Tuesday, 30 December 2014

God Is Dead - Vol 1, by Jonathan Hickman

3.5 stars

I love the idea behind this graphic novel, with the old gods returning to Earth (this time, it's personal!) to claim dominion over mankind, which they turn out to be rather good at.

As the remaining human population gets mostly sacrificed and the gods start a Battle Royale for control over all, a small band of people known as The Collective have gone underground, looking for a way to fight back.

While I enjoyed the way the gods were depicted, I have to admit that one of the humans made my shit start to ever so slightly itch - The Collective, made up of pudgy scientists, skinny nerds, old men and the physically impaired, also happens to have a girl in it. A girl who, of course, has breasts bigger than her own head which are forever straining to free themselves from the strip of material she wears across them, and who finds pudgy scientists with whom she's had little interaction or chemistry insanely arousing. 


Storm, by Tim Minchin

5 stars

Tim Minchin's Storm is the response I wish I could give whenever anyone around me starts banging on about homeopathy, psychics, auras, or worrying about when The Rapture is due to start, instead of the oh-so-mature eye-rolling and proclamations of 'Yeah, well Gandalf says...' that I usually tend to indulge in.

A brilliant beat-style ode to critical thinking that works just as well in graphic novel form as it does when performed, with the wonderful illustrations flowing as well as the words and underscoring Minchin's arguments well, if you've not yet encountered Storm you can do so here:
For iPhone/iPad click here.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Killer Clown, by Terry Sullivan

3 stars

Proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, inside the shrieking, tabloid style cover of Killer Clown lies a sober account of the investigation into and prosecution of John Wayne Gacy for the murders of at least 33 young men and boys. Co-written by Terry Sullivan, a State Attorney who was involved in the case from the very beginning when the case simply appeared to be the disappearance of 15 year old Robert Piest, he then lead the investigation which eventually saw the recovery of the bodies of Gacy’s victims (26 of which were discovered in the crawl space beneath his home), before serving as a member of the prosecution team at his trial.

Clear and precise (no doubt thanks to Sullivan’s experience in front of juries), we get lots of information on legalities such as what to specify in search warrants to ensure that any evidence recovered is admissible in court, the painful process of retrieving records pre-computers, how to make someone think they can’t leave a police station without ever actually detaining them, the effects of constant, overt surveillance on both the surveillance teams and the suspect, the bizarre behaviour exhibited by a manipulator who thinks he’s far cleverer than he actually is, and the legal chess games played by both sides (Gacy would first try (and fail) to exhibit signs of multiple personality disorder, and then his legal team attempt to have him found not guilty by reason of insanity - he’d apparently been temporarily insane on 33 different occasions, slipping back out of insanity once the murders were committed and the bodies buried, alternatively they would also claim that the deaths were 33 cases of accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation. Thankfully, the jury decided this was all bullshit.)

Mr Sullivan thankfully isn’t interested in trying to put you into the victims’ shoes or into the mind of the killer, thereby saving the material from becoming too harrowing and upsetting (if that’s what you’re after, trying listening to Sufjan Stevens’ John Wayne Gacy Jr instead) and instead presents a clear and detailed illustration of the work that goes into trying to catch and put away terrifying people. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Danse Macabre, by Stephen King

2 stars

There’s something terribly wrong with me – it has just taken me three weeks to finish a Stephen King book. A Stephen King book in which he riffs on one of my favourite genres, no less, giving us his take on the books, films, television and radio shows that populate the world of horror – or the world of horror until the early eighties, at least (when Danse Macabre was written). 

Taking a look at common horror tropes and why we find them so deliciously scary, I would have thought that Stephen King would be the perfect person to walk me through this topic. In this I was sadly disappointed.

