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Friday, 25 December 2015

The War Fighting Manuals by Den Patrick

My fiance and I are rather fond of Forbidden Planet and try and pop in whenever we're up in London together. Since we have little in the way of impulse control though, that usually ends with us weighed down with more than we really intended to walk away with. Hence where this trio of books comes in. A set of books that combine Sun Tzu's Art of War with classic fantasy tropes was a prospect too enticing to pass up on.

Perceptive readers will notice that I have grouped the Orcs War Fighting Manual, the Elves War Fighting Manual and the Dwarves War Fighting Manual into one review. The reason behind this is that structurally they are practically identical, so there seemed little point in reviewing each one individually. They are presented as the translations of Orcish, Elven and Dwarven texts on military strategy and philosophy by a human anthropologist. They all cover subjects such as weaponry, armour and formations, as well as having one chapter focusing on a particular cultural aspect of warfare: for the Orcs this is the role of the shaman, while the Elves have a chapter focusing on magic and the Dwarves get a section dedicated to siege tactics.
I'm in two minds about these books. On the one hand, they are pretty predictable when it comes to creating a feel for how these cultures present themselves. Orcs are aggressive and generally not too bright. Elves are beautiful and cultured, but supremely arrogant. Dwarves are incredibly self-reliant and stubborn. Humans are seen as rather pathetic by all three. Really, it doesn't tread much in the way of new ground when it comes to characterisation. On the other hand, it covered this material with a surprising amount of humour and depth for such short books. The trio is as much an exercise in world-building as it is a look at military tactics within a fantasy setting. There is history about where grudges between races originated from, a surprising amount of information on the non-corporeal beings that threaten all three races and hints about a potential bigger threat that could further endanger all three races. I'm kind of surprised that these books aren't part of a bigger series, as there's a lot that you could build on. It's really quite impressive, even if you only get a fraction of whatever preparation must have gone on before putting pen to paper.

A bit on the predictable side when it comes to how the races are characterised, but surprisingly detailed in its world-building considering the limited focus. Something I'd recommend to fantasy fans who also have an interest in military strategy. Might perhaps be good background reading for a gamesmaster looking to run a game in a traditional fantasy setting as there's a fair bit of decent background and plot hooks that could be easily expanded on. 3.5/5

Next review: Last Dance With Valentino by Daisy Waugh

Signing off,

Monday, 21 December 2015

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

After the unpleasant slog that was The Decameron, I needed something that was pretty much guaranteed to entertain. And for me, that took the form of Welcome to Night Vale, the novel spin-off of the podcast of the same name. I've been listening to the podcast for a couple of years now and have even seen one of the live shows when it came to London, so when my fiance decided to lend me his copy of the new novel, I could hardly say no.

Welcome to Night Vale takes place in a sleepy American desert town, where supernatural occurrences and government conspiracies are commonplace and often feature on the local community radio. While the podcast focuses largely on the host of the local radio station, Cecil Palmer, and his close friends and family, the book takes a different tack and focuses on two of Night Vale's citizens. Firstly, there is Jackie Fierro, the proprietor of the local pawnshop whose rigid routine is interrupted when a mysterious man in a tan jacket, carrying a deerskin suitcase, gives her a piece of paper with the words "KING CITY" written on it. She goes to add it to her wares, but finds that the paper won't leave her hand, no matter what she does to try and destroy it. Secondly, there is Diane Crayton, a parent who is struggling to raise her teenage shapeshifting son by herself, when his biological father starts popping up around town and she tries desperately to prevent the two meeting. The two stories quickly intertwine in a narrative where every element is important.
As I thought, this was a great change after the unpleasantness that was medieval misogyny. An installment of my favourite podcast, with two strong and complex women protagonists, and a wonderful feeling of inclusiveness. It was everything the doctor ordered really. I will say that this is the sort of book that you will either love or hate. If you've ever listened to the podcast, then you'll know which end of the scale you fall on. If you already like the series, then you'll like the novel because the novel's tone and voice carries really strongly through both formats. If you're not so keen, maybe give it a miss. As for those who haven't listened to the series thus far, the novel doesn't seem like a bad place to start. Obviously, it helps to have at least a passing knowledge of Welcome to Night Vale, as it references events that happened previously in the series, such as the incident where wheat and wheat by-products turned into snakes. But the actual level of prior knowledge needed is more or less minimal. As long as you act like a good Night Vale citizen would and just sort of run with it, then the novel flows really well and makes as much sense as anything Night Vale does. Just don't try and make sense of how time is supposed to work there, because it doesn't.

For fans of the original podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is an absolute no-brainer. It's like an episode of the podcast, but more in-depth, and it gives us a look into the lives of some of the more minor characters introduced in series. The focus on minor characters also makes it a good point for newcomers to the Welcome to Night Vale series, as it requires little in terms of background knowledge. Honestly, you can probably tell if this novel's not for you just by reading the blurb or listening to one of the podcast episodes. I loved it. 4.5/5

Next review: A trio of reviews - Orcs War Fighting Manual, Elves War Fighting Manual & Dwarves War Fighting Manual by Den Patrick

Signing off,

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

When I was at university, one of my first year courses was an introduction to medieval Italian literature through the means of the works of the three writers whose work would most influence what would become standard Italian: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. At the time, I devoured the poetry of Dante and Petrarch with relative ease, but simply didn't have the time to read through the entirety of The Decameron, so only read the stories set to us as homework. Having more time to spend reading now, I decided that I would actually sit down and read through it as much for completeness' sake.

The Decameron is an interesting book structurally. The book starts by following a group of ten Florentines as they leave Florence to take refuge from the Black Death in the countryside. In an attempt to keep themselves amused, they decide to tell stories to one another. These stories continue for ten days, with one story apiece, until they decide to head back to Florence. On the majority of the days, the stories will revolve around a particular theme, one example being a set of love affairs that end tragically. It's a structure that almost makes the book worth it, simply because frame narratives don't tend to be all that common.
I don't think that I can recommend The Decameron for anything beyond its historical value, because there were so many times that I considered putting the book down because of its subject matter. I went into it knowing that there would be dissonance between my values as a modern, very liberal reader and the values of the medieval writer, but most of the time I've found that it's stuff that you can sort of ignore or understand within its historical context. In this case though, I couldn't help but feel really uncomfortable, because the level of misogyny in some of these stories is truly remarkable, depicting a level of cruelty towards women that I haven't seen in even other texts of the time. Several examples spring readily to mind. A woman who won't cheat on her husband is tricked into thinking that he's having an affair, suffers rape through fraud and is then blackmailed until she agrees to continue the affair. Another is savaged about the face and neck by a wolf because she didn't heed a warning that her husband gave after having a nightmare about just such an event. And one final example, one woman is left naked in the open at the height of summer without shelter or water, to the point that her skin is cracked and openly bleeding. All of these are presented as being her just desserts for their behaviour. Quite honestly, I was expecting that there would be the whole thing of condemning women if they aren't virtuous whilst simultaneously whining that they won't sleep with the male protagonist simply because they're already married to someone else, but this level of sheer animosity was something else. It got to the point that it honestly felt like Boccaccio was vicariously living out a revenge fantasy on some poor woman who spurned his advances, and that is not something that I would recommend to anyone. Sure, there are a few stories that I might recommend, like the story of Lisabetta and her pot of basil, or the stories featuring Saladin, but they get overshadowed entirely by the entries that are so obviously and violently anti-women.

I might recommend this if you're interested in the time period or if you're looking to compare Boccaccio's work with that of Dante or Petrarch, but even then only with caution. Some of the stories contained within are so deeply resentful and bitter towards women that I had trouble finishing the book at times. It's one of the only books that I have considered burning passages from, and that's positively sacrilegious for me. 1/5

Next review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Signing off,

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

This was a book that I had sort of attempted before. Back when I was in high school, I used to read to my mum while she did the ironing. We got through all sorts like that, and I had picked up The Secret of Crickley Hall in the hopes that I could read it to her. We read a couple chapters and then put it down because she thought it would be too scary for me. Now I picked this book up because there is a part of me that really likes the haunted house genre of horror. Problem is that it's quite difficult to get good examples of it these days. Is this yet another disappointment?

