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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,

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

I received a copy of The Falconer from Gollancz as part of their Gollancz Geeks project. I applied for this book mainly because the strange premise tickled my fancy. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a Jane-Austen-style heroine going out at night and hunting down monsters? In any case, did the premise live up to its promise of great things?

The Falconer follows Aileana Kameron, a debutante who spends her days carrying out a standard aristocratic life, attending balls, entertaining friends and the like; her nights are quite different, usually involving the murder of faeries. She must keep up a balance between propriety and murderous rage in order for both of her lives to carry on as expected. Or at least that's the plan. Since her mother's murder at the hands of a faery, she's been consumed by the need for revenge and a general homicidal feeling towards faeries as a species. Homicidal tendencies tend to somewhat muddle more mundane intentions, so her whole social life is a mess: society thinks that she killed her mother in cold blood and her frequent disappearances at balls is tipping her reputation closer and closer to total ruin. 
I'm not really sure whether I like The Falconer or not. On the one hand, it's a competently written debut novel, with a sympathetic protagonist, engaging side characters and a real feeling of threat and constant danger; all of that makes me tend towards liking a book. But on the other hand, there are two major flaws to the novel that stop me from actively liking it. 
First, there is the protagonist, Aileana, or Kam as she is just as often called. I know I said she was one of the good points, but hear me out. Aileana is sympathetic, there's no denying that. She's justifiably angry at the faeries for brutally murdering her mother in front of her, and the restriction she feels from her former debutante life is just as understandable and engaging. The problem that some may find with her though is that this makes her in no way likeable. At the beginning at least, there seems to be little to her character beyond bitterness and anger. She does develop a little more as the novel progresses, but by and large she is still defined by her reactions to events happening around her: she gets angry about the faeries that she comes across, she stews about the things that she has to do as her duty to society, occasionally feeling nostalgia for the person she used to be. There wasn't really much that I could point to and say "This is what makes her a character that I want to root for." I don't particularly want her to fail due to her sympathetic nature, but at the same time I finished the book more because I'm not feeling well and wanted something to distract me. 
The second major problem that I had with the novel was the ending. It doesn't so much end as stop, and rather abruptly at that. You know how most stories go: hero(ine) starts quest, it gets progressively more difficult until a final climactic struggle, at the end of which they either win the day for good or fail and emphasise the tragic futility of the whole endeavour. The Falconer doesn't do that. Instead, it gets to the final battle and stops right at the most tense moment. I cannot tell you how irritating that was. I'm not unfamiliar with cliffhangers at the end of books, most often when said book is part of a series. I guess I should have seen it coming, considering all the loose ends dangled invitingly in my face in the preceding chapters, but I sort of assumed that there would be some kind of quick resolution, or they would stay a mystery and create a sense of poetic tragedy. Nope. Instead, there's a clumsy grab for a sequel. It irritates me because I expected a complete story when I started reading, maybe not Aileana's only story, but something complete at least. It irritates me because there was no hint given that this would be the first in a series. It irritates me that so much was brought up towards the end, hinted at only to be snatched away by this forced ending. Most of all, it irritates me because it worked: I do want to find out what happens next, even though I'm angry at the book. 

Overall, a solid book marred by a slightly over-simplistic and unlikeable main character and an ending that is a shameless sequel grab. I'd still say it's better than a lot of books I read as a young adult, so it might be a good present for a teenager. I will probably read the next instalment, regardless of how it annoys me. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

This was another Young Adult fantasy novel that I had lying around my room, so I decided to give it a read, as I've been in a fantasy-type mood recently. Not that anyone would have noticed.

The Warrior Heir follows Jack Swift, a 16 year old boy who has spent his entire life in an unremarkable town in Ohio. He has had to take medicine for a heart condition ever since he can remember. It is only when he forgets to take his medicine one day that he realises that there might be something different about him: instead of feeling ill, he feels stronger and faster than he ever has before. It leads to the realisation that he is a warrior, a type of magical individual, prized for his incredible rarity and his innate talent for combat. As such, there are certain factions who will do anything to get their hands on him.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will be familiar with my term "popcorn reading". For the newbies in the audience, allow me to explain: popcorn reading covers a sub-section of books that are entertaining and don't really require a huge amount of brain power. The Warrior Heir is one of those books. The characters are very solid and, where appropriate, touching. It is a touch simple, and there will be very little doubt as to whether a character is good, bad or somewhere in between: Garrett Lobeck, for example, is your stereotypical bully archetype and nothing more. Likewise, the plot is well-constructed and exciting in all the right places, even if some of the twists are a bit easy to figure out. I imagine it would be a good place to introduce someone to the fantasy genre, especially if they're teenagers or younger; there are a couple of sexual references that an audience in their teens or older will understand pretty quickly, but they're very subtle, so I can't see younger audiences catching on.

A solid, if somewhat predictable, novel. Certainly, there are much worse fantasy novels that you could be reading, and it's a great introductory point into the genre. I'll most definitely be looking into getting the second and third instalments in the trilogy. 4/5

Next review: The Falconer by Elizabeth May.

Signing off,

Friday, 4 October 2013

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I realise I'm a few years behind the curve here, seeing as the last instalment of the trilogy came out at least a year ago. But I had heard really good things about Graceling, so I figured I'd do what I normally do: check out the hype long after it has died.

In the world of Graceling, the title word refers to individuals who are born with an exceptional talent for something, identified by their heterochromia (known as differently coloured eyes to those of you who have better uses of their time than I do). The main heroine, Katsa, is one such individual, who has the unfortunate Grace of Killing; as a result, she has been raised to be the strong-arm of the King of Middluns. Despondent about the way her life is going, she decides to investigate the seemingly motiveless kidnapping of an old man from the Lienid royal family. As she delves deeper into the mystery, she finds that the evil mind behind it could threaten the entire world as she knows it.
I'm rather sad that I didn't get to this earlier. I honestly can't think of anything that Graceling does wrong. The characters are complex and incredibly sympathetic, the most obvious, spoiler-free, example of which is Katsa herself. On the one hand, she is incredibly proud of her ability to defend herself, but she's just as scared of that ability and the potential that she could abuse it. The romance that's included is touching, very subtle and, for once, plot relevant. The plot itself is really well-written, to the point that the tag line on the cover, stating that Graceling "will slake the thirst of Twilight fans", genuinely bothered me; the two books are in such different leagues that it ceases to be funny. I really want to express how much I loved this book, but everything that I love is something that people should discover for themselves.

A fantastic book. Definitely something that I would recommend as a gateway into the fantasy genre. It also has one of the coolest heroines I've read in a long time. 5/5

Next review: The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

Signing off,

Monday, 30 September 2013

Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh

I seem to be on a bit of a paranormal romance kick at the moment, don't I? As far as I'm aware, this is the last of it that my reading list contains for at least some time. If I'm enjoying the genre though, might as well read it; that and it tickles me that I was inadvertently filling my fiancé's Google store recommendations with vampire romance books. In any case, I had heard something of Nalini Singh's work prior to reading Angel's Blood: specifically that she was quite good at smut. So at the very least there was going to be something to talk about afterwards.

