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Thursday, 8 October 2015

Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

I've had Kai-Ro on my shelves for years now, probably about 6/7 if I'm remembering this right. Quite frankly, that is embarrassing, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a read. I didn't really have much in the way of expectations, as it was a book that I got as a stocking filler, although the synopsis seemed interesting enough.

Kai-Ro follows a young boy named Stretch Wilson, who has just lost his father to slave traders and must now fend for himself in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Whilst scavenging for valuable scraps of technology from before the apocalypse, he falls through the rubbish and finds a door, beyond which he can see a tantalising glimpse of what just might be gold. What he doesn't know is that by exploring the space beyond that door, he will be involving himself in an epic battle between two resurrected gods.
In theory, this book has a lot that interests me. There's a focus on the Ancient Egyptian religion and some of its history, which appealed to the nostalgic part of me that remembers wanting to be an archaeologist because of Egyptian history. There's an interesting angle in looking at the classic good vs evil story by making it a conflict based on strength of faith; the idea that in order to triumph, the heroes need to create enough faith in their deity that it can combat the faith generated by the opposition is really quite fascinating. And the post-apocalyptic setting is written with some really interesting details that makes me want to explore it more. I just wish that there was more of it. The base of what could be a really fantastic epic, but there's not enough space for it. The book spends all of its time building up to the final confrontation between these gods. And then it just sort of ends. None of the subplots get resolved, because hey, the main fight is over. Why would you want to see if Stretch finds his dad again? Why would we want to know what persuaded Ty, the most initially reluctant of his companions, to join his mad escapade? Why would we want to give Stretch any more time to actually react to the casualties of this final conflict than the measly paragraph before the story screeches to a halt? It just frustrates me so much, because I liked this, but it just rushed at so many key points. This really should have been longer, to give the story room to grow naturally.

A good story at its core, but it rushes so much that a lot of the really interesting stuff is only skimmed over. Proceed with caution. 3/5

Next review: Nation by Terry Pratchett.

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

This is a bit of a departure for me, having not read a book of essays since I was in university, and even then never in their entirety. But Loud Hands is something of an exception: both a birthday present from my younger sibling and a subject that is very close to my heart, it is a collection of essays concerning self-advocacy in the autistic community. As such, it was with only a smidgen of guilt that I bumped it up my reading list.

Loud Hands is a collection of autism self-advocacy essays, written exclusively by autistic writers. They span a range of topics within the spectrum of self-advocacy, from the origins of the larger autistic community, to the injustices suffered at the hands of our more ignorant neurotypical peers, to the language used in the disability rights movement.
I kind of knew from the start that I would like Loud Hands, as it's pretty much preaching to the choir. Essays riffing on the idea that autistic people are valuable assets to society and should be treated as such. What about this would I not like? My main worry was that it wouldn't be different enough from the information that I had already found and read on the Internet. That was largely assuaged by the actual content; while I had found a fair amount of the subject matter already, the pieces included went into a lot more detail and even covered some new material. The fact that it covers a fairly wide range of topics makes it a pretty comprehensive guide to the topic. This doesn't make it a perfect resource though; I do have one main complaint that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. My main issue with it is that it's very US-centric. While the broad issues are international, some of the essays do focus on specifics such as the American Disability Act, the Judge Rotenberg Center and assumes the widespread adoption of ABA therapy in schools. These issues, while relevant to disability rights, do make it feel a little distant for me as an autistic person who has no intention of ever living in the States. It would have been nice to have more of an international perspective to the essays. But otherwise it's a pretty solid effort and essential reading for someone thinking that they might be Autistic or neurotypical allies.

A solid read that covers a wide range of topics in surprising depth. Necessary reading for those interested in Autism and its community. 4.5/5

