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Thursday, 20 December 2018

K-ON! Volume 3 by kakifly

I was feeling in the mood for something quick and a bit cute before a few books that were likely to take a bit more time to complete, so I settled on K-ON! Volume 3. It was a good thing too, considering that I ended up heading home early from work feeling thoroughly ill and miserable.

K-ON! Volume 3 picks up from where the last volume left off, with the majority of the Pop Music Club's members finishing their second year and entering their final year of high school. With graduation looming, Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi have to start considering where they want to go for university, while Azusa has to face the prospect of being the only remaining member come the start of the next school year.
As I haven't been feeling great today, it was nice to read something safe and predictable. If you've been following K-ON! so far, it's safe to say that you know how it goes now. There aren't quite as many jokes about eating cake instead of practising, but it's still more focused on the domestic than the music side of things. There's a sense of things starting to come to a close, as there's a lot of baton-passing shown, both inside and outside of the club. There's also a bit more focus on how it is run as a club, with more mentions of things like club budget and requests for things like air conditioning.
The characters are still great, and this volume the reader gets to see a bit more of some of Azusa's classmates. Ui's already been introduced in an earlier volume as Yui's doting and hyper-competent younger sister. A new addition to the cast is Jun, who really admires the club whilst they're on-stage, but can't bring herself to join as she thinks that they're a bit lazy and embarrassing day-to-day.

If you like the previous two volumes of K-ON!, it's a pretty safe bet that you'll like the third. A bit more of a focus on the actual school side of things, and more of a spotlight on characters that are likely to join the club once the older members leave for university. 4/5

Next review: Under Ordshaw by Phil Williams

Signing off,

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Banebringer by Carol A. Park

Returning to TBRindr, I settled on Banebringer, the first in what looked like a fairly grimdark series, with some cool magic and monsters. I've been on a bit of a roll with my grim books, so I was quite looking forward to this one.

In the world of the Heretic Gods, the eponymous Banebringers are reviled as worshippers of heretical gods and summoners of the predatory monsters known as Bloodbane. Vaughn, an unwilling Banebringer of noble birth, is trying to have a low key life but finds himself hunted by his own father, obsessed with maintaining the reputation and influence of their family name. Not able to bring himself to kill his father, he appeals to the assassin Sweetblade, hoping that she might be able to do what he can't. Sweetblade has her own reasons for wanting Vaughn's father dead, but the risk of angering the power of the Conclave that he works for, and her own instant dislike of Vaughn might see the Banebringer sharing the same fate as his father.
There is a lot to like about Banebringer, but the two things that I'm going to focus on for this review are the magic system and the main characters. Magic in this world is primarily a Banebringer trait, which is activated by using up aether in their blood. Depending what kind of Banebringer the character is, this then activates their particular special powers, which range from invisibility to ice powers. And if a Banebringer is killed, it rips a hole in reality and summons a horrifying monster called a Bloodbane. So far so good. The thing that I really love about the magic system though, is that it develops as the plot goes along. A lot of fantasy series would probably look at that magic system and decide that it's good enough as is, but because a large chunk of the novel involves other Banebringers who are actively researching into how and why their powers work, the magic system continues to grow more complex and layered. I'd continue the series just to find out how far it can go.
The other thing that I particularly liked was the relationship between Vaughn and the assassin Sweetblade, revealed to be a woman called Ivana. The fact that they clash is hardly surprising, considering that Ivana is aloof and has a particular hatred of being propositioned, while Vaughn is an incurable flirt content to never settle for one woman. And of course, opposites attract, that I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting was the depth of feeling and consideration that each of them get over their separate character arcs, and certainly not the direction that it took in the end. And rather than feel cheated that my expectations weren't met, I'm eager to find out how their relationship progresses as the series continues because it still felt really natural and well-explored.
The only thing that I will say is that the rest of the world can feel a bit vague at times, with names of regions mentioned in passing, only to not be revisited, or certain racial traits skimmed over. Like I'm pretty sure that Ivana is meant to be black, but only because she briefly compares her appearance to someone else, and even then that's only a few chapters from the end of the book.

There's a lot going on in Banebringer, and a lot of questions that have been set up for later books. It's definitely worth a look for fantasy fans looking for something a bit darker, as well as those who want an in-depth, evolving magic system. The relationship between the two main characters is engaging, their "opposites attract" dynamic written with depth, maturity, and with a bit of a twist. The rest of the worldbuilding can seem a bit woolly at times, but it's rarely much of a distraction. 4.5/5

Next review: K-ON! Volume 3 by kakifly

Signing off,

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I will admit to cheating a little with Heart-Shaped Box, as I had already read it several years before. It was my book of choice on a college trip to Berlin and I remember some good evenings spent curled up in a youth hostel scaring myself silly. But I'd forgotten some of the details of the book and thought that now would be a good time to remind myself of why I loved this book.

Heart-Shaped Box follows Judas Coyne, a middle-aged rock star who has gone into semi-retirement following the deaths of the majority of his band, and generally being tired with the whole business of being a rock star. He receives an email that says "Buy my stepfather's ghost". As he has a collection of the macabre, mostly consisting of twisted gifts from his fans, it seems like the perfect addition. But when the ghost is delivered to Jude, a dead man's suit in a black heart-shaped box, he finds that the ghost that he has allowed into his life had a grudge against him during life and is hardly about to let death stand in the way of his plans for revenge.
I really loved Heart-Shaped Box the first time round, and the second time was similarly entertaining. I will say during this second read, there were a couple things that stuck out as needing work that I didn't notice as a younger woman. But I'll start with what the book gets right.
Firstly, I personally really liked the main characters, Jude and Georgia/Marybeth. I've seen a lot of reviews that criticise them for being flat and predictable, but I think that's too harsh a line to take. Sure, ageing rock star and his significantly younger groupie girlfriend isn't exactly the most original of archetypes to run with, but I don't take much issue with this for a couple of reasons. First of all, you don't tend to get these character archetypes as the main protagonists, so I'm happy to switch focus to them for a while. Second, the development that they both go is pretty damn significant, even if it's kept a bit low-key compared to the whole "we're being chased by a homicidal ghost" thing. They go from being a pair of desperately unhappy people who are unable to deal with all of their emotional baggage to a couple that can last through thick and thin, knowing that there's someone who has seen them at their worst and decided to stick around.
The villain, Craddock, is a bit on the cartoonishly evil side of things, having pretty much no positive features either alive or dead, but then I think that's about right when it comes to the supernatural. For me, there is a big factor about a supernatural evil that influences how scary I find them, which is whether they can be reasoned with. It's the reason that I find zombies much worse than vampires. With vampires, there's the potential for a spark of humanity that can be exploited by the quick-witted to possibly get out of the situation alive. With zombies, there is no reasoning with them, leaving you with a zero-sum situation. Craddock has no positive qualities or virtues that can be appealed to and combined with his incorporeal form and eerie mind powers makes him a formidable foe.
The main issue that I had with Heart-Shaped Box in my second reading was that the really unsettling stuff seems to be in the first part, with each subsequent part getting less scary as it goes on. This could be because as they go on, Jude and Marybeth gather some additional tools to combat Craddock with. But then they also get increasingly on-edge and beaten up, so that sort of balances out. Part of it is probably that the character development does make up a big chunk of the road trip that takes up the latter part of the novel. But the thing that sticks out in my mind most is a scene right near the end of the first part which is just so fucked-up and creepy that pretty much everything after it pales in comparison. Afterwards the horror is more slow-burn, which only emphasises how good that shock to the system scare is.

I thoroughly enjoyed my second read-through of Heart-Shaped Box. While it does suffer scare-wise after having its most shocking and nauseatingly creepy scene fairly early on, the ghost is persistent and subtle enough that there is at least a decent amount of tension throughout. The main characters aren't necessarily the most original, but the personal development that they both go through is pretty damn good. I'd definitely recommend this for horror fans or maybe as a starting point for someone looking to get into the genre. 4.5/5

Next review: Banebringer by Carol A. Park

Signing off,

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Woven Ring by M. D. Presley

I now return to TBRindr with a review of The Woven Ring. In the same vein as my last indie fantasy title, this promised a kind of fantasy that was somewhat rare, in this case a fantasy take on the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods. I'll admit that while I was interested to see some more fantasy that diverged from the norm a bit, I was a bit wary about the particular period of history chosen. You see, while I'm not that knowledgeable about the American Civil War considering that I'm British and all, I've learnt enough to know that it's still a touchy subject and there was a part of me that was rather wary about how it would be translated into a fantasy world.