There's a bit of setting info that I should probably mention before continuing with the actual plot bit. Okay, so the Guild Hunter series takes place in a universe in which vampires are created by angels, for reasons that humanity is ignorant of. (If that basic concept seems absurd to you, then I can state emphatically that this will not be a book for you.) As payment for granting them immortality, vampires are charged to serve their angelic masters for 100 years, after which they are allowed to have their freedom. These circumstances don't sit well with some vampires, who take the chance to escape. This is where our heroine comes in. Elena is an individual born with certain abilities that allow her to track and capture vampires, making her an incredibly valuable asset to those wishing to regain those who have run away. Her skills are potent enough that she is hired for a rather unusual job: she must help Raphael, the archangel who unofficially rules North America, to find another archangel who has allowed his power to completely corrupt him. Along the way, sexual tension ensues. As a plot, it certainly has a lot more at stake than other paranormal romances that I've read recently: as much as I liked the two Argeneau Vampire books I reviewed recently, all that was really at stake was the personal happiness of the two leads. In Angel's Blood, the paranormal aspects actually lend a tangible possibility of peril: if Elena and Raphael fail in their endeavour, then there is the risk that the status quo of the entire world could be upset, and all the ensuing panic and chaos with it. It had a couple of pacing issues, but for the most part I really liked it.
So, to the romance. I think I'm still making my mind up about that one. On the one hand, it most definitely falls into the romance stereotype that makes me cringe: that of the super-possessive alpha male. There was so much reference to Raphael's absolute masculinity as his primary attractive quality, as well as the result of making Elena feel intensely feminine, that it began to feel rather silly. Maybe it's just me, but I find individual aspects of people sexually attractive, for instance a deep voice on men or curves on women, as opposed to their inherent masculinity or femininity. When romance writers point to "masculinity" as the reason for the initial attraction, then I can't help but think that they've created a heroine with confusingly low standards. Additionally, at the beginning Raphael has an alarming lack of consideration for Elena's personal boundaries. After mentally influencing her and constantly making reference to how much he wants her as a sexual toy, I find it quite insulting for him to call her sexually frigid. On the other hand, Elena makes an admirable stand against someone she has no real chance of harming when it comes to staking out the boundaries between their personal and professional lives; that she manages to piss off pretty much everyone that Raphael consults for help as a result is also rather impressive. The fact that she does feel sexually attracted to her archangel suitor do help alleviate their uncomfortable initial relationship somewhat, but overall it does feel somewhat dubious in the consent department.
Since I was just talking about the sexual tension, I might as well talk about the sex scenes. They were kind of disappointing. Having heard of Nalini Singh's reputation for smut, I was kind of expecting something that would be more...scandalous, somehow. It's not that the scenes are written badly, they're just a bit on the short side, especially considering the heat and in-depth nature of the flirting beforehand. It just feels like it's balanced wrong.

In conclusion, while there's a much grander scale to Angel's Blood than most paranormal romance, the relationship between the leads leaves something to be desired. The sexual tension is set up well through flirting, but the result is ultimately kind of disappointing. That their relationship starts with some rather dubious consent issues only complicates my feelings about it. 4/5

Next review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Signing off,

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bite Me If You Can by Lynsay Sands

I feel that talking to the fiancé about this book was a bad idea. It is most definitely not a genre that he gets: mentioning the stupid "science" behind the origination of the vampires only made things worse really, seeing as he generally knows his chemistry and biology. But you know what? I knew that this was going to be silly. And if this was anything like Single White Vampire, then I had a pretty strong feeling that I would like it.

Bite Me If You Can follows Leigh, a restaurant owner from Kansas City, after she is bitten and turned by a rogue vampire. Before she can be corrupted by the rogue vampire, however, she is saved by Lucien Argeneau, who has been charged with hunting down those who break the rules of their society. He finds himself stuck with her as she goes through the, incredibly painful, changing process, a prospect that he initially finds intolerable. As they spend more time together though, they find themselves growing closer, despite their separate issues: he is still grieving for his long-dead wife and children, while she has serious trust issues after a bad marriage.
Much as my fiancé would like to believe, I still maintain that this is not as trashy as the premise makes it sound. It is a romance that feels genuine and human, often bringing up aspects of relationships that are ignored elsewhere. The part that impressed me most was when the plot looked at the concept of consent: in their initial sexual encounter, Leigh is under the impression that Lucien had his drink switched at the bar, meaning that he may not be in the right state of mind to properly consent. So she stops everything until she can be sure that his consent is genuine. I also rather liked that instead of pushing their relationship further, Lucien is content to allow her to progress at her own pace. It makes a fantastic change from the borderline-abusive alpha males that so many romance novels are enamoured with. And the sex scenes are still well-written, so that's another point in its favour. So, like Single White Vampire, I have absolutely no complaints about the romance aspect of the novel.
Speaking of Single White Vampire, I still call bullshit on their explanation for the existence of vampires. Just pretend it's magic, it makes the narrative seem less stupid. Also, I would argue that my previous criticism for the actual vampire element being largely superfluous still stands. Admittedly, the actual presence of a background threat does make it feel more understandable, but this still only really applies to the first and last couple of chapters. Most of the stuff in between probably wouldn't be out of place in a vanilla romance. It's not a huge complaint, but I can see those who really like vampire romance to have issues with this.

Like Single White Vampire, a well-written, down-to-earth romance with some very good sex scenes, marred only by the oddly superfluous vampire element. I'm just impressed that they managed to legitimately discuss consent, which is sadly lacking in other romance novels that I've perused. 4/5

Next review: Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh

Signing off,

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

As you probably guessed, the last post made on the blog was not written by yours truly; instead you were reading a review from my fiancé. He got a copy of Blue Remembered Earth as a part of the Gollancz Geeks project, and asked whether he could post a copy of his review on here. I decided that it would be interesting to have both of us review it, simply for the comparison. So, here is my companion review.

I'm not quite sure what to make of it. As mentioned in Longeye's review, the story follows Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, grandchildren of Africa's most famous space explorer, as they investigate a mystery that arises in the wake of their grandmother Eunice's death. Along the way, they have to make deals and compromises with the Panspermian Initiative, a movement that wants to expand and colonise as much of the universe as is humanly possible.
As a plot, it's very good overall, with a consistent world and a well-constructed mystery. The characters feel real, in-depth and flawed. It wasn't without its problems though. Firstly, as mentioned in Longeye's review, there are certain elements that feel like they come out of nowhere towards the end: as such, I felt that they didn't really get the attention that they deserve, as well as feeling like a rather major change of direction. Secondly, I felt that Geoffrey's interaction with the elephants felt somewhat overworked: I appreciate that they are an important part of his life, but most of the interactions consisted of him watching them and occasionally spooking them. Really not that interesting. Lastly, and for me the biggest problem, I just did not connect with it. In my head, I know that it's a well-written book, with zero major plot problems. But it fell flat because I just didn't care about any of the characters. As such, when characters found themselves in danger or died, it didn't really bother me that much. I finished Blue Remembered Earth because I wanted to see the puzzle solved: the characters were just pawns moved in order to make progress.

Overall, I would say that I'm not sorry that I read it, but neither am I glad that I took the time to read it. I wouldn't pick up any other instalments in the Akinya series when they come out, but if Longeye were to force them on me, I don't think I'd object either. Take that as you will. 3/5

Next review: Bite Me If You Can by Lynsay Sands

Signing off,

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Guest Post)

This review will be posted in two sections, the top section here will consist of a general review of the book with no spoilers. The second section, under the line (or if you’re viewing just the limited post behind the “read more” link) will be a more in-depth look, but will definitely have spoilers!

Blue Remembered Earth (which, for brevity, I will just call BRE) was gifted to me as part of Gollancz “get a free book and write a review” scheme, and to be honest I hadn't really heard of it before. Whilst I'm a very big fan of Sci-Fi, Alastair Reynolds has been one of those authors on my periphery for long enough that I figured this was a good place to start.

