Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: 'The Ruins of Gorlan' by John Flanagan

Rating:  2.5 stars out of 5



Synopsis (from GoodReads.com)

They have always scared him in the past—the Rangers, with their dark cloaks and shadowy ways. The villagers believe the Rangers practice magic that makes them invisible to ordinary people. And now 15-year-old Will, always small for his age, has been chosen as a Ranger's apprentice. What he doesn't yet realize is that the Rangers are the protectors of the kingdom. Highly trained in the skills of battle and surveillance, they fight the battles before the battles reach the people. And as Will is about to learn, there is a large battle brewing.

Review

I'd
 seen this series recommended a few times but since I was suffering through one BookMooch search after another when I found a copy of this one, my ordering it was as much a mark of relief at being able to actually use one of my points than at my inclination to read it.  As it happened, I then saw another positive review of it somewhere (I only wish I could remember where...) and it jumped up my list to read.  Am I glad it did?  Sort of...it's worth mentioning that my personal luke warm feelings towards this book are no doubt a direct result of my age.  It wasn't for me, as such, but I can objectively appreciate that it would be perfect for younger readers.

The opening introduces Will, Horace, Alyss, Gilan and Jenny as they line up in front of their adoptive father to volunteer themselves as apprentices to their chosen craftmasters.  All of the teens but Will have a clear idea about where their perfect fit lies.  The old little-boy-lost routine worked well enough for Will to endear him to me as a character to get behind.  The rest of the characters are, sadly, rather one-dimensional. By way of example, Jenny volunteers (and is accepted to) the kitchens as an apprentice to the head chef.  She's described as pretty but chubby, with a cheerful personality.  She appears at various points throughout the story but is generally sporting some kind of food.  Likewise Gilan who apprentices to be a legal clerk and Horace who apprentices to the battle school.  

As a result of Flanagan spending so much time establishing the typecast teens, the plot tends towards focusing more on Will and his companions' boarding school type dramas than on a war threatening their very world, complete with a very sweet but rather predictable "boy stands up to bullies" scene.  

The prologue hints at the emergence of a force of monsters about to be unleashed on the world but it's not actually until the story is drawing to a close that the action kicks in. I think roughly 175-200 pages in out of 281. I've read somewhere (*cough*Wikipedia*cough*)  that these books started out life as short series that Flanagan wrote to inspire his son to read.  For that, they are, like I mentioned earlier, perfect.  

As the centre of the story, Will is a nice enough character but comes across as significantly younger than 15, so far as my limited knowledge of 15-year-olds goes. I would have found the whole premise a lot more believable if he had been 12 or 13.  I'll admit that I've never had the experience of being an orphaned child (fortunately!) but Will clings to the idea that the father he never knew was a great knight with a fervour that was unrealistic for a boy in his late teens. When it comes down to it, this book is simply just aimed too low age-wise for me.  I know that if it had been published when I was younger, I would have adored it, bought the whole series and devoured each and every one of them.  Sadly, it didn't jump the gap from children's literature to children's literature that adults can appreciate particularly well.

Overall:  This book reads very much as a set-up for the series. A short, snappy read so one I'd recommend either for a sunny afternoon read where you want to rest your brain or for younger readers.  If you know any young boys that either love to read or just haven't found "that book" yet, you could do much, much worse than give them this.  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  22 March 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  BookMooch
Genre:  YA/Childrens; Fantasy; Adventure
Published: by Puffin in June 2006

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Series Review: The Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks

At the end of last year, I read the first in this trilogy, The Way of Shadows, and reviewed it here.


Since I read the second at the end of February and the third earlier this month, I figured that my gushing about how much I loved this series was better consolidated into one homage than prolonging the embarrassment!  

And in case you wondering, yes, this post will have spoilers.  If you want to start at the beginning (and you should!), feel free to check out my review and then head out to the shops or download yourself an eBook!

Shadow's Edge


If you want a summary, head over to GoodReads here.

I wo
uldn't have thought that it were possible but this instalment takes the darkness of the first and makes it seem like a picnic in the sun.  

Picking up not long after The Way of Shadows left off, Kylar is looking for a way to avoid the sinister persona of the Night Angel or, unless you're Elene and too stupid to see it, avoid who he is.  The plot focuses on Kylar as he establishes himself an identity and tries to save the world.

Weeks' characters are incredible. Harsh pictures of everything that is brilliant and terrible about people, with blends of everything in between. In the first book, some of the characters weren't that well-balanced: Logan and Elene were innocent, naive and sanctimonious; Durzo was the ultimate assassin, detached and cold. It made them hard to completely relate to. That small shortcoming is more than addressed (for the most part) in Shadow's Edge. Logan's trials in the Hole are barbaric and, at times, hard to read without feeling a little queasy. His experiences are worse than most of us can imagine but it takes away the condescending edge to his character and makes him my favourite of this particular book. He's brave and noble. Some might say too noble but the glimpses of his darker side were enough to temper that for me.

