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Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

I got Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters mainly because it looked just the right amount of silly. With a title like that, it couldn't be anything else, right?

The story follows the Dashwood family, comprised of three sisters named Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and their widowed mother, as they attempt to make their way in a world where an alteration in the world has caused aquatic creatures to become actively aggressive against humanity. After their father is eaten by a hammerhead shark and evicted from their childhood home, the Dashwoods find a new home on Pestilent Isle where they meet both new friends and strange eldritch creatures. While Elinor must face the prospect of being parted from her beloved, Marianne finds herself courted by both the dashing treasure hunter Willoughby and the wise if tentacle-faced Colonel Brandon. Meanwhile, Margaret finds herself drawn into the mysterious goings-on around the island.
As you can probably guess from my summary, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is a very silly combination of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and something very reminiscent of the Cthulhu mythos. It was about as ridiculous as I had initially expected it to be, but also surprisingly cutting and in some ways a lot smarter than I had given it credit for. Still thoroughly stupid though, so if you're in the mood for something a little bit surreal and deliberately uneven in tone then this is definitely going to whet your appetite. I don't know quite how this would read to huge fans of Austen's work, but it didn't have a particularly reverent feel to it. It's odd, but this is quite a difficult book to review. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does exactly what it says on the blurb, and if that concept sounds great to you then you will most probably enjoy the book itself. Personally, I loved it, but I feel like this is very much a love it or hate it sort of book.

In conclusion, I loved this book, but it is the sort of novel that will appeal to some and leave others utterly cold. If you like Regency romance and eldritch abominations of an aquatic nature, then the combination of the two will probably tickle you. If the concept doesn't appeal, then there's not much chance that reading it will change your initial perception of it. 4.5/5

Next review: The Stand by Stephen King

Signing off,

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa

I got The Lord of the Sands of Time at around the same time as All You Need is Kill, when I was really heavily into my anime. This one has been less widely publicised in the meantime, so I had very little impression of what it would be like, as compared to the latter novel which has the Americanised film version that I still cringe at the thought of. I remembered trying to read it when I first got it, but that first impression has been long lost in my memory. So, an essentially blind read, how did it fare?

The Lord of the Sands of Time follows Messenger O, a cyborg that has been sent into the past following a devastating alien attack that has annihilated all life on Earth. The last pockets of mankind that is left on the off-planet settlements give him the mission of going to a time where the aliens have not reached Earth yet and unite humanity in an attempt to stop the alien invasion before it has a chance to begin properly. In doing so, O must face up to not only leaving behind the woman that he loves, but potentially erasing her from time entirely.
This is a simple enough novel to read if you're familiar with time travel in science fiction. The chapters alternate between Messenger O's battles in the Iron Age era of Japan and the other eras that he has previously fought in, with each era reaching back further and further into the past. The year and location of each chapter is clearly stated at the beginning of each chapter, so it's easy enough to keep everything organised as the plot progresses, and yet it also boasts some of the more in-depth looks at time travel problems that usually crop up within this genre. In particular, I liked the fact that the numbers of cyborgs who can fight this threat is constantly changing due to the changes that they make to the timestream that they currently inhabit. When they interfere, certain events happen differently, meaning that different individuals live and die; sometimes an ancestor of some of the cyborgs' creators will die and thus erase the circumstances of their creation, while at other times new cyborgs will be sent back as creations of people whose ancestors had previously never lived to reproduce. It's an interesting dynamic that I haven't ever seen happen in a time travel story before. Additionally, it's nice to see the whole "history repeating itself" thing come up. I hadn't really considered it before, but it really makes sense that the Messengers end up having to travel back so far in time, because in all of the modern eras, humanity essentially dooms itself because of the far-reaching conflicts and endless amounts of red tape that can be thrown down as a barrier to progress. It was an interesting, if somewhat alarming, assessment of our current ability to actually unite effectively against an aggressive outside threat. The one thing that did sit weirdly with me was the ending. The threat keeps mounting in the fight in Japan, until all seems utterly hopeless, only for things to basically come to a stop. I had hoped for a more definite resolution, but instead it just runs out of steam and settles for a stopping point. Disappointing, but far from a game-changer.