BRE is certainly an interesting book to read. It’s laid out in three sections, with section 1 being about the first half, section two being about the second half, and section three being a small chapter or two at the end. This layout also fits the pacing of the book, with the first section being a slow build-up, the second maintaining this level of pace with minor fluctuations, and the third being an all out brain-smashing of concepts.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the particular way Reynolds seems to write his technology. Whereas many sci-fi authors write technology that hasn't even been conceptualised yet (see much of the Original Series of Star Trek), Reynolds writes technology that we are just beginning to look at that has been perfected. One of the prime examples is the Space Catapult used to fire goods (and sometimes people) into orbit. Much of his technology isn’t that hard to imagine, it’s the interesting tilts he puts on it that make it fun.
The writing of his book is very fluid, and I didn’t find myself getting lost or confused at any point. Whilst few books have ever gripped me, this one very much did. Upon starting it was quite hard to put down! But what about the story? Well for the concise section the story follows the journey of Geoffrey Akinya and his sister, Sunday. The book opens with the funeral of their grandmother, a pioneer of space who guided their family to becoming one of, if not the, most influential and wealthy families in the solar system. With her funeral Geoffrey is called to investigate a vault on the moon that she owned, that members of his family are worried might contain something damaging to their reputation, and what follows is an intricate path laid out by his grandmother to discover one of the last secrets left to humanity. One of the largest, and perhaps strangest, focusses in the book is the relationship between Geoffrey and a herd of elephants. Called the “M-group”, Geoffrey has studied them for the majority of his life, working towards eventually merging their brain activity with his own to fully perceive the world as they do. Considered an expert in the field of elephant neurology, it is clear that Reynolds did his research with herd dynamics, and the information is genuinely interesting outside the bounds of the book (what isn’t fictional, at least!). The characters themselves were very interesting. There is Geoffrey, whom you follow for most of the story, who feels like a believable human. His main goal in his life is to work with the elephants, and even leaving for a week to visit the moon for the investigative journey he is loathed to part with them. Later parts of the book show his defence of “his” herd to be quite powerful. His sister Sunday is somewhat more whimsical than his down-to-earth views, but plays the part of the young artist sick of a restricted life perfectly. There are other peripheral characters, most notable their twin cousins, Hector and Lucas. As the Akinya family is a business family, Hector and Lucas appear to run the majority of it, and take a very businesslike approach to all decisions, only caring about the moon vault because they worry it might contain a scandal that would lower their stocks. There are some very interesting dynamics between these four, with Sunday being the rouge child that they tend to ignore, and Geoffrey being seen as a potential aid who is wasting his time with a “pet project”, whilst Hector and Lucas sum up everything that Sunday and Geoffrey dislike about the Akinya house. There are a few areas the book does fall a little short. Some of the terminology isn’t explained in the book, and it takes a little while for the reader to understand what it’s talking about. This is a problem for all sci-fi; how to explain futuristic terms. On the one hand a “dunce” character can be written in to be explained at for the readers’ sake, and on the other the reader can be left to figure it out on their own. Reynolds chooses the latter, but he does pull it off far more skilfully than many other authors I've read. There is a slight pacing issue with the main story, and a slight scale issue. Without giving too much away, the latter parts of the story involve some quite substantial time jumps, and with vast amounts of new information being provided at the same time it feels like the ending is trying to cram more book into the third part than there was in the second. I would have, personally, preferred the book to have a longer third part that stretched some of the last chapters out a little. Overall my impressions of the book were very positive. I read the whole thing very quickly, enjoyed it greatly, and actively looked for information of a sequel. When I found that it looks like Reynolds is considering further Akinya books I was quite happy, so that should give you an idea of my impressions! As a final score? If I had to I’d give it a 5. The story was detailed where it mattered, flowed perfectly, and the characters were perfectly fleshed out!


Friday, 6 September 2013

Single White Vampire by Lynsay Sands

Every once in a while, when I'm bored of long, weighty tomes, I like to read trashy romance novels. I read them knowing they're stupid, but quite frankly I throw whatever standards I have to the wind and enjoy them when they're in my hands. I have a feeling that it lowers my fiancé's opinion of me, but that can't be helped. With that in mind, how could I resist a book named Single White Vampire?

Single White Vampire starts with editor Kate Leever writing to one of her new authors, Lucern Argeneau, attempting to persuade him to attend some publicity events to capitalise on his wildly popular vampire romance novels. His reaction is a succinct "no". She assumes that it's because he's a surly and gruff introvert. While this is true, it's not his only reason: Lucern is himself a vampire, and his books marketed as fiction are actually accounts of the great romances of his immediate family. When Kate finds that she can't persuade him to attend anything via writing, she decides to take a different route: camp out on his doorstep until he agrees to do the publicity. With two equally stubborn and beautiful people in the same breathing space, it's obvious that sparks are going to fly.
One of the glorious things about trashy romance, especially of the paranormal variety, is that the writing is often cheesy enough to provoke unintentional laughter. That was actually missing here, which I was really not expecting. I think there was only one point where a double entendre just took me straight out of a narrative: in a novel of 369 pages, that's pretty impressive. There are no swooning heroines, no overly-aggressive and possessive alpha males, no corny lines about how either lover smells "spicy" (something that has always confused me). Instead you have an editor who takes her author's peculiarities completely in stride, and a vampire who presents a tough shell to the world, but is a complete sweetie underneath all the grumpiness. The relationship actually feels realistic, which is impressive. Although I might just feel a bit of deja-vu considering that they initially bond over video games, which was a nice touch. There's also a decent amount of space in the narrative to cover the consideration that goes into a relationship which will forever stop you from having a normal life, instead of the heroine just skipping willy-nilly into a decision that should take time to deliberate over; again, it was a nice touch.
The one thing that bugs me is the explanation for vampirism that's given. It is simultaneously interesting and INCREDIBLY STUPID. Okay, so the idea is that vampire condition is caused by nano-machines in the body that increase the body's efficiency and require an intake of blood to work. That's not a new idea, but the idea of nano-machines being used to increase the human life-span isn't totally far-fetched in our day and age. The problem begins when you think about when the book is set. The book states that it is the year 2003 (the year Single White Vampire was first published in America), at which point Lucern is over 600 years old. So we are apparently supposed to accept that people had manufactured nano-machines in the middle ages, the same era that believed that shaving chicken bottoms and tying them to sores would cure the plague. I call bullshit. I could have accepted magic, but when you try and put a scientific theory to a supernatural being like vampires, it had better be DAMN good.

As a romance plot, it's a nice mix of sexual tension, unexpected humour and some decently written sex scenes. The vampire aspect does feel a little bit superfluous, but when it does arise it's dealt with reasonably well. If you're looking for a more down-to-earth romance, then this will probably suit quite nicely. 4/5

Next review: Something slightly different. You'll see....

Signing off,

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

You would think that my first example of Charlaine Harris' writing on this blog would be one of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, right? Nope. Instead it's the first book of her lesser-known series, the Harper Connolly Mysteries, mainly because I didn't feel like reading about vampires just yet. So is there a reason that this series hasn't had the same explosion of popularity that True Blood has? 

Grave Sight follows Harper Connolly and her step-brother Tolliver Lang as they travel to a small town in the Ozark mountains to try and track down the body of a missing teenager. Despite their intention to help, they are not given a warm welcome, as Harper's ability to mentally sense the location of the dead and see their last moments, gained after she survived a lightning strike to the head, leaves many feeling uncomfortable. At first, things appear to go according to plan: they find the body, cash the cheque and leave town. It is when they are called back to the town after another death that events start spiralling out of their control. 
I really liked Grave Sight. As a mystery, it's well-crafted and suspenseful. Admittedly, I had kind of guessed the murderer by the sixth chapter or so, but my reasoning behind it was slightly off, so I guess it balances out in the end. Much of the suspense comes from the character of Harper and her relationship with the world around her. She's incredibly blunt and abrasive to other people, because she knows that her abilities attract the disgust of the majority of people that she encounters; why make the effort to try and pretty things up if people are automatically going to think the worst of you? This makes her attempts at detective work significantly more difficult, as most people just don't want to talk to her, let alone sit through an interrogation from her. The fact that she's essentially an emotional wreck and physically weakened from the lightning strike only makes her more interesting to follow, as it creates additional obstacles between her and what she wants to achieve. 
The one thing that confuses me is the way that Gollancz has marketed the book. The back cover proclaims that Grave Sight is part of their Gollancz Romancz range. Admittedly, there is a sort of love interest, but it's not written in a particularly sentimental or serious way: there's never any implication that the encounters with this love interest will lead to anything that could be considered permanent. The only thing it really adds is some tension between the step-siblings, as Tolliver is unhappy leaving Harper with someone whose motives he isn't sure of. 

A very good book, one that I think should get more attention. If you like Charlaine Harris' writing or paranormal mystery, but don't want to wade through a romantic sub-plot that takes up more space than the plot-plot, then this is a great pick. 4.5/5 

Next review: Single White Vampire by Lynsay Sands 

Signing off, 

Monday, 2 September 2013

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I should really have no excuse for this one. With this kind of title and the obvious tween-style title, I really have no business reading I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. I mainly picked it up because I thought it might be so bad it's hilarious. Having finished it, my feelings are considerably more mixed.

