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Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Back to the Chronicles of Narnia I go. So after the unbalanced experience of The Magician's Nephew, there was a lot more for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to prove for me. Perhaps a little unfair of me, but then it has a big old reputation to support as well.


In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the reader follows a set of four siblings sent to the English countryside as part of the evacuation process during World War 2. Whilst exploring the grand house where they are now living, the youngest child, Lucy, ventures into a seemingly ordinary wardrobe and finds that it leads to the magical world of Narnia. Things are not as they should be though, as Narnia is now stuck in an eternal state where it is always winter and never Christmas, caused by the magic of the White Witch. After Lucy's friend Mr Tumnus is taken away to the White Witch's castle, the siblings are spurred into action against the evil dictator. But there may be complications as Edmund, the younger brother, finds himself tempted to the White Witch's side by promises of power.
In comparison to The Magician's Nephew this is a much more balanced affair. While there is still a sense of directness and a real lack of build-up, but it doesn't feel quite so abrupt and out of place here. Additionally, there were no scenes where the quality differed massively from the rest of the book, and the plot overall is just stronger. My main issue is that the characterisation of the siblings is very much on the sparse side. To be honest, the only reason that I could tell Peter and Susan apart was their gender; otherwise they were pretty much indistinguishable in terms of personality. The only one who really stood out was Edmund, if only because initially he was the kind of nasty little bully that really puts me off of the idea of ever having children. I'm also more than a little confused by the fact that Narnia has Christmas, but I think that that is an issue more particular to me and my nitpicking ways.

Overall, a solid story with a even tone and level of quality throughout. A bit simplistic for my tastes, especially in terms of characterisation, but it still serves their purpose well enough. Deserving of its reputation as a piece of classic children's literature. 3.5/5

Next review: Needful Things by Stephen King

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Hater by David Moody

Hater was another of those books that I picked up because the premise intrigued me. I had previously read this one and I remember liking it, but I couldn't really remember the specifics of it terribly well. So I figured that if anything was worth a re-read, it was this.


Hater is the story of what happens when a sudden and violent shift occurs in British society. Over the course of just over a week, there is a sudden increase in violent assaults across the country with no discernable reason. The reader follows council employee Danny McCoyne and his family as they try to cope with the increasing level of uncertainty and paranoia.
There's a lot that I like about Hater. The build-up of tension is gradual and quite effective, going from a single incident to the point where armed police are a common sight. The violence is suitably shocking and brutal, counterpointing the comparative normality on show at the beginning. I just wish that I could have liked and sympathised with the narrator. I can appreciate where Moody was coming from when he created Danny: stuck in a dead-end job with the council that doesn't pay enough, stuck in a council flat with a nagging wife and three children under 10, trying to be civil to a father-in-law who seems determined to dislike you regardless of what he does. Honestly though, he comes across more whiny and self-absorbed than the intended sympathetic everyman. He coasts through his job because he doesn't have the drive to look for something better, then has the gumption to complain when his situation doesn't change. He has the money to go to a concert with his wife to get away from the kids, but when the question of a pub lunch comes up suddenly they don't have the funds. He claims to love his kids and tortures himself over the potential that someone in their family might turn violent, but it's difficult to believe when the only dialogue that he really has with his kids is either telling them to shut up or fielding their questions to unsubtly imply that they should shut up. There's just such an attitude there that is admittedly partially brought on by trying circumstances but mostly a result of his own laziness. I want to like him. I want to sympathise with his worries about looking after his family and his fears that one of them might be a Hater. But it falls flat for me, because there's so much about him that pisses me off.

A solid horror plot with some decent build-up and some really good depictions of violence. But for me it's made disappointing by a protagonist intended to be an everyman who just comes off as lazy and entitled. It's difficult to care how the situation progresses when you're hoping for the narrator to be bumped off, the sooner the better. 3/5

Next review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Fire Thief by Terry Deary

Nostalgia is the primary reason for my picking up The Fire Thief. A massive part of my childhood was spent pouring over whatever Horrible History books I could get my hands on. My collection is almost complete in fact. So when I found out that Terry Deary had strayed into fiction, I couldn't resist taking a look at the result.


