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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

I've had the Locke & Key series on my radar for some time, as I am a huge Joe Hill fan. I think I've managed to gather the majority of the series, so now the only thing left is to give them a read, starting with Welcome to Lovecraft.


Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft follows the remains of the Locke family after a disturbed student kills their father. They move in with their uncle in his New England mansion, known locally as the Keyhouse. But while they're only looking to move on with their lives, the house is filled with doors that transform those brave enough to travel through with the right key. And there is a relentless creature who will stop at nothing to gain the power over those doors.
Considering that there was a lot made about the doors themselves, I was kind of expecting to see more of them. But Welcome to Lovecraft is a bit of a slower burn, which seems to be working for this volume at least. The first half alternates the focus on the kids trying to adapt to life without their dad and the traumatic events that led to their move in the first place. The slow familiarisation with the characters really works because by the time things start getting more threatening, the family has moved from generic survivors to characters whose safety I do feel genuinely concerned about. Character-wise, the three that are perhaps most important are the children. The oldest is Tyler, a former friend of the boy that killed his dad, and convinced that he is in some part responsible for the tragedy that occurred. The middle child is Kinsey, who saved her little brother at the time and is now struggling to reintegrate with her peers. Finally there is Bode, the youngest by a fair margin, who seems to be coping the best out of his siblings, but is frustrated that his encounters with the supernatural elements in the house are being written off as worrying signs of emotional instability. That's one of the things that I really like about how the supernatural stuff is written in. It kind of takes a trope that's really common with child fantasy protagonists, where the adults are useless and unwilling to believe, and makes it terrifying. I haven't seen much of the house yet, but I already know that Bode is in way over his head and that's really unsettling. It's definitely made me want to read more of the series.
Since this is another comic, I guess that I should spend some time taking about the artwork. I hadn't heard of Rodriguez before now, but I would be happy to see more of his work following this. It's perhaps not the prettiest of artwork, but it's great at evoking atmosphere and character personality, so it does fit the tone of the writing really well. He really doesn't shy away from the blood and gore either, which works with this kind of horror. Sometimes horror works better without visible gore, but this is not one of those instances, so it was good to see that the visuals haven't compromised that way.

More of a slow burner than I was initially expecting, but it really works to set up appealing protagonists who I am genuinely concerned for. It doesn't compromise on the gore, so if you're squeamish you may want to come prepared. It's definitely set up a series that I am eager to continue reading. 4.5/5

Next review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I have a feeling that this is the final book from that Humble Bundle that I had, and I'm rather chuffed with how the whole thing came out. I went into Signal to Noise with fairly positive expectations, as I've enjoyed what I've read of Neil Gaiman's work thus far and the comics that he's been involved with usually end up looking weird and beautiful. I couldn't seem to get a blurb that mentioned anything about the plot itself, only the rave reviews and the fact that there's a radio drama adaptation, but I've gone into a couple other books on this bundle with similarly vague notions of the premise and come out fine. Besides, if it sucked at least it was under 100 pages.


Signal to Noise follows a director in the months after he is diagnosed with cancer. As he refuses treatment for the malignant tumour, he begins work on his final film, the finished product that he doesn't expect to live to see. As he crafts a story about a village waiting for the apocalypse to come at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 999 AD, it starts mixing with his thoughts on his own personal, imminent apocalypse.
I kind of regret reading this on a tablet. While my tablet is okay for text, I think I needed to read Signal to Noise as a physical book. Because this is a beautiful comic book, and I don't think reading it on a tablet did it justice. I want to see the weird, angular depictions of the horsemen in that lovely glossy paper that decent comics are printed on. I want to be able to stare at the pages and really see the transition where the focus on the crowd zooms further and further out until you're looking at the creases in a man's palm. Signal to Noise, much like the world cinema films that it seems to be paying tribute to, is one of those pieces that is both beautiful to look at and never seems to stop being interesting in its subject matter. I don't want to say too much about the plot itself, as it's more a character piece and it's an experience that I don't think I can convey with the sort of grace that it deserves. Just read it.

Signal to Noise is a beautifully weird comic and my only regret is that I didn't read it as a physical book. It's the kind of comic book that you show people who try to trivialise the medium as nothing but superhero stories. It's visually experimental, and would definitely benefit from multiple read-throughs. It certainly feels longer than it's 80 pages. 5/5

Next review: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Unusually, I've gone for two short story collections on the trot. Maybe it's because I'm on holiday, but I've found myself really in the mood for something more bitesize. And considering that I've mostly enjoyed the dark fantasy stuff that Holly Black has written, I was interested to see how she holds up using short forms of fiction. Anything to take my mind off my sunburn has to be some good anyway. 