Part of my problem was entirely my own – December is always a distracted and stressful month for me as I frantically try to reach a thousand deadlines while simultaneously struggling to fit in bouts of panic-buying with the few social obligations I have remaining now that I’m mostly a curmudgeonly hermit, leaving me a scanty few minutes in which to squeeze a bit of reading. King’s chatty, informal style didn’t help me here as the riffs and tangents he’s always been prone to embarking upon led to a rather loose and woolly whole that I struggled to get a firm grip on.
The early eighties cut-off also worked against the book for me, particularly when it came to film. Whilst name-checking a few truly great horror films, King’s taste in horror movie tends to skew heavily towards the schlocky, obviously a bloke-in-a-monster-suit, B (and C and D) movie which he grew up with but that I’ve always struggled to take seriously (I realise this is a bit rich coming from a woman whose own taste skews heavily towards that starring Bruce Campbell, but hey ho) and I couldn’t help but spend most of that time wondering what he’d make of the movies made since – and particularly the influencing of Hollywood by the truly spine-tingling terror of Japanese horror films (like the utterly brilliant and terrifying Audition, which I once made my Boxing Day guests sit through, much to their cushion-grabbing dismay), although I did also clock his disapproval of Kubrick’s version of The Shining (which may not be as true to the book as King’s own highly unnecessary TV adaptation, but is easily several thousand times better) and so it’s highly possible that he wouldn’t think much of it at all.

At its best when considering why we read/watch horror (for me, it’s the only genre that really gives my imagination a proper work out in a reality that’s rather mundane and routine where I often have to act counter to my instincts, and it gives my brain the same jolt of life that my body gets while hurtling towards the ground on a roller-coaster) but I think that the very thing King professes inside to wanting to avoid - the pinning down and dissecting of what makes it work – was probably the very thing I was after with Danse Macabre, and missed getting.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Warrior of the West, by M.K. Hume

1 star

If this book had a face, I would happily punch it every day until next Christmas. As it doesn't, I'll have to settle for ranting about it instead. 

Its predecessor, King Arthur: Dragon's Child, was a decent bit of brain-candy imagining the younger years of Artorex that I enjoyed despite its flaws. Warrior of the West, catching up with King Artor twelve years later, compounded those flaws and nearly drove me to complete rage more than once - throughout the second half I had to take frequent breaks in order to swear at it profusely, nearly break my kindle in fits of temper, and wish a violent death upon virtually every character within.

Now High King of the Britons, Artor has spent the last decade murdering every Saxon he comes across. When his emissaries are killed while negotiating a truce, he mounts an assault on the Saxon stronghold of Glamdring Ironfist. The first half of the book builds slowly towards this, showing a little of how Artor has changed in the intervening years and introducing Ironfist and a few of his compatriots, including the slave Bedwyr. Considering the amount of time spent on him, Bedwyr would appear to be an important new character but it turns out that as soon as Artor has his victory he's promptly forgotten about and never mentioned again.

Unfortunately, this victory also kicked off the deeply problematic second half of the book, during which its focus on characters brought the problems of the first book into the spotlight. While Uther may be long dead, Artor's foster-brother Caius is still around and so subtly drawn that he may as well be called Rapey McStabs-a-lot and have the Death March start up whenever he walked onto the page. But Rapey has nothing on Wenhaver, Hume's version of Guinevere. There was really no need for Hume to mention her dislike of Guinevere in her accompanying notes, as her contempt shone through in one of the most flagrant examples of character bashing that I've ever come across. You could, in fact, replace the whole second half with this and you'd find no real discernible difference:
"Dear Wenhaver,

Love Hate,
M.K. Hume"

I have no problem with unlikeable and flawed characters, but I do have a problem with those obviously set up solely for unfavourable comparisons to a character the author does like. The Wenhaver of this book isn't really appalling for her own sake or that of the story, but so that we'll also worship Nimue (or as I soon came to call her, Fucking Nimue).

Having been saved as a baby in Dragon's Child and brought under the protection of the High King, Fucking Nimue is now grown up and serving as the apprentice of Merlinus, and is the most beautiful, most elegant, most interesting, most intelligent, most caring, most wonderful woman to have ever walked the earth. I suspect that not only do her farts smell like freshly baked cookies, but that she shits sunbeams too (and that eating them would probably cure world hunger and stop all wars forever). She's so fabulous that no-one (including the book) can stop themselves from commenting every five minutes on how bloody wonderful she is, and comparing her to Wenhaver who is portrayed as being every awful thing that has ever been said about a woman. Petulant, spiteful, rude, abusive, promiscuous, immature, irrational and thick (amongst many other awful things), no-one (including the book) can stop themselves from calling her a cow, a bitch, a slut or, more often, a whore any time her name is mentioned. Even when noting her beauty the book can't help but mention that her dress clashes with her skin making her look shit compared to Fucking Nimue (rhymes with Mary Sue!) who, of course, looks like a supermodel even while wearing a sack. 

It's at this point that I started sounding like Samuel Jackson having a vicious fit of Tourette's...

