Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: Melusine, by Sarah Monette

How is it fair that books like, well, I don’t think I need to name any names, I’m sure we can all think of at least one book that defies all laws of good writing and yet still has a huge fanbase. So how is it that books like that, with their sparkling vampires and their last suppers get printed and reprinted and reprinted again, while excellent books like Sarah Monette’s Melusine go out of print?

I had one hell of a time tracking this book down, let me tell you. If it wasn’t for a particularly enthusiastic discussion about it in one of the Goodreads groups I belong to I probably wouldn’t have bothered. And I would have been the one to miss out there, because this really is a very enjoyable read.

The book is told from two separate first person points of view, brothers Felix and Mildmay. It's not so easy, making multiple first person points of view work well. With third person point of view differentiaiting between characters is easy, because you’re naming them ever couple of lines. But you don’t have that luxery in first person. So many books that try to do this whole alternating first person view points thing fail because each character sounded almost exactly the same. This is not even close to being a problem for Monette. Felix and Mildmay are both incredibly distinct characters. The names at the start of each section were wholly unnessary, it was easy to tell within a single line whose head I was in. It seems like such an obvious thing- make your characters seem like different people. And yet so few authors pull it off as well as Monette did here.

Mildmay grew up as a thief on the streets and is now a cat burgler. His voice is ridiculously conversational and engaging, and I don’t doubt that he will be most reader’s favourite. He’s funny, in a cynical kind of way, and good at what he does. But dispite his coolly competent demenour he’s very self conscious, which was actually one thing I really liked about the book. Because Mildmay and Felix don’t meet until halfway through the book, you see Mildmay as Mildmay sees himself. Ugly and scarred. But then when you eventually see him from Felix’s point of view you realise that this is not the case at all. It was just another example of how skillfully Monette’s employed the dual view points.

In contrast to easy to like Mildmay, there is Felix. Handsome and charming, he’s a high ranking wizard and the king’s brother’s lover. His wit is sharp and biting, and while I liked him from the start I think fewer readers will warm to him. He’s just so snarky to everyone. That is, of course, until he goes completely mad.

Because, yeah, for most of the book Felix is completely fucking insane. A spell, and I won’t into anymore detail than that because of spoilers, leaves him mad and presumed guilty of a heinous crime. Which, again, could have really sucked. But Monette manages to walk a fine line between Felix’s madness and still keeping the reader engaged with the plot. It was actually really cool. Felix starts to see various characters as animals, and I had fun trying to figure out which animal was who. I also liked that on one level it was just Felix raving, but if you looked a little deeper you could start to assemble a picture of what was going on. It took a little effort, but I am certainly ok with putting a little effort into my reading, if it's for the right reasons, (like it was here).

I also really, really loved the world building. Different elements of society use different calanders, and different cities subscribe to wildly different kinds of magic. There was a very European feel to the world and it's history, almost like an alternate Venice. I would have liked to have seen more of the world building than what was in this book, but there are three other books in the series so I’m sure I’ll get my way.

The book isn't perfect, but it's definitely one of the better ones I've read this year. It certainly didn't deserve to be treated so poorly by it's publisher. I definitely recommend trying to find a copy of this one. I think it's still available in digital form, so if you've joined the ranks of the advancing ebook armies you'll have an easier time of it. Otherwise, like me, you'll be hitting up ebay and the like. But it's worth it. I promise.

I bought this book.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Deadhouse Gates, By Steven Erikson

I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Malazan fan who doesn’t think that the second book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, Deadhouse Gates, is better than the first. So I’m hardly being original when I say this, but it still has to be said. Deadhouse Gates is a much better book than Gardens of the Moon.

And it’s not like Gardens of the Moon was a bad book, because it really, really wasn’t. Honestly I’m having trouble even identifying what it is about Deadhouse Gates that makes it seem so improved. This is going to sound ridiculously corny, but the only way I can describe it is to say that Deadhouse Gates has heart. I read Gardens of the Moon with half of my mind enjoying the story, and the other half analyzing it and trying to figure out what everything meant. As I said in my review of the book, to me Gardens of the Moon felt like a challenge. An enjoyable one, yes, but I was too busy trying to keep up to really immerse myself in the story.

This was not even slightly the case with Deadhouse Gates. The book certainly no less challenging than Gardens of the Moon (sure, we know who a bunch of people and events are now, but Erikson goes ahead and dumps a crap tonne more on you, lest you start getting cocky). All I know if while I read Gardens with an analytical mind, I read Deadhouse Gates totally and completely involved in the story. I didn’t take nearly as close a note of all the comments and references, but weirdly I feel as though I followed this one better.

There’s a scene, no spoilers here I promise, following a large battle where Erikson had me almost in tears. He had me felling truly wretched. And then only pages later there’s a scene where Coltraine is talking to the Malazan sappers (I'm sure anyone who has read the book will know what I'm talking about) and there I was with the huge, goofy grin on my face. I’m rarely very expressive when I read, but I think it would have been comical to watch my face while I read this book. Constant frowns and gasps and laughter.

The characters, both those we’d already met and newly introduced ones, went from being interesting people to being people I desperately cared about. And I think I just hit on why I found this book to be so much better. The characters. (Of course. Isn’t it always the characters?) When, for example, what happened to Crokus’s uncle in Gardens of the Moon happened, I thought it was some pretty cool writing but I wasn’t really sad or anything. But when what happened to, well, I could name pretty much any character from Deadhouse Gates here, happened, I was a wreck. I was right there with them, cheering or sobbing. Mostly sobbing. (Damn you Erikson!)

When I finished it I felt like I had run a marathon. I felt like I’d crossed the desert in Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs. In part because I normally average two books a week, and this thing took me almost a solid month to get through. But also because Erikson does not spare the reader at all. What his characters go through, you go through. And believe me, Erikson is not nice to his characters.

