Search This Blog

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

So I still have a few audiobooks to get to, but I didn't fancy jumping straight back into one after a very long listen with only a short, fluffy comic in between. So it made sense to go back to a series that is kind of guaranteed to make me enjoy myself. So Dresden Files it was. I didn't realise quite how long it had been since I last picked up the series until just now when I was looking through my blog archive. Definitely long overdue for a revisit.


If there is one thing that can spur Harry into action, it's threatening the people he loves. So when Mavra, the Black Court vampire that he tried to kill in Blood Rites, confronts him with incriminating pictures of Murphy that she will send to the authorities unless Dresden gets her what she wants. And what Mavra wants is the Word of Kemmler, by midnight of Halloween. Unfortunately, it looks as though there are several necromancers, apprentices of the eponymous Kemmler, who also want it and are ready and willing to use the most extreme methods available to them to get it.
It's been a while since the bad guys were just other wizards, and not a vampire or Fae of some variety, which is surprisingly refreshing. But despite reverting back to mortal enemies, Butcher manages to bring in a little bit of everything else that has come before. And it makes you realise just how much has been established when little bits of everything is brought in to influence the turn of events. There is the influence of every one of the Vampire Courts, the Fae get involved as they are wont to do, Harry has issues with the Denarian coin that he tried to seal away in his basement, and many other little things that contribute to a surprisingly complex plot.
As always, the characters are the best part, even when working with a much smaller core cast. Sure, lots of characters turn up briefly, like my perennial favourite Johnny Marcone, but they tend to be one-scene wonders. The main cast can pretty much be narrowed down to Harry, Thomas and Butters. And I didn't know how much I would love the character development that they both get.
First there is Thomas. In previous books, he always came across as a feckless, rich playboy with hints of inner depths. Now that he's revealed himself as Harry's half-brother and been cut off from the vast funds that he was used to, he's had a chance to grow into himself a bit. It was really nice to see the parts where he and Harry get a chance to act like brothers: not necessarily always on the same page, but pushing each other to get better and look after themselves.
Second is Butters. When I first mentioned him in my reviews, I said that he was surprisingly calm about being confronted with evidence of the supernatural. Well, it turns out that there's a big difference about recognising a non-human cadaver for what it is, and having the corpse of a former colleague burst into your office and try to kidnap you. There is lots of screaming, hiding and unexpected bravery. He might well count as one of my series favourite characters now, and I can't wait to see him turn up again.

A really solid entry that manages to pull in elements from every book that has gone before it, and yet manages to not be a confused mess of supernatural mythos. Butters and Thomas get some great character development, elevating Butters in particular to joint favourite alongside Karrin Murphy and Johnny Marcone. Additionally, Harry makes some really big decisions that I think are just going to make the next entries in the series all the more tense. 4.5/5

Next review: Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly

After the long and draining read that was Blood Meridian, I was in the mood for something a lot lighter in tone. Enter the first volume of K-ON!, a series that comes highly recommended to me by my husband. Since I like what I've seen of the anime adaptation, and I needed something short, sweet and relatively harmless, it seemed like the perfect choice.


K-ON! follows Yui Hirasawa in her first year of high school. When she's frightened into joining an extracurricular club for fear of becoming a NEET after high school, she joins the Pop Music club, assuming that it will be an easy ride. Unfortunately, her new club members assume that she can play the guitar, an instrument she has never touched in her life. But with determination, she and her new friends may be able to turn this failing club around.
I was after something gentle, and K-ON! certainly delivers on that. There isn't really much in the way of driven plot, but then that's pretty much a staple of the slice of life genre. What the genre sacrifices in plot and serious conflict, it makes up for in characters, and K-ON! definitely has that in abundance. So the core of the cast is made up of the four members of the Pop Music club. As mentioned above, there is Yui, the inexperienced main guitarist. She's sweet and energetic, but nowhere near the brightest bulb in the box. There's Mio Akiyama, the studious and painfully shy bassist, who more or less has to adopt the straight man role out of the group. Self-appointing herself the new club president, despite having none of the qualifications necessary for such a role, is Ritsu Tainaka, the audacious prankster on drums. And finally, my current favourite, Tsumugi Kotobuki, the wealthy keyboardist who is outwardly the perfect gentle lady, but is more than a little risque in her thoughts. There are also some secondary characters, but the one that stood out most for me was the teacher acting as their club adviser, Sawako Yamanaka. She only agrees to advise the club after they threaten to reveal her past as a member of the Pop Music club during its speed metal period, at which point you realise that her sweet, gentle nature is just a mask for someone mildly terrifying. It's a beautiful moment.
This volume covers the first year of the club, in which they mainly mess around and treat the clubhouse like a tea-room while Yui tries to get the hang of playing the guitar. It's cute so far, and I especially like what I've seen of them actually playing music, complete with comically terrible lyrics for their first original song. I'm a little sad that it does take a bit of a back-seat to your standard slice-of-life high school stuff, but I'm hoping that it will get a bit more music-focused as Yui and the others get more confident with their instruments.

