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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

I've had the Locke & Key series on my radar for some time, as I am a huge Joe Hill fan. I think I've managed to gather the majority of the series, so now the only thing left is to give them a read, starting with Welcome to Lovecraft.


Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft follows the remains of the Locke family after a disturbed student kills their father. They move in with their uncle in his New England mansion, known locally as the Keyhouse. But while they're only looking to move on with their lives, the house is filled with doors that transform those brave enough to travel through with the right key. And there is a relentless creature who will stop at nothing to gain the power over those doors.
Considering that there was a lot made about the doors themselves, I was kind of expecting to see more of them. But Welcome to Lovecraft is a bit of a slower burn, which seems to be working for this volume at least. The first half alternates the focus on the kids trying to adapt to life without their dad and the traumatic events that led to their move in the first place. The slow familiarisation with the characters really works because by the time things start getting more threatening, the family has moved from generic survivors to characters whose safety I do feel genuinely concerned about. Character-wise, the three that are perhaps most important are the children. The oldest is Tyler, a former friend of the boy that killed his dad, and convinced that he is in some part responsible for the tragedy that occurred. The middle child is Kinsey, who saved her little brother at the time and is now struggling to reintegrate with her peers. Finally there is Bode, the youngest by a fair margin, who seems to be coping the best out of his siblings, but is frustrated that his encounters with the supernatural elements in the house are being written off as worrying signs of emotional instability. That's one of the things that I really like about how the supernatural stuff is written in. It kind of takes a trope that's really common with child fantasy protagonists, where the adults are useless and unwilling to believe, and makes it terrifying. I haven't seen much of the house yet, but I already know that Bode is in way over his head and that's really unsettling. It's definitely made me want to read more of the series.
Since this is another comic, I guess that I should spend some time taking about the artwork. I hadn't heard of Rodriguez before now, but I would be happy to see more of his work following this. It's perhaps not the prettiest of artwork, but it's great at evoking atmosphere and character personality, so it does fit the tone of the writing really well. He really doesn't shy away from the blood and gore either, which works with this kind of horror. Sometimes horror works better without visible gore, but this is not one of those instances, so it was good to see that the visuals haven't compromised that way.

More of a slow burner than I was initially expecting, but it really works to set up appealing protagonists who I am genuinely concerned for. It doesn't compromise on the gore, so if you're squeamish you may want to come prepared. It's definitely set up a series that I am eager to continue reading. 4.5/5

Next review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I have a feeling that this is the final book from that Humble Bundle that I had, and I'm rather chuffed with how the whole thing came out. I went into Signal to Noise with fairly positive expectations, as I've enjoyed what I've read of Neil Gaiman's work thus far and the comics that he's been involved with usually end up looking weird and beautiful. I couldn't seem to get a blurb that mentioned anything about the plot itself, only the rave reviews and the fact that there's a radio drama adaptation, but I've gone into a couple other books on this bundle with similarly vague notions of the premise and come out fine. Besides, if it sucked at least it was under 100 pages.


Signal to Noise follows a director in the months after he is diagnosed with cancer. As he refuses treatment for the malignant tumour, he begins work on his final film, the finished product that he doesn't expect to live to see. As he crafts a story about a village waiting for the apocalypse to come at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 999 AD, it starts mixing with his thoughts on his own personal, imminent apocalypse.
I kind of regret reading this on a tablet. While my tablet is okay for text, I think I needed to read Signal to Noise as a physical book. Because this is a beautiful comic book, and I don't think reading it on a tablet did it justice. I want to see the weird, angular depictions of the horsemen in that lovely glossy paper that decent comics are printed on. I want to be able to stare at the pages and really see the transition where the focus on the crowd zooms further and further out until you're looking at the creases in a man's palm. Signal to Noise, much like the world cinema films that it seems to be paying tribute to, is one of those pieces that is both beautiful to look at and never seems to stop being interesting in its subject matter. I don't want to say too much about the plot itself, as it's more a character piece and it's an experience that I don't think I can convey with the sort of grace that it deserves. Just read it.

Signal to Noise is a beautifully weird comic and my only regret is that I didn't read it as a physical book. It's the kind of comic book that you show people who try to trivialise the medium as nothing but superhero stories. It's visually experimental, and would definitely benefit from multiple read-throughs. It certainly feels longer than it's 80 pages. 5/5

Next review: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Unusually, I've gone for two short story collections on the trot. Maybe it's because I'm on holiday, but I've found myself really in the mood for something more bitesize. And considering that I've mostly enjoyed the dark fantasy stuff that Holly Black has written, I was interested to see how she holds up using short forms of fiction. Anything to take my mind off my sunburn has to be some good anyway. 


The Poison Eaters and Other Stories collects a series of short stories by the Curse Worker series author Holly Black. Some of the stories reference some of her longer work, with "Going Ironside" and "The Land of Heart's Desire" being set in her Modern Faery Tale series, while the opening tale "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" is set in the same universe as her novel of the same name. The subject matter ranges from vampires to unicorns and even as far as living books and girls whose touch can kill. 
Usually I prefer single-author anthologies, as you tend to get a more even tone and quality to the stories contained due to only coming from one author. Usually that's the case anyway. For some reason, Black seems to be a writer that I either love or could give or take, depending on what of hers I'm reading. It was very much in evidence here. On the side of absolutely love, I would have killed to have more stories like the eponymous "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" or "The Dog King"; those stories were my certain top three when I was looking over the contents in preparation for this review. And much of the rest of the stories were similarly strong. But for me, there were four stories that just fell flat for me: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", "Virgin", "In Vodka Veritas" and "Going Ironside". With those stories, there just didn't seem to be much actual content within them to grab a reader's attention. And considering that there's only 12 stories in the collections, I don't feel confident giving it top marks when there was around a third of the content that I was ambivalent at best about. Were there perhaps more stories with the quality of the three that I picked out as my favourites, then I'd perhaps feel a bit more positive about the collection. 

Quite a good collection overall, but The Poison Eaters and Other Stories is somewhat brought down by a few stories that, while not necessarily bad, are much less interesting. I'd still read it for "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" and "The Dog King", but you might want to go in aware. 3.5/5 

Next review: Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there's only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.


Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can't see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I'm actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn't aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn't sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn't really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It's a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.

Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5

Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Eric by Terry Pratchett

So, I was a little torn going into Eric. On the one hand, it's part of the Discworld series, which I really like. On the other hand, it's a Rincewind book, the installments that I find closest to tiresome.