I'd Tell You I Love You follows Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan in her sophomore year of private school as she falls in love for the first time. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that Cammie attends a school specifically training the all-female student body to become spies for government organisations like the CIA and NSA, and her new crush can't ever learn this.
As a plot, this is both far too simple and unnecessarily complicated. It is simple because the events of the novel focus almost entirely on Cammie's exploration of her new feelings, with side plots like her tempestuous relationship with a new teacher and the father of one of her best friends going AWOL get so little attention that they lend little to no texture; additionally, there are some obstacles presented that turn out to be such let-downs that they might as well have not been there. It's unnecessarily complicated because there are a lot of moral implications that espionage entails that such a simple plot can't hope to fully encompass. For example, Cammie knows right from the beginning that the students from the Gallagher Academy are viewed with palpable contempt from the local town, Roseville. As such, when she starts pursuing her love interest, she lies and tells him that she's home-schooled for religious reasons. This is the least of the deceptions that she creates in order to win over her chosen boy, including fabricating her own birthday and family history. I find this very uncomfortable, as the foundation of any good relationship is trust; admittedly, while the narrative does attempt to address this and other issues, it takes her far too long to realise that this might be seriously underhanded and unfair towards a boy who is essentially loving a pack of lies. I will give the author props for at least addressing this though, as the ending tends strongly towards the bittersweet part of the spectrum. The only thing that bothered me about the spying bit was the Covert Operations stuff about looking out for your team. While I can understand the concept of minimising risk and the potential for information leaks, it seems to assume that the teams they'll be working in will be friendship groups, with the inherent desire to keep them safe. To me that seems a flawed perspective: in espionage, they aren't going to put you in friendship groups, because, ultimately, your friendship is less important to your employer than the stuff you are supposed to be stealing or sabotaging; if anything, the emphasis on keeping your team safe is taken to such an extreme that it starts to become a liability.
My other main issue is the characterisation. I know what Cammie is like, because she narrates the story. I can't say the same about anyone else really. Cammie's best friends are stated to be Bex and Liz, but I couldn't tell you much about them other than Bex is the gregarious friend while Liz is the geeky friend. There's really very little to them otherwise. It means that when you get to the inevitable, "choose between a boy and friends" quandary, it wouldn't have made a difference to me whatever one she chose: both sides had personalities akin to cardboard.

I wanted to like this, but I don't think that the writing and construction really lived up to the interesting prospects created by the basic plot. Props to Ally Carter for trying, but average at best. 2.5/5

Next review: Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Signing off,

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn

Discord's Apple was a book that I received whilst I was working at Gollancz over the summer two years ago. I feel really bad that it took me two years to get to this, but then I knew that my book-buying habits were somewhat out of control even back then. After a little research, I found out that Carrie Vaughn also wrote the Kitty Norville series, which I hear is very good. So this seemed like a good place to try out her writing, without starting a huge series in the process. 

Discord's Apple is a bit of an odd premise. It follows Evie Walker as she returns home to take care of her father as he dies of cancer. Whilst there, she realises that the basement of her family house contains several items from fairy-tale and myth; all the while there are supernatural forces gathering in order to gain the eponymous apple. To make things worse, the political situation of the world at large is particularly delicate and rapidly spiraling out of control, following a major act of terrorism in an atmosphere not dissimilar to that of the Cold War.
As you can probably tell, there are some pretty high stakes in this novel, the most interesting of which is the supernatural aspect of it. It focuses heavily on Greek mythology, particularly that of the Trojan War, a subject that I am quite fond of, so I was inclined to like it from the start. One part in particular that I liked was the portrayal of the Greek pantheon: it is just as cruel and petty as it is in the myths, not made grander and more moral like so many adaptations that I've seen before. It made for some good character interaction, especially between Apollo and Sinon/Alex: it starts off about as badly as you can get, what with the whole rape thing, but somehow mellows out into mutual trust and respect. It's not an especially comfortable relationship to watch, but then the Greek gods have never been simple or one-dimensional enough to warrant simple, comfortable relationships. The humans are generally less well-formed and, in my opinion, less interesting. Evie is pretty much your average girl-next-door type who is given an awesome responsibility to wield; she's still grieving over her mother and is prone to emotional outbursts, but she doesn't really do much. It's the problem she has as one of the only important squishy humans: whilst her internal struggle between her growing responsibilities and her father's ever-impending death is touching, it's just not as interesting as the external conflict, which is completely world-changing in scale. There's an almost romance in her story as well, but it's so chaste that it might as well not be there; hell, I saw more homosexual sexuality in this book than heterosexual, which was rather unexpected. Not unappreciated mind you, just unexpected. 

This review turned out a bit more train-of-thought than I'm used to. Overall, I think that this is a good popcorn book. The external conflict is very engaging, so much so that the main character's internal conflict seems ridiculously small in comparison. Despite this, it's still a very well-written and engaging read, with a lot of complex side characters. 4/5 

Next review: I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

This One's a Lemon by H M Gordon

I picked this one up because of the title. I really can be that shallow sometimes. That it was a cyberpunk-style science-fiction book only made me more keen to pick it up. It was only later that I realised that the Internet had pretty much nothing on the novel. As far as I know, its only presence until now was the Amazon page. So this is kinda weird, knowing that this is possibly the first review of This One's a Lemon out there. I only hope I get this right.

This One's a Lemon is the first in the Tilde Slash trilogy.Set in the near future of an alternate timeline in which Europe and America essentially collapsed in on themselves in the years 2000-2010, it follows the aforementioned Tilde Slash. She's a small-time hacker who specialises in the extraction of data and programmes, so it's not unusual for someone to ask her to find their late husband's missing software. What makes it interesting is that his programme might well be the key to uploading the human consciousness and personality onto the Internet. It's the sort of thing that attracts the attention of people other than Tilde's client: for example, Lemon Computers, the dead programmer's former employers, who are quite keen to get their data back.
As a plot, I was expecting this to be far more direct than it turned out to be. While the action does keep moving at a fairly brisk pace, it does so in a rather indirect manner; it seems to move Tilde and the other characters from set piece to set piece quickly, but few of these set pieces clearly advance you in figuring out the plot as a whole. It's a weird mix of action and mystery that I want to define as a thriller, but can't quite commit to. There's also a romance sub-plot that actually works really well within the context of the novel: it's in no way sappy or sentimental, and it fits perfectly with what we know about the character of Tilde.
The characters are, for the most part, kind of uneven. Tilde and her love interest introduced later in the book are the ones that are developed the most, and it really shows. For those two, their dialogue and relationship seem organic and subtle; most of the other characters are given 2-4 chapters in the entire narrative to really interact with Tilde, which doesn't leave much room for fantastic character development. I kind of wish that some of the characters could have been saved for a later book in exchange for more development time. The same goes for a fair few plot elements that are introduced as events progress, but aren't really examined too closely due to lack of space. If given the choice of two extremes, then I would rather plump for too many ideas in too little space as opposed to the other way around, but it's still mildly disappointing when it happens.

Ultimately a fun, fast-paced novel that is let down a little bit by the odd pacing and the author's attempt to try and include too many ideas for the 300 pages that he was given. Probably one to recommend to cyberpunk fans who are looking for something a little less cerebral. One to miss if you aren't fond of adult situations or language. 4/5

Next review: Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn

Signing off,

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Zorro by Isabel Allende

Seriously, who wouldn't pick up a book chronicling the origin story of El Zorro, aka Diego de la Vega? The image of the swashbuckling bandit fighting for justice is one that has endured since 1919 for a reason. Having enjoyed Allende's The House of the Spirits, I could see no real reason to pass up the opportunity to try this incarnation of Zorro. 

