Tag: book reviews

Review – Seaward

Posted December 17, 2014 by in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Seaward by Susan CooperSeaward, Susan Cooper

I’ve been meaning to reread this one for a while. It was lovely to go back to it. It’s a bit more mature than The Dark is Rising, I think; certainly, there’s a physicality between Cally and West that isn’t even hinted at in The Dark is Rising. The first time I read it I said that this book ends perfectly, “neither too early nor too late”, and I still feel that way. It’s enough to have the promise of Cally and West’s future, at the end of the book; I don’t need to read about it, and that would take away from the bittersweetness of the story.

I didn’t like this as much as the first time I read it, I think; I still enjoyed it, found it interesting, loved the creativity, but this time I was asking more questions, picking more holes. Why was this element taken from Welsh legends, and not that? When is it set — it feels unrooted, which might make for universality, but it makes it hard to imagine how Cally and West will find each other again, how to read their absence, their changes — and where do Cally and West come from?

It’s beautifully written, though, and full of lovely things: gorgeous passages, enchanting creatures (Peth!), mysteries and metaphors. I do still love it, and I also appreciate that unlike The Dark is Rising, it’s a personal journey, not an all-out fight against absolute evil. The absolutism of the Dark and the Light in those books is completely absent here, with the dichotomy drawn between Life and Death instead, and with both wearing kindly faces and less kind. It’s a journey for Cally and West, one in which they’re frightened, have enemies and allies, but it isn’t moving toward some apocalyptic endpoint, some make-it-or-break-it scene where a few decide the futures of the many.

I’m not sure the new cover does the book any favours, in that sense; the traditional fantasy elements here are the least important.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Zombie Survival Guide

Posted December 16, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max BrooksThe Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks

If I were more secure in my ability to be humorous and keep it up throughout the review, doubtless I’d review this book with the same serious tone it takes: this theory about zombies is intriguing, this one is confirmed by personal experience, this one is ridiculous, etc. Since I’m not particularly funny, I’ll refrain. It takes a deft touch to do it at any length, and I don’t think Max Brooks really succeeds here. It becomes just a boring catalogue of things — some of it is interesting, like various ideas on how to defend different types of buildings, different ways to arm yourself for best effect, etc. But because it’s modelled very closely on the survival guide genre, it remains mostly interesting to that crowd. I’d be interested to see a survivalist’s reaction to this book, actually.

Now, I’m not going to deny I have a zombie survival plan. It goes like this: “Find my dad as soon as possible. Ensure he is armed and we have food, water, and a stock of books. Let Dad protect me. Survive.” And yes, I’m that confident: my dad would survive a zombie uprising, and he’d put a bullet through my head before he’d allow me to turn into a mindless zombie. Draw whatever conclusions about my family you wish from that…

There’s some joke here about me getting into a mindless rage because I don’t have enough books vs. turning into a zombie and how you tell the difference, but I suck at humour, we’ve established this.

Anyway, the best part of this is the section of historical records of outbreaks, and that only where they’re more creative. By a certain point, they become repetitive, and the conspiracy theories are obvious without the point needing to be laboured. I’m sure there must be real records that you could use as evidence for past zombie uprisings, but I don’t know if Max Brooks incorporated any – that would require having the give-a-shit to look up each incident he mentions, and I don’t have it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Legion

Posted December 15, 2014 by in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion, Brandon Sanderson

I reread this novella to remind myself of the character(s) and the exact events in it in preparation for reading Legion: Skin Deep. I remember loving it a lot the first time; this time, maybe because I was already familiar with the character of Stephen Leeds, it didn’t work quite as well for me. I ended up focusing more on the plot, which is relatively silly — someone compared it to Dan Brown, and actually, I can kind of see that. The plot itself isn’t that important, though; it’s how the characters deal with the problems, and how Stephen’s multiple aspects work together and how they manage to affect the real world. I think the refreshing part is that Sanderson doesn’t try to fool us any with going back and forth on whether the Aspects are real; he starts off right away with the premise that they’re not.

