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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,