Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Perk of Being a Wallflower, by Stepen Chbosky

Oh man, 16 year old me would have lived and died with this book. I’m not kidding, it’s like Chbosky rounded up a bunch of teenagers, whizzed them up in a blender and was left with a pure distilled essence of teenage angst, which he then used as ink to pen this novel.

Not that I mean to sound dismissive of teenage emotions. I still remember what it was like to be that age. In a lot of ways it was amazing, and in a lot of ways it really, fucking sucks. Chbosky really captures that. The feelings of wonder and discovery and the feelings of pain and awkwardness.

Like I said, 16 year old me’s life would have been changed by this book. I think the way Charlie (our weepy protagonist) talks about his parents would have opened my eyes and had a real impact on how I looked at and related to my mum and dad. And the way he interacts with his friends, the positive and negative, would have helped me deal with the occasionally great occasionally brutal arena of teenage friendships. Unfortunately 25 year old me found the book to be too overwrought and dramatic. I knocked it out in a day and enjoyed it well enough, but whereas as young adult books like ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ or ‘How We Will Now’ can connect to me and move me, all ‘Perks’ really did was make me feel old and alienated. Which I guess is the point. This a young adult book in the purest sense of the word. A book that will speak only to young adults, and leave all others somewhat confused by its success.

(Actually a lot of the negative reviews I see for this book complain that Charlie seems younger than his age and emotionally stunted. Which to me was like complaining that that a one legged character only seemed to have one leg. Well, yeah, duh. He is emotionally stunted. That’s kinda the point…)

I hope that one day I have kids who I can get to read this book, and hopefully they will love it in the way that I’m just too old to do.

I bought this book

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

You definitely can’t fault bitter seeds on a sentence by sentence level. From the opening to the finish this book is overflowing with beautifully crafted imagery and interestingly worded lines. Nor can you fault the plot. It’s world war 2. The nazi’s have engineered a team of soldiers with supernatural powers, while the British have enlisted a group of warlocks to broker deals with dark and terrible powers.

And you definitely can’t fault the characters! Will, Marsh and Klaus are well rounded, flawed and believable. Will, an upper class young man whose alcoholic grandfather forced him into a world of dark magic, is charming and genuinely funny. His character arc is the most tragic, as we watch him fight against becoming all the things he hated about his grandfather.

Street urchin turned spy Marsh is dark but will a concrete centre of nobility, he’s believably good at his work and more than a little bad ass. While he has no mercy for those on his level, and time again Marsh defends those weaker than he is. This instinct is handled quite subtlety, and it was an impressive piece of characterization. I also enjoyed the relationship he has with his boss/father figure. An impressive example of showing over telling.

And Klaus, while on the outside should be wholly unlikable, garners the reader’s sympathy through his tragic upbringing and love for his sister. What makes it worse is the guy clearly can’t see how abusive and awful his life has been, all he wants is to impress the man who inflicted much of the suffering upon him. It’s a clever way of making the reader actually care about what happens to a nazi character, without having to make them secretly all noble and good inside. His sister, who has see the future, is a more mysterious character. Tregillis takes full advantage of her abilities and it’s a lot of fun watching her be twenty steps ahead of everyone. He also wisely never lets us inside her head, making us view her through the eyes of others and thereby preserving her mystery.

So, prose, plot and characters can not be faulted. But sadly this book is really, fatally, let down by the pacing. It’s too short, for a start. The whole war is blitzed over in this relatively short volume. But that could have still worked, if it weren’t for Tregillis’s maddening habit of only showing us the aftershocks of events. None of the major decisions were made “on page-” we only ever saw the characters discussing things after they had been implemented. There are few action scenes, instead there are scenes where the characters deal with what has already happened. For example; we have one sentence of Marsh saying hello to a girl, and then the next scene he is in is their wedding. It’s very jarring.

These jumps in time also means that instead of smooth character progression the characters appear almost like new people each time we meet them, Will especially. Of course it’s a good thing when characters change- that’s what we want! But the whole point is for the reader to see it happening, not to jump from a to c with nothing inbetween. It keeps the characters at arms length, which is a shame because like I said they are very well crafted and it would have been easy to get really attached to them, which would have given the book’s ending a much bigger impact.