Eric follows Rincewind as he is summoned from the Dungeon Dimensions that he was trapped in at the end of Sourcery. Following an oddity in a demon-summoning ritual, he has been called to grant the wishes of a teenage Faust-wannabe named Eric. While the wishes themselves are standard enough (to be ruler of the world, to have the world's most beautiful woman, and to live forever), the magic that Rincewind suddenly has at his fingertips is determined to grant these wishes in the most awkward way possible.
This is probably the first time that I've thought that Pratchett's writing benefitted by being shorter than normal. With most of his Discworld books thus far, I've gone away wanting more of what I just finished, which is kind of what I want from a book. With Eric, while I'm more than happy to admit that it is by far my favourite of the Rincewind books so far, it's kind of obvious that there wasn't much substance to it. I can't imagine that I would have liked Eric half as much if it went on for a regular Discworld novel's length. It's main good point is its brevity.
With regards to characters, my comments from previous Rincewind reviews still stand. I harbour a great love for the Luggage, and I still don't think that Rincewind works as a main character. As for the eponymous Eric, he's kind of a generic spotty teen. Occasionally he's amusingly ill-informed but otherwise there's not really much to him either. Like the plot, I could see him getting irritating if the material was stretched. any further.

The best novel starring Rincewind thus far in the series, but there's not a great deal of material here. Its brevity is a definite benefit here, as I could see it getting tiresome if it were any longer. As it is, it's short and sweet, and it's a lot of fun. 3.5/5

Next review: Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

And now to return to the Dresden Files, partially because I'm going on holiday soon and my husband's threatened to bring the official board game with him, so I wanted to be at least a little further in the series. Also because I like what I've read so far and want to see how the series progresses.


Grave Peril follows Dresden as he teams up with one of God's chosen warriors to try and quell a sudden uprising from the spirit world. While ghosts are normally harmless with the occasional poltergeist making a nuisance of itself, Chicago's dead are now anything but quiet and unusually powerful to boot. On top of that, Harry soon finds himself having to contend with tracking down a vulnerable young wizard and a party where he has to play nice with Bianca and the vampires of the Red Court.
I personally found Grave Peril to be kind of a stumble in the series thus far. While I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, after the first two installments this one was kind of disappointing.
So, let's start with the positive. I really liked the ghost stuff. The confrontation at the beginning in particular was really harrowing and so well-written. If there had been way more of that, then I think I would have been able to forgive some of the mis-steps a bit more.
So, the first thing that bothered was the introduction of Michael. While I don't have a problem with practising Christian characters in the books I read, I kind of found him to be a sanctimonious bore. At first I thought he'd be a fun addition, considering how much he seems to enjoy winding Harry up, but he didn't really go much beyond that. And it's unexpectedly annoying to have a character telling someone off for language that wouldn't even get a PG rating.
Second, it either doesn't feature or actively incapacitates my favourite characters, instead choosing to focus large parts of the narrative on Susan. This is more a personal gripe, but it really hinders a story when I don't care if one of the main characters dies or not.
Third, there's a big chunk of plot that occurs because of a case that Dresden helps close involving a sorcerer that summons a demon. All of which happened before any of the novel's events and isn't actually shown properly during the entirety of the narrative. Now, it might just be me, but if an event had tantamount importance to why Dresden is having problems now, then I'd be tempted to include it somewhere. Not just a nightmarish "what-if" version where everything goes wrong. Because as it is, it feels like cheating when Butcher reveals "oh yeah, it's part of that case that I keep alluding to, but will never disclose in full".
Finally, after the initial encounter with the Red Court at the party, the story starts to drag a bit. It stops being tense and suspenseful, and starts being various repetitions of "Oh no! The last of my reserves! Wait, wait... never mind, found some more. Carry on." It stops being tense once Dresden uses up his last ounce of strength more than once, and starts feeling a bit cheap. I will admit, the wrapping up chapter makes up for it a little by introducing a bigger conflict that I hope to really sink my teeth into.

Overall, it's decently written, and if I could have had more sections focusing on the ghosts, that would have been brilliant. As it was, Grave Peril focuses too much on characters that really aren't that interesting out of the side cast he's made thus far, has a big chunk of plot rely on events that the reader never gets to see and the climax drags where it should be tense. I still enjoyed reading it, I just feel that compared to previous installments this felt thoroughly average. 3.5/5

Next review: Eric by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn is one of those stories that I only really heard of after I started venturing out onto the Internet a bit more, and even then I seemed to find mostly artwork of the eponymous unicorn, with surprisingly little about the actual story. So when I got round to actually reading it, it had become a weird kind of amorphous non-entity: apparently a really beloved classic, but with little actual substance that I could see and figure out why people liked it.


It is a regular eternally spring day for the unicorn, when she hears a message that she can't bring herself to ignore: that she is the last of her kind in the world. Venturing from the safety of her forest, she sets out to find out what happened to others like her. Joining her on her journey are Schmendrick, the world's worst magician, and Molly Grue, an indomitable spinster. But the three of them may not be enough to combat the terrible Red Bull that stalks the land of the miserly King Haggard.
What I'm about to say probably won't make much sense. Because I had a copy of the deluxe edition, my edition of The Last Unicorn came with a lot of additional material, including an introduction and an interview that hammer in one point about the writing process for this book: it was a complete chore and it took years before Beagle could look at it and admit to himself that it was any good. And while I did like what I read, I think that there is a part of that struggle that shows through the writing. The Last Unicorn is a truly beautiful book at several points, but as a whole it kind of left me emotionally cold. I don't know what it was, but despite enjoying it, The Last Unicorn probably won't be high on my list of books to re-read any time soon. It's like watching a dancer who is technically flawless, but who doesn't enjoy performing anymore and hits her cues more out of obligation than anything else. The parts that I liked were the points where the fairy tale stuff was juxtaposed by the moments of crushing reality: the spider crying in the night having discovered that it can't weave the moon in her web, or Molly asking why the unicorn only turns up in her life after her youth and loveliness have already left. The more traditionally fantasy elements, regardless of how self-aware they are, seem to be there more to fit the story structure. It is really well written though, so I would be interested to see some more of Beagle's work, perhaps something that hadn't been such a struggle for him.

