Tag: Flashback Friday

Review – The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Posted October 7, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Acts of King Arthur by John SteinbeckThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

Flashback Friday review from 11th October, 2010

Steinbeck’s Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is — I do wish it’d been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I’d rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn’t changed substantially from Malory, isn’t true: there’s a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he’d probably lose a star.

As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales — it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that’s just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There’s a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.

I liked his treatment of Kay — a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don’t recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel’s eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.

(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don’t like his portrayal of Gawain. But I’ll pass that over.)

One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory — knowing what people are feeling, and I’m particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.

And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:

The queen observed, “I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen.” She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.

My breath, too.

It’s rare because it’s a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he’d written it: I’d like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere’s story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers tell that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren’t the centre of the story he’s telling there.)

I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck’s letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.

I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Moon of Gomrath

Posted September 30, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Moon of Gomrath by Alan GarnerThe Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner

Flashback Friday review from 12th August, 2009

I liked this book better than the first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Maybe that’s because I’ve already had some of the world building from the first book and I know kind of what to expect, though. It was weird to me that it was a sequel, but it completely ignored the ending of the last book. There was virtually no reference to it at all, which is amazing considering the total lack of resolution I felt at the end. The only references are in a recurring enemy — the Morrigan — wanting revenge, and the fact that the characters are the same, plus the backstory about the sleepers in the cave.

The mythology in this one was interesting, anyway. I’m amused at how often the concept of the Wild Magic and the Wild Hunt comes up in fantasy books — here, in the Fionavar Tapestry, in The Dark Is Rising… I like it. The descriptions of Susan riding with them, and the way she gets left behind and feels both joy and anguish, are lovely.

Again, I felt a lack of resolution at the end of this book. Both books just end, with no reactions from the characters, nothing. Just. An end. It’s weird, I like things to be rounded off a little better. It’s not that they stop with big plot things left to happen, but they stop without making it feel satisfying.

It also feels like there should be more books in the series — you have all these comparatively little events, dealing with Grimnir and the Brollachan and the Morrigan, but throughout there’s the threat of Nastrond hovering over it, and the idea of the waking of the sleepers, but nothing happens with them. It feels like the focus is on the wrong thing. In one way it’s nice to have a big story hovering in the background, but when you know you’re never going to find out how that story resolves, it’s not so nice. There’s plenty of room for sequels, but I read that Alan Garner never intended for there to be another book. There’s so much that feels unfinished, though…

At least he didn’t write a shoddy page long epilogue in which we find out exactly what happened to everyone in as few words as possible.

This book is fun enough to just read, but I didn’t really get emotionally invested in it. Characters can die and I don’t really care. Not good!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Posted September 23, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan GarnerThe Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner

Originally reviewed August 12th, 2009

I remember reading some of Alan Garner’s books when I was much younger. I found them creepy as hell then, and he certainly does know what kinds of images to evoke to have that feeling of danger and creepiness. There’s a lot of claustrophobia in this book — tunnels and water-filled passages and being packed in tight. There are parts of the description that are just brilliant.

The mythology aspects are pretty cool, too. The references to Ragnarok, etc. I don’t know whether it’s that whole ‘younger readers can accept the unnatural much better than adults’ thing that people mentioned when reading Diana Wynne Jones, though, but I found it hard to follow and it all piled in on top of everything else in a haphazard, difficult to process manner. Didn’t help that I read parts of it when everyone was around talking, and parts in a cafe, but I think part of it was the writing.

Overall it’s pretty fun, but the characters aren’t terribly well developed. I know it’s a trope of fantasy for younger readers that the kids get to tag along, and be equal to adults, etc, etc — I love The Dark is Rising, which is almost as guilty of it — but it makes me shriek, the way the adults easily accept the kids being dragged into it, and the way the kids seem to just… deal with it. Realism, you can not has it.

I’m going to read the sequel, since I have it, but I can’t say I exactly recommend it. It doesn’t come together very well for me, for all that bits of it are brilliant/cool/fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Art of Racing in the Rain

Posted September 16, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth SteinThe Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

Originally reviewed 23rd May, 2011

I was rather sceptical about The Art of Racing in the Rain. I continued to be so as I read, even when I was more than halfway through. It bothered me: the description of Eve’s illness, the situation with Annika. And I wasn’t sure I was getting much out of it in return for getting so unsettled. I didn’t think that much of the narration — the conceit of a dog narrating the story. Parts just didn’t go together: you can’t have a really smart dog with ideas on philosophy who then gets confused about really simple things. Neither rang true.

But somewhere, around three quarters of the way through, I really began to care. And the emotional punches began to hit, until somewhere in the last fifty pages I found that I was tearing up that little bit (and I needed to blow my nose: gross, but true).

