Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Nation, by Terry Prachett

Growing up I never really gave much to religion. I kind of half heatedly figured that there must be a God, and if I had a problem I’d usually squeeze my eyes shut and pray for a resolution. But then, having lived 20 relatively woe free years, my mother, aunt and grandmother passed away suddenly in the space of a few short months. Suddenly the question of religion seemed rather more important than it had before, and I turned to books (of course) to try and make sense of the belief forming inside of me that, hmm, maybe there is no God?

Dawkins, Hitchens, Mills, I read them all, and I can’t say that they didn’t help me but man, what I wouldn’t give for a time machine to send back to myself a copy of Terry Prachett’s Nation. (Well, possibly I'd work on preventings of those deaths that caused all the introspection in the first place, but failing that...) Every person, no matter the age, who has ever struggled questioned the big man in the sky should read this book.

Because at it’s heart that what this book is about; questions. Mau and a shipwrecked white girl are the only survivors on a small island after a terrible tidal waves rips through and, having looked upon the bodies of everyone he ever knew, Mau has some questions. They creep up slowly at first, but before long he’s rejecting the Gods he has spent his whole life believing in. The life of Mau and the life of Megan (that's me!) could not be more different, and yet the way he starts to question the world around him, almost guiltily at first and then with growing confidence, was so familiar it was almost painful to read.

But! Other survivors who eventually reach Mau island (some nice, some decidedly not) still believe in their Gods, and this is what sets Nation apart. Other “atheist” books tend to dismiss if not openly mock those with faith, seeming to suggest that if you believe in God then you’re a bit of an idiot, really. (And then get all hurt when people call atheists arrogant...). In no way does Prachett do this. The characters who do believe in the Gods are treated as sympathetically as Mau.

Because this is not a book about rejecting God, it’s a book about questioning God (and colonialism, but I’m trying to keep these reviews short so we won’t even go into that). Nation is a celebration of curiosity and the importance of science and discovery, and how such things need not be mutually exclusive with the Great Almighty. Believe in God or don’t, either’s fine, Nation says, but don’t just believe blindly because you’ve been told to. I wish I was rich enough to take out billboards across the globe with that message on them, Happy Xmas (War is Over) style.

And of course, it almost goes without saying that in addition to being a deep exploration of life, the universe and everything Nation also displays all the wit and dancing prose for which Prachett is so loved. It is a darker book than the Discworld novels, to be sure. There is humour, and humour galore, but there is a bittersweet undertone to it that the Discworld books rarely touch upon. If you like Discworld you’ll like this one, if you don’t like Discworld (such people exist?) you may well still like this one and, most importantly, if you’re at a point in your life where you’ve got more questions than your head knows what to do with, then you need this one.

I bought this book


Review: Edge, by Thomas Blackthorne

I’m not going to lie, I bought this book for the cover. I didn’t read the blurb, I didn’t read the first page, all of the little steps that bridge the gap between a book and my bookshelves flew out the window in the face of that cover. Knife fights! Blood! Duels! Sounds most excellent to me.

When the book arrived I dared to think I had been rewarded for my rash purchase. The back blurb promised a dystopic future Britain where knife fighting had been legalised and where a giant wall had been erected around the city. Sounds very awesome, yes? At the very least it sounds finishable, and yet I barely made it half way through.

Let start with the book’s main conceit: Knife fighting: it’s legal! Why? Pfft, we don’t need to know a silly little thing like that, do we? And honestly, I would have been happy with minimal explanation of why knife fighting (to the death, mind you) was legal, if we actually got to see some, you know, knife fighting. As I said, I made it to the midway point, and not once had anyone actually had a fight involving knives. There was a lot of posturing and ‘why sir, you have offended me! I demand satisfaction!’ going on, but actual knife fighting? Not so much. I’m not saying that nothing happened, but it did feel like Blackthorne (I vaguely recall that this is a well known author's alias, but can't for the life of me remember who...) completely wasted the potential of his world. Here’s this big brotherish dystopic future London, but not one of the events of the first half of the book couldn’t have taken place in a book set in current day London. What’s the point of cool futuristic setting if you don’t make the most of it? Or at least something of it?

