Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton

So if you buy a book solely because the cover is beautiful, or because the title is intriguing, then you accept the risk that the book might be not so good. But when you buy a book because you've seen it mentioned all over the place and because the plot sounds like ten different kinds of awesome, then you're your expectations might be somewhat higher. And yet, sometimes, the spur of the moment book will be fantastic and the anticipated one, well, let's turn our attention to Nights of Villjamur.

A city scrambling to prepare for a fast approaching ice age, masses of desperate refugees pushing at its walls, is left leaderless when the emperor commits suicide. Someone, or something, is killing of important council members, and a dark cult is making a grab for power. Zombie like creatures are shambling around the countryside and a war is brewing. Seriously, all that stuff happens in this book. All that stuff and then some. A plot like that, you might say its a bit too ambitious, maybe a bit too much action and excitement for one average sized book. But you almost certainly wouldn't look at that and say it sounds boring.

I went into Nights of Villjamur expected to be challenged, and challenged I was. But it wasn't because the plot was so complex, the prose so twistedly weird, no, the challenge was to finish the damn thing. A challenge I failed.

The problem, well, one of the problems, is that Mark Charan Newton is all tell and no show. I can't think of one examples in the three quarters of the book I made it through where Newton actually shows something. It's all, 'Bob walked down the stairs, he was tired and also a little hungry. He passed John, who he didn't like because four years ago he cheated at a game of poker.' Obviously that's not a dirct quote, but seriously you could open it to any page and find a quote not much better.

This telling over showing is particularly evident when we look the character Brynd. He's commander of the elite night guard, an albino, and a closeted homosexual. Everyone mistrusts him because he's an albino. I know this not because we ever actually see anyone mistrusting him, but because he, you guessed it, tells us. Or other characters will think, 'here come Brynd, I don't trust him because of his freaky white skin.' Another book I read recently had a character who, like Brynd, was an outcast because of their genetics. I'm referring to Jant Shira, from the excellent Castle trilogy. Throughout this books we see other characters too unnerved to meet Jant's eyes, obviously highly uncomfortable in his presence. He obviously makes people nervous. No one ever acts like Brynd bothers them, they just tell us he does.

Or there's an evil council member dude who wants to take control of the city, and to do that he wants to start a war. So he goes to the head armorer and says, 'tell everyone this arrow was made in our enemy nation.' And the armorer is all like 'uh, no.' And then the councilor says, 'do it or I'll beat the living shit out of you.' No, really, he's that subtle. And then later he thinks about how he's got to go do some more clever manipulating. Ah, excuse me? Straight up threats do not a master manipulator make...

The characters lack any real depth, and there's definitely no mystery to them. How can there be when they tell us everything? The telling is even worse when it's done in dialogue. 'How do you feel about your boss?' Asks character a. 'I used to like him but now I don't because he didn't promote me.' Who actually talks like that? It also feels like the characters interact only on a most superficial level. The emperor, for example, beat his wife and possibly also murdered her. And yet Brynd, his most trusted adviser, seems to have no opinion about it. Newton also has a some little writing quirks that he repeats a lot, most annoyingly in the dialogue of different characters, which makes them sound very similar. (Also, at one point some random character suddenly realises that he's never liked communal toilets. How do you suddenly realise something you've always known?)

Mostly I'm just really disappointed. This book had such crazy amounts of potential, and I felt like the character of Brynd in particular could have been pretty amazing. Could have been, would have been, but ultimately wasn't. Maybe the next books in this serious are better, but as I couldn't even finish this one I don't know if I'll ever find out.

How did I get this book? Bought it

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Book of Tongues, by Gemma Files

"A Pinkerton detective infiltrates a Wild West gang led by a spell-casting preacher in this boundary-busting horror–fantasy debut."

I follow and read a lot of book review blogs. Like, a lot. Sometimes I feel like I read more book reviews then, you know, actual books. Some people question the worth of reading reviews, because after all books are highly subjective and what one person likes you might not and so on. But I think you have to approach reading reviews in the right way. I mean, if there’s a reviewer whose tastes always line up with yours then you might avoid a book just because they didn’t like it, but I think any good reviewer provides enough information that even if they didn’t like the book, you can take their review and make up your own mind.

Which brings me to Gemma Files’ “Book of Tongues.” A book I had never heard of until Calico Reaction posted a review of it. Now, Calico was not a fan of this book, indeed she didn’t even finish it. But she neatly outlines the things that didn’t work for her personally, and they kinda sounded like things that would work for me. So I tracked the book down, and I’m very glad I did.

I honestly don’t understand why this book is not getting more mentions across the reviewing corner of the blogosphere. Not because it’s necessarily fantastically awesome, (although I rather think it is), but because it’s hugely ambitious. I think it’s the kinda book that you have to feel strongly about, either love it or hate it, and it’s these kind of books I’m used to seeing discussions of.

It’s set right after the American civil war in an America where some people are “hex’s.” That is, men or women with some pretty trippy magical powers that manifest on the onset of menstruation (if you’re a women) or upon suffering serious bodly harm (if you’re a man). A really cool twist on the idea is that to hex’s can not spend any long length of time together as they will involuntarily suck the power out of each other until one is dead. When being hung for a crime he didn’t commit Reverend Asher Rook learns he has some serious power going on, and he turns outlaw along with the rest of his army regiment. (Regement? Unit? I don’t know, I’m not down with military lingo…)

This regiment includes one Chess Pargeter, also known as the reason I loved this book so very much. He’s a whore turned Reverend Rook’s fiercely loyal lover, he’s an indiscriminate murderer, he’s more than a little bit crazy and he definitely makes the book for me. The best character I can think of to compare Chess to is George R. R. Martin’s Jamie Lannister. You start out completely disgusted by him, and by the end he’s your absolute favourite (at least if you’re me). Not that I’m equating being gay with having an incestuous relationship with your sister! It’s more the way that Chess kills so freely and so gleefully, he seems wholly without empathy and it’s easy to dislike him. But by the time the novel ended my heart had broken for him ten times over, and I was cheering for him to come out on top. The transition is completely natural, I couldn’t even tell you the moment Chess went from zero to hero for me, and without changing the core of his character either.

