the varied spread that we are currently aware of? It's a weird opposition between gay and straight, and I'm sure the world-building would have done fine without it. It may not bother other people anywhere near as much, but sexual politics is a subject that is close to my heart and cannot be messed with.

Overall then, a largely successful novel. Fantastic combat scenes and interesting science that is let down, at least for me, by the outdated sexual politics. Probably worth at least one read by fans of the genre, either military or science fiction. 3.5/5

Next review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Signing off,

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

I had been looking forward to reading The Guardians immensely, as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories. Then my mum gave it a read and wasn't hugely impressed. A bit of a hurdle, but then she and I have had wildly different opinions before, and who was to say that this wouldn't be any different?

The story follows main protagonist Trevor and his childhood friends in two separate, but closely interlinked, story-lines. In the past, it follows their teenage selves in the aftermath of the disappearance of their music teacher, and the terrible events that happen in the abandoned house in Caledonia street. In the present, they are in their forties, returning to their home-town after the suicide of Ben, the only one who stayed after graduating high school; whilst sorting through his late friend's belongings, Trevor finds himself having to confront whatever is in the abandoned house once more, lest it forever be a sword of Damocles.
It was okay. It kind of read like it had the potential to be a really great, grippingly creepy horror story about a haunted house, but was held back by certain elements that didn't quite work. So what did work, first of all? The haunted house was pretty much perfect. The idea that the more you spent in the house, or even just looking at it, would make you more and more unstable and thus willing to listen to the evil spirit within? Now that was a concept that I could run with. And it did produce some genuinely eerie moments that were the real highlights of the book. But of course, there have to be downsides.
The first thing that instantly bugged me was the writing style. It was a fairly casual tone, but at the same time, overly wordy and a bit on the flowery side. If he could describe something in one piece of imagery, the author would use two or stretch that one bit of imagery to the absolute breaking point. It very much reminded me of my own writing at the pre-edit stage, which is possibly why it annoyed me so much.
Secondly, the plot is dragged down by a part of the story-line in the past, which seems to make little sense even in context. Okay, so their music teacher, a pretty young woman, goes missing and Ben says that he thinks that he saw someone drag her into the haunted house, which is across the street from him; he can't be sure what he saw though, and it might not have even been human. Understandably, his friends are sceptical. So when he later says that he thinks that the person that he saw manhandling her was their hockey coach, what is their reaction? They pretty much instantly believe him. I find this a bit of a stretch of credibility really, especially since we as readers are kind of expected to just believe Ben as well, without any other evidence. Since I could never be sure that their suspicions were correct, it made what followed in that part of the story-line deeply uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I have seen main protagonists do worse, but usually the text is self-aware enough to know that what they're doing is wrong; here, it felt like I was supposed to sympathise, but it really didn't sit right with me. Also, there were a couple of things that made the crime-reader part of me want to scream, because they do some REALLY dumb things during their investigation that would surely get them caught and at least implicated in a crime, all in the name of keeping out of trouble. Very frustrating.

Overall, a book that had potential, but was just okay in the end. The characters were serviceable and did what they should, but little more. The story was similarly average, with a few twists that I wasn't expecting, but more than a little stupid plotting to balance them out. The haunted house sections were fantastic, all the more so for being surrounded by generally more mediocre parts. I really wish there had been more focus on the house, instead of the rest that didn't work so much. 3/5

Next review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Signing off,

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

I knew very little about this book when I first received it, other than what could be gleaned from the blurb. The only other thing that I had to go on was that the person who gave it to me was so liberally applying praise that I was almost surprised she didn't get tongue-tied. I'll admit, the memory of her enthusiastic take on the book was the main thing that stuck, as the blurb was not really enough to make me pick it up otherwise.

A Long Long Sleep follows Rosalinda Fitzroy, a girl who wakes up from stasis to find that 62 years have passed. Her presence forgotten after the deaths of her parents, Rose must now navigate a world in which not only are her parents and her first love gone, but has also gone through some pretty major upheaval after a series of pandemics have ravaged the human population. While she tries to adapt to this new life, she may have to confront what is left of her past before one of the remnants comes back to take whatever she has left to lose.
Holy cow, I did not expect this to be so good. It's a bit of a slow start, as both the reader and Rose have to get used to a strange new world that we've been basically dropped in, but the writing is surprisingly engaging and lures you in slowly but surely. By the end, I was crying like a little girl. That might well be because the ending decides that after all the excitement is through, it'll batter what's left of you with all of the feels. ALL of them. It is a tad on the predictable side, although I wasn't able to completely foresee all of the twists, so it kind of met a nice balance of surprise and making me feel smart. The only real problem I have with it is that some of the plot's details are revealed towards the end in a way that doesn't make much sense; it kind of feels like the author got stuck on how she was meant to reveal the main bad guy and applied a liberal dose of handwaving and desperate hope.
The characters are the main strength of A Long Long Sleep, and it's the desire to see them come out okay that makes it as emotionally powerful as it is. The three main people to talk about are Rose and her two school friends, Bren and Otto. I could talk about her first love, Xavier, but that could very easily stray into spoiler territory, so I shall refrain from doing so here. Rose is our main protagonist and the narrator of the majority of the novel. She starts off very fragile and passive, qualities that I first assumed were because of the shock of waking up to find that over 60 years have passed. But as the novel goes on, you begin to realise that there's a lot to Rose's personality that she denies herself and the main plot largely corresponds to her internal journey to understand what made her this overly passive, self-loathing person and how to grow out of it. The descriptions of what made her this way were probably what endeared her to me most, because, while I may not have gone through situations anywhere near as awful as she did, I completely understand what it feels like to think that you're worthless after people tell you this constantly. It's not a comfortable journey to read about, but I personally found it to be an incredibly cathartic one.
Possibly the most fascinating character is Otto, a boy who was part of an experiment involving genetically modified human embryos and has had to fight his whole life just to be considered human. I found him particularly interesting because the combination of the whole "having to fight a legal battle to be granted personhood" and the fact that he is effectively mute, communicating primarily through touch telepathy and instant messaging, reminded me really strongly of some of the politics that I've come across in researching autism and other disabilities. Earlier in the year, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; since then, I've been looking more closely at a community that I had had tangential connection with all my life, but never really knew a huge deal about. As a result, I've found a lot of politics involving trying to prove to particularly stubborn and bigoted people that autistic people are just as able to live full and healthy lives as their neurotypical brethren and should be allowed to do so unmolested. I imagine that anyone who could be considered disabled, particularly those with invisible disabilities, would find Otto's story particularly engaging, but I can, of course, only speak from my own experience. In particular, I liked the way that his telepathy is handled. After briefly communicating with Rose in this way, he refuses to touch her throughout most of the book, because he finds her mind frightening and overwhelming. It very much reminded me of the reactions that I've gotten in response to sensory overload and that deliberate withdrawal from the offending stimulus felt very real to me.
The only one left to really discuss is Bren. He was most definitely the weakest out of the main characters. He's an overall nice guy, dependable, reasonably pretty. He fit the kind of Prince Charming role and had the hint of an underlying inner conflict about what he wants his future to be, but he seemed kind of underdeveloped compared to Rose and Otto. Basically he's inoffensive but bland.

Definitely a flawed novel in regards to plotting and some of the characterisation, but it packs one hell of an emotional punch. I would recommend it simply for the joy of getting to know Rose and Otto. It's a good place to start teen readers with science fiction, especially those who are less concerned with worldbuilding and more with engaging characters. If you get triggered by scenes of emotional abuse, you might want to skip this though; it can get pretty scary at times. 4.5/5

Next review: The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

Signing off,