And the giant wall surrounding Britain? Maybe the back cover was referring to a metaphorical giant wall, because no mention of such was made in the book, or at least no mention that I noticed. Admittedly, I could have missed it. Blackthorne's brand of worldbuilding seems to be offhand sentences like, “oh, yes, America has three presidents now” with no explanation or follow up or, worse of all, no real evidence that it effects the characters lives in any way. Or at another point he mentions that because knife fighting is legal hardly anyone owns or uses guns any more. Um, ok? More confusingly is the therapist character (always a sign of memorable characters when they have to be referred to by their profession...), who can possibly read minds or something. Maybe? She does this thing where she talks to her patients and somehow her words just fix whatever is wrong with them, or make them think in a whole new way, like magic. She'll say something like 'you are no longer shy' and bam! no more shyness. But for all intents and purposes Blackthorne has set his book in the “real” world and there are no other hints of supernatural happenings. It’s very strange.

I can accept magic therapy powers, but what I can’t accept is magic therapy powers that the author wants me to believe aren’t magic. Trying to figure it out kept pulling me out of the book. What also kept yanking me out was trying to get a handle on the moods of the characters. Scenes like this took place pretty much every time any of the character’s spoke:
Josh (or John. Possibly Jake) clenched his fists, a scowl crossing his lips, “um, yeah, ok I guess,” he said.
Do you see? His body language suggests angry alpha male, his words suggest meek submissive dude. The dialogue in this book was consistently like this, completely at odds with the context of the scene. It’s pretty much impossible to lose yourself in a book when your jarred out the story every couple of pages, you know?

Having not finished the book, I can not say if these faults are with it the whole way through. There’s a chance the last half is one long knife fighting blood bath, but even the possibility of that wasn’t enough to let me ignore its flaws and keep forcing myself through it.

Book was: purchased 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: Temeraire, by Naomi Novik

Does this book have its flaws? Sure, in the same way a beautiful summer’s day has flaws. Oh no, I’m a little sweaty and it’s making my hair stick to my neck. Oh dear, my hand is sticky because my ice cream is melting on it. If things like these are enough to spoil summer days for you, then perhaps you’re from some alternate universe where most days are perfect in every single way. Likewise, if the flaws to be found in Temeraire (or Her Majesty’s Dragon if you live in other parts of the world) are enough to ruin the book for you them you must be accustomed to some truly spectacular books, and I envy you.

Truly, I can not remember the last time I encountered a book that was so much fun to read. Naval hotshot Laurence finds a dragon egg, and when it hatches the baby dragon, Temeraire, latches onto to him. (Think imprinting ala Twilight, but with a bazillion percent less creepy lameness). Laurence is yanked from the navy and sent to the Dragon corps where he and Temeraire learn to fight crime Napoleon. Enjoying this book was effortless. And yes, sometimes when something requires effort you end up loving it all the more intensely (like my oft mentioned favourite House of Leaves), but sometimes you just want to enjoy something without having to try.

And all this talk of Temeraire being easy to read is not a slight against the book, although I can how you might read it as such. You might be picturing characters who are little more than archetypes, short hand stand in for familiar tropes that we know so well we don’t have to guess at their motivations. Perhaps you think the plot is so obvious one barely needs to read the words to know what will happen next.

Wrong! Our hero Laurence is a complex fellow, and not always one hundred percent likable. He’s not a twenty first century man wandering around the seventeen hundreds like many characters in historical fiction seem to be, he is entirely true to the time period (or how I imagine the time period, as truly I am no expert). He is a stuffy and a stickler for rank, he balks at the idea of women in the workforce and heaven help anyone who doesn’t address him with enough respect. But he’s a good man and a fine leader, strict but fair and all that. And it doesn’t hurt that I suspect he’s rather dashingly handsome.

