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Saturday, 18 October 2014

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

I had heard interesting things about Marcus Sedgwick's books, particularly Midwinterblood and My Swordhand is Singing. So when one of the books that I got from Gollancz was his book White Crow, I was mildly intrigued, though the blurb was a bit too vague for my tastes. I might well have picked up another of his books because of the cool titles, but otherwise this might well have been an author that would have passed me by.

I feel like this could have made two really good books. There are two main plot-lines that the reader follows. A modern day story of Rebecca, a girl who has retreated to the countryside with her father after some scandal has made him something of a pariah, and her strange "friendship" with local girl Ferelith. This is juxtaposed with a story set two centuries before, chronicling the experiments of a priest and the newest member of his parish, Dr Barrieux, as they try to determine once and for all what is in the afterlife. Both are set in the village of Winterfold, a seaside settlement that used to be a hub for trade, but has been eaten away over the years as the sea erodes the cliffside. While both plot-lines work and have some thematic ties, I don't think that both were essential for the book to have. As it was, there were problems in both that I think could have been remedied by dropping one or the other entirely. In both, there was a lot of story to get through and half as much space needed; there were certain things that I thought would get at least some explanation, but were still only vaguely alluded to by the end, which I will discuss below.
So, the modern story-line. I thought it was kinda toothless. Yeah, there is something a bit unnerving about Rebecca's friendship with Ferelith, but I knew so little about them as individuals that it fell flat. Yes, I know a little bit about Ferelith's unfortunate family history, and yes I know a little bit about what drove Rebecca and her dad to leave London for this village in the middle of nowhere. There are two problems with this. One, I still only know what is essentially a cliffs-notes version of their pasts, nothing actually resembling details, hows and whys. Two, they don't really have much beyond their pasts, so I know how they react to personal tragedy, but nothing about what they're like in day to day life. Heck, it was so poorly conceived that by the end, I can tell you more about Ferelith, the girl who is supposed to be mysterious and strange, than I can about Rebecca, the girl who is presumably supposed to be the audience surrogate. Additionally, by the end of the modern plot, it didn't really feel like much had really been achieved. Sure, Rebecca gets a bit of emotional closure, but that didn't resonate anywhere near as much as the author wanted it to; see above point.
On balance, I did prefer the historical plot, which makes its own failings all the more frustrating. But first, the things that I liked about it. Mainly, I liked that it was a genuinely creepy story of two men trying to meddle in realms that they cannot and should not understand, with a build-up that is absolutely full of suspense. The thought of an entire book about a futile and dangerous attempt to find evidence of an afterlife is one that fills me with glee. The problem with this was, again, the characterisation, even more so than in the modern story-line. If I could have heard more about the tantalising backstory elements that the author tempted me with, instead of yet more hypocritical whining from the priest character, then this could have been enough to save the book entirely. I wanted to know more about Dr Barrieux's dead wife and child, more about the cult that the priest grew up in before he found God, more about the village's growing suspicion. Instead I got the priest repeatedly angsting about how he finds it so easy to visualise Hell, but not Heaven.

Overall, this was an exercise in how it is often better to have one simple idea fleshed out really well, rather than two stories smashed together and told only competently. If it had just been the historical plot given the space and characterisation that it needed, then I would have been an extremely happy bunny. As it was, I'm just annoyed that there was so much unrealised potential. I did briefly consider saying that it might be due to the age range it was aimed at, but that's just insulting teenagers. Teen fiction should be richer than this. 3/5

