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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

I knew very little about this book when I first received it, other than what could be gleaned from the blurb. The only other thing that I had to go on was that the person who gave it to me was so liberally applying praise that I was almost surprised she didn't get tongue-tied. I'll admit, the memory of her enthusiastic take on the book was the main thing that stuck, as the blurb was not really enough to make me pick it up otherwise.

A Long Long Sleep follows Rosalinda Fitzroy, a girl who wakes up from stasis to find that 62 years have passed. Her presence forgotten after the deaths of her parents, Rose must now navigate a world in which not only are her parents and her first love gone, but has also gone through some pretty major upheaval after a series of pandemics have ravaged the human population. While she tries to adapt to this new life, she may have to confront what is left of her past before one of the remnants comes back to take whatever she has left to lose.
Holy cow, I did not expect this to be so good. It's a bit of a slow start, as both the reader and Rose have to get used to a strange new world that we've been basically dropped in, but the writing is surprisingly engaging and lures you in slowly but surely. By the end, I was crying like a little girl. That might well be because the ending decides that after all the excitement is through, it'll batter what's left of you with all of the feels. ALL of them. It is a tad on the predictable side, although I wasn't able to completely foresee all of the twists, so it kind of met a nice balance of surprise and making me feel smart. The only real problem I have with it is that some of the plot's details are revealed towards the end in a way that doesn't make much sense; it kind of feels like the author got stuck on how she was meant to reveal the main bad guy and applied a liberal dose of handwaving and desperate hope.
The characters are the main strength of A Long Long Sleep, and it's the desire to see them come out okay that makes it as emotionally powerful as it is. The three main people to talk about are Rose and her two school friends, Bren and Otto. I could talk about her first love, Xavier, but that could very easily stray into spoiler territory, so I shall refrain from doing so here. Rose is our main protagonist and the narrator of the majority of the novel. She starts off very fragile and passive, qualities that I first assumed were because of the shock of waking up to find that over 60 years have passed. But as the novel goes on, you begin to realise that there's a lot to Rose's personality that she denies herself and the main plot largely corresponds to her internal journey to understand what made her this overly passive, self-loathing person and how to grow out of it. The descriptions of what made her this way were probably what endeared her to me most, because, while I may not have gone through situations anywhere near as awful as she did, I completely understand what it feels like to think that you're worthless after people tell you this constantly. It's not a comfortable journey to read about, but I personally found it to be an incredibly cathartic one.
Possibly the most fascinating character is Otto, a boy who was part of an experiment involving genetically modified human embryos and has had to fight his whole life just to be considered human. I found him particularly interesting because the combination of the whole "having to fight a legal battle to be granted personhood" and the fact that he is effectively mute, communicating primarily through touch telepathy and instant messaging, reminded me really strongly of some of the politics that I've come across in researching autism and other disabilities. Earlier in the year, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum; since then, I've been looking more closely at a community that I had had tangential connection with all my life, but never really knew a huge deal about. As a result, I've found a lot of politics involving trying to prove to particularly stubborn and bigoted people that autistic people are just as able to live full and healthy lives as their neurotypical brethren and should be allowed to do so unmolested. I imagine that anyone who could be considered disabled, particularly those with invisible disabilities, would find Otto's story particularly engaging, but I can, of course, only speak from my own experience. In particular, I liked the way that his telepathy is handled. After briefly communicating with Rose in this way, he refuses to touch her throughout most of the book, because he finds her mind frightening and overwhelming. It very much reminded me of the reactions that I've gotten in response to sensory overload and that deliberate withdrawal from the offending stimulus felt very real to me.
The only one left to really discuss is Bren. He was most definitely the weakest out of the main characters. He's an overall nice guy, dependable, reasonably pretty. He fit the kind of Prince Charming role and had the hint of an underlying inner conflict about what he wants his future to be, but he seemed kind of underdeveloped compared to Rose and Otto. Basically he's inoffensive but bland.