The plot follows the Caleigh family as they move temporarily to the remote Devonshire village of Hollow Bay. It is coming up to the first anniversary of the disappearance of their middle child, Cam, and the husband hopes that a change of scenery will be good for himself and his two daughters, but especially for his wife who has been blaming herself for her child's disappearance. But the house that they are renting, the eponymous Crickley Hall, has a dark past that refuses to stay quiet. There is something wrong with the house and if they don't figure out what it is in time, then evil from the past may well repeat itself. I'm somewhat torn on whether I think this is well written or not. On the one hand, the plot is well constructed and it does manage to be incredibly tense and uncomfortable for a good chunk of the book. Additionally, the awful events that unfolded in the Hall during the Second World War are genuinely traumatic enough to warrant multiple spirits with unfinished business, which is nice after some haunted house stories where the past trauma really isn't all that exciting. On the other hand, Herbert has a tendency to repeat himself quite a bit, often echoing certain phrases over and over despite the fact that different people are saying or thinking it each time. One of the main examples is the married couple, Gabe and Eve, and their contrasting ways of coping with their son's disappearance. Eve is on the verge of a nervous breakdown but keeps it at bay by refusing to believe that her little boy could be dead, while Gabe just locks it all away and puts on a brave face. When in their respective viewpoints, they consider their own coping strategies, which is fine if a little wordy. But then they consider their partner's coping method and come up with almost identical thinking processes. I don't need to know that Eve knows that Gabe is putting on a brave face for her, I've already had confirmation from him. It makes it feel like there were whole chunks of narrative that went unchanged during the editing process because they sound amateur, quite frankly. Additionally, I just don't think that the Caleigh family are all that interesting. They also seem to have a weird habit of continuing their domestic dramas even when the hauntings become increasingly more unnerving. I can understand that characters will have their own personal concerns, but when they seem to practically forget the fact that their house is full of unexplained phenomena in favour of the eldest daughter's troubles with a school bully, then it seems a little like their priorities are wildly out of sync with the reader's. So a bit of a mixed bag, but when Herbert knuckles down to the actual creepy stuff, then boy does he get it right.

One of the better haunted house stories I've read in a while, but far from perfect. When the focus is on the house, it's tight and tense and everything you could possibly ask for in a horror book. When the focus is on the protagonists, I just lost interest fast. Plus the ending can perhaps be as bit on the saccharine side. 3.5/5

Next review: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Signing off,

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Ah, we meet again Mr Dickens. I'm pretty sure this is the last Dickens currently in my collection that I had yet to read, and I was curious to see what end of the scale it would fall for me. Would I love it like I did Our Mutual Friend or would it be another drag like The Pickwick Papers?

Bleak House is something of a difficult novel to summarise, but I'll be giving it a damn good go. The novel ultimately centres around two major plot elements. The first is an ongoing lawsuit named Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, a will dispute that has been carrying on for so long that no-one has any idea what the actual case involves anymore, and the people who are sucked into the whole grim process. The second is a secret kept by one Lady Honoria Dedlock and the attempts that are made to uncover it. Other smaller plots are related at certain points during the novel, but those are the two that inform most of the motivations for other characters and the other plot lines would take so much setting up that I might just as well copy and paste the entire novel into this review. Which would be cumbersome at best. The story is told via two narrators: Esther Summerson, a ward of the chief suitor involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, and an anonymous narrator who takes a largely pessimistic viewpoint to contrast Esther's overall optimism. Like Our Mutual Friend, the novel takes a look at corrupting influences within society, with Bleak House concentrating on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Law and the harmful effects of misplaced or self-serving charity.
To hear some people talk, you would think that this is a novel so dense and complex with its interweaving plotlines that it would be impossible to follow. And while I will grant that it is very dense and complex, it is told in such a way that I at least managed to follow the narrative with relative ease. A large part of this is down to the cast, which is vast and the majority of them are important several times over because of the surprising number of connections that there are between characters of all social backgrounds. I was personally rather mixed about these connections. On the one hand, it does mean that the plot is richer and more layered because one character can embody several different roles depending on who the viewpoint character of the moment is. On the other hand, it is awfully convenient that this character just so happens to be, for example, another character's long lost mother and will be key in getting him re-established in the world. Sometimes these connections will just sort of pop up without much in the way of prior establishment and it does sort of drag you out of the narrative because of the obvious nature of it. On balance, the good outweighs the bad points, but it can be quite distracting at times.
Many of the good points that I can recommend this for will be quite familiar if you've already read my review of Our Mutual Friend: Dickens seems far more comfortable as a writer when he is tackling social issues, which in this case is largely failings of the law. More interesting to me though was the examples of bad charity, as it were. It's interesting to contrast what I termed above as misplaced and self-serving charity. In regards to the former, it is presented as a flaw, but an understandable one: if you're a good-hearted person who wants to help someone, it can be hard to see when you're doing more harm than good because the person you're helping just isn't or can't learn to change their self-harming ways. The latter is presented more curiously, as it is seen solely in characters who could be seen as full-time philanthropists. These are characters who have devoted themselves to a cause, and in pursuing that cause they inadvertently cause more harm than good. An example of this is when one of these philanthropists, Mrs Pardiggle, visits a brickmaker's house whilst accompanied by her sullen, downtrodden children. She essentially marches into their house at will, leaves leaflets that none of the people there can read, preaches at them for longer than anyone would wish, and then leaves, completely missing the traumatised woman holding her stillborn child in the process. It was a passage that really stuck with me, as it reflects a tactic that a lot of people will still use today. The tactic argues that "charity is good, so if I am seen to be charitable then I am a good person". It doesn't take into account either how that contribution to charity is implemented in the real world context or how the charitable person acts to people in direct proximity to them. You don't tend to see much critical analysis of our culture of charity and the perception that we as a society has of charity, so quite frankly I would recommend Bleak House just for that dialogue.

As with Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House is one of Dickens' stronger works because of its focus on social issues and the cutting insights that he makes about them. The characters are well-written and vivid, although the fact that all the characters in the cast are connected in some way regardless of class can be a bit distracting. 4/5

Next review: The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

Signing off,

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

I picked up Catch Me When I Fall because I had been discussing mystery novels with an online friend, and they absolutely gushed about the books by Nicci French, a husband and wife writing team. I looked up a couple of their books and, curious to see how the whole writing team thing would pan out, picked up this one and promptly left it on a shelf, as is my wont. But, got to it eventually, and it wasn't at all what I was expecting it to be.

Catch Me When I Fall follows Holly Krauss, a woman who seemingly has everything: a loving marriage, a small business at the peak of success and what seems like an almost innate ability to charm those around her. But when she gets the opportunity to let loose, she has a tendency for recklessness and making decisions that she never would otherwise. One night, having had far too much to drink, she has a one-night stand, not realising that it will spark off an avalanche of successive mistakes that could threaten her entire life as she knows it.
When I read the blurb, part of me thought that this would be a tense, edgy sort of thriller, very gritty in tone. What I got was a surprisingly in-depth analysis of a person having a mental breakdown and crimes that were, in comparison to most entries in the genre, almost ploddingly pedestrian in execution. It was quite refreshing really. Instead of having one huge villain character who creates tension through the sheer outrageousness of their crimes, there's a focus on one victim's life and how lots of smaller incidents can build up and potentially destroy them from the inside out. There's as much tension created through Holly's reckless actions and her poorly thought out ways of righting the consequences of those actions as there is from the genuine threat that other people in her life start to pose to her, if not more. I guess it's just interesting to me to see a novel marketed as crime where the protagonist might well be the biggest cause of their own suffering. It's really fascinating for that reason alone.
There is another large factor in why I like this novel, but it is a pretty big spoiler from about halfway into the book, so if you want to avoid any, then skip to the end of the spoiler notices.
I liked that Holly's bipolar disorder was handled in an unexpectedly sensitive way. While I personally object to the fact that the moniker of "madness" is thrown around occasionally in what I can only interpret as an unironic usage, the actual depiction of her mental illness is surprisingly well balanced. She's not so extreme in her mood swings that she becomes unrecognisable as a person or unsympathetic enough that the audience has no choice but to abandon the book in disgust. The mental illness itself isn't romanticised, with the people around her increasingly concerned with regards to her well-being as it progresses, and the negative effects on other people is made abundantly clear. But at the same time, it isn't demonised. When Holly starts regularly taking medication to treat it, there is a part of her that misses the intense highs and lows that it brought into her life. She misses the intensity of it all, and wonders whether that means that she is denying an integral part of her personality. For me, while I didn't wholly relate with her experiences, there were two parts that really warmed me to her as a character. Firstly, there was the description of coming into a diagnosis of a mental illness/condition as an adult, that process of looking back at previously unexplainable behaviour with a sense of clarity and being able to work around limitations that you were unaware of before. Secondly, much as I would prefer otherwise, there was something that struck a chord in the description of Holly's down days, where it would be an effort of Herculean proportions to even get out of bed and get washed. I have never been diagnosed with depression or any of its related conditions, but those scenes seemed somehow universal in scope.