While I think I need to break from the Malazan world to recover (and I mean that in the best possible way) I look forward to continuing on in this series. I especially can’t wait to see Erikson’s improved skills applied to some of my favourite characters from Gardens of the Moon, like Anomander Rake or Whiskyjack. Or Quick Ben. Or Palan. Or, oh, Kruppe! And we can’t forget Brood… And I wonder if we’re going to meet that Prince who’s heading the Crimson Guard? And what about Tattersail? And, and, and….

I bought this book

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

I am definitely a summer person. The cold and I do not get along. I spend all the winter months miserable and complaining, happy only when I'm sitting pretty much on top of a crackling fire with a book. I'm talking three blankets and a hot water bottle and I still can't feel my toes. (Meanwhile on the other side of the bed my fiance is happy with just a sheet. How is this fair?)

And yet, I don't think I know what cold really is. I mean come on, I've spent my whole life in Australia. I've never even seen snow. I think I'm a passing expert on heat, but cold? I'll defer to the crew of the ill-fated Terror on that one.

Spare a thought for these guys. They sailed off in an attempt to find the north west passage fully expecting, and this is the part that blows my mind, they fully expected to be stuck in ice for years of end. Stuck. In ice. For years. The ocean they were sailing through literally starts to freeze and instead of freaking out they're all, 'yup, that's about right.' It wasn't an unpleasant surprise, it was part of the game plan!

Are you kidding me? And that's not even fiction! Dan Simmons' 'The Terror' has its roots in true events. There have existed men who were willing to set out on an expedition fully knowing that they were going to BE TRAPPED IN ICE FOR YEARS AND YEARS WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN?

To me, being ice bound for months with the same men for company and dwindling food supplies would supply enough horror for one book. And Simmons certainly goes to town with it. The pages of The Terror just reek of desperation and boredom and that brittleness that comes from constantly being on the edge of hysteria. And the cold... Reading this book will put a chill in your bones, Simmons captures the oppressive cold so well.

Second in charge Crozier is the man who has to keep the men from killing each other. He's also an alcoholic who has to keep from killing himself when the rum runs out. He also has to worry about the ship which is slowly being crushed by the ice and the food which is spoiling too fast and, there's something else he has to worry about, what was it...

Oh yes. The freaking ICE MONSTER! Not content with fully exploring the unique blend of claustrophobic horror that results from a whole bunch of men, some good men and some not so much, being forced into close and freezing confinement for years, Simmons also throws into the mix an ice monster to pick them off one by one. (I hope that the ice monster is where the true facts end and the fiction begins, but who can say?)

Can you just picture it? Standing on the deck of a ship trapped in ice, your viability is shot, everything is white and cold and you hear a rustle. The wind? Or the ice monster come to eat you? Having read The Terror I can picture this. I can picture it all too well, because Simmons captures the atmosphere of it all perfectly.

The ice monster terrified me. And all the more so because Simmons creates such engaging characters that I really didn't want to see them get eaten. (Well, most of them). Crozier in particular was fantastically done. A deeply flawed man who nevertheless has to hold everything together, even though he knows he's not really up to the job.

As anyone who's ever read a zombie book already knows, the real monster always turns out to be man. And as The Terror progresses and things go from worse to worser, this becomes all too clear. The ice monster is a thing to inspire terror, but it doesn't even come close to the evils men are capable of.

We may never know what happened to the crews of the real Terror and Erebus, but I hope for their sakes that is was a nicer fate than the one Simmons dreamed up for them.

This book: I bought

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Now this is one stylish book. The pages are heavy and the font is beautiful. There’s some nice, brown decorative scrollwork on the page bottoms and ample photographs litter the pages. Plus the whole thing has this really delightful antique feel to it. It looks like the books my Nana’s bookshelf used to be filled with, like ‘What Katie Did’ and ‘The Secret Garden.’ Just lovely.

What a shame then that all of this thoughtful packaging houses a story that, while not terrible, is certainly nothing special. For all the book’s packaging screams ‘look, look! I’m old! And super creepy’ the story itself is standard young adult fare. It’s not even horror, which seems a crime given all the creepy photos throughout the book. It’s basically just a slightly more fantastical x-men.

But it started out so promisingly! Jacob grows up listening to his grandfather’s stories of monsters, which he eventually comes to dismiss as fairy tales. But then his grandfather is brutally killed by a creature that appears to one of the very monsters he used to talk about.

There’s this really wonderful tension throughout the book’s early chapters. And it’s not ‘will the monsters get Jacob?” It’s, ‘are the monsters real?’ Did Jacob catch a glimpse of a monster fleeing from his grandfather’s corpse, or is he just suffering from post traumatic stress? It’s genuinely unclear, and I thought the book was going in a really unique and dark direction.

But then all of this ambiguity is wiped away and in the space of a few pages the book goes from being something original and thought provoking to something we’ve seen many times before. I can’t talk too much about the latter part of the book on account of spoilers, but I will say there is nothing even vaguely creepy or scary about where the book ends up going. I don’t mean that it tries to be creepy and fails, I mean that it’s just not something the author even tries to do. And normally I wouldn’t even think to complain that a book isn’t creepy, except that the way this book is packaged promises an atmosphere of creepiness, so I went in expecting it. Who could look at those old photos and not expect to be creeped out?

Honestly, even without the false promise they offer, I could have done without those photos. It was obvious that they weren’t created specifically for the book, rather the author had dug them all up. Which is cool and all, but too often it felt like he was unnaturally twisting the plot just to fit the photos. There were just all of these long, complicated descriptions that were just there to justify the pictures inclusion in the book. It was like a game! This photo has a girl holding a chicken, how do we make that relate to the story? Plus, and this is probably more of a personal thing, but I found it jarring to form my own mental images and then be faced with photographs that looked completely different.