The Woven Ring follows Marta, a former spy in the civil war that tore the country of Newfield apart and left her an exile from her home. Charged with transporting the daughter of widely-hated inventor into the east of Newfield by her manipulative brother, Marta finds herself torn. Part of her orders state not to kill the inventor, but she finds herself unwilling to consider that possibility due to his role in the civil war. Complicating the issue is the daughter herself, an unresponsive mute who has succumbed to combat fatigue and will only act upon Marta's strict orders, and a series of pursuers that may include agents of the devil herself.
I really shouldn't have worried myself, because The Woven Ring is fantastically written and manages to avoid the main issue that I was worried about regarding the civil war setting. Thankfully, the civil war isn't to do with slavery in this world, so there isn't a tortured race metaphor that the reader has to deal with. Instead, the setting combines the early industrial, post-war feel of the Reconstruction era with a really well fleshed out religion/magic system. I say religion/magic, as the two are very closely intertwined, and I'm not at a point where I can clearly define it as one or the other. It's a fascinating and intricate, and would take me all day to properly explain what I know currently, seeing as the narrative presents a few unexpected twists about it at the end that I hope will be explored in much greater detail.
The plot has two main strands, which can be broadly called the present and the past. The present strand focuses on the above blurb, with a traumatised and intensely bitter Marta on her transportation mission. The past strand focuses on Marta growing up in a family of spies in the years leading up to the civil war, and during the civil war as the situation only gets more and more dire. It alternated between the two, a technique that I have seen used incredibly poorly in the past. Here, it worked out because the two plot strands were equally interesting and each chapter has enough in it that you're not necessarily left hanging for too long.
The characters are similarly well-written. First there is Marta, a bitter and battle-hardened woman trying to regain her family's approval. She was both unnerving and incredibly refreshing as a protagonist, as I don't think I've had a main POV as bleak as this since Best Served Cold. I loved her as a protagonist, but I can see her being a bit much for someone who prefers their main characters to be a bit friendlier. Second, there's Caddie, the mute girl that Marta is transporting across the country to return to her father. She's apparently been traumatised by something in the past, but by what is unknown and there may be much more to her than initially meets the eye. And lastly, there are Luca and Isabelle, two mercenaries who join Marta to help her reach her destination in the east. While Luca is chatty and obviously shifty, Isabelle is mute and seems about as sick of Luca's shit as Marta is. For me, they weren't as interesting to follow, but they do provide some nice contrast to Marta and allow her to have some interactions with someone who isn't a child in a stupor.

The Woven Ring is a fantastic novel with a lot of intricacy and depth. The characters are well-written, if a bit on the bleak side, although that's to be expected in a Grimdark fantasy book. The main draw for me though is the world-building, unusually enough for me, but the level of effort that has gone into it and into making the world feel like a living thing is obvious and very much appreciated. I will definitely be looking to pick up the sequel at some point. 5/5

Next review: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Signing off,

Friday, 9 November 2018

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

So I've been in need of a bit of normality recently, considering that my husband injured himself quite badly. As such, I apologise to those authors from TBRindr who may be waiting on a review and browsing my blog, I've been a tad distracted. In any case, I wanted something familiar, so Discworld it was. 

Soul Music follows a few different groups of people. Following the deaths of his adopted daughter and former apprentice, Death wishes to forget and avoid the process of grieving. Taking on his duty in his absence is his granddaughter, Susan, who has been raised largely away from her grandfather, in the hopes that she won't have to take up the family business. In one of her first jobs as Death, she comes across Imp y Celyn, a humble bard who has vowed to be the greatest musician in history, and in doing so has unwittingly made a pact with an eldritch guitar. And, of course, because his music is now somehow magical, the wizards get involved as several of them start acting unusual after being exposed to the music's power. 
Several years ago, before I ever picked up any of the Discworld novels, by best friend convinced me to watch the cartoon adaptation of Soul Music. I remembered a couple of things about it when I started the book that it stemmed from. First, that Death will always speak with Christopher Lee's voice, because there has never been more perfect casting. Second, that this was the introduction of Susan, who I seemed to like at the time. Other than that, I couldn't really recall a great deal about the plot, only enough to know that I was really looking forward to reading the original source material. As such, I was a bit disappointed that it still doesn't beat Mort for best novel about Death so far. Much like Lords and Ladies though, that's not because of bad writing, but because the competition from other Discworld novels is so high. And there is so much to recommend Soul Music for. Susan is a bit more stiff than I remember her, but is still likeable and interesting to watch in Death's role, though she doesn't get as caught up in it as her dad did in Mort. Still love Albert, although his presence is fairly minimal in this book. The Death of Rats is properly introduced, and I love it so much. Probably the best part about Soul Music though is the way that the rock music community is so thoroughly and lovingly lampooned, with targets ranging from Elvis to overenthusiastic fans to bands who have spades more passion than talent, and, always my favourite, a surprising number of references to The Blues Brothers

Not as good as Mort, but that doesn't stop Soul Music from being a fun romp, poking fun at everything rock and roll, from Elvis to Hair Metal. Definitely worth a read, especially if you're a fantasy and rock fan. 4/5 

Next review: The Woven Ring by M. D. Presley 

Signing off, 

Friday, 26 October 2018

The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen

I return to TBRindr with The Silver Mask, a fantasy novel that promised a flintlock and alchemy story. I was really intrigued by this setting, because a lot of modern fantasy seems to forget that time periods between Medieval/Renaissance and Victorian exist, and I wanted to see how it would pan out.

Centuries after humanity has overthrown the shackles of slavery beneath the gods, the shattered moon and abominations roaming the countryside remain as evidence of their revolution. One of the city-states to have flourished since the destruction of the gods, Vasini, is on the verge of a momentous event. In the upper echelons of the city, Marcus Fox is investigating the murder of one of the city's darlings, Dame Vittoria Emerson, found naked and lying in a pool of her own vomit. Venturing out into the wildlands surrounding the city, Elizabeth Reid is trying to retrieve pieces of quicksilver falling from the ruins of the moon goddess, in the hopes that she can prevent its use for sinister means. What the two don't know is that their paths will cross as they uncover a grand conspiracy within the city.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Silver Mask. I'll start with the setting, as that was the part that interested me first. The way that I see it, the Vasini chronicles appear to be set in a world where the Renaissance didn't happen until the Georgian period. There's a fantasy equivalent of the Whigs and Tories representing the interests of those "people of quality", and then the Ranters who try and represent the interests of the poor, with significantly less success. There was magic of sorts, which was mainly alchemy or faith-based. The alchemical stuff was very traditional with an emphasis on bodily humours, requiring me to dig up knowledge I hadn't used since my GCSEs, and miasmas as the source of alterations or disease. The deity-related magic was more vague, but more sinister for that vagueness. It was an interesting mix of elements that I would definitely want to read more of.
The characters are solidly written. My particular favourites were Doctor Fox and his lieutenant Locke, partly because they balance well against one another. They're both quiet and considered, but when they do deign to speak, they couldn't be more different: Fox the emotionally tired academic who feels bogged down by the politics that he needs to navigate, versus Locke the no-nonsense man of action who wastes no time mincing words. Elizabeth was a bit less interesting to me, if only because it takes her a lot longer to bounce back from failure. She's passionate and committed to doing the right thing, but she does keep making the same mistakes, which I think can detract from her personal strengths.
The plot itself I won't go into detail with, as I'm likely to give away some sort of spoiler if I do. What I will say is that it's tightly plotted and has a lot of cool twists and cliffhanger moments. The final showdown part near the end was a bit on the frenetic, hard to follow side, but not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment.
The only thing that I will mention as a possible issue is some of the chosen presentation in the e-book version. Between chapters, and occasionally in the body of a chapter, The Silver Mask will include quotes from in-universe texts, such as essays, newspaper reports or correspondence. Now I really like the idea of that, as it creates more immersion without having to have huge info dumps in the middle of the narrative. The issue came with trying to imitate the layout and look of these texts, as they don't necessarily lend themselves well to the e-book format. While it was possible to read for the most part, there was one section that I had to skip entirely, and the harder to read fonts did slow reading down a bit. I like the idea, but I would have liked a bit more clarity with regards to how it was laid out.