The exception to all of this is, as always, Elene.  I totally appreciate that she's a symbol of everything that is 'good' and pure but I just wish that she could be good and pure without also being horrendously judgemental.  Kylar does inner turmoil quite well enough without Elene adding her holier-than-thou attitude to the mix.  Her professions of love got on my nerves in light of how much Kylar puts himself through to prove how much he deserves it.

Garoth Ursuul is one of THE most disturbing villains of a trilogy I have ever read. Evil d
oesn't come close.  Brave it out though because his sheer despicability (I know that probably isn't a word but I like it...) is shocking but unique.  I couldn't help but keep reading as he became progressively more terrifying and powerful and the characters have to fight growing monsters and magic. The last couple of hundred pages are really hard to put down and the ending is perfect.  

At the end of the Shadow's Edge, I got that feeling that is both brilliant and terrible feeling when you finish a book in a series desperate to know what is going to happen next but don't have the next one with you.  Always a brilliant sign.  


So, what about Beyond the Shadows?


**Are you sure you want to read this?  There will no doubt be spoilers if you haven't yet read the second.  If you want a summary of Beyond the Shadows before ploughing on, look here**


The tone to the third book is completely different to Shadow's Edge.  It has a wry humorous edge to it that almost seems frivolous by comparison.  It isn't, obviously, but the darkness is lifted a touch.

Don't get me wrong, I loved it because it was the end to the series but it took me longer to settle into than the rest because it was split between so many different perspectives.  The chapters are really short, which sometimes makes the story feel as though it's skittering around all over.  Because so much is going on, there are some gaps.  Take Uly for instance.  Hailed in the second book as a girl with amazing potential and parcelled off with Vi, I was waiting for her to spring something amazing in the third.  And yet she's barely mentioned; once or twice in passing but that's it.  Which is strange when you consider how much Kylar and Elene are supposed to love and adore her and want to be her parents.  I guess that would be awkward with her actual parents back in the picture but still!

P
hewf, nearly there.  Still with me?  I couldn't review the series without mentioning VI!  That girl is just plain awesome.  Once her fa├žade drops, she's just fantastic.  Her finding her place in the whole battle-for-the-world thing is almost the best bit about the book. 
 
The actual best bit about this book?  The re-appearance of the inestimable Durzo.  As enigmatic as ever but humbled by his new-found mortality, it's Durzo that lends the light relief from impending apocalypse.  Honestly, could he be any more effortlessly charismatic?  No, no he could not.  

Against such a brilliant backdrop, the ending is...a bit anti-climactic.  Shadow's Edge finishes with epic battles and massive drama.  Beyond the Shadows has some of that but not all.  There's something a little too tidy about it.  If it had finished a little while earlier, I would have been happier, I think.  There's a slightly twee Epilogue too.  Sometimes, I love a good epilogue.  Other times, it's better just to leave it and let your readers imagine the future for themselves.

OVERALL
:  Perhaps I haven't done the best job of telling you how great this series is but trust me, it is.  That isn't to say it's for everyone, however.  I'll say it again:  there are moments when you'll flinch at the barbarism, moments when you'll cry at Weeks' complete disregard for keeping characters you love safe and moments when you'll smile at the admittedly rather black humour. Read it and love it, just don't say I didn't warn you!

Monday, 19 March 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? #7

Middle of March already?  Well, hello Spring - you are most welcome around here!  The days are brighter and longer and it's finally stopped raining all the time and I'm really looking forward to spending more time outside, curled up with a book.  Reading outside remains one of my all-time favourite things to do and I always feel a little freer when the opportunities come around.  But Mondays around here aren't about my feelings on the seasons but about books, courtesy of Sheila at BookJourney.



What have I read in the past week?  

I've been taking part in Magical March (hosted by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader) this month so my reading has had a feeling of the fantastical around it.  In the last week, I've finished the AMAZING Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks by reading the last instalment, Beyond the Shadows.  If I could, I would fill my upcoming review with subliminal messaging and compel you all to read it.  In the absence of that, I will instead settle for gushing at you all in an undignified manner.  

Over the past couple of days, I finally got round to reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and can FINALLY read all of the reviews that I've been dodging to avoid spoilers...). Obviously, it was brilliant.  I'm possibly stretching the definition of 'Magical March' by slipping it in but after I bought it, I was feeling increasingly impatient about reading it so I couldn't help it...

What am I reading now?  

