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Monday, 23 May 2016

Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis

Up until I decided to finally read through the Chronicles of Narnia, I hadn't really felt much of an urge to read Prince Caspian. I mean, after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe it is the most well-known of the books, but that's not saying much. Most people I knew growing up had only ever read that most famous entry of the series. But the fact that it's a direct follow-up to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did give me some hope, seeing as it was the book that I liked most thus far.


Prince Caspian follows the Pevensie siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, when they are summoned back into Narnia. Once they arrive, they find that it has been centuries since they ruled the land as kings and queens, and the land has been invaded by a corrupt and superstitious race of men. The boy who should be the rightful heir of this kingdom, the Prince Caspian of the title, has been deposed by his power-hungry uncle and is now fighting to take back Narnia for the talking animals and magical creatures who used to call it home. The siblings soon decide to help the would-be king defeat his uncle and put things right.
While I will say that Prince Caspian does suffer from the same briefness that bothers me about the other books in the series, I am more than happy to say that it blows The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out of the water. While the White Witch is a more formidable enemy than King Miraz and his court of backstabbers, the challenge seems quite a lot greater than it did in the earlier book. In Prince Caspian, the protagonists are working from a much weaker position: the golden era of their own rule is so far in the past that it has passed into legend, so much so that the invaders' initiative to overwrite Narnian history is successful enough that there are many, even amongst the talking animals and magical creatures, who have stopped believing that they or Aslan even existed. Considering that my main issue with The Horse and His Boy is that it came across as having some rather racist tones, I was rather pleasantly surprised that the next book of his that I read had this kind of anti-colonial stance to it. There's an implicit sort of belief regarding a kind of authority through birth-right which is a bit old-fashioned, but the erasure of culture stuff is quite fascinating really.
On top of that, Prince Caspian manages to combine some solid adventure and battle scenes with some surprisingly subtle faith-based subplots. While I do question the ending a little in regards to what happens to Peter and Susan, I think that Prince Caspian is a definite improvement from the last installment that the Pevensie siblings were involved in.

Overall, I found that Prince Caspian builds nicely on the foundation provided by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. On top of being a solid children's adventure story, it has an interesting anti-colonial slant going on, with its whole "history is written by the winners" element of backstory. Definitely one to show the kids after they've finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 4/5

Next review: Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

I have been a fan of crime novels, especially the sub-genre of cozy mysteries for some time now. So it's perhaps a bit remiss of me to have read almost nothing from Agatha Christie. Up until now, I had only really read the first novel and some short stories from her Hercule Poirot series. I remember liking the writing, but found Poirot and Hastings less than engaging as protagonists. So I just never got round to reading anything else of hers. But my mum has always recommended the Miss Marple series to me, so when I saw The Murder at the Vicarage, I figured that I had nothing to lose through trying it.


In a careless comment over dinner, the parson of St Mary Mead expresses his frustration at one of his parishioners by stating that whoever murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a service. So it is with more than a little chagrin when the Colonel is found dead in his study only a day later. While the parson works with the police to try and bring the murderer to justice, he finds that his elderly neighbour, Miss Jane Marple, may be a little sharper than the rest of them put together.
I feel a bit torn about The Murder at the Vicarage as a novel. On the one hand, the mystery has almost everything that I like about cozy mysteries present and accounted for. There's the village setting that is just a little more unnerving than it is inviting, populated mostly by nosy, gossiping old women and the unfortunate people who must deal with them. There's the victim who was more or less disliked by everyone who knew him, including his wife and daughter, though the reader doesn't really see enough of him alive to make much of an impression of him. The mystery itself is engaging and much more devious and misleading than I initially gave it credit for. And the writing is wonderful, with some unexpected instances of humour. So far, so good.
On the other hand, it is the final element that I look for in a cozy mystery that was somewhat lacking, and the fact that it's lacking at all confuses the hell out of me. Considering that it is the first in the Miss Marple series of mysteries, I was expecting Miss Marple to be there a lot more than she was. I mean, I liked what I saw of her very much: the kind of old lady that is perfectly pleasant and unassuming in manner, but who you cannot get anything past, much as you try and hide it. As such, I was rather disappointed that she didn't appear for more than half of the actual novel itself. I mean, she does start to turn up more often towards the end, but until then it doesn't really feel like she's really playing a huge part in her own novel. I wouldn't say it's a complete dealbreaker, but if you don't like the parson then you are really in for a bad time, seeing as he's our narrator. I personally found him a bit colourless, but otherwise inoffensive. If it were any other genre, or if I weren't aware that this is Miss Marple's show, then I would have preferred a narrator with a bit more personality to him, but as it was I wasn't overly concerned.