A thoroughly entertaining read, The Silver Mask focuses on a distinctly Georgian fantasy world, with an interesting history and magic systems. I personally love my political schemes and conspiracies, so I was in my element with the plot. Some minor issues with how certain parts of the novel were laid out on my e-book version, but nothing that detracted hugely from my enjoyment. I would definitely pick up the next book in the series. 4.5/5

Next review: Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Friday, 12 October 2018

Mystery Man by Colin Bateman

Honestly, when I picked up Mystery Man, I was really excited because the blurb described what I imagined my life would be like if I somehow had my dream bookshop and a stronger sense of curiosity that would overpower my inherent laziness. And it had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, so there seemed no better time for it.

When the private investigator's office next door to the crime-fiction bookshop, No Alibis, closes down, the owner of the bookshop finds himself being approached by the clients of his former neighbour who hope that he might be able to help. Having little better to do, and hoping that the cases will garner the attention of the jewellery shop attendant from across the road that he has a crush on, he decides to look into a few of them.
So I guess 2018 must be the year of DNFs, because I couldn't convince myself to finish this. And this actually shares a similarity with my previous DNF, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I didn't mention this in the body of my review, but in that previous case, I stopped shortly after a section where the narrator is repeatedly calling his younger brother a retard. Quite frankly, I have no time for people who, in trying to be clever, resort to cheap insults against a traditionally subjugated group. I had the same reaction with Mystery Man. In this case, I'd been mildly amused by some of the japes that the narrator had gotten himself into, but hadn't really been hooked yet, when the narrative reached the proper introduction to the narrator's jewellery shop crush. She turns up late to the "how-to-write" course being hosted by a snobbish literary writer who "dabbles" in crime fiction whilst still earning disgustingly high profit margins. He gets her to do a writer's exercise where she creates stories for the passersby that she sees through the shop window, and tells her to stop after she describes one person as a cripple. He states, quite rightly, that cripple is not really appropriate language, at which point she launches into a tirade, in which she defends her choice of the word cripple in favour of disabled or paralysed. And this is treated like it's a good thing. The narrator is sitting in his shop, proudly listening as she vomits out this utter garbage and puts off the guest writer. As I was preparing for writing this review, I did briefly worry about coming across as too sensitive, but fuck it, this is where I draw the line. It wouldn't be acceptable if she were defending the use of a racial epithet, so why should it be acceptable with disabled slurs.

I was briefly enjoying this until the narrator's love interest decided that her pride was more important than accepting that disabled slurs are not acceptable in polite society, and the narration expects me to be perfectly okay with this. I'm not. 1/5

Next review: The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen

Signing off,

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Balam, Spring by Travis M. Riddle

So Balam, Spring was another book kindly sent to me by the author via TBRindr. While I'd not come across the title before, I liked the premise and thought that the whole Midsomer Murders meets Harvest Moon vibe that it promised had a lot of fun potential.

Balam, Spring focuses on the isolated coastal town of Balam, just as they enter spring. What is normally a joyous time of year when school is out and the landscape starts coming into bloom turns sour when the town's assigned white mage dies suddenly and mysteriously. A new white mage, Aava, is called in to replace her, but it soon becomes clear that other people have the same symptoms and that the town could be in grave danger.
I feel somewhat conflicted by Balam, Spring. I'll start with the good parts of it. The actual mystery is well-constructed and has a decent amount of twists. The characters are engaging and varied, from Aava, the new white mage trying to prove her skills in a bleak situation, to Ryckert, a retired mercenary lured out by the promise of adventure, and Theo, a local schoolteacher who witnessed the original death and was wholly unprepared for the reminders it gave him of his tragic childhood. Overall, there was a lot to enjoy, and I would probably give it a recommendation to those who don't mind a book that needs a bit of fine-tuning.
That leads me to the parts that I had issue with, which is a bit of inconsistency with the writing and world-building. Nothing major that ruined the book for me, but noticeable enough to become niggling. The trouble seems to be that, depending on the subject, the book will furnish either too much information, or not enough. For too much information, the first thing that springs to mind is the descriptions of food and general routine, as while the sections aren't written badly, it's the sort of detail that doesn't add anything meaningful to a scene. I don't need to know the exact dishes that a couple are enjoying at their meal out, I just need to know that the food enhanced the good mood that they already had together, otherwise it becomes kind of distracting and makes me wish I had more time during my lunch break. And with regards to too little information, I point you towards the non-human races introduced, the Jeornish and the Rocyan. The former have white hair and the latter have fur. That was about all that the narrative furnishes the reader with before it continues on its romp, and that really bugged me. If the non-human races had been elves and dwarves, then I could understand not elaborating on their racial features, because they're common enough to not need explanation. With races that Riddle has presumably made wholesale, it is unsatisfying to finish the book with no real clear idea of what they even look like. It's like showing a blind person a poster and expecting them to understand the significance without explanation. As I said though, the actual meat of the narrative is enough to make this a minor problem, but I did finish Balam, Spring thinking that it could have benefited from another round of editing.

Balam, Spring is an entertaining mystery with engaging characters and unexpected twists. It does have some issues that could have been ironed out with some more rigorous editing, but it's by no means a book-ruining fault. 3/5

Next review: Mystery Man by Colin Bateman

Signing off,

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Final Fantasy Type-0 by Hiroki Chiba, Tetsuya Nomura & Takatoshi Shiozawa

In addition to enjoying books, I am also a bit of a keen gamer. Not a very good one, mind you, as my hand-eye co-ordination and reflexes are about what you'd expect from someone with a desk job whose primary hobby is reading. One genre of game that I do get on with is the humble RPG, especially if it's one with turn-based combat. Take that hand-eye co-ordination, I didn't need you anyway. A prime example of the genre that I have never had a chance to play is the Final Fantasy series, so when I got a manga adaptation of one of their spin-off games, Type-0, I thought that this would be a prime opportunity to see if I would like to try this game in the series.

Final Fantasy Type-0 follows the cadets of Akademeia's Class Zero, an elite group of twelve students whose magic is unparalleled in their country, to the point where they are considered to be a myth by many. But their strength is tested when, shortly after two other elite cadets transfer to them, their country is attacked and they find themselves at the centre of the battlefield.
Adaptations of games tend to be one of two things. On the rare occasion, they are things of beauty and comparable in quality to the original product. Much more commonly, it's a complete dud for one reason or another. Final Fantasy Type-0 is unfortunately in the latter category, simply because I had only the barest idea of what was going on. As I haven't played the game, I can't judge how much gameplay the manga covers, but it feels like there is far too much being crammed into a tiny space. In the first chapter alone, the reader is expected to remember and recognise 12 separate characters with little to no introduction, when they are introduced mere moments before entering a big chaotic battle scene. It's far too much to take in in one chapter, and you can figure out who maybe a couple of characters are.
It's kind of a pity that the creators decided to take this route, for two reasons. Firstly, you can see that there is a lot of lore that could be lovingly expanded on and explained properly with more time and space. As it is, cool concepts are introduced and just sort of left for the audience to ponder by itself. For example, in the main characters' country, the crystal that gives them magic also makes them forget people who have died. There's a line about how it's to stop people being held back by fear and grief, but it the development it gets is nowhere near enough for such an arresting idea. Hell, you could make an entire book about that alone, without even getting to the other stuff that Type-0 is trying to look at.
Secondly, it frustrates me that such good artwork effectively goes to waste on a story that is all sound and fury, but no real substance. I might not have known or understood what the hell I was reading, but it was hella pretty to look at. If this had been the start of a slower, better paced manga, then this art would have been the cherry on top.