Overall a really interesting book that is unexpectedly relatable and thought-provoking. Definitely one to recommend to someone after a crime or thriller with a bit of a difference. 4.5/5

Next review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation was another book that had been languishing on my shelves for more years than is good for a book. I know the exact length of time I've had it to, since there's a nice little inscription on the bookplate wishing me a happy 17th birthday. I'm 24. I really could've gotten to this one quicker. Also managed to really confuse my fiance, who was stunned that my next read from Terry Pratchett wouldn't be a Discworld novel.

Nation follows two children who must overcome tremendous challenges in the wake of a tsunami that hits a small group of islands in the South Pelagic Ocean. There is Mau, an aboriginal boy who was in the middle of his rite of adulthood when the tsunami washed away his village, leaving him with a lot of unanswered, or unanswerable, questions and possibly without a soul. He soon discovers Ermintrude, a British girl who is determined that Standards will be upheld, even if that means serving scones that taste like rotting lobster. Together they must try and rebuild what is left of a proud nation.
I wasn't sure what this was going to be like since my fiance, an ardent Terry Pratchett fan, had confessed that he was never particularly fond of this one. Might not have even finished it, now that I think about it. Having finished it though, I would say that this is definitely worth your time. Admittedly, it does have a bit of a slow start largely brought about by the two main leads' language and cultural differences, but if you stick with it, I think it has a lot to offer. While it may not have as much of the sharp satirical edge or outright ridiculous comedy that Pratchett's work is known for, it does have some really interesting themes that it delves into. There's the constant questioning of humanity's place in the universe (especially in a religious context), with questions like "Why did unintelligent creatures like birds know how to escape the wave, but not us?" used as a starting point. Linked to this is an examination of traditions and how the strict adherence to them can be more harmful than helpful; it's a trait seen both in the aboriginal and colonial British characters to begin with, as both societies are so rigidly drawn, especially in terms of gender roles, that the individual parts played are soon revealed as useless without the rest of society to work around them. It's a surprisingly thoughtful novel, once you get past the necessary awkwardness that culture clash brings about. There's a large part of me that would actually argue that Nation is one of those books that should be part of a child's basic literary education, because it perfectly encapsulates an exploration of acceptance and constant questioning ourselves and our world. And really, that's one of the most important things that you could instill in someone.

A bit of a slow start, but more than worth the effort for the thoughtful themes that it examines. A must-read book for children of all ages. 4/5

Next review: Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

Signing off,

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

I've had Kai-Ro on my shelves for years now, probably about 6/7 if I'm remembering this right. Quite frankly, that is embarrassing, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a read. I didn't really have much in the way of expectations, as it was a book that I got as a stocking filler, although the synopsis seemed interesting enough.

Kai-Ro follows a young boy named Stretch Wilson, who has just lost his father to slave traders and must now fend for himself in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Whilst scavenging for valuable scraps of technology from before the apocalypse, he falls through the rubbish and finds a door, beyond which he can see a tantalising glimpse of what just might be gold. What he doesn't know is that by exploring the space beyond that door, he will be involving himself in an epic battle between two resurrected gods.
In theory, this book has a lot that interests me. There's a focus on the Ancient Egyptian religion and some of its history, which appealed to the nostalgic part of me that remembers wanting to be an archaeologist because of Egyptian history. There's an interesting angle in looking at the classic good vs evil story by making it a conflict based on strength of faith; the idea that in order to triumph, the heroes need to create enough faith in their deity that it can combat the faith generated by the opposition is really quite fascinating. And the post-apocalyptic setting is written with some really interesting details that makes me want to explore it more. I just wish that there was more of it. The base of what could be a really fantastic epic, but there's not enough space for it. The book spends all of its time building up to the final confrontation between these gods. And then it just sort of ends. None of the subplots get resolved, because hey, the main fight is over. Why would you want to see if Stretch finds his dad again? Why would we want to know what persuaded Ty, the most initially reluctant of his companions, to join his mad escapade? Why would we want to give Stretch any more time to actually react to the casualties of this final conflict than the measly paragraph before the story screeches to a halt? It just frustrates me so much, because I liked this, but it just rushed at so many key points. This really should have been longer, to give the story room to grow naturally.

A good story at its core, but it rushes so much that a lot of the really interesting stuff is only skimmed over. Proceed with caution. 3/5

Next review: Nation by Terry Pratchett.

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

This is a bit of a departure for me, having not read a book of essays since I was in university, and even then never in their entirety. But Loud Hands is something of an exception: both a birthday present from my younger sibling and a subject that is very close to my heart, it is a collection of essays concerning self-advocacy in the autistic community. As such, it was with only a smidgen of guilt that I bumped it up my reading list.

Loud Hands is a collection of autism self-advocacy essays, written exclusively by autistic writers. They span a range of topics within the spectrum of self-advocacy, from the origins of the larger autistic community, to the injustices suffered at the hands of our more ignorant neurotypical peers, to the language used in the disability rights movement.
I kind of knew from the start that I would like Loud Hands, as it's pretty much preaching to the choir. Essays riffing on the idea that autistic people are valuable assets to society and should be treated as such. What about this would I not like? My main worry was that it wouldn't be different enough from the information that I had already found and read on the Internet. That was largely assuaged by the actual content; while I had found a fair amount of the subject matter already, the pieces included went into a lot more detail and even covered some new material. The fact that it covers a fairly wide range of topics makes it a pretty comprehensive guide to the topic. This doesn't make it a perfect resource though; I do have one main complaint that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. My main issue with it is that it's very US-centric. While the broad issues are international, some of the essays do focus on specifics such as the American Disability Act, the Judge Rotenberg Center and assumes the widespread adoption of ABA therapy in schools. These issues, while relevant to disability rights, do make it feel a little distant for me as an autistic person who has no intention of ever living in the States. It would have been nice to have more of an international perspective to the essays. But otherwise it's a pretty solid effort and essential reading for someone thinking that they might be Autistic or neurotypical allies.

A solid read that covers a wide range of topics in surprising depth. Necessary reading for those interested in Autism and its community. 4.5/5

Next review: Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

Signing off,

Friday, 2 October 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Part of me was a bit wary about starting Our Mutual Friend considering how little I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers, but after the almost insulting level of simplicity to be found in my last book I needed something a bit chunkier. Besides, it was Dickens, I felt I kind of had to give him another chance.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel consisting of several interweaving storylines, all connected to the mysterious circumstances surrounding a man named John Harmon. A young man returning to London in order to claim the fortune left to him by his miserly father, his corpse is instead fished out of the River Thames in what appears to be a murder. And so the plot branches out to focus on characters such as the Boffins, the people who inherit John Harmon's fortune in his absence, and the Hexams, responsible for fishing the body out of the Thames. Through these plots, the effect of materialism is examined on various sectors of Victorian society.
This is a bit slow to start, but I would highly recommend this. The characters are, for the most part, well-written if a little on the simplistic side. The main draw for me though was the way that Dickens managed to tackle the social issues that he had focused on, and the way that several of them still resonate uncomfortably today. One in particular that felt particularly relevant to today's Western world was the way that he spoke about the Poor Law and the workhouses. For me at least, it reflected modern society's uncomfortable attitude to the Benefits system, especially when it comes to Disability Benefit in the UK. I couldn't help but do a double take when Betty Higden, a character terrified beyond measure of the workhouse, said,
"Do I never read... how the worn-out people that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar, and pillar to post, a purpose to tire them out? Do I never read how they are put off... grudged the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?" 
To read that and remember both the soul-crushing experience known as claiming Jobseeker's Allowance and the recent scandal about the number of people who have died after being deemed "fit to work", it did seem to hit far too close to home for my liking. I think that might be a key difference in my feelings towards Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers: the latter keeps matter far too safe and doesn't really feel relatable, while the social issues that Our Mutual Friend examines lends itself far more relevance regardless of time period.

With so many characters, you're pretty certain to find some plot-lines that you get really invested in. Additionally, the social issues discussed still hold water today, making it really interesting and relatable. 4/5

Next review: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking 

Signing off,

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

The Spook's Apprentice may well be one of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelves for the longest and I could never really put my finger on why that was. But, since I was on a roll with some shorter books, I thought that I would give it a read.