Thoroughly beautiful at times, but I can't honestly say that The Last Unicorn did much for me emotionally. There's nothing specifically wrong with the novel, but this just wasn't really for me. Pleasant enough and probably enough to warrant reading other works by this author, but this work seemed a bit too beholden to obligating fairy tale tropes to really stretch out and become something truly wonderful. I am probably in a minority here though. 3.5/5

Next review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

On a sidenote: Project Skylark

Not a review this time, but an appeal to whatever regular readership I have out there. I have a friend in the real world whose book is currently on Inkshares. This site is kind of like Kickstarter but specifically for publishing. At the moment, her manuscript is in the pre-order stage, and if she gets enough people to order copies then it will be properly published. She's been working on it for a long while now, so if you like the sound of the book pitch, then please consider ordering a copy. So, without further ado, may I introduce Project Skylark by Jennifer Hart.

Lost in Space meets Dune.
The crew of a marooned ship struggle to survive a hostile alien environment, whilst discovering that every decision they make will have far reaching consequences for the future of humanity. 
So, if you interested in Project Skylark then please click the enclosed link. The page includes a sample chapter to whet your appetite, and some very reasonably priced pre-order options.

Thanks for reading!

Signing off,
Nisa.
 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Returning to the Humble Bundle, I settled on another science-fiction title in the form of Spin. Much like my last foray into science-fiction, there wasn't much that I could glean from the blurb beyond "the stars are gone", but I was mostly optimistic. My last book entered with more or less a blank slate outlook was a resounding success, and I was hoping for perhaps another sleeper hit.


Spin follows Tyler Dupree and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, in the fallout of a massive cosmic event that starts when all the stars disappear from the sky. It soon becomes apparent that there is some kind of unnatural barrier surrounding the Earth, and that it is affecting more than just the appearance of the night sky. As more is found out about the mechanics of the Spin, Tyler finds himself torn between his two friends: while Jason throws himself into researching the Spin and why it was put there, Diane retreats into increasingly unorthodox religious movements in order to find meaning in a world that seems to be facing the end.
I found myself liking Spin, although not necessarily for my normal reasons. This is the first book that looks so closely at the world-building aspect of writing that hasn't left me entirely cold. Possibly this is because for all the understandable fascination that Wilson has for the actual scientific aspects of what would go into a phenomenon like the Spin, he balances it with how the science affects society at large. For the most part, there doesn't seem to be much reaction at all unless there's something big and showy happening in the sky. It's a slow creep of realisation instead of constant massive panic. I also liked that even when the narrative is dealing with some seriously out-there cults, there isn't the kind of anti-religious bullshit that you sometimes get with science-fiction dealing with potentially world-ending consequences. Even when the results of their actions turn out poorly, the people within these sects aren't depicted as crazed loons, just people who are scared and need somewhere to turn for answers. It's a surprisingly balanced look that is sorely welcome.
If I were to criticise anything about Spin, it would be the main character and narrator, Tyler. While there's nothing that I can think of that is actively aggravating or off-putting about him, neither can I think of anything really interesting about him either. The only thing that really stands out about him is his unhealthy obsession with the Lawton twins, and honestly it just makes him come across as embarrassingly needy. While not a huge issue, it does make the stakes a bit lower than they otherwise might be with a more engaging protagonist.

A really interesting look at a society abruptly reminded of their fragile place in the universe and how different parts of humanity look to try and cope. The main character is remarkable only for his unhealthy obsession with his two friends, but he's not enough of an issue to make Spin unreadable. Definitely one for readers who like solid world-building. 4/5

Next review: The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

After a long while of reading things that were in no way Pratchett-in-origin, I returned to the Discworld series and my husband rejoiced. Right up until I started incessantly quoting it at him whenever a funny line came up. Which was quite frequently.


Guards! Guards! follows the misadventures of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a much-maligned group attempting to keep order in a city where theft and assassination are well-regarded career options. Whilst they try to rein in a rather enthusiastic new recruit, a book about summoning dragons is stolen from the Unseen University and things start getting a whole lot more scaly and fire-breathing.
I'm not going to beat about the bush. I loved Guards! Guards! from start to finish. I wouldn't have necessarily thought that the kind of grizzled noir detective tropes would work with more traditional maiden-eating style dragons, but somehow it does gel quite nicely. And it leads to some great character introductions for the Watch. I have been told that Vimes gets even better, but even at this early stage I really liked the weirdness that is the hardboiled alcoholic detective within a fantasy setting, so I can only look forward to more of him. Carrot is the 6 foot dwarf (by adoption) who is the first genuine volunteer to the Watch that anyone can actually remember, and his overly enthusiastic rookie status worked fantastically against the infinitely more cynical and self-preserving veterans. Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs are somewhat less memorable than the others at the moment, but their generally pathetic and cowardly natures make for some great comedic moments. And then, be still my beating heart, there's Sybil. I thought she was the best thing about the book, bar none. An Amazonian mountain of a woman, who has more authority in her than that of the entire Watch combined and dedicates her spare time to breeding the most ridiculous specimens of dragon that I have ever seen in fiction. She is marvellous and I want to take her home. Also, it was nice to see Patrician Veternari start to come into his own. He is probably the only one who doesn't seem to be phased by anything that the plot decides to throw at him, and he manages to have one of the funniest scenes in the book whilst at the same time having probably the grimmest scene. He's just one of those characters.

Definitely my favourite Discworld novel thus far. I would say that of all the ones that I read of the series thus far, Guards! Guards! strikes me as the novel that is most beginner-friendly, possibly drawing with Mort. So really, there isn't much excuse not to pick this up if you haven't already. 5/5

Next review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn't have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I'd vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I'd never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.


Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn't think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn't gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it's throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I'm actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled down to internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren't easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I'm a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don't think I've really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren't in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It's established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

As some of you may have noticed, I am currently working my way through the second Humble ebook Bundle. I remember being vaguely interested in Little Brother when I first got the bundle, if only because it was dealing with a subject that I could discuss with my husband. If nothing, it would be nice to be able to actively engage with one of his special interests a bit more.