The plot itself, while nothing groundbreaking is certainly not predictable. While you’re always pretty sure that Laurence and Temeraire will come out ok (because there’s like thirty more books in this series) there are moments of genuine concern for the well being of other characters. Admittedly nothing much seems to happen for a great part of the book, it’s mostly Laurence and Temeraire getting to know each other, kind of like the pilot episode of a sitcom. I suspect Novik knew she would be writing more books in this series, and so saw no need to rush things. In the final quarter however things really go mad, with some nicely foreshadowed plot developments playing out and some pretty crazy dragon v dragon air battles. (Novik really excels as concise, clear and exciting battle descriptions, with is a rare skill that should always be valued).

The only real complaint I can lay against this book is the dragon Temeraire seems just a shade too perfect. He’s the rarest most uniquest most bestest dragon in all the world that can do things no other dragon can, and more! But you know what, I’m gonna let that go to. Reading the exploits of super awesome Temeraire reminds me a lot of the unabashed joy in the scene in the first Harry Potter book where Harry flies for the first time. There can be something really enjoyable in watching a character excel, and with his occasional petulance and revolutionary leanings Temeraire isn’t entirely perfect.

Not entirely perfect is true for the book as a whole really, but you can be damn sure that I await the further adventures of Laurence and Temeraire most eagerly, and I’ll let you know if installment two is as much fun as this one.

How did I get this book: Bought from Angus & Robinson, where it was cheaper than on Book Depository (it practically bought itself!)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Day By Day Armagedon, by J.L. Bourne

Does exactly what it says on the box. A never named navy officer decides to keep a diary literally days before a zombie flavoured kind of hell breaks loose, and the book is a day by day chronicle of his efforts to survive.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. If we start at a purely aesthetic viewpoint, this is a book that makes me glad to have resisted the ebook wave. I don’t mean the cover (which isn’t terrible but I wouldn’t say I’m in love with it), I’m talking about the pages. They are adored with handwritten notes, pictures (both hand drawn and photographs), coffee rings and tears and what are possibly blood stains. There are also sections of texts that have been scribbled out and rendered unreadable, which brings to mind one of my all time favourite books, House of Leaves. It makes the book feel more immediate and authentic, and it makes you feel closer to our unnamed hero.

Of course no quirky design will turn rubbish prose into good, but thankfully J.L. Bourne's text doesn’t need any help being good. Bourne's take on the Zombie apocalypse is a pleasing mixture of familiar and new ideas. He pays due homage to the zombie tradition while still managing to offer his own ideas without going too crazy with it.

But the real shining point, for me, is the narrator. Our hero is a military man, and this shines through in every aspect of the text. It's sometimes obvious, such as the use of military terminology, which is a little confusing at first but the author skilfully supplies enough context for us to figure out what all the words mean. (What, an author who doesn’t treat his readers like idiots? Imagine!) But his military background is also clear in his short, efficient sentences and the methodical way he views the world.

This book is an exercise in reading between the lines. As I mentioned, Protagonist McNoname writes his journal in a very straight forward, no fuss kind of way. He doesn’t dwell overlong on his feelings or hopes, he concerns himself with what is needed to survive; lists of remaining rations, brainstorm ideas of zombie proof fortresses and the like. When he meets other suriviors he writes about them foremost in terms of what the skills they offer, and when he finds those skills lacking he outlines plans to teach them. (Not, you may note, abandon them).

But when we look closer a picture of him begins to emerge. We start to see that he has always been a loner (when shit starts to go down he deserts the military without hesitation), and pretty bad at relating with women. He mentions briefly using army equipment to spy on an ex-girlfiend, and his thoughts when a friend calls to say his wife had left are also very telling. He refers to his guns as females, and in the early days of the book he is at his most considerate when he is carefully cleaning and maintaining them.

It is pleasure to watch, as the book progresses, our hero start to trust and depend on the few other survivors he joins up with. It’s also a pleasure to be in the hands of a perfectly capable protagonist. Often zombie books, or all post-apocalyptic books, are told from the point of view of unremarkable people who have to quickly learn how to survive. Our hero already knows how to survive, he just needs to learn how to love. (Oh man, that did not sound so cheesy in my head I promise…)

My biggest complaint with the book is the ending, or rather lack thereof. We are left with some major plot threads dangling in the wind, and while there is a sequel it’s still annoying to have to wait to get my hands on it. But then again, if the worst thing you can say about a book is that you want to read more right now instead of later, then it’s probably a pretty good book!