A definite recommendation to anyone who likes time travel, especially the ones that present some form of interesting play on the conventions. It is quite grim in tone, if a little detached when it comes to details of battles. The ending is kind of weak, but it doesn't detract too much from a really solid piece of writing. I'd most certainly pick up more of this author's work. 4/5

Next review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

Signing off,

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Victims by Shaun Hutson

I seem to remember getting this when I was, at most, mid-teens and likely at a flea market when visiting my grandparents. As such, I kind of forgot that I had it for a surprisingly long time. When I picked it up again, I had to laugh a bit because the blurb sounded uncannily like the novel version of the song "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" by The Adverts. It gave me the impression that it would be a goofy sort of pulp horror novel. It lied.

Victims follows Frank Miller, a special effects technician who is blinded in a freak on the set of his latest film. Terrified at the idea that his career could be over so quickly, he jumps at the chance for a transplant that could be his only chance to regain his sight. What he doesn't know is that his new eye was donated by a murderer, and he discovers that he can now see an aura around people who are destined to be murdered. Coincidentally, there also happens to be a serial killer going around, imitating the killing styles of infamous murderers. So, when the inevitable confrontation occurs, will Frank be able to put a stop to the carnage?
I thought that I was going to like this a lot more than I did. Maybe this was due to starting Victims under the assumption that it would be a lot more kitsch than it actually was. There's a quote on the cover that was a lot more prophetic than I would have ever given it credit for. It reads as such: "You can't read Shaun Hutson for more than a minute or two without starting to squirm." It's about the most accurate thing that could ever be said about this book and it will be instrumental in deciding whether this book is for you. For me, it was too much. I very much regretted reading this during my pre-work breakfast and lunch break at times, because there were some days where I started feeling genuinely queasy as a result. The majority of the queasiness came from either the murder scenes, which were so detailed as to be almost pornographic and not quite over-the-top gory enough to start being silly, or the occasional male gaze scene that delved into levels of obsessiveness that was toe-curlingly awful to read. But I can handle being uncomfortable. I got used to it after a few of these kinds of scenes. What I couldn't really look past was the fact that I couldn't actually bring myself to like the main protagonist at all.
Those of you who read my review of Out will likely be wondering why this is such a big issue here, and not there. In Out, the characters weren't really what you could term as good, but at the very least it was easy enough to understand why they did the things that they did. In Victims, I couldn't help but think of Frank as having an entirely alien way of thinking. At the beginning, I figured that his irritability and obvious dislike of basically anyone who doesn't think along the same lines as him was a reaction to being in a horrific accident and trying to reconcile with the fact that he might never be able to work in his chosen profession again. It was only afterwards, when he had his sight back, that it became clear just how creepy he really is. The part that sticks in my mind is a section where he has a disagreement with one of the actresses on-set. He's gone to fetch her for a make-up session, as the next part she's in requires near total coverage, but she refuses to go because she doesn't want to work under a load of latex and in the process she insults his work. Fine, I can understand getting mad because she's being both unprofessional and unnecessarily personal. What I don't get is the reaction that he has; in addition to getting angry, he hurls a chair at her and then later sends her an uncannily realistic facsimile of her boyfriend's decapitated head. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Sending people to hospital for shock because they didn't want to work in heavy make-up, with no regrets at all upon hearing about it. I don't know about you, but I am significantly less inclined to like this guy when he's just as dangerous as the bad guy. Especially when the implication that he uses genuine human body parts in his work crops up, a baby in a microwave being a particularly graphic moment of this. I wanted him dead, so badly that it's almost untrue.
And the other thing that bothers me is that the whole being able to see people predestined to be murder victims thing was less than fantastically portrayed. Firstly, not a fan of actual murder victims being mentioned in the section where he "proves" that he can see this aura; it might just be me, but I think that victims of serial killers, in particular the child victims of the Moors Murders, deserve more respect than that. Secondly, it just sort of vanishes after a little while after it's served its purpose. Frank mentions it to his police colleague working on the serial killer case, gets understandably dismissed, then mentions the ability as a way of speaking to a journalist following the case, predicts one murder not even related to the case, then it just never turns up again. After he's proved to one person that he can see these auras, it's never brought up again as a main plot detail again. His getting involved more closely in the case isn't actually because of the eye, it's because of his relationship with the journalist. So really, it could have been replaced by anything else. I'd have personally gone for "the murderer is imitating scenes from horror movies you've worked on" as a tie to it, as it at least gives him more reason to be in contact with the killer and the police.