From what I can gather, Zorro was written with the intent that it lead on cleanly into the old pulp novels, whilst being a lot more consistent and adventurous with its subject matter. The novel chronicles the first twenty years of Diego's life, including his first adventures as Zorro. That as an idea isn't a bad one; an origin story is always a good bet if you're looking to re-examine or re-invigorate an old character, as superhero movies can testify all too well. And this is an origin story that is written very well indeed. It has only one flaw. It starts far too slowly. When I say that Zorro covers the first twenty years of his life, the reader is presented with something from almost every single one of them. Much as I realise that a large chunk of it adds to the character development of the main character, it means that the first 150 pages or so are a lot slower, as his childhood in California unfolds. After he leaves for Spain, the proceedings do get more interesting though. If you can, I would stick out the slow beginning, because the warmth and humour that emerges as the story goes on are well worth the effort. The other, smaller issue that I have is that it ends in a way that feels almost incomplete: it makes sense to end where it does, but at the same time it's really obvious that you're supposed to find the original novels afterwards as a kind of "true" ending. 
The characters are incredibly well-written. The main ones that we follow throughout the novel are Diego, Bernardo and the de Romeu sisters. Diego, obviously our main protagonist, is pretty much everything you've come to expect from Zorro: handsome, dashing, cunning and with a strong moral core tempered by vanity. I was expecting more of a ladies' man, but that only comes in towards the end, when he is beginning to get more comfortable with his Zorro persona; before that his attempts at seduction and courtship are simultaneously laughable and endearing. Bernardo is Diego's brother in everything but blood, an Indian who acts first as his double, then, after an event that renders him electively mute, as his shadow. He was a nice enough character, but I didn't really find much about him to really get excited about: he is the rock that stops the other, more vivid characters from making the story too absurd. The de Romeu sisters are made up of Juliana, an innocent girl of extreme beauty and Diego's unrequited love throughout the majority of the novel, and Isabel, a tomboy who is as fiesty and dashing as Diego as well as a seriously good judge of character. Juliana wasn't really my kind of character: well-written certainly, but the kind of romantic that I tire of incredibly quickly. Isabel, on the other hand, was possibly my favourite character in the entire novel. It was her that I was rooting for, hoping against hope that she would get a happy ending. 

Overall, a solid read for anyone looking for a bit of adventure, if you're willing to look past a slow beginning and some odd pacing. For fans of Zorro, this is a no-brainer. 4/5 

Next review: This One's a Lemon by H. M. Gordon 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Paris Noir edited by Aurelian Masson

Having started a work experience placement, it seemed like a good time to try a short story collection again. And what better place to start than Paris Noir, a collection of noir detective fiction set exclusively in the arondissements of Paris? I have a fascination with the noir style and visuals, so this seemed like a perfect idea.

The thing that I forgot about was the main reason why I don't read short story collections so much: unless it's all by one author, then the tone and quality can be really erratic. There were several stories that made me sit back and think, "That wasn't noir, in any way, shape or form." The ones that spring to mind in particular were "The Revenge of the Waiters" by Jean-Bernard Pouy and "No Comprendo The Stranger" by Herve Prudon. The former had an interesting set-up, but quickly devolved into a farcical adventure by waiters, while the latter was one man's rambling journey up the Rue de la Sante as he talks about his health. There were, however, more than enough stories in the collection to justify buying the book.
The collection starts out strong with the stories of "The Chauffeur", in which the eponymous driver falls in love with the prostitute he transports, "The Chinese Guy", a story of sexual obsession, and "Big Brother", an unsettling account of a robbery, all in quick succession. After those three the collection tails off a bit, but there are still gems left before the end in the form of "La Vie en Rose" and "Precious"; both are accounts of the murder of a woman, but each with a very different emphasis and tone.

Overall, patchy in terms of tone, with most of the really good stories right at the beginning. Still not a bad read though, as Paris is definitely a city that suits the noir sensibility. Probably a good recommendation for someone who loves Paris, noir fiction or both. 3/5

Next review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland

If there's one thing that is guaranteed to grab my attention, it's Sherlock Holmes-related books. So The Baker Street Phantom was off the shelf and paid for almost as soon as I saw it. I do have high expectations of anything Holmes-related though, so how did this one hold up? 

I wanted to like this, I really did. And at first I thought I would. The Baker Street Phantom follows Messrs. Singleton and Trelawney as they attempt to solve a series of strange events at 221 Baker Street: is it truly a haunting, and how does it relate to a series of grisly murders in London? As a synopsis, it's fantastic, with the potential for a multi-strand mystery and the exploration of the more mystical side of Arthur Conan Doyle's life. And then it just sort of got everything wrong. 
So, the story is kicked off by a visit from Lady Conan Doyle who believes that her husband's ghost is haunting the house that has been renumbered as 221 Baker Street. So far so good: the mysticism aspect is introduced because of her belief, and the possibility of a more rational explanation is present. Lady Conan Doyle then states that she believes that the haunting is linked to several recent murders, many of which are reminiscent of literary villains. Now, I don't necessarily mind that she brought it up, as it might seem connected to her; what I don't understand is why Singleton and Trelawney automatically accept this, with no proof whatsoever. From then on the plot just gets sillier and more absurd, to the point where I have to call false advertising: the blurb promises something akin to a cosy mystery, whereas it actually turns into more of a supernatural romp, certainly not what I thought I was buying. 
Another failed aspect of the novel is the characterisation of Singleton and Trelawney, as it is pretty much absent. Both can be summed up in a sentence. Singleton is the cynic-turned-believer obsessed with the mother he never met. Trelawney is the useless member of the group that no-one can bear to turn away because he's just so gosh darned nice. It honestly feels like they're the fifth and sixth wheels in their own book, which is never a good thing. 

Overall, this is just incompetent. I really wanted to like this, but Bourland sort of sabotages his own book in the eyes of the fanbase that he is attempting to attract. The whole allure of Holmes is that everything is so logical and rational in its solution: for The Baker Street Phantom to essentially flip the bird at that is very annoying. While there's nothing truly offensive about it, it is pretty much devoid of anything good. 1/5 

Next review: Paris Noir edited by Aurelian Masson. 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

I was quite looking forward to this. Much as I like things with a bit of subtext to them, I am also a bit of a fan of gore and violence on occasion. So, with one of the goriest of Shakespeare's plays in front of me, how could I resist? 

The plot of Titus Andronicus starts in the days following the death of the Roman Emperor, with the deceased's sons, Saturninus and Bassanius, arguing about who should inherit their father's throne. Returning from war with the Goths with prisoners in tow, the eponymous Titus breaks up their argument, lending his support to Saturninus who is then crowned Emperor. So far so good. The newly crowned Saturninus then makes known his desire to marry Lavinia, Titus' daughter; at this point, Bassanius absconds with her, stating that she was already betrothed to him, accompanied by Titus' four sons. Bereft of his bride, Saturninus decides that instead of Lavinia, he will marry Tamora, the Goth Queen amongst Titus' prisoners. The same woman whose son Titus sacrificed in honour of his dead sons. I'm sure you can see why the prospects of Titus and his family aren't great from that point onwards. 
If you are going to read Titus Andronicus for anything, then I would say that it should be for the character of Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover. He is unashamedly evil, adding to the suffering of the Andronici with obvious glee. Highly unpleasant, but an absolute joy to watch: why else would he get all the great speeches? This is amply shown in Hugh Quarshie's performance in the BBC adaptation, so much so that I almost wanted him to win. Not quite, but almost. 
The adaptation overall was pretty solid, with decent make-up effects and very solid acting, especially from figures like Trevor Peacock and Edward Hardwicke. There was an odd focus on the largely incidental character of Young Lucius, although I can see that they were trying to show how much damage is done to the Andronici through him. I thought it was kind of moot though, considering what happens to Lavinia in the course of the play. 

Definitely worth watching or reading, so much so that I will be looking to get the Julie Taymor adaptation with Anthony Hopkins. Possibly not for those with weak stomachs, and especially those for whom rape is a no-go area. Otherwise I would definitely recommend it to Shakespeare fans. 4/5 

Next review: The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

I picked this up in Hay-on-Wye, I had no real preconceptions. I could just about gather that it was a fantasy novel, but otherwise the blurb was spectacularly unhelpful. Now that I've finished it, I have very little idea of how to express what opinion it left me with.