Definitely a flawed novel in regards to plotting and some of the characterisation, but it packs one hell of an emotional punch. I would recommend it simply for the joy of getting to know Rose and Otto. It's a good place to start teen readers with science fiction, especially those who are less concerned with worldbuilding and more with engaging characters. If you get triggered by scenes of emotional abuse, you might want to skip this though; it can get pretty scary at times. 4.5/5

Next review: The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

Signing off,

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I've been looking forward to this book for quite a while now. Why? It was the first fantasy that I had ever seen that was set in an Arabian-style world, as opposed to yet another generic pseudo-Medieval, pseudo-European excuse for lazy writing. It meant different customs, different kinds of heroes and heroines. And I was really in need of a change.

Fire and Thorns is the first book in a trilogy of the same name, in which we follow the adventures of Princess Elisa. She lives in a world where once every century, God bestows upon someone a Godstone, a living jewel in their navel, that acts as a sign that they have been chosen for an act of great heroism and faith. Elisa is the current bearer of the Godstone, and at sixteen she has done little to prove that she is worthy of God's faith. She does little but pray and study ancient texts, and her crippling feelings of inferiority regarding her own abilities expresses itself through comfort eating. The first scene in the book is her ripping her hastily sewn wedding dress through bulk alone. She only feels worse when she is given away in political marriage to a man who won't even acknowledge her as his wife in his home country. But she finds that her time of service is much closer at hand than she ever imagined, and that she is in possession of greater strengths than she ever dreamed.
There is something incredibly comforting about having the main protagonist be an obese teenage girl. Not only is the humiliation of not fitting into your own clothes realised here in uncomfortably familiar detail, but it actually addresses something that you don't really see in much fiction. Fat people very rarely being the main protagonist, or in the main cast at all, and all that jazz. It confronts a weird social perception that people seem to make between weight/body shape and skill/intelligence. When Elisa starts the book, she is treated with condescension, with people more impressed than should really be warranted when they realise that she has an incredibly sharp academic and strategic mind. She has spent her entire life learning about classical texts, including texts on military strategy, and yet they're surprised by the evidence that is presented to them. Because of events in the text that I shan't spoil, she slims down quite drastically by the end. At which point she is suddenly everybody's favourite person and taken much more seriously. Admittedly, her actions up to that point must have had some impact, but maybe not quite so drastic. I guess I was just really charmed by Elisa, who really comes into her own over the course of the narrative, though I did feel somewhat predisposed towards liking her.
The plot is pretty cool, with a nice mix of political intrigue, adventure, quest and even a little bit of romance. It's pretty slow in the first part, where it's mainly courtly intrigue, but that has never really been much of an issue for me. I love courtly intrigue, so I was loving it. The second part ups the pace a fair bit and moves away from the intrigue and more towards the adventure and military sort of aspects. It took me a bit longer to warm to this bit, but still enjoyable. The romance was the most obviously weak part of the narrative. There are two main love interests, but neither go anywhere. The first is her much older husband Alejandro, which, given that she's sixteen, puts him maybe in his 30s or 40s. Either way, he's incredibly beautiful and charming, but initially has no interest in her and is pretty spineless. The second is a comrade that she meets in the second part, who seems to love her almost from the start, despite his friends' doubt in her. He's pretty sweet. Neither go anywhere and the endings of both romantic sub-plots is pretty swift and brutal. More realistic I guess, but at the same time just a tad bit confusing. My gut wants a romance sub-plot to be realistic-ish, but with an ultimately happy ending. Fire and Thorns sort of started the sub-plots, then did take-backsies and I don't know how to feel about it. In either case, the romance aspects seemed more rushed than other parts of the narrative even when they were there, so I wasn't too gutted when they were abruptly cut off.
The fantasy elements were really cool. The way that the Godstone instinctively acts towards friendly and not-so-friendly intentions, the way that Elisa can activate it through prayer, the further-reaching consequences of previous bearers' Godstones now that they aren't part of a living body. The main enemy of the narrative, the Inviernos, were kind of interesting, but not really explored much. I wanted to know more about them, what they wanted, how they lived and such. But nope. All we got was "they're pale and burn people with evil blood magic." Kind of took a page from Dragon Age there, huh? Maybe more will turn up in the following books, but it would have been nice to get a little bit more concrete info than "they're evil, run with it".