I had such hopes for this. I know that I came in expecting it to be a lot cornier than it was, but I didn't expect it to leave such a bad taste in my mouth. The gore and male gaze stuff is very uncomfortable to read, but that is at least obvious and easy to make a judgement on. You either can't stand it or you can, and I trust that most readers will instinctively have a feel for that. I just felt that the main character was too similar to the main villain for me to make a connection with. There was nothing about him that I could empathise with, and it just removed whatever stakes there were because nothing good could come of either of them "winning". The fact that the part of the main premise that I was really looking forward to was largely superfluous is just the cherry on top of my disappointment. I guess I'd recommend this if you like your horror gory and in bad taste, but quite honestly I'd give it a miss. 2/5

Next review: The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Out by Natsuo Kirino

I can't even remember when it was that I actually got Out. Looking at the condition of my copy, most likely it was something that looked interesting when I was browsing a charity shop. Despite this, it has been fairly prominent in my mind due to the fact that before now I had tried to read Out three times without success. While a lot of this was to do with conflicts with my university work in my first year, I was still somewhat reticent going into this one.

Out primarily follows four Japanese women who are stuck in dead-end night shift jobs working at a boxed lunch factory, all of them dissatisfied with their lives in some way. The status quo is violently upset when one of them, a young mother named Yayoi, snaps and kills her husband after finding that he's spent all of their savings on prostitutes and gambling. Terrified of being caught, she confides in the closest thing she has to a friend at work, Masako, who unexpectedly agrees to help get rid of the body. To do this she recruits Yoshie, a diligent and overworked widow working to look after her bedridden mother-in-law, and Kuniko, a feckless woman with more debts than she could ever hope to pay off. When some of the body parts are discovered, they have to deal not only with the police asking questions, but also with some shadier characters including the nightclub owner that the police are convinced committed the crime.
I have mixed feelings about this book. First, the positive aspects. It is incredibly well-written, with great atmosphere and some fantastic twists that I didn't see coming at all. The characters are all well-fleshed out, with understandable, if very frustrating on occasion, motivations and behaviours. Keep in mind that there aren't really any "good" characters and you'll be in for a treat; I think one of the problems that I had in my previous attempts was that I wanted someone to throw my lot in with, and that's really not possible here. Certainly I had "favourites", but I still didn't really like any of them. All in all, a really solid thriller that I would almost recommend wholeheartedly for those who like their thrillers and crime fiction extra gritty. There are just a couple of things that don't quite gel with me. The first element that doesn't quite work for me is Masako's intuition. From the perspective of other characters, she comes across as a very no-nonsense, logical sort of person, and very cautious in her assessment of things. But then at the same time, she will also get these strange intuitive moments where she will just know things that would require some pretty big leaps of logic from her perspective. It took me a while to notice this one, because the steps that she takes are largely the same ones that I did while reading: the main issue that I have with that is that I had the benefit of seeing the actions and inner thoughts of other characters, gaining information that Masako has no access to. For example, about three quarters of the way through the book, another murder is committed and Masako just happens to get a bad feeling about the situation at the time and then miraculously guesses the identity of the victim before she can even see their face. I had read the murder scene previously, so I knew that something would be going wrong, but what possible reason could she have had for knowing? The second part that didn't sit right with me was the climax of the book. It just got really weird and uncomfortable. Around the two thirds mark, the focus starts to shift from hiding the husband's murder and dismemberment to this weird rapey sort of contest between Masako and the main antagonist. While I could sort of see how the situation as a whole had come about, I got to the final couple of chapters and it just went too far with it. I don't really know how to describe it without spoilers, but there's just this completely out-of-left-field change of heart in the final two chapters followed by an ending that just sort of stops. It really put a dampener on what had been an otherwise fantastic novel, and it's just so disappointing.

Overall, Out is definitely a novel that I would recommend to any crime or thriller fans who like their books to be gritty and gory. For me though, a novel that could have easily gotten full marks from me around the middle mark was spoiled by some occasional leaps of internal logic and an ending that just did not feel right. A pretty solid recommendation nonetheless. 4/5

Next review: Victims by Shaun Hutson.

Signing off,