Little Brother follows Marcus Yallow, a more or less regular teen with a particular interest in technology and the ways that it can help him bunk off school. One particular day, he and some friends skip class, only to find themselves in the vicinity of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. During the chaos, he and his friends are arrested by the Department of Home Security and interrogated for nearly a week. When he is let out, he realises that his best friend Darryl wasn't released with them. Combined with the fact that the DHS has made San Francisco into a police state, and Marcus has more than enough reason to take them down.
Right, so there's something that I want to get out of the way right away. While I did enjoy Little Brother overall, there is a lot of stuff that Doctorow explains, especially at the beginning. While I do acknowledge that there's a fair bit that does need to be expanded on, especially if computers and security systems aren't subjects that you've looked into before, there is still a fine line with how much is necessary for proper engagement. I don't know whether this is because my husband has tried to explain at least some basic concepts to me, but I personally found that the stuff at the beginning kind of went overboard with the detail. Contrasting that, a concept that comes up later in the novel was so strangely explained that I had to get my husband to re-explain it for me when I got home from work. That last point aside though, there isn't really anything complicated enough to derail the plot and I can understand that you would want to err on the side of too much information when you're targeting a slightly younger audience. So this might be more of an annoyance if you're more familiar with coding when you go into this, but for complete beginners I can see the overabundance of detail being more useful than annoying.
Having gotten that negativity out of the way, I will say that I really enjoyed Little Brother. It is a really insightful look into what could happen if a country decides that the needs of "security" overrides the rights of its citizens' to privacy and free speech. The fact that I finished this on the day that Erdogan banned Wikipedia in Turkey, in order to block out content by writers accused of "supporting terror", is not something that has escaped me. Following the initial terror attack at the beginning, terrorists aren't even considered a credible threat by the narrative, regardless of how much the DHS try to insist that they're the only threat. And I think that that is very telling actually. While terrorism is something that has mentally and emotionally shaped Western society since the turn of the century and I wouldn't want to underplay the damage that these individuals have caused to the families of their victims, I don't think that terrorists are what we are really scared of. At least for me, there is the awareness that terror groups just don't have the resources or numbers in order to actually change things or even react to the increased measures against them. In contrast, working as a public servant I am keenly aware of just how much information that a government has about its citizens, and the prospect of what could happen if my government decided that it could exploit that in the name of safety feels a lot more real and legitimately terrifies me at times. But then I talk to my parents about this, and they're of a generation that doesn't necessarily understand technology as much and would perhaps prefer to err on the side of security over internet freedom. Little Brother gets into this younger mindset really well, and is probably a good place to try and introduce these kinds of concepts to those who aren't as familiar with them.

Definitely one to recommend for someone looking for a semi-realistic modern dystopia. It's a bit over-the-top when it comes to explaining concepts at times, but for the most part it appears to be pretty accurate when it comes to all things coding. 4/5

Next review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

I've had Just a Geek on my reading list for some time now, but I have only really felt my interest in Wil Wheaton flare up more recently after getting back into Geek & Sundry's output again, specifically Critical Role and Tabletop. Since I was mostly familiar with Wheaton's work from around 2012 onwards, I was looking forward to reading about his work from before then.


Just a Geek is a collection of essays centred around entries that Wil Wheaton made on his personal blog wilwheaton.net, focusing on the entries between the website's inception in 2001 and the book's publication in 2004. In these essays, he focuses mainly on his struggles as an actor famous enough to be too recognisable for throwaway commercials but no longer famous enough to pull in huge crowds, as well as his complicated love-hate relationship with Star Trek and the community surrounding it.
It's kind of weird reading Just a Geek since most of my impression of Wheaton's work is from since he became something of a geek icon in more recent years. I didn't really see anything of Star Trek beyond the original series until I started dating my husband just over 7 years ago. By then, Wheaton had pretty much moved on from being "that guy who used to be famous when he was a kid" to someone who worked a little bit in all kinds of fields. I mean, I think the first thing I watched that featured Wheaton in the cast was Teen Titans, so to think that for years he was Wesley Crusher in the eyes of the world is a bit surreal really. As such, it was an unexpectedly sober reading experience, trying to mesh the charming persona that I had seen on Tabletop with the frustrated impotence of some of the early blog entries that are included here. There is a word that I had heard in my experiences on the internet called Sonder, the definition of which is as follows:
"The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own - populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness - an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might only appear once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk." 
While it mainly applies to random people who may cross your path only once, I do think it has more general applications. With Wheaton, it was something of a shock to hear him talking about just how depressing it could get with regards to wasted career opportunities, auditions that went to flavour-of-the-moment actors, and the difficulties balancing work and family life, because while he does come across as a lot more genuine than a lot of actors, you do get the realisation that there is a lot more under the surface than perhaps you want to acknowledge when watching something silly and fun like Tabletop. And maybe you get to see the shape of how his life continued, to the point where the 2010s come along and he seems to be in a much better place, though still looking enviably baby-faced. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I appreciated just how much Wheaton admits to his audience here. It's a brave thing to do, especially for someone so inextricably linked to the near-universally disliked Wesley Crusher.

An interesting and touching collection of essays that focuses on his difficulties with his prior child star status and his growing investment in blogging and writing. His style is incredibly readable, with a lot of charm and personality. Also kudos has to go to him for focusing on some tough subjects that most people would try and gloss over. 5/5

Next review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker has been on my reading list for a fair while now, picked up as part of a geeky bundle. I was definitely looking forward to this one though, as it combines one of my favourite sub-genres, steampunk, with something looking horror elements. I was keen to see how it would pan out.


In an alternate history where the Civil War has been raging for two decades, an attempt to mine through the frozen Klondike for gold leads to disaster when the massive drill known as the Boneshaker destroys huge parts of downtown Seattle and releases a previously subterranean gas that turns those unfortunate to breathe it into the living dead. Sixteen years later, the worst affected parts of the city have been sealed off by walls, and the widow and son of the Boneshaker's inventor, Leviticus Blue, are trying to make a living whilst dealing with the ignominy of their relative's devastating actions. When Ezekiel makes his way into the sealed off city determined to find proof of his father's lack of malicious intent, Briar must find a way through the living dead and heavily armed criminals still living in the ravaged city in order to bring her son back.
Boneshaker was something of a slow burner for me. While I absolutely loved Briar and her sections trying to reach her son whilst regretting all the things that she never felt ready to tell him about his father, I was less keen on Zeke's sections. While there's nothing outright wrong about the way that he's written, I just find his kind of character irritating. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all, it's more interesting watching Briar's more considered approach as opposed to Zeke's "I have maps and a mask, I have no more need for preparation" plan of attack, which inevitably leads to a lot of blind panic. He does get better by the end though, so it's worth it to plough through his sections of blundering in the middle of the book. And Boneshaker is definitely worth finishing. Keeping in mind that it's alternate history and thus there are some massive creative liberties that have been taken with regards to historical accuracy, you can really tell that Priest is enthusiastic about the period and tries to keep as much historical flavour as possible within her re-imagined chronology. It makes the world feel a lot more grounded and realistic than a lot of other fantasy/science-fiction books, even compared to series where comparatively little is different to the real world. I can't really think of many people that I couldn't recommend this to.

