Archive for the ‘2015 Reading Challenge’ Category

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I’m not going to dwell long on this review: it concludes the story begun in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and continues in Hollow City from which this book continues directly. It is also my last book of 2015, and Miss Peregrine was my first book of 2015 so it gives my year a nice symmetry.

It also doesn’t take long to read.

Having entered London in Hollow City, Emma and Jacob narrowly avoided being abducted by the nefarious Caul, Miss Peregrine’s evil brother. The other children from the first two books are abducted.

Rather than flee, Jacob and Emma with the help of Addison – a peculiar talking dog – track the wights to another time loop, a labyrinthine Devil’s Acre, where they are assisted by a somewhat taciturn boatman named Sharon. Tall, gaunt, with a hood. Sharon. Really, Riggs? You couldn’t have made him more like Charon? Dangerously close to Percy Jackson territory.

Anyway, within Devil’s Acre, various atrocities are discovered: drug use, slavery and crime.  We also find more allies in the form of Sharon and Bentham.

The depictions of Devil’s Acre were pos
sibly more vivid than those of London in the previous book. And this one had a stronger plot: find the wights’ base,  rescue everyone. Somehow.

Again, this is a strongly paced novel preferring action to emotion and that’s where the writing is strongest especially in the assault on the wights’ fortress. I also did enjoy the full awakening of Jacob’s peculiar gift: not just to be able to see the hollows, nor to be able to communicate with them but actually merge with their consciousness and maintain full control over an army of them.

The ending of the book – which so many people have praised – I found difficult. I don’t normally do this but…

HEREAFTER BE SPOILERS. ..

Jacob wins. Everyone is rescued. A mythical time loop containing the additional second souls which give peculiar people their gifts is discovered. Bentham who was also Miss Peregrine’s brother betrayed Jacob *boo! and then betrayed Caul *yay! The mythical time loop is destroyed with Bentham and Caul in it.

Okay.

So the world of peculiardom has died? The thousands of souls contained in the library and which create peculiars had been destroyed. So I’m expected to celebrate what is essentially a genocide? A mass extinction of innocent souls?

And Jacob is from the present with a family to which he would like to return; but has fallen in love with Emma – his own grandfather’s ex – who is from 1940 and would age to her true age within a few days of being out of a time loop. She can’t be in the present; Jacob can’t bring himself to abandon his family in the present. That’s a nice conflict as a writer. A little clumsily handled perhaps. But a nice conflict. The hero who saves a world he cannot share.

So how does Riggs resolve it? The destruction of the time loop containing the library of souls stops the aging-forward problem. And no one knew. So on the day, the very moment, that Jacob is about to be institutionalised because of his ‘delusions’ about the peculiars, they turn up and rescue him. And can live happily ever after.

I just found that far too trite. Too convenient. Too deus ex machina.

And then there’s the Hollow – the first one that Jacob bonded with – which we learn retain an aspect of consciousness – left in Bentham’s house having its blood and tears drained indefinitely to power the Panloopticon device?

Maybe I’m reading too much into what is, essentially,  a kids’ adventure book. But the ending bothered me.0

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Okay.

I confess.

I only read this and the next book (Library Of Souls) to complete a trilogy for my 2015 Reading Challenge. And because I was running out of time. I did complete them by 31st December… just a little slow blogging about them. Due in part to a busy Christmas and also to an abraded cornea which pretty much destroyed my ability to read and type or see generally since New Year.

So, this book picks up the story from Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children as Jacob – from modern day America – and his friends including Emma, Jacob’s girlfriend and his own grandfather’s ex-girlfriend – yes, you read that correctly – flee their invaded time-looped island back to 1940s war-torn Britain. There, they face the dual terrors of the war itself and of the hollows and wights who had destroyed their original loop-refuge.