Final Fantasy Type-0 is very pretty and has a lot of cool concepts to explore, but it tries to do way too much in a single volume of space, leading to a confusing mess. Honestly, I wouldn't mind getting into the lore of this more, but I'd prefer to do that through the game rather than this. I hope that this makes at least marginally more sense if you read it post-game. 1.5/5

Next review: Balam, Spring by Travis M. Riddle

Signing off,

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

After my first experience with TBRindr and G. R. Matthews, I was quite looking forward to revisiting both. I was also curious to see how The Stone Road would compare, seeing as the last book from G. R. Matthews was very firmly in the science-fiction genre, whereas this looked to be closer to the Wuxia genre. Something so different in tone, I wanted to see how he pulled it off.

War has raged between the city states of Wubei and Yaart for thirty years, and a delegation from Wubei has been summoned to try and broker peace. For two men, the treaty will be an important turning point in their lives. From Wubei is Zhou, a junior diplomat who is desperate to forge peace by any means, both for personal advancement and to ensure that his infant son can grow up never needing to fight and die for his homeland. From Yaart is Huang, a soldier who has just been recruited into the Jiin-Wei, an elite group of soldiers, magicians and spies, and has been given his own orders about how to influence the negotiations.
I really liked The Stone Road, more than I was expecting. Wuxia is a genre that has long fascinated me, but I've never really known where to start with it. While this is probably not a proper example of the genre, it's close enough given the circumstances. So let's start with the good points of The Stone Road. First, there are the two main characters, Zhou and Huang. On the one hand you have Zhou, who is largely well-intentioned, but stubborn and opinionated enough that he seems to make enemies wherever he goes, while Huang is a lot more realistic about his place amongst his superiors, but is beginning to experience doubt and guilt about what he must do to protect his home and family. On balance, I do prefer Huang as he seems more prepared for everything that transpires, but there are a lot of parallels between the two men that I would be fascinated to see develop in later books.
Second, there was the plot itself. While I won't go into spoilers, I will say that The Stone Road covered a lot more than I was expecting when I first started it. The diplomacy part covers only a fraction of the novel, and the rest is several months' worth of fallout from its conclusion. With such a big scope, there is the risk that the narrative could get a bit winding and self-indulgent, but Matthews manages to keep it tight and punchy throughout.
There were a couple things that bugged me a little, but they're not huge issues in and of themselves. The first is that unfortunately in my copy there were a couple of editing flubs, the most egregious being a word missing from the end of a sentence, that kind of highlighted that it was a debut independent novel; much as I am a firm believer that indie novels are something to keep an eye on, it's the sort of mistake that would be ironed out by a professional editor. Not enough to make me want to stop reading, but it does disrupt the immersion somewhat.
The second thing that bugged me was the magic system described in The Stone Road. Magic is introduced pretty early on via the Fang-shi, a group of what are essentially court magicians, who seem to be able to channel innate magical capabilities via talismans and symbols. So far, so good. A bit vague, but it had enough structure to please me. Then about halfway into the novel, people called Wu are introduced, who have some kind of strong link to their animal counterpart in the spirit world and can call upon this spirit to enhance their abilities and cast other magic. With that, I am now confused about how the two are meant to co-exist. Are they tapping into the same power source, or are they totally separate? If they are tapping into the same power source, why bother with Fang-shi when the Wu seem to be so much more useful? I suppose that there will be more explanation into this as the books continue, but it does sort of bother me, having two apparently incompatible systems of magic in the same place and time.

Definitely a series that I would like to keep an eye on. The characters are well-written, with some pleasing parallels that I imagine will be expanded on in later editions. The plot is full of intrigue and a lot more scope than I was expecting. The only thing that bothers me at the moment is the two different, equally vague magic systems that don't get as much time devoted to them as I would like. Still worth a moment of your time, especially if you're fed up with Medieval Europe as a fantasy backdrop. 4.5/5

Next review: Final Fantasy Type-0 by Hiroki Chiba, Tetsuya Nomura & Takatoshi Shiozawa

Signing off,

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Pirates! by Celia Rees

I have had Pirates! on my bookshelf for a long while, having originally read it when I was back in high school. I remember enjoying it at the time, and as I was feeling nostalgic I thought that I'd give it another read and see how it holds up against my older brain.

Pirates! follows Nancy Kington, the daughter of a sugar merchant, who is forced to move to her father's plantation after a storm that simultaneously ruined her father's health and fortunes. Dismayed by the treatment of the slaves that have funded her comfortable lifestyle until now and by how quickly her brothers are willing to marry her off to maintain their fortunes, she decides to run away and try to reunite with her sweetheart, William. Accompanied by one of her late father's favourite slaves, Minerva, she joins a pirate crew to try and outrun those pursuing her, and to pursue her own fortune in kind.
Re-reading Pirates!, I can definitely see why I enjoyed it as a teenager. The main cast of characters are sympathetic and interesting, and there is a lot of swashbuckling adventure to be had. Nancy is a bit of a worrier and a bit prone to melancholy, but a decent enough sort to be stuck with as a first-person narrator. If I'm honest, I always stayed because of Minerva, the fearless slave-turned-Pirate Queen, who rocks a set of breeches like a pro. I'm pretty sure she may have set off my personal love of cross-dressing women just in time to be introduced to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and I will be forever grateful. There are a few other colourful characters to be found in the crew. There's Broom, the roguishly charming, if a tad bit dense, pirate captain. There's Graham, the morose doctor whose sensibilities are more suited for the damp of the British countryside than they are for a pirate ship roaming the Caribbean. And of course, there is the relentless antagonist, Bartholome the Brazilian, a mysterious figure who seems to have an almost satanic attunement with the sea and its treasures.
The main issue that I have found when re-reading this book as an adult is that it now seems to lack bite, and the romance seems a bit tacked on. While I found that the plot seems to hold up overall, I've since read and seen pirate stories that are more ruthless, more bloodthirsty and just overall more exciting. Reading Pirates! as an adult, I could see just how much the setting had been watered down for its audience. I don't necessarily think that that's a bad thing, considering the audience that the book is aimed at, but it was something that I hadn't taken into consideration with this re-reading. I would definitely still recommend the book, but perhaps not to those whose tastes are more hardcore.

Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely worth a recommendation to any young teens that you may know. It may come across as a bit tame and safe if your tastes run to the more violent or bloodier end of the spectrum, but is still a fun enough romp if you have the time. 4/5

Next review: The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

Signing off,

Friday, 7 September 2018

Silent City by G. R. Matthews

My thirst for new books is never-ending and probably ill-advised at this point, but it has prompted me to join a group called TBRindr, which matches reviewers with indie authors who are in need of reviews. And I was soon to get my first request, from an author by the name of G. R. Matthews. He has sent me two books to look at, the first of which is Silent City

Silent City follows Corin Hayes, a down-and-out ex-soldier whose only remaining comfort is to be found at the bottom of a bottle. Following the murder of his daughter and a subsequent industrial accident that he was responsible for, he has been living paycheck to paycheck. One day his regular drinking spot is intruded on by Devra, a representative of the corporation running the underwater city that he lives in with a tempting offer: a regular job that makes use of the valuable skills that he came out of the military with. But on his first job with them, he soon finds things going horribly wrong. 
Sometimes you hear horror stories about books that have been independently published, particularly with regards to lack of quality. So I'm quite glad that my first review for TBRindr has been such a solid entry. I'm going to start with something that I don't usually focus on first: the worldbuilding. For me, Silent City hits pretty much the perfect note when it comes to developing his world and balancing it against the characters and plot. My main complaint with a lot of books that have very strong worldbuilding is that the characters and plot can seem underdeveloped or boring in comparison, which is rarely what you want to read. With Silent City, there weren't the sort of long and complex information dumps that make me want to throw a book across the room. Additionally, it was a setting that I haven't seen explored much, which makes me intrigued to see more of it. A severely diminished humanity that must hide in pressurised domes beneath the sea, with no hope of returning to a surface that has been poisoned beyond human intervention? I am so there, thalassophobia be damned. 
That leaves the plot and characters. The plot is going to be rather difficult to discuss without quickly getting into spoiler territory. I will say that, on the whole, I enjoyed it and found it quite tense in places. I would have liked a few answers at the end, but as this is the first in a series I think I can forgive a bit of mystery being set up. 
Which leaves characters yet to tackle. Silent City is a first-person narrative, and it definitely falls prey to one of the primary problems with this particular point of view: beyond the main character, Corin, the characters aren't really fleshed out all that much, and what we do get is coloured by Corin's personal biases. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to get a better idea of who some of the other characters in this interesting world are before they get their lungs crushed by massive water pressure. As for Corin himself, he is the sort of character that wouldn't look out of place if he were transplanted into 1930s America or other setting suited to the Noir genre. He's hard-drinking, dour and down on his luck, but stubborn and tough enough to fight his way through the sticky situation that he manages to find himself in. Not the most original of characters perhaps, but he's well-written and has a potential soft centre that could be entertaining to uncover. 