A steampunk story that feels a lot more grounded than other examples in the genre even considering the additional undead, Boneshaker is definitely a book that I would recommend picking up for fans of the genre or those looking to for an introduction to steampunk. I personally found Zeke's sections in the middle to be a bit tiresome at times, but they are more than made up for by Briar's sections and he does gradually get some decent character development. The characters are solid, and there is some decent intrigue. 4.5/5

Next review: Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

So it's been a while since I last read anything from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Having spent some time reading other material, I was really looking forward to finding out how the series would progress. That and I could see my husband positively twitching as I read anything but Dresden Files or Discworld. Be aware that there may be spoilers for Storm Front below.


Fool Moon sees Harry about 6 months after the end of the previous book, and he is still feeling the negative consequences of it. Murphy doesn't trust him after he went after her suspect alone and withheld information about the case from her. As such, the work that he's gotten from the police has slowly been dwindling over the months. But when Murphy comes to him with what looks like werewolf attacks, it soon becomes clear that there is a lot more at stake than just his next paycheck.
This is a pretty entertaining continuation of the series, and a far more entertaining subject. Much as werewolves have been overdone before, it's much more of a tangible threat than magical drug dealers and amps up the tension more than a human enemy would. With regards to the werewolves, it does take a fun turn and introduces several different types to worry about, from wizards who transform their bodies with magic, to humans empowering themselves with demonic items, to those unfortunate people possessed by a demon. The benefit of having all the different types be relevant at some point means that there is variation in strengths and weaknesses that accordingly varies up the action.
Additionally, it was nice to see the consequences of Harry's actions coming back to bite him. Because, much as I like him as a character, he does have an annoying tendency to try and play protector, especially with the women in his life. And that most often means withholding information that he thinks would be dangerous for them to know. Honestly, that would be so much more irritating if it weren't obvious that the people he's denying information to didn't completely ignore his attempts to push them out of danger. I hope it doesn't go much further in the series though, because although I do relish seeing how it all backfires, I can see it getting really old really fast.
Lastly, I liked seeing more of the human characters previously introduced. While I'm still a bit lukewarm towards Susan, I was more than happy to see more of Murphy and Johnny Marcone. I probably shouldn't, but there's a big part of me that adores the gentleman gangster. I look forward to seeing more of the police and Chicago's criminal underworld a lot more in further installments.

An excellent continuation of the series. There are a few issues that aren't big enough to cause concern here, but I would be disappointed to see them continue in the series as a whole. Overall, it's a fun and at times terrifying romp with werewolves. There's some good expansion on the human characters already introduced, and more hints of a larger conspiracy in the background. 4.5/5

Next review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge isn't necessarily a book that I would have picked up of my own volition, had it not been for my dad. My dad isn't usually the type to really gush about the things that he reads, but from a fairly early age I've known that he really likes Thomas Hardy. As such, I figured that I'd try out one of his books, see if it's rubbed off on me.


The Mayor of Casterbridge starts when main character Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby girl in a drunken fit of pique, an action that he regrets immediately upon waking the next day. It then skips ahead nearly twenty years, when his wife and grown up daughter track him down to the agricultural town of Casterbridge. There they find that he has become a rich and well-respected member of the community. He invites them to come and live with him, to make up for his poor decision, but it soon becomes apparent that the consequences of that day are still making themselves known.
I found this a bit of an odd book to read, as on the one hand the prose can be a bit dense and slow-going at times, but it is then combined with a plot in which a lot of active events happen within a comparatively short space of time. So there is a part of me that wants to describe this as a slow-burner, but then I know that with the amount that actually happens it doesn't feel like an accurate description. In regards to the actual plot, a lot of it is the kind of Victorian social drama that I quite like, although the main character's headstrong personality does see it get very dramatic and scandalous quickly and surprisingly often.
The main draw for The Mayor of Casterbridge is the characters. The main ones that contribute to the plot are Henchard, his daughter Elizabeth, his would-be protegee Farfrae and a mysterious woman from Henchard's past Lucetta. Mostly it's the first and last characters whose actions most impact the plot. Keeping with my regular rule of avoiding spoilers, I shan't be expanding much on Lucetta. But even without her, there would probably be an impressive amount of plot stemming purely from Henchard as a character. He is pretty perfect as a main character in a tragedy, as he is an intensely passionate person and is more or less incapable of moderating his emotions and impulses. With someone that volatile, it's almost inevitable that something unfortunate will happen. Farfrae and Elizabeth are comparatively passive, but they nicely balance out two very outgoing characters with emotional moderation.

It's a bit dense at times, and surprisingly intense with the sheer amount that happens within the bounds of the plot. But it is fascinating just watching the chaos caused by the main character's energy and inability to moderate his emotions. I don't know how good a place this is to start with regards to Hardy's work as a whole, but I would certainly consider reading other works of his in future. 4/5

Next review: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

I first heard about the character Arsene Lupin when I was reading the manga detective series Case Closed. Included in the back of each volume was a recommendation from the author of other detectives that readers might be interested in. And amongst some of the first to be recommended was Arsene Lupin, a charismatic master thief and sometime detective, created in response to the success of Sherlock Holmes. Suitably intrigued, I tried finding whatever had been translated from the original French, only to discover that there doesn't seem to be much available regardless of what Wikipedia says has been translated. As such, I've been rather looking forward to reading something complete, beyond the few scattered stories that I've managed to find previously.


