Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review: 'NOS4R2' by Joe Hill

Rating: A big, fat 5 stars out of 5

Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.

Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”

Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.


"...there was something awful about Christmas music when it was nearly summer.  It was like a clown in the rain, with his makeup running"

As the next few weeks are likely to be taken up with posts about my (slow) journey through The Pickwick Papers, I’m going to go ahead and do something that I barely ever do.  I’m going to review a book that I finished not only within the last month but within the last week.  Not just because I’m worried that I’ll not get round to it when I’m trying to keep up with a read-along and the related posts but because the book was just so bloody good and I really want to impress upon you just how good.

I'll admit that it feels strange that one of my favourite reads of the year is likely to end up being a ‘horror’ novel featuring psychopaths that rape, kidnap children and murder and some pretty devastating deaths.  Pre-blog me would have been shocked and appalled.  Pre-blog me wouldn’t have wanted to share a house with a book about an old man that is truly monstrous and his horrifying quest to “save” children from the evils of the world, never mind read it.  I suppose what my love of it goes to show is that books can be surprising.  You might think you’re in for the fright of your life and that you’ll end up clinging to your boyfriend and weeping uncontrollably but you just might end up finding a creepy story that isn’t horrid for the sake of being horrid but manages to strike just the right balance between clutching-the-sides-of-the-book-so-hard-it-hurts action and touching moments of redemption.

What I think is so clever about Joe Hill’s writing is how emotionally manipulative it is.  Not in an obvious ‘I’m writing about cancer and I know I’m trying to destroy you’ way but in a way that sneaks up on you.  There’s one character, for example, who doesn’t take a whole load of convincing to turn to a particularly vile life of crime, sacrificing whoever and whatever they’re told to on the back of a rather vague promise of a restful and rewarding “retirement”.  Honestly, we’re talking crimes that made me feel sick.  So imagine my surprise when, later on in the novel, I find myself feeling desperately sorry for said low life.  And not just a passing pang of sadness either, a gut-wrenching type of pity.  I had to check myself a few times and remind myself that this was still the very same person that had made me feel so disgusted and that I really needed to pull myself together.  There were other examples but that’s the one that I know will really stick with me.  The writing just seems to draw out whatever confusing emotion Hill wants you to feel at any given moment and it’s exhausting and deeply worrying but so, so worth it.

So the writing is brilliant and...different, somehow.  The chapters sometimes run together, for example, so that the last sentence of one chapter ends with the title of the next.  I felt like it should have been annoying but all it did was make the damn book even harder to put down.  The story is pretty surreal in a lot of ways but also manages to feel completely real.  I very much doubt that there are bikes that transport their owners across not-real-but-sort-of-real bridges and I am eternally grateful that magic Rolls Royce's aren't rolling around enabling all sorts of despicable crimes but I didn't feel like I was reading something that was completely fantastical.  Because there are people like Charlie Manx (albeit without the supernatural transportation) and there are people whose lives are destroyed by them.  There are people that see the world differently and struggle every day.  Hill's characters are full of contradictions and flaws and are completely believable and are what really tipped this book over from great to all out amazing for me.

It felt like everybody was reading this in the run up to Christmas last year and in some ways I can see why.  It's the perfect antithesis to all of the good cheer, if that's what you're looking for.  It takes the Christmas songs, the decorations and the chocolate treats and distorts them.  But mostly, I think that Hanna was absolutely right - I can imagine that there's something...wrong about reading about the torment Christmas songs cause Vic while singing along to Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.  Sure, it'll make the experience of reading NOS4R2 that bit more disturbing but it might also take the shine off the tinsel for you.  What I'm saying is, there's no wrong time to read this book.  If you've been hanging on to a copy so that you can read in horror while children lose their souls to a sick version of your favourite holiday season, go nuts.  If you don't manage or want to squeeze it in before the end of the year, read it whenever you can.  Just make sure that you do read it.

Overall:  If you’re not sure about NOS4R2 because you’re concerned about all the horror buzz around it, don’t worry.  I may have read a few chapters from another book on occasion just to make sure that I wouldn’t end up with nightmares and the story is far from pleasant but it wasn’t terrifying and I have survived without any emotional scars making themselves apparent so far.  NOS4R2 is one of the most creative, well plotted and well executed stories that I’ve read in a while.  Get a copy, find a bright, sunny spot (easy in November, I know), forget about the page count and the fact that you’re waiting to have your socks scared off and just read it.