It took George Martin four massive tomes to pull that off with Jamie, and Gemma Files does it in just a couple of hundred of too short pages. Impressive? Very. The other characters were just as skilfully crafted. The character arc of Reverend Rook was just as dramatic as Chess’s, and the skill it took to pull it off even more impressive. There is an almost complete lack of women, but given the setting and nature of the book I’m willing to forgive that. (And while the female hex Songbird felt a little flat to me, I loved Chess’s mother, so I’m confident in Files’ ability to write a female characer). The only character I was a little disappointed with is Ed Morrow, our main POV character. He spends most of his time observing and commenting upon Rook and Chess, so we don’t really get to see much of who he himself is. Files does hint at greater depths inside of him, so hopefully the honourable Mr. Morrow will grow a bit in the next books.

The writing style and structure is what I think will divide the people who read this book into those who like and those who don’t. It’s told in an odd mix of flash backs and present day scenes. I say odd because it feels uneven, like there will be three flashbacks and then a present scene and then a flash back and then five present scenes… Like when your iPod shuffle randomly throws up five songs out of ten by the same band? The flashbacks and present day scenes are not quite randomly placed, but not quite structured either, and it sticks out. The writing itself is highly stylised. I think Files definitely captured the voice of the setting. Think the southern twang that leaps of every page of a Sookie Stackhouse novel, or the British manners of Naomi’s Novik’s Temeraire books. If by the end of a novel I’m reading it in my head with an accent, then the author has been effective.

I will say that some of it got a little confusing for me. All of the Aztec names started to run together, but that’s probably because I am entirely unfamiliar with Aztec legends beyond what I’ve learnt from Mountain Goats albums. And there is a lot of religion. Like, A LOT. Rook’s powers come from the bible, like he reads a phrase and havoc is wrought. (Think turned people into pillars of salt, plagues of locusts, ect). Actually, and this coming from a die hard atheist, I found it be pretty unique and interesting. Normally I can’t stop yawning when reading about characters struggling with their religion and god and what have you, but Files definitely handled it pretty well. And she couldn’t very well have avoided it, with Rook being a once pious Reverend now killing people left and right and enthusiastically sodomising his boyfriend every chance he gets.

It is the first part in a trilogy, and the ending is definitely a first part of a trilogy kind of ending. So if you have the patience you might want to wait until they’re all out, but if you’re anything like me you’ll be snapping the next one up as soon is you can!

How did I get this book?
Bought it

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: Day By Day Armagedon: Beyond Exile, by J.L. Bourne

Hmmmmm. Did I enjoy this book as much as it’s predecessor, Day By Day Armageddon? Short answer: No. Long answer: also no. Shall I elaborate?

From a technical standpoint you have to concede that Beyond Exile is Day By Day’s superior. Technically. A lot of the “flaws” of the first book are absent here. The problem is, as you may have guessed by my quote marks. Is that I never thought of Day By Day’s flaws as, well, flaws. Did the plot tend to meander, which sudden narrative events coming out of nowhere? Yep. Was the majority of the action described to the reader after it had already happened? Yep again. But as I said in my review of that book, these things gave the novel a uniquely authentic feel. The plot and structure did not adhere to what one would expect from a novel, and as such the book felt like a genuine diary, instead of a book in diary form. This, for me anyway, lent to the book a level of suspense that it might otherwise have lacked.

Beyond Exile, however, reads like somebody took Bourne aside and explained that if he was going to be writing books then he’d best start learning the rules. The result feels very forced. Day by Day meandered, yes, but it felt natural, things happened randomly just like they do in real life. But Beyond Exile has a rather more structured plot, and when reading the book you can feel the author pushing his characters here and there. This neatly robs the book of the genuine diary charm, and without that the story definitely suffers.

And despite all this talk of structured plotting, I actually doubt that Bourne sat down beforehand and plotted this book out. Obviously I don’t know how it went down, but I’d bet money that both books were written in one go with no structured plan, but with Day by Day he was maybe ignorant of the “rules,” and with his sophomore effort a little bit too aware of them.

For example, early in the book a metric crap tonne of new characters (metric crap tonne being the academic term) are introduced and through a few highly coincidental plot twists our still unnamed narrator is put in charge of all of them. But you can practically hear the cogs turning in Bourne’s mind, realising that a man in command of many lives, who orders others to go do dangerous things instead of doing them himself, maybe isn’t the best POV character. But instead of rewriting the plot, he just twists it around until the problem is solved. As I’ve said already, it feels very forced.

But the book is not wholly flawed. A new character is introduced who I found very interesting, an Arab man who teams up with our Hero. Bourne skilfully toys with the reader, making us wonder “is he a terrorist? Isn’t he?” Which, I know, sounds like is could be awful and more than a little offensive, but works really well. I also like how the Hero’s relationship with a character from the first book develops into more, but almost entirely off screen. It gives the impression that there’s a lot more going on in his life than what he puts down on paper.

The ending? Pretty much as non existent as the first, neatly setting up the third book. Will I be reading that book? Yes. But I hope that Bourne develops a little confidence in his writing to write what he wants, and all “rules” be dammed.

How did I get this book? Bought it

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: The Castle Omnibus, by Steph Swainston

Ah, the omnibus. Many trilogies I would never had read if they'd not been released in omnibus form. It's three books for the price of one and a bit! Frankly, you'd be losing money if you didn't buy it! (Or so I tell I tell my boyfriend when yet another parcel of books appears on the doorstep...) If I'd had to have purchased the three books in the Castle trilogy, The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time and The Modern World, I know I never would have.