As a mystery novel, this is more than serviceable and will almost certainly have you guessing wrongly by the end. My only real issue with it is that for a Miss Marple mystery, I had expected her to actually be present and attended for in more than half the novel. While I would have liked to see more of her, The Murder at the Vicarage was written well enough that I still had a decent mystery to sink my teeth into. 4/5

Next review: Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Beauty by Robin McKinley

If someone were to ask me what my favourite fairy tale was, I would answer "Beauty and the Beast" every single time. As such, whenever I saw Beauty on the shelves at whatever bookshop I happened upon, I found myself seriously tempted. It was quite some time before I finally caved and bought the damn thing, which is surprising considering how weak my willpower can be. After a couple of novels that were less than great, I was really hoping that I could rely on a retelling of my favourite fairy tale to get me back into a positive state of mind.


Beauty grows up finding her nickname more of a burden than anything else. Adopted as a result of a precocious outburst after her father tried to explain the meaning of her birth name, Honour, when she was a small child, it is something of a cruel irony that she instead grows up to be plain at best, especially when compared to her stunning older sisters. She dreams of becoming a scholar while her sisters look to good marriages, but they find that their world is soon to change. A storm ruins their merchant father's fortunes, forcing them to leave for the country and a humble life in a farming village. While in the country, Beauty's father becomes lost in a storm and takes shelter within a mysterious castle with seemingly invisible servants. But after he unwittingly abuses the hospitality offered to him, he must make a deal with the castle's bestial owner: in one month he must return to the castle, where either he or one of his daughters must stay as prisoner.
So, first thing's first, the story. If you've ever seen an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, whether it be the Disney adaptation or one of the many modern retellings that seem to exist, then you have a pretty good idea of where the plot will be headed at any one time. There's not much in the way of surprises when it comes to Beauty, but honestly, were you really expecting any? If you aren't a fan of the original fairy tale, then Beauty probably won't change your mind. With that out of the way, on to the specifics.
Beauty is narrated by the title character and while I admittedly had a seriously positive expectations of her before I started the novel, I found that they were more than met here. While I have always identified with her book-worm nature, ever since I was a little girl, I was rather intrigued by the way that her bookishness is conveyed here. Normally you'll get bookish characters turning to classic works of fiction purely for the pleasure of reading, and while I don't mind that at all, I was quite pleased to see Beauty view her reading in terms of academic study as much as she does it for the fun of it. It gives her a much more practical and sober tone of narration, which was a far cry from the more whimsical tone I had expected. Additionally, I like that she isn't a beautiful girl like she is in other adaptations. While she tries not to let it bother her, it is a real sore spot for her and it made her feel all the more relatable; I think most women go through at least one point where they look around and don't feel pretty enough, and that feeling is captured almost painfully well through her fights with the servants trying to dress her in pretty clothes.
Oddly enough, I found that I liked the Beast less than I had initially thought I would. To put it simply, he didn't really seem all that bestial, which seems to be missing the point somewhat. When Beast was consistently polite and good-natured towards Beauty, I couldn't help but be disappointed. Because while the romance between him and Beauty does still develop at a nice gradual pace as she learns to look beyond his outer ugliness, it doesn't feel like there's as much character development for the Beast himself, it's all on Beauty's shoulders. Admittedly, it might be because he's quite a bit older than Beauty here, but I've always thought that Beast's sullen and bad-tempered nature is kind of necessary for the stakes to feel real. I've always seen his temper and mood swings as a kind of emotional defence: if she doesn't reciprocate because of his looks, then he can convince himself that he didn't care about her opinion in the first place, and if she's chased away by his personality he can attribute it to physical appearance. It's an issue for him to work through as a character arc. When Beast is always kind, it feels more like a waiting game, something that would happen at some point regardless. It by no means ruins Beauty, but I can't lie and say that I wasn't a little disappointed.
Finally, I feel that I should return to the story, and mention the ending in particular. It's no secret that a lot of fans are disappointed by Beast turning back into a human. After developing so much affection for him as a Beast, the reaction to the spell being broken tends to be, to quote Greta Garbo, "Give me back my Beast!" Beauty is no exception, but I don't think anyone was expecting anything different here. I will mention that the ending seemed a bit brief for my tastes, but it still isn't a bad ending considering the constraints set by the original fairy tale.