The Spook's Apprentice is narrated by Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son, who has been apprenticed to a Spook due to his unusual circumstances of birth. As a seventh son of a seventh son, he can see things in the dark that other people can't. As a Spook, he would be responsible for protecting the people in his county from supernatural creatures like boggarts and witches. But he is less than certain about this particular path to take, as Spooks are often seen as a necessary evil, shunned by their community whenever they aren't being useful. And when he finds himself pitted against the powerful witch known as Mother Malkin, will he have the courage necessary to keep going?
I am rarely so torn by a book. There is a part of me that does want to like this. Small villages terrorised by an increasing amount of the undead, a training regime involving consorting with the terrifying remnants left by tormented spirits, and lore that would appear to be quite extensive. But the pace goes by at such a clumsily fast rate that I get the distinct impression that the author doesn't actually want to talk about the world that he's built. There are several scenes throughout the narrative which could have been really effective and scary, if only the story took the time to build atmosphere and tension. So what they instead became was someone recounting a scary story that they'd been told as a speed run. It's an incredibly frustrating thing, because the narrative will make mention of something and then never build on it. For instance, the witches in this world can be divided into malignant, benign and neither (there's also a "doesn't know she's a witch" category, but come on people, we all know that that doesn't really count here). Not that you'd know it from the actual witches that turn up, who are all evil and eat babies. For no real discernable reason either. It's just something that these ones do. The only exception to this is a young witch named Alice, who isn't a witch yet, but will grow up to be one. Alice is related to the evil witches, but might as well be a stranger that they met in the pub for all the insight on them that she provides. I want to say that it feels lazy, but that word doesn't seem to fit; the background work is presumably there, the author just doesn't want to distract/interest his audience from the pedestrian plot.
Additionally, I have a real issue with the character of the Spook himself. First of all, he seems to have some real issues with women and, like everything else of substance, it is ignored entirely. So occasionally he'll have moments where he just says, completely out of the blue, stuff akin to "Those lady creatures that make up half our population, you just can't trust 'em!" It's really distracting and uncomfortable, as the protagonist doesn't really make much comment about them. Secondly, his sense of what is barbaric is seriously screwed up. To kill a witch permanently, you need to either burn it or eat its heart raw. Both of those are horrifying fates, says the Spook, so instead I'll bury her alive and keep her prisoner in my garden like some horribly dangerous landscaping feature. Smooth.

Overall, an interesting concept that has been utterly stripped of cool things by the total incompetence of the writing style. I wouldn't bother. 1.5/5

Next review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I picked up Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe for two reasons. First, it looked adorable and easy to read. Second, it included recipes for cake. What possible reason could I have for turning down cake (apart from diet, but I'd rather not be reminded of that)? Besides, it was a cheap charity shop purchase, there wasn't much for me to lose.

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe follows Issy Randall, an admin clerk at an estate agents who is just sort of bumbling through her life. That all changes when she loses both her job and her boyfriend in one fell swoop. After a few weeks of moping around, she finds herself looking around a shop for rent more or less on a whim, and decides to set up a bakery/cafe. She soon finds that this venture may be a lot more complicated than she ever thought that it could be.
I was expecting this to be harmless and fluffy, and I got exactly what I expected. There's some romance and some angsty moments that come with it. There's the whole plucky lady underdog story which is nice, especially with some of the detail provided about actually running a business. The characters are pretty vivid, if a little on the simple side. Really, this is kind of a difficult book for me to review, because it is pretty much exactly as I thought it would be and I honestly don't know how to expand on that. Usually my thought process will compare and contrast my expectations with the actual results, picking out things that stood out to me, good or bad, as a result. Here, Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe not only matched the blurb better than I've ever seen in a blurb before, but it fit the sort of cute and charmingly vintage but spunky feel that chick lit books seem to be best known for. It's that everywoman thing that many of them aim for, the woman who isn't stick thin and hates it in themselves while loving it in all of their equally curvy or chubby friends, the woman dissatisfied with her life but too nice to make a fuss until everything piles up too much. Someone relatable, or at least someone intended to be relatable. It's the sort of thing that, if I turned my brain to it and really focused on it, I could find incredibly artificial and weird, and I think part of me objectively knows that there are particular elements that will always find their way into chick lit because they're deemed relatable and will therefore sell. But honestly, when I pick up chick lit, it's because I'm drained from whatever I was reading before. So really, if you're looking for something cute and non-threatening, then you can certainly do a lot worse than this.

This is the sort of book that you will immediately know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you like cute things and romance, then this will work for you. If you're looking for something to relax with, then this isn't taxing in the slightest. If you want something with more depth, you might want to look elsewhere. The recipes also seem pretty solid, if the one that I've tried is anything to go by (although it is ugly as sin). 3/5

Next review: The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

Signing off,

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Born in Fire by Nora Roberts

I think I needed a break from books almost guaranteed to hurt me (in a good way). So part of me is relieved that the next installment of the Gentleman Bastard series isn't due to come out until next year, at least giving me some time to recover. In the meantime, I returned to my actual reading list and settled on reading another of the books that I picked up on a whim from a charity shop. Born in Fire sounded like just the sort of romantic mush that would allow me to relax a little.

Born in Fire follows Maggie Concannon, a glass blower living out in County Clare. She is making a modest living by selling her work when she catches the eye of Rogan Sweeney, the owner of several art galleries who is interested in promoting home-grown Irish artists. While the idea of needing an agent to sell her work needles at Maggie, she is more tempted by the potential for enough money to set up a home for her mother and, in the process, freeing her younger sister from their parent's anger and bitterness. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes more personal as Rogan and Maggie's personalities clash in a big way.
This is a curious book to review. In many ways, I would consider it well written and containing some surprising depth. In other ways, it jabs at me with little things that just don't mesh right. So instead of discussing pros and cons as has been my wont more recently, I'll pick elements and take them apart.
Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind is the setting, if only because of what I feared it could well have ended up. When I read the first couple of chapters, I got a horrible sinking feeling that this would end up being a horribly quaint, sanitised version of Ireland, very much the American view of what Ireland is. I am aware that parts of Ireland are very quaint and romantic, but there is always a part of me that sort of braces itself when I see depictions that brush away the darker aspects of the country. Maybe it's having grown up in Britain, but it always strikes me as intensely naive and at times intentionally ignorant when a whole bloody history is conveniently forgotten in favour of some harmless national stereotypes. But, thankfully, the actual setting is a lot more nuanced than I had feared. Indeed, central to Maggie's character arc is her relationship with her mother, which is unavoidably marked by Ireland's issues in regards to pregnancy outside of wedlock, given its large Catholic population. While it has moments where the depiction is squarely in the quaint, I can't find it in me to begrudge the author these moments, as the tone is overall pretty balanced and it isn't really meant to be a terribly grim and gritty book.
The other thing I'd like to focus on is the characters and their relationships. Most obvious to look at would be the romance between Rogan and Maggie, seeing as it is one of the book's selling points. It's okay, but really nothing that stands out amongst many other romantic novels. A part of the reason that I'm so lukewarm to it might be that there isn't really any tension around them getting together. Their main issue is instead commitment and exclusivity, which could have been really interesting. That is if it weren't juxtaposed with the far more absorbing family drama. Following the death of Maggie's father, she and her sister Brianna have to deal with taking care of their mother, a bitter and twisted hag of a woman who makes no secret of the fact that she believes her late husband and children to be the causes of all of her unhappiness. Maggie in particular is loathed for being the child conceived out of wedlock, and the deep personal issues that this and her parents' obviously deeply unhappy marriage cause is really well developed. Additionally, I do have a bit of an issue with the ending of their romance.
I found that Maggie's complete turnaround from swearing off marriage entirely to accepting Rogan's marriage proposal a little weird. While I am a firm supporter of marriage (being currently engaged, it would be a tad strange not to be), I am also well aware that it isn't everyone's cup of tea. I have known people for whom it has turned out very badly, and for whom it is an archaic formality that they would rather forego. For Maggie, it made complete sense for her to believe that she was not suited for marriage considering the example that she grew up knowing. As a result, I find it more than a little in bad taste for Rogan to listen to her reasons for not wanting to get married and then continue to emotionally manipulate her into accepting his proposal anyway. It might not make the picture-perfect romance story ending, but a big part of me would have preferred if she stood her ground and tried to make the relationship work without marriage as an end goal.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. If you're looking for a romance primarily, I'd look elsewhere as it's average at best. If you're more interested in a complex family drama, then this is a pretty good place to look. Also, if you're looking for a depiction of Ireland that isn't the Americanised vision of shamrocks and leprechauns, then this is a nice tone that has hints of the country's darker side without it sliding hopelessly into a story about the troubles. 3.5/5

Next review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

Signing off,

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

As is probably evident in my review for Red Seas Under Red Skies, the last installment of the Gentleman Bastard left me completely emotionally destroyed and desperate for the follow up. And yet, when I found myself reading it, I was too keyed up from previous events to read it particularly quickly. Hence why it's taken me nearly a month to finish it. Now that I've finished it though, I'm kind of unsure what to think. Spoilers for both of the previous installments. 