I think when you out the pros and the cons together what you're left with is a book that’s not bad, but not entirely good either. I think I will read the next one (even though the cover the new publisher has gone with lacks all the grace and charm of the original cover of Bitter Seeds, which is what drew me to the book in the first place), if only to see if Tregillis can bring his pacing up to the same level as everything else. 

I bought this book

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Blood Rights, by Kristen Painter

I think this book falls firmly into the category of definitely not for me. While I can objectively see why others like it (and I am sure my sister will go nuts for it when I lend it to her) it didn’t really do much for me, and I don’t see myself continuing with the series.

Why did I even pick this book up? I want to say its because the plot sounded interesting, because it does. A centuries old woman who has been raised to serve vampires and feed them her high quality blood must flee to the “real” world when her patron/owner is found murdered. Here she teams up with an exiled and cursed noble vampire to prove her innocence. I mean, it’s not groundbreaking as plots go, but in the rights hands there was a lot of potential there. But even though I want to claim it was the plot that drew me to this book, if I’m being honest I think I have to admit it was the cover.

Blacks, greys and muted gold and that shock of bright blood red. Really striking. It’s sensual and gothic and really drew me in. I was imagining a rich, dark tale to match the cover, something like Anne Rice’s early Vampire books, or Lianni Taylor’s more recent ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone.’ Something stepped in atmosphere and personality.

Yeah… I was sorely disappointed. Despite being set in the future ‘Blood Rights’ rarely feels like anything but present day. Aside from a few token gadgets, technology has barely advanced. And despite the fact that our setting is “New Florida,” and at one point we visit a Iranian controlled Paris, there is no difference in the way society is presented compared to present day. Did you ever go to a high school play and the sets were obviously from a different production with a few token changes made? It’s like that- like the the book was originally set “now” and at the last minute Painter made some purely cosmetic changes to make it more “later.”

It also feels overwhelmingly American. Which, ok, a solid chunk of it is set in America. But a goodly amount is also set in Europe, and these scenes are no different from the American based ones. I didn’t even realise that the vampire sections of the book were European based until a character explicitly mentions it. And our main character, Chrysabell, has lived her whole life in Europe. Yet she comes across as just another all American heroine. And not just that- she’s grown up with no modern technologies, and yet being suddenly thrust into modern American society doesn’t seem to faze her at all. And lets not forget that she’s supposedly 150 years old, yet acts just like someone in her mid twenties. You can’t just say things are so in a book, you have to actually show them to be so as well! 

It made the whole book feel bland and shallow.

This was my main complaint with the book. The characters are nothing new, especially if you’ve read any other urban fantasy novel before, but they’re not terrible. The overall thin plot is ridiculously stretched out and the “twist” is easy enough to see coming, but again, it’s serviceable. The problem is I’ve never been a huge fan of urban fantasy, and this book (despite what I’d hoped) is pretty much a standard, by the books, example of the genre.

Like I said, I’m sure others will really like it- I can even see why. But it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea.

I bought this book

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson

I can name few books that I found as brutal and heart wrenching as the second Malazan book, Deadhouse Gates. It was because of this that I went into Memories of Ice anticipating a quieter, more introspective volume. A chance for me, the reader, to catch my breath after the emotionally exhausting climax of Deadhouse Gates.

Hahahaha. You can’t tell from where you’re sitting, but that’s hysterical laughter on my part. I thought Deadhouse Gates was bad? Man, I had no idea. Erikson was just getting warmed up, and in Memories of Ice we see exactly how far he is willing to push his poor, poor characters.

It was a real treat to get back to the  Gardens of the Moon gang- especially the Bridgeburners. They spend much of the series debut on their own and undergoing sneaky missions, which was fantastic (I’ll never look at roadworks the same way again!), but it was also really cool to see them in a more "traditional" army setting. A good chunk of this book is the Bridgeburners and the rest of Dujek's army marching from point a to point b, which on paper sounds really boring. But it was just so cool to see how the Bridgeburner’s operate, to see why others view them with such awe.

