Sunday, 31 July 2016

July Wrap-Up

Image credit
We've had some summer!  There has been sunshine and outdoor activities!  Sure, it's gloomy now but we managed to squeeze in a longish bike ride this morning (we've become the kind of people who cycle on Sunday mornings...) and I fancy spending the afternoon with a book so I'm fine with a few clouds.  I've been spending a lot of time away for work recently so I've mostly been working and then  we've been seeing friends and spending time outside at the weekend.  It feels like it's been a nice month, all told.  Between a trip to Florence, birthday celebrations and a trip to London, August will be pretty hectic so a relatively low key month was probably important!


I just checked my GoodReads 'Read' list and I'm actually surprised that I haven't read more.  I've felt as though I've been reading quite a bit and it turns out that I've read 4 books (or at least I will have done by the end of today!).  Not as much as I thought but they have been pretty damn good on balance so it's still been a solid reading month. 

It seems like a long time ago but my first read was Thin Air by Michelle Paver.  I loved Dark Matter when I read it a few years ago and I was so excited to get an early copy of Thin Air from Orion via NetGalley.  As with the earlier release, this one was full of atmosphere and tension and feels incredibly well researched.  It was a brilliant read and I can imagine that it'll be even better when the cold weather draws in and readers can pick it up with wind roaring around outside and rain battering the windows.

Next up was Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, which I absolutely adored.  I gave it five stars without hesitation.  It's sort of a retelling of Jane Eyre with a serial killer twist.  What's clever is that rather than just being a retelling, the main character, Jane Steele, acknowledges the similarities between her story and her favourite literary heroine's and sprinkles her own tale with quotes from the original.  It sounds kind of gimicky but I thought it worked a treat.  I'm hoping to get a proper review of this one written soon because I haven't heard much about it and it deserves some love.

I fancied some more historical fiction after Jane Steele but then I remembered that I'd had Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg on my Kindle for a while.  The premise of a commune-based thriller really intrigued me.  I wound up a bit disappointed...the writing is good and the style is distinctive but it was all a bit...obvious and frustrating.  It was a three star read but nothing particularly special, unfortunately.  I'm feeling kind of the same about The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway, which I've wanted to read for ages but have been a bit underwhelmed by.  It's readable enough but it's going a little bit overboard on the time travel philosophy/warring factions of time travellers thing and I keep running into great long rambling sections where characters discuss the principles of time travel in a way that feels dry and laboured and really interrupts the otherwise quite entertaining story...I've got about 50 pages to go and it's ok.

...and Blogging

I've made a bit of an effort to scribble down some notes while I've been travelling for work and I've managed to post a few actual review-type posts this month.  I gushed some more about my Wheel of Time re-read with a double review of books 2 and 3, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn.  I declared myself a Wyndham fan and reviewed The Day of the Triffids.  Last up, I posted a set of review minis for some of the opening volumes of comic series that I read in early Spring, The Wicked + The Divine, Rat Queens and Wytches.  Hardly regular posting but it's been nice to be talking about books again and something I'll try and keep up with over the next few months.

Hope you've all had a super July, friends!  Any standout books that I need to keep my eyes peeled for?  

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review Minis: Opening Volumes of Comic Series

Earlier in the year, I went through a bit of a binge of requesting books from my local library.  Volumes of comic books are pricey and I still don't feel as though I know enough about what I like and what I don't to be able to buy with confidence.  I'm starting to get a feel for what artistic styles I'm keen on and what I'm not and the types of story that I enjoy reading in comic book form and those I'd rather avoid.  Where £10 is a bit of a gamble, my library's 90 pence reservation fee is nothing of the sort.  My experiments have been a bit of a mixed bag...

The Wicked + The Divine: Volume 1 - The Faust Act by Kieron Gillon

This was...odd.  I can only imagine how confused my expression must have been the entire time that I was reading this.  I don't need things to be completely spelled out for me but I do need them to make at least some kind of sense.  Especially given that this volume is made up of the first five issues of the series.  If I'd been buying them as they were coming out, I would never have made it to volume five.  It's a shame because the concept sounded right up my street - twelve gods become incarnate every ninety years and get to live as human for two years.  What's annoying is that that's pretty much all I still know.  Laura, a sort of fangirl to these gods-turned-modern-celebrities, stumbles into their company and for some reason they let her hang around despite professing to want to be discreet.  There are no hints at all about why exactly the gods might be reborn, why they're only allowed to live for two years, what on earth might happen after their two years is up or...well, just what the whole point of the story is, really.