I mean, the plot sounded intriguing enough. An emperor dude has the power to make people immortal, but he grants the gift only to the man or woman that proves themselves to be the indisputable best at something. But you can't, like, be the best at ribbon curling, your skill has to be relevant to the centuries long war the emporer's been waging against an invading swarm of bugs. Jant is the best messenger at the world, because he's pretty good at learning new languages and diplomacy, but mostly its because he can fly and no one else can. Which seems a bit like an unfair advantage to me but there you go.

Sounds pretty cool, yes? But there were several things that turned me off. Firstly, Jant is a drug addict, hooked on a hallucinogenic called Cat. Man, I hate reading about drug addiction. Partly because I find books (and movies too) that deal with addiction tend to be too dark for my liking but mostly, having never been a drug addicit myself and therefor having no understanding of what it feels like, I get really frustrated. 'Hey, character x, have you tried just, you know, not taking drugs?' Also, the trilogy has garnered some pretty average reviews, the most troubling being that the characters are shallow and boring.

But, omnibus! So I bought, I read and, friends, I loved it. Loved it like my niece loves pink. (And believe me, the kid loves pink). Are the secondary characters somewhat 2d? Well, yes, but, but, I think that's the point. Because Jant, our erstwhile first POV narrator, is just a wee bit self centered. If the people around him seem to lack depth its because he's too busy checking out his reflection in the mirror to notice their depths. It obvious that Swainston is capable of writing fleshed out and complex character because that's exactly what Jant is.

There are three races in the book, humans and "Awains" (who are pretty much people with wings (who can't fly)) are the two who co-exsist quite happily and who we see the most of. But then there are the Rhydainne, (I may be getting the spelling wrong here, my book is out of arms reach), an odd race who live way up in the snowy mountains. They are extemely fast and insanely self serving. Their language doesn't actually have a word for "we," but it does have over fifty for drunk. (Jant says this is because it gets too cold they need to drink to stop their blood from freezing, but Jant says a lot of things...) Humans and Awains are very distrustful of Rhydainne, and so Jant often gets treated with suspicion or fear, on account of he's half Rhydainne half Awain. (This is how he can fly, super light Rhydainne bones combined with Awain wings).

Jant is a fascinating mix of both cultures. He craves acceptance and love, but at the same time his solitary Rhydainne nature shines through. He has a wife, for instance, but the only time he seems to think about her when she's not with him is when she's having an affair. And then it's only about how Jant feels, and not at all about her. He constantly twists situations around to serve himself, and has a constant stream of excuses ready to explain why he's never wrong, especially when he's taking drugs, and he's kinda always taking drugs. Dugs which, I haven't yet mentiond, teleport him to another world which reads like something China Mieville wrote and then decided was too weierd. The drug taking didn't bore as much as I expected it too, or even at all. I think Jants wicked sense of humour played a huge part in it, he kept taking drugs and screwng up and I just kept on forgiving him. Plus, Swainstone's descriptions of flying make it sound like just the coolest thing ever. There's something vicariously enjoyable about the constant envy Jant receives because he can fly.

The plot? Hmmm,well, ok. A lot seems to happen, but then you stop and think and realise that actually, nothing has happned. It also gets a little confusing at times, and story elements are set up to be important and then kind of go no where. But I can gaurantee that it will be different from any fantasy you've read before. And honestly, he plot could have been Jant goes to the market to by fruit but buys socks instead and I'd read it, solely because of Jant's voice. He made the whole trilogy for me, and is the reason I can't wait to get my hands of the prequel and I'm hoping like crazy that Swainston writes a sequel.

This book, I got it how? I bought it! (Long live the omnibus!)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Ah the collaborate book. Like non-english books that have passed through the hands of a translator I can never quite lose myself entirely in the story. Who wrote this bit? Whose idea was that bit?

Sometimes everything's all too mooshed together to really differentiate separate voices, like in Prachett/Gaimen’s Good Omens, but when the author's are kind enough to write alternating chapters it gets a little easier.

That’s what John Green and David Levithan do with Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Struggling in the shadow of his over the top best friend Will starts the book off, then we swap to adorably emo Will and then back again and so on so forth.

I immediately pegged the first Will as being written by John Green. (The urge to label the two as straight Will and gay Will is pretty strong, but I think it would be an insult to the book to reduce the characters down to one characteristic which in no way defines either of them, so we’ll stick with First Will and Second Will).
Having a few Green books under my belt now (only An Abundance of Katherines to go) I think I’m getting pretty good at picking his distinctive voice. Of David Levithan I am less well versed. The only book of his I’ve read is Boy Meets Boy and, without this delving into a review inside a review, I’ll just say that while the writing was good I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to really enjoy the idealised nature of its setting. It was a all a bit too happy and sweet and rainbows and sunshine, you know?

So having decided that the First Will must be John Green’s Will (by the way, this is just my assumption and I could have it entirely wrong), then this made the Second Will Levithan’s creation. I was expecting someone like the overly happy hero of Boy Meets Boy, and it quickly became apparent that my expectations were way off the mark.

The Second Will quickly became my favourite. He’s a depressed, world hating little shit and by some miraculous feat of excellent writing he manages to not be at all annoying. Maybe the kid’s snarky sense of humour won't appeal to everyone, but it was definitely right up my alley. I also really liked the way his chapters were written, in a stream of consciousness zero punctuation kind of way. It’s the kind of stylistic choice that can fail spectacularly, but when it works, works really well. Here it works really well, and I loved the immediacy and emotional depth of the Second Will chapters.

I really liked First Will as well, but there was something a little too familair about him. I'm going to look pretty dumb if I'm wrong about which author wrote which Will, but First Will just screams John Green. His male protags are starting to feel like slight variations of the same guy, and while I love his writing too much to care a whole lot, it is food for thought that the two Levithan books I've read feature characters so wildly different, whereas Green's are not.