The Poison Eaters and Other Stories collects a series of short stories by the Curse Worker series author Holly Black. Some of the stories reference some of her longer work, with "Going Ironside" and "The Land of Heart's Desire" being set in her Modern Faery Tale series, while the opening tale "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" is set in the same universe as her novel of the same name. The subject matter ranges from vampires to unicorns and even as far as living books and girls whose touch can kill. 
Usually I prefer single-author anthologies, as you tend to get a more even tone and quality to the stories contained due to only coming from one author. Usually that's the case anyway. For some reason, Black seems to be a writer that I either love or could give or take, depending on what of hers I'm reading. It was very much in evidence here. On the side of absolutely love, I would have killed to have more stories like the eponymous "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" or "The Dog King"; those stories were my certain top three when I was looking over the contents in preparation for this review. And much of the rest of the stories were similarly strong. But for me, there were four stories that just fell flat for me: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", "Virgin", "In Vodka Veritas" and "Going Ironside". With those stories, there just didn't seem to be much actual content within them to grab a reader's attention. And considering that there's only 12 stories in the collections, I don't feel confident giving it top marks when there was around a third of the content that I was ambivalent at best about. Were there perhaps more stories with the quality of the three that I picked out as my favourites, then I'd perhaps feel a bit more positive about the collection. 

Quite a good collection overall, but The Poison Eaters and Other Stories is somewhat brought down by a few stories that, while not necessarily bad, are much less interesting. I'd still read it for "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" and "The Dog King", but you might want to go in aware. 3.5/5 

Next review: Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there's only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.


Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can't see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I'm actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn't aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn't sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn't really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It's a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.

Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5

Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Eric by Terry Pratchett

So, I was a little torn going into Eric. On the one hand, it's part of the Discworld series, which I really like. On the other hand, it's a Rincewind book, the installments that I find closest to tiresome.


Eric follows Rincewind as he is summoned from the Dungeon Dimensions that he was trapped in at the end of Sourcery. Following an oddity in a demon-summoning ritual, he has been called to grant the wishes of a teenage Faust-wannabe named Eric. While the wishes themselves are standard enough (to be ruler of the world, to have the world's most beautiful woman, and to live forever), the magic that Rincewind suddenly has at his fingertips is determined to grant these wishes in the most awkward way possible.
This is probably the first time that I've thought that Pratchett's writing benefitted by being shorter than normal. With most of his Discworld books thus far, I've gone away wanting more of what I just finished, which is kind of what I want from a book. With Eric, while I'm more than happy to admit that it is by far my favourite of the Rincewind books so far, it's kind of obvious that there wasn't much substance to it. I can't imagine that I would have liked Eric half as much if it went on for a regular Discworld novel's length. It's main good point is its brevity.
With regards to characters, my comments from previous Rincewind reviews still stand. I harbour a great love for the Luggage, and I still don't think that Rincewind works as a main character. As for the eponymous Eric, he's kind of a generic spotty teen. Occasionally he's amusingly ill-informed but otherwise there's not really much to him either. Like the plot, I could see him getting irritating if the material was stretched. any further.

The best novel starring Rincewind thus far in the series, but there's not a great deal of material here. Its brevity is a definite benefit here, as I could see it getting tiresome if it were any longer. As it is, it's short and sweet, and it's a lot of fun. 3.5/5

Next review: Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

And now to return to the Dresden Files, partially because I'm going on holiday soon and my husband's threatened to bring the official board game with him, so I wanted to be at least a little further in the series. Also because I like what I've read so far and want to see how the series progresses.