Very cute and fluffy. Not a great deal of plot, but that's not really why I picked it up. Will definitely be picking up the next volumes in the future. 4.5/5

Next review: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

So Blood Meridian took me longer to get through that I was hoping. Evidently audiobooks are not something that I get on with. I've been looking to read some of Cormac McCarthy's ever since seeing the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, cliche as that may be. It was such an odd film that I was curious to see how much of that was the Coen Brothers' direction and how much was from the original source material. But I got my hands on Blood Meridian first, so that will have to be my introduction to his works. 


Blood Meridian follows a runaway known as the Kid during his violent coming-of-age as a member of a group of scalp-hunters, headed by the infamous John Joel Glanton and the eerie and erudite Judge Holden. As part of the Glanton Gang, he is tasked with collecting the scalps of natives attacking settlements at the Mexico-USA border. 
Right, so something quick to start the review off: if violence is not your thing, then Blood Meridian is not for you, as it comes up startlingly often and usually in a great deal of detail. If I were to guess, I would say that the majority of the narrative can be filed into one of three things: an act of mass and/or out-of-proportion violence, travelling in some truly wonderful descriptions of the landscape, or sitting around the camp-fire listening to the Judge preach about the world. 
Weirdly enough though, I found that the violence wasn't all that shocking. I have read that many readers who have gotten through to the end experience desensitisation, but it probably says something about me that, while the violence is vivid and utterly brutal, I just had a weird sense of dissociation. There was something about the stark nature of the writing style and the bleak, lawless setting that meant that when the violence did come along, it just felt like a natural extension. It didn't feel as shocking to me as, for example, Chuck Palahniuk's violent scenes, which stick out because they're meant to be set in modern day and contrast with mundanity. 
The thing that really stuck out for me was the Judge's speeches, just because he's such a well-written Devil figure. He is an unusual figure in pretty much every way compared to the company that he keeps, from his huge stature and arresting lack of hair, to the eloquence with which he completely runs circles around his uneducated travelling companions, to the obvious enjoyment that he takes in the violence that he inflicts as opposed to killing from necessity or for money. In addition to his unusual features, he seems to get a lot more spotlight than the nominal protagonist, the Kid, which gives the reader a better idea of his nature, if not his true origins. For me, I couldn't shake the idea that he was meant to be Satan, considering some of his actions appear to have no physical explanation at times, which gave the whole book a weird kind of Biblical parable feel to it. It felt like if new chapters of the Old Testament were written, but God never interjects as a guide, leaving the world to descend further and further into evil in their absence. 

A fascinatingly grim book, Blood Meridian is definitely not for those who can't stomach violence. Personally I found the Judge's speeches to be the far more disturbing part of the narrative, but I can understand it would be a deciding factor. I had this as an audiobook, but I would be really interested in re-reading it as a print or e-book at some later date. 4/5 

Next review: K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

After the debacle that was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I wanted something that I could recover with. And my immediate reaction was Discworld, where I could both read something new and yet guaranteed to make me happy. Since it was a Witches book, I was really looking forward to this next installment.


Lords and Ladies picks up when Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick return home from their extended travels following Witches Abroad. Magrat returns to find that her sweetheart, King Verence II, has already started preparations for their wedding. Perturbed by how suddenly and imminently she will become Queen of Lancre, she has a falling out with Granny and throws herself into learning how to act like royalty. At the same time, Granny and Nanny are concerned that the standing stones keeping the Fair Folk at bay may be weakening.
While the Witches are probably my favourite of the Discworld sub-series, I thought that Lords and Ladies was a bit weak compared to the previous installments of the series. Not that this makes it bad, it's just hard to match a corker like Witches Abroad. By itself, there really isn't anything that that I can criticise about Lords and Ladies, it just has very tough competition.
One thing that I absolutely love is Pratchett's depiction of elves. Considering that the Discworld is a riff on traditional fantasy tropes, he could have modelled them on the graceful and wise elves that you get in things like Lord of the Rings or D&D. But instead he went for the properly old-school elves that steal your children, and I just love that. It adds just the right amount of threat and eeriness. Additionally, I really liked the touch about how the average person in Lancre perceives the elves. In comparison to Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who know just how awful elves are, the rest of the population has gradually forgotten the creepy, child-stealing part of elves and they only really remember the glamour and the pretty laughter. It was a nice touch.