Date finished: 18 November 2014
Format: Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review - thanks, Gollancz!
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Pictured Edition Published:  This more handily sized paperback was released on 09 October 2014 by Gollancz!  Three cheers for handbag friendly chills!


Embarrassing side note:  It took me a ludicrous amount of time even after the British renaming of NOS4R2 to get the title.  I shudder to think how many times I must have said out loud N-O-S-4-R-2.  When this book arrived, I tucked it away so that Boyfriend wouldn’t see it and chastise me for bringing another book into the house, only for it to emerge when we were catching the train to London for a long weekend away for his birthday.  His first comment was “Please don’t read a book about vampires when you’re sat on the train next to me”.  So apparently it’s obvious to some.  Shame on me.  (And don’t worry – I absolutely did read the book on the train while sat next to him and I haven’t just spoiled the novel for you!)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Pickwick Papers Read-along: Week 1 - Chapters 1 to 11

Let's start my first post as part of Bex's read-along of The Pickwick Papers with truth time: I am languishing behind on the reading already.  And not just a little bit behind. I've read three chapters out of the allotted 11.  Great job, Charlotte.  Great job indeed.

I do have some relatively ill-informed feelings about what I have read of The Pickwick Papers, though, that I'm going to share so that at least I'm on track with the posting part of the read-along. 

So far, I'm kind of lukewarm.  I know, I know - this book is long and three chapters is nothing BUT I know what I like and from what I've read?  This is only sort of it.  Reading it is perfectly fine - the writing is witty and the characters are endearing enough but it's just lacking drive.  I can see why it worked perfectly when published in instalments because the little snippets of the Pickwickians' escapades are entertaining and I can imagine them being a pleasant diversion from Victorian industry.   I'm less convinced about them bound together and branded as a novel.  It's funny (to the laugh out out extent in later chapters, I'm reliably informed) in that wry kind of mocking way that Dickens excels at:
"The barmaid had positively refused to draw any more liquor; in return for which he had (merely in playfulness) drawn his bayonet, and wounded the girl in the shoulder.  And yet this fine fellow was the very first to go down to the house next morning and express his readiness to overlook the matter, and forget what had occurred"
It might not be particularly compelling reading but I don't mind reading it when I've actually picked it up.  Sadly, I pretty much have no inclination to actually do the picking up part.  I am sorely missing a discernible plot.  Maybe one develops over the many, many pages that I have left but it's not looking that way.

I'm determined to catch up and I know that reading it won't be a torturous experience but it won't be something that I look forward to getting back to.  I don't really have that much more to say because of the whole only having read three chapters thing and the bottom line is pretty simple: I don't hate it and I don't love it.  The Pickwick Papers is (I keep wanting to write 'are'!) ok.

How are my fellow read-along-ers getting on?  Anyone else read The Pickwick Papers and can tell me it gets super exciting later on?  Check back in next week for chapters 12 to 23 (probably)!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

R. I. P. IX: Wrap-up

Gorgeous artwork courtesy of
the super talented Abigail Larson
You might wonder why I'm wrapping up at all given that it's already 9th November and I'm over a week late at checking in my spooky adventures but we spent the weekend in London being tourists (Houses of Parliament tour and all) so I'm shattered, in a post-roast chicken dinner stupor and surprisingly excited about getting back to reading NOS4R2 but want to post something before it's Monday and I'm back in the grips of work. I know, great reasons for a post.

SO I signed up for PERIL THE FIRST, aiming to read four books that fit the creepy bill over the two months.  I read...*checks review notebook* ...FIVE!  Wow.  I was actually all prepared to write a grovelling apology and now I don't have to.  What a pleasant surprise! Although it says a lot about how worryingly little I can remember about what I read in September...

This year, these were the books giving me the chills:

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:  My favourite of my R.I.P. reads! This book is amazing.  It's subtle and is one of those clever books that uses your own imagination against you.  Its a pretty simple 'group travels to supposedly haunted house to investigate, panic ensues' tale but it's just wonderfully written and I thought the ending was perfect.  Read it.  (Confession: I read this as part of the read-along but finished it so early that by the time it came to posting, I didn't have time to join in the discussion...)