Next review: Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

Signing off,

Friday, 2 October 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Part of me was a bit wary about starting Our Mutual Friend considering how little I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers, but after the almost insulting level of simplicity to be found in my last book I needed something a bit chunkier. Besides, it was Dickens, I felt I kind of had to give him another chance.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel consisting of several interweaving storylines, all connected to the mysterious circumstances surrounding a man named John Harmon. A young man returning to London in order to claim the fortune left to him by his miserly father, his corpse is instead fished out of the River Thames in what appears to be a murder. And so the plot branches out to focus on characters such as the Boffins, the people who inherit John Harmon's fortune in his absence, and the Hexams, responsible for fishing the body out of the Thames. Through these plots, the effect of materialism is examined on various sectors of Victorian society.
This is a bit slow to start, but I would highly recommend this. The characters are, for the most part, well-written if a little on the simplistic side. The main draw for me though was the way that Dickens managed to tackle the social issues that he had focused on, and the way that several of them still resonate uncomfortably today. One in particular that felt particularly relevant to today's Western world was the way that he spoke about the Poor Law and the workhouses. For me at least, it reflected modern society's uncomfortable attitude to the Benefits system, especially when it comes to Disability Benefit in the UK. I couldn't help but do a double take when Betty Higden, a character terrified beyond measure of the workhouse, said,
"Do I never read... how the worn-out people that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar, and pillar to post, a purpose to tire them out? Do I never read how they are put off... grudged the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?" 
To read that and remember both the soul-crushing experience known as claiming Jobseeker's Allowance and the recent scandal about the number of people who have died after being deemed "fit to work", it did seem to hit far too close to home for my liking. I think that might be a key difference in my feelings towards Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers: the latter keeps matter far too safe and doesn't really feel relatable, while the social issues that Our Mutual Friend examines lends itself far more relevance regardless of time period.

With so many characters, you're pretty certain to find some plot-lines that you get really invested in. Additionally, the social issues discussed still hold water today, making it really interesting and relatable. 4/5

Next review: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking 

Signing off,

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

The Spook's Apprentice may well be one of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelves for the longest and I could never really put my finger on why that was. But, since I was on a roll with some shorter books, I thought that I would give it a read.

The Spook's Apprentice is narrated by Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, who has been apprenticed to a Spook due to his unusual circumstances of birth. As a seventh son of a seventh son, he can see things in the dark that other people can't. As a Spook, he would be responsible for protecting the people in his county from supernatural creatures like boggarts and witches. But he is less than certain about this particular path to take, as Spooks are often seen as a necessary evil, shunned by their community whenever they aren't being useful. And when he finds himself pitted against the powerful witch known as Mother Malkin, will he have the courage necessary to keep going?
I am rarely so torn by a book. There is a part of me that does want to like this. Small villages terrorised by an increasing amount of the undead, a training regime involving consorting with the terrifying remnants left by tormented spirits, and lore that would appear to be quite extensive. But the pace goes by at such a clumsily fast rate that I get the distinct impression that the author doesn't actually want to talk about the world that he's built. There are several scenes throughout the narrative which could have been really effective and scary, if only the story took the time to build atmosphere and tension. So what they instead became was someone recounting a scary story that they'd been told as a speed run. It's an incredibly frustrating thing, because the narrative will make mention of something and then never build on it. For instance, the witches in this world can be divided into malignant, benign and neither (there's also a "doesn't know she's a witch" category, but come on people, we all know that that doesn't really count here). Not that you'd know it from the actual witches that turn up, who are all evil and eat babies. For no real discernable reason either. It's just something that these ones do. The only exception to this is a young witch named Alice, who isn't a witch yet, but will grow up to be one. Alice is related to the evil witches, but might as well be a stranger that they met in the pub for all the insight on them that she provides. I want to say that it feels lazy, but that word doesn't seem to fit; the background work is presumably there, the author just doesn't want to distract/interest his audience from the pedestrian plot.
Additionally, I have a real issue with the character of the Spook himself. First of all, he seems to have some real issues with women and, like everything else of substance, it is ignored entirely. So occasionally he'll have moments where he just says, completely out of the blue, stuff akin to "Those lady creatures that make up half our population, you just can't trust 'em!" It's really distracting and uncomfortable, as the protagonist doesn't really make much comment about them. Secondly, his sense of what is barbaric is seriously screwed up. To kill a witch permanently, you need to either burn it or eat its heart raw. Both of those are horrifying fates, says the Spook, so instead I'll bury her alive and keep her prisoner in my garden like some horribly dangerous landscaping feature. Smooth.

Overall, an interesting concept that has been utterly stripped of cool things by the total incompetence of the writing style. I wouldn't bother. 1.5/5