It’s still, honestly, a bit thin. The central conceit, Enzo’s narration, it really didn’t work for me. The story itself is believable, but the choice of narrator nearly killed it for me, before I even picked it up. It’s also totally unsurprising, in everything that happens, but the end borders on painfully cliché. I still liked it, in the moment, but it’s a flaw.

It’s not something I’ll reread, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but I’m glad I read through to the end.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Never Let Me Go

Posted September 9, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroNever Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Originally reviewed May 9th, 2010

(You may consider this review spoilery, if you read all of it. I state something explicitly that is below the surface of the book, at any rate.)

This book is a bit like having a one-sided conversation with the narrator. In consequence, it kinda feels like it rambles a bit — they digress to talk about something else and then a couple of pages later, wrench it back to the original point. In some ways that makes it feel very natural, like someone talking, but to read it, it gets irritating.

There’s a difficult tone to it… Very resigned, unemotional, and somewhat, I don’t know, superficial. The narrator skims the surface of the truths revealed. It’s natural to do that, in some ways, for a real person, but in a character, it’s hard to engage. The characters of Ruth and Tommy were much more vivid for me than Kathy: Ruth and her needing to be in the know, needing to be superior; Tommy and his anger issues and his struggle to be creative. Ruth felt especially real to me: I knew a girl who was very much like her, and I was pretty much the Kathy in our interactions, too.

The way it engages with the issues — with the idea of clones — without dragging out all the backstory is interesting, dealt with it in this way. Like it’s a fact of life, like what you’re reading is all very matter of fact. And you go along with it a little, and then you stop, and you think about it… It actually reminds me of the way Kathy describes being taught about what her life will be: somehow it builds up so you’ve known it all along, but you never have this big moment of revelation. Unfortunately, that deadens the sharper shocks, I think.

I enjoyed it, and it was very easy to just settle down and read it. It’s not racing action or anything, pretty leisurely, and not compelling in the sense that I couldn’t put it down. But I wanted to know — even suspecting what the end would be like, I wanted to get there and see.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Posted September 2, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too MuchThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett

Originally reviewed March 11th, 2011

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is definitely the wrong title for this book, because that’s really not what this book is about. The love of stories is something I can relate to, easily — or even the love of beautiful first editions. The amoral antics of a thief who wants to have books as a status symbol, and the wishy-washy morals of the story-hungry writer, are not something I can sympathise with as much. And I increasingly worried about the latter. She could have reported thefts of books worth thousands and thousands of dollars; she could have reported credit card fraud; she could have helped to discover where Gilkey hid the books.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure that she would do that last — and I knew she didn’t report the thefts or the fraud. She becomes an unreliable narrator, I think. I mean, humans already tend to be, because even the most honest of us have fallible memories. I was almost more interested in that increasing swing to being on Gilkey’s side.

In any case, as a book, it’s easy to read, though not exactly glittering prose. It’s a collection of recollections and personal musings, none of which I found particularly interesting. The more interesting figure of Ken Sanders, the “bibliodick”, was rapidly written out as he began to notice the author’s growing bias and unethical practices.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Surgeon

Posted August 26, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Surgeon by Tess GerritsenThe Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen

Originally reviewed May 7th, 2012

Trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, medical details (both descriptions of stuff like cancer and descriptions of accidents/operations).

That had to come first, because I spent much of this book wishing I had something firm and indestructible to crawl into, to keep me safe. The details are just horrifying — it reminds me very much of my experience with Val McDermid’s work. And, as with that, I had to read to the end to find out who the killer/torturer was, before I could begin to feel okay again. (The part of me that’s done a course in Crime Fiction remembers that the end of a crime novel typically ends with the criminal being contained or killed, and therefore that provides a feeling of safety and the reassertion of the rules of society, for a reader.)

I wasn’t really a fan of the characters’ attitudes to rape. The idea that rape makes the victim belong to the attacker in some way is just repugnant, and the idea that what makes a woman a woman is their womb is just — ugh. It seemed to be an ongoing theme in the story, rather than an opinion expressed by just one or two of the characters.

Overall there was a lot that upset/troubled me, and despite Sasha Alexander being in it, I don’t think I’m going to watch the tv series. It’s not actually a bad crime/mystery book: it’s very good in that sense, and I’d recommend it to people who like, for example, Val McDermid. But it was just not the kind of thing I should be reading at all, and I’m going to steer clear.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Beowulf on the Beach

Posted August 19, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Beowulf on the Beach by Jack MurnighanBeowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, Jack Murnighan

Originally reviewed November 11th, 2011

It’s perhaps inevitable that I wouldn’t get on with this book, for three reasons. One, I’m an academic type. Two, Beowulf genuinely is my idea of a beach read. Three, in his words, I sit down to pee.