This book, I got it how? I actually won this one from Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. Cheers Graeme!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

YA books I have loved, and loved well.

The Book Smuggler's, bless their cotton socks, have been hosting a YA extraveganza this week. Reading all the excellent reviews and discussions about all things YA made me think, all nostalgic like, back to the time when I was myself a young adult. Back when reading was more than something I loved, it was something that literally got me through the day. Back when books kept me up at night, not because I was reading them but because I couldn't stop thinking about them. I love books different now, not less necessarily but perhaps with less intensity. Which makes me a little sad, but on the other hand at least I get more sleep now...

Here is a very small selection of some of the YA texts that most impacted my time as a YA, may I never again feel so angst ridden awkward as I did then.

Looking for Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetta: This book is everything a YA book should be. Josie is a third generation Italian-Australian girl who feels like she doesn't fit in anywhere. And you can't really blame the girl for thinking that. She's the poor scholaship kid in an upper class private school, the girls there pick on her because she's a "wog" (and poor!) and the Italian community picks on her because (the horror!) she's a bastard. Now in my mature years (snort) I can appreciate the way Marchetta explores the issues and prejudices that face immigrants. Josie is torn between how she sees herself as an Australian and how she sees herself as an Italian, and these broad cultural conflict are mirrored on a more personal level when the father she never met reenters her life and she must decide if she is an Alibrandi or an Andretti (that would be Dad's last name).

But you know, back then I didn't care about that heavy stuff. I cared about Josie. She was funny, an awesome self-depreciating brand of funny that to this day makes me laugh out loud. And she has a temper! There's this one scene where a rich snobby girl calls Josie a wog and Josie breaks her nose with a science text book which is just kick ass, and still hands done one of my favourite moments in any book ever. (Plus the rich snobby girl is not just a rich snob girl stereotype, she's as real a person as Josie is, just like every character in this book).

Plus, there are boys. Who will Josie end up with? Working class Jacob who acts like he cares about nothing but actually cares a lot about everyhing? Or maybe it will be upper class John who is ridiculously likeable? You know how in a lot of books where's there's one girl and two boys is actually pretty obvious who she'll end up with? Not so here, at all. And Jacob and John aren't just there to be love interests either, there's a very real sense of their lives existing outside of Josie.

But just be careful, because this book will also break your heart. And I'm not even kidding about that, it will take your heart and rip it up and scatter the bits. Looking for Alaska has nothing on Looking for Alibrandi, and you'll love it even more.

Guitar Highway Rose, by Lois Lowry: At it's heart this is a book about two crazy kids learning that their parents used to be crazy kid's once, and it's about their parent's learning that, oh shit, are kid's aren't little kid's anymore. But it's not nearly as boring as that might make it sound. We have Rose, who's parents are starting to edge towards divorce, and we have Asher who's parent's have just split up. Asher is the new kid in school, he's a free spirit who poo poos the dress code and is wretchedly homesick. Rosie just wants to escape, damn it, anyway she can. So it's no great shock that the two end up running away together and having the sweetest romance you have ever seen. (Sweet as in she falls asleep on his shoulder and he doesn't dare move lest he wake her, not sweet as in 'sweet wheels bro.')

My favourite thing about this book has always been the nontraditional way in which is was written. It's made up of lists and stream of consciousness chunks and school reports and journal entries, (all with clever headings) but at no point is it anything other than assessable. It's hard to explain, but very effective. I feel like we learn more about Asher by reading a list a of his pocket's contents then we would in five pages of traditional narrative.

Another way in which this book is unique in the treatment of the adults. They are every bit as real and complex as the teenagers, and when I read this book for the first time that kinda blew my mind a little bit.

Tomorrow, When the War Began (and it's sequels), by John Marsden: Holy shit, you guys. Holy shit. Basically a group of friends go camping and come home to find that Australia gets invaded by never named foreigners. Naturally they go all guerrilla warfare on the invaders.