The Fire Thief follows two sets of protagonists. The first protagonist is the Titan Prometheus fresh from his rescue at the hands of Hercules, who makes a deal with Zeus: in exchange for a chance of permanent freedom he must find a hero and prove to Zeus that humans deserve the knowledge of fire. If he uses his godly powers, however, he runs the risk of being discovered by the eagle and being destroyed forever. The second protagonist is Jim, a young thief in Victorian England who is about to embark on what will be his last confidence trick.
I am of the belief that there are two kinds of children's book. There are those that are aimed at children but have appeal to those of any age, and then there are those aimed at children and only really appreciated by the target audience. I feel that The Fire Thief is firmly in the latter camp. While I can't point at any one thing and say that it's badly written or poorly considered, I couldn't help but be intensely conscious that I was at least a decade older than the intended audience. It leaves me in a weird situation. On the one hand, I find the characterisation a tad too simple for my tastes, the narrative brings attention to itself as a narrative too often for my liking, and I'm a little wary of footnotes these days. On the other hand, this is not aimed at my age bracket whatsoever and I can well imagine that the issues that I have with the novel aren't things that would necessarily register as faults.

Not really to my tastes, but as a children's novel, it is perfectly functional. The characterisation is simplistic, as is the style at times. But in terms of plot and the writing itself, it is solid enough and does what it should. Maybe not for adults, but I would maybe add another point to the score if you're considering this book for someone within its intended age group. 2/5

Next review: Hater by David Moody

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Nobody True by James Herbert

Sometimes I pick up books because I read the premise and I just know instinctively that I need to read the book proper to find out what the author has done with that scenario. Nobody True was one of those books. Considering that my last encounter with James Herbert was mixed at best though, I was somewhat wary going into this, regardless of my enthusiasm for the premise. 


Nobody True follows Jim True, a man who is ordinary in all but one way: he has had incredibly vivid out-of-body experiences ever since he was a young boy. While he is on one of these out-of-body experiences, he returns to his body to find that he has been murdered and his body horribly mutilated while his spirit was away. He finds himself searching for his killer, but first he must figure out whether he was the victim of a serial killer who had similarly mutilated their victims, or whether his murderer was someone he knew and was close to. But even if he can figure that out, is there anything that he can actually do in his now-permanent incorporeal state if he does discover the culprit. 
I really wanted to like Nobody True, but I knew that it was a dud when the first seven chapters or so focused on his childhood from the age of 3 onwards and his career in advertising. If anything was an example of the importance of judicious cutting when writing a second draft, then this is it. I did not pick up a horror novel because I wanted to find out how the everyman protagonist started up his advertising business in excruciating detail. I want to see the everyman protagonist struggle with their own impotence and lack of importance within the universe. That fact that Herbert then proceeds to add footnotes that are both long-winded and almost wholly unnecessary to the actual plot only makes the proceedings all that more infuriating. 
I could have coped with that if the characters were half interesting. They really weren't. I mean, your main protagonist is a guy who actively wanted to be in advertising. There isn't really much you can do to save that character. Honestly, this is the most boring, white-bread character I've seen in a long, long time. I really couldn't care less who actually killed him. The fact that the serial killer that I mentioned previously is only evil because they have a physical disability is also really intensely uncomfortable and not in the manner that I had willingly signed up for. 

Having read Nobody True, I have come to the conclusion that James Herbert was an author that had a great eye for a book premise, but didn't seem to understand that the reader doesn't need to know everything about the main character's backstory. The whole book feels in need of a brutal but necessary trip to an editor, and the main character couldn't be more boring if he tried. A swing and a miss on pretty much every count, which is a shame because I really wanted this to be good. 1.5/5 

Next review: The Fire Thief by Terry Deary 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Dark Moon by David Gemmell

It's been a long time since I've read Dark Moon from start to finish, so I thought that it would be nice to revisit something for once. I think I must have gotten this at a time where I wanted to branch out into more adult fantasy books than I had previously tried reading. Quite possibly I just wanted to save Dark Moon from an ignominious fate at the bottom of a bin, as it would appear that I bought this from my high school library, sans barcode for scanning. If anything made me realise just how long I've owned this, then that stamp on the front plate was it.