I’m not totally sure that Sanderson got the diagnosis for Stephen right, though. There’s nothing wrong with Stephen’s perceptions, he just parcels them out between his ‘Aspects’ and deals with everything in that fragmentary way — he talks about being schizophrenic, and yet he still knows where to draw the line between reality and his delusions. Despite the fact that he says he doesn’t have a multiple personality disorder, that seems nearer to the mark to me.

Anyway, looking forward to the sequel, although it worries me slightly that people mention it going deeper into science-y stuff. As you can see from my doubts about Sanderson’s medical research, I’m not convinced by his attempts to pin this down too firmly. He’s famous for his fantasy worlds, and deservedly so; I’m happy with contemporary fantasy, and yet very similar science fiction that doesn’t adhere to what we understand of science drives me bonkers.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Language Wars

Posted December 14, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Language Wars by Henry HitchingsThe Language Wars, Henry Hitchings

In theory, this is a subject I’m really fascinated by. The whole idea of ‘proper English’, all the classism and imperialism and prejudice caught up in it, and the way people’s attitudes to language have developed. However, turns out that either the minutiae of who wrote which grammar/dictionary/book about etiquette and when isn’t that interesting, or Henry Hitchings has a really boring prose style. Or, well, both of those things. I felt like there were a lot of facts, but not much analysis to go with it; some chapters felt like they were just lists of who wrote what about grammar and when.

I was hoping for other stuff about proper English, more about the imperialism — there’s lots of scope for that without even leaving the United Kingdom, with the suppression of the Welsh and Irish languages, and there’s hints about the struggle between US and UK English. Overall, though… if that was addressed, the deadened prose style made me miss it.

It’s still an interesting topic, but this particular book had a soporific effect on me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A Face Like Glass

Posted December 12, 2014 by in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of A Face Like Glass by Frances HardingeA Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge
Review from November 24th, 2012

I’d never heard of Frances Hardinge before, and I have no idea how I came across this on the Kindle store, but I’m so very glad I did. It’s an enchantment of a book — I think I said something similar, recently, about Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and I can see the similarities there: the long games being played in both plots, the dazzling strangeness of the worldbuilding, the magic of it all. But at the same time, they’re very different stories: it’s just something about the flavour that’s similar.

A Face Like Glass is marketed as YA, but I don’t think you should see that as a discouragement. It’s not one of those YA books that slots neatly into the ranks of the YA books that’ve come before: it’s something wild and entirely itself. The same goes for the fact that I’ve tagged it as dystopia — it doesn’t follow the current dystopia tropes either. It felt like a breath of fresh air for me.

I got hooked on it from Amazon’s preview, which is worth a look: it’s a slowish start compared to the pace the book gets to near the end, but if you’re intrigued by it, you’re in for a wonderful ride. I loved every scrap of it, to the extent where I’m almost afraid to look for Frances Hardinge’s other books in case they aren’t as good. I love Neverfell and I love the bizarre details of the world and all the weird concepts like people being unable to perform expressions without learning them and…

Basically, it’s a heck of a ride. Best impulse buy of my year, up to and including my big plush Moomin. Possibly excluding only the ticket I bought to the screening of Avengers Assemble that got me hooked.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Heart's Blood

Posted December 11, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Heart's Blood by Juliet MarillierHeart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier

When I first read Heart’s Blood, I really loved it, and at least part of that was because I finally found a Juliet Marillier book I really appreciated. I’m a little sad that I don’t think I loved it as much this time as I did before: things that were obvious to me then were painfully so now, and the narrator still seems like much the same as every other Marillier narrator.