Enough character musing! The plot? Honestly, there’s not a lot of it there. Also honestly, the writing is so great that I didn’t care one little bit. A series of serendipitous results in Will Grayson 1 meeting Will Grayson 2 in a porn store. Will Grayson 2 immediately starts dating Will Grayson 1’s best friend, and Will Grayson 1 has some do I want to or not drama with this other girl. (And, assuming Green did write First Will’s stuff, then I am pleased to report that the girl, is not built in the Alaska/Margo mold which I had feared was all Green could do). More interestingly than the romance sub plot is the relationship between First Will and his best friend, which gets a real hammering.

Also, something happens to Second Will which, without a doubt, is the most awful thing I have ever seen happen to a YA character. It was horrifying, not in a serial killer/werewolf/vampire not real kind of way, but horrifying because it was so mind bogglingly awful and because having been a teenager myself once I knew how realistic it was. I felt sick for poor Second Will, and could barely bring myself to keep turning the pages.

As the book wraps up the David Levithan I met in Boy Meets Boy starts to shine through a little. Everything gets just a shade too unbelievably sweet, and things work out just a touch too well maybe. But it’s a small complaint to level at such an emotionally rich book with such well crafted and satisfying characters. Overall, a highly recommended read.

how did I get this book? bought it

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review: Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

Did I enjoy Throne of Jade as much as its predecessor, Temeraire? If anything, I enjoyed it more. I loved it so much that yesterday I made my ever patient boyfriend drive me to a city nearly two hours away so I could purchase the next two books for twice the price than if I got them from Book Depository, because I want to read them right now, not in 7-15 days!
Reviews of those two will be forthcoming, I'm sure, but for now let's talk Throne of Jade. (Probably you should read Temeraire before you read this). The plot is basically this: China wants Temeraire back, preferably sans Laurence. So it's off to China with Laurence and Temeraire, where they hope to convince the emperor to let Britain keep Temeraire.
Let me first point out a two ways in which I think this book could have easily faltered. First, the depiction of the Chinese and their culture was of course going to be tricky, especially considering that our POV man, Laurence, it not favourably disposed to the Chinese AT ALL. (The are trying to remove him from Temeraire's company, after all). But Novik does a good job of contrasting China to Britain and highlighting how strange everything is to the Western characters without ever sinking into, 'gosh, look how silly these Chinese people are!' Some of the Chinese characters are portrayed negatively, but its never because they are Chinese. The insertion of Dragons into Chinese culture also felt very authentic, and far more natural than the British dragons in book one.
The second trap that I am glad Novik avoided is a common trope in books like this. Almost every character in this book is devoted to separating Laurence and Temeraire. How easy it would have been, and how predictable, to have a miss-communication or misunderstanding that does indeed separate the two, until they triumphantly overcome the obstacle. Yawn yawn yawn. The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence in this book is deeper than that trope (which I hate, without exception). There is a moment where it could have come into play; Temeraire is inexplicably absent when Laurence desperately needs him. But, but, wait for it, Laurence gives Temeraire a chance to explain and, oh my god, get this, Temeraire explains! Wow!
It was very gratifying to see Laurence and Temeraire's relationship develop. In the first book there was definitely a feeling that Temeraire was a child and Laurence an adult, but as Throne of Jade plays out we see the two slowly become equals. Temeraire starts to establish who he is outside of Laurence and, instead of seeing this as some kind of abandonment, Laurence is supportive. What I'm saying is that one of the most realistic and healthy adult relationships I have ever encountered in fiction is here, between a man and his dragon.
The plot, while I may have made it sound simple, is very exciting. Storms, sea serpents and murder attempts abound, and unlike in the previous book there is quite a few character deaths. There was also a fight between two dragons, which played out very differently to the multi dragon battles we’ve already seen and was a thrill to read.
Ultimately I felt that this book nimbly sidestepped the potential pitfalls that faced it, and has left even more eager to continue reading the adventures of Laurence and Temeraire.

How did I get this book? From book depository 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

Reviewing this trilogy seems a little pointless, as it seems like I was the last person on the planet to get around to reading it. But! Maybe not! Maybe, like me, there are a few of you still out there who held off, maybe because you avoid hyped books, maybe because you avoid trilogies, or maybe, like me, because you avoid barbarians. Barbarians! Rarely do I find a character more boring or predictable than if he’s a bloodthirsty, scarred, possibly with a secret heart of gold, barbarian. It’s bad enough when they pop up as secondary characters, but to start a trilogy with a barbarian as the main character? No. Thank. You.

But a rare book shortage and a rainy Sunday afternoon led to me finally giving Mr. Abercrombie a try and, what a shock, turns out all the glowing reviews were on to something. Ironically my favourite thing about the trilogy quickly became Logan, the barbarian who had kept me away for so long. Nine parts awesome self depreciating humour and practicality, one part terrifying blood crazed beserker. He’s a complicated fellow, to be sure, and I doubt few authors would have had the skill needed to create him. The rest of the book’s cast are equally impressive, painted in enough shades of grey to please even the most jaded pallet.

The plot, if you pull it out of the book and examine is almost laughably standard. Eclectic group of adventures are led on an adventure across the globe in search of a Mystical Artefact™. But frankly the plot could be young boy discovers he is a wizard and attends school of magic and Abercrombie’s excellent prose would make it sound fresh and new. He also delights in taking the reader’s expectations and twisting them. Oh ho, you think the dashing young hero is about to best his foe? Whoops, no, shield butt to the face! Think those two crazy kids are gonna find a way to make their love work? Ha, she stabs him the face!
It was refreshing, but I have to say I think Abercrombie took the idea of subverting fantasy tropes a shade too far and started to subvert the whole idea of a narrative. Which probably sounds pretty cool to some people, and I know a lot of people enjoyed the trilogy, but for me the last third of the final book did a lot to ruin my (immense) enjoyment of the previous volumes. (I’ll keep it spoiler free, don’t worry)

Let’s set aside for now the fact that ‘Last Argument of Kings’ suffers from a case of the never ending ending. Think the final Lord of the Rings book, where everything gets wrapped up but then we’ve got to win back the shire and that’s done but whoops, now we’re off to catch a ship… If the reader is starting to think, ‘just finish already!’ that’s probably not a good sign. But I know I wouldn’t have minded the dragged outness of it if each page wasn’t sucking the good will right out of me. I don’t require or even want happy endings to all the books I read, but what I do want is some character development. If character A has not changed a bit by the end of the book then what was the point of anything?