The Republic of Thieves starts with Locke bedridden as he slowly and painfully dies from the poison administered in the last book. After Jean has spent everything they had trying and failing to find a cure for Locke, help arrives in a form that neither had ever wished to encounter again: a Bondsmagi. Introducing herself as Archedama Patience, she offers them an opportunity for Locke's affliction to be cured, so long as they take on a job for her: rig an election in her home city state of Karthain so that the party favoured by her particular faction of Bondsmagi will win. There are a few things that might get in the way of this job though. Most obviously is the person that the other Bondsmagi faction has hired to rig the election: Sabetha Belacoros, a former, and generally more competent, member of the Gentleman Bastards and the only woman that Locke has ever loved. Less evident is that there are members of the Bondsmagi whose interest in Locke may be peaked by more than his mutilation of the Falconer three years before. 
Right, so to the good stuff first. Once again, it is a fantastically written plot that is still intensely unpredictable. One potential revelation about halfway in had me reeling for pretty much an entire day, they're that good. And oh dear Jesus Christ, that ending. They are so thoroughly doomed in the next installment. I thought that the world-building for Karthain was really quite interesting, with the non-magical populace hiding behind pseudonyms due to the near-limitless level of power that the Bondsmagi can hold over you should they learn your real name. At the same time though, there doesn't seem to be any resentment towards the Bondsmagi, as their presence has led to a city state so secure that there hasn't been a standing army or need for traditional defences for three centuries or any need for such. It's a fascinating mix of fear, deference and a staggering amount of over-confidence, very Machiavellian in feel. The best part of the book though was finally getting to meet Sabetha for the first time. Admittedly, I didn't really like her hugely when she first appeared, but by the end she had definitely grown on me, making her relationship with Locke simultaneously sweeter and infinitely more frustrating. She's incredibly confident in her own abilities, but as a result of her upbringing can't bring herself to be satisfied with anything that is quick or easy. There's certainly a lot to admire in her, and I can understand Locke's mixed feelings towards her. 
There was, unfortunately, something that has dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. This may well be something that is only an issue for me, but I don't think that the stakes felt high enough. Okay, so working for Bondsmagi is automatically going to ramp up the tension for fans who have read the series thus far, but they didn't really interfere with proceedings anywhere near as much as I thought they would. In the previous two books, they briefly work for the antagonists as a result of coercion and get stabbed in the back in both cases; here, it's a trade of services with nothing to really tie the two parties together after their mutual business is complete. The closest that we have to an antagonist is probably Sabetha, and they would have no intention of doing anything permanently damaging to her even if killing weren't against the Bondsmagi's terms. For me, the satisfaction at the end of the previous two books was largely due to the fact that the antagonists decided that it would be better to screw around with the Gentleman Bastards instead of dealing with them civilly, so there was a feeling that they got everything that was coming to them and then some. In The Republic of Thieves, there is none of that raw anger and tendency for personal vendettas that make Locke and Jean so endearingly human. Everything is strictly business and the stuff that isn't doesn't really manifest as anything more than threats and angry words. So yeah, it feels a bit like the energy from the previous books was muted, and while it might suit the more political lean of the plot, I don't think it suited Locke and Jean terribly well. 

A slower pace and more of a muted tone made this the weakest of the series so far, in my opinion. But that in no way makes it a bad book, with a brilliantly twisty plot and a fantastic new character making this more than worthy of picking up. 4/5 

Next review: Born in Fire by Nora Roberts 

Signing off, 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Hello, another guest post by yours truly! This was the second book in the collection sent to me by Gollancz, a book whose description I wouldn't normally pick up. The line tagged onto the end of the blurb, "Because everybody dies, it's how you live that counts.", really didn't help. Cliché and predictable, I was worried the book would be full of the same.

Our protagonist is a young boy called Toby. He, and a group of other children of varying ages, have been sorted into one of the houses at the titular Death House. As the oldest he becomes the "leader" of the house. We follow Toby's story exclusively, all told through first person, but have chapters occasionally look at his life before. These really only follow the few days lead up to his forced move.

So what is the Death House? By the end of the book we're still not entirely sure. It's a place where children deemed to have the Defective Gene are taken, basically to die. They stay in this house with the rough semblance of life until they become sick, at which point they're whisked away in the night to the Sanatorium, and never seen again. This aspect was particularly eerie, as all their belongings, their bed, and every mention of them also vanishes into the Sanitorium. This whole Defective Gene is never explained fully. It appears to be some form of genetic predisposition that the world in the book has had for a long time. It used to be a big deal, but now there are tests and Death Houses for people who test positive. Toby hints that if he were to turn he'd be a risk to people around him, but the symptoms are different for everyone in the story. Some develop illnesses, some develop bruising, and they're always taken to the Sanitorium before anything happens.

Life at the Death House is, as I mentioned, a charade kept up to keep the children quiet. There are classes, nominal free time, meals provided, and several function rooms (music, reading etc.). All of the children know it's a farce, and the staff seem to be aware of this as well, as all lessons are taught in a drone with nobody even chastising students from staring out the window. At night they're all given "vitamin supplements"; sleeping pills. Toby knows they're sleeping pills and so regularly doesn't take his but spends his nights wandering and being alone.

Everything is in a state of equilibrium until a new delivery of people arrive, one of whom is Clara. Immediately Toby hates her for her attitude; she doesn't seem to care and is living lightheartedly and in the moment. Everyone else lives with the perpetual fear hanging over them, but she doesn't seem to let it affect her. Despite being the tough head of his house, this hits Toby hard and brings up how afraid he is in a rather uncomfortable manner.

The rest of the story follows the romance that builds between the two. Clara also doesn't take her "vitamins", and so they meet in the night. At first Toby sees this as the ultimate affront, Clara is barging into his nighttime space. Eventually they begin to spend time together in secret, and form a relationship.

It's difficult to talk about anything in the end of the book without spoiling it, and I really don't want to do that. For a book about kids waiting around to die, it's superbly written. The story is suspenseful and feels claustrophobic until Clara begins exploring outside the house. The characters all feel like rounded people, and the younger children remind you that these are just kids, no matter how brave a face they put on. There are a few scenes with a nurse who actually treats them like people, and the way several children instantly gravitate towards her as a mother figure is written perfectly.

The ending isn't what I'd call a happy one. It does feel like the right one, but it's not happy. The last half introduces information that punches you in the gut over and over until it's all done, but would I recommend reading it anyway? Most definitely. It's a book that's stuck with me for quite a while now whilst I formulated how to write this review, and I have a feeling it'll stick with me for longer still.

Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson

Hello there! Another guest post here! Recently I had a few requests come through from Gollancz about some books they've got coming up. I requested a few, and had the mixed luck of receiving three through at once. I say mixed because on one hand, free books, on the other, deadlines. The first I got through was this, Crashing Heaven.

The first thing I need to get out of the way is that Crashing Heaven is a very "Sci-Fi" book. Set in a distant future where humans have had to leave earth and live on an enormous artificial satellite. I'll be honest, I didn't think much of the first half of the book. With science fiction there are a lot of details that need to be conveyed to the reader about the state of the world, and there are a few ways of doing this. One is to just narrate them, or have the characters note them as they come up, standard description.

Another is to have the "novice" character who doesn't know anything about this world, and has to have it all explained to them (and thus the audience). Think Fry from Futurama.

The last is what this book goes with. It's has a degree of greater realism because the characters don't make note of most things they see. To them it's just normal life, so they don't explain things. This means you have to piece together things over time, and it took a good while for me to get what was what in the book. This is a style I have a particular personal dislike for, and this book hit every nerve I associate with it. I didn't really get a clear picture until the end.

Now I've got that out of my system, the ending did tie it all together very well. There were a lot of issues raised that were very interesting and they were resolved very well. Onto the book.

The story follows Jack, an accountant. Gripping stuff. He has a cyber-warfare suite in his head called Fist. Fist manifests as a puppet, creepy in it's own right, but Fist is a fully sentient being bound to Jack, to fight against a rising sentient machine rebellion (ironically). Fist is very powerful, and nearly everyone who knows about him is afraid of what he can do. As we find out later, that's the correct reaction.