But despite all of these complaints the story itself is solid enough. The cliffhanger ending is more than a little annoying, but overall I enjoyed it. I just think, had the book been packaged more appropriately, I wouldn’t have been weighed down with pre-conceived notions and I would have been able to enjoy it a lot more. I am definitely all for beautiful books, but what’s the point if the story inside doesn’t match?

I bought this book

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson

Everywhere I looked there were people saying how complicated and hard Gardens of the Moon (and the Malazan series as whole) is to follow. Which is the best thing that could have happened, really. Because it meant that I went into this book with the right mindset. I was ready to put the effort in, to read every word instead of skimming and give deep thought to the most offhand of comments. Not just ready, I was looking forward to it.

And in the end, I didn’t find Gardens of the Moon to be nearly as complicated as I was expecting. Kinda like when a book is hyped everywhere and you find it to be not so great.
Not that I’m saying Gardens of the Moon is a light and easy read. If I hadn’t gone in well prepared I doubt I would have stuck with it. As it was it took me three times as long to read as a normal book. But if you give it your full attention and really concentrate on everything then you’ll be ok. Mostly.

Reading Gardens of the Moon… To me it was like picking up book four in a twelve book series and trying to keep up. A whole bunch of really important stuff has already happened and the characters all know each other and have complicated histories. And it’s not a book four written by one of those authors who recaps every little thing, no it assumes that you just finished reading the first three books or at the very least you looked up some recaps on the wikipedia, so you know what’s going on.

Except, you know, there are no previous three books. Gardens of the Moon is book one, and if ever the proverb sink or swim was appropriate it's here. You just have to go with it, keep reading even though you have no idea what’s going on and trust that it will become clear.
And the best part it that, slowly, it does. Or at least it starts to. And trust me, it’s worth it.

Gardens of the Moon revolves around the efforts of the Malazan Empire to add another continent to its growing list of conquered lands. The scope of this thing is breathtaking. The book pretty much opens with a battle so epic it feels like it should be the climax of the whole series, not just the opener. And things barely slow down after that.

How many of you have seen the Final Fantasy VII movie, Advent Children? My fiancĂ© is a fan of it, and I remember watching the special features once and the director said something along the lines of ‘every time we considered adding something, we asked our selves; does it look cool?’ Which shows in the film, because everything looks really cool. But underneath the coolness is, well, not much of anything.

Erikson may well have written this book with the same question in mind. Everything in the book is just really, really cool. The immortal Anomander Rake and his terrifying sword of doom? Cool. The magical warrens that mages tap for their powers? Cool. Elite military unit the Bridgeburners? Oh my god, so freaking cool. Except unlike with Advent Children, it’s not all show. This book has more depth than the ocean, and it’s twice as difficult to reach the bottom of.

Not that everything is all serious and thought consuming. There are moments of genuine humour scattered liberally about. I was actually really surprised with how funny the book was. Erikson has a good eye for when to break the darker moments with something lighter, which I as a reader appreciated.

At the end of the day you’ll only get out of Gardens of the Moon what you put in. It’s a love it or hate it kind of deal, I think. Personally, I can’t wait to read the other nine books in the series, and to see if things get any clearer or just a whole lot more complicated!

I bought this book

Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: The Cold Commands, by Richard Morgan

This review contains spoilers for The Steel Remains

Is it weird that my favourite character in this book was Ringil’s longsword, Ravensfriend? That’s right folks. No longer merely content with crafting some of the coolest human(ish) characters around, Richard Morgan is now imbuing inanimate objects with more personality than your average fantasy author could dream of.

But of course, there’s a lot more to The Cold Commands than just scene stealing weaponry. When last we left them it seemed that Ringil, Archeth and Egar would heading south together to Archeth's house, and given how fun it is to watch the three play off each other I was looking forward to seeing them share page space. So I was a little disappointed when the book opened, much as the first one did, with the three friends involved in three separate story lines. But come on, there’s only so long disappointment can last in the face of Richard Morgan’s awesome prose and clever dialogue.

By the time I hit the midway point my initial feelings of disappointment were a distant memory, and I was enjoying The Cold Commands even more than I did The Steel Remains. (And I really liked The Steel Remains). I spoke in my review of The Steel Remains of how well Morgan handles backstory, and here he continues to show his prowess in that area. The war with the scaled folk is fleshed out further, but it’s done very organically without the use of clunky flashbacks and the like. We also get a few tantalizing glimpses into the battle that earned Egar the title of Dragonbane.

And can I just stop here and say what a fantastic example of characterization the whole Dragonbane thing is. Because Egar and Ringil both killed that dragon, but only Egar is known by ‘Dragonbane’ title that killing a dragon gets you. Ringil, perverted degenerate and corrupter of youth that he is (can you feel my sarcasm from over there?), is conveniently left out of the tale. Where a lesser author would make a huge deal out of it Morgan doesn’t, and it’s very effective. You can tell a reader that your hero is an outcast for x reason until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean squat unless you show it too.

I think the main reason I enjoyed this book more than its predecessor is a simple one. Whereas Ringil spent much of The Steel Remains wandering around the grey places with Seethlaw, understandably way out of his element, here he spends the bulk of the novel in the “real world.” Watching Ringil (and Ravensfriend) interact with Morgan’s well developed cast was a real pleasure. Really, I can’t overstate how much fun I had watching Ringil charm, intimidate and terrify everyone around him in turns. (I did miss Seethlaw though…) His interactions with the Emporer (who remains one of my favourite non-sword shaped characters, if only for how impressive I find the way Morgan uses him to play with our expectations) was a particular treat.