Next review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Signing off,

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably a book that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, for two reasons. One, I had heard very good things about it, even from people who don't normally like fantasy. Two, I had read some of his work before, mainly the first couple volumes of the Sandman comics and liked what I'd seen. As it was, my fiance practically begged me to read it next, and seeing as that was several months ago, I can't really keep putting it off. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows the unnamed narrator as he returns to the country lane where he spent his early childhood, and finds himself drawn to the house at the very end of the lane. There, he reminisces about the childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock by name, who used to live there with her mother and grandmother and believed that the duck-pond in her garden was an ocean. At first, his childhood looks to be normal, if unusually solitary for a seven year old boy. It is only when a lodger of his parents' kills himself in the family car that strange things begin to occur, and the narrator finds himself a mostly unwilling participant in the upcoming events. 
I finished this book this morning, and my first thought was "Well, that happened." While that sounds flippant, it was meant in the kind of distressed bewilderment that accompanies the ending of a very well-written book that you have no clue what the meaning of it was meant to be. I suppose the thing that really caught me off-guard was the surreal, languid sort of tone that it had. Things certainly happened, quite distressing things at times, but it always seemed like it was happening at arm's length somehow. I suppose that the closest thing that I can compare it to would be a fairy tale: vivid events told in such a way that they are given distance and a strange, off-kilter viewpoint. The other thing that caught me out at the end was the feeling that the story wasn't finished. Not in terms of actual plot-line, that was absolutely fine. I mean in a more deliberate way; the story feels unfinished because the narrator isn't ready to let it go yet. The overall effect of this, mixed with the aforementioned tone, seems to be that of a myth for adults, the kind of simple story that we kind of forget about and underestimate as we grow older. 
As I've ruminated over the course of the day, I was wondering what Ocean at the End of the Lane was about, at least for me. I kept coming back to a line of dialogue that turns up towards the end. The line in question was, "Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?" It wasn't a moment that initially seemed huge in context, but it stayed in my head far longer than other parts, and when that happens it's usually a sign to pay attention. So I guess for me, it's become a kind of fable about the damage that can happen to children when they come into conflict with adults; you sort of assume that with age comes wisdom, but there are a lot of essential things that you sort of deliberately forget as you grow. When that comes into conflict with what we've decided is "grown-up" behaviour, then the child is almost guaranteed to lose, regardless of whether that's right or not. It's something that Gaiman keeps pointing to throughout the story and it got more than a little uncomfortable. Maybe I needed to feel a little uncomfortable. 

It's an odd book to recommend. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wants the feelings to be simple and clear-cut, because that is as far from what you'll get as is possible to define. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that reads simply, but feels much bigger than you would expect from 243 pages. I've done my best to define what it's left me, but I think that personal experience will always trump my descriptions. 5/5 

Next review: White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White Cat by Holly Black

So, this got practically devoured. Evidently I've needed to read more than I thought I did. This was another book that I got during my work experience with Gollancz and it's been one of the more tempting premises on my shelf.

White Cat follows Cassel Sharpe, the only non-magical member of his immediate family, and something of a black sheep. Not only is he not magical, but his family are protecting an awful secret that he can barely comprehend himself. Three years before, he killed his best friend Lila, and to this day he has no memory of the event or why he could possibly do it. As a result, he tries to keep a low profile, become as close to a normal person as he can be by fitting in at school and trying to make something of himself. This is disrupted when he awakens from a dream of a white cat stealing his tongue, only to find that he has been sleepwalking; that he finds this out whilst on the roof of his school's dormitory is particularly alarming. From here, everything he knows is brought into question, and all of it shadowed by the same white cat.
I absolutely loved this. I had read some of Holly Black's work before and, to be honest, not been terribly impressed. I kind of expected something similar to happen here, intriguing premise or not, and for me to have devoured this book within a day is utterly refreshing.
So, to the good points. The world-building is fantastic. Set in a version of modern day where magical gifts are illegal in many countries, it actually sets out the consequences of such a society with surprising depth. Because magic is cast through skin contact via the hands, gloves have become common place and to be seen without them is either a huge sign of trust or incredibly threatening. Magic is not without it's consequences, shown in the form of blowback: for example, with an emotion worker, someone who can manipulate other people's opinions and feelings, they have the downside of becoming increasingly emotionally unstable. And the fact that magic has been illegal for generations means that those who want to practice their magic are almost forced into becoming members of a crime family, and the prices that come with that territory are well-explored and really quite awful.
The characters are pretty good. Cassel is the one we get to know the most intimately, given that he's the narrator and main protagonist, and to see the emotional rollercoaster that he goes through as a result of others' machinations is utterly heartbreaking at times. Cassel's family get a fair bit of fleshing out as well, but are a little more opaque. Maybe in later installments they'll get more attention, which would be nice. I'd especially like to see more of Desi Sharpe, Cassel's death worker grandfather.
The plot was a bit easy to figure out at times, with several of the big twists maybe signposted a bit too clearly; you sort of wonder how Cassel didn't put the pieces together sooner. Despite this, it's still very well written and doesn't really make any wrong steps.