Miss Peregrine herself – the children’s matriarchal ymbyrne – had been kidnapped, rescued but stuck in bird form. And there is a loose directionlessness to the plot as a result. They happen upon a lost loop inhabited by peculiar and talking animals, trip over a band of gypsies with their own peculiar child gradually becoming invisible, and generally head towards London with no real idea of what to expect or what to do once they get there. Carrying a child’s book whose tales and nursery rhymes spring out as plot devices from time to time seemed a little forced. A portable deus ex machina.

I had lower expectations of this than I did with the first and the book met them better. L It’s a good read. A decent tale. Riggs does have a tendency to tell rather than show and the horrors of bombing raids in London seemed a little two-dimensional as does the description of the hollows, the monstrous mindless, multi-tongued creatures. He also seems not to be so comfortable with the emotional relationship between Jacob and Emma as he is with the scenario he’s created and the range of characters and action scenes.

If I were to summarise a list of pros and cons, it might look like this:

Pros: imaginative concept, creepy photographs,  good pace.

Cons: slightly pedestrian writing, too much telling, lack of description; two-dimensional characters with unconvincing emotions, directionless.

There was, however, a significant and unexpected twist in the final chapters which I hadn’t seen coming.

Fair play, Mr Riggs, fair play.

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Opening with a murderous rampage at a party held by a corrupt politician, once again, Sanderson plumbs the possibilities of his Mistborn universe in Scadriel extending the reach of the characters Waxillium Ladrian,  Wayne and Marasi, whom he had introduced in The Alloy Of Law. The feel of this novel is distinctly Industrial Revolutionary with the rising prominence of factories and unemployment. Marches on the streets of Elendel and proletarian disgruntlement. You almost expected a thinly disguised William Blake or Karl Marx to wander around a corner.

We are also reacquainted with some of the original characters and concepts again: the kandra get to take centrestage this time and we see a cameo from both TenSoon and the ascended Sazed, now known as Lord Harmony. It was an interesting exploration of a god’s role maintaining balance between Preservation and Ruin: his power and limitations.

The plot itself is simultaneously straightforward and byzantine and breaks away frim the suspiciously evil uncle. Elendel’s Lord Governor is the target of an assassination plot which utilises a range of both feruchemical and allomantic abilities. Speed, strength, healing and the coinshot skills of Wax himself. Added to that, we have the shape-shifting abilities of the kandra  and the novel has the potential to be a terrifyingly claustrophobic and intense one. No one is safe; anyone could be the killer in disguise. It would be tricky to follow for anyone not familiar with the Mistborn magic systems. Along the way, we encounter food shortages, industrial unrest and violence between different religious groups.

It doesn’t quite reach the potential which the premise has: Wax leaps into the mist just a little too often; there are a few too many shifts on point of view; just one or two too many info dumps about politics and history. The twist itself was – or perhaps twists were – relatively recognisable from half way through. It was good, but a little too heavy on action for my liking.

The original Alloy of Law was apparently written as an imaginative exercise by Sanderson after his stint on The Wheel Of Time and I think that that showed in the fun and playfulness of that first book which he hadn’t intended to publish. This time round, he seemed to be taking things more seriously and trying to invest more depth into his hero… we see Wax and Wayne haunted by their past actions is great, but some of the fun seemed diminished somehow. It’s still a good read… but the gusto of the Alloy of Law seems to be reduced. Wax continues in the archetypal role of crusading unconventional detective moving outside the limits of the law, in the model of Batman and Holmes – and Harry Dresden.

The next book, Bands Of Mourning, is out soon – apparently this month – and I’ll probably pick it up and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. Apparently,  the Lord Ruler’s bracers are discovered….

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Right,  firstly an apology in advance: this is my first post after changing phones and the larger screen of the Galaxy S6 and different spacing on the keyboard is enough to fox my little mind. And fingers. It doesn’t take much to fox either. So,  as I saw,  apologies for any typos… well,  more than usual!