A solid, well-written retelling of Beauty and the Beast. For people who love the original tale, I can't see this being poorly received in the slightest. Beauty is a wonderful narrator, with a scholarly and vulnerable character that is really endearing. The Beast was perhaps too tame for my liking, but I feel that this will be a matter of personal preference, so make of that what you will. The ending disappoints with the Beast's curse being lifted, but then everyone was expecting that anyway, so it doesn't really feel like a wholly valid criticism. 4/5

Next review: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor by Sean Wright

I have had this book for quite some time now, having received it as a Christmas present one year from my parents. I remember this part reasonably clearly, since they were rather pleased at having found a signed copy for me. Now, I do remember reading this closer to the time that I got it, but over the years my impression of what actually happened in the plot boiled down to "weirdness", which is unusual considering some of my other interests. So, spurred on by adult curiosity, I returned to The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor to see how it holds up.


The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor follows Lia-Va, an eighteen year old queen who has newly come into power after slaying her own father in combat. The reader starts the novel as she secretly abdicates from the throne that she never truly wanted, disappearing into the night in order to fuel her true passion: her addiction to roots and the parchment that they may help her translate. As her journey looks to be treacherous, she employs a mysterious, mute stranger as her bodyguard, but she soon finds that he has a bigger stake in her journey than she ever imagined he would.
Oh boy, where to begin with this mess. I suppose I should spend some time on perhaps the single good thing about The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor: the concept of roots. Roots are four-inch shards regurgitated by living creatures at the moment of their deaths, each containing the memories of the dead people that they came from. If a person were to stab themselves with these roots, they would experience the memories contained within as vivid hallucinations. As a fantasy drug, it's really quite creative and well explored. Additionally, there is a nice balance between the fantastical hallucinations themselves and the withdrawal symptoms. It's just a pity that the rest of the novel is so atrocious in comparison.
Now, onto the many, many really bad parts of the novel. First, there's the world-building. I imagine that there was a fair bit of detail that went into the planning stages of The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor, but at 150 pages, there isn't room for any of it to be explored. What could have been a fascinating world is made utterly frustrating because the reader is constantly bombarded by the kind of stupidly complex and ugly-sounding fantasy names that most good fantasy books mock relentlessly, accompanied by maybe a sentence or two at most to explain them. For example, the various different races that turn up in the course of the novel became indistinguishable to me, considering that the only descriptions that came up were either evil albino mutants or insect people. There were other race names mentioned, but no other descriptions. There were political undertones that were pretty much mentioned to introduce conflict, but never elaborated on in enough detail for the animosity to feel genuine. There was both fantasy and a kind of post-apocalyptic space technology that could have meshed in new and interesting ways, if the author had only spent more time talking about it beyond "oooh, look, spaceships!" Really, it feels like listening to a little kid tell a story: they cram in whatever they think sounds cool, without much thought to whether it's all well-explored or coherent.
Second are the characters. They probably could have worked with a bit of retooling, but as they were, it was just grasping at straws. Lia-Va was more or less tolerable as a protagonist, as she decides pretty early on that she's going to do her own thing, and screw anyone who tries to make life difficult for her. She's a bitch with some serious emotional issues involving her parents and her native culture, which could be great. As it was, it tends to lead to some kind of childish behaviour as she acts up whenever someone doesn't give her what she wants. She's not as bad as Islan though, who is frustrating in multiple ways. First of all, he's just one of those characters who comes across as unintentionally smug and self-satisfied, because he's just so much more spiritually and morally elevated than you, and I'm only doing these things for the greater good. The fact that he is technically right only makes the second point more frustrating. He knows that the parchment that Lia-Va has is evil, but he decides to be mysterious about why he wants her to break her root addiction, despite her repeated questioning. He only mentions that he thinks that her magic parchment is evil right when they're near the thing that she needs to translate said parchment, a.k.a. the WORST possible moment for breaking that news. Suffice to say, he doesn't have a happy ending and quite honestly the stupid sod had it coming.
Third is the writing itself. It is worryingly incompetent. When you have a 150 page book, you really can't afford to recycle what few descriptions you have, because boy do they stick out like a sore thumb. And when I say recycle, I mean word for word. Not for anything symbolically important either, which is the most puzzling thing of all. The things that come immediately to mind are descriptions of the sky, a flag and a particularly ugly mobster, none of which are actually consequential to the plot in any way, shape or form. If you're echoing a description, usually it's to make some kind of thematic or symbolic resonance within the work as a whole, but this is just laziness pure and simple. Additionally, I have to worry for this publishing house's level of editing when a clanger like "the diverse political shift in political power" manages to get through whole and intact; when that happens, you might want to cut your losses.