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks:  I feel like I've grumbled about this book enough.  I didn't really gel with it and I enjoyed parts of it but was decidedly luke warm about the whole experience.  For much more positivity, head in Blonde Ellie's direction.  You'll only find World War Z dissatisfaction here.  

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie:  My love of Agatha Christie knows no bounds.  This wasn't my favourite Christie (which remains And Then There Were None) but I really enjoyed it.  Somehow I'd made it 28 years without having the ending spoiled so I could read it without a clue who did it.  My timing was good because about a fortnight after I'd read it, I stumbled across a MASSIVE SPOILER in this Guardian article about locked-room mysteries (most of which are now on my wishlist).

Black Feathers by Joseph D'Lacey: Another one that I feel like I've grumbled about enough.  It was super dark and had some scenes that were so gory that I had to skip them.  It's interesting and I like some of the ideas about civilisation and what it can become when modern privileges and values start to crumble and about power but it was a bit abstract and sinister for me if I'm being completely honest.

Cruel Summer by James Dawson:  I inhaled this book and it was marvellous! It was a complete trip down Point Horror Memory Lane for me and was the most fun.  Blonde Ellie bought it for me for my birthday, proving once again that she has impeccable gift giving instincts.  

Nailed it!  Makes up for the fact that I also signed up for PERIL OF THE SHORT STORY and read exactly none, I suppose.  I moved my Edgar Allen Poe collection to the top of my classics box and then forgot all about it.  I don't know why I can never summon the will to get into that collection but I just can't.  Maybe next year!

As always, I loved starting autumn with some appropriately gloomy reading!  I may not have loved all of the books that I read but I loved most of them and that'll do me.  Did you all have a super RIP?!  Tell me about the terrors you faced down!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Review: 'Thief's Magic' by Trudi Canavan

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In a world where an industrial revolution is powered by magic, Tyen, a student of archaeology, discovers a sentient book in an ancient tomb. Vella was once a young sorcerer-maker, until she was transformed into a useful tool by one of the greatest sorcerers of history. Since then she has been gathering information, including a vital clue to the disaster Tyen’s world faces.

Elsewhere, in a land ruled by the priests since a terrible war depleted all but a little magic, Rielle the dyer’s daughter has been taught that to use magic is to steal from the Angels. Yet she knows from her ability to sense the stain it leaves behind that she has a talent for it, and that there are people willing to teach her how to use it, should she ever need to risk the Angels’ wrath.

Further away, a people called the Travelers live their entire lives on the move, trading goods from one world to another. They know that each world has its own store of magic, reducing or increasing a sorcerer’s abilities, so that if one entered a weak world they may be unable to leave it again. Each family maintains a safe trading route passed down through countless generations and modified whenever local strife makes visiting dangerous. But this is not the only knowledge the Travelers store within their stories and songs, collected over millennia spent roaming the universe. They know a great change is due, and that change brings both loss and opportunity.


My word is that a long blurb!  So long that I imagine that anybody still reading by this point probably skipped a lot of it.  And I could have gone off to find a shorter one or written my own (even though I couldn't have done that because I read this on holiday in May...) but then I decided that it actually nicely illustrates my main gripe with Thief's Magic so it gets to stay.  There's too much blurb and too much everything.  Too many characters, too many ideas, too much overview.  Mostly at the expense of depth and detail.  

First up is Tyen.  While out on an archaelogical dig, he uncovers a book that has to answer the questions that its readers address to it and that can absorb information while in contact with someone.  Chased away by locals, he flees with his party back to their city, where magic-fuelled technology is the order of the day.  New modes of transport, new types of printing press, mechanised robot-like creations and the like.  It all felt quite like steampunk to me but with a magical twist that was kind of quirky and fun to read.  Tyen is a decent character too but I don't have a whole lot to say about his friends because they were a bit lost in the already mentioned 'too much everything'.  Rather than solid secondary characters in this thread, we have world-building.  Despite some questionable decision-making by Tyen (it always annoys me when people who go on about how lucky they are to be doing something abandon it all so readily) and the fact that it was quite YA in tone and in the way that relationships developed, it had action on its side so it was pretty readable and I was always glad to get back to it.