Anyway,  onto Storm Front,  the first of the Dresden Files, which numerous people I know have been raving about,  and Jim Butcher’s debut novel.

The concept is no longer original – but it is fifteen years old now! Set in Chicago, Dresden is a wizard working as both a private investigator and a consultant for Karrin Murphy investigating crimes which touch on the supernatural world which lurks beneath our own. Chicago has its own drug and gang crime issues,  primarily in this novel headed by Gentleman Johnny Marconi, reminiscent of the mobs of Gotham City. The supernatural world is itself policed by Wardens and The White Council enforcing their own laws – which are far more important than ours,  hence the fact that they are Laws – and has its own rogue and dark elements. And vampires, fairies and demons and no doubt other creatures for future novels.

All of these elements become involved in a double murder in which two people have their hearts ripped out of their chests by dark magic.

There are all sorts of influences on Butcher which are pretty apparent: Batman is explicitly referenced but there’s a whole literary lineage going back to Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade and Philips Marlowe. Dresden is in that line of hardboiled detectives; however, Butcher is not a writer of the same calibre as Hammett, Chandler or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book. It had a cracking pace and was decently plotted. But the writing struck me as a tad juvenile in places, a little clichéd and familiar, and his treatment of women seemed perhaps a century out of date. Rarely did he let a description of a woman go without a sensual adverb or adjective slipping in. Women seemed to consist mainly of legs (generally shapely), lips  (usually full and plump), and breasts. The depiction of Bianca St Claire, the vampire madame whose employee had been one of the first victims in the book, was a case in point. Most writers whose vampires who transform tend to focus on teeth or eyes and the facial changes. Butcher lingered uncomfortably long on the changes in her breasts as she transformed into her true vampiric form.

The plotting was also a tad obvious: two apparently separate cases opened in the first chapter. A couple of potions were brewed about half way through. Not a subplot was left unintegral to the main plot; not a potion was brewed that was not required elsewhere.

Was it easy to anticipate who the antagonist Shadowman was? Pretty much so.

Now, that said, it was a decent quick read: 499 pages which you can whip through in a week. It was pretty fun and Dresden – struggling with the temptation of reverting to dark magics himself – has potential as a protagonist. At a personal level, I’ve had a really tough couple of weeks and this novel was a solid escape from that. I’ve also had trouble getting into the various things I’ve been reading recently (personally I blame Kate Atkinson: after reading Life After Life even this year’s Man Booker List haven’t gripped me like they usually do) and something with no pretensions to anything other than a fun genre fiction romp hit the spot well this week.

  This is an absolute gem of a read – or more likely a listen, as Pullman wrote it for Audible as a free giveaway at some point. That’s how I collected it – see what I did there? – and it’s been lurking in my library ever since and today I thought I may as well read it.
It is a delight!

Don’t be put off by the reviews which talk about it as a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it probably does work as that. It is at heart a self-contained, delicious and creepy horror story which is very reminiscent of M. R. James and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Boy in particular.

Academics and art collectors with their own little petty squabbles and rivalries. Mysterious objects being found and horrific incidents occurring, apparently through their agency. Or maybe coincidence.

The objects in question are a portrait of an enigmatic and beautiful woman and the sculpture of a repugnant and malicious monkey. That’s the connection with His Dark Materials: it’s a young Marissa van Zee before she became Mrs Coulter and her monkey dæmon. But that’s almost beside the point. This is just a cracking good classic gothic yarn!

By golly, Pullman can write!

And as an extra bonus, it’s read by Bill Nighy!

Before I lose myself tonight in the world of my novel again, I thought I’d quickly update the world on my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge. I’m beginning to lose hope that I will complete it in the year (having lost the time that Summer Holidays would normally have given me) but I’ve been enjoying the process. I have to say, it’s not affected my reading style: I’ve not selected books to fit the categories except, perhaps, the graphic novels.

  This review is going to be controversial. There is a lot of hype about this book with the movie and Matt Damon and the Hollywood machine in overdrive.