And everything seemed to be going so well. Slowly and naturally over the course of the first two and half volumes each character was growing as a person. Selfish Jezel learned a little humility, ruthless Ferro was starting to show faint traces of mercy, it made for compelling reading. And I guess is was Abercrombie’s biggest subversion of all. Oh, look, the silly little reader thinks the characters are going to come out of this as better people! We’ll show her! He proceeds to spend the last chunk of the book completely reversing what character growth there has been, so that every character ends up being pretty much the same flawed and unlikable person they were at book one’s start. Where he spent an entire book subtly changing a characters outlook or establishing their world view, he undoes with a handful of forced paragraphs. Frustrating? Ah, yeah, just a little.

The best way I can put it is to say that Last Argument of Kings felt like the second to last volume in a series. That book where the characters reach their lowest, where things seem their bleakest, before the eventual well earned and triumphant success of the last book. And yes, I know that Joe ‘The Subverter’ Abercrombie clearly didn’t want to do what the reader expected but dude, give us something! (At the very least he could have explained what the hell was up with Logan’s “Bloody-nine” blackouts….)

I can’t not recommend this series, because the writing and characters really are fantastic. And while the ending was definitely not to my liking, I can’t deny that it made me think and really consider what I expect from a book, and why. On the other hand, I don't know that I'll be picking up any more Abercrombie books any time soon.

How did I get these books? I bought them

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Nation, by Terry Prachett

Growing up I never really gave much to religion. I kind of half heatedly figured that there must be a God, and if I had a problem I’d usually squeeze my eyes shut and pray for a resolution. But then, having lived 20 relatively woe free years, my mother, aunt and grandmother passed away suddenly in the space of a few short months. Suddenly the question of religion seemed rather more important than it had before, and I turned to books (of course) to try and make sense of the belief forming inside of me that, hmm, maybe there is no God?

Dawkins, Hitchens, Mills, I read them all, and I can’t say that they didn’t help me but man, what I wouldn’t give for a time machine to send back to myself a copy of Terry Prachett’s Nation. (Well, possibly I'd work on preventings of those deaths that caused all the introspection in the first place, but failing that...) Every person, no matter the age, who has ever struggled questioned the big man in the sky should read this book.

Because at it’s heart that what this book is about; questions. Mau and a shipwrecked white girl are the only survivors on a small island after a terrible tidal waves rips through and, having looked upon the bodies of everyone he ever knew, Mau has some questions. They creep up slowly at first, but before long he’s rejecting the Gods he has spent his whole life believing in. The life of Mau and the life of Megan (that's me!) could not be more different, and yet the way he starts to question the world around him, almost guiltily at first and then with growing confidence, was so familiar it was almost painful to read.

But! Other survivors who eventually reach Mau island (some nice, some decidedly not) still believe in their Gods, and this is what sets Nation apart. Other “atheist” books tend to dismiss if not openly mock those with faith, seeming to suggest that if you believe in God then you’re a bit of an idiot, really. (And then get all hurt when people call atheists arrogant...). In no way does Prachett do this. The characters who do believe in the Gods are treated as sympathetically as Mau.

Because this is not a book about rejecting God, it’s a book about questioning God (and colonialism, but I’m trying to keep these reviews short so we won’t even go into that). Nation is a celebration of curiosity and the importance of science and discovery, and how such things need not be mutually exclusive with the Great Almighty. Believe in God or don’t, either’s fine, Nation says, but don’t just believe blindly because you’ve been told to. I wish I was rich enough to take out billboards across the globe with that message on them, Happy Xmas (War is Over) style.

And of course, it almost goes without saying that in addition to being a deep exploration of life, the universe and everything Nation also displays all the wit and dancing prose for which Prachett is so loved. It is a darker book than the Discworld novels, to be sure. There is humour, and humour galore, but there is a bittersweet undertone to it that the Discworld books rarely touch upon. If you like Discworld you’ll like this one, if you don’t like Discworld (such people exist?) you may well still like this one and, most importantly, if you’re at a point in your life where you’ve got more questions than your head knows what to do with, then you need this one.

I bought this book


Review: Edge, by Thomas Blackthorne

I’m not going to lie, I bought this book for the cover. I didn’t read the blurb, I didn’t read the first page, all of the little steps that bridge the gap between a book and my bookshelves flew out the window in the face of that cover. Knife fights! Blood! Duels! Sounds most excellent to me.

When the book arrived I dared to think I had been rewarded for my rash purchase. The back blurb promised a dystopic future Britain where knife fighting had been legalised and where a giant wall had been erected around the city. Sounds very awesome, yes? At the very least it sounds finishable, and yet I barely made it half way through.

Let start with the book’s main conceit: Knife fighting: it’s legal! Why? Pfft, we don’t need to know a silly little thing like that, do we? And honestly, I would have been happy with minimal explanation of why knife fighting (to the death, mind you) was legal, if we actually got to see some, you know, knife fighting. As I said, I made it to the midway point, and not once had anyone actually had a fight involving knives. There was a lot of posturing and ‘why sir, you have offended me! I demand satisfaction!’ going on, but actual knife fighting? Not so much. I’m not saying that nothing happened, but it did feel like Blackthorne (I vaguely recall that this is a well known author's alias, but can't for the life of me remember who...) completely wasted the potential of his world. Here’s this big brotherish dystopic future London, but not one of the events of the first half of the book couldn’t have taken place in a book set in current day London. What’s the point of cool futuristic setting if you don’t make the most of it? Or at least something of it?