Elle is hands down without a doubt my favourite literary heroine, from any genre. She's flawed up the wazoo, stubborn and bossy and jealous. But she's also resourceful and strong and loyal and my god is she brave. (When people suggest that male writers can not write females I throw one of the Tomorrow books at their head).

And the other characters are just as flawed and amazing in their own ways. My favourite was always Lee. He's this beautiful, complex guy who might have lived his whole life in his own intense quite way but the war brings out a darkness inside of him, and he does things the others can not bring themselves to. And even though they know these things have to be done, and they're relived that Lee has done them, they pull away from him a little. It's painful and real and so damn human. (There's an amazing scene where they're hiding out in a house and Elle finds Lee, who pre-war was a musician, sitting at a piano with his hands hovering over the keys. He can't play it because of the noise, and I doubt many authors could have captured the bittersweet pain of the moment as well as Marsden).

Marsden definitely doesn't pull back from anything. There's blood and snot and tears and sex and death and more shades of grey than a George R. R. Martin book. Really I can't recommend the series enough.

So, until next time the nostalgia strikes or the Smuggler's have their next YA week, we return to our regularly scheduled reviews!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Heart Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

"Middle-aged rock star Judas Coyne collects morbid curios for fun, so doesn't think twice about buying a suit advertised at an online auction site as haunted by its dead owner's ghost. Only after it arrives does Judas discover that the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of one of Coyne's discarded groupies, and that the old man's ghost is a malignant spirit determined to kill Judas in revenge for his stepdaughter's suicide." product page

There have been only two books in my life that have scared me. I mean really, sleep with the lights on, jump at small noises scared me. The first, when I was about 11, was a picture book by Cary Crew called The Watertower. Now when I say picture book I'm not talking the Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Watertower was set in a dusty little Austrian town where all the residents except for two oblivious young boys are being controlled by an alien which resembled a kind of giant rake. The second book to terrify me is a little more well known, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves which I read when I was fifteen. This book is a pure post-modern mindfuck which revolves, in part, around a house which randomly sprouts winding maze like passages.

I actually think I'm a pretty hard bird to scare, but what does scare me is a subtle kind of horror that make most roll their eyes in non-terror. In The Watertower it wasn't the eventual revelation of the rake alien that scared me, it was the way you could just make it out lurking in the background on almost every page. Partly obscured by a tree, or in the reflection of a window it waited. You didn't even notice it at first, a lot of people probably didn't notice it at all, but we had the book read to us by the author and he pointed it out. Yeah, thanks a lot Gary Crew. What scared me so soundly about House of Leaves is harder to pin down, I can only guess that it was some potent combination of the dark unknown and being lost in the safest place on earth, your own house. I'd also bet that the point in my life in which I read it played a big role, but we'll get into that when I inevitably review this book. (Which I will, because it's amazing).

My point is, that what scares me most is what happens ofscreen, or out of the corner of your eye. I was probably the only person on the planet to b generally freaked out by the Blair WitchProject, for example. Although no film comes close to scaring me like the above books did, and after reading the first chunk of Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, I was preparing to add that one to the list as well. But then I kept reading.

So, aged death metal rocker Jude buys a haunted suit off the internet in the first few pages, it arrives the page after and the haunting commences almost immediately. And boy, was it my kind of haunting. There's a scene where Jude enters a room where a radio is playing, except hey, he's pretty sure it was off before... That's not the scary part, the scary part is where the DJ is talking about the weather and he's all 'it's going to be a cold one this week folk and you will die and it looks like rain...' See that little 'you will die' tucked away in there? Yeah, it's little things like that get under my skin.

Unfortunately Hill abandons all subtlety pretty early on, and his ghost quickly evolves from creepy radio manipulator ghost into a Freddy Kruger knock off. He becomes corporeal and starts whispering not so sweet nothings in Jude's ear and trying to run him over with his ghost car. Some might find this scary, but not me. By the end of the book the horror became almost b-grade in its depiction, and I can't believe that anyone would find it genuinely scary, even if they weren't as weird as me.