Definitely one for a fantasy fan who's looking for something modern that isn't your typical urban fantasy. It's perhaps less complex than a lot of fantasy that I've read, given it's YA audience, but the raw emotional impact more than makes up for it, as does a really interesting world. Going to be looking out for the sequels, that's for sure. 4.5/5

Next review: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Signing off,

Monday, 13 October 2014

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Wow, this is embarrassing. I did not expect to fall behind schedule quite so dramatically. Having made the first few steps toward becoming more organised though, I finally got round to reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not quite what I was expecting, I will admit.

Plotwise, Two Gentlemen of Verona was a lot sillier than I had initially assumed. It starts with two friends, Proteus and Valentine; the former begins the play in the process of proclaiming his undying love to the fair maiden Julia, a sentiment that the latter finds utterly ludicrous. Valentine sees no value in courting love, instead choosing to move into the court of the Duke of Milan to see and experience more of the world. As if God were just waiting for the most ironic moment, Valentine soon falls in love with the Duke's daughter, Silvia. All seems to be going well until Proteus finds himself inadvertently sent to the same court, so that he might benefit in similar ways to Valentine, where he too falls in love with Silvia. Literally the scene after he has sworn undying love with Julia. This was the point where I realised that this might be a tad on the ludicrous side. Not as rife with unbelievable coincidences as Comedy of Errors was, but still firmly on the silly side. I can very much get behind a play that looks at the conflict between what you want in relationships with different people: Proteus' betrayal of his friend to further his own suit with Silvia could be a really interesting and in-depth character study of a deeply conflicted person. The thing that makes it feel silly is the pacing: while the right dramatic beats are there, they feel shallow at best. Maybe this is something that would work for me better if I saw a production of it, but having only read it, it feels like Shakespeare was racing through these scenes as quickly as he possibly could. As a result, nothing really seems to go beyond the surface and that was a bit disappointing.
The comic relief could have been better. I realise that Proteus' idiot servant, Launce, was just a dramatic means for the main actors to have time to change between scenes, I just wish his monologues could have been more entertaining. As it is, they seem more like confused ramblings than anything actually funny. Though that may well be the Elizabethan sense of humour being lost in translation. Or maybe it's funnier on-stage. Either way, my loss, I'm sure.

Overall, a pretty harmless play. It's restored my faith in Shakespeare somewhat after the disaster that was Comedy of Errors. It would be nice to have something a little more involved next time though. 3/5

Next review: White Cat by Holly Black

Signing off,

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill

After Ringworld, I needed something lighter. I figured that Some Girls Bite would be just the antidote I was looking for, the kind of trashy novel that doesn't require a lot of thought and can act as a kind of recharge period. While it did act as a recharge period, my initial opinion was perhaps a bit harsh.