To be fair, it wasn't all confusion and bafflement.  The colours are incredible, bright and vivid but without seeming childish.  The art is quirky but still clear.  The gods that are featured aren't just your usual Ancient Greek or Egyptian gods but also Shinto deities and Sumerian goddesses.  If you're into ancient civilisations and lesser known gods, there's plenty of diversity and enough to keep you distracted from the fact that nothing else really makes any sense.  And I suppose the other upshot to not having much of a clue to what was going on was that nothing was particularly predictable.  I couldn't have told you what had recently happened, never mind guess at what might be coming up.  I might pick up the next volume to see if there is a point but I'm not too bothered if I don't happen across it.

2.5 stars for some stunning art and perhaps a little too much originality for me

Rat Queens: Volume 1 - Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

The Rat Queens are described in the volume's blurb as "a pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle the business of killing all god's creatures for profit", which sums them up far more neatly than I ever could. The first volume reminded me a lot of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, if slightly more sweary.  I think because the plot follows a group of misfits, a watch full of mysterious characters and a whole host of quirky races, all set in a world full of unusual creatures.  It has a sarcastic and dry sense of humour that suits me down to the ground.

While I was reading the issues, I really enjoyed them.  They're quite light and the dialogue is witty.  The kind of witty that actually prompted a couple of giggles too, rather than just a bit of a wry smile.  My only real problem is that for all of that, the volume was a little bit forgettable.  It was a series of amusing fights and parties, with only snippets of characters' backgrounds and hints at a bigger story arc.  I'll almost definitely pick up the next volume because it's just so damn readable but if you're looking for something that will really make an impact and have you gripped to the series, I'm not sure that this is that something.

3.5 stars for putting and keeping a smile on my face for a jolly afternoon or two 

Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder

For every moment in Rat Queens that made me laugh, there was one in this first volume of Wytches that terrified me.  I wasn't really sure what to expect from a comic in the horror genre but I don't think I was expecting it to be as scary as what I got.  Because man alive was this scary!  The art is horrifying; unbelievably dark and easily the stuff of nightmares.  The story (of child-eating wytches that haunt forests and lure 'marked ones' to their doom by twisting the minds of those in their communities) was scary enough by itself but the drawings and the colours made it something else entirely.  I won't pretend to know a lot about art but I really loved the use of colour slashing across the panels to create something truly, truly haunting. 

Aside from the fact that it was completely disturbing, the plot that follows a father trying to save his daughter across the six issues was well-paced and had just the right amount of twists and manages to tackle mental illness along the way. To be honest, if I wasn't such a great big wimp, I'd have rated this volume more highly.  It deserves four stars.  It sets out to scare and who am I to mark it down for doing its job too well?  In the end, rightly or wrongly, I've given it the rating that reflects my personal enjoyment.  If you're a horror fan, I really do recommend this series because it's just so twisted and clever.  Even I might pick up the next issue when it's released (to read during the day, obviously) just because I'm curious about where the story will go next.

3 stars for scaring my socks off and giving me art that made me think

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Review: 'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When a freak cosmic event renders most of the Earth's population blind, Bill Masen is one of the lucky few to retain his sight. The London he walks is crammed with groups of men and women needing help, some ready to prey on those who can still see. But another menace stalks blind and sighted alike. With nobody to stop their spread the Triffids, mobile plants with lethal stingers and carnivorous appetites, seem set to take control.

I'd always imagined that The Day of the Triffids would be kind of frivolous; a faintly comical post-apocalyptic jaunt in which the world is under threat from lumbering plants.  I think perhaps because I couldn't see myself finding a story about sentient topiary particularly threatening.  But oh, it so is. It's threatening and it's haunting.  I finished the book in January and there are some moments that still bring a shudder to my bones when I think about them.  Growing potatoes is all good and well until you read a book that makes you wonder if they're going to get up and flail menacingly at you...

From the moment Bill wakes up with bandages over his eyes and braves the streets of London to find that the streets are empty and everybody else has seemingly gone blind, the tension starts to build (with one of my favourite quotes:  "When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere").  What unravels in the following pages is a glorious blend of action and peril, tragedy and humour.

What's worrying about The Day of the Triffids is that it's one of those stories that was written decades ago (in the 1950s in this case) but that has become more and more relevant as the years go by.  We meddle with genetics and we test the boundaries of modern science and who's to say that one day a plant that we think of as perfectly harmless but with physical quirks that we can't fathom out won't turn out to be utterly destructive?  Ok, so perhaps they won't start walking around and maybe there won't be a huge comet shower that renders all but a few humans sightless and at the plants' mercy but that doesn't mean that there isn't something we can take from the dark message behind Wyndham's witty writing.

Speaking of which, the writing itself is understated and quiet and has a distinctly classic British feel that I just don't feel you find in much modern fiction with the increasing melding of British and American cultures.  I'd expected flailing and action in the face of an onslaught of murderous vegetation and instead what I got was moral wrangling and political musings.  If almost the entire country has gone blind and no longer find food or other supplies, is it the duty of the few who can still see to save as many people as possible for as long as the resources left last or to sacrifice the many to enable the few to focus on rebuilding communities who can work on creating a sustainable future?  