I do love the old-fashioned child-stealing version of elves, so it was really cool to see them in the Discworld. Lords and Ladies isn't the best book out of the Witches sub-series, but that doesn't matter a whole deal considering how stellar the series is as a whole. 4.5/5

Next review: Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

So A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was another book that I picked up in a bundle. It wasn't necessarily something that I would have picked up on the strength of its blurb or subject matter alone, but I did find my interest piqued by the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I have found prize winners to be something of a mixed bag, but there's still something about them that makes me want to try them, just to see how I compare to an "expert" panel.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir following the author's life in the years following his parents' cancer-related deaths. He must take responsibility for his younger brother, Toph, who is only 8 when their parents pass away. Thrust suddenly into the role of parent, he has to try and deal with the fact that his new responsibilities prevent him from a lot of activities that he would like to do as a man in his early-twenties.
I haven't actually finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I honestly tried, but the thought of trying to slog through any more of this tripe is just depressing. Until this point, I couldn't understand how there are people out there who genuinely don't like reading, but I think this book has made me realise how they feel.
So, I suppose the big question is what made me not want to finish this one. What it was that made me break the one rule that I have had since starting this blog in January 2011. It was the writing style. While I have expressed a liking for postmodern fiction in previous blog entries, there was something a little too manufactured and artificial about the way that it was presented in A Heartbreaking Work. Metafiction is just one of those things that needs to be properly signposted, instead of thrown into the mix whenever you feel like it. Eggers also seemed to have a grudge against the humble full stop, as his book was full of sentences that went on for-fucking-ever. I get it, you like fragments. How about a sentence that doesn't make me want to throat punch you and force you to draw breath like a regular human being. Overall, I just got an impression of some dumb twenty-something who is trying to be way too clever in order to compensate for some deep-seated issues that he really should have worked out with a therapist beforehand. Maybe that's exactly the sort of impression that I was meant to get, but it doesn't do anything for my enjoyment of the novel. And it's sort of a shame, because from what I've read of him, Eggers seems like a nice guy, with a lot of worthy philanthropic causes that he supports. I feel like he could have given a better account of himself.
So there's a thing that I feel that I should probably address. Why did this book make me DNF and not one of the other books that I have rated 1/5? It's a fair question. I think the reason that I got through some other terrible books successfully because they invoked an active emotion out of me. Most of the time my response to my 1/5 rated books has been anger, or occasionally horrified amusement. Regardless of which, both of those states make me feel energised, make me feel like my mind is going a mile a minute, and I absolutely love those moments when I can get that on paper. Since starting this blog, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the first book that made me feel like my soul was being sapped with every extraneous fragment and with every time he referred to himself or his brother as god-like. Usually my less pleasant reads leave me feeling shaky or overwrought, but never before have I felt sapped of energy. The only word that I can think of for this is grey, like it's wrung out all the interest in my brain and left me with dishwater for a soul. If this is what some people's experience of reading is, then I can see why you wouldn't want to try it again. So yeah, I'm altering my rule. I will now allow for DNFs if a book makes me actively wonder why I like reading in the first place.

Never before has a book left me so drained of enthusiasm. Usually I get angry at books I don't like. This time, I just don't have the energy. It's the first book I've DNF'd in over 7 years, and I am just stunned that I found something that could beat even my stamina for not-so-great books. I'm sure there's an audience for this, but I couldn't even begin to understand who it would consist of. 1/5

Next review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

It's been far too long since my last Discworld novel, and after a string of books that I only kind of liked at best, I was hoping for something that I could be pretty certain that I would enjoy. Perhaps not the best reason to read something, but after a while you just get tired.