The plot of Worldstorm is a tad difficult to explain, simply because the narrative doesn't really act like a traditional fantasy narrative. On the one hand, it does initially follow a quest-style fantasy narrative. In it, Elder Ayn, a scholar who has mastered the ability to see into his own future, sets out into the world with his scribe Khollo, in order to find a way to stop the destruction of the eponymous Worldstorm. To do this, he must find two additional companions: Gregory, a boy who has bucked the family trend by not having fire-based powers, and Yashu, an islander seemingly without powers of any kind. That seems straightforward enough, until I consider the pacing. In most novels, fantasy or not, the main characters are usually forced to team up within the first few chapters. Not so here; instead, it takes nearly 3/4 of the narrative to get everyone together. In the meantime, each of them are essentially having their own mini-adventures. Don't get me wrong, these aren't bad story-lines in and of themselves, they just didn't feel like they really should have meshed together as they did.
The characterisation and world-building are fantastic. Each of the main characters, as well as a few of the secondary characters that pop up, are fleshed out fantastically within a world that has been explored and thought out in incredible detail. The world is one where element-based powers are the norm, almost acting as races, with all the unfortunately inevitable tension that arises from their misunderstandings of one another. It is also a world blighted by the Worldstorm, an untiring storm that constantly travels across the globe, leaving destruction in its wake. The way these characters interact with the world is what kept me reading until the confusing and unsatisfying ending. First, there is Elder Ayn who has lived the majority of his life secluded in Stonehaven, an academic sanctuary for those with Air-Inclined powers; whilst there he realises that he is inherently dissatisfied with what he has achieved in life, prompting him to leave on a journey to destroy the Worldstorm. He initially appears to be solemn and dignified, but it soon becomes clear that he is an incredibly flawed man, often unable to see that what he sees as reasonable and justified is actually thoughtlessly cruel. Second is Khollo, a young man with the ability to remember everything from the age of 13 onwards with perfect clarity and accuracy. He's quite understated and quiet, but by the end he was my favourite by far, simply because of his good heart and intentions. Third, there is Gregory, a boy who finds that he has the Earth-based power of regeneration and heightened durability, despite having been born to a pure-bred family of Fire-Inclined. The sense of bitterness that he feels for being sent away after his family find out about his abilities is entirely understandable, and he is otherwise an admirable character who is easily the one who suffers the most by the end. Finally, there is Yashu. She's probably the only character that I felt was horribly misused. Her characterisation is brilliant, that of a no-nonsense and practical girl who is nonetheless incredibly sheltered. I just think that her character had so much potential that wasn't used. In order to explain, I will need to spoil the ending somewhat. You're free to skip if you want.

So, at the start it looks like Yashu exhibits no powers, a state of being that the majority of society look down on. It turns out though, that she just happens to have a different inclination to that of the other people on the archipelago that she lives on: while other people have Water-based powers, she can tell when people are lying, a power that is associated with Air. As a power, there are so many things that you can do with that. Unfortunately, it's pretty much ignored, used only as a means to make her an opposite of Gregory. And then she gets pretty much reduced to a baby-maker. I appreciate that one of the wonderful things about being a woman is the ability to create life, I get that. But at the same time it frustrates me that you can boil down Yashu's role to one of "she got pregnant", when she could have had so many other interesting adventures. It's kind of a pet peeve.

Overall, this is a novel that has a lot of good things that helped me finish reading it. Unfortunately, it has just as many bad things, meaning that I can only look at it and think how it could have been so much better. Ultimately, it started off well, but the author just failed to bring the characters' individual stories together in a satisfactory way. 3/5

Next review: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis

This was a weird purchase for me. I'm more familiar with David Thewlis' work as an actor, specifically his work in the Harry Potter films, so when I found out that he'd written a novel I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like what I've seen of him. On the other, I only knew him as an actor, so there was no real guarantee of whether he'd be as good in a different profession. But I decided to pick it up anyway, because I've started reading something on far worse expectations before.

The Late Hector Kipling is an odd book, to say the least. It follows the catastrophic fall of the eponymous Hector Kipling, an artist known for painting giant heads. He starts the novel in that odd place found by those who are moderately successful: famous enough that the name rings a bell, but not quite successful enough to be widely known and discussed. In comparison, he has two other artist friends: Kirk Church, a failed artist obsessed with painting cutlery, and Lenny Snook, an artist up for the Turner Prize (and very much in the vein of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin). So far, so innocuous. It is only when Kirk announces that he has a brain tumour that Hector's life starts to spiral out of control.
The characters populating this book tend to fall into one of two categories: unlikeable or just kind of bizarre. In the first category, there is Hector himself, as he manages to single-handedly destroy his whole life through the combination of selfishness, cowardice and a weird apathy and detachment towards others. He is not wholly detestable though, which helps things hugely. Most of the other characters tend to fall more in the bizarre category, simply because of their oddly two-dimensional natures. This might be because of Hector's strange outlook on things though, which could bring up some interesting discussions.
As to who I would recommend this to, there are a few things to consider. The writing is, on the whole, pretty damn good. It can get a bit overly-snobbish when it comes to art, but then that fits Hector's character as a second-rate artist. At the same time, it does have quite a bit of bad language, which may bother some. And overall, there are some very strange, if interesting, metaphors sprinkled liberally through the narrative. So there's that to consider. If you're on the fence, I would say give it the benefit of the doubt. I would definitely recommend it if you've been looking for an author similar to Will Self, although I would say that David Thewlis is perhaps more accessible than Self is.

A part of me is still a little nonplussed by The Late Hector Kipling, but I am definitely glad that I read it. I'd try it if you're a Will Self fan, or if you're trying to work yourself up to him. If I were to see more of Thewlis' work, then I would be more than happy to read it. 3.5/5

Next review: Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

Signing off,

Thursday, 27 June 2013

New blog

As you can tell from the title, I set up a new blog. It will cover whatever cool or interesting things that comes up on my radar. If anyone is interested, then it's called Oooh, that's interesting

If you're wondering, The Late Hector Kipling is proceeding nicely.

Hope to see you there.

Signing off,

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Sorry for the delay, folks. I kept having things come up to stop me finishing this off. That's one good thing that train journeys are for, I guess. Hopefully this will be the last time for some while that the blog will be neglected like this, as the only stuff ahead of me now is job applications. Super. 

If when you hear the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame you think Disney, then let me make one thing crystal clear: this is hardcore misery here. No happy endings, no cheery musical numbers and sure as hell no talking gargoyles; the last point there is a definite improvement, regardless of what you think about the absence of the other two. The actual plot of this is one whose quality transcends time really. It focuses mainly on the gypsy known as La Esmeralda and the tragic results of the lust that men foster for her, ultimately culminating with the moral "don't judge a book by its cover". It's perhaps a little on the melodramatic side, but then what great novel isn't? 
The characters are similarly grim, so much so that there are few that could actually be considered to be "heroic" in any sense. Esmeralda is kind and sweet, but hopelessly naive, unable to defend herself against the unscrupulous men around her. Quasimodo is just about heroic; far from the innocent, cheerful hunchback portrayed by Disney, the novel's Quasimodo is malign and surly towards all but those who have shown him kindness. Apart from the previous two, there aren't really any other good main characters. There's Phoebus, initially a charming rogue, but an utterly selfish and shallow one who passes up the opportunity to save Esmeralda from the hangman. There's Claude Frollo, a priest so consumed by his lust and desire for power over Esmeralda that he refuses to allow any other man to have her, and Jehan Frollo, the priest's spoiled and arrogant younger brother. It makes it rather easy to figure out favourites. Nonetheless, they are written as believable individuals, with strengths and weaknesses that round them out nicely. 
One thing that I would mention is that occasionally the narrative does take a sharp turn into territory that doesn't really contribute anything, feeling more like stuff that Victor Hugo found out as part of his research and couldn't help but cram into the plot, despite being totally unnecessary. I am referring specifically to the chapter dedicated entirely to the description of the Paris skyline from the top of the Notre Dame, 99% of which is never brought up again. There are other occasions, but that chapter is the most egregious example. Not a game-breaking fault for me, but certainly something to keep in mind. 

Not much more to say really. It's stood the test of time for a reason. Definitely still worth a read, despite the sections that spout pointless information that never gets used in-story. 4/5 

Next review: The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Well, this certainly took me a long while to get finished. I've mentioned before the fact that I was up to my eyes in essays, but still, this was a bit of a slog. Taking out the panic factor, I'll try explaining below.