And the giant wall surrounding Britain? Maybe the back cover was referring to a metaphorical giant wall, because no mention of such was made in the book, or at least no mention that I noticed. Admittedly, I could have missed it. Blackthorne's brand of worldbuilding seems to be offhand sentences like, “oh, yes, America has three presidents now” with no explanation or follow up or, worse of all, no real evidence that it effects the characters lives in any way. Or at another point he mentions that because knife fighting is legal hardly anyone owns or uses guns any more. Um, ok? More confusingly is the therapist character (always a sign of memorable characters when they have to be referred to by their profession...), who can possibly read minds or something. Maybe? She does this thing where she talks to her patients and somehow her words just fix whatever is wrong with them, or make them think in a whole new way, like magic. She'll say something like 'you are no longer shy' and bam! no more shyness. But for all intents and purposes Blackthorne has set his book in the “real” world and there are no other hints of supernatural happenings. It’s very strange.

I can accept magic therapy powers, but what I can’t accept is magic therapy powers that the author wants me to believe aren’t magic. Trying to figure it out kept pulling me out of the book. What also kept yanking me out was trying to get a handle on the moods of the characters. Scenes like this took place pretty much every time any of the character’s spoke:
Josh (or John. Possibly Jake) clenched his fists, a scowl crossing his lips, “um, yeah, ok I guess,” he said.
Do you see? His body language suggests angry alpha male, his words suggest meek submissive dude. The dialogue in this book was consistently like this, completely at odds with the context of the scene. It’s pretty much impossible to lose yourself in a book when your jarred out the story every couple of pages, you know?

Having not finished the book, I can not say if these faults are with it the whole way through. There’s a chance the last half is one long knife fighting blood bath, but even the possibility of that wasn’t enough to let me ignore its flaws and keep forcing myself through it.

Book was: purchased 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: Temeraire, by Naomi Novik

Does this book have its flaws? Sure, in the same way a beautiful summer’s day has flaws. Oh no, I’m a little sweaty and it’s making my hair stick to my neck. Oh dear, my hand is sticky because my ice cream is melting on it. If things like these are enough to spoil summer days for you, then perhaps you’re from some alternate universe where most days are perfect in every single way. Likewise, if the flaws to be found in Temeraire (or Her Majesty’s Dragon if you live in other parts of the world) are enough to ruin the book for you them you must be accustomed to some truly spectacular books, and I envy you.

Truly, I can not remember the last time I encountered a book that was so much fun to read. Naval hotshot Laurence finds a dragon egg, and when it hatches the baby dragon, Temeraire, latches onto to him. (Think imprinting ala Twilight, but with a bazillion percent less creepy lameness). Laurence is yanked from the navy and sent to the Dragon corps where he and Temeraire learn to fight crime Napoleon. Enjoying this book was effortless. And yes, sometimes when something requires effort you end up loving it all the more intensely (like my oft mentioned favourite House of Leaves), but sometimes you just want to enjoy something without having to try.

And all this talk of Temeraire being easy to read is not a slight against the book, although I can how you might read it as such. You might be picturing characters who are little more than archetypes, short hand stand in for familiar tropes that we know so well we don’t have to guess at their motivations. Perhaps you think the plot is so obvious one barely needs to read the words to know what will happen next.

Wrong! Our hero Laurence is a complex fellow, and not always one hundred percent likable. He’s not a twenty first century man wandering around the seventeen hundreds like many characters in historical fiction seem to be, he is entirely true to the time period (or how I imagine the time period, as truly I am no expert). He is a stuffy and a stickler for rank, he balks at the idea of women in the workforce and heaven help anyone who doesn’t address him with enough respect. But he’s a good man and a fine leader, strict but fair and all that. And it doesn’t hurt that I suspect he’s rather dashingly handsome.

The plot itself, while nothing groundbreaking is certainly not predictable. While you’re always pretty sure that Laurence and Temeraire will come out ok (because there’s like thirty more books in this series) there are moments of genuine concern for the well being of other characters. Admittedly nothing much seems to happen for a great part of the book, it’s mostly Laurence and Temeraire getting to know each other, kind of like the pilot episode of a sitcom. I suspect Novik knew she would be writing more books in this series, and so saw no need to rush things. In the final quarter however things really go mad, with some nicely foreshadowed plot developments playing out and some pretty crazy dragon v dragon air battles. (Novik really excels as concise, clear and exciting battle descriptions, with is a rare skill that should always be valued).

The only real complaint I can lay against this book is the dragon Temeraire seems just a shade too perfect. He’s the rarest most uniquest most bestest dragon in all the world that can do things no other dragon can, and more! But you know what, I’m gonna let that go to. Reading the exploits of super awesome Temeraire reminds me a lot of the unabashed joy in the scene in the first Harry Potter book where Harry flies for the first time. There can be something really enjoyable in watching a character excel, and with his occasional petulance and revolutionary leanings Temeraire isn’t entirely perfect.

Not entirely perfect is true for the book as a whole really, but you can be damn sure that I await the further adventures of Laurence and Temeraire most eagerly, and I’ll let you know if installment two is as much fun as this one.

How did I get this book: Bought from Angus & Robinson, where it was cheaper than on Book Depository (it practically bought itself!)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Day By Day Armagedon, by J.L. Bourne

Does exactly what it says on the box. A never named navy officer decides to keep a diary literally days before a zombie flavoured kind of hell breaks loose, and the book is a day by day chronicle of his efforts to survive.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. If we start at a purely aesthetic viewpoint, this is a book that makes me glad to have resisted the ebook wave. I don’t mean the cover (which isn’t terrible but I wouldn’t say I’m in love with it), I’m talking about the pages. They are adored with handwritten notes, pictures (both hand drawn and photographs), coffee rings and tears and what are possibly blood stains. There are also sections of texts that have been scribbled out and rendered unreadable, which brings to mind one of my all time favourite books, House of Leaves. It makes the book feel more immediate and authentic, and it makes you feel closer to our unnamed hero.