That makes the story sound cumbersome and dreary or as though the invasion of the triffids is just a flimsy veneer to give Wyndham the excuse to wax lyrical on the virtues of democracy or of the perils of unbridled experimentation.  It isn't at all.  Bill Masen, the main character is a reluctant kind of hero; he stumbles upon Josella while wandering around and trying to understand the new world and is jarred into action.  Their friendship is borne of necessity, almost, but it's sweet and...simple against the complexities of their new world.  Their fight to find something like a life gives The Day of the Triffids heart and it takes a cautionary tale and makes it a story that you want to keep on reading.

"And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past

Overall:  A science fiction classic that is as relevant now as it must surely have ever been.  I started The Day of the Triffids because it's iconic and because I have an enduring memory of my Nan trying to compel me to read her worn hardback copy years ago when I was a teenager.  I don't know that I would have enjoyed it all those years ago but I do know that I really enjoyed it as an adult.  

Date finished: 26 January 2016
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Science fiction; Dystopian fiction
Originally published: in 1951
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2008 by Penguin Books

Help me out: what Wyndham do I need to hunt down next?

Friday, 1 July 2016

Wheel of Time Re-Read #2 and #3: The Great Hunt and Dragon Reborn

I've said before that the Wheel of Time series is one that I find it impossible to judge objectively.  It's the series that made me realise I was a fantasy geek through and through.  It's the series that out of all of the books I read as a teenager still stands out in my memory.  The reason I started to re-read the series in the first place was that I found that because of the gaps in publication, I became distanced from the story.  I was reading the books occasionally but without a particularly strong memory of the books that had gone before and I was starting to just go through the motions.  This series deserves more than that. 

I've kept this review spoiler free but it's probably the last of these posts that I'll do that with to avoid them all being variations on the "I read another Wheel of Time book and it was great" theme!

I read The Great Hunt during November last year.  I've seen reviews on GoodReads from people who bemoan this book as being weaker than the first.  I'm not just being a gushing fan when I say that I honestly don't see that.  The world is expanded to include new cities and the cast of main characters is widened.  If there's some travelling, there isn't nearly as much as there is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and there definitely aren't any rambling songs so I don't buy that as a major criticism.  There's political intrigue, plenty of fighting (of the sword and magical variety) and there's kidnapping and slavery and romance.  Even though I knew what was coming, I was completely sucked in.

The story of this instalment revolves around the Horn of Valere, a mythical object hunted by hundreds of men and women looking for glory that is said to call back dead warriors to fight for whoever blows it.  There are Darkfriends (the bad guys, obviously) hunting for the horn to call heroes of old to fight for the Dark One and our band of village folk turned potential heroes hunting it down to stop that happening.  What's not to like?!  It's a good focus for a single book, as well as providing some of the grounding for later books.  If re-reading has shown me one thing, it's that these books are jammed full of hints and portents about later events and playing spot-the-foreshadow has become a favourite hobby of mine!

The Dragon Reborn was one that I'd remembered as being one of my favourite instalments out of the books that I've read so far.  At a mere 674 pages, it's the shortest book in the series and even by 'normal book' standards (as opposed to epic fantasy book standards) is action-packed.  The characters visit new places and there are some (excellent) new additions to the cast but most of the book builds on the solid world building of the first two books and focuses on moving along the plot with some pretty significant twists and turns.  The pacing on this one is spot on so even if you read The Great Hunt and you weren't 100% sure, I'd really, really urge you to pick this next one up and give it a go.  It introduces the Aiel (a warrior population from the 'Waste' (read: big desert)), who I love.  Their 'Maidens of the Spear' kick some pretty serious ass and they balance out the otherwise largely silk-dress wearing ladies nicely.

As far as stacking up against my fond memories, goes, The Dragon Reborn surpassed them.  I don't know if it's because I've read more fantasy in the intervening years or if it's because I feel such a sense of familiarity when I'm reading them but whatever it is, I absolutely flew through this one while I was reading it.

One thing that I'll give to the critics is that the writing can be a little dawdling and there are some phrases that you'll read a few too many times.  I don't find it to be any more than in any other fantasy series, though, so if you're used to reading long series, you'll be fine.

If you haven't read any of the series yet, I just don't know what else to tell you other than that, even after all these years, it has a firm place in my heart and I really do believe that it has stood the test of time.  Read it.  If you've read The Great Hunt and found it a bit slow-paced, absolutely pick up The Dragon Reborn and give it a try.

I'll admit that I'm a little wary about The Shadow Rising, which is the next book.  It tops 1,000 pages and I remember it taking me ages to read when I was a teenager so we'll see if the same is true this time around!

Now, go and read Wheel of Time already, ok?!