On the other hand, there’s still plenty to enjoy: the imaginative treatment of the Beauty and the Beast story, which takes some pretty familiar elements and twists them just enough that they can still surprise you. I love the main character’s calling as a scribe, and her slow rediscovery of herself and how to stand up for her world. I like that it’s firmly rooted in the real world, for all the supernatural elements, and in history: this isn’t a disconnected fairytale, but one that takes place in a world that carries on around it. I liked Anluan, too; he works very well as a Beast character, because at first he does seem so awkward, so impossible, but he blossoms as much as Caitrin (Beauty) does.

There’s a lot of great side characters, too; all of the characters that surround Anluan and Caitrin are interesting, and really, there could be whole books about what exactly each of them is, what they did, who they really are.

Despite me saying that I didn’t enjoy it as much as before, I did enjoy it a lot. It’s a satisfying story, where good triumphs but not too easily, where struggles and setbacks feel real. The attraction and desire between Anluan and Caitrin comes naturally, and doesn’t cross the line into being too much of a fairytale — it doesn’t break the in-the-real-world feeling that the history and setting give the story. I love Caitrin’s development over the course of the book, and I love the way everything comes together at the end.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Thief

Posted December 10, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Thief by Megan Whalen TurnerThe Thief, Megan Whalen Turner

I remember feeling somewhat ambivalent about this book the first time I read it, but I was sure it wouldn’t be that way this time: over the course of the other books, I came to love Gen and appreciate the world. Well, I still do love Gen and I appreciate the world, the set up for the twist that comes near the end of the book, the way Gen’s voice works as a narrator. But I still wasn’t that in love with the world in this book; I still didn’t get that attached to the characters. This is a series where I think the middle books are the strongest, but I was surprised that the familiarity of a reread didn’t make me appreciate this more.

One thing I do like is that while you might initially expect it to be something like pseudo-medieval Europe, based on the limited details you get at the beginning, it quickly becomes clear that this is a Greek-based world — although there’s plenty about it that’s unique, as well. I liked the fact that the geography of the place mattered a lot, too: where things are in relation to each other, how you get from A to B, where you have to pass through on the way.

This does set up a fun world, but this story still felt simplistic to me, easily guessed and so not as absorbing as I’d hoped.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Fellowship of the Ring

Posted December 9, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Fellowship of the Ring by TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Sorry, J.R.R.: I am going to review the three volumes separately, but it’s really more of a running commentary of what’s on my mind. I don’t actually see The Lord of the Rings as three separate books; the volumes just provide a good place to pause and take stock. And there’s always a lot to take stock of, when you’re reading these books: Tolkien made sure of that. This isn’t the first time I’ve read them for pleasure since my Tolkien module during my MA, but that aspect of my reading is maybe a bit further behind me right now. Still, I can’t not appreciate the extra richness that reading gave me, the breadth of Middle-earth. There’s so much I want to know more about — the Barrow Downs, the world Tom Bombadil first walked in… and not as glimpses, but the way we see them through the eyes of the hobbits or other members of the Company.

One thing that’s easy to forget is the sheer scale of the landscape they cross. People complain that it takes whole pages to get anywhere, but rarely the opposite: that the whole journey between Rivendell and Hollin is done in a page, that Hollin is just a stop on the way to Caradhras and Moria, when again, there’s so much more we could know about Hollin. Two things contributed to me thinking about that this time: one, I play LOTRO. Now thankfully, Lath has a war steed now, so I can cover a lot of ground, but the first fetch quests in the Shire drove me nuts. So much running! And even that is necessarily scaled down, else you’d have to sit back and take literally a day to run across the Shire. Not ideal for an MMORPG. Secondly, I’m part of a Walk to Mordor challenge, and wow. The miles it takes us to get anywhere — we’re barely progressing faster than the Company did, despite the fact that we’re adding everyone’s miles together.

One thing I do feel is the lack of a real Welsh influence here. This is “a mythology for England” (or is it “of England”? I’ve forgotten the exact quote now), not Britain, and all the focus is on the Anglo-Saxon kind of world. You can tell me about the Welsh influences until you’re blue in the face, but what gets me about Tolkien’s world is that absence. The troubled Welsh background is pushed aside — perhaps there in the Dunlendings’ struggle with the Rohirrim, but it’s not like that is a major theme, or that they’re treated with much sympathy.