A very well written book, if a little simple at times. Definitely something to get teens into fantasy, especially girls. I would have killed for a protagonist like Elisa when I was younger. I'll probably pick up the next book in the series if I see it, although this does stand on its own quite nicely. 4/5

Next review: A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

Signing off,

Saturday, 18 October 2014

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

I had heard interesting things about Marcus Sedgwick's books, particularly Midwinterblood and My Swordhand is Singing. So when one of the books that I got from Gollancz was his book White Crow, I was mildly intrigued, though the blurb was a bit too vague for my tastes. I might well have picked up another of his books because of the cool titles, but otherwise this might well have been an author that would have passed me by.

I feel like this could have made two really good books. There are two main plot-lines that the reader follows. A modern day story of Rebecca, a girl who has retreated to the countryside with her father after some scandal has made him something of a pariah, and her strange "friendship" with local girl Ferelith. This is juxtaposed with a story set two centuries before, chronicling the experiments of a priest and the newest member of his parish, Dr Barrieux, as they try to determine once and for all what is in the afterlife. Both are set in the village of Winterfold, a seaside settlement that used to be a hub for trade, but has been eaten away over the years as the sea erodes the cliffside. While both plot-lines work and have some thematic ties, I don't think that both were essential for the book to have. As it was, there were problems in both that I think could have been remedied by dropping one or the other entirely. In both, there was a lot of story to get through and half as much space needed; there were certain things that I thought would get at least some explanation, but were still only vaguely alluded to by the end, which I will discuss below.
So, the modern story-line. I thought it was kinda toothless. Yeah, there is something a bit unnerving about Rebecca's friendship with Ferelith, but I knew so little about them as individuals that it fell flat. Yes, I know a little bit about Ferelith's unfortunate family history, and yes I know a little bit about what drove Rebecca and her dad to leave London for this village in the middle of nowhere. There are two problems with this. One, I still only know what is essentially a cliffs-notes version of their pasts, nothing actually resembling details, hows and whys. Two, they don't really have much beyond their pasts, so I know how they react to personal tragedy, but nothing about what they're like in day to day life. Heck, it was so poorly conceived that by the end, I can tell you more about Ferelith, the girl who is supposed to be mysterious and strange, than I can about Rebecca, the girl who is presumably supposed to be the audience surrogate. Additionally, by the end of the modern plot, it didn't really feel like much had really been achieved. Sure, Rebecca gets a bit of emotional closure, but that didn't resonate anywhere near as much as the author wanted it to; see above point.
On balance, I did prefer the historical plot, which makes its own failings all the more frustrating. But first, the things that I liked about it. Mainly, I liked that it was a genuinely creepy story of two men trying to meddle in realms that they cannot and should not understand, with a build-up that is absolutely full of suspense. The thought of an entire book about a futile and dangerous attempt to find evidence of an afterlife is one that fills me with glee. The problem with this was, again, the characterisation, even more so than in the modern story-line. If I could have heard more about the tantalising backstory elements that the author tempted me with, instead of yet more hypocritical whining from the priest character, then this could have been enough to save the book entirely. I wanted to know more about Dr Barrieux's dead wife and child, more about the cult that the priest grew up in before he found God, more about the village's growing suspicion. Instead I got the priest repeatedly angsting about how he finds it so easy to visualise Hell, but not Heaven.