I didn’t like it.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t well written. Clever, credible and smart, yes; well written, not so much!

So the basic premise is as follows: there is a NASA programme of manned Mars landings; on one mission, a storm forces the crew to abort the mission but a terrible accident appears to kill Mark Watney, a member of the team, so they leave without him.

But he’s not dead.

He survives alone on Mars, believing himself abandoned.

The set-up detailed and well thought through: whoever Andy Weir is, he’s had a thorough meditation on how a Mars expedition might work: supplies, habitation, rovers, life support, ascent and descent vehicles. How to regulate atmosphere, create oxygen, hydrogen and water. Credible sounding acronyms. Very techy and reasonable.

He also has thought through Watney’s situation incredibly thoroughly. His procedures for Watney’s creation of viable soil, additional water and hydrogen, modifications to his rover and communications all seem credible and reasonable. I mean, I’m no expert and it may be riddled with plotholes – IMDb will probably identify them soon enough – but it has an air of credibility at a technical level. I mean, check the number of times when characters “run the numbers”. How could the novel not feel credible when there are numbers to run?!

What it doesn’t have any credibility on – for me – is in characters. Watney at no point shows any sense of mental deterioration in the time alone on the planet facing almost certain death. His frequent fist-bump interjections “Yay! Go me!” were neither credible nor charming. It is inconceivable that he suffered no deterioration, however upbeat and positive his core personality.

Nor are the other characters credible at all: having Mindy – who first realises that Watney is still alive – say “Um…” at the start of every sentence is not the same as creating a character. Nor is mentioning that another character squares his papers on his desk. Weir does not do people well!

There is a phenomenon – mainly in fanfiction – of the Mary or Marty Sue character: an idealised wish-fulfilment character which is often an author inserting himself into the novel. I feel there is an element there in the character of Rich Purnell, the geeky pseudo-autistic tech who creates the manoeuvre which allows the Hermes spaceship to return to Mars to try to rescue Watney. I think Rich Purnell is Andy Weir!

As a writer, I also didn’t find the shifts from Watney’s first person log reports (which felt more like a teenager’s diary than a log report!) to third person narrative on Earth (and the dialogue! Oh my god the dialogue!) and especially the flashback episode.

So… did I hate the book? No! It was clever and smart and held my interest.

But it was not a great book. And certainly does not deserve the huge praise and hype it’s received.


  My first Discworld novel was Carpe Jugulum which is still my favourite, so it seems very fitting for me that my last (new) Discworld novel takes me back to Lancre, the redoubtable Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Tiffany Aching.

Pratchett never finished this novel – not the half-dozen other novels which he appears to have been sketching out when he died on March 12th. It has been pieced together and different scenes stitched to one another like a literary jigsaw and it does show but it is such a fitting tribute to Pratchett!

It’s almost banal to be talking about the plot – elves invade Lancre; witches unite to combat them. The elven realm and glamour are familiar and well done; the descent into the Elf King’s Barrow was great: masculine, childish, hormonally self-obsessed. The Nac Mac Feegle provide the comic relief, as does a somewhat diabolical goat.

The heart of the novel, though, occurs maybe fifty pages in and took me by surprise. Granny Weatherwax died. The Iron Lady of Lancre, the anvil on which the moral compass of Discworld spun, died.

Is it just me, or has Death been notably absent from the Discworld novels recently? Probably understandable, considering Pratchett’s health.

The rest of the novel follows Tiffany Aching’s attempts to step into Granny Weatherwax’s shoes, maintain two witches’ steadings and combat the elven threat.

Granny Weatherwax’s death and the vignettes – the guttering of her life’s candle – of how her death was reflected across the Disc was so reminiscent of the tributes Pratchett himself received across Twitter and the blogosphere. It was incredibly poignant. It felt like a farewell from Pratchett. A graceful, unsentimental and respectful passing on. I can only hope that Pratchett experienced the same.