Silent City is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and is definitely worth a look. The characterisation is a bit thin at the moment, and the plot seems to largely be set-up for later in the series, but for a first book in a series I'm willing to forgive a bit of mystery. Any flaws that the book may have are balanced out by some truly stellar worldbuilding, which combines all the griminess of cyberpunk with the majesty and terror of the sea. I'd be more than happy to continue the series. 4/5 

Next review: Pirates! by Celia Rees 

Signing off, 

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

The Orange Eats Creeps was a book that I've been intrigued with for a while, if only because of the unusual title and blurb. I was definitely getting a Chuck Palahniuk vibe from it, so I was kind of looking forward to it, but otherwise I wasn't really sure what I was getting into.

A girl with drug-induced ESP, one of a group of self-described slutty teenage vampire hobo junkies, describes her life hitching rides across the Pacific Northwest. While her companions seem content to slum around gas stations and convenience stores, she intends to use her ESP to try find her runaway foster-sister and establish whether she has been murdered or not.
I still have very little idea of what happens in The Orange Eats Creeps despite having just finished it. Of all the books that I could have read as an audiobook, this one seems the least suited for it. The problem is that the book has a very strong voice, but a significantly weaker grasp on plot and continuity. So there's a distinctly teenage-style voice narrating a series of very similar scenes at convenience stores, punk concerts and scuzzy shared digs, which makes it all start to blur into an indistinguishable morass of sex, drugs and teenage apathy. I'm all for a strong voice in writing, but it needs to be grounded in something like character or plot, otherwise it's the literary equivalent of shouting into the void. Maybe that's appropriate for this book, but it doesn't lead to a particularly fun time.

A strong voice, but it doesn't have the same strength when it comes to plot or characters, or anything else that you are likely to care about. Admittedly, this was possibly the worst choice of novel for an audiobook, but it made for some serious spacing out moments. 1.5/5

Next review: Silent City by G. R. Matthews

Signing off,

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

After the ludicrous time that I had reading Demons of the Ocean, I fancied going back to something a bit more familiar. Discworld it was then. About as ridiculous, but actually on purpose, so it almost doesn't count.

Men at Arms returns to Ankh-Morpork's City Watch at a rather strange period in their history. In the lead-up to his wedding/retirement, Sam Vimes has to deal not only with three new recruits (Cuddy the dwarf, Detritus the troll and Angua the w-(oman?)) that the Watch has been forced to take on to improve their ethnic diversity, but with a series of strange events that the Assassins' Guild have been very keen for him to ignore. As tensions rise between guilds and between species, the Watch have to find out what they intend to be when times are tough.
I loved Guards! Guards!, so I was really looking forward to Men at Arms and I was not disappointed in the slightest. Perhaps the thing that surprised me most was the unexpected moments of seriousness that are sprinkled throughout. Rather than feeling out of place though, they give the members of the Watch a lot of depth and nuance that was mostly missing from their previous instalment; the only aversion to this is Corporal Nobbs, who does get development only for it to make him more absurd. In particular I liked the development that Carrot received, who has mostly gotten past his naive veneration of the law and is now sly enough to follow those laws closely enough that it puts a spanner into everyone else's plans. At the very least, it was entertaining to watch. There was a bit of development for Vimes that I liked more, but it does have to be seen first-hand really.

A vast improvement on Guards! Guards! and that's saying a lot coming from me. I have a feeling that the City Watch books could become my joint favourites with the Witches. 5/5

Next review: The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

Signing off,

Monday, 13 August 2018

Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Before we start, I should admit the main reason I was looking forward to reading the first in the Vampirates series. I saw the combination of vampire and pirates, and proceeded to giggle like a particularly excitable schoolchild. That combination had the potential to be metal album cover levels of dorky cool, so I was quite looking forward to it. And then my husband, who had previously read pretty much the whole series, described it as "an earlier version of Twilight, but moreish". And I was instantly very conflicted.

Demons of the Ocean follows twins Grace and Connor Tempest, the oddly-talented children of an enigmatic lighthouse keeper. After their father's death leaving them homeless and penniless, the twins decide to steal their father's repossessed boat and take their chances out to sea. They are soon caught and separated in a storm, rescued by two separate ships. While Connor finds himself on the ship of an infamous pirate by the name of Molucco Wrathe, Grace wakes up on a ship where none but the captain walk upon the deck during daylight hours. Traumatised by their separation, the twins aim to reunite.
This is such a dumb book. I can see why my husband compares it to Twilight, as it does feel very much like fanfiction. The main issue that I have with the Vampirates series so far is that it seems very confused about what time period that it wants to be. So it's supposed to be set in the 26th century, but there doesn't seem to be any kind of attempt to capitalise on the kind of advanced technology that should be available. Instead, there seems to be a weird mix of mundane current-day technology like diver's watches and an overwhelming amount of things that would fit better in the golden age of pirates, like swords, galleons and ridiculous amounts of booty. All I wanted was for the book to settle on a time period and stick to it. If everything had been set in piracy's golden era, that would have been so much easier and wouldn't have had to change a great deal.
Despite the weird time setting inconsistencies, it was surprisingly entertaining. It's still incredibly dumb, but a fun kind of dumb, like a B-movie. It's full to the brim with stupid concepts that just about made me cry with laughter. Pirate academy, anyone?

Not the smartest of books and could have benefited from just transposing everything into the golden era of piracy to simplify all of the weird time bullshit that it has going on. Despite that, it's entertaining enough and will probably distract kids nicely. 3/5

Next review: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Thursday, 9 August 2018

K-ON! Volume 2 by kakifly

While not as draining as Blood Meridian, I did feel in need of something lighter and fluffier after finishing True Grit, and so I went to the same source as I did for the former novel. K-ON! is pretty much the apex of cute, funny shenanigans with a minimum of plot, so it seemed like the perfect thing to dip into to rest my brain a bit.

With a new volume comes a new character. Azusa Nakano is an aspiring guitar player who decides to join the Pop Music Club after hearing a recording of the club's first concert. She is particularly keen to meet the lead guitarist of the group, as she was really inspired to meet a musician of such skill. How will she react when she sees how the group truly is?
So the obvious thing to mention is that if you didn't like the first volume of K-ON! then there is little chance of you enjoying the second, because it's very much more of the same thing. There's jokes about how the club seems to be more an excuse to drink tea and eat cake. There's jokes about the teacher being less mature and weirder than she wants to be. And then there's Yui's weird propensity for either excelling or failing spectacularly depending on what it is that she's concentrating on at that point in time. It feels very comfortable, if that's what you're looking for.
The main difference for this volume is the addition of Azusa, a first-year to the main group's second-years, and she feels like a definite breath of fresh air. She's kind of a nice foil to both Yui and Mio. With Yui there is a brewing rivalry of sorts, as while Yui is spacey and doesn't know the specific terms for musical techniques, she does have an uncanny ability to pick them up enviously quick. And with Mio, there seems to be more of a traditional senpai-kohai relationship, except that they're both so adorably dorky and awkward that it's an incredibly bumbling example of the relationship. Azusa's presence does also mean that there are a few more scenes that focus on them practising and performing, which is nice.