I will say the plot is very much the plot of a middle book. Whereas the Steel Remains can and does stand very well on its own, The Cold Commands is clearly setting up the events of the trilogy’s final volume. Which didn’t bother me, but it might others. Plot elements introduced in books one, namely the whole “dark lord” business are also further explored here. When it comes to subverting fantasy conventions Abercrombie has nothing on Morgan in my opinion, and I’m very interested to see where this dark lord thing leads. It’s like a wicked inversion of the “chosen hero” trope, and I’m getting a real kick out of it. I also think the subversion is entirely intentional on Morgan’s part. Ringil’s reaction when that creepy crossroads dude (which, wow, what an awesome scene) calls him a farmboy was priceless, but also telling.

So, incase it’s somehow unclear, I loved this book. I really can’t see anyone who enjoyed The Steel Remains not getting, at the least, the same level of enjoyment out of The Cold Commands. I just can’t wait to see how Morgan brings this thing to a close. I’m also hoping to see a Ravensfriend spin off. What? It could happen…

I bought this book

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Oh, House of Leaves. One of the few books to ever truly scare me. For months I slept with the lights on, and to this day I sometimes have to turn my bedside lamp on in the middle of the night just to make sure my walls are still there. I refer to this book often enough, I figured I should actually attempt a review of it.

Let me first try and describe what the book is about, but bare with me here because shit gets complicated. We start with Johnny Truant, an aimless young man living a life of drugs and loose woman in L.A. Mr. Truant is a touch fond of purple prose, but you can make it through that you'll fine he is a fascinating character. He appears at first to be a bit of a loser, but as his narrative progresses you realise that he’s actually very intelligent. It’s not obvious (trust me, nothing in this book is obvious), but it adds some fascinating layers to how Johnny comes across.

The book opens with Johnny’s friend Lude calling him in the middle of the night. An old guy in Lude's apartment complex has died, does Johnny want to come and go through his stuff? In the old man’s apartment Johnny discovers a rambling behemoth of a manuscript entitled ‘The Navidson Record.’ ‘The Navidson Record’ is basically an extended academic analysis of a series of films by award winning photographer Will Navidson. Except, as Johnny tells us, neither Will Navidson nor the films the paper discusses actually exist.

You still with me? The bulk of House of Leaves is basically ‘The Navidson Record.’ (Or rather, Johnny’s transcription of it, and if you thought unreliable narrators are bad try unreliable transcribers…) Will Navidson and his partner Karen Green move with their two children to the countryside to make a fresh start. Things go swimmingly at first, until they go away one weekend and come home to find a closet has appeared in their house. Then they realise their house is slightly, just slightly, bigger on the inside. Then a hallway appears, one that’s deeper than should be physically possible. Then an entire buttfuck insane labyrinth appears and the house itself starts to turn on its residents.

The Navidson Record is interspersed with extended footnotes from Johnny, and we see that as things get worse for Navidson, Johnny’s grip on reality is slipping.

I always preferred The Navidson Record to Johnny’s parts of the book. The way it was written really appealed to me, and I’ve never come across another book that does the same thing. The closest thing to it would be all those “found footage” movies. The Navidson Record is describing what happens in the footage Will Navidson filmed of his house going nuts. We never get to see inside the character's heads, but we do get the narrators thoughts on what might be inside their heads. It sounds like it would cause a disconnect between the readers and the characters, but I didn't find it to be so. And you know how I am with characters. Because it’s written in a faux academic style the narrator also examines the symbolism of certain shots, or he references books other people have written about Will Navidson (all made up). It might be because of my academic background, but I dug the hell out of this approach.

Danielewki hands the reader nothing. The book is littered with clues and riddles, but you have to find them yourself. There’s one scene in which a terrified Johnny blurts out some gibberish, which I dismissed as gibberish, but which I later learned was a latin phrase written out phonetically. There’s another section where the first letter of every line spells out a new sentence, or there’s the fact that every instance of the word house appears in blue, and every mention of the mythical minotaur has been struck through. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This might seem a little gimmicky, but it works in the context of the book. Johnny is slowly going mad (because of the Navidson Record? Or is he just following in his mother’s footsteps? Speaking of his mother, what’s her connection to the old man who wrote the Navidson record? The mysteries in this book will quickly spiral out of control if you let them…) and his mounting paranoia is reflected in his desire to “hide” the truth.

There are those who say that House of Leaves is postmodern for the sake of being postmodern, and all style with no substance. I disagree. Underneath all the crazy typography is a real story of love, family and trust. Especially trust. Strip away all the crazy formatting and you'd still have a pretty amazing story waiting for you. And maybe a few sleepless nights.

This book I found in a dead guy's apartment. Or bought.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Embassytown, by China Mieville

My Bachelor of the Arts might not have done much in the way of landing me a job, but if nothing else it enabled me to get a real kick out of this book. Not that you need to possess a mostly useless English degree to enjoy Embassytown. It’s just that the four years I spent at university left me with a deep and abiding affection for language. And debt. But mostly that affection for language thing.

And while all of Mieville’s books display a way with the English language that is truly breathtaking (even flawed Kraken. Hell, maybe especially Kraken), Embassytown is the first one that is truly about language.

The book is set on a frontier planet where the smallish human settlement lives in relative harmony with the planet’s original occupants, the Ariekei. I loved the way Mieville handled the Ariekei. These dudes are seriously alien. It took many years for the first humans to figure out a way to even communicate with them, and decades later they are still barely understood. Where so many books use things like “translator chips” and the like to bridge the gap between humans and aliens, Mieville offers a more realistic and satisfying approach.

One of the best things about this book is the slow way Mieville expands upon the humans and the Ariekei. As much as I want to discuss it further, I’m really wary of giving too much away and spoiling that fun for others. Or maybe I don’t want to make it too easy for them. There is no hand holding here, every bit of understanding is hard earned by the reader. But there’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with that. I just want to say that the way the humans and the Ariekei communicate with each other is really ingenious, and I can’t recall encountering anything like it elsewhere.