But what saved the book for me was the one thing that kept me from buying it for so long. I remember seeing this thing on the shelf back when I lived in city, before anyone knew that Jow Hill had a famous author dad (Stephen someone, I think...) The cover quote by Neil Gaiman (another author who knows how to creep me the fuck out. That scene in of the early Sandman issues, set in the cafe where everyone starts devolving? Man...) made me pick it up time and again, but the back blurb always made me put it back. There was just nothing appealing to me about a washed up death metal rockstar that the back cover promised.

Except Jude is not washed up. Past his prime and no longer releasing music, sure. But I was expecting a pathetic Ozzy Osbourne kind of character, but Jude still has his dignity. He's still relevant, his absence from the scene is by choice. We learn that two of his bandmates died recently, and it's clear that grief has effected him strongly and laid waste to some of his living relationships. He's also a cold son of a bitch with a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, even (or should I say especially) the young women he sleeps with.

What kept me reading what not the increasingly ridiculous actions of the ghost with a personal vendetta against Jude, but rather is was watching Jude and his current lady friend grow into people who you actually wanted to come out on top. I also enjoyed the backstory of the ghost and why it was after Jude personally, and I honestly found the reveletions of what the ghost had done when he was still a man to be more upsetting then his ghostly hauntings. There is also a strong theme of regret running through the book, and the idea that past can't be changed, only accepted.

As a work of horror I would have to say that this book fails, and fails hard. But for me it succeeded in every other way, and it delivered to me everything I want in a book and upon finishing it I was honestly sad to say good-bye to the characters, alive and dead. (Plus, the ending was both satisfying and fitting, which is more than I can usually say for the kid's dad...)

How did I get this book? Purchased second hand

Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend

"Teen angst has never been such serious business--or this much fun! In his secret diary, British teen Adrian Mole excruciatingly details every morsel of his turbulent adolescence. Mixed in with daily reports about the zit sprouting on his chin are heartrending passages about his parents' chaotic marriage. Adrian sees all, and he has something to say about everything. Delightfully self-centered, Adrian is the sort of teen who could rule a much better world--if only his crazy relatives and classmates would get out of his way."
Lately a lot of book blogs I nose around have been concerned with reading the classics. I see the sci-fi masterlist being posted everywhere, and more than a few of the non sci-fi blogs I read are tackling some less speculative classics (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't count). It made me feel like maybe I should stop being such a philistine and start exploring the great literature of days gone by. Should I start with Tolstoy (wasn't he a Bolshevik?), or maybe Dickens? (Would Dan Simmons' Drood count?) Then I started to feel a little lightheaded, so I decided to ease myself in with the Secret Dairy of Adrian Mole, which my coworker Kim told me she had to read in school, and everyone knows its only a classic if you had to read it in school. Plus I bought the book and it's sequels ages ago, so it was already conveniently on my bookshelf. This book falls squarely into the genre that possibly already exists or that possibly I just made up called ‘Thatcher-eqsue.” Thatcher-esque literature, so named for the period under Margeret Thatcher in which is was written, is characterised by the appearance of depressing working class surroundings and a feeling of overwhelming Britishness. And trust me, the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole has both of these things in spades. It's all angst and pence, which now I think about it sounds like a law firm...

I would have to say that The Secret Diary, etc is probably the best example of a book in the form of a diary that I've ever read. Hell, scratch the probably. The things reads like an actual diary. Oftentimes with this style of book the diary entries don't read true, the diary writer (diary-est? diary-er?) might recount solid passages of dialogue, for example, or they might foreshadow upcoming events (which is ok is the book is 'diary of a chick who can see the future,' but otherwise not so much). Townsend displays none of these faults. The only thing that some people might point to as being un-diary like is Adrian's habit of referring to people by their full names instead of using abbreviations. However I am fully onboard with it as 1) it's a writing technique that bugs me and, 2) as a self proclaimed intellectual I believe that young Adrian would write out full names every time.

Now I'm not saying that the book is without flaws, in fact the major complaints I have with it are because it is so true to its diary form. Namely there seems to be no overreaching plot. It's just a self centered kid writing a little bit almost every day about his life. There is not much in the way of traditional narrative road marks, such as a clearly defined beginning, middle and conclusion. Stuff happens, some more stuff happens, and then there are no more pages. There is no real ending, no satisfying conclusion, just no more words. As I said, it reads exactly like a real diary, and when we read the last entry it's prety easy to imagne that Adrian had kept on going in a new journal, (especially considering the three other Adrian Mole books on my shelf). There is character development though. The Adrian in the first entry is not the same Adrian in the last and after all (are you sick of hearing me say this yet?) a book's characters are the most important thing.