Overall, this was an exercise in how it is often better to have one simple idea fleshed out really well, rather than two stories smashed together and told only competently. If it had just been the historical plot given the space and characterisation that it needed, then I would have been an extremely happy bunny. As it was, I'm just annoyed that there was so much unrealised potential. I did briefly consider saying that it might be due to the age range it was aimed at, but that's just insulting teenagers. Teen fiction should be richer than this. 3/5

Next review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Signing off,

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably a book that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, for two reasons. One, I had heard very good things about it, even from people who don't normally like fantasy. Two, I had read some of his work before, mainly the first couple volumes of the Sandman comics and liked what I'd seen. As it was, my fiance practically begged me to read it next, and seeing as that was several months ago, I can't really keep putting it off. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows the unnamed narrator as he returns to the country lane where he spent his early childhood, and finds himself drawn to the house at the very end of the lane. There, he reminisces about the childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock by name, who used to live there with her mother and grandmother and believed that the duck-pond in her garden was an ocean. At first, his childhood looks to be normal, if unusually solitary for a seven year old boy. It is only when a lodger of his parents' kills himself in the family car that strange things begin to occur, and the narrator finds himself a mostly unwilling participant in the upcoming events. 
I finished this book this morning, and my first thought was "Well, that happened." While that sounds flippant, it was meant in the kind of distressed bewilderment that accompanies the ending of a very well-written book that you have no clue what the meaning of it was meant to be. I suppose the thing that really caught me off-guard was the surreal, languid sort of tone that it had. Things certainly happened, quite distressing things at times, but it always seemed like it was happening at arm's length somehow. I suppose that the closest thing that I can compare it to would be a fairy tale: vivid events told in such a way that they are given distance and a strange, off-kilter viewpoint. The other thing that caught me out at the end was the feeling that the story wasn't finished. Not in terms of actual plot-line, that was absolutely fine. I mean in a more deliberate way; the story feels unfinished because the narrator isn't ready to let it go yet. The overall effect of this, mixed with the aforementioned tone, seems to be that of a myth for adults, the kind of simple story that we kind of forget about and underestimate as we grow older. 
As I've ruminated over the course of the day, I was wondering what Ocean at the End of the Lane was about, at least for me. I kept coming back to a line of dialogue that turns up towards the end. The line in question was, "Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?" It wasn't a moment that initially seemed huge in context, but it stayed in my head far longer than other parts, and when that happens it's usually a sign to pay attention. So I guess for me, it's become a kind of fable about the damage that can happen to children when they come into conflict with adults; you sort of assume that with age comes wisdom, but there are a lot of essential things that you sort of deliberately forget as you grow. When that comes into conflict with what we've decided is "grown-up" behaviour, then the child is almost guaranteed to lose, regardless of whether that's right or not. It's something that Gaiman keeps pointing to throughout the story and it got more than a little uncomfortable. Maybe I needed to feel a little uncomfortable. 

It's an odd book to recommend. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wants the feelings to be simple and clear-cut, because that is as far from what you'll get as is possible to define. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that reads simply, but feels much bigger than you would expect from 243 pages. I've done my best to define what it's left me, but I think that personal experience will always trump my descriptions. 5/5 

Next review: White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White Cat by Holly Black

So, this got practically devoured. Evidently I've needed to read more than I thought I did. This was another book that I got during my work experience with Gollancz and it's been one of the more tempting premises on my shelf.