Avoid like the plague. The one good aspect of this is the concept of the roots, but that may well be the novelty factor considering that most fantasy novels don't deal with drugs a huge amount. The rest of the novel is an utter mess. There isn't anywhere near enough room for the author to properly explore the world that he's created, so the experience is less coherence and more sheltering from the word-vomit of fantasy terms flung the reader's way. The characters are a bit too simplistic and one in particular is mysterious for absolutely no reason and jeopardises the entire journey in the process. And finally, when the author is too lazy to think up more than one description for the sky, then you know that you're onto a loser. Not worth the paper it's printed on quite honestly. 1/5

Next review: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

So back on the Chronicles of Narnia, and the book that I never managed to finish when I was younger: The Horse and His Boy. I seem to remember picking it up at some point, but it can't have made a huge impression at the time, seeing as I managed to forget that half of the main cast existed. This time I was paying more attention though.


The Horse and His Boy follows Shasta after his fateful meeting with a talking horse. Trying to console himself when he overhears the man who had raised him preparing to sell him into slavery, he discovers that his would-be master's horse, Bree, is from Narnia. Kidnapped as a foal, Bree has been longing to return to his homeland for as long as he can remember, but has never had the chance due to the oddity of being a warhorse without a rider. Without a moment to lose, they find themselves travelling north across the great desert at the edge of the Kingdom of Tashbaan, meeting with more runaways as they go.
I want to like this more than I do. In many ways The Horse and His Boy is a solid fantasy adventure. There are battle scenes, races across the desert, daring escapes and, seeing as it is a Narnia story, some magic courtesy of Aslan. That all works quite well, the battle scene towards the end being the main exception (it's odd reading about a battle in the style of football commentary is all I will say on the matter). There is one thing though that makes the whole thing just a little bit uncomfortable: it does feel more than a little bit racist. You have the fair-haired, pale-skinned boy running away from the corrupt, tyrannous and warlike empire that would see him become a slave, all full of dark-skinned people would you believe. Even the main character native to Tashbaan doesn't excuse this, as it pulls the trick that a lot of medieval European texts did: find an example of a noble individual of this Other culture, an exception if you will, then have them renounce their former culture. It makes the whole experience quite skin-crawlingly uncomfortable. I liked Aravis at the beginning, when she had the attitude of an arrogant princess despite her desperate situation trying to escape a loveless match with a man old enough to be her grandfather. But by the end, you can see her disappearing into this new culture like her former country didn't exist and it just doesn't sit right with me.

A solid children's adventure marred by being surprisingly racist in tone. If you're looking to read this one to actual children, you may find that this could be a dealbreaker. I know that it does make me feel quite uncomfortable. 2/5

Next review: The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor by Sean Wright

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Since my last two books have been more than a little disappointing, I thought that I would go back to an author that has been pretty consistently high in my estimation, Stephen King. I chose Dolores Claiborne because I vaguely remember watching the film adaptation many years ago and rather enjoying it. I wanted to see if the book was as good.


Dolores Claiborne is the confession of the eponymous Ms Claiborne after she had driven herself to her local police station. Widely suspected of killing her long-term employer, she decides that she is going to make a clean breast of it and reveal all: about how she killed her husband and got away with it, and how her employer's death was an accident.
Stephen King states in his book On Writing that he never starts with a character, always with a "What If..." scenario, and doesn't have much time for character studies as a result. I can imagine that this will seem unlikely with regards to Dolores Claiborne, considering just how much her character impacts this novel. Due to the fact that it is a first person narrative, and an explicit confession at that, it is an intensely personal and intimate experience to read. I think that, as a result, your enjoyment of the book will depend largely on how much you like Dolores herself. I personally rather liked her, perhaps relating to the fact that she is a perennially-grumpy bitch by her own admission. Throughout the book, she displays a refreshing amount of understanding about herself and an unwillingness to suffer fools kindly, whether that foolishness come from other people or herself. That is a large part of what drives her reactions to the situations that arise from her relationships with both her husband Joe and her employer Vera, so if you like your protagonists to be a little softer and kinder, then you may wish to look elsewhere. For me, Dolores Claiborne was a more or less perfect novel, with some really vivid characterisation and revelations that are flawlessly timed. I personally wish that there was more of Vera, but then I have a bit of a weak spot for characters who almost revel in their own viciously spiteful natures and yet still remain classy as hell.

For me, this was a compelling character study with complex relationships and well-timed plot reveals. I personally found nothing to fault it with. I would say that your enjoyment of Dolores Claiborne will ultimately depend on how much you like Dolores herself though, so if bitchy old ladies aren't your thing then you may wish to skip this one. I'd be more than happy to recommend this though. 5/5

Next review: The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Past Mortem by Ben Elton

Past Mortem was one of those books that I picked up on a whim, purely because I fancied a bit more crime fiction on my shelf. I guess the main draw for this in particular was the focus on Friends Reunited, a site that will soon be relegated to the dustiest corners of internet history. Having only just gotten to this three months after the site was shut down, I feel that this book may go down the same route in my memory.