This is usually the part where I outline the book's plot, in a spoiler-free way. I can't really do that here. Not because Master & Commander has a lot of twists and turns like Invisible Monster. Rather, I can't explain the plot because it doesn't really have one. The best I could do would probably be to say that it's a record of the first few cruises that Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon Stephen Maturin experience together. Otherwise, there really is no over-arching plot thread: instead, it feels more like a set of short stories involving the same characters strung together in chronological order. That leaves me in a strange position. Part of me really wants to take away something more over-arching and lasting, so the plot structure irks me as a result. Another part of me then steps in and says that I'm being silly: it's truer to life and it's not as if it's badly written, so what am I complaining about? The result of this conflict is that, basically, Master & Commander's plot leaves me completely cold. But that by itself wouldn't bother me, so long as the characters were good.
Which is where another problem comes in. The characters feel a bit flat. Of course, Aubrey and Maturin feel nicely fleshed out and identifiable, if occasionally blindingly stupid in Aubrey's case. But then that's to be expected: if you can't flesh out your main characters, you've automatically killed your novel's appeal. My problem was that there's only one other character that I can think of who was really given any actual character. To me, it felt like there were a ton of names being thrown about, only a few of which I could actually identify. Even if I did manage to identify them, they had maybe one trait that differentiated him from any other person onboard the ship, so identification wasn't really all that helpful. It just feels really frustrating, because I know that O'Brian can do good characterisation, as evidenced in his main characters; it just feels like he couldn't be bothered to extend that to the rest of the crew.
My other main gripe is a technical one, and is probably very easy to overcome if you aren't trying to finish a degree at the same time like I was. The book is quite fond of naval terms and the only help given by the book itself was a little guide at the front naming the different sails. The sails were not the things usually talked about in complex terms. Everything else was, just not the sails. I suppose that that's why Maturin was included, as he is a surgeon unfamiliar with naval terms and procedures when the book starts. The problem with that is that presumably Maturin has visual help, which the reader doesn't, so there's an automatic disadvantage. What really doesn't help is that Maturin stops asking questions about halfway through, so if you're still struggling with the terminology, you're just sort of left to wallow.

I kind of feel bad about giving Master & Commander such a negative review, because it is not a badly written book. It never becomes boring as such, it's just that I can't find it in myself to praise a book that was such a hard slog for me. I suppose that those already interested in naval history might enjoy it and appreciate it more than me, but I would give it a miss if you aren't prepared for the long haul. I would say watch the movie version instead, but it's nothing like this so it's not really that good a substitute. That and my natural dislike of Russell Crowe has kicked in. 3/5

Next review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Signing off,

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Wow. Pink.

As you can see, I changed the blog's look a little bit. I was personally finding the old look was getting a bit boring, so I changed it. I'm eager to know what you guys think. I was aiming for more of a red look, but this is nice as it doesn't go too overboard. If anyone has any tips for working with the templates more, then please let me know. Also, let me know if this is more/less easy to read in the new colours; if it's less, then I'm sure I can figure something out as an alternative.

Signing off,

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An update.

Hey guys. It's been a while, huh? This is just an update letting you know that the review of Master and Commander is going to be a while in coming, for several reasons that I will now spell out for you:

  1. This is the period before I hand in my dissertations, as well as a few other essays, so I am a tad busy. 
  2. Any time not spent writing is being spent at work experience. 
  3. After all the writing is done, it's prep for exams. 
  4. When I was being picked up to go back home with the parents, I accidentally forgot to pack Master and Commander, so even if I did have the time, I don't actually have it here with me. 
  5. Master and Commander is kind of a slow read anyway. I'm struggling with the terminology. 
I'm really sorry for the delay, as I can't see any new content being uploaded until the end of April at the very earliest (and even that's a stretch). I was thinking of jazzing up my layout though, so you have that to look forward to instead? 

Afterwards, I'll probably have more time for reading though, so the updates should come faster at the very least. 

Signing off, 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Wow, I've neglected this blog for a while now, haven't I? February has been a weird month for me, and the weirdness will probably continue until I get my dissertations in and my schedule evens out a bit. As it is, my schedule has meant that my reading of Windfall was rather sporadic, shall we say. In any case, I've finally got it done and I get to revisit my poor neglected blog.

Windfall is actually pretty complex plot-wise. The plot is triggered when Cassia, the wife of a village doctor, finds out that she has inherited half a million pounds from her godmother. Up until this point, Cassia hasn't really enjoyed her life, feeling that her duty to her husband and children has been preventing her from following the medical career that has prepared herself for for most of her life; now with the money, she finds that she can ease herself back into the workplace, a move that fills her husband, Edward, with resentment. The money also brings her back into close contact with her godmother's family and friends, several of whom also become centrally involved in the very convoluted plot. All of this is also reflected in the historical setting, which details the short reign of King Edward VIII and his controversial relationship with divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
This book is essentially a soap opera set in interwar Britain. The amount of plot threads and melodrama that packed into over 600 pages is quite extraordinary, now that I think about it. I only realised just how much like a soap opera it was when I was talking to my fiancé about it: failed/failing marriages everywhere you look, dark secrets, disastrous misunderstandings and much more. To be honest, I generally find soap operas to be laughable at best, so I was surprised at how I was still somehow invested in what was some of the most over-the-top plotting that I've seen in a long time. That I was invested at all considering how lukewarm I felt about it at the start is something of an achievement too; in the beginning, the reader is focused pretty much entirely on Cassia and her marriage to Edward, and they are by far the weakest characters of the entire book. With Cassia, she managed to be both a Mary Sue (a character idealised by the author regardless of actual merit or character) and completely uninteresting: usually Mary Sues are hilarious because of their over-the-top characterisation and poor construction; in Cassia's case she was just boring, but somehow treated by other characters as if she were this extraordinary force of personality. Combine that with a background in which EVERY SINGLE ADULT involved in her childhood was feminist to one degree or another; I'm sorry, I know that she was meant to appeal to a modern audience, but I cannot believe that in the day and age that it was set in that she would have had so many people telling her "Hell yeah, you can be a doctor if you work hard enough!" You just about get that as it is today, let alone in the 1910s. As for Edward, never have I seen such an insufferable, bitter and insecure little man in fiction as him; I read about him and pretty much instantly pegged him as a "Nice Guy", so when Cassia starts feeling guilty about their failing marriage my first thought was "Ditch him. Now." I assume that I was meant to think, "Oh no, poor Cassia, she doesn't want to hurt him, but he's just not right for her." I couldn't, simply because it was so obvious that he was forcing her to stay in the role of home-maker, a role that she does not naturally lean towards or enjoy particularly, because he was scared that she might go into medicine and potentially *gasp* be better at it at it than him. It was pathetic and really unattractive to read about.
On the other hand, the side characters are actually pretty interesting. My favourite was probably Cecily, a high-class woman married to Cassia's godmother's brother, Benedict; her attempts to make her marriage work when it's clear that her husband's straying interest is making it fall apart is truly heartbreaking, but at the same time it is easy to see where she is only contributing to its failure despite her intentions. Another character who was very interesting was Edwina, who decides to start working as a means to delay an inevitable confession to the husband that she sometimes gets along with but has never truly loved; she was more spiky and abrasive, with a very self-centred world view, but was nonetheless fascinating to watch if not terribly sympathetic at times. These two are by no means the only wonderful characters in this book: hell, you could include almost the entire cast in this category, which only makes it all the more frustrating that the author chose Cassia as her main lead.

Overall, Windfall was entertaining, but very flawed. I would recommend this to people who don't mind reading something that reads like a soap opera but are still in for the long haul. I might read it again someday, but I can't imagine it would be with any real urgency. 3.5/5

Next review: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Signing off,

Monday, 28 January 2013

Nothing Less Than a Man by Miguel de Unamuno

This was a difficult one to get my hands on in English. This was the last university text that I had to find and read, and the fact that the book it came in didn't appear to be in print over in the UK only made it that much harder. Hence why I have an old, battered copy of Three Exemplary Novels that I had to get shipped from the US. So after all that, was Nothing Less Than a Man worth the time and effort?