Some Girls Bite follows Merit, a graduate student who is changed into a vampire after she is nearly killed after an attack by an unknown vampire. To say that she is unhappy about this turn of events would be an understatement; in fact, having been torn away from her contented life of research and academia, she is determined to hate the one who forced the change on her, a master vampire named Ethan Sullivan. This is only complicated by some serious sexual chemistry between the two of them and his expectations regarding her unquestioning loyalty and gratitude. When she finds out that she is only one of a series of women attacked by vampires, however, she finds that she may well be safer in allying herself to Sullivan, as well as a few other supernatural allies, as she tries to figure out who tried to kill her.
From the description, this sounds like it's going to be your standard trashy vampire romance novel. And initially I was fully expecting it to unfold in the exact way these books always unfold. I was pleasantly surprised. The cliched route to take would be for there to be the alpha male vampire with either a wilting flower needing his firm but tender touch to guide her through this new world, or with a fiery sarcastic minx who would challenge him at every turn but eventually be melted by his somewhat dubious charms. In some ways Merit and Ethan fit the second mold, with one rather important difference: their affair fails to start. Fairly early on, Ethan manages to essentially ruin his chances of getting together with Merit precisely because he is a fairly standard alpha male "romantic" hero; by insisting on asserting his superiority, he pushes her away because, in the long run, that just is not something you want to have to deal with. There's chemistry, but Merit knows full well that chemistry alone won't make a relationship work if there's such blatant power issues and obviously different agendas between them, and that was really surprising and pretty damn cool. It's the main good thing that I brought from Some Girls Bite. The other main thing that the novel pulled off well was the characterisation and relationships between Merit and her friends, with Jeff, the flirtatious, if utterly hopeless, shapeshifter being a particular favourite of mine.
But, of course, few books are perfect. If it were perfect, I would be having the equivalent of a stutter right now. There are a couple things that were just kind of average, where they could have been really interesting. First, the world-building needs some work. It's your standard urban fantasy world where if you can think of a humanoid supernatural or mythical creature, then it exists. It also does the whole "vampire coming out" thing, which has been done to death by now. There's the hint of interesting politics, not only between vampire houses but between vampires and other supernatural creatures; unfortunately, it's frustratingly vague in this book, and after the intense world-building in Ringworld, it's all the more obvious. Additionally, the mystery isn't all that well developed. For one thing, most of the book is focused on Merit's attempts to fit into this new rigidly hierarchical society, with the murders being almost a side issue. Also, after a certain point in the book, the culprit becomes disappointingly obvious after one of Merit's friends makes a prophecy regarding what the fallout of the murders will be; seeing as the person being hinted at isn't going to be Merit, there's only really one person who fits the bill otherwise and the big reveal at the end fell a bit flat. Admittedly though, it has set up an interesting set of circumstances for book number 2 in the series, so I'm curious to see where it will go.

Overall, an above average vampire novel. I know, all the ones that I've picked up seem to have been above average; either I'm just easy to please or I've been lucky so far. An interesting subversion of romance tropes and good characterisation is brought down by vague world-building and a subpar mystery. I'd still be interested in reading the next installment though. 3.5/5

Next review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Right, so, first review of the new year. Hopefully I should be more prolific this year, but considering how long I took with this one, that could be high hopes. Anyway, Ringworld was practically forced on me by my fiance, who is very much a fan of the world-building style of science-fiction novels. Me, not so much, but I agreed to read it because I do find them as a whole interesting, if not wholly satisfying. So how did this measure up?

Ringworld for the most part follows Louis Wu, a human who is contacted by a Puppeteer, a creature long absent from all of known space, who needs him for an intriguing mission. His experience of exploration will be combined with the resources provided by the Puppeteer, named Nessus, as well as the combat skills of the tiger-like Kzin known as Speaker to Animals, and the supposed luck of a human named Teela Brown; with these qualities, they intend to examine and potentially explore a strange structure dubbed the Ringworld. As you can probably tell from the cover there, the Ringworld is an artificial structure built within the Goldilocks zone of a yellow star, creating a living space that is just about incomprehensible to the human mind. Their plans are quickly thwarted by a strange set of circumstances and they must deal with each other's secret agendas and the unknown surface of the Ringworld. 
From the synopsis, this all sounds too good to be true. It kind of is. I'll talk about the good stuff first. For one thing, it is a very thought-provoking book, with concepts of future technology and the process of moving out into unmapped territory all very well fleshed out. The group dynamic between the war-like Speaker and the cowardly Nessus, and the humans who try and balance them out, is engaging and progresses in an understandable and logical way. And the overall plot is generally easy to follow, despite the occasional bit of technobabble that can seem a bit overwhelming at times. So there's a lot to like and recommend this for. 
That is, before I get to the negative aspects, which may well be a game breaker for some readers. Firstly, although I praised the group dynamic, I can't really deny that the group's consistency and logical development largely hinges on the characters not really being much more than a 2D concept. For example, if somoene had told me that Speaker was meant to be a Klingon, or any of the other alien races that have been created as war-like but honourable, then I would believe them pretty damn quickly. Nessus is a perfect example of a cowardly race most concerned with safety, despite being touted as one of the "insane" ones. Teela, the supposedly lucky one, is characterised by her near horrifying lack of knowledge about pain and sadness. Louis, despite being the point-of-view character, felt kind of like a void of personality, doing things simply because it was the mid-point between the beliefs of Speaker and Nessus. Each gets some development, but never enough to make them feel fully fleshed-out or believable. It's like putting paper cutouts on an immaculate oil landscape and expecting the audience to buy that the two things were given the same amount of effort and time. As a result of this, I kind of felt that some of the moments in the book that should have been really important and awe-inspiring just fell flat, simply because the characters didn't have enough character to impart the impressive nature of what they were witnessing. Secondly, while most of the concepts introduced were things that I could accept within suspension of disbelief, there was one thing that seemed strikingly out of place. The flying motorcycles that could dispense food and water? I could buy that. An artificial day/night cycle created by metal plates between the Ringworld and the sun? Sure, that makes sense. The evolutionary path of the Puppeteers? No, now that's just silly. For those of you interested, take a look at what they're supposed to look like. 