Which is fair enough, but it does make me sad that Tolkien didn’t fold those issues into his mythology. I would’ve liked to see more of those tensions, that complex history, echoing through Middle-earth as it still does through modern Britain.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Galápagos

Posted December 8, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Galapagos by Henry NichollsThe Galápagos, Henry Nicholls

This isn’t a very substantial book, really: each chapter is fairly brief, and focused on a fairly broad swathe of the creatures living on the famous islands, often focusing on one or two representative examples when it’s a large family of critters. This works quite well for the layperson, avoiding going too in depth on any one subject that might become boring, while still offering an introduction to the wealth of variety and beauty in the Galápagos islands. A lot of it, of course, is related to Darwin and his theories, which are what have made the Galápagos so iconic for anyone with that kind of interest.

I did like the chapters which focus on the way humans have affected the islands. He seems fairly ambivalent about it, in a way: he hesitates to say that tourism is damaging the islands (probably because he’d be a hypocrite if he did!) but at the same time, he makes the impact quite clear.

Sometimes I do wonder about whether we can or should preserve species that are going extinct. In one sense, it’s often our own fault. We’re as much of a natural disaster as a massive meteorite strike. But maybe there should be a test applied first: if humans back off (after some captive breeding and releasing if necessary), can the population once again support itself? Or has the world just changed too fast for them? We can’t foresee all the ramifications, how and whether a species even can adapt. We could risk making a species that we value for its place in the wild into a species dependent on us, like the animals we’ve bred for food and convenience. If we do that, have we really saved the species after all? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder; certainly I don’t think it’s unequivocally the right thing to do, and so some of the conservation aspects of this I disagreed with. Not the sentiment, but the practicality.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Still Life

Posted December 7, 2014 by in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Still Life by Louise PennyStill Life, Louise Penny

I have quite mixed feelings about this one. It was enthusiastically recommended on Twitter by a couple of authors I do like, but from the very first page it felt clumsily written to me. A little overwritten — “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec knelt down; his knees cracking like the report of a hunter’s rifle, his large, expressive hands hovering over the tiny circle of blood marring her fluffy cardigan, as though like a magician he could remove the wound and restore the woman.” It just reads all wrong to me, and put me off right there — and that’s in the second paragraph. The same sort of style continues throughout, and extends to the characters as well — if there are two more florid and clichéd gay men in all of fiction, I’d almost be surprised, and it’s not as though that gives them life. It’s like a world of cardboard cut-outs, springing up to attention when the reader looks, but flattening down the rest of the time. Some of them were even ridiculous, like the young detective Yvette Nichol: she doesn’t seem capable, trained, adult — she seems like a child having a sulk, most of the time.

This is meant to be a ‘cosy’ mystery, apparently; though it doesn’t really feel like it, with the intrusion of the police into a small rural community, with an old woman killed by someone in that community… Normally in a cosy mystery, I guess I expect there to be a different sort of crime. Someone we sympathise with less, maybe even someone who we feel deserves it. The disruption of a small tight-knit community like this one is supposed to be is pretty much the antithesis of cosy, to me.

The one thing I did really like about this was the domestic partnerships. Gamache is far from the stereotyped lonely detective with a drinking problem, with a wife and a harmonious home to return to. Other characters in the book are married as well, and these relationships are presented as natural, symbiotic, fulfilling. Those were the moments where Penny shone, for me, because for that moment her characters did show a spark of life.

Ultimately, though, I found this really disappointing and just skimmed it. It’s cosy in the sense that it’s not gritty Ian Rankin/Val McDermid style crime, full of sexual abuse and the like. It seems to try and be more in the genre of Mary Stewart or Alan Bradley — the only writers I’d forgive that ending with the snakes — and, well, fails. I’m sure there’s an audience for it, but it ain’t me.

Rating: 2/5

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