During my last trip to the library, I spotted The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill.  Since I recently read and loved The Woman in Black (review here), I've been re-convinced of Hill's talent with ghost stories after my less-than-stellar experience with The Small Hand (review here).  So far, The Man in the Picture is more in line with the former so I'm hopeful!  I'm about half-way through and (unsurprisingly) it's about a sinister picture with a supernatural edge.  

What am I planning on reading this week?  

I've deviated quite a lot so far from my planned reading for Magical March but after I've finished The Man in the Picture, I'm going to head back on track and read The Ranger's Apprentice 1: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan.  I've seen a lot of positive reviews for the series and I finally managed to use one of my BookMooch credits to get something I was interested in reading so it had better be worth it!  

After that, I'm not so sure.  Probably the last in the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, Timeless.  I was really looking forward to the release but now I have the book upstairs in the study, I keep forgetting about it :-s  Maybe this week will be its week!

I hope you've all had fabulous reading weeks - happy Monday!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Review: 'Dark Matter' by Michelle Paver

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Synopsis (taken from Waterstones.com)

January 1937.

Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight
year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return - when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark...

Review

Earlier in the year, when my village in Yorkshire was being snowed upon, I had a sudden craving for curling up next to my fire and devouring a book.  I didn't want to just read, I wanted to be completely immersed in a story and only come up for air when absolutely necessary.  Dark Matter was without a doubt the perfect choice and I read it in a single snowy day.  

The story opens with a group of intrepid explorers setting out for the Arctic, jauntily taking photographs of themselves in their special clothing and engaging in the kind of British public school banter that I have fortunately not had much direct experience of.  As with so many great ghost stories, there's a pervasive sense of hope and excitement that you know is being crafted so that the ultimate descent into horror is more shocking.  The setting is fantastically mysterious.  I've always wanted to visit somewhere like Norway, see the Northern Lights and experience that other-worldliness that this book excels at describing.  So too, do our merry band of scientists.

Of course, where would we be without a few wisened old characters along the way warning of the great dangers lying ahead
?  Dark Matter has an ageing sailor tasked with taking Jack and his group to Gruhuken, grimly warning off the dangers hiding in the perpetual night.  From that moment on, the story takes a turn for the creepier and I was hooked.  Honestly, I only stopped reading to make dinner and eat it.  I was fascinated by the setting but most of all I was captivated by the occasional glimpses at the mysteries of Gruhuken.  Snippets of its history and hints at its secret were doled out sparingly but often enough that it feels as though the story is never going to let you go.  When I was finally "in the know", everything fit together and I was left staring at the pages in shock, with a faint look of disgust no doubt on my face.

Pa
ver has spent a lot of time travelling in the Arctic and it shows.  The environment and the atmosphere are so detailed and breath-taking that you feel as though you can hear the ice creaking around you and feel the crisp, frozen air swirling.  There's a fantastic article on the author's website here that describes how much she put into making this book as perfect as it is:  
"I went in summer, at the time of the midnight sun, and Jack’s experiences on first seeing Spitsbergen are mine: the sinister, black-faced polar bear who’d been eating the walrus from the inside; the abandoned guillemot chick; Jack’s solo walk to the small, cold lake; and those brief but desperate moments when he thinks he’s lost… All this is what I’ve seen and experienced myself"
The unravelling of Jack's hopes, dreams and sanity in the icy wilderness is utterly heart-breaking.  I desperately wanted him to give up, take his way out and leave the shadows alone and, even with everything else that was brilliant about this book, it was that that kept me reading.  Jack is such a wonderful narrator and his vulnerability is disarmingly charming right from the opening chapters.  As the story is largely told through Jack's diary entries, there is plenty of time to get to know him.  He is a complex character who is so darn real that it's impossible not to be sucked in. His naivety and desperation to fit in with his fellow explorers at the outset is tinged with a bitterness that he has to try so hard and his later decisions are constantly coloured by his life experiences.  Nothing he did seemed out of kilter with the character I felt I'd come to know and I wish that more authors knew their characters well enough to make that work.

My only complaint about this book is that it made me agree with the Daily Mail.  No good can come from agreeing with the Daily Mail BUT their reviewer was right, Dark Matter is "a
 blood-curdling ghost story, evocative not just of icy northern wastes but of a mind turning in on itself". Read it.

Ov
erall: As a ghost story, Dark Matter is exceptional.  As a description of the dangerous beauty of the Arctic, Dark Matter is also exceptional.  In the end though, the beauty of the novel lies in that age-old haunting question: 

"What’s waiting for you, just beyond the edge of the light?"