An Arsene Lupin Omnibus collects four of the volumes written by LeBlanc. Instead of going over plot and character aspects as I would normally would, I will instead focus on each volume individually.
First up is Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears. This is the weakest of the four for me, for one reason that is perhaps more personal to me. As you can probably tell, this is a short novel detailing the intellectual battle between Lupin and a poorly disguised version of Sherlock Holmes, whose name couldn't be used at the time of writing due to copyright infringement. The mystery is actually fairly solid, I didn't really manage to guess anything before the big finales. My problem is that this is such a mean-spirited rendition of Holmes, and let's not pretend that this Holmlock Shears is meant to be a character in his own right. While I have loved books with one abhorrent character, rarely was the narrative from their perspective and never was it using the character that I will probably always carry closest to my heart. To see him treating his Watson substitute with such callousness is galling. As I said though, the mystery is good enough and Lupin charming enough that I could tough it through.
The second volume in the omnibus is The Confessions of Arsene Lupin, a collection of short stories mostly focusing on Lupin as a master thief. This is one of the stronger collections in my opinion, because Lupin's adventures are not long enough that they have time to grow old. An issue that the previous volume had as well was that as two longer cases, it does start to feel a bit like a waiting game as Lupin sets more and more obstacles in an investigation's way until no more avenues of pursuit are available. With the short stories, it's more succinct and punchy. They feel more fun when there isn't the knowledge that your main character is running in circles. It's much more interesting to see how carefully laid defences are circumvented when it isn't the point of view character's defences.
The third volume is another novel-length adventure, The Golden Triangle. In this volume, a dashing injured army captain and the beautiful nurse who tended to his injuries must defend against an unknown assailant whilst trying to figure out both where the nurse's evil husband hid several tons of gold bullion and who has been aiming to bring the two of them together in matrimony since early childhood. This one works significantly better than the first of the long-form adventures, as it provides more meat with regards to its adventure. I won't say mystery, because there's one rather big spoiler, only revealed in the penultimate chapter, that I managed to guess by the halfway point. Hint, characters don't do a 180 turn in allegiance during the course of a day, so it's not hard to surmise from there. Aside from that, it's great fun, with a lot of "lovers in peril" moments that I probably like a bit too much.
Last of all is The Eight Strokes of the Clock. This is kind of an interesting volume, as it's in some ways both a novel and a collection of short stories. Posing as a gentleman by the name of Prince Serge Renine, Lupin approaches a woman by the name of Hortense Daniel, and manages to restore her financial independence. As payment, he offers that she become his companion in seven further adventures, thus providing the reader with a series of interlinked short stories. I had actually read a couple of the chapters before getting the omnibus, as a part of a "best of" collection, and I must say that their inclusion was spot on. While the introduction essentially asks the reader to think of Lupin as a French equivalent to Sherlock Holmes, nowhere in this omnibus does it fit as well as The Eight Strokes of the Clock, as here we have the consistency of an established partnership combined with the stand-alone nature of the short stories themselves. Honestly, it's the best part of the omnibus, and had everything been of this standard I would have been supremely happy to give this a perfect score.

A thoroughly enjoyable collection, worth a look for The Eight Strokes of the Clock alone. As a Holmes fan I can't quite bring myself to like Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears, but I can appreciate a decent mystery when I see one; not necessarily enough to recommend it by itself though. The Golden Triangle is where long-form starts to suit Lupin, though it works more as an adventure than as a particularly airtight mystery. And The Confessions of Arsene Lupin are a decent starting point for some of the character's less law-abiding adventures, with a lot of charm and action. 4.5/5

Next review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Continuing with Fitzgerald, I could only hope that The Beautiful and Damned would be a somewhat more satisfactory read than his debut novel. Seeing as the blurb given for the second novel in this collection had at least a modicum of plot mentioned beyond "here's this guy's life-story", I had a bit of hope that it would be less tiresome.


The Beautiful and Damned follows Anthony Patch, a romantic young man who is due to come into an inheritance of millions when his grandfather passes, if only he can live with some measure of respectability. But this will turn out to be much harder than he imagines, with his marriage to the beautiful and indolent Gloria marking the beginning of an existence typified by living beyond his means.
This novel is almost everything I want in a story set in the 1910s and 20s. It is a bleak but beautiful picture of a society that cannot sustain itself under its own hard and fast living. Anthony is not much different in character from Fitzgerald's previous protagonist Amory Blaine initially, but the thing that made The Beautiful and Damned work with a protagonist of this type is that Anthony actually seemed to suffer for his poor choices. Whereas Amory's slide into poverty is accompanied with a surprisingly blase attitude, Anthony doesn't cope in the slightest with being unable to live as he was accustomed to. Throwing himself into weekend-long parties that he can't afford, but can't bear to go without, it's not long before he's sucked into a self-destructive spiral of debt. To have an actual character arc to follow is so refreshing after the meandering that hampered This Side of Paradise. The Beautiful and Damned is not a perfect novel though, as there are points where it feels more than a little padded and it's still a bit meandering at points. But it captures that self-destructive undertone that fascinates me about the early 20th century perfectly and I would happily recommend this novel to those interested in Fitzgerald's work or that particular era in history.

A fascinating portrayal of a man's downward spiral into drink and debt, it is thoroughly entertaining. Still a little bloated in places, but nowhere near as meandering as This Side of Paradise. 4/5

Next review: An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 20 February 2017

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like many people, I read The Great Gatsby as a set text for my classes in English. And while it didn't have the impact on me that books like The Outsider, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. So, while browsing the shelves at the independent bookshop that has parted me from more of my money than I would like to admit, I noticed a book that combined F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seemed like a good way to look into more of his works. Plus, I have a fondness for the Roaring Twenties, so what could go wrong?


This Side of Paradise follows Amory Blaine, the only son of wealthy parents, from his early adolescence to young adulthood, a period of time that covers his time at Princeton, fighting in the First World War, and several love affairs with beautiful but unattainable women.
If you're a dedicated reader of any kind, it sometimes occurs that you are hit with the unassailable certainty that you are reading the first piece of long-form writing that the author has published. Oftentimes this is due to some part of the construction being noticeably unpolished, and after a lot of practice I have found that the feeling is very rarely wrong. It was certainly on the money with This Side of Paradise.
Normally I would split the critique of plot and character, but since there is no plot beyond "How is Amory developing as a character?" it feels redundant splitting the two elements, as I would ultimately be parroting back the same issues with both. My issues with Amory then. Despite reading about almost nothing but him and his personality for over 200 pages, I don't think that there is much to actually pin down about him besides the impressively hard-wired traits intellectual arrogance and fay selfishness. The narrative desperately wants you to think that he is brilliant but flawed, but quite honestly there is so little human warmth in him that all of his poetic ambitions seem hilariously out-of-touch considering that you need to be able to feel things in order to express them. Honestly, it feels kind of embarrassing having Amory as a lead character, as he doesn't seem to have either the drive to do the great things that he sort of assumes that he will inevitably achieve or the emotional range to be quite the ladykiller that he proves to be. The nagging feeling that Amory was based on Fitzgerald himself somehow just makes this worse. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that I've found an author stand-in character that actually works.
So, despite the emotional lack of depth and the plot that gets less and less defined the more Amory puts off making actual adult decisions, I would say that there is something that prevents This Side of Paradise from being a complete waste. The actual writing itself. While there are long stretches where it does little more than adequately depict the events of the book, you do get flashes of really interesting writing that makes you realise why people really loved this book when it was first published. It's things like changing the format from prose to script for certain romantic sections, or a particularly striking line of prose, and you get that whoever wrote This Side of Paradise is going places, even if he isn't there yet.