So, the Puppeteers. A three-legged, herbivorous race with two heads that act as eyestalks/hands and a large hump on their backs concealing their brain. I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of an environment that would allow for such creatures to evolve in the first place, let alone become the dominant species of their planet and achieve space travel. I'm all for aliens that don't just look like humans with face-paint (see the Turians from Mass Effect, my favourite alien species, as an example), but there is a point where you have to stop and ask "No, really, how is this a thing that people take seriously?" 

In conclusion, Ringworld is a novel that is primarily aimed at people most interested in comprehensive world-building, ignoring the absurdity of the Puppeteers. The characters are suitable for their roles in-universe, but they never come into their own; for me this was disappointing, as it made the tension disappear completely and I couldn't quite bring myself to be wholly invested. Definitely one for when you're in a thinking mood. 3.5/5 

Next review: Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill 

Signing off, 

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Hey guys. It's been a while since my last update, huh? Well, turns out that job searching is a lot more draining and distracting than I assumed it would be. So a large part of what I've been doing over the last couple of months has been a cycle of "look for a job -> fail at a late stage of an application -> feel my soul die a little -> look for a job". Add to that Christmas and my fourth anniversary to prepare for, it's been a tad hectic. I'm hoping the upcoming months will be less stressful, but I shan't get my hopes up.

Anyway, I just finished reading Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. I had heard that this was one of his weaker plays, but I thought to myself, "This is Shakespeare, author of some of my most favourite plays ever, so it can't be that bad." Oh dear god, how wrong I was. I haven't actually gotten round to watching the BBC adaptation that I have, that's how pissed off I am about it.

The plot of The Comedy of Errors is a farce involving two sets of twins, separated at a young age and unaware of each others' existence. When one pair from Syracuse arrives in Epheseus to trade, they find that the people there mistake them for their twins; hijinks ensue. Why doesn't this unravel at the seams almost instantly? Both sets of twins have the same names. The merchants are both Antipholus, and the servants are both Dromio.
This coincidental set of circumstances brings me to the first reason that I couldn't abide this. The play actively defied my efforts to suspend disbelief. For one thing, the twins both have the same name? Really?! It's such lazy story-writing that I can only barely comprehend it. It's just so obvious that The Comedy of Errors was written for the paycheck that it's a constant distraction.
The second reason that I hated this play was that I couldn't help but feel that this was a far less successful attempt at writing Twelfth Night, one of my favourite plays. There are so many elements here that I've seen Shakespeare implement so much better elsewhere, like the mistaken identity thing between twins. I don't want to associate something like this with a play that I genuinely adore.
Third, I couldn't help but think that the female characters were both really pointless and kind of abused. For example, Adriana, the wife of the Antipholus from Epheseus, is physically attacked by her husband after she unwittingly shuts him out of his own home and he later threatens to put out her eyes because he believes she's been adulterous. This from the same person who was going to give expensive presents to a prostitute out of spite. It just got really uncomfortable at times, especially when other women were extolling his virtues and telling her not to be such a jealous harpy. It was just unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.

Overall, this is a play that I would avoid. If you're a Shakespeare completist, then be warned that he has used the same elements in a far more competent manner. The customary clever language only compensates so much. 1.5/5

Next review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Signing off,