Next review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I picked up Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe for two reasons. First, it looked adorable and easy to read. Second, it included recipes for cake. What possible reason could I have for turning down cake (apart from diet, but I'd rather not be reminded of that)? Besides, it was a cheap charity shop purchase, there wasn't much for me to lose.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe follows Issy Randall, an admin clerk at an estate agents who is just sort of bumbling through her life. That all changes when she loses both her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop. After a few weeks of moping around, she finds herself looking around a shop for rent more or less on a whim, and decides to set up a bakery/cafe. She soon finds that this venture may be a lot more complicated than she ever thought that it could be.
I was expecting this to be harmless and fluffy, and I got exactly what I expected. There's some romance and some angsty moments that come with it. There's the whole plucky lady underdog story which is nice, especially with some of the detail provided about actually running a business. The characters are pretty vivid, if a little on the simple side. Really, this is kind of a difficult book for me to review, because it is pretty much exactly as I thought it would be and I honestly don't know how to expand on that. Usually my thought process will compare and contrast my expectations with the actual results, picking out things that stood out to me, good or bad, as a result. Here, Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe not only matched the blurb better than I've ever seen in a blurb before, but it fit the sort of cute and charmingly vintage but spunky feel that chick lit books seem to be best known for. It's that everywoman thing that many of them aim for, the woman who isn't stick thin and hates it in themselves while loving it in all of their equally curvy or chubby friends, the woman dissatisfied with her life but too nice to make a fuss until everything piles up too much. Someone relatable, or at least someone intended to be relatable. It's the sort of thing that, if I turned my brain to it and really focused on it, I could find incredibly artificial and weird, and I think part of me objectively knows that there are particular elements that will always find their way into chick lit because they're deemed relatable and will therefore sell. But honestly, when I pick up chick lit, it's because I'm drained from whatever I was reading before. So really, if you're looking for something cute and non-threatening, then you can certainly do a lot worse than this.

This is the sort of book that you will immediately know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you like cute things and romance, then this will work for you. If you're looking for something to relax with, then this isn't taxing in the slightest. If you want something with more depth, you might want to look elsewhere. The recipes also seem pretty solid, if the one that I've tried is anything to go by (although it is ugly as sin). 3/5

Next review: The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

Signing off,

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Born in Fire by Nora Roberts

I think I needed a break from books almost guaranteed to hurt me (in a good way). So part of me is relieved that the next installment of the Gentleman Bastard series isn't due to come out until next year, at least giving me some time to recover. In the meantime, I returned to my actual reading list and settled on reading another of the books that I picked up on a whim from a charity shop. Born in Fire sounded like just the sort of romantic mush that would allow me to relax a little.

Born in Fire follows Maggie Concannon, a glass blower living out in County Clare. She is making a modest living by selling her work when she catches the eye of Rogan Sweeney, the owner of several art galleries who is interested in promoting home-grown Irish artists. While the idea of needing an agent to sell her work needles at Maggie, she is more tempted by the potential for enough money to set up a home for her mother and, in the process, freeing her younger sister from their parent's anger and bitterness. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes more personal as Rogan and Maggie's personalities clash in a big way.
This is a curious book to review. In many ways, I would consider it well written and containing some surprising depth. In other ways, it jabs at me with little things that just don't mesh right. So instead of discussing pros and cons as has been my wont more recently, I'll pick elements and take them apart.
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is the setting, if only because of what I feared it could well have ended up. When I read the first couple of chapters, I got a horrible sinking feeling that this would end up being a horribly quaint, sanitised version of Ireland, very much the American view of what Ireland is. I am aware that parts of Ireland are very quaint and romantic, but there is always a part of me that sort of braces itself when I see depictions that brush away the darker aspects of the country. Maybe it's having grown up in Britain, but it always strikes me as intensely naive and at times intentionally ignorant when a whole bloody history is conveniently forgotten in favour of some harmless national stereotypes. But, thankfully, the actual setting is a lot more nuanced than I had feared. Indeed, central to Maggie's character arc is her relationship with her mother, which is unavoidably marked by Ireland's issues in regards to pregnancy outside of wedlock, given its large Catholic population. While it has moments where the depiction is squarely in the quaint, I can't find it in me to begrudge the author these moments, as the tone is overall pretty balanced and it isn't really meant to be a terribly grim and gritty book.
The other thing I'd like to focus on is the characters and their relationships. Most obvious to look at would be the romance between Rogan and Maggie, seeing as it is one of the book's selling points. It's okay, but really nothing that stands out amongst many other romantic novels. A part of the reason that I'm so lukewarm to it might be that there isn't really any tension around them getting together. Their main issue is instead commitment and exclusivity, which could have been really interesting. That is if it weren't juxtaposed with the far more absorbing family drama. Following the death of Maggie's father, she and her sister Brianna have to deal with taking care of their mother, a bitter and twisted hag of a woman who makes no secret of the fact that she believes her late husband and children to be the causes of all of her unhappiness. Maggie in particular is loathed for being the child conceived out of wedlock, and the deep personal issues that this and her parents' obviously deeply unhappy marriage cause is really well developed. Additionally, I do have a bit of an issue with the ending of their romance.
I found that Maggie's complete turnaround from swearing off marriage entirely to accepting Rogan's marriage proposal a little weird. While I am a firm supporter of marriage (being currently engaged, it would be a tad strange not to be), I am also well aware that it isn't everyone's cup of tea. I have known people for whom it has turned out very badly, and for whom it is an archaic formality that they would rather forego. For Maggie, it made complete sense for her to believe that she was not suited for marriage considering the example that she grew up knowing. As a result, I find it more than a little in bad taste for Rogan to listen to her reasons for not wanting to get married and then continue to emotionally manipulate her into accepting his proposal anyway. It might not make the picture-perfect romance story ending, but a big part of me would have preferred if she stood her ground and tried to make the relationship work without marriage as an end goal.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. If you're looking for a romance primarily, I'd look elsewhere as it's average at best. If you're more interested in a complex family drama, then this is a pretty good place to look. Also, if you're looking for a depiction of Ireland that isn't the Americanised vision of shamrocks and leprechauns, then this is a nice tone that has hints of the country's darker side without it sliding hopelessly into a story about the troubles. 3.5/5