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  05 February 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Ghost story; Horror
Published: by Orion in 2010

Sunday, 11 March 2012

In My Mailbox #4: In which I bow to peer pressure

I've been doing a pretty good job so far this year of reading things I already owned, rather than constantly adding to my stash.  That was until I was transferred from one of my firm's offices to the other and received a Waterstones giftcard as a "leaving" present.  As a treat to myself for surviving a whole week in a new office, I just went into Waterstones for what I'd planned to just be a quick look around.  Obviously, that was never going to work out. 

First up, I strayed far too close to a display of Edgar Allen Poe collections and ended up picking up a lovely Vintage edition of The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories which professes to include all of Poe's short stories and novellas.  I've been meaning to read some of his work for some time now and since I imagine that the film The Raven will be exactly the kind of film that Boyfriend will want to go and see, I should get stuck in sooner rather than later.  Recommendations of which to start with always welcome :)

What I'm going to type next might call into question my sanity for a lot of you but bear with me:  I've never really been overly bothered about reading The Hunger Games.  I've read countless reviews telling me it's without doubt one of the best YA books/series out there and a vast proportion of those have been by people whose opinions I trust.  Then there was a lull in the bombardment until the film trailers appeared, which got everyone all excited again.  Usually, I'd have read it by now out of sheer curiosity but perhaps I've been feeling contrary.  Regardless, I recently saw the film trailer on TV accidentally and THEN I decided that I wanted to read it.  So it's been hanging around in the back of my mind for a while and then I saw a pretty display, grabbed a copy with an enthusiasm I didn't know I had and...well, I've been itching to start it ever since. 


That's actually it for this week but it's been a while since I bought a book (particularly "real" books) so I'm excited!

I hope you've all had wonderfully full mailboxes this week! :)

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Some random thoughts on 'The Affinity Bridge' by George Mann

This was the last book I read in 2011 that has somehow managed to go unreviewed.  Since I've reviewed every book I've read since I started this blog, it's been bothering me somewhat.  The lack of review isn't because I didn't enjoy it, because I did, but possibly because it neither made me incandescent with rage nor completely in love.  It was ok.  The lack of a "proper" review is more just because I'm fairly sure that I won't be able to remember enough detail to do it justice.  Instead, you get a random assortment of thoughts.  Lucky you!  :)

For completeness' sake, I should mention that on GoodReads I gave it 3 stars out of 5.  That rating still stands.  

Synopsis

W
elcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. 

But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes. 

When an airship crashes in mysterious circumstances, Sir Maurice and his recently appointed assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes are called in to investigate. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is baffled by a spate of grisly murders and a terrifying plague is ravaging the slums of the city. 

Some Thoughts

T
his is an alright steampunk novel which, while not always desperately unique, is quite fun and has decent characters.  Sir Maurice Newbury is a quintessential English gent with a secret interest in the occult and he is quite charming to read about.  Veronica Hobbs is a strong feminist by Victorian standards and spends a lot of her time endeavouring to prove that women can do more than flounce and swoon.  I did like both of them, although Veronica was my favourite for her general pluckiness.  

The pace goes in fits and starts and there were times when I just couldn't put it down.  There were also times when I wasn't overly concerned about picking it up.  There was something innately sedate about Sir Maurice that seeped into the rest of the story.  He could be passionate at times and there were spurts of action that were great. Part of it, I suppose, comes from Mann's attempts to juggle a whole host of plotlines in one book.  Almost as though he had had a number of ideas for books but decided to include them in one.  Sub-plots include: flesh-eating zombie-type people roaming the backstreets of London; a ghostly figure of a policeman killing Londoners, the airship crash mentioned in the synopsis, wacky, malfunctioning (and seemingly violent) automatons and a sister that can apparently see the future.  Too much?  Probably...

When I've seen this book on my shelf, though, the first thing that comes to mind is my slight irritation at the ending.  The inevitable side effect of having so many plots running side by side?  They all have to be wrapped up.  While some of the mysteries were revealed during Sir Maurice and Veronica's race around London in the few final chapters, some are left over.  I had assumed that some were being "saved" for the next series and, while I was a little disgruntled, I was kind of resigned.  But then came a slightly strange final chapter (or so...it was a while ago, remember) where any loose ends left drifting were tidied up through a very stilted conversation between a couple of characters that went along the lines of: 
Character A:  "Oh, and wasn't is strange that...happened. I wonder what came of...".
Character B:  "Funny you should mention that.  I spoke to [Character C] and they explained..."
Character A:  "That makes sense.  How nice that's settled"
So yes, don't read this if you don't like your endings a little manufactured.

I'
ve read the synopsis of the next in the series (The Osiris Ritual) and it looks as though it might be more of the same; Sir Maurice and Veronica engaged in seemingly separate investigations but eventually realising that their cases have more in common than they thought.  I might pick it up one day if I see a copy in a charity shop or something but I'm not exactly clawing at Waterstones' door to get it.