It is this relationship between the humans and the Ariekei and the lengths they have to go to just to be understood by each other, that form the heart of the plot. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything! Let’s just say that things have always been done a certain way, and when someone tries to do them a different way… To say all hell breaks lose would be an understatement. Classifying a Mieville book is a difficult task at the best of times, but if I had to stick a label on this one it would be ‘apocalyptic.’ I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else call the book that, but I really don’t see Embassytown being out of place on a shelf of books exploring the end of the world as we know it. (No one ever said the world in question had to be ours, after all…)

As for the characters… Well, except for the truly amazing ‘The Scar,’ I don’t think characters are Mieville’s strong point. They’re not badly done or anything, it’s just that his settings tend to be so fantastically weird and his plots so bizarre that the characters tend to get a little lost in it all. Having said that, the cast of ‘Embassytown’ is still pretty great. Avice, the main character, is just the right mix of flawed and heroic, and I really liked jaded Bran. And his villains are not really villains so much as they are men and woman in trapped in a untenable situation, doing what they can to survive. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that after a mustache twirling, puppy kicking bad guy any day.

The last thing I really liked about this book was its treatment of marriage and relationships. This aspect of the book was very much in the background, and Mieville never even comes close to getting all preachy about it, and I think that’s why it worked so well. Often in books set in the future either everything is different, or everything has stayed the same. Its not often you get a more realistic mix of some things have changed, and some haven’t. Actually, this applies to all aspects of Embassytown, not just the romantic ones.

All in all I found Embassytown to be a highly challenging but extremely satisfying read, and after the slight disappointment of Kraken I couldn’t be more pleased about that.

This book: was bought

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan

So the short version of this review is that if you like the TV show 'Supernatural,' you're pretty much gaurenteed to enjoy 'The Demon's Lexicon.' Which is not to suggest that Sarah Rees Brennan's debut novel is in any way a rip off of the show, it's just that the two share a few key ingredients. Demons and magic and all that but mostly? Mostly, it's about the brothers. Lying to save each other, weapon wielding, monster slaying, angst ridden and really, really pretty brothers.

There are just too few books out there that really explore the relationship between siblings. I'm inclined to think this is because it's just easier to get a reader invested in a romantic relationship. The whole will they/won't they thing doesn't really work with siblings, it's a whole different dynamic and it can be hard to do well.

For a start, siblings can do really awful things to each other that would spell the end of most romances. They can lie, cheat, steal and maim and still love each other, because it's family you know? Nick and Alan, the brothers in 'Demon's Lexicon,' are definitely not strangers to hurting each other, but the reader never doubts that they'd do anything for each other.

It's impressive, how effectively Brennan conveys their bond, because her POV character, Nick, is a long tall glass of emotionally stunted. Seriously. The kid is about as caring as a sharp sword, and colder than ice. Which you might think would make for some dark reading, but there is a real warmth to this book. This can mostly be attributed to Brennan's prose, which practically dances across the page and is full of wit and, yes, warmth. There is a larger than life quality to her writing that many books aspire to but few achieve.

And in any case Nick's emotional blankness was my favourite part of the book, weirdly enough. I don't think I've ever encountered another character like him. He's not "evil" or anything, but he's certainly not good either. Mostly, he's just really different. And its refreshing. And Brennan definitely has fun with him. For so long he's only let his brother get close to him, and Alan
gets him. But the start of the book introduces two new characters into Nicks life, Mae and Jamie. Watching Nick struggle to deal with these intrusion was equal parts hysterical and moving.

The plot hinges around a magical charm, stolen some years ago from an evil magician by Alan and Nick's mother. I say evil magician, but in this world all magicians are evil and get their powers by dealing with demons. Nick and Alan have devoted their lives to staying one step ahead of the magicians, but then Mae and Jamie (another set of well drawn siblings) came crashing into their lives and mess everything up. I think this is a case of an ok plot being made awesome by the characters. Nick, Alan, Jamie and Mae are so well realised and three dimensional and just so damn fun to read about that any plot meh-ness passed by unnoticed.

And while a lot of people claimed that they saw the ending of this book coming a mile off, I really didn't! For me it was one of those really cool endings which leaves you stunned but when you think about it makes total sense.

This book I bought.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Demon Theory, by Stephen Graham Jones

The problem with loving an unconventional book is that it's so hard to find other books like it. This is the problem with me and Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves' (which I swear I'm going to review one day...). I feel like I'm on a constant quest to find books that move in the same circles as 'House of Leaves,' and what books I do find rarely come close. Like Stephen Graham Jones' 'Demon Theory,' for example.

I had really high hopes for this one. The thing I loved most about 'House of Leaves' was the faux film analysis that took up the bulk of it. 'Demon Theory' features a similar conceit. It operates both as an analysis of a fictional horror movie trilogy, but also as a rumination on the history of horror films.

This book has footnotes up the wazoo. Unlike in 'House of Leaves' the footnotes are all factually accurate, and actually really interesting. Well, interesting if you have more than a passing interest in horror and or films, that is. The problem was that instead of being on the bottom of the page, they were all listed in the back of the book. I'm a lazy reader guys, I couldn't be bothered flicking to the back of the book every five minutes. There were a lot of them, but I still think it would have been better to have them in the main text.

But that's a layout thing, and there's every chance that Jones had no control over it. As for what he did have control over... Things start in a promising enough way. It's Halloween, and a bunch o kids are at a party when one of them gets a phone call from his creepy diabetic mother. So it's off to a creepy, middle of nowhere farmhouse! Things, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, do not go well.