All in all, if you weren't keen on the first volume, this second one provides more of the same. A new character and some additional focus on the musical side of things is nice, but you definitely know what you're getting when you read K-ON! 4/5

Next review: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

True Grit by Charles Portis

I'd mainly heard of True Grit from my dad. See, he's a big fan of both John Wayne and the Coen Brothers, so he was quite keen on both movie adaptations. When I got this as part of a bundle, I wasn't sure how I'd find it, as until recently I hadn't really read any westerns before Blood Meridian last month. I had heard good things about True Grit though, so I went in hopeful.

True Grit follows Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who travels to Fort Ross upon hearing that her father has been shot and killed by his hired hand, Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge her father's death, she hires Rooster Cogburn, a deputy marshal known for his meanness and quick trigger finger, to help her find Tom Chaney and bring him to justice, either by the hangman's noose or at the end of a gun.
True Grit would be a fairly straightforward revenge story if it weren't for the fact that Mattie has such a distinct and interesting voice. For a 14-year-old, she is strong-willed and no-nonsense, with a particularly good mind for business. It's refreshing to see a character that in any other book set in the era would be meek and timid, and they're powering on ahead, taking absolutely no shit from anyone. It gets her in trouble, because of course it does, but she's all the more interesting for taking this strength/weakness to its logical conclusion.
The setting is definitely less bleak than the one presented by Blood Meridian, but the violence depicted stands out a lot more comparatively. It comes as more of a surprise when it does come, highlighted in particular by Mattie's comparative naivety. It ends up being a mid-point between the sort of heroic cowboy narrative that my dad grew up with and the unrelenting "humanity is scum" viewpoint that Blood Meridian settles on. There are clear distinctions between who is "good" and who is "bad", but there's a definite moral flexibility that can be seen in the characters, especially Mattie's reluctant travelling companions.

Despite my initial concerns, I found myself falling almost instantly in love with Mattie and her no-nonsense attitude. I would definitely give True Grit a read if you're looking to try out the Western genre, as it seems to be a nice middle ground between unrelentingly bleak and entirely ignoring the negative aspects of Reconstruction America. 4.5/5

Next review: K-ON! Volume 2 by kakifly

Signing off,

Friday, 27 July 2018

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is one of those genre writers that I had heard of when getting into Fantasy and Science-Fiction, but I hadn't really had the chance or inclination to pick up any of his series, as much because it's difficult to know where to start with such a prolific author. But as On a Pale Horse appeared in, you guessed it, a bundle that I had picked up, it seemed the perfect place to start. Besides, who doesn't like a good Grim Reaper story?

On a Pale Horse follows Zane, a man who, after a spectacularly bad day topping off a life of guilt and failure, decides to kill himself. When he goes to pull the trigger, he is confronted by the Grim Reaper. In a moment of horrified panic and a sudden renewed desire to live, he turns the gun on Death, and kills him. Moments later, he meets the anthropomorphic manifestation of Fate and is told that he must take over the position of Grim Reaper, and gather the souls of those whose destination in the afterlife is uncertain. On top of trying to figure out his new powers and responsibilities on the job, he finds that his appointment may be tied into a vast conspiracy by Satan.
I love a good pantheon, and On a Pale Horse looks to be the start of a pretty good one. It was kind of an intriguing set-up, combining your traditional Abrahamaic God vs Satan narrative with five semi-immortal figures acting as manifestations of themes with particular importance in human society: Death, Time, Fate, War and Nature. As God and Satan are prohibited from interfering directly with life on Earth, the Incarnations are there to ensure that both of them stick to the rules of engagement. While the interactions between the Incarnations was somewhat limited, it was great to see the duplicity and scheming that was already present. The problem that I've seen with a lot of pantheons is that the deities within tend to fall into either good or evil camps and then their characters are more or less defined by their moral compass and not by their personal sphere of influence or any other personal nuance.
While on the subject of the world-building, the mortal world is also pretty nicely fleshed out. It tries to combine high magic and high science, which does work for the most part, although I personally preferred the fantasy aspects if only because it fit the theological theme more. There is only one part where the science-fiction stuff is particularly egregious towards the end of the book, but all things considered it isn't too big an issue.
I already know that I have the second book in the series queued up to read further down the line, and I'm looking forward to revisiting the world. I would be remiss though if I didn't mention an aspect of the writing that I found both distracting and uncomfortable. There was an awful lot of male gaze stuff, and it didn't really seem necessary. Sure, you can say that a female character is pretty within her character description, that's fine. The problem comes up when the narration regularly brings up female characters' plentiful bosoms and shapely legs. Hell, there's an entire section where the main character watches the magical equivalent of American Football with female teams. Sure it hits all the typical sports tropes, but adds comments about how the protective padding emphasises their feminine qualities, a section where a spell makes it look like a player is naked and some of the most stereotypical cat-fighting that I've seen in a long time. It's positively masturbatory and could have been cut quite easily. Admittedly, Zane does conduct himself in a gentlemanly manner, but even that becomes irritating with his tendency to assume that "female = purity". It's a shame considering that the world and the plot are really engaging. While I'm content to continue the series, I am sorely hoping that this was more an issue in the choice of main character, rather than something that is an author trait. I could see it souring my experience of what looks to be an intriguing series.

The world and plot are well-fleshed out, with some really interesting social sparring between the immortal characters. I would have rated this higher, but my enjoyment was spoiled somewhat by the egregious and unnecessary focus on cringe-worthy male gaze sections. I can only hope that it doesn't come up in the second book. 4/5

Next review: True Grit by Charles Portis

Signing off,

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Batman & the Justice League Preview Edition by Shiori Teshirogi

It's weird when you see characters that you're used to seeing in a typical American comic style portrayed as manga characters. Especially when it's Batman. The dissonance would normally be enough to dissuade me from picking up Batman & the Justice League, but since I got the preview edition in a bundle that was bought for me, I felt like I should give it a chance. Keep in mind that this volume only covers the first two chapters, so if there's anything else that comes up in the regular first volume, then I cannot comment.

Gotham City is no place for a tourist, but a Japanese boy by the name of Rui Aramiya finds himself drawn there after his parents disappeared in a power plant explosion there. Everyone keeps telling him that there's no way that they could have survived, but until he can see the proof for himself, he refuses to believe that. At the same time, Batman is once more in confrontation with the Joker, fresh from killing Jason Todd. But there is something strange afoot and he may need to bring in support from his colleagues in the Justice League.
I wanted to like Batman & the Justice League, but it just doesn't work on any level for me. This can be split largely into two points: the artwork and the plot.
While the artwork is good, it just doesn't work for Batman, and that frustrates me so much. The characters are expressive, everything is clear and easy to follow, but it's just the completely wrong tone. Batman and Commissioner Gordon shouldn't look like they walked out of a men's fashion catalogue mere minutes before their entrance in the manga. Worse than them though is the one glimpse that we get of Jason Todd, where he is so ludicrously baby-faced and innocent-looking that you have to remind yourself that this is the Robin introduced stealing the Batmobile's hub-caps.
I have a few issues with the plot. First is that it starts with ley lines, the least Batman-appropriate plot point that I could possibly think of. Second, while I appreciate that I've only read a couple of chapters, I don't think that Rui storyline fits tonally with whatever Batman and Joker are doing. With the Batman stuff, it was more-or-less typical cat and mouse game, while Rui is both wide-eyed idealist tourist and a ninja. I've technically seen Batman in stupider situations, but it's still weird seeing some random civilian pull out smoke bombs. If they were working together, I could probably understand how the plot could be pulled off, but the early events makes it clear that Rui is seen as a nuisance. So I'm not really sure how it will go from here, and to be honest I'm not especially interested.

Not objectively bad, but for me this didn't work on any level. While there is the possibility that a few more chapters may have changed my mind, I am certainly not interested enough to pick up more from what I have already read. 2/5

Next review: On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Signing off,

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

I have my sibling to thank for finding Nightblade, as they informed me about a giveaway that the author was having. It's taken me a little while to get to it, but I was looking forward to taking a look as the author seemed to be really keen on promoting diversity in his works. If there's a genre that should be more diverse but isn't, fantasy is right at the top of that list.