No, no. I don’t mean that in a derogatory, ‘women always argue’ way. I mean that Jack Murnighan keeps going on about ‘Man Lit’, and how amaaaazing it is that he managed to find anything worth reading in Pride and Prejudice, and how all women are going to be all starry-eyed over Darcy, and whatever.

The very idea that there has to be something ‘sexy’ about the books to keep a reader’s interest strikes me as quite guy-centric — or not so much that as it’s a very consistent idea of what’s sexy, or even more generally, what might draw a reader. No mention is given to the compelling nature of David and Jonathan’s love for each other, for example.

There’s possibly a fourth point, in that this is the literary canon of primarily dead white men. It’s European to the extreme. It perhaps wouldn’t be such a dealbreaker for me if it advertised itself as such, but considering the title is ‘Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits’…

Naturally, I disagree on other levels with his ideas of what to skip, and I don’t really get on with his flippant tone. About all I credit this book with is encouraging me to pick up some of the classics I previously gave a miss — but I already had that vague intention in mind anyway.

(Oh, and if you don’t want to view the Bible as a literary document, avoid.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Last Unicorn

Posted August 12, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. BeagleThe Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

Originally reviewed on September 12th, 2010

Having just finished reading The Last Unicorn, I’m not at all sure what to say about it, or how I feel about it. I felt vaguely enchanted by it — not in the sense of it being twee and sweet and Disney, but in the sense of it having a hold over me. I loved the writing, the richness of it, the strange and new descriptions, e.g. “the air hung shiny as candy” — things that don’t quite make logical sense, and yet, you know what they mean.

I loved the fairytale qualities interspersed with bits of humour, with funny references, like Shmendrick knowing how to deal with Cully because he knows his Anglo-Saxon folklore, and the reference to Child — a reference I got: he collected a lot of Robin Hood ballads. I loved the bittersweetness of it, even with the humour, the way it doesn’t come out fairytale-perfect.

I might have to come back later, and say more, when it’s settled in my mind/heart.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Sunshine

Posted August 5, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Sunshine by Robin McKinleySunshine, Robin McKinley

Originally reviewed 1st May, 2009

Sunshine was a reread, but it’s been a while and some things were a surprise to me all over again. I was worried it wouldn’t stand up to a reread: I skimmed a couple of other reviews and saw that people had some pretty negative things to say about it. And I certainly saw the truth in the things that were said, but I also enjoyed reading the book again. It helps that it’s an incredibly rich experience. The writing appeals a lot to my synaesthesia. It’s pretty sensual writing as it is: there’s a lot of detail, a lot of talk about cooking, and also a lot of feeling. Descriptions of sight and smell and hearing.

The whole book is written in first person POV. The main character is Sunshine, and she’s “not your average heroine”, as they say. She has no ambition, she’s not all that smart, she’s not that brave, and she’d quite happily live in her bakery all her life. Some people find her hard to like, but I think she’s quite human and although she does get a lot of power, eventually able to kill vampires with her bare hands, she doesn’t want it and she’s scared of it. I find the writing interesting and absorbing, but I’m sure for some people it’s too rambling and/or dense. It does take her an awful long time to do something as simple as log onto the internet equivalent.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world where magic, vampires, demons and succubi — to name a few — exist. All those kinds of things are for real. This could be ‘our world in the future’ given the references to Bram Stoker, or an alternate reality. It’s never made exactly clear, but I suspect the latter because of the slang words the characters use — “carthaginian hell”, “spartan”, “sheer”. I like that there’s no explanation of the slang, given that the book is narrated by someone who is a part of that world. You just don’t really think about that kind of thing in normal life: why would you? Sometimes Sunshine explains things that shouldn’t need explaining, like how to kill vampires, but you can’t avoid doing exposition entirely!

The thing that really impresses me about this is that the vampires aren’t overly sexualised, and while Constantine is still an ally, he remains unsettling. Okay, there are a couple of scenes in which Sunshine has chemistry with him, but she’s also more often than not aware that there’s something vastly different about him. He moves differently, he looks different, there’s no heartbeat… I like the way it ends on an awkward note, with them not quite sure what’s going to happen now but not wanting to lose contact with each other.

A lot of the more minor characters are completely fascinating and have big backstories that we clearly barely glimpse — Mel, Yolande, Sunshine’s grandmother, the goddess of pain, the SOFs in general… There’s a lot to work with in this world, and I’d really love to see a sequel.

My main problem with this book is how it made me crave cinnamon rolls. Argh!

Rating: 5/5

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