I found myself not minding the lack of traditional plot too much, or at all really, because Adrian has such a fantastic voice. He's a self centered little burk, filled with angst of ridiculous proportions. What really endears him to you though is the way he gets so hung up on silly stuff like pimples and vitamins, while the pretty epic family drama doesn't seem to phase him at all. (Of course would could argue that his 13 and a quarter year old mind can't deal with him mother's abandonment or his father's nervous breakdown so he obsesses over the size of his 'thing' instead...) It also helps that Adrian is really funny, although in an unintentionally oblivious kind of way. Indeed most of the books humour derives from us seeing what Adrian doesn't, a conceit which should get old but actually doesn't. There's also a lot of clever social commentary going on, which flies right over Adrian's head, but not ours.

Possibly I am making Adrian out to sound like a total idiot, and he's not. He's just a little emotionally stunted, and really self centered. It will be interesting to see how Adrian changes as he grows up in the latter books (I have a vague idea that he's middle aged by the last one), and I'm sure I'll find out next time the mood takes me to read a classic.

How did I get this book? purchased second hand 


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

"Seventy-five-year-old John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Force because he has nothing to keep him on Earth. Suddenly installed in a better-than-new young body, he begins developing loyalty toward his comrades in arms as they battle aliens for habitable planets in a crowded galaxy. As bloody combat experiences pile up, Perry begins wondering whether the slaughter is justified; in short, is being a warrior really a good thing, let alone being human? The definition of "human" keeps expanding as Perry is pushed through a series of mind-stretching revelations." product page
There’s a saying about war that gets floated around a lot, something about how it’s made up of long periods of boredom interrupted by short periods of terror. So it’s probably fitting then that the pacing of Old Man’s War seemed to stretch and contract in much the same way. Not that the book was ever boring, mind you. Scalzi does an excellent job of keeping the reader interested, his prose is so clear and lively it practically reads itself. But sometimes it took several chapters to cover a few weeks, and then suddenly months were gone in the space of a few sentences. Chapters were devoted to Perry's first few days off earth, but barely a quarter of that to his first alien encounter, for example. Was this a bad thing? Perhaps not. The lack of pages devoted to all the battles and such Perry was involved in made it seem as though they were insignificant, or at least not noteworthy enough to devote the same level of attention that Perry’s first few wonder filled days in space received. One of the main debates that runs through the book is whether or not the powers that be wage war too lightly, and the way numerous battles zip by support this idea.

Still, I think I would have liked to novel to have been a bit longer. It never felt rushed, exactly, but the quick pace did hinder my ability to really connect with any of the characters outside of Perry. This works against Scalzi, because he tries to pull off what I like to think of as the “Harry Potter Heartbreak” technique. Think back to last Harry Potter book, if you’ve read it (and if not maybe skip a few lines here…) In the final epic battle of epic battley-ness a number of characters die. It happens without fuss, often offscreen, and in a few cases I didn’t even realise such and such was dead until I read closer. At first it made me furious, not because they had died but because their deaths were treated so carelessly. But then I came to realise that it was a comment on how careless war is of life and etc. Because I loved those character so much their offhandedly mentioned deaths gutted me, but also made me really consider what war is. I think Scalzi was going for the same feeling. Characters die left and right in this book, sometimes heroically, sometimes absurdly and sometimes for no reason. But the problem is Scalzi hasn’t given you a chance to really connect with any of them, so each death is met with a shrug. It lacks any kind of emotional punch and is therefore not that effective.

Of course, no matter how many characters get eaten by killer mould or decapitated, there is never any doubt that Perry will be fine. Not because the book is told in the first person, but because Perry is kinda perfect. He solves problems before anyone else, he survives when no one else does, and saves lives when no one else could, he gets promoted like every second page and everyone likes him. He forces grudging smiles from the hardest men, and even though all the green bodied newly young people are physically beautiful, (this is actually very well explained) it is the mostest beautifullest one that wants to bone Perry. He’s one pet lion away from being Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bears.