This Side of Paradise is quite obvious as a first novel as you read it. The act of following Amory Blaine is an effort that doesn't really pay off, as the plot can only be interesting when he actually has some kind of direction in life, which is seldom. There are moments of brilliance in the writing though, so some definite promise to save it from being a totally wasted effort. 3/5

Next review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Around the Moon by Jules Verne

So last time I was looking at From the Earth to the Moon and found myself pleasantly surprised despite the dodgy 19th century science. Presumably then I would be similarly taken with its direct sequel, Around the Moon, right? Yeah, about that.... 


Around the Moon follows Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan as they journey to the moon in their projectile. All seems well, until they realise that they have been knocked off course and may miss the moon entirely. 
As a lot of my previous review covers suspension of disbelief, I will quickly address how Around the Moon compares in that regard. It is so much worse. While I could kind of wave away a lot of the previous installment with the sentiment that the principle is more or less sound, when almost the entire plot focuses around the characters noting down their observations of the moon, or what the 19th century thought the moon would be like, it is extremely difficult to ignore or wave all the ways that this is wrong. Like the point where they open a window in order to dispose of an animal carcass into the vacuum of space. It is points like that that make the suspension of disbelief so much more difficult this time around. If you can deal with imaginative departures from fact, then you may find this less distracting than I did. 
Now to the part that is special to Around the Moon when compared to its predecessor. The action, bar the last few chapters, all takes place within the confines of the projectile fired at the end of the previous installment. Now, when you have a story occur in entirely one place, your writing skills are pushed to the limit, especially if none of the characters can leave said place. There are two things that need to work near enough perfectly for such a situation to work: the pacing and the characters. To say that Verne dropped the ball may be an understatement. In regards to the pacing, it kind of settles on a slow trudge due to most of the action being the observation of the moon and space. There are a couple of points where the projectile is almost hit by asteroids, but there's nothing that the protagonists can do in the face of it, so it doesn't really stop the monotony of watching a huge deal. As such, the characters become even more important, and it couldn't have been a bigger catastrophe if it tried. Of the three main characters, two are flat caricatures of the practical American stereotype that Verne seems to love, and even their supposed intelligence is put to question considering that they only consider how they are meant to get back to Earth once they are well past the Earth's atmosphere. They are nothing compared to the irritation that is Ardan though. You know in some series you get those characters that are meant to be charmingly whimsical but end up being a vacant ninny infatuated with their own stupidity? Michel Ardan is that character. He keeps suggesting things that are blatantly ridiculous or dangerous for them to do whilst on the journey, only to moan that his travel companions are too practical and boring when they inevitably poke holes in his ideas. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that he would ignore them at the point where he wondered what it would be like to float along in the wake of the projectile. By all means Ardan, throw yourself into the icy vacuum of space, it will be the most use you've been all trip, especially after sneaking a flock of chickens on board for no real reason. 

While From the Earth to the Moon was a fun thought exercise where human ingenuity causes something amazing, Around the Moon was the space equivalent of setting out on a journey only to realise you only have fuel for a one-way trip and everyone left their money at home. Sorely disappointing. 1.5/5 

Next review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

When you have a fondness for steampunk as I have, two authors above all others are cited as influences on the sub-genre: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The former brings the influence of technology as a springboard for great advancement and adventure, whilst the latter brings the more socially aware aspect of science fiction to the genre. As such, it's a little embarrassing that until now, I had read neither of their works. Seeking to fix that for at least half of these important writers, I picked up a collection of From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon by Jules Verne. And at the halfway point, how does the writing stand? 


From the Earth to the Moon follows the Baltimore Gun Club, a collection of men known and respected throughout the United States for their innovations in the field of firearms and artillery. But, with the American Civil War over, their golden era appears to be coming to an end, as there is no need for overpowered cannons until war breaks out again. At their lowest point though, the club president, Barbicane, presents an idea for an experiment that will test the Gun Club's credentials: they will attempt to build a cannon powerful enough that you could send a projectile to the surface of the moon. And with that announcement, a furore spreads across America and the world. 
This is a rather strange book to read, for several reasons. The first thing that I will mention though is the focus of the narrative. It isn't the firing of the projectile to the moon, which happens less than 20 pages before the end of the book. The actual narrative focuses on the process of making the cannon and the projectile in the first place, with the moon-based shenanigans presumably taking place in Around the Moon. As such, it does feel weirdly paced, as this is the sort of prep work that books usually condense down to a paragraph or two at most. In From the Earth to the Moon, that prep work is pretty much the whole story, with chapters dedicated to steps such as: consulting with astronomers when the best time to fire said projectile would be when dealing with the moon's elliptical orbit, appealing for funding from overseas, and the process by which the cannon is forged, to name but a few. It's bizarre to read, but not necessarily a bad thing. You don't usually get into the world-building in quite such detail, and it is an interesting change from the norm. 
The problem with going into details is that from the perspective of the modern reader, whose concept of space travel is probably vastly different to that of a contemporary reader of Verne's, is that when the dodgy science turns up, it's a heck of a lot more noticeable. This isn't necessarily so obvious in the first half or so, where the intent is more or less to just shoot the moon to see if they can. When the French adventurer Ardan comes along insisting to be part of the experiment though, it becomes an attempt to send people onto the moon via the projectile. At that point, the suspension of disbelief becomes significantly harder, sometimes to the point of unintentional humour. They pack a year's worth of food rations but only enough water to last them a little more than the journey's expected length, because of course the moon has water on the surface. At some points it becomes a struggle to stop trying to figure out which part of their ridiculous plan will kill them first. In addition, there are some non-scientific points where the narrative takes a turn for the weirdly funny, again probably not intentionally. My personal favourite is where the three adventurers have to break it to the overly excitable secretary of the Gun Club that they won't have room for a fourth person on the voyage, only for the narrator to mention that the three men will be accompanied by a Setter and a Newfoundland. A Newfoundland is pretty much a tame bear, and Setters aren't that much smaller. 
But, while it is difficult to take seriously at times, I still couldn't help but enjoy reading it. Ignoring the unintentional laughs, it was nice to read some science fiction that wasn't about someone attempting to undo some great evil wrought through maliciously-applied science or some new technology going terribly wrong. Here, it was the process by which someone took a concept that seemed far-fetched at best, and by applying the best of what science understood at the time, achieved something fantastic. The science may be out-of-date, but the boundless enthusiasm for the endeavours of the human spirit is something of a breath of fresh air. 