While Tyen's running around with the book that can talk (sort of), being chased by the many glory hunters that want to steal it for the knowledge it contains, Rielle's story is bumbling along, set in a completely different, Middle Eastern feeling, patriarchal society where using magic is theft.  The thing is, it's never clear whether she's living in a the same world as Tyen but in a different time, the same world but just a different country that is less advanced and feels like it's in a different time, a different world at the same get my point.  After 553 pages, I still have no real idea about how these two storylines relate to each other.  I don't mind two plots running alongside each other at all but these kind of feel like two different books just smushed together with little more binding them together than...well, the page binding.  I know that there is almost certainly a plan and an overarching plot that Tyen and Rielle's stories will be part of but I just can't see what that might be yet and, if I'm being brutally honest, I don't care.  I don't feel like I've connected with either of the characters and I'm non-plussed about the plights of their respective countries/worlds/times/whatever.  That wasn't helped by the fact that Rielle is a bit annoying anyway.  She's kind of selfish and immature and her decision-making skills are even worse than Tyen's.  

The main problem is that, because each character's story gets roughly half of the novel's attention, there's only have about 200 pages or so to set up each one, weave in some secondary characters and relationships, set up the political, theological and sociological position of the country/world/time/I don't know what that they're living in and get their story moving a bit.  Even with the best and tightest writing in the world, there's no way that's going to work in a well-rounded way.  If there are so many ideas to be squeezed into the series, it either needs to be longer or you have to be ruthless.  It feels a bit like a smudging together of all of the ideas that Canavan had for stories.  It isn't as bad as I'm making it sound - I still think it's a 3 star book but it's quite hasty and obvious in its delivery to pack everything in.

I really didn't hate it.  It was fine.  What I think makes me so disgruntled is that Canavan's Black Magician trilogy is one of my favourite fantasy series so I was really excited to get to read Thief's Magic ahead of the release date.  I started it as soon as I could and, although the start was promising, I ended up feeling like I was trying to enjoy it rather than just enjoying it. Thief's Magic just wasn't the book that I was so convinced it would be. 

Overall:  A bit of a let down.  There are some good points and I enjoyed at least half of it but I'm not sure whether I want to carry on.  If the later books are as long as this one, I'll probably wait a little while to see what the reviews are like and whether it looks as though things will start to come together.  I never thought I'd say about a Canavan series and I hate writing that but it's true.  Sorry.

Date finished: 25 May 2014
Format: eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley - thanks, Orbit!
Genre: Fantasy
Pictured Edition Published:  by Orbit on 13 May 2014

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Let's Read-along Dickens and Tolstoy!

If there's one thing that I've learnt while blogging is that read-alongs are the BEST for making unbelievably long and intimidating titles seem a lot more approachable.  As stupid, stupid Tess of the D'Urbevilles (STUPID!) taught me, that doesn't always mean that the books themselves will be good and worth the many, many hours that you've put into them (Bitter? Me?) but at least the process of wading through is much more fun when there are others involved!  Obviously, they can also make great books even more brilliant (as Ellie Lit Nerd's read-along of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone demonstrated) but somehow I think that moral support will be the order of the day with these two, at least in part...

Bex's 'Dickens in December' Read-along

Last December, a number of us faced down A Tale of Two Cities.  It was a bit of a divisive book and I think that might be a common theme when it comes to Dickens.  Personally, I hated the first part but then came around once I stopped having to trudge through descriptions of post carriages and fog.

This year, we're going for The Pickwick Papers.  I think I *might* have voted for this one in the poll that Bex had up on her blog for a while but I can't remember.  So if it's rubbish, I'm 80% certain that I pretty much only have myself to blame.  

Introductions will be up on 17 November and we'll be reading about 12 chapters a week, finishing up on 22 December.  That's five weeks of Samuel Pickwick, the Pickwick Club his and fellow "Pickwickians".  Good times (hopefully).


Hanna's War and Peace Read-along

Next up will be Hanna's read-along of War and Peace.  Yup, the Russian epic, 1,000 page + tome War and Peace.  Honestly, I am both horrified and excited by this one.  I really want to have read War and Peace but I'm reluctant about actually having to read it.  The chances of me actually reading this by myself are slim to none.  

In a sad quirk of fate, I was so scared of this that I didn't even put it on my Classics Club list so I won't even be reading this for that bonus moment of getting to cross it off a list.  So this had better be good!

We'll be kicking off on 1 February and spreading the terror over ten weeks, finishing up on 13 April.  There'll be unpronounceable names, questions and rambling - what's not to love?