I don't know, maybe it's just that I went into the book expecting (hoping) to find a more subtle creepy brand of horror, but for the most part the over the topness of the books horror elements just had me rolling my eyes. Plus, the characters were insanely two dimensional. Which, ok, on the one hand I get it. Jones clearly went to great lengths to make his trilogy of fake demon movies feel exactly like a classic horror film, which included cardboard characters. But the difference between books and movies is that its just so much easier to create "real" characters in books. I feel like he really missed an opportunity with his mostly forgettable cast.

My other major gripe isn't entirely Jones' fault. I went in to this looking for a 'House of Leaves-esque' experience, and that's not what Jones' was trying to do. But still. 'House of Leaves' did not just offer up a line by line summery of the fake documentary it revolved around. It analysed it, it linked it to philosophic schools thought and compared it to other films and critiqued the film making techniques used. And if that sounds too pretentious and post-modern to be stomached, well, it kinda is. But I loved it! In Demon Theory the three movies it features are just given summaries, with no kind of depth. I feel like Jones wasted the 'analysing a fake movie' gimick a bit. Sure, it helped tie the narrative to the history of horror films that he also had going on, but I just wanted a lot more from it.

The plot of the fake movies themselves started out easy to follow and end up just completely batshit insane. I had almost no idea what was going on by the end, but lets be honest, that's how most horror movie franchises go.

I do think my reaction to this book was heavily influenced by my wish for a second 'House of Leaves.' So if you can go into it "blind," then you might get more out of it than me.

I bought this book.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: Feed, by Mira Grant

Has anyone here played Final Fantasy XIII? I was super excited for the game, especially given how extremely much I loved XII, but when it finally arrived my anticipation gave way to disappointment really quickly. The game starts out with a really impressive cut scene, (I mean, no matter what negative things you can say about the game, the visuals are really stunning), and when cut scene ends and you take control of the character for, oh, about thirty seconds. Then there’s another cut scene. The character is yours again, for maybe a minute this time and then, yep, cut scene. The game continues like this for way too long, and normally I’m a fan of the cut scene, they’re like sparkly little rewards for all your finger mashing hard work, but when you buy a game you actually want to play it, you know? Otherwise just rent a movie.

Reading ‘Feed’ reminded me of nothing so much as the start of Final Fantasy XIII. The book is all tiny bite sizes piece of actual plot, massive info dump, half a page of character interaction, massive info dump. And it’s not just at the start either, the whole entire book is like that. And it’s not that the info dumps are boring, because they’re actually not. The book, as you’ve probably heard, is set in a future the zombie apocalypse has been and gone and the world has adjusted. I don’t doubt that the “science” behind the outbreak is pure rubbish, it was still really interesting explore the ways society might react to a zombie outbreak in the long term. The over the top security and testing seemed plausible to me, and like I said, it was interesting. The problem is that I don’t buy books to read about hypothetical pet laws and security features- I buy books for the stories. And getting to the story in Feed was an exercise in frustration.

This is only made worse when you realise that the annoying excess of infodumping is actually the best thing about the book. The plot, once you peel all the infodumps away from it, centres around a presidential election and the team of bloggers assigned to covering it. I couldn't have cared less about it. It might cultural thing, my overall apathy to the plot line. Not being an American I don’t quite get the zeal that surrounds presidential elections, and this might explain why I cared so little about what was happening. But that’s not right, is it? After all I’ve never lived in a feudal society, but I can rattle off a long list of books where I’ve cared who makes king or queen very much. I’ve never been a cop, or an assassin, or lived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or traversed oceans by ship, but I’ve read books that have made me care about these things. That’s kinda the point to books isn’t it?

It all comes down to characters. It doesn’t matter how mundane or alien a plot, if it’s populated with well drawn characters it’s easy to become invested in the outcome. Hell, if China Mieville could make me bawl like a baby over the fate of an insect lady in ‘Perdido Street Station,’ making me give a crap about who becomes president should be easy. And yet, Grant fails hard at it. The two republican candidates in the book are ridiculous caricatures. I mean, these guys are such stereotypes, it’s actually embarrassing. One embodies everything “good” about republican politics, the other represents the worst of it. For a good while I was convinced there must be more to them than meets the eye, that the good guy must be hiding a dark secret, that maybe the bad guy would actually step up and save the day, or something, anything…

Georgia and Shawn, our main characters an adopted siblings, are not much better. I get the feeling we’re supposed to see Georgia as this super star of hard news, fighting in the name truth, justice and the American way. Mostly she just goes on and on about the nobility or the news reporter, and the public’s right to truth. Which, hey, I agree. But to say it gets laid on thick would be an understatement. After the twentieth mention of how bloggers are the new American hero my eyes were sore from rolling too much. And I could never quite get a handle on the relationship between Georgia and Shawn. Are they just a really close brother and sister? Are they sleeping together? I don’t know if the book was making it so ambiguous on purpose, but it really bugged me.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about this book, I didn’t hate it. The interesting world building, even if it was delivered to the reader via info dump after info dump, was interesting and went a long way in saving the book. I can’t say that I’ll be actively seeking out the sequel, but if I’m ever like, stuck in an airport or something, I would probably pick it up.

I bought this book.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Soulless, by Gail Carriger

I like romance in my books. Big fan of it, in fact. Big, sweeping, epic romance is right up my alley, and considering how fussy I am with most thinks I’m remarkably happy with any kind of romance. Heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, it all works for me. Hell, I’m even secretly hoping that Jaime and Cersie will work things out, those crazy kids.

So, yes, I like the romance. But, and this is an important distinction, I tend to not like romance novels.* The reason why I don’t like romance novels was clearly illustrated to me, in case I had forgotten, when I decided to read Gail Carriger’s 'Soulless.' 'Soulless' had a cool sounding plot, and a eye catching cover, and I’d seen it described as ‘mannerpunk’ which tickled my fancy, so even though I knew it was technically a romance novel, I still picked it up.