The science behind the project is absolutely ludicrous at times, but considering that From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, over a century before a moon landing was even remotely successful, then you can forgive it somewhat. If you can overlook the massive holes in logic and physics, then you have a book that documents a group of people trying to do what no-one has attempted before, and the concept of their failing is never even considered. There's something about that positivity that makes this endearing, where normally the plot-holes would annoy me more. 3.5/5 

Next review: Around the Moon by Jules Verne. 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

After a good dose of depressing Russian literature, I was in the mood for something a bit more comforting. As such, here comes another Discworld review! It was going to happen eventually, especially with my husband encouraging me to pick up the series again. 


As a young boy, the prince of Djel is sent to Ankh-Morpork in order to learn how to be an assassin, and possibly earn back some of the money that their ancestors spent on building pyramids. Upon completing his assassin training, the prince Teppic is called back to his home country to take on the role of King. In attempting to be a good and progressive monarch though, he is foiled at every turn by the traditional High Priest Dios. And in the necropolis, the pyramid that is being built for his father's mummified body is starting to cause strange, possibly quantum, phenomena. 
I found Pyramids to be kind of average actually. Now don't get me wrong, Pratchett is his usual very funny self, with some truly awful names cropping up and barely a page going by without the writing eliciting a laugh or a smile of some kind. And there is a lot about it that is quite clever and interesting in regards to the world-building. I just can't get excited by the main character. I really wanted to like Teppic, and in the first part of the book I honestly thought that he could be a quirky main character who would be a joy to follow. I mean, his first appearance is him getting ready for the final exam that will allow him to join the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork; having strapped on everything that he can think of to help him, he falls over from the sheer weight of it. The parts where Teppic gets to show off his assassin skills are by far the best part of it, but for maybe two thirds of the narrative he doesn't get to use it. Instead he sits around while his country is run without him even being necessary, which, while frustrating in-character for him as well, isn't exactly what I was hoping for out of a main character. In addition, it means that when he clashes with Dios, to the point where the High Priest is actively threatening to kill him, the fact that Teppic doesn't automatically go to kill his obstacle is kind of bizarre. I suppose that there may be some Assassin Guild code that I'm missing involving only inhuming people under certain circumstances, but even so. What's the point of making the main character an assassin if he never actually inhumes anyone directly? 

Overall, kind of average for Pratchett, but that's still quite a bit better than most other people's average. It's a stand-alone novel within the wider Discworld series, so possibly a good one to start with or see if you like Pratchett's style. And of course, if you're looking to read all of the Discworld series, then you can hardly leave this one out. 3.5/5 

Next review: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So my last experience with Dostoyevsky was not brilliant to say the least. But I still had just under half of the book left to go, so there seemed little reason to abandon The Gambler just yet. In any case, the subject matter of gambling looked to be less dry than The House of the Dead, so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a total waste.


The Gambler follows a tutor by the name of Alexey Ivanovitch as he accompanies the family that he works for to a German spa town. Whilst there, he is witness to the damage that roulette can do to a family, eventually falling prey to it himself. Combined with his unhealthy passion for his employer's beautiful but cruel step-daughter, Alexey finds himself succumbing to a mania that overrules all other interests.
If there had been no names listed with these novels, I would never have guessed that The House of the Dead and The Gambler were written by the same person. Whereas the former was dry and poorly constructed, The Gambler is clear and engaging. The fact that the majority of the plot is the kind of social backstabbing that I love was a real bonus. It's not quite the quality that you can find in books like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it's still entertaining to watch everyone desperately making plans around money that might or might not be available. The protagonist Alexey isn't really likeable or unlikeable, but that's not such a huge problem in this kind of plot. The only thing that I would criticise is that the plot itself is a bit on the simple side, but that's made up for by the characters, the scheming and the engaging description of gambling addiction.

The far superior novel in this collection, The Gambler is a fascinating look at the dangers of gambling, as well as the kind of social scheming that I'm a great fan of. Perhaps a bit simple at times, but well constructed and engaging. 4/5

Next review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If you have any interest in reading the classics, then Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a name that will eventually come to your attention. The problem in trying to pick up his work is that most of his well-known works seem to be roughly equivalent to a breeze block in size. As such, when I found a book that was a collection of two of his lesser known works, The House of the Dead and The Gambler, I thought that this might be a good place to start with.


The House of the Dead is a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Russian penal system. Taking inspiration from the four years of hard labour that Dostoyevsky spent in Siberia, the plot follows Alexandr Petrovich Goryanchikov after he is arrested for murdering his wife.
If I were to sum up this book into one overarching impression, the word "meandering" comes to mind. And when you're writing something that is supposed to be criticism of your country's penal system, slow and considerate is sometimes not the most effective way to express your concerns. The writing itself is decent enough, but when the subject keeps changing track whenever the narrator has a new train of thought it becomes difficult to form a definitive picture of what happens when. Additionally, the narrator will go into great detail about certain prisoners several chapters before their presence actually becomes important, so it gets interesting trying to remember exactly which of the largely faceless horde the narrative is referring to. And it really bugs me that this is the case. As I said before, the writing is good, but it's brought down by the mild tone and seeming inability to tell the story in chronological order. If it could focus more, then it could have been a truly powerful and striking narrative. As it is, The House of the Dead is interesting, but very slow-going and ultimately a bit lacking in bite. There did also seem to be a bit of internal inconsistency as it would appear that the main character is later referred to as a political prisoner, which conflicts with the assertion that he was arrested for murder. Not that his crime actually makes any actual difference to the narrative, so it isn't necessarily a huge issue.

Overall, The House of the Dead was a bit on the disappointing side. For something that was inspired by his own imprisonment, I had hoped for something with a bit more passion. What I got was a meandering, timeless mess of recollections that left practically no impression whatsoever. The writing was good, but if the structure isn't there, then it leaves a lot to be desired. 2.5/5

Next review: The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Signing off,
Nisa.