White Cat follows Cassel Sharpe, the only non-magical member of his immediate family, and something of a black sheep. Not only is he not magical, but his family are protecting an awful secret that he can barely comprehend himself. Three years before, he killed his best friend Lila, and to this day he has no memory of the event or why he could possibly do it. As a result, he tries to keep a low profile, become as close to a normal person as he can be by fitting in at school and trying to make something of himself. This is disrupted when he awakens from a dream of a white cat stealing his tongue, only to find that he has been sleepwalking; that he finds this out whilst on the roof of his school's dormitory is particularly alarming. From here, everything he knows is brought into question, and all of it shadowed by the same white cat.
I absolutely loved this. I had read some of Holly Black's work before and, to be honest, not been terribly impressed. I kind of expected something similar to happen here, intriguing premise or not, and for me to have devoured this book within a day is utterly refreshing.
So, to the good points. The world-building is fantastic. Set in a version of modern day where magical gifts are illegal in many countries, it actually sets out the consequences of such a society with surprising depth. Because magic is cast through skin contact via the hands, gloves have become common place and to be seen without them is either a huge sign of trust or incredibly threatening. Magic is not without it's consequences, shown in the form of blowback: for example, with an emotion worker, someone who can manipulate other people's opinions and feelings, they have the downside of becoming increasingly emotionally unstable. And the fact that magic has been illegal for generations means that those who want to practice their magic are almost forced into becoming members of a crime family, and the prices that come with that territory are well-explored and really quite awful.
The characters are pretty good. Cassel is the one we get to know the most intimately, given that he's the narrator and main protagonist, and to see the emotional rollercoaster that he goes through as a result of others' machinations is utterly heartbreaking at times. Cassel's family get a fair bit of fleshing out as well, but are a little more opaque. Maybe in later installments they'll get more attention, which would be nice. I'd especially like to see more of Desi Sharpe, Cassel's death worker grandfather.
The plot was a bit easy to figure out at times, with several of the big twists maybe signposted a bit too clearly; you sort of wonder how Cassel didn't put the pieces together sooner. Despite this, it's still very well written and doesn't really make any wrong steps.

Definitely one for a fantasy fan who's looking for something modern that isn't your typical urban fantasy. It's perhaps less complex than a lot of fantasy that I've read, given it's YA audience, but the raw emotional impact more than makes up for it, as does a really interesting world. Going to be looking out for the sequels, that's for sure. 4.5/5

Next review: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Signing off,

Monday, 13 October 2014

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Wow, this is embarrassing. I did not expect to fall behind schedule quite so dramatically. Having made the first few steps toward becoming more organised though, I finally got round to reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not quite what I was expecting, I will admit.

Plotwise, Two Gentlemen of Verona was a lot sillier than I had initially assumed. It starts with two friends, Proteus and Valentine; the former begins the play in the process of proclaiming his undying love to the fair maiden Julia, a sentiment that the latter finds utterly ludicrous. Valentine sees no value in courting love, instead choosing to move into the court of the Duke of Milan to see and experience more of the world. As if God were just waiting for the most ironic moment, Valentine soon falls in love with the Duke's daughter, Silvia. All seems to be going well until Proteus finds himself inadvertently sent to the same court, so that he might benefit in similar ways to Valentine, where he too falls in love with Silvia. Literally the scene after he has sworn undying love with Julia. This was the point where I realised that this might be a tad on the ludicrous side. Not as rife with unbelievable coincidences as Comedy of Errors was, but still firmly on the silly side. I can very much get behind a play that looks at the conflict between what you want in relationships with different people: Proteus' betrayal of his friend to further his own suit with Silvia could be a really interesting and in-depth character study of a deeply conflicted person. The thing that makes it feel silly is the pacing: while the right dramatic beats are there, they feel shallow at best. Maybe this is something that would work for me better if I saw a production of it, but having only read it, it feels like Shakespeare was racing through these scenes as quickly as he possibly could. As a result, nothing really seems to go beyond the surface and that was a bit disappointing.
The comic relief could have been better. I realise that Proteus' idiot servant, Launce, was just a dramatic means for the main actors to have time to change between scenes, I just wish his monologues could have been more entertaining. As it is, they seem more like confused ramblings than anything actually funny. Though that may well be the Elizabethan sense of humour being lost in translation. Or maybe it's funnier on-stage. Either way, my loss, I'm sure.

Overall, a pretty harmless play. It's restored my faith in Shakespeare somewhat after the disaster that was Comedy of Errors. It would be nice to have something a little more involved next time though. 3/5

Next review: White Cat by Holly Black

Signing off,