Nightblade follows Loren, a forester's daughter who dreams of escaping her cruel parents and becoming a thief of such calibre that legends are made of. She finds her opportunity when she meets a fugitive mage, Xain. Unfortunately, she finds that travelling with him has garnered a lot of unwanted attention, and she only has her wits and a mysterious dagger taken from her parents to protect herself with.
I had fun with Nightblade. It's not the best fantasy book that I've ever read, but it's a solid, fun read and that was honestly all I was after. The characters are interesting, if a little under-developed at the moment. Loren, the would-be thief, is an interesting mix of cynical and wide-eyed idealist, and there's a lot of righteous anger that I can see being really good to watch out for in future books. There is Annis, a merchant's daughter who is craftier than her sheltered life thus far would suggest. And there's Gem, the pickpocket who desperately wants to be a charming rogue. At the moment, there hasn't really been enough time to really develop them hugely, but I liked what I saw of it.
Similarly, there are a lot of plot points that have brought up a lot of questions, but there are very few answers as of yet. Why Xain is running from the King's Law, and what makes Loren's dagger so special are the primary questions that will hopefully be answered in the future. It's not a huge bother for me, as it's a first installment in a universe that looks to be ever expanding, and I'm more than happy to pick up more of the series, should I find it.

A decent fantasy romp. There's nothing too complicated here, but there's a lot of promise for future books, including a couple of pretty big questions currently unanswered. I'm also looking forward to seeing how the child/teenage characters develop, as it's a little on the threadbare side at the moment. Thoroughly enjoyable though. 3.5/5

Next review: Batman & the Justice League Preview Edition by Shiori Teshirogi

Signing off,

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

So I still have a few audiobooks to get to, but I didn't fancy jumping straight back into one after a very long listen with only a short, fluffy comic in between. So it made sense to go back to a series that is kind of guaranteed to make me enjoy myself. So Dresden Files it was. I didn't realise quite how long it had been since I last picked up the series until just now when I was looking through my blog archive. Definitely long overdue for a revisit.

If there is one thing that can spur Harry into action, it's threatening the people he loves. So when Mavra, the Black Court vampire that he tried to kill in Blood Rites, confronts him with incriminating pictures of Murphy that she will send to the authorities unless Dresden gets her what she wants. And what Mavra wants is the Word of Kemmler, by midnight of Halloween. Unfortunately, it looks as though there are several necromancers, apprentices of the eponymous Kemmler, who also want it and are ready and willing to use the most extreme methods available to them to get it.
It's been a while since the bad guys were just other wizards, and not a vampire or Fae of some variety, which is surprisingly refreshing. But despite reverting back to mortal enemies, Butcher manages to bring in a little bit of everything else that has come before. And it makes you realise just how much has been established when little bits of everything is brought in to influence the turn of events. There is the influence of every one of the Vampire Courts, the Fae get involved as they are wont to do, Harry has issues with the Denarian coin that he tried to seal away in his basement, and many other little things that contribute to a surprisingly complex plot.
As always, the characters are the best part, even when working with a much smaller core cast. Sure, lots of characters turn up briefly, like my perennial favourite Johnny Marcone, but they tend to be one-scene wonders. The main cast can pretty much be narrowed down to Harry, Thomas and Butters. And I didn't know how much I would love the character development that they both get.
First there is Thomas. In previous books, he always came across as a feckless, rich playboy with hints of inner depths. Now that he's revealed himself as Harry's half-brother and been cut off from the vast funds that he was used to, he's had a chance to grow into himself a bit. It was really nice to see the parts where he and Harry get a chance to act like brothers: not necessarily always on the same page, but pushing each other to get better and look after themselves.
Second is Butters. When I first mentioned him in my reviews, I said that he was surprisingly calm about being confronted with evidence of the supernatural. Well, it turns out that there's a big difference about recognising a non-human cadaver for what it is, and having the corpse of a former colleague burst into your office and try to kidnap you. There is lots of screaming, hiding and unexpected bravery. He might well count as one of my series favourite characters now, and I can't wait to see him turn up again.

A really solid entry that manages to pull in elements from every book that has gone before it, and yet manages to not be a confused mess of supernatural mythos. Butters and Thomas get some great character development, elevating Butters in particular to joint favourite alongside Karrin Murphy and Johnny Marcone. Additionally, Harry makes some really big decisions that I think are just going to make the next entries in the series all the more tense. 4.5/5

Next review: Nightblade by Garrett Robinson

Signing off,

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly

After the long and draining read that was Blood Meridian, I was in the mood for something a lot lighter in tone. Enter the first volume of K-ON!, a series that comes highly recommended to me by my husband. Since I like what I've seen of the anime adaptation, and I needed something short, sweet and relatively harmless, it seemed like the perfect choice.

K-ON! follows Yui Hirasawa in her first year of high school. When she's frightened into joining an extracurricular club for fear of becoming a NEET after high school, she joins the Pop Music club, assuming that it will be an easy ride. Unfortunately, her new club members assume that she can play the guitar, an instrument she has never touched in her life. But with determination, she and her new friends may be able to turn this failing club around.
I was after something gentle, and K-ON! certainly delivers on that. There isn't really much in the way of driven plot, but then that's pretty much a staple of the slice of life genre. What the genre sacrifices in plot and serious conflict, it makes up for in characters, and K-ON! definitely has that in abundance. So the core of the cast is made up of the four members of the Pop Music club. As mentioned above, there is Yui, the inexperienced main guitarist. She's sweet and energetic, but nowhere near the brightest bulb in the box. There's Mio Akiyama, the studious and painfully shy bassist, who more or less has to adopt the straight man role out of the group. Self-appointing herself the new club president, despite having none of the qualifications necessary for such a role, is Ritsu Tainaka, the audacious prankster on drums. And finally, my current favourite, Tsumugi Kotobuki, the wealthy keyboardist who is outwardly the perfect gentle lady, but is more than a little risque in her thoughts. There are also some secondary characters, but the one that stood out most for me was the teacher acting as their club adviser, Sawako Yamanaka. She only agrees to advise the club after they threaten to reveal her past as a member of the Pop Music club during its speed metal period, at which point you realise that her sweet, gentle nature is just a mask for someone mildly terrifying. It's a beautiful moment.
This volume covers the first year of the club, in which they mainly mess around and treat the clubhouse like a tea-room while Yui tries to get the hang of playing the guitar. It's cute so far, and I especially like what I've seen of them actually playing music, complete with comically terrible lyrics for their first original song. I'm a little sad that it does take a bit of a back-seat to your standard slice-of-life high school stuff, but I'm hoping that it will get a bit more music-focused as Yui and the others get more confident with their instruments.

Very cute and fluffy. Not a great deal of plot, but that's not really why I picked it up. Will definitely be picking up the next volumes in the future. 4.5/5

Next review: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Signing off,

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

So Blood Meridian took me longer to get through that I was hoping. Evidently audiobooks are not something that I get on with. I've been looking to read some of Cormac McCarthy's ever since seeing the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, cliche as that may be. It was such an odd film that I was curious to see how much of that was the Coen Brothers' direction and how much was from the original source material. But I got my hands on Blood Meridian first, so that will have to be my introduction to his works. 

Blood Meridian follows a runaway known as the Kid during his violent coming-of-age as a member of a group of scalp-hunters, headed by the infamous John Joel Glanton and the eerie and erudite Judge Holden. As part of the Glanton Gang, he is tasked with collecting the scalps of natives attacking settlements at the Mexico-USA border. 
Right, so something quick to start the review off: if violence is not your thing, then Blood Meridian is not for you, as it comes up startlingly often and usually in a great deal of detail. If I were to guess, I would say that the majority of the narrative can be filed into one of three things: an act of mass and/or out-of-proportion violence, travelling in some truly wonderful descriptions of the landscape, or sitting around the camp-fire listening to the Judge preach about the world. 
Weirdly enough though, I found that the violence wasn't all that shocking. I have read that many readers who have gotten through to the end experience desensitisation, but it probably says something about me that, while the violence is vivid and utterly brutal, I just had a weird sense of dissociation. There was something about the stark nature of the writing style and the bleak, lawless setting that meant that when the violence did come along, it just felt like a natural extension. It didn't feel as shocking to me as, for example, Chuck Palahniuk's violent scenes, which stick out because they're meant to be set in modern day and contrast with mundanity. 
The thing that really stuck out for me was the Judge's speeches, just because he's such a well-written Devil figure. He is an unusual figure in pretty much every way compared to the company that he keeps, from his huge stature and arresting lack of hair, to the eloquence with which he completely runs circles around his uneducated travelling companions, to the obvious enjoyment that he takes in the violence that he inflicts as opposed to killing from necessity or for money. In addition to his unusual features, he seems to get a lot more spotlight than the nominal protagonist, the Kid, which gives the reader a better idea of his nature, if not his true origins. For me, I couldn't shake the idea that he was meant to be Satan, considering some of his actions appear to have no physical explanation at times, which gave the whole book a weird kind of Biblical parable feel to it. It felt like if new chapters of the Old Testament were written, but God never interjects as a guide, leaving the world to descend further and further into evil in their absence. 