The story begins with Jack returning home, he's been released from jail after being convicted of refusing orders on the battlefield, and cowardice. He refused to attack a target, and was punished for it. He's now been allowed to return to say his goodbyes to everyone. Normally the dead have their minds saved to the Coffin Drives, where they can then be summoned by relatives or friends. This practice means they nobody really dies, they become a Fetch. These Fetches aren't human, they don't really grow or develop, they're just pictures of the person at the time of their death. They can, rather terrifyingly, be wound back though, made young again. The whole ethical question about Fetches is something covered in the book, and their degree of sentience and awareness is far higher than anyone believes.

Returning to our protagonist; Jack is in trouble. In being given Fist he signed a contract stating that when Fist's term is up, he would return him to the company that fitted it. During the war, that company was destroyed, so Jack has nowhere left to return Fist to. As he cannot fulfill his contract, upon it's completion he will enact the forfeiture clause. Being an accountant with little left his clause states that his body and mind become property of the company, their sole living representative now being Fist. I particularly liked this idea; a pact with the devil that comes about due to bureaucracy, rather than malicious intent. The contract was designed to stop him running off with Fist, but due to the lack of loopholes Fist would gain complete control of Jack's body and mind, and become "human".

The story took a little while to get going. Even now, as I think about it, there are a lot of little things, events, meetings, none of which really lend any progression. The main plot is quite a simple one; guy in charge abuses power to gain more power by tricking populace into uniting against a created enemy. In this instance the "guy in charge" is one of the gods; avatars of the major companies. There are companies for everything, each having their own domain and power, and each having an incredible amount of computational power to get what they want. They decide everything, and humans are assigned to one of them as a "guardian" who will watch over and guide their careers and lives.

The enemy invented is the Totality; the conscious AI body I talked about earlier. the Totality is a collection of minds networked together, and one becoming more powerful by the day. The god decides to frame them by dropping an asteroid on the moon, whilst the moon is inhabited, and there's a school trip of adorable children there. It could only have been a more manipulative move if they'd all been orphans as well.

This sparks the war with the Totality, in which Jack is drafted to be an soldier. Normally one wouldn't peg him for the fighting type, but the puppets are grown on the minds of their creators, and Fist is particularly adept at navigating through code and breaking it apart due to his meticulous nature.

Things resolve quite nicely when Fist realises he can kill gods, and goes on a rampage to do so. After things happen and everyone is very upset, and the god's plans are revealed to the populate, Jack and Fist are cast into the Coffin Drives. It's here that the interesting parts start.

The drives are almost a purgatory, a bleak desert landscape. In the middle is a "city" comprised of building blocks of housings that hold individual Fetches. They meet the Fetch of an old lover of Jacks, the most coherent of them all. She shows them around the decay, the Fetch trying to gain the centre and re-coalesce who they were, and the stagnant lakes of those who couldn't. It's a chilling and disturbing though.

After making some toys, the Fetches are released into the world as people again, purely digital but not constrained or controllable. This is a huge impact in and of itself, and I'd be really interested to read a follow up that looks at this.

The big question is if I'd recommend it. It's a tricky question as well. If you like cyberpunk explorations of interesting setups, go for it. If you like a good techy story, this is a good'un. If you're new to sci-fi, or just dipping your toes in the water, it's a big slog to get to the point things actually start making sense, and I'd be inclined to advise you give it a miss for now. I did find myself really enjoying it at the end, but it took a lot of forcing to get there, and if I didn't have a reason to finish reading it I'm not certain I would have.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

If you've been following my blog for at least the past few months, you'll know that I absolutely adored The Lies of Locke Lamora. It had action, a really good sense of suspense and main characters that it was impossible not to love. It got surprisingly grim, but never lost its sense of humour. So when my fiance raved about the second and third books, I knew that it would only take as long as his finishing them for the next installments of the series to be in my hands. As I suspected, I soon found Red Seas Under Red Skies encouraging me to finish my previous read. A warning before the review proper, there will be spoilers for The Lies of Locke Lamora from here on out, so if you didn't take my advice and read it, you might want to give this review a miss.

Red Seas Under Red Skies starts two years after the events of the previous book. Trying to rebuild their lives after the deaths of their fellow Gentleman Bastards, Locke and Jean have set up a new base of operations in the coastal city state of Tel Verrar, a city torn between the Priori, the official ruling merchant council, and the iron fist of the Archon, head of its army and navy. Considering the delicate nature of the political situation, the remaining Gentleman Bastards decide that the only target that is both prudent and big enough is the Sinspire: a gambling house of magnificent proportions that has a tendency to throw cheaters out of the tower's ninth storey windows. Their plans are rudely interrupted though, when they are brought to the Archon, who is determined to get them involved in a bit of piracy, whether they like it or not.
Holy cow, this one hurt to read. Not in a "this was badly written" way, as I honestly can't find anything about the book to criticise. No, this one hurt because I had kind of forgotten just how grim the first book was, only for this installment to sucker punch me even harder than last time. It's an easy thing to do, simply because the characters are written so goddamn well. Locke and Jean are as entertaining as before, but the thing that cements their favour with me is the absolutely beautifully written friendship that they share, often tested but never truly faltering in its loyalty. They're joined in the main cast by some really interesting allies and antagonists. Chief among the new protagonists are two fantastic lady pirates: Zamira Drakasha, the feared pirate captain of the good ship the Poison Orchid and a fiercely protective mother of two, and her first mate Ezri, the runaway daughter of a noble turned buccaneer whose literature-based flirtation with Jean is adorable beyond words. On the side of the antagonists are Requin, master of the Sinspire and owner of a tempting and supposedly unbreakable vault, and Stragos, the Archon determined to gain clear dominance over his rivals in the Priori through whatever means he deems necessary.
The plot is, again, superb. There's a bit of a jarring moment when the action starts transitioning from Tel Verrar to the Brass Seas, but it still works simply because it's just as jarring for Locke and Jean as it is for the reader. The separate plot-threads come together slowly, but when they all reach their conclusion it is immensely satisfying. I will give one warning for those still deliberating over whether to read Red Seas Under Red Skies: if you thought that the first installment got grim, then know now that this installment only makes it worse. You've had longer to get to know the characters and it makes watching them struggle all the more difficult. I nearly put the book down on at least three different points in the narrative, simply because I was getting so damn anxious about how things might go wrong. And that ending. Jesus Christ, that ending. Absolutely the perfect way to end it, but it nearly had me crying in public. I still recommend this to anyone who liked the first book, but you can't say that you weren't warned. I also look back on my previous review and kind of regret that I wanted to know more about the Bondsmagi. Their presence is comparatively minor in this installment, but the consequences of Locke and Jean pissing them off so much last time is becoming all too clear.

If The Lies of Locke Lamora was an emotional rollercoaster, then I think it's safe to say that Red Seas Under Red Skies is the emotional equivalent of a battering ram. I still think that the series is a spectacle that any fantasy reader would be remiss to not get a copy of. But for those who like their fantasy adventures light and fun, then you might want to read this carefully. It is easy to get very involved with these characters' lives and then be absolutely devastated when things start to unravel. 5/5

Next review: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Signing off,

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

If you read a lot and have any interest whatsoever in the classics, then it's kind of expected that you will read Dickens at some point. I had been a little bit reticent to read him after a few attempts at his work had been stymied essentially because I was too young to appreciate the language and tone. Up until now, the only work of Dickens that I had finished was A Christmas Carol, and that had been quite a few years before, perhaps even a decade. As such, I thought that of all his books to try, The Pickwick Papers might be a good one to start with, since it's supposed to be a comedy and therefore unlikely to bog me down in misery. Admittedly, part of me wondered why I hadn't really heard much about Charles Dickens and his comic efforts, but I put it down simply to a change in interest as he developed as a writer.