In the world of Dark Moon, there were once three ancient races. The last of them, the Eldarin, vanished only a few years before, leaving behind only a fist-sized pearl, a magical artifact of great untapped power. It falls into the hands of a Duke name Sirano, a sorcerer determined to unlock the secrets of the Pearl and the power that it wields, even as the other city-states are consumed in a war to possess it. But the Duke's experimentation comes at a heavy price, as it causes the return of the most bloodthirsty and war-like of the ancient races, the Daroth, who will stop at nothing to wipe out all other species.
When I think of your prototypical '80s-style sword-and-sorcery novel, Dark Moon pretty much ticks all the boxes. Lots of violence and detailed battle scenes? Check. A legendary hero or two that the rest of the cast rally around? Check. Sex that is both unabashed and yet almost chaste in its sheer lack of detail? Check. The fact that it was written in 1996 is almost immaterial. There's just something about a book like this that has me scanning the text to find the biggest, most thick-set warrior in the cast and paste a young Arnold Schwarzenegger's face onto him, only with better acting. I'm not saying that as a bad thing. There is something about the setting and the style of writing that I find I can settle into with little to no effort, even if the efforts are somewhat less than stellar. It's surprisingly comforting. Thankfully, Dark Moon is nothing if not a real solid example of decent sword-and-sorcery, with some decent character depth that brings it above the rank and file.
Primary among those characters are three (technically four) main heroes. First, there is Duvodas, a musician whose childhood living amongst the Eldarin has given him great power in healing and peaceful magics, but who must keep his distance from negative emotions and impulses in order for it to continue working. Second is Karis, the warrior-woman known as much for her flawless record as a strategist as she is for her many lovers. Finally, there is Tarantio, the solitary swordsman whose deadly reputation is built largely on the talents of Dace, the violent soul with whom he shares a body. There are a great many other members of the cast, but those are the three that are probably most important to the plot overall. And for the most part, I am pretty impressed with their character arcs, with nothing feeling grossly out of place. I will say that the interactions with love interests do feel a bit rushed and truncated, but really that could be said of any of the romantic relationships presented here. I would have preferred some more development on that front, but it's never really the main focus so I find that I don't really mind the oversight so much.
The battles come surprisingly thick and fast, so it's probably a good thing that they are by-and-large really skilfully written. The Daroth are an enemy that are nicely judged in regards to threat level. They are difficult enough to kill that superior numbers cease to be a big factor in how evenly the two sides are matched, but not so powerful that the heroes cannot conceive of defeating them. Combined with their alien biology, they make for a fascinating foe. Plus I have a soft spot for siege weaponry, so their inclusion was a nice thing to see.

I may have a soft spot for fantasy, sword-and-sorcery specifically, but this is a book well-written enough that I am happy to recommend it to those looking for a comfortable read. The characterisation is solid, only marred slightly by a tendency to rush the more romantic scenes. And the battles are well conceived and executed, which is a blessing considering how often they turn up. 4/5

Next review: Nobody True by James Herbert.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Hearts in Atlantis is one of those books that has been on my shelf for so long that I can't really remember when or why I got it in the first place. I seem to have a fair few Stephen King books that have cropped up in my collection, so I can only assume that I must have had a period where I picked up any of his books that peaked my interest, only to never get around to reading them. Hearts in Atlantis in particular may well have been picked up because I found out that there was a film version of it made starring Anthony Hopkins, an actor whose work I admire immensely. In any case, it had been sitting on my shelf long enough for me to feel guilty about it.


Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of five interlinked stories set between 1960 and 1999. The first "Low Men in Yellow Coats" follows a young boy named Bobby as he befriends a new neighbour who asks him to keep an eye out for strange and unpleasant individuals that he only names as Low Men. "Hearts in Atlantis" follows Pete Riley in his attempts to win the heart of a fellow student, all while trying not to flunk and avoid the draft for Vietnam despite a crippling gambling habit. "Blind Willie" follows Willie Shearman as he cons busy New Yorkers out of their money by pretending to be a blind Vietnam vet. "Why We're in Vietnam" follows Sully-John revisiting the past following the funeral of a fellow veteran. And finally, "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling" focuses on a grown up Bobby revisiting his childhood hometown and brings together all the tales that had come before it.
Apart from the first story in the collection, there isn't really much in the way of supernatural goings-on in Hearts in Atlantis, which was a bit unexpected but not really a bad thing. Considering that the last book by King that I'd read before this was The Stand, it was actually kind of nice to read a novel where the main bad guy wasn't the Antichrist. Much as I like The Stand, there needs to be variation in terms of stakes, and I certainly got it here. It was nice to read something where in the end, even if the good guys don't win completely, the world doesn't have to come to a screeching halt. It was good to read a book where the consequences were all so close to home, and the recurring characters really hammered that home, as you can see just how all of these events affect them all while the world continues on as normal.
I will say one thing though that I wasn't so sure about. I can't say for certain, not having read any of the Dark Tower series of books, but I feel like there's a lot of context from that series that would make the supernatural elements of "Low Men in Yellow Coats" make a lot more sense. It certainly isn't essential, as the important points come across just fine and don't actually need to be explained in full. I just feel that, having seen the use of terms like "breakers" and "te-ka", there is a lot of context that would take on a lot more meaning if I had already read at least some of the Dark Tower books. Probably not a huge issue, but it might well tip the balance of which you read first.

A superb look at a small group of characters, seen at various times throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Definitely one to pick up if you're looking for some more low-key, personal stakes after all these books with world-changing consequences. There may be some context about the supernatural elements that would only really make sense if you've already read the Dark Tower series, but it's not something that is going to completely ruin the novel if you're ignorant of the context like I was. 4/5

Next review: Dark Moon by David Gemmell

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis

After I, Lucifer, it seemed somehow appropriate to balance out something that cynical with the epitome of Christian parables masquerading as children's fiction. Hence I am starting my third attempt at reading the Chronicles of Narnia, see if I can get further than The Horse and his Boy this time.


The Magician's Nephew follows Digory and Polly, two young children who find themselves in a strange other world after Digory's obviously evil Uncle Andrew tricks them into helping with his magical experiments. They soon find themselves stuck with the Evil Empress Jadis and must find a way to send her back to her original world.
This is a book that was written in a style much more succinct than I remember. When I mentioned that Polly and Digory are soon saddled with Jadis, I really mean soon. It really doesn't take long for the plot to get rolling and for both magic and Empress Jadis to be introduced. Additionally, it is quite straightforward when it comes to language and character intent. On the one hand, this is quite refreshing after a lot of fantasy novels that need a lot of build-up for the actual plot to begin. Also, the straightforwardness makes surprisingly clear the sort of lies that adults will tell to make themselves sound reasonable or morally right. On the other hand, it means that the first meeting between Digory and Polly goes more or less like this:
Polly: You look like you've been crying.
Digory: Oh really? Maybe because MY MOTHER IS DYING! 
I don't know about you, but there is something about that subject matter that requires a touch more subtlety and build-up than it's really afforded. What should be solemn is made more absurd than anything.
The other thing that struck me reading The Magician's Nephew was that there are two sequences that really stand out from the rest of the book. First is the scene where Aslan creates Narnia, and second is the scene where Digory fetches the magical apple for Aslan. These scenes are noticeably prettier than the rest of the novel, where the pace doesn't feel quite as frenetic and the writing has a little chance to breathe. I can't help but notice that these are the passages with the most obvious parallels to Christian narratives, Creation and the Garden of Eden respectively. Considering how much better these passages are compared to the rest of the book, I can't help but wonder whether these were the scenes that Lewis wanted to write in the first place, with the rest included as a token attempt to give it some context. It does make the rest of the novel feel kind of disappointing.

The Magician's Nephew is a seriously unbalanced book. It's quite obvious that it was only really written as an excuse for Lewis to write his own version of the Creation and the Garden of Eden plot-lines. The rest of the novel seems rushed and absurdly unsubtle by comparison. But, I would still be tempted to say that it's worth reading for those scenes alone. 2.5/5

Next review: Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Signing off,
Nisa.