And Anomander Rake and Caladan Brood! I am sure I am not the only reader who was instantly fascinated with Rake in GotM and wanting to see much more of him. I was equally keen to properly meet Caladan Brood, and to see how their relationship operated. Memories of Ice does not disappoint on that front! Rake is such a fantastic character. Through his burgeoning friendship with Whiskyjack we see a more “human” side of him, but at the same time he remains as alien and mysterious as ever. (But clearly the award for coolest bromance has to go to Toc the Younger and Tool. Loved every second of page time those two shared. Did not however love what happened to Toc once he went his own way, in the sense that it was fantastic reading but not fantastic for my heart…)

And this is really only one of many storylines that make up Memories of Ice. The siege of Capustan was just…. Wow. Easily the most graphically violent thing I have ever read (and I’ve read/suffered through American Psycho…) and yet the blood and gore never feels gratuitous. Rather it felt like every other author of a fantasy battle has been suger coating, and here Erikson is revealing the awful bloody truth of it. Which is not to say that I’ve never read a bloody battle scene before, but there’s just something so awful and visceral about the siege of Capustan.

I think if Deadhouse Gates was the book where I started to really care of the Malazan world and it’s characters, then Memories of Ice has to be the book where I actually started to understand what was going on. The warrens started to make sense, and I felt like I was getting a handle on the gods and ascendants and how they operate. I definitely wasn’t leaning as heavily on chapter summaries to make sense of things, and I was able to figure out who characters were and make connections all on my own.

But I really wasn’t kidding about Erikson inflicting awful things upon his characters. Coltraine remained a very aloof and removed character throughout Deadhouse Gates, and his fate nearly broke something inside of me. When equally bad things start to happen to characters a little closer to home, man, it was tough. It was hard to read, but equally hard to stop reading, if that makes sense. This book was brutal and awesome, in the literal sense of the word, and finishing it left me drained. But damn if I didn’t love every second of it.

I bought this book

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review: A Long, Long Sleep, by Anna Sheehan

I don’t know what I was expected when I picked up this book, but it certainly wasn’t what I got! The plot: girl wakes up after a few decades in a cryogenic chamber, finds she is heir to her parents' multi-billion dollar corporation and not long after finds that someone wants to kill her! Oh no! I think I was definitely swayed by the cover when it came to buying this one, because I don’t know about you but that plot leaves me a bit cold. It’s the part where someone wants to kill her that does it. Why do books always have to shove stuff like that in? The fact that she’s woken up in a strange future with everyone she’s ever known dead should be drama enough, why add more?

Thankfully, it seemed the author agreed with me. The attempted murder of Rosalinda is definitely not the focus of this book, and if you go in wanting an action packed ride you’ll be sorely disappointed. A Long Long Sleep is far more subtle then that, and it’s really more of a slow burning character study than anything else. And I loved it!

I loved how when we first meet her it’s so easy to dismiss Rosalinda as weak; the spoiled, soft product of loving but overbearing parents. But then, slowly, we start to see that not everything is as it seems, and I can’t think of a way to discuss this further without risking spoilers, so you’ll need to just take my word that the way the sinister undertones to Rosalinda’s past slowly build is just masterful.

I also loved the setting. The world has moved on without Rosalinda and watching her struggle to cope with the new technology and vernacular of the world was believable and interesting. The time Rosalinda is from is already far advanced compared to “our” time, yet Sheehan still manages to make her feel old fashioned compared to everyone around her. The whole book has a really lovely old fashioned feel to it, like an old photograph of a spring day. 

I loved that Rosalinda is woken by a kiss by an impossible handsome and charming young man who, having read a few books in my time, I immediately pegged as her eventual love interest. Actually, no, I didn’t love that. What I loved is that things turned out to be far more complicated. Again, spoilers! 

I loved the book actually pulled off a twist that I did not see coming until the very last moment. A twist that, despite taking me by surprise, was completely obvious in hindsight. (Which is how all twists should be).

I mean, it’s not perfect (although my gushing might be suggesting otherwise). There is that whole attempted murder side plot, which to be honest feels a little tacked on, like maybe the publishers didn’t quote know how to market a YA book that didn’t feature murder or forbidden romance or soul mates.

But that’s a small complaint, and this is easily one of the best YA books I have read in a long time. It stands completely alone, but despite that I can’t help but hope for a sequel, and anything else by this author really. Definitely one to watch!

I bought this book

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: A Companion to Wolves, By Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

I have read many books that would have been great if only the author had been a little more skilled, but I think this was the first time I’ve read a book that was bad, but made enjoyable in the hands of two really great authors. Because seriously, I think it took every ounce of talent and skill that authors Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monnette possess between them to keep this book from being a ridiculous mess.