Grave Peril follows Dresden as he teams up with one of God's chosen warriors to try and quell a sudden uprising from the spirit world. While ghosts are normally harmless with the occasional poltergeist making a nuisance of itself, Chicago's dead are now anything but quiet and unusually powerful to boot. On top of that, Harry soon finds himself having to contend with tracking down a vulnerable young wizard and a party where he has to play nice with Bianca and the vampires of the Red Court.
I personally found Grave Peril to be kind of a stumble in the series thus far. While I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, after the first two installments this one was kind of disappointing.
So, let's start with the positive. I really liked the ghost stuff. The confrontation at the beginning in particular was really harrowing and so well-written. If there had been way more of that, then I think I would have been able to forgive some of the mis-steps a bit more.
So, the first thing that bothered was the introduction of Michael. While I don't have a problem with practising Christian characters in the books I read, I kind of found him to be a sanctimonious bore. At first I thought he'd be a fun addition, considering how much he seems to enjoy winding Harry up, but he didn't really go much beyond that. And it's unexpectedly annoying to have a character telling someone off for language that wouldn't even get a PG rating.
Second, it either doesn't feature or actively incapacitates my favourite characters, instead choosing to focus large parts of the narrative on Susan. This is more a personal gripe, but it really hinders a story when I don't care if one of the main characters dies or not.
Third, there's a big chunk of plot that occurs because of a case that Dresden helps close involving a sorcerer that summons a demon. All of which happened before any of the novel's events and isn't actually shown properly during the entirety of the narrative. Now, it might just be me, but if an event had tantamount importance to why Dresden is having problems now, then I'd be tempted to include it somewhere. Not just a nightmarish "what-if" version where everything goes wrong. Because as it is, it feels like cheating when Butcher reveals "oh yeah, it's part of that case that I keep alluding to, but will never disclose in full".
Finally, after the initial encounter with the Red Court at the party, the story starts to drag a bit. It stops being tense and suspenseful, and starts being various repetitions of "Oh no! The last of my reserves! Wait, wait... never mind, found some more. Carry on." It stops being tense once Dresden uses up his last ounce of strength more than once, and starts feeling a bit cheap. I will admit, the wrapping up chapter makes up for it a little by introducing a bigger conflict that I hope to really sink my teeth into.

Overall, it's decently written, and if I could have had more sections focusing on the ghosts, that would have been brilliant. As it was, Grave Peril focuses too much on characters that really aren't that interesting out of the side cast he's made thus far, has a big chunk of plot rely on events that the reader never gets to see and the climax drags where it should be tense. I still enjoyed reading it, I just feel that compared to previous installments this felt thoroughly average. 3.5/5

Next review: Eric by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn is one of those stories that I only really heard of after I started venturing out onto the Internet a bit more, and even then I seemed to find mostly artwork of the eponymous unicorn, with surprisingly little about the actual story. So when I got round to actually reading it, it had become a weird kind of amorphous non-entity: apparently a really beloved classic, but with little actual substance that I could see and figure out why people liked it.


It is a regular eternally spring day for the unicorn, when she hears a message that she can't bring herself to ignore: that she is the last of her kind in the world. Venturing from the safety of her forest, she sets out to find out what happened to others like her. Joining her on her journey are Schmendrick, the world's worst magician, and Molly Grue, an indomitable spinster. But the three of them may not be enough to combat the terrible Red Bull that stalks the land of the miserly King Haggard.
What I'm about to say probably won't make much sense. Because I had a copy of the deluxe edition, my edition of The Last Unicorn came with a lot of additional material, including an introduction and an interview that hammer in one point about the writing process for this book: it was a complete chore and it took years before Beagle could look at it and admit to himself that it was any good. And while I did like what I read, I think that there is a part of that struggle that shows through the writing. The Last Unicorn is a truly beautiful book at several points, but as a whole it kind of left me emotionally cold. I don't know what it was, but despite enjoying it, The Last Unicorn probably won't be high on my list of books to re-read any time soon. It's like watching a dancer who is technically flawless, but who doesn't enjoy performing anymore and hits her cues more out of obligation than anything else. The parts that I liked were the points where the fairy tale stuff was juxtaposed by the moments of crushing reality: the spider crying in the night having discovered that it can't weave the moon in her web, or Molly asking why the unicorn only turns up in her life after her youth and loveliness have already left. The more traditionally fantasy elements, regardless of how self-aware they are, seem to be there more to fit the story structure. It is really well written though, so I would be interested to see some more of Beagle's work, perhaps something that hadn't been such a struggle for him.

Thoroughly beautiful at times, but I can't honestly say that The Last Unicorn did much for me emotionally. There's nothing specifically wrong with the novel, but this just wasn't really for me. Pleasant enough and probably enough to warrant reading other works by this author, but this work seemed a bit too beholden to obligating fairy tale tropes to really stretch out and become something truly wonderful. I am probably in a minority here though. 3.5/5

Next review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.