But still, despite these complaints, Old Man’s War is incredibly easy and fun to read. The prose is clear, and the speculative concepts Scalzi introduces are so easy to grasp that you don’t first realise how complicated these ideas really are. If I read the next part’s of this series (and I suspect I will) it will be to see these ideas and the universe(s) Scalzi houses them in explored more fully, but it wont be for the characters. And that’s what makes this a book I liked instead of a book I really liked. For me characters are the most important thing in a book, and it’s the area where it seems Scalzi is weakest. But if you don’t place as much importance on characters as I do then you’ll probably love this book a hell of a lot more than I did.

How did I get this book? I bought it

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: The Enemy, by Charlie Higson

"In this dystopian thriller set in London, everyone over 16 is dead or diseased, and youngsters are in constant danger of being eaten by boil-infested grown-ups who roam the streets like zombies looking for children to kill. Led by teens Arran and Maxie and armed with makeshift weapons, a group of kids sets out from the uncertain safety of an abandoned supermarket to travel to Buckingham Palace, where a young messenger promises that food, medicine, and a haven are available." product page
Sometimes I wonder if I expect too much of YA books. Normally after I’ve read a few in a row that just didn’t connect with me I start to think along the lines of ‘these books are intended for a younger audience, after all, you can’t expect it to fully engage an adult mind…’ But then I’ll think of books by YA writers such as John Marsden and John Green and Sarah Rees Brennan and I’ll realise that, no, I don’t expect anything that a YA book is not entirely capable of delivering.
I firmly believe that writing a good YA book is ten times harder than writing a book for adults, but on the flipside a YA book done well hold 100 times the rewards for the reader.

Is The Enemy an example of one such amazing YA book? Nope. It’s not bad, its not great, mostly it just is. Most of the problem I had with is that the plot is annoyingly familiar. I’m not referring to the whole post apocalyptic zombie thing, because I’m a huge (huge!) post-apocalyptic fan and I love to read different takes on what is usually a similar scenario. But you see, I only recently read Gone and The Enemy shares that book’s central premise of ‘all kids, no adults.’ Now, this is not really The Enemy's fault. I don’t even know which one was published first and it’s not like the two authors even approach it in exactly the same way. But still, the similarities struck me. Less easy to forgive is how closely the plot of The Enemy mirrors that of one of my favourite zombie flicks, 28 Days Later. In a broad ways, like being set a London where the majority of the townsfolk have gone rabid, but also in more specific ways, like the danger fraught journey to discover a safe haven that, surprise!, is not so awesome as it first seems.

But I’ll forgive all that. As they say, there are only a finite number of stories in the world and it all comes down to how you tell it. The problem is, Higson doesn’t tell it all that well. The main problems? The characters. In that you just don’t care about them. First problem: Higson is all tell, no show. Straight up, whenever a character is introduced he tells us what kind of person they are, which completely takes the fun out of discovering that for ourselves.

The only character I actually felt some kind of connection with was Small Sam. Where the rest of the characters want some vague safe future, Sam wants to find his sister. Where the rest of the characters stand around and bicker a lot Sam is constantly on the move, making things happen instead of having things happen to him. Unfortunately there are so many characters in this book Small Sam gets little scree time. Higson could easily have cut the book down. For example I never got what the point to the interludes with Callum were. He stays behind when the rest of the kids go and literally just hangs out feels sorry for himself. There was also Sophie and her band of archers, who had the potential to be really cool, but just kind of hover in the background and then leave.

I suspect these two plot threads, and others I haven't mentioned that were just as puzzling, will come into play in the second book. To be honest, if we exclude Small Sam's story, pretty much the entire book felt like an extended set up for the next one with Higson getting all of his characters into position. Which means the next volume, 'The Dead' will probably be a whole lot better than this one, but I probably won't read it because a whole book of set up is damn annoying.

How did I get this book? My boyfriend bought it for me