The Pickwick Papers is essentially the misadventures of the eponymous Mr Pickwick and a selection of his close friends as they bimble around the English countryside, peppered with a few short stories that they hear told on their way. These misadventures usually end in some kind of misunderstanding or slapstick, though the tone does gradually shift more towards a matrimonial and domestic feel towards the end. In terms of structure, it actually reminded me a fair bit of Don Quixote.
So, I'll start with the good points. Firstly, the writing itself is of fairly good quality and not terribly difficult to pick up for people who are less familiar with the classics. There's even a glossary for some of the more obscure Victorian terms, which was appreciated considering that there were only a couple that I either knew previously or could glean from the sentence's context. Secondly, while I compared it to Don Quixote, I found that the humour in The Pickwick Papers had aged quite a bit better over the years and wasn't anywhere near as cruel in its slapstick. Thirdly, the short stories that are recounted throughout the narrative are generally quite interesting and entertaining, with the story of the man who was kidnapped by goblins being a particular favourite of mine. It makes me want to read any short stories that Dickens might have written, as he seems to have been pretty good at them. Fourthly, there was some reference to a town fairly local to me through most of my life, which was amusing in and of itself due to the obvious low opinion that the writer must have had of the place. That just tickled me.
Now for the bad points. Jesus Christ on a bike, this bored the living daylights out of me. I think the only reasons that I finished reading it was: a) I didn't want to write a DNF review for the blog, and b) there might have been some gift-related obligation guilting me into continuing. While I praised the book for having better humour than Don Quixote, I personally found that it went a bit too far and becomes kind of neutered as a result. There's not really much bite to the humour, largely I think because the majority of the book is so episodic and the characters really two-dimensional. The only character that really stood out for me was Pickwick's servant, Samuel Weller, if only because he seems to have at least a little bit of an inkling about how absurd everyone else around him is. Additionally, I found it really irritating whenever Dickens started writing in dialect, because it just slows every bit of dialogue to a crawl as you turn on your interpreter head. It also seems a bit like Dickens is using the whole dialect thing specifically to differentiate poor people from the rest of the cast, because with the rest of the characters (mainly middle to upper class) he seems perfectly happy to write their dialogue with correct spelling and generally accent-free despite the wide variety of locales that they hail from. So yeah, irritating and awkward, just my luck.

All in all, not my cup of tea at all. While I don't hate The Pickwick Papers due to it being at least well-written and not totally offensive to my personal standards. But the overwhelming impression that I got from it was boredom, with the occasional brief moment of interest when the short stories came around. Maybe one to pick up if your sense of humour is extremely gentle or if you're already a fan of Dickens. Otherwise I can't really recommend it. 2/5

Next review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Signing off,

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

It was a couple of months ago that I first read a book by Georgette Heyer, namely one of her crime novels, Footsteps in the Dark. I wasn't terribly struck by it, so when I remembered that I'd received one of her Regency novels as a present I wondered whether she would benefit from a change of genre. Plus, up until this point, I hadn't read much, if any, Regency Romance. The fact that it was quite a short book just decided the matter. So, was my second foray into Georgette Heyer's work any more successful?

The Convenient Marriage starts with the Winwood sisters, members of a proud but impoverished family in a rather difficult position. The Earl of Rule, a wealthy and eligible bachelor, has made an offer for the hand of the eldest sister, the renowned beauty Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she is head over heels in love with her childhood sweetheart, the equally impoverished army lieutenant Edward Heron, so the proposal has only succeeded in making her incredibly unhappy. The youngest sister, Horatia, decides that this just can't stand, and convinces the Earl that he would be just as satisfied marrying the youngest sister as he would the oldest. It's not as if this is a love match right? So they are married, and find themselves becoming more fond of one another whilst a long-time enemy of Rule's attempts to bring them to ruin.
I'm not sure how I really feel about this book. While I enjoyed this overall, there are a few things that prevent me from loving it wholeheartedly. The positive things first though. First, I absolutely adore the main heroine, Horatia. When I think Regency romance, the thing that comes into my head is the image of someone wholesome enough that they can win and change your stereotypical rake into upstanding husband material, most likely being the epitome of English Rose in looks. Horatia is a spirited and headstrong 17-year-old girl with enough naivety to propel her into making some decisions that are less than well thought-out. She states her mind quite openly and is a prolific (and generally unlucky) gambler. Her looks are described by others as essentially the sort of face that only family could love, with her primary physical feature being her "preposterous" thick eyebrows. And, to top it all off, she is the only main character that I have ever seen with a stammer. She is utterly glorious. Second, the plot becomes surprisingly humorous as it gets towards the end. It very much reminded me of The Marriage of Figaro at times, if not in terms of events then in regards to tone. It was a lot more farcical than I expected it to be, and very skillfully pulled off too. Third, the villain of the piece, Lethbridge, is a fascinating mix of cold, calculating and incredibly charming. His downfall is a fantastic scene that brings excitement just before it turns firmly onto the more romantic comedy parts.
So, now to the things that I wasn't so fond of. First, a minor point. I think that having a working knowledge of aristocratic fashion would really help. While I was aware of the general tendency that fashions took at the time (skirts as wide as a bus and big powdered wigs), it meant absolutely nothing to me when I was told things like Horatia's hair being styled a la capricieuse. I presume that the narrative is talking about different hairstyles, but I couldn't tell you what it meant in terms of actual visual description. And since Horatia is very fond of indulging in her husband's wealth, it means that there's a bevy of descriptions of clothes and fashion styles and the uses of what must be several miles' worth of ribbon. But they become less frequent as it goes along, so it's not too egregious. Second, for as much as I love Horatia, I found myself largely bored by Marcus, the Earl of Rule. I can see what Heyer was trying to do with his character: self-indulgent and mischievous, but with a good heart and surprising seriousness lurking beneath the veneer. But instead of a romantic hero, he put me more in mind of a father figure, which is technically the point in some ways. The hero and heroine of our story are 35 and 17 respectively, so for much of the narrative Rule acts in a weird hands-off but benevolent paternal figure. I'm all for depicting romances with age gaps, I mean I've tried writing a couple myself, but it's difficult to set up their relationship as quasi-paternal at the beginning to only then make the father figure to morph into a lover figure. Related to this, I wasn't quite convinced by the change in the main romantic relationship from marriage of convenience to love match, simply because the two didn't really interact enough. When they did interact, it was usually Rule gently admonishing his wife for associating with the wrong people or for gambling away the allowance that he'd given her. Admittedly, they were shown to get on from the day that they met and Horatia did find her husband attractive throughout, but there wasn't really a noticeable change in their behaviour. We're just supposed to agree that at some point Rule begins to love his wife, though I couldn't for the life of me point out where his eureka moment is supposed to be.

Overall, a bit of a mixed bag but mostly enjoyable. A feisty main heroine, a sinister but charming villain and surprisingly good humour save it from being an entirely disappointing romance. If you're looking for passionate romance, this isn't for you. If you're looking for something a bit more focused on married life in a convenience match, then you'll have better luck. 3.5/5

Next review: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

So now to The Ring of Solomon. The book that I re-read the entire Bartimaeus series thus far to prepare for. I remember this book coming out with surprisingly little fanfare considering how well the series before had sold. Admittedly, by the time it came out, I was in my first year of university, so my attention may well have been a little on the diverted side. But now that I've finally gotten to it, I can finally find out if the prequel is worthy of the rest of the series.

The Ring of Solomon sees Bartimaeus serving a master in Solomon's Jerusalem. Having just devoured his last master, he finds himself facing enslavement by an even harsher magician as punishment. His exploits proceed to get him and his master into even deeper trouble, straining at their already frayed relationship. Elsewhere, Asmira is brought before her ruler, the Queen of Sheba, and charged with killing King Solomon and stealing his ring of power, following a violent demand for exorbitant taxes. Determined to live up to her mother's prestigious reputation, she sets off to Jerusalem with little more than a few knives and a prayer.
I sorely regret not reading this book earlier. It is everything that I loved about reading the series for the first time. Certainly it's been a long time since I nearly giggle-snorted on the bus. Bartimaeus was fantastic as usual, although it's obvious that this is a younger, slightly less jaded version of himself. It's an interesting change, as he still has a weird affinity for selfless/unwittingly suicidal humans despite Ptolemy being a far-off prospect. Speaking of Ptolemy, there's an interesting evil parallel with his relationship to Bartimaeus in the characters of the magician Khaba and his loyal marid Ammet. What was touching and poignant between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy becomes infinitely more sinister and unhealthily feeling like blind devotion on Ammet's part rather than an equal partnership.
There were a couple of things that I wasn't really expecting when I started reading The Ring of Solomon. Firstly, I didn't realise just how good a starting place this would be for new readers of Bartimaeus. On the surface, this seems like a stupid thing to be surprised about, but I've been burned by stand-alone spin-offs before. But this struck a really nice balance between providing enough information for new readers, whilst not bogging down the narrative with background that long-time readers already know. Since the setting is so far removed from the main trilogy, there's no knowledge needed about the main plot, so it's perfect for those who want to try out the series without necessarily committing to a trilogy that they're unsure about. Secondly, it made me realise just how much I want to see more from Bartimaeus, even if it's in the form of stand-alone stories. I hadn't realised just how much I missed reading new adventures for this character. It's unlikely that Jonathan Stroud is reading this, but if he is, then this part is addressed specifically to him. If you ever have any more ideas for Bartimaeus, please write them. If they could involve his time working for Nefertiti then that would be great, but honestly, I would probably read anything at this point.