Of course no quirky design will turn rubbish prose into good, but thankfully J.L. Bourne's text doesn’t need any help being good. Bourne's take on the Zombie apocalypse is a pleasing mixture of familiar and new ideas. He pays due homage to the zombie tradition while still managing to offer his own ideas without going too crazy with it.

But the real shining point, for me, is the narrator. Our hero is a military man, and this shines through in every aspect of the text. It's sometimes obvious, such as the use of military terminology, which is a little confusing at first but the author skilfully supplies enough context for us to figure out what all the words mean. (What, an author who doesn’t treat his readers like idiots? Imagine!) But his military background is also clear in his short, efficient sentences and the methodical way he views the world.

This book is an exercise in reading between the lines. As I mentioned, Protagonist McNoname writes his journal in a very straight forward, no fuss kind of way. He doesn’t dwell overlong on his feelings or hopes, he concerns himself with what is needed to survive; lists of remaining rations, brainstorm ideas of zombie proof fortresses and the like. When he meets other suriviors he writes about them foremost in terms of what the skills they offer, and when he finds those skills lacking he outlines plans to teach them. (Not, you may note, abandon them).

But when we look closer a picture of him begins to emerge. We start to see that he has always been a loner (when shit starts to go down he deserts the military without hesitation), and pretty bad at relating with women. He mentions briefly using army equipment to spy on an ex-girlfiend, and his thoughts when a friend calls to say his wife had left are also very telling. He refers to his guns as females, and in the early days of the book he is at his most considerate when he is carefully cleaning and maintaining them.

It is pleasure to watch, as the book progresses, our hero start to trust and depend on the few other survivors he joins up with. It’s also a pleasure to be in the hands of a perfectly capable protagonist. Often zombie books, or all post-apocalyptic books, are told from the point of view of unremarkable people who have to quickly learn how to survive. Our hero already knows how to survive, he just needs to learn how to love. (Oh man, that did not sound so cheesy in my head I promise…)

My biggest complaint with the book is the ending, or rather lack thereof. We are left with some major plot threads dangling in the wind, and while there is a sequel it’s still annoying to have to wait to get my hands on it. But then again, if the worst thing you can say about a book is that you want to read more right now instead of later, then it’s probably a pretty good book!

This book, I got it how? I actually won this one from Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. Cheers Graeme!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

YA books I have loved, and loved well.

The Book Smuggler's, bless their cotton socks, have been hosting a YA extraveganza this week. Reading all the excellent reviews and discussions about all things YA made me think, all nostalgic like, back to the time when I was myself a young adult. Back when reading was more than something I loved, it was something that literally got me through the day. Back when books kept me up at night, not because I was reading them but because I couldn't stop thinking about them. I love books different now, not less necessarily but perhaps with less intensity. Which makes me a little sad, but on the other hand at least I get more sleep now...

Here is a very small selection of some of the YA texts that most impacted my time as a YA, may I never again feel so angst ridden awkward as I did then.

Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta: This book is everything a YA book should be. Josie is a third generation Italian-Australian girl who feels like she doesn't fit in anywhere. And you can't really blame the girl for thinking that. She's the poor scholaship kid in an upper class private school, the girls there pick on her because she's a "wog" (and poor!) and the Italian community picks on her because (the horror!) she's a bastard. Now in my mature years (snort) I can appreciate the way Marchetta explores the issues and prejudices that face immigrants. Josie is torn between how she sees herself as an Australian and how she sees herself as an Italian, and these broad cultural conflict are mirrored on a more personal level when the father she never met reenters her life and she must decide if she is an Alibrandi or an Andretti (that would be Dad's last name).

But you know, back then I didn't care about that heavy stuff. I cared about Josie. She was funny, an awesome self-depreciating brand of funny that to this day makes me laugh out loud. And she has a temper! There's this one scene where a rich snobby girl calls Josie a wog and Josie breaks her nose with a science text book which is just kick ass, and still hands done one of my favourite moments in any book ever. (Plus the rich snobby girl is not just a rich snob girl stereotype, she's as real a person as Josie is, just like every character in this book).

Plus, there are boys. Who will Josie end up with? Working class Jacob who acts like he cares about nothing but actually cares a lot about everyhing? Or maybe it will be upper class John who is ridiculously likeable? You know how in a lot of books where's there's one girl and two boys is actually pretty obvious who she'll end up with? Not so here, at all. And Jacob and John aren't just there to be love interests either, there's a very real sense of their lives existing outside of Josie.

But just be careful, because this book will also break your heart. And I'm not even kidding about that, it will take your heart and rip it up and scatter the bits. Looking for Alaska has nothing on Looking for Alibrandi, and you'll love it even more.

Guitar Highway Rose, by Lois Lowry: At it's heart this is a book about two crazy kids learning that their parents used to be crazy kid's once, and it's about their parent's learning that, oh shit, are kid's aren't little kid's anymore. But it's not nearly as boring as that might make it sound. We have Rose, who's parents are starting to edge towards divorce, and we have Asher who's parent's have just split up. Asher is the new kid in school, he's a free spirit who poo poos the dress code and is wretchedly homesick. Rosie just wants to escape, damn it, anyway she can. So it's no great shock that the two end up running away together and having the sweetest romance you have ever seen. (Sweet as in she falls asleep on his shoulder and he doesn't dare move lest he wake her, not sweet as in 'sweet wheels bro.')

My favourite thing about this book has always been the nontraditional way in which is was written. It's made up of lists and stream of consciousness chunks and school reports and journal entries, (all with clever headings) but at no point is it anything other than assessable. It's hard to explain, but very effective. I feel like we learn more about Asher by reading a list a of his pocket's contents then we would in five pages of traditional narrative.

Another way in which this book is unique in the treatment of the adults. They are every bit as real and complex as the teenagers, and when I read this book for the first time that kinda blew my mind a little bit.