It’s set in your standard Victorian steampunk world, one wherein Vampires and Werewolves live out in the open and in relative peace with normal humans. Alexia, our heroin, is unfashionably Italian, and entirely without a soul. I could not stop thinking about the Simpsons' episode where Bart sells his, but Alexia seems to suffer none of the problems that plagued Bart. Instead the only real ramification seems to be that whenever a vampire or werewolf comes into contact with her, they are rendered wholly mortal.

Pretty cool idea. And there are plenty of those in this book. The world is well drawn and interesting, and the characters are fleshed out nicely. I was a big fan of Alexandria’s flamboyant vampire friend and his army of well dressed spies, who in my opinion did not get nearly enough page time. Of Alexia herself, well. Not a fan, let’s say. Which I’ll freely admit is all on me. I’m just not a fan of that particular breed of female character. Overly stubborn, quick to offense, ridiculously opinionated and Quirky with a capital Q. (First person to suggest that I dislike them because they remind me of myself gets a whollop.) They just annoy me, and Alexia is the worst I’ve seen in a while. But, despite my personal misgiving, she’d still well crafted and I don’t doubt many out there will like her.

And in the first few chapters there seemed to be a lot of potential for the plot. Someone out there is making “unlicensed” vampires, rogue werewolves are disappearing, and a mysterious society of academics has set up shop. And here’s where we come to why I do not like romance novels, (usually. There are exceptions!). Because too often a romance novel is not about the plot, it’s about the romance. Rather, the romance is the plot. All of the cool plot happenings in 'Soulless' operate in the background while the romance plays out in the foreground. The plot is really only there to give Alexia and gruff werewolf detective Conall an excuse to interact, and as the novel progresses it works only as a means to force them together and result in more makeouts. (And, really, is being held in a cell the best time to be undressing each other? I have to think not…)

I understand, obviously, that a romance novel is going to feature a lot of romance. I guess I just want it to not be all about the romance to the determent of everything else. Alexia’s soullessness was never really explored, and the mystery of the missing werewolves and newborn vampires was wrapped up neatly and ridiculously obviously. Like, so obvious that you spend most of the book assuming that it must be a red herring, because surely it wouldn't be that obvious...

Despite these negative words, I don’t doubt for a second that a lot of people would enjoy this book. (And I know for a fact that Carriger has a huge following). It’s well written, and the romance between Alexia and Conall is engaging. I just wish that there was more to the book then just the romance.

I doubt I’ll read on further in this series, and I’m sure it will be a while before I try another romance novel. (Although, if you have any recommendations for one that doesn’t stomp on its own plot, I’d be glad to hear it!)

*Please note that all comments about the romance genre are my own opinion. I’ve read very few romance novels and am in no position to comment of the genre as a whole with any kind of authority authority. Peace!

I bought this book

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Of Blood and Honey, by Stina Leicht

I finished this book a while ago, but I’ve held off on writing a review on it. Mostly because I was trying to figure out what I didn’t like about it, because while it’s clear to me that Stina Leicht’s debut and I didn’t connect, I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I think I can confidently say that the issue is between me and the book, and not with the book its self. Blood and Honey has garnered itself a slew of positive reviews across the internet, many from sources I trust.

It was these positive reviews that led me to picking up the book in the first place. When it was first released I gave the blurb a once over and disregarded the book as another urban fantasy, yawn. But then the reviews started coming in, painting the story as something much more. The book is set in 1970's Ireland, an era not exactly known for its stability, and revolves around a young kid called Liam. Liam has a real knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and despite being mostly innocent, can’t seem to keep himself out a string of really nasty prison camps. On top this, and unbeknownst to poor Liam, it turns out that he’s part fae. Part nasty, violent, hard to control, beast shaped fae.

This is a dark, gritty book. Normally when a fantasy novel is described as dark or gritty you might expect a certain kind of style. But 'Of Blood and Honey' is not dark in that over saturated, hyper realized Abercrombie/Tarantino kind of way, it’s dark in a much more realistic, human kind of way. This might be at the root of why this book did not work for me. I make no apologies for the fact that I read to escape and be entertained, and there’s little escapism to be found in a book so deeply rooted in the muck and mire of the real world. Reading, for example, about Jant Shira of Steph Swainstan’s Castle book’s drug addiction was entertaining, reading about Liam’s addiction to heroin was just depressing.

The fantasy aspects of this book were fairly limited. This was a consequence of Liam being in the dark as to his true heritage for almost the whole novel, and I think we’ll see a lot more of the other worldly stuff in the sequels. What we do see certainly held promise. We have the fae and fallen angels at war with each other, and an order of human priest who think all other world creatures are on the same team, and are trying to eradicate them. Often in these books the ‘ancient order” or what have you has all the answers, and probably my favourite aspect the book was watching the priest assigned to watch over Liam trying to figure things out. The fallen angels, what little we see of them, are delightfully creepy.

But as I said, this novel definitely leans more on the urban than it does on the fantasy. Which is another aspect that probably effected my enjoyment. Knowing that the sequel is going to be more fantasy heavy is all well and good, but it doesn’t help with the book I’m reading now.

The characters are well drawn. We see the most of Liam, and he’s likeable enough and well meaning, but also a bit of an idiot. He’s definitely more passive than a usually like my characters to be, he tends to do what others tell him or to react to what others do, instead of ever taking the initiative for himself. The character I liked most, who we saw only little of, was Liam’s fae father Bran. Here’s a character with spark and wit, one who makes things happen. We see glimpses of a fascinating backstory, and more importantly, we get the impression that his current story, playing out almost entirely off page, is even more interesting. At the risk of repeating myself, I think book two is where a lot more of Bran will be seen.