  

Ahhh… a new Patrick Ness publication is like a new China Miéville publication: an event to be savoured. 

Chaos Walking. A Monster Calls. More Than This. He writes science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fictions with drama, true emotion, real depth so well! 

So it’s difficult with this book. It’s fabulous. It really is. But it’s not quite there with those others. 

The basic premise is, you’re a normal teenage child, finishing school, looking forward to prom and graduation (yes, it’s set in America) and worried about trying to get a date… But your town is a hell mouth (for want of a better word; stealing deliberately from Buffy The Vampire Slayer). You’re not The One. You’re not Buffy. You’re not Willow. You’re not even Xander. You’re just trying to finish school and a whole lot of weird stuff is happening around you. 

It’s a GREAT premise! 

It mocks with a real but warm humour the trope and cliches of The Chosen One genre; it also works as an example of that genre. That’s a clever trick and shows a masterful touch. The antics of the “indie kids” which threaten to interrupt (or destroy) the graduation simultaneously irk and frustrate us, and thrill and excite us. The incident with the zombie deer or the possessed police are genuinely creepy. A tad clichéd but so well done – and sparingly and knowingly done – that it doesn’t jar. By golly, Ness is a writer so much in control of his characters and plot. 

The book suggests that we are important as people, even if we are not The Chosen One. We count. All our personal demons, fears and insecurities count every bit as much as the literal demons. Our small acts of courage and kindness and generosity are just as heroic as the demon hunting “indie kids”. 

Each chapter opens with a summary of what the “indie kids” are doing whether it be dying (frequently£, opening portals or battling demons. The chapter then reverts to the trials of Mikey, Mel, Jared and Henna. Dealing with eating disorders, unrequited love, obsessive compulsive disorder, overbearing, absent or alcoholic parents, the descent into dementia of grandparents, sexuality, identity and political differences. 

 The second Thursday Next book picks up immediately after the end of The Eyre Affair and is a fun and joyful thing! A bit of lovely fluff: light, quick and just fun. 

It does perhaps suffer from its role in the series: The Eyre Affair was pretty self-contained; it has spawned a series of – I don’t know how many – books. This book feels like a bridge between a stand-alone and the series. It expands the basic concept of entering into and exiting a book but, whereas the first book required a device to do so, it has become an innate ability by this one.  Yes, there were moments in the first which prepared you for this, but it’s a huge extension of the scope of the narrative. 

The plot takes a little while to get going and feels almost secondary to the concept. A copy of the lost Shakespeare play is discovered; the villainous mega-corporation continue to be, well, villainous; a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences nearly kill Thursday. But don’t. And, almost as an afterthought, the world’s coming to an end. No one seems terribly concerned about that: it just hangs there in the plot. Mentioned occasionally. 

Losses accrue, and they are quite heartfelt, to be honest. But there’s a sneaky suspicion that it’s all rather reversible. In a universe where dodos and Neanderthals and mammoths have been recreated, and extinctions reversed, an individual death seems less weighty than it should somehow. 

Anyway, the heart of the book is The Library: a metaphysical collection of all the books that are, were, will be or might have been written are. And the interchange, I suppose, between fictional and real worlds. A transmetaphorical border control, if you like. Those who can read themselves into books can access the library and vice versa. And from the library, you or your fictional friend could pop into any written world. Imagine holiday img in Hamlet‘s Elsinore or sharing a pot of tea with Sherlock Holmes, Magwitch or Mina Harker. 

Or being partnered with the somewhat cantankerous and redoubtable Miss Havisham to police the fictional worlds. 

Is this a metaphysical exploration of the boundaries of the real and fictional worlds, exploring the impact of both on the other and the vexing question of identity? No. Not at all. It’s fun and quirky and – as a reader – somewhat self-indulgent but… to be honest… what’s wrong with that?

Enjoy!