Nothing Less Than a Man starts with a young woman named Julia, who is renowned for miles around for her beauty. Her father is experiencing financial troubles and sees her beauty as a means of clearing that debt; aware that her father means to sell her, Julia starts having relationships with the men who attempt to court her, in order to find a man who loves her enough to elope with her. Eventually she attracts the attention of Alejandro Gomez, a mysterious self-made man who has just moved into the area. In return for paying off her father's debts, he asks for a meeting with Julia, who is so taken with him that she immediately accepts his proposal of marriage. Thus, things are happy for a time, this happiness only marred by Julia's uncertainty about Alejandro: does he truly love her or did he just want a trophy wife?
This didn't end the way that I thought it would. After certain hints, Alejandro starts to take on these ruthless, Bluebeard-style qualities, based on the little of his life that the reader can gather, but he doesn't really seem to realise the potential of such qualities. It's weird. I'm happy that I wasn't able to predict how the plot would end, but at the same time it's left me in a strange position of being unable to describe just what it was that I read. On reflection, I guess that overall I liked the portrayal of the marital relations of someone who is desperate for proof of their spouse's love, potentially at the cost of her marriage or sanity.

This is another quick read that I would be happy to recommend, should you come across a copy of Three Exemplary Novels. I'd certainly be willing to read other works of Unamuno's, if anyone has read anything of his that they would recommend. 3.5/5

Next review: Windfall by Penny Vincenzi

Signing off,

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz

When I decided to re-read Frankenstein to tie in with my university course, I remembered that I had bought the re-interpretation of it by Dean Koontz, largely on a whim; I figured that it might be useful, so I took it with me as a potential read. And, stuck waiting for my last university text to arrive in the post, I was stuck for something quick to read in the meantime. Hence why I have two Frankenstein related posts within a few days of each other. The obvious question is how does this version stack up against the original. 

Prodigal Son has several plot-lines. First you have the Creature, here named Deucalion, who travels to New Orleans after an old friend of his reveals that his creator, who has renamed himself Victor Helios, is still alive after 200 years. Second you have a murder mystery plot, in which Detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison try to track down a serial killer who is removing body parts from his victims. Third you have Victor Helios as he does all kinds of creepy things in the name of creating a utopia, as well as the reactions from the fourth version of his wife-creature. And finally, you have Randal Six, a creature created by Victor who was deliberately designed to have a severe form of autism, a condition that he believes he can remedy by meeting another severely autistic teenager, Arnie O'Connor. 
For the most part, these plot-lines are woven together with skill, and for the most part they do meet a temporary form of resolution by the end, but considering that this is the first part of a 5-book series, I'm not too worried about the loose plot threads. In terms of the review, I think it would be an idea to look at each in turn, as they tend to deal with one or two major characters each. 
So, Deucalion. I like him about as much as I liked the Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I like the fact that he is at once very human and sympathetic, but at the same time holding back a lot of murderous rage that had gotten the better of him in the past, events covered in the original. I also liked the history that Koontz creates for him in the interim between the events of Frankenstein and those of Prodigal Son, primarily the idea of him being part of a carnival freak show; something about that makes a really sick kind of sense and makes for interesting acquaintances. There is one major problem though: it almost felt like he was a cameo in his own story. He's introduced at the start, then doesn't really turn up again until Carson and Michael get in over their heads, making him feel a bit like a deus ex machina. I really hope that this is addressed in later books, but at the moment it's something that left me disappointed. 
The murder mystery plot is very well handled. At first the solution appears simple to the reader, but then there are certain revelations about the murders that complicate what the reader thinks he knows. The outcome makes sense and the ultimate show-down is well-paced if a little disappointing because of the aforementioned Deucalion-deus-ex-machina bit. The characters of Carson and Michael are well-written, if very familiar, characters. Carson is the serious, driven one with family to avenge and protect, while Michael is the wise-cracking sidekick who carries a torch for his partner; pretty standard stuff, so much so that I ended up hearing the main characters from Castle in my head when they spoke. Regardless, their chemistry was fun, despite the predictable nature of it. 
Now to the other re-interpreted character, Victor. Oh my lord, has Victor changed almost completely in this. The version of Victor that Prodigal Son uses is undoubtedly a villain, as opposed to the original's more misguided nature. There are good things and bad things about this monumental change. I'll start with the good. On the plus side, it does bring an additional horror element to the book, as Victor is by far the creepiest thing in it; after 200 years, he has become a sadistic monster obsessed with achieving perfection, whether it be at the dinner table or in his lab trying to create the perfect race with which to infiltrate, eliminate and replace humanity with. He has plenty of moments that are somewhat reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, which is fun. Unfortunately, one thing that this version of Victor is not is subtle in any way shape or form. Firstly, Koontz seems to feel that he needs to include things to show just how evil he is; there are three main things that come to mind. One, he needs to beat the crap out of his wife in order to get aroused, which is why she is the only creature he makes that is designed with the capability of shame. Two, he is an atheist so aggressive that he considers decommissioning the current model of his wife because she appears to enjoy the poetry of Emily Dickenson. Three, he eats live baby rats; at that point in the book, I couldn't help but feel that Victor had crossed the line from creepy complete monster to cartoon villain. To be honest, I can see why Victor is irredeemably evil here, as it creates a long-term villain for the good guys to fight. The one thing that did irritate me about Victor was that he actually mentions Frankenstein in his internal monologue, because apparently this is supposed to be our version of the universe, and he insults Mary Shelley's characterisation; I know that this is a villain's point of view, but it rubbed me up the wrong way a little as it seemed a bit disrespectful towards the source material. Perhaps I'm looking into it too much, but oh well. The only other character of note from Victor's storyline is Erika, the creature made to be Victor's wife. She was sweet and likeable, but ultimately it felt like she was just there to show how evil Victor was through his treatment of her. 
Finally there's Randal Six. He's an autistic creature who Victor is experimenting on to figure out how to cure autism. He's confined to his room not by locks, but by the intense agoraphobia brought on by all the information that he is bombarded with by the world outside; his only means of calming himself down is by filling in crossword puzzles. I found these chapters to be very uncomfortable, simply because of the severity of his symptoms. It's odd, but part of me can't help but feel that Randal's mindset is probably the most alien out of all the various viewpoint characters that are showcased; while Victor is creepy and undeniably evil, I can understand why he thinks the way he does. I can understand Deucalion's mindset despite his widely different experiences. The best I can do for Randal's character is pity him, because I honestly have no concept of a mindset that non-neurotypical and I don't think I ever will. It leaves me confused as to what to think of Randal at the end of the book as he is both pitiable and a very real threat. It feels strange that Koontz should have Victor, a villain as subtle as a brick to the face, juxtaposed with a character as ambiguous as Randal Six. Much as I would like to see how this character develops further though, I must admit that as a work by itself, Randal's chapters in Prodigal Son feel by far the most superfluous. I hope he gets more plot significance later on though. 

So, there's the end of my very long review. So what did I think overall? It was okay. Nowhere near as good as Shelley's original, but it's definitely a good popcorn book. Victor's characterisation is changed so much that it almost becomes an exercise in cartoon villainy, but otherwise it works well with the source material. 3.5/5 

Next review: Nothing Less Than a Man by Miguel de Unamuno 

Signing off, 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton

This is a play that I had never even heard of until it was set as part of my course on the Gothic; apparently there's also a film version of it that I had never heard of either. But, after reading the premise, I was intrigued about where it would head. So, after a very quick read-through, what did I think?

Gaslight starts in a dark and dingy Victorian house, where we meet married couple Jack and Bella Manningham. Tension is running high between them, due to a series of objects going missing around the house, only to turn up hidden in strange places; Bella is assigned the blame for this, but because she doesn't remember doing anything of the sort she believes that she has inherited her mother's madness. It is only when she is visited by a former police detective while her husband is out that Bella is given reason to suspect that he might not be the man she thought he was.
For me, the plot would have been more suspenseful if the blurb hadn't summed up the entirety of the play. As a plot though, it's well executed, if a tad predictable at times. Rough, the police detective, tends to lay the hints on rather thick. Although I will give the play credit for the fantastic final monologue that Bella gets, which is most satisfying considering the stuff she goes through in this.

Overall, a quick read and what I would imagine to be a thoroughly enjoyable play to watch. It's certainly made me interested in watching the film version with Ingrid Bergman. 4/5

Next review: Frankenstein: Prodigal Son by Dean Koontz

Signing off,