Small Gods follows the god Om who manifested on the Disc just as his next prophet is due to be chosen, only to find that he is stuck in the body of a tortoise and has lost his divine powers. Desperately trying to regain his former powers, he finds that the only person who can hear him is Brutha, a lowly novice who seems to be destined for mediocrity at best.
I was right to pick another Discworld, because this was just what I needed right now. Entertaining as always, but with a really interesting subject to satirise. Considering that Small Gods is focusing on religious institutes, a subject that can get people very angry if executed poorly or heavy-handedly, I was pleasantly surprised by how subtle this manages to be. This is despite the gods being arrogant and undeserving of praise and the clergy either being too cowed to do anything productive or sadistic enough that they're actively participating in the perversion of religious faith. This is probably down to the relationship between Om and Brutha, which is the kind of entertaining bickering that I love. On the one hand, Brutha is understandably a little doubtful that the talking turtle is his god given the distinct lack of divine power, but is quite happy to look after the little guy nevertheless. And then on the other is Om, who is endlessly frustrated by his lack of power and struggles to remember just who any of these former prophets are that Brutha keeps quoting. On top of those two, Pratchett has provided a fascinating villain in the form of Vorbis. In a way, he reminds me of Lilith from Witches Abroad. There is no doubt that what he does and what he makes other people do is evil, but because he is safe in the knowledge that he carries out his faith's doctrine, he can reason that it is all in the cause of a greater good. He is certainly not likeable, but he is intriguing to observe and in some ways incredibly pitiable.

Small Gods is, by far, my favourite of the standalone Discworld novels that I've read thus far. It's an intriguing criticism of the harm that can be perpetrated when faith is replaced in day-to-day life with aggrandising the institutions that have grown around them. I would definitely recommend this one. 4.5/5

Next review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

So Found is probably not a book that I would have picked up, had I found it outside of a book bundle. While I don't have any problem reading books aimed at children, I find that my standards for them are tougher than they are for adult books. Maybe because I grew up with things like Pixar films that can be appreciated by all ages, but dumbed down children's fiction does nothing for me. But in this case, the premise seemed interesting enough that I could take more of a chance.


Found follows Jonah Skidmore, an ordinary teenage boy who has never thought anything about his being adopted as a baby. It is only when he and his new friend Chip, who has only just discovered that he was adopted, start getting mysterious letters of warning that he wonders whether he should be concerned about who his birth parents were. When he digs into his origins though, he finds himself entangled in a mystery that involves the FBI, a vast smuggling operation and people who appear and disappear in seemingly impossible ways.
When Found started on a really intriguing scene, that of an aeroplane appearing out of thin air and containing 36 babies and no flight crew, I was really hopeful. It's nothing if not an arresting image, so you can imagine what I hoped that it would turn into. As it turned out, I would be disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the story itself was decent enough, but it just needed to be tighter, go through a few rewrites. As it was, Found was decent enough, but had a few things just annoying enough to ruin the expectations that I'd had for this.
First of all, the characters mostly ended up being generically teenager instead of especially interesting by themselves. They were all kind of dim, overly concerned with what is and is not "cool" for their age group, and seemed to have really spotty memories about a topic that they've been focusing on for several weeks by the end of the book. For instance, there's a bit where they meet a woman who saw the plane that Jonah and Chip were on as babies, and she posits that there was time travel involved. Chip's reaction to this is to mock her relentlessly for her crackpot theories, completely ignoring the fact that one of the documents he has in his possession at that very moment contains information that they had previously established would be impossible to have without something like, oh I don't know, fucking TIME TRAVEL! Like, if you wanted to have him be that sceptical, don't provide him with reason to believe the theories that he mocks. Additionally, it seems at odds with his willingness to believe another character's assertion that she saw a ghost, just because she says so. I just need consistency, please.
Secondly, there seems to be this weirdly specific body language or voice tone going on throughout the book. I can appreciate communicating additional information or context with either body language or tone of voice, because that's a thing that people do, obviously. But in Found this is made into so specific and exact a form of communication that it becomes really distracting.
Lastly, it just started to drag, with little of actual substance happening between Jonah and his family meeting the FBI to discuss his adoption, and the showdown in the latter third. It's the three main characters investigating, poorly, and getting more and more panicky because of the vague and menacing dangers around them. It did pick up at the end, but by then my experience had been tainted by the slog of the beginning and middle thirds. And if I'm bored then I can't imagine a child or young teenager will do much better.

Found ends on a cliff-hanger, but I don't know if I'd deliberately go out of my way to continue reading the series. The characters are pretty much just generic young teens and haven't got much interesting about each of them individually. The writing can be distracting at times, with the sort of annoying writing tics that draw you out of your immersion. And while it did pick up towards the end, the first two thirds seemed to drag interminably through a pretty shabby investigation. Not terrible, but not particularly great either. 3/5

Next review: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.