Tomorrow, When the War Began (and it's sequels), by John Marsden: Holy shit, you guys. Holy shit. Basically a group of friends go camping and come home to find that Australia gets invaded by never named foreigners. Naturally they go all guerrilla warfare on the invaders.

Elle is hands down without a doubt my favourite literary heroine, from any genre. She's flawed up the wazoo, stubborn and bossy and jealous. But she's also resourceful and strong and loyal and my god is she brave. (When people suggest that male writers can not write females I throw one of the Tomorrow books at their head).

And the other characters are just as flawed and amazing in their own ways. My favourite was always Lee. He's this beautiful, complex guy who might have lived his whole life in his own intense quite way but the war brings out a darkness inside of him, and he does things the others can not bring themselves to. And even though they know these things have to be done, and they're relived that Lee has done them, they pull away from him a little. It's painful and real and so damn human. (There's an amazing scene where they're hiding out in a house and Elle finds Lee, who pre-war was a musician, sitting at a piano with his hands hovering over the keys. He can't play it because of the noise, and I doubt many authors could have captured the bittersweet pain of the moment as well as Marsden).

Marsden definitely doesn't pull back from anything. There's blood and snot and tears and sex and death and more shades of grey than a George R. R. Martin book. Really I can't recommend the series enough.

So, until next time the nostalgia strikes or the Smuggler's have their next YA week, we return to our regularly scheduled reviews!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

"Middle-aged rock star Judas Coyne collects morbid curios for fun, so doesn't think twice about buying a suit advertised at an online auction site as haunted by its dead owner's ghost. Only after it arrives does Judas discover that the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of one of Coyne's discarded groupies, and that the old man's ghost is a malignant spirit determined to kill Judas in revenge for his stepdaughter's suicide." product page

There have been only two books in my life that have scared me. I mean really, sleep with the lights on, jump at small noises scared me. The first, when I was about 11, was a picture book by Cary Crew called The Watertower. Now when I say picture book I'm not talking the Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Watertower was set in a dusty little Austrian town where all the residents except for two oblivious young boys are being controlled by an alien which resembled a kind of giant rake. The second book to terrify me is a little more well known, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves which I read when I was fifteen. This book is a pure post-modern mindfuck which revolves, in part, around a house which randomly sprouts winding maze like passages.

I actually think I'm a pretty hard bird to scare, but what does scare me is a subtle kind of horror that make most roll their eyes in non-terror. In The Watertower it wasn't the eventual revelation of the rake alien that scared me, it was the way you could just make it out lurking in the background on almost every page. Partly obscured by a tree, or in the reflection of a window it waited. You didn't even notice it at first, a lot of people probably didn't notice it at all, but we had the book read to us by the author and he pointed it out. Yeah, thanks a lot Gary Crew. What scared me so soundly about House of Leaves is harder to pin down, I can only guess that it was some potent combination of the dark unknown and being lost in the safest place on earth, your own house. I'd also bet that the point in my life in which I read it played a big role, but we'll get into that when I inevitably review this book. (Which I will, because it's amazing).

My point is, that what scares me most is what happens ofscreen, or out of the corner of your eye. I was probably the only person on the planet to b generally freaked out by the Blair WitchProject, for example. Although no film comes close to scaring me like the above books did, and after reading the first chunk of Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, I was preparing to add that one to the list as well. But then I kept reading.

So, aged death metal rocker Jude buys a haunted suit off the internet in the first few pages, it arrives the page after and the haunting commences almost immediately. And boy, was it my kind of haunting. There's a scene where Jude enters a room where a radio is playing, except hey, he's pretty sure it was off before... That's not the scary part, the scary part is where the DJ is talking about the weather and he's all 'it's going to be a cold one this week folk and you will die and it looks like rain...' See that little 'you will die' tucked away in there? Yeah, it's little things like that get under my skin.

Unfortunately Hill abandons all subtlety pretty early on, and his ghost quickly evolves from creepy radio manipulator ghost into a Freddy Kruger knock off. He becomes corporeal and starts whispering not so sweet nothings in Jude's ear and trying to run him over with his ghost car. Some might find this scary, but not me. By the end of the book the horror became almost b-grade in its depiction, and I can't believe that anyone would find it genuinely scary, even if they weren't as weird as me.

But what saved the book for me was the one thing that kept me from buying it for so long. I remember seeing this thing on the shelf back when I lived in city, before anyone knew that Jow Hill had a famous author dad (Stephen someone, I think...) The cover quote by Neil Gaiman (another author who knows how to creep me the fuck out. That scene in of the early Sandman issues, set in the cafe where everyone starts devolving? Man...) made me pick it up time and again, but the back blurb always made me put it back. There was just nothing appealing to me about a washed up death metal rockstar that the back cover promised.

Except Jude is not washed up. Past his prime and no longer releasing music, sure. But I was expecting a pathetic Ozzy Osbourne kind of character, but Jude still has his dignity. He's still relevant, his absence from the scene is by choice. We learn that two of his bandmates died recently, and it's clear that grief has effected him strongly and laid waste to some of his living relationships. He's also a cold son of a bitch with a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, even (or should I say especially) the young women he sleeps with.

What kept me reading what not the increasingly ridiculous actions of the ghost with a personal vendetta against Jude, but rather is was watching Jude and his current lady friend grow into people who you actually wanted to come out on top. I also enjoyed the backstory of the ghost and why it was after Jude personally, and I honestly found the reveletions of what the ghost had done when he was still a man to be more upsetting then his ghostly hauntings. There is also a strong theme of regret running through the book, and the idea that past can't be changed, only accepted.

As a work of horror I would have to say that this book fails, and fails hard. But for me it succeeded in every other way, and it delivered to me everything I want in a book and upon finishing it I was honestly sad to say good-bye to the characters, alive and dead. (Plus, the ending was both satisfying and fitting, which is more than I can usually say for the kid's dad...)

How did I get this book? Purchased second hand