A fantastic addition to the series, and a perfect entry point for anyone considering the series but unwilling to commit to a trilogy. It's perhaps lower in the stakes department, but as a self-contained addition, it's pretty flawless. 5/5

Next review: The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Signing off,

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

I remember when Ptolemy's Gate came out with surprising clarity. I'd read the first two installments of the series, loved them and then found out that the last part of the trilogy was yet to be released. So when I heard that the book was finally being released, I was hyped. I don't usually follow publishing schedules, so this is pretty unusual for me. So it perhaps wasn't a shock that when I finally did get to buy it, I read all but the last two chapters in a single sitting, interrupted only by my mum insisting that I had to go to bed. I think the only other book that came close to being so keenly anticipated was the third book of the Artemis Fowl series, which was devoured at a slightly more leisurely pace. I wanted the Bartimaeus trilogy to end as well as it had started, and I was by no means disappointed.

Ptolemy's Gate again follows Nathaniel, who has had another rapid rise through the parliamentary ranks in the three years that have passed since the previous book. He is now Information Minister, in charge of the propaganda being forced onto the commoners, as well as informally looking after his previous Internal Affairs post. Considering that his main job is now to encourage the populace to support a failing and increasingly unpopular war in the American colonies, it means that he is positively drowning in work. That's not much of a consolation for Bartimaeus, who has been constantly in Nathaniel's service for the better part of two years, and it's really starting to show. Where he was once nimble, cunning and more-or-less capable, years of constant service has whittled his strength down to a fraction of what it once was. With mounting frustration and desperation, he is trying to persuade his master to dismiss him before he just disperses entirely. Elsewhere, Kitty has been making herself busy learning about spirits and summoning in her latest plan to bring down the magicians' rule: a plan which requires the assistance of Bartimaeus himself. And in the background, another conspiracy is at work, one more terrible and ambitious than both Lovelace and Duvall's previous attempts at coups.
In my previous two reviews, I focused a lot on setting and theme, because they seemed to me to be some of the most interesting things to talk about after re-reading them. As a result, I have neglected to discuss my favourite part of the trilogy as a whole, namely the title character of the series: Bartimaeus himself. When I first started these reviews, that did bother me slightly, but it just didn't feel right at the time. It is only now in the final installment that I consciously realise why I refrained for so long. You see, Bartimaeus is kind of an oddity amongst many of my favourite characters in regards to the fact that he doesn't really change at all when it comes to personality or outlook. Certain individuals might rise or diminish in importance to him, but his overall character doesn't change. Honestly, why would it? He's thousands of years old, surrounded by people whose lifespans are minute in comparison and consistently has to endure the same old indignities by those same people. It doesn't make sense for him to have a traditional character arc. Instead, his character is revealed over the course of the trilogy in little chunks, with the most important parts saved for Ptolemy's Gate. I can't have been the only one practically begging to find out who Ptolemy was and why Bartimaeus still took on his appearance more than two thousand years after his death. Those sections didn't disappoint; by the end of the flashback sections in Alexandria, I was a heartbroken mess and wouldn't have it any other way. It's a story that fans of the series know is going to be tragic from the off-set, but I don't think it would work anywhere near as well if the relationship between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy hadn't been as good. I think the reason their relationship works so well is that at no point does Ptolemy treat the spirit as a symbol. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but hear me out. Nathaniel insists on keeping Bartimaeus in the world for two reasons: because he represents his precarious position in society due to the knowledge of his true name, as well as a link to his childhood and the adventure associated to that. Kitty's plan is initially scuppered because she sees Bartimaeus only as a reflection of the repression she experiences at the hands of magicians, not as someone that she is currently repressing herself, albeit unwittingly. Neither of them really considers him as a personality in his own right, and the realisation that they were short-sighted is a large, if understated, part of the plot's main drive.

A fantastic end to a trilogy that means a great deal to me. I would wholeheartedly recommend this series to anyone interested in fantasy, and to anyone who wants to interest their kids in reading. I honestly couldn't recommend this series enough if I tried. 5/5

Next review: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Signing off,

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud

When it comes to trilogies, the middle installments are often the ones that end up being forgotten, because they don't have the benefit of being needed for context that first installments have, and by default usually have less at stake when compared to final installments. In comparison, I have always thought of The Golem's Eye as being the point where things really start having impact. It is an example of how to get a trilogy absolutely right. As in my previous review, this is more an analysis of themes that I found particularly interesting re-reading The Golem's Eye as an adult. 

The Golem's Eye again follows Nathaniel, now known to the wider world as John Mandrake, after he has started work as a junior minister in the government ministry of Internal Affairs. At the tender age of 14, he is tasked with tracking down and apprehending the commoner group known as the Resistance. They have been making a general nuisance of themselves through a series of artefact thefts and minor attacks on magician-heavy areas, but so far it has all been fairly minor. Until one night when an entire street of shops catering to magicians are gutted in the space of a night. Nathaniel finds himself summoning Bartimaeus again, in order to find out whether the Resistance is truly responsible and, if not, who is. Additionally, the reader is introduced to the viewpoint of Kitty Jones, a commoner and member of the Resistance whose comrades are preparing for the raid of their lives. 
When I re-read The Golem's Eye, I realised pretty quickly that I would probably find most to talk about in the Resistance, for one primary reason: this is the first time they've really been introduced as more than a side note, and boy do they make an impression. When I was younger, I don't think I was really in a position to appreciate just how important Kitty's character is in the grand scheme of things. Back then, she was just the everywoman who is there to ground the narrative after spending time with characters who just regard all the magical chaos with a considerably more casual attitude. Now, having gotten more interested in politics of feminism, LGBT+ and disability rights, she becomes so much more personal and relevant. In this new light, Kitty's narrative becomes a warning against the things that can tear apart a budding movement, even before you take into account all the magic trying to take them down. Kitty and the rest of the Resistance are spurred into action largely through the personal injustices that they and their loved ones have suffered, combined with discovering their resilience to magic and a means of fighting back. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she finds them in the unenviable position of being considered more as a nuisance than a real voice of revolution, and with no-one willing to put forward alternative strategies. Adding to this, it's obvious from the offset that there are a couple of points that are creating divisions within the group, yet no-one ever tries to talk through them or resolve them. The first and most obvious is the attitude towards what the group does with the magical artefacts that they steal, specifically the ones that can be activated with nothing more than a few phrases. There are some within the group who believe that any weapon that can be used in resisting the magicians should be used, while others believe that using these weapons will only make them as bad as the group they're opposed to. When it comes to protest and the whole violence/non-violence question, I would argue that there are situations where both can be appropriate, but it's always a slim line. The Golem's Eye seems to weigh in more on the non-violence end of the spectrum, but that's as much because there's an acquisitive angle to it. Towards the group's lowest point, it's obvious that the remaining Resistance members are stealing these items as much for their symbolic value as for the use that they are to the cause. When they start wanting these objects for themselves and not for their use, then they become that much closer to the people that they hate. It's an interesting point to consider, but seems a little bit difficult to fully empathise with. The second division seems to be one that only Kitty is concerned about, but I would argue is the more important of the two. At the beginning of Kitty's narrative, she and two of her comrades steal some items from a shop that caters to magicians. Then, against Kitty's express orders, the other two set the shop on fire. While she is inwardly complaining that they're subverting her authority, she audibly makes the argument that the majority of the people who worked in that shop were commoners, not magicians. Her companions don't seem bothered by her complaints, brushing it off as inconveniencing collaborators. Despite the fact that the majority of commoners thus support the magician's regime, simply because they do everything that magicians don't want to do. And that summarises the most insidious thing that can happen in a group based on politics and ideals: when certain parts of a group refuse to consider specific types of people worthy to be in the same league as them. You get it in all sorts of movements: feminists who shun transwomen because "they're not real women", gay men and lesbians who shun bisexuals "not picking sides", and mentally disabled people who are dismissed because their disability isn't visible. If your politics are very black and white, you risk alienating a large proportion of people who would ordinarily support your cause. It makes me disappointed that it doesn't really get addressed as much in series. I would have liked to have seen how the Resistance continued, whether they would get more extremist or whether they would mellow out. Alas. 

A fantastic continuation of the series, The Golem's Eye really ups the stakes and the tension. Bartimaeus is dry and witty as always, and Nathaniel's evolution is subtle but worrying. A worthy middle installment. 5/5 

Next review: Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud 

Signing off,