The question is, can I forget how overall meh I found this book enough to pick up the sequel?

I would like to stress one last time that my feelings for this book were hugely subjective. Leicht writes very well, and despite my misgiving I never considered not finishing this book. I think this is one that you’ll have to try for yourself.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

I came to this book via a rather controversial review on (Although you should note the review has some stuff in it that I think is a little spoilerish). This is another example of how a negative review can influence someone to seek out a book just as much as a positive one. (A fact that seems lost on the commenting editor from Voyager). Mark Lawrence's 'Prince of Thorns' was always going to split opinions. The main character is a fourteen year old prince who's spent the last four years leading a band of morrally bankrupt men across the countryside, leaving a trail of murder and rape in their paths.

I hope I never meet anyone like sociopathic Jorg in real life, but I have to admit I loved reading about the little monster. The book is told from his first person point of view, and the inside of this kid's mind is fascinating, in a terrifying kind of way. He operates to a different set of rules to the other characters in the books, (mostly because they see people as people, a trick Jorg hasn't got the hang of yet) and this allows him to pull off some pretty audacious moves. I got a real kick out of seeing him outwit men twice his age.

But! As witty and sharp as Jorg's voice is, (truly, his inner monologue is a wicked delight to read) style is not enough to carry a whole book. Whereas some authors can get away with neglecting character arcs, that is just not an option here. Jorg is a monster when the book opens, and as a reader I had to trust that he would change. It's not that there are not plenty of books out there with characters who start bad and end worse, because their are. It's just that Jorg is so young. Ok, call me a sap, but I was only able to enjoy this book by believing that there was a chance for Jorg to find some small amount of redemption.

And there were hints throughout the book that he might. This is only part one of a trilogy, so obviously everything was not puppies and rainbows by the end. But Jorg had changed, he had grown. We caught a few glimpses of something that might have been remorse, there was the suggestion of depths to Jorgs character beyond murder and mayhem. Enough to make me very intrigued to see how Jorg's character will grow across the next two books.

There other thing that really, really impressed me about this book was the world building. What first presents as your fairly standard medieval world is slowly and subtly revealed to be something else entirely. I really can't praise highly enough how Lawrence slowly revealed the truth of his world. It reminded me of season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Dawn is introduced. At first you're all "what is this madness? Do the writer's think we're dumb?" but then it turns out they had a plan all along. Mark Lawrence has a plan, people. I apologise if this all seems a little vague, but honestly half the fun I had with this book came from figuring the world out, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

The thing most people, even those who didn't like it, praise about this book is the prose itself. They're right to praise it, there is a wit and economy to Lawrence's writing that is really impressive. But there are many other things to be enjoyed here as well, if the reader is willing to trust in Lawrence's overall plan.

I bought this book

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: Life As We Knew It, by Susan Pfeffer

I read Susan Pfeffer’s ‘Life As We Knew It’ in a single day. This is unusual for me. I’m capable of finishing a book in a day, especially if it’s one I’ve been waiting for, but generally I only get to read during my one hour lunch break at work. So it takes me anywhere from a handful of days to over a week to finish a book.

But 'Life As We Knew It' is a book that’s impossible to read slowly. It’s fairly short for a start and it’s written in the form of a diary which I don’t know about anyone else but always makes me read faster. It’s because each “entry” is so short, you just keep thinking you’ll read one more then stop, right up until the last one.

But mostly it’s 'Life as We Knew It's' the plot that keeps you turning pages. A freak asteroid crashes into the moon and knocks it closer to the Earth, and everything goes to hell. I can’t comment on how plausible that set up is, I have a suspicion in might be up there with team of rough oil drillers on an asteroid in terms of plausibility, but Pfeffer sold it very well. The consequences of the moon’s increased proximity to earth read as believable to me, and each change grew naturally from the one before it.

The easiest to predict change was that the tides went mad, which I’m sure everyone could have anticipated. The book’s main character Miranda lives far away from any oceans, so while she’s upset it doesn’t effect her all that much. But whereas the tides I saw coming, there were other consequences that I hadn’t considered, but which seemed logical in hindsight. Like, because the moon is closer i’s gravitational pull has changed so all the volcanoes start going nuts. Which leads to epic and lasting ash clouds, which leads to early winter and so on.

Part of what kept me turning page after page was to see what would go wrong next. I kept thinking surely things can’t get any worse, and of course they always did. Pfeffer really taps into that whole apocalypse porn / voyeuristic mentality that serves disaster films so well. It goes without saying that I would never want millions of people to die in real life, but there’s something wickedly enjoyable about reading fictional accounts of it.

Having said that, despite the large scale and cinematic nature of the disasters that befall the world in this book, it is a very different beast from your average disaster movie. Where the big budget blockbuster tries to convey the immense scale of what has happened, usually through multiple locations and characters, Pfeffer keeps things tightly focused and, as the book progresses, increasingly claustrophobic.

There’s Miranda, her two brothers and their mother. As things start to go pear shaped their mother immediately adopts a very “us before them” kind of view. At one point she reprimands Miranda for leaving a queue for free supplies to get a friend. It’s hard, because you can understand Miranda’s natural impulse to help people, but you can also appreciate her mother’s harsh practicality.

This only becomes more confronting as things get worse and worse and you start to realise, before even Miranda herself, that her Mother and eldest brother have realised that they might not all survive. Objectively the youngest brother would have the best shot, and you see them start to put his well being first. Watching Miranda evolve from a typical, vaguely selfish teenage girl to one who can accept this was fascinating.

To me the best thing about YA books is that they can pose questions that perhaps more adult texts can’t get away with. ‘Life As We Knew It’ certainly does that, and while there was nothing about the prose or the characters that was truly breathtaking or spectacular I’m sure I will be picking up the next books in this series.

This book: I bought