A fascinatingly grim book, Blood Meridian is definitely not for those who can't stomach violence. Personally I found the Judge's speeches to be the far more disturbing part of the narrative, but I can understand it would be a deciding factor. I had this as an audiobook, but I would be really interested in re-reading it as a print or e-book at some later date. 4/5 

Next review: K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

After the debacle that was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I wanted something that I could recover with. And my immediate reaction was Discworld, where I could both read something new and yet guaranteed to make me happy. Since it was a Witches book, I was really looking forward to this next installment.

Lords and Ladies picks up when Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick return home from their extended travels following Witches Abroad. Magrat returns to find that her sweetheart, King Verence II, has already started preparations for their wedding. Perturbed by how suddenly and imminently she will become Queen of Lancre, she has a falling out with Granny and throws herself into learning how to act like royalty. At the same time, Granny and Nanny are concerned that the standing stones keeping the Fair Folk at bay may be weakening.
While the Witches are probably my favourite of the Discworld sub-series, I thought that Lords and Ladies was a bit weak compared to the previous installments of the series. Not that this makes it bad, it's just hard to match a corker like Witches Abroad. By itself, there really isn't anything that that I can criticise about Lords and Ladies, it just has very tough competition.
One thing that I absolutely love is Pratchett's depiction of elves. Considering that the Discworld is a riff on traditional fantasy tropes, he could have modelled them on the graceful and wise elves that you get in things like Lord of the Rings or D&D. But instead he went for the properly old-school elves that steal your children, and I just love that. It adds just the right amount of threat and eeriness. Additionally, I really liked the touch about how the average person in Lancre perceives the elves. In comparison to Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who know just how awful elves are, the rest of the population has gradually forgotten the creepy, child-stealing part of elves and they only really remember the glamour and the pretty laughter. It was a nice touch.

I do love the old-fashioned child-stealing version of elves, so it was really cool to see them in the Discworld. Lords and Ladies isn't the best book out of the Witches sub-series, but that doesn't matter a whole deal considering how stellar the series is as a whole. 4.5/5

Next review: Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Signing off,

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

So A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was another book that I picked up in a bundle. It wasn't necessarily something that I would have picked up on the strength of its blurb or subject matter alone, but I did find my interest piqued by the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I have found prize winners to be something of a mixed bag, but there's still something about them that makes me want to try them, just to see how I compare to an "expert" panel.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir following the author's life in the years following his parents' cancer-related deaths. He must take responsibility for his younger brother, Toph, who is only 8 when their parents pass away. Thrust suddenly into the role of parent, he has to try and deal with the fact that his new responsibilities prevent him from a lot of activities that he would like to do as a man in his early-twenties.
I haven't actually finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I honestly tried, but the thought of trying to slog through any more of this tripe is just depressing. Until this point, I couldn't understand how there are people out there who genuinely don't like reading, but I think this book has made me realise how they feel.
So, I suppose the big question is what made me not want to finish this one. What it was that made me break the one rule that I have had since starting this blog in January 2011. It was the writing style. While I have expressed a liking for postmodern fiction in previous blog entries, there was something a little too manufactured and artificial about the way that it was presented in A Heartbreaking Work. Metafiction is just one of those things that needs to be properly signposted, instead of thrown into the mix whenever you feel like it. Eggers also seemed to have a grudge against the humble full stop, as his book was full of sentences that went on for-fucking-ever. I get it, you like fragments. How about a sentence that doesn't make me want to throat punch you and force you to draw breath like a regular human being. Overall, I just got an impression of some dumb twenty-something who is trying to be way too clever in order to compensate for some deep-seated issues that he really should have worked out with a therapist beforehand. Maybe that's exactly the sort of impression that I was meant to get, but it doesn't do anything for my enjoyment of the novel. And it's sort of a shame, because from what I've read of him, Eggers seems like a nice guy, with a lot of worthy philanthropic causes that he supports. I feel like he could have given a better account of himself.
So there's a thing that I feel that I should probably address. Why did this book make me DNF and not one of the other books that I have rated 1/5? It's a fair question. I think the reason that I got through some other terrible books successfully because they invoked an active emotion out of me. Most of the time my response to my 1/5 rated books has been anger, or occasionally horrified amusement. Regardless of which, both of those states make me feel energised, make me feel like my mind is going a mile a minute, and I absolutely love those moments when I can get that on paper. Since starting this blog, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the first book that made me feel like my soul was being sapped with every extraneous fragment and with every time he referred to himself or his brother as god-like. Usually my less pleasant reads leave me feeling shaky or overwrought, but never before have I felt sapped of energy. The only word that I can think of for this is grey, like it's wrung out all the interest in my brain and left me with dishwater for a soul. If this is what some people's experience of reading is, then I can see why you wouldn't want to try it again. So yeah, I'm altering my rule. I will now allow for DNFs if a book makes me actively wonder why I like reading in the first place.

Never before has a book left me so drained of enthusiasm. Usually I get angry at books I don't like. This time, I just don't have the energy. It's the first book I've DNF'd in over 7 years, and I am just stunned that I found something that could beat even my stamina for not-so-great books. I'm sure there's an audience for this, but I couldn't even begin to understand who it would consist of. 1/5

Next review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

It's been far too long since my last Discworld novel, and after a string of books that I only kind of liked at best, I was hoping for something that I could be pretty certain that I would enjoy. Perhaps not the best reason to read something, but after a while you just get tired.

Small Gods follows the god Om who manifested on the Disc just as his next prophet is due to be chosen, only to find that he is stuck in the body of a tortoise and has lost his divine powers. Desperately trying to regain his former powers, he finds that the only person who can hear him is Brutha, a lowly novice who seems to be destined for mediocrity at best.
I was right to pick another Discworld, because this was just what I needed right now. Entertaining as always, but with a really interesting subject to satirise. Considering that Small Gods is focusing on religious institutes, a subject that can get people very angry if executed poorly or heavy-handedly, I was pleasantly surprised by how subtle this manages to be. This is despite the gods being arrogant and undeserving of praise and the clergy either being too cowed to do anything productive or sadistic enough that they're actively participating in the perversion of religious faith. This is probably down to the relationship between Om and Brutha, which is the kind of entertaining bickering that I love. On the one hand, Brutha is understandably a little doubtful that the talking turtle is his god given the distinct lack of divine power, but is quite happy to look after the little guy nevertheless. And then on the other is Om, who is endlessly frustrated by his lack of power and struggles to remember just who any of these former prophets are that Brutha keeps quoting. On top of those two, Pratchett has provided a fascinating villain in the form of Vorbis. In a way, he reminds me of Lilith from Witches Abroad. There is no doubt that what he does and what he makes other people do is evil, but because he is safe in the knowledge that he carries out his faith's doctrine, he can reason that it is all in the cause of a greater good. He is certainly not likeable, but he is intriguing to observe and in some ways incredibly pitiable.

Small Gods is, by far, my favourite of the standalone Discworld novels that I've read thus far. It's an intriguing criticism of the harm that can be perpetrated when faith is replaced in day-to-day life with aggrandising the institutions that have grown around them. I would definitely recommend this one. 4.5/5

Next review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Signing off,