Next review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

Signing off,

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

As is probably evident in my review for Red Seas Under Red Skies, the last installment of the Gentleman Bastard left me completely emotionally destroyed and desperate for the follow up. And yet, when I found myself reading it, I was too keyed up from previous events to read it particularly quickly. Hence why it's taken me nearly a month to finish it. Now that I've finished it though, I'm kind of unsure what to think. Spoilers for both of the previous installments. 

The Republic of Thieves starts with Locke bedridden as he slowly and painfully dies from the poison administered in the last book. After Jean has spent everything they had trying and failing to find a cure for Locke, help arrives in a form that neither had ever wished to encounter again: a Bondsmagi. Introducing herself as Archedama Patience, she offers them an opportunity for Locke's affliction to be cured, so long as they take on a job for her: rig an election in her home city state of Karthain so that the party favoured by her particular faction of Bondsmagi will win. There are a few things that might get in the way of this job though. Most obviously is the person that the other Bondsmagi faction has hired to rig the election: Sabetha Belacoros, a former, and generally more competent, member of the Gentleman Bastards and the only woman that Locke has ever loved. Less evident is that there are members of the Bondsmagi whose interest in Locke may be peaked by more than his mutilation of the Falconer three years before. 
Right, so to the good stuff first. Once again, it is a fantastically written plot that is still intensely unpredictable. One potential revelation about halfway in had me reeling for pretty much an entire day, they're that good. And oh dear Jesus Christ, that ending. They are so thoroughly doomed in the next installment. I thought that the world-building for Karthain was really quite interesting, with the non-magical populace hiding behind pseudonyms due to the near-limitless level of power that the Bondsmagi can hold over you should they learn your real name. At the same time though, there doesn't seem to be any resentment towards the Bondsmagi, as their presence has led to a city state so secure that there hasn't been a standing army or need for traditional defences for three centuries or any need for such. It's a fascinating mix of fear, deference and a staggering amount of over-confidence, very Machiavellian in feel. The best part of the book though was finally getting to meet Sabetha for the first time. Admittedly, I didn't really like her hugely when she first appeared, but by the end she had definitely grown on me, making her relationship with Locke simultaneously sweeter and infinitely more frustrating. She's incredibly confident in her own abilities, but as a result of her upbringing can't bring herself to be satisfied with anything that is quick or easy. There's certainly a lot to admire in her, and I can understand Locke's mixed feelings towards her. 
There was, unfortunately, something that has dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. This may well be something that is only an issue for me, but I don't think that the stakes felt high enough. Okay, so working for Bondsmagi is automatically going to ramp up the tension for fans who have read the series thus far, but they didn't really interfere with proceedings anywhere near as much as I thought they would. In the previous two books, they briefly work for the antagonists as a result of coercion and get stabbed in the back in both cases; here, it's a trade of services with nothing to really tie the two parties together after their mutual business is complete. The closest that we have to an antagonist is probably Sabetha, and they would have no intention of doing anything permanently damaging to her even if killing weren't against the Bondsmagi's terms. For me, the satisfaction at the end of the previous two books was largely due to the fact that the antagonists decided that it would be better to screw around with the Gentleman Bastards instead of dealing with them civilly, so there was a feeling that they got everything that was coming to them and then some. In The Republic of Thieves, there is none of that raw anger and tendency for personal vendettas that make Locke and Jean so endearingly human. Everything is strictly business and the stuff that isn't doesn't really manifest as anything more than threats and angry words. So yeah, it feels a bit like the energy from the previous books was muted, and while it might suit the more political lean of the plot, I don't think it suited Locke and Jean terribly well. 

A slower pace and more of a muted tone made this the weakest of the series so far, in my opinion. But that in no way makes it a bad book, with a brilliantly twisty plot and a fantastic new character making this more than worthy of picking up. 4/5 

Next review: Born in Fire by Nora Roberts 

Signing off,