Set in snowbound northern land all that stands between men and trolls are the- well, crap. I can’t remember what they’re called. Wolfen-something. Or was it something-wolf? Wolf dudes. Men who bond with enormous wolves and use that bond to take down the ferocious trolls.

This highlights the main problem with this book, or at least it was for me. The names! I don’t think I’m a lazy reader, I’m more than willing to put in a bit of effort to keep track of things, but I had no chance of keeping all the characters in this book straight. They’ve all got really long Norse inspired names that I could barely pronounce, and a bunch of them are only different by a few syllables. And it doesn’t help that a few chapters into the book a bunch of the characters turn around and change their names! Argh!

And here is where the author’s skill that I was talking about comes into play. Because by name alone I had no idea which character was which, but I was able to keep them all fairly straight because their actual character was so well written, as was the way the protagonist (Isolfr, one of the few names I remembered, because it was short and the only one that started with an I…) reacted to and interacted with them. I’ve not read anything by Elizabeth Bear (yet) but I know from Sarah Monnette’s books that she is fantastic at creating distinctive characters so I have to assume that this was her influence. It kept me reading when I otherwise would have been tempted to give up.

I initially picked this book up because I’d heard it provided a more realistic take on the common man-anirmal-bond trope, a look at what such a bond would really entail. Having now read the book I don’t think it does this- or at least I don’t think it doesn’t it in a well rounded way. Instead what the book really delves into is what sex would be like for a man bonded to an animal, but it just skims over everything else. Personally I think Robin Hobb offers a more realistic and thorough take on this kind of bond in the Farseer books- she might not explore sex as deeply, but nor does she focus on that one aspect to the neglect of others.

The sex scenes in this book run the gamut from sweet to brutally graphic and confronting, and in this it has to be said that Bear and Monnette have not shied away from the darker possibilities of a man/animal connection. There is a lot of discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute consent, and it does make for thought provoking (if at times uncomfortable) reading.

Something else that is explored with deft skill, although very much in the background, are issues of gender. I liked how this was handled in a subtle way. It's not the focus of the book, but nor does the book simply ignore the question. Considering the cast is almost entirely male, I thought this was impressive.

Ultimately this is a very readable book. Despite its heavy themes the pages just fly by, and while I think it has too much substance to be called popcorn fiction it certainty has a lot in common with that genre. I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series (I’d thought this was a stand alone so I was pleased that there even was a “next book”) and am interested to see where the authors take it.

I bought this book

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell

This is one of those books that you really enjoy while you're reading it. but when you stop and think about it after you realise that it has a lot of flaws.

Jack Greary is working on a routine escort mission when the ships he is protecting are suddenly attacked. Greary heroically goes to his death to allow his crewmembers to escape. 

Except he doesn't die, he just bumps around in space for a hundred years in an escape pod (ala Ripley) until he is found again. Turns out the attack he faced was the opening shot of what has become a century long war, and Greary himself has become a legend.

It's a cool premise, definitely. And Campbell wastes no time before kicking his story into high gear, it's all action go! go! from page one, with the back story dolled out as needed here and there.

The book is also ridiculosly easy to read. A lot of page space is dvoted to space battles which could easily have grown confusing but were surprisingly easy (and exciting) to follow.

I found Greary to be a believable and likeable character if a little.. bland, shall we say? I felt there was no real meat to him, if that make sense. He was also really fond of speeches. And I felt that every over character was there solely to give Greary the chance to launch into these speeches by asking questions that set them up perfectly.

I also felt that there was a dissapointing lack of subtelty in the characters. They were either on Greay's side and good at their jobs, or against Greary and therefor bad at there jobs. It would have been far more interesting to have some of the characters who were against Greary's sudden rise to power also be at least competent.

But these complaints did not stop me from enjoying the book and ripping through it quickly. I liked the questions the book raised about war and heroism, and also how it looked deeply into the effects such a prolonged war would have on people. I liked how the plot progressed, but on the other hand it was a double edged blade. The small, battered force trying desperately to make it home while battered by a much larger force... Battlestar Galactica, anyone? And the thing is Campbell doesn't even try to reach the heights BSG did, but while reading the book all I kept thinking was how much better it would have been if he did.

But I can definitely see myself picking up the next books in this series, and if Campbell improves his characterisation I think these books could be really great.

I bought this book.