Past Mortem follows Detective Inspector Edward Newson, a mild-mannered policeman whose life, both personal and professional, could do with a bit of a pick-me-up. In his personal life, he finds himself signing up to Friends Reunited and trying to track down the objects of desire from his teenage years in an attempt to smother his current infatuation with his very much spoken for coworker, Natasha. At work, he is presented with a series of strange and gruesome murders, each incredibly distinct in method of execution but all sharing the same acute attention to detail and an odd series of music choices used to cover the screams. As he gets roped into a school reunion, he finds his personal and professional lives clashing in spectacular fashion.
I find myself less than impressed with Past Mortem as a novel. While the mystery itself, which (as you've probably guessed) is linked with people on the Friends Reunited website, did have an interesting premise and a few good twists and turns, it was let down by some characters that were at best lacklustre and at worst either totally unsympathetic or so poorly written that they ceased to make sense, as well as an ending that flailed because of an obviously flagged murderer and poor pacing.
So, to the characters first. When it comes to a crime novel's main detectives, I think it is reasonable for them to be sympathetic to the audience, otherwise you get the readers rooting for the murderer, a situation that I think most of us are okay avoiding. In the case of Past Mortem, you have Ed Newson and his coworker/object of affection Natasha Wilkie. Or rather an annoying Nice Guy with an obsessive crush on Blandy McNiceLegs. Honestly, I got to the end of the book and still have very little idea what kind of personality Natasha is supposed to have, but gosh the text wants everything to come across as cheery and perky. But at least with Natasha she's just boring. With Newson, there seems to be an assumption that because he isn't a blokey-bloke like most police officers apparently are, and is instead mild-mannered and self-deprecating, that the audience should automatically like him. While I can see the overall concept working, it tends to be more successful when the tone is less whining along the lines of "Why does my coworker like her boyfriend more than me?! I mean, look at me, I'm treating her with a modicum of respect, doesn't that count for something?" or "Oh no, I stuck my dick in crazy, and now she's stabbing herself in my bathroom, however will I cope?" He comes across like a petulant child, and it is really not a flattering quality to have. Additionally, his behaviour towards one of the women he sleeps with in the book is really quite callous, and the author doesn't seem to understand that fact. The first woman he sleeps with reveals how severely she was bullied while they were in secondary school, as an explanation for some of her wilder, more self-destructive behaviour. Reading it as a woman, it is a recollection that comes across as very real and definitely humiliating enough that I can understand it really leaving a mark. His reaction is essentially "Well, your bully was never mean to me, so you must be exaggerating." It's just so telling that he doesn't care about her in the slightest, though I'm sure that Elton would try and argue otherwise. As for the bad guys of the piece, their characterisation is messed up through a complete lack of balance. The red herring has a weird about-face, going from someone genuinely looking to repent for being a little shit when he was a teenager, to someone actively taunting the police and acting so smug that I almost thought the genre had shifted to that of children's action-adventure cartoon, something in the vein of Inspector Gadget in terms of subtlety. It's made all the more irritating by the fact that it's obvious that he's a red herring and stealing time away from the actual murderer. The real culprit goes through the novel with so few scenes that I could probably count them all on one hand. By the end, it means that he's caught, but there's no satisfaction from it because you don't really know anything about him apart from the basics. The motive is gestured at broadly, but not in any real depth because the book just isn't interested in it, which is a shame.
As for the ending, it just falls flat entirely. I mentioned above that the red herring was annoying because it's so obvious that he's a red herring. Well, that could be said for most of the last quarter of the book, where (at least for me) it became obvious who the murderer was, only for the plot itself to focus on everyone but the murderer. Then after whole chapters of flailing around pretending to be busy, they catch the killer in the act and there are 4 and a half pages wrapping things up. I can't help but wonder whether Elton just lost interest after the killer was caught and twatted round the head with a truncheon. Murderer's caught, everybody go home, but not until after you've caught the end of the romantic subplot tumour that was the real reason you stayed to the end. That's not a resolution, that's the evidence of a man with a rapidly approaching deadline or rapidly diminishing levels of interest.

What could have been at least an average crime novel manages to fail on almost every level. The characterisation is poor at best and the pacing is almost criminally awful in the last quarter or so of the book. The crimes themselves are interesting and satisfyingly gruesome, but they're not enough to save Past Mortem from its own huge failings. 2/5

Next review: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Signing off,
Nisa.