...which the stupid serial-killer sub-plot that sprang up here made even worse. While Merlinus shows off his psychological profiling and forensic skills and generally acts like he's a heartbeat away from pulling out a pair of sunglasses and a bad pun, it soon becomes apparent that even the serial killer is obsessed with Fucking Nimue, though he sadly doesn't succeed in murdering her before he's unveiled as - surprise! - the one bloke that we're constantly reminded is a shit.

If I do read the last in this trilogy (unlikely, although I'd already stupidly bought it after Dragon's Child) it'll only be so that I can root for Wenhaver to screw every man, woman and beast on Cadbury Tor and give Artor such a raging case of syphilis that his face falls off just in time for the Saxons to arrive and, hopefully, kick everyone's teeth in.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

King Arthur: Dragon's Child, by MK Hume

3 stars

A decent reimagining of the early years of King Arthur, or Artorex as he is known here - a blend of the Celt and Roman in one tall and ginger man (or 'russet', if you're sensitive about gingerness). 

Unaffectionately known as Lump by the foster family that has raised him in a small Roman settlement near Aquae Sulis and little better than a slave, Lump is ignored by most and valued by none except for the elderly slave Frith, at least until the family is visited by three travellers (one of whom bears the name Merlinus) who exhort them to train the young Artorex in the ways of battle, diplomacy and other qualities needed in a leader of men. Content to live the life of a simple steward at Villa Poppinidii, events are soon set in motion that leave young Artorex no choice but to venture into the wider, scarier world of ancient Britain and take up the sword against the marauding Saxons while discovering his true birthright as the only son of the dying Uther Pendragon, the malicious, cruel and murderous rapist who's High King of the Britons.

Apparently inspired by a note in a historical text referring to Guinevere as King Arthur's second wife, MK Hume has done a pretty decent job of building the world young Artorex lives in with the Britain of the time a curious mix of the Roman, the Celt, and the various other tribes who would have made up a large part of the population of the time, reminding me a little of the Clive Owen starring King Arthur (which, despite being mildly disappointing, did have the advantage of including both Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham looking like this:


One of the book's strengths were the small details on how life might have been and how society may have functioned and I have zero problem with the liberties taken with the myths as I know them, but did find that the book faltered somewhat whenever dealing with emotion. While it is quite fitting that the inscrutable Artorex not be mastered by his, there were still many times where the ordeals being faced should have stirred some feeling within me but, other than a small gulp of sadness concerning Frith, I was left completely unruffled. The characters were also drawn with pretty broad strokes, so while there was at least some effort to provide motivations and shades of grey, the villains of the piece were all blatant moustache-twirlers of the highest order.

That said, with the world outside of books needing a bit more of my brainpower at the moment, this was an undemanding and still fairly entertaining bit of brain-candy that will hopefully continue to soothe my tired brain as I plow through the rest of the trilogy.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

3 stars

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the meaning in The Edible Woman, apparently Margaret Atwood’s first published book, but that makes it no less enjoyable as our protagonist Marian gets engaged and slowly becomes repulsed by more and more food, until there’s nothing she can consume.

The world may have changed a lot since the 1960’s when this was both written and is set (when women were expected to leave their jobs when they were getting married, and it was possible to find three virgins in an office) but it’s still very relevant today. Who hasn’t known someone (or been that someone) so consumed by their relationship that the person you once knew virtually disappears?

While not hitting the heights of some of Atwood’s later works The Edible Woman is still an enjoyable and interesting read, and is probably one of her most accessible.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M Cain

4.5 stars

Having already seen the Jack Nicholson/Jessica Lange movie, I knew before starting that The Postman Always Rings Twice wasn't about a particularly determined postie (mine doesn't even bother to ring once, judging by the amount of collection cards I get through my door). The film was OK, but it turns out that this tautly written noir is fantastic, accomplishing a lot in surprisingly few pages. 

A drifter shows up at the roadside diner of Nick Papadakis and is offered a job. Initially reluctant, he changes his mind the moment he sees Nick's hot wife and they're soon bumping uglies whenever Nick's away while fermenting a plot to see him gone for good...

A brilliant tale of horrible people doing horrible things, I'm now looking forward to reading more James M. Cain.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Princes in the Tower, by Alison Weir

4 stars

Written before her excellent book on the Wars of the Roses, The Princes in the Tower deals with the latter end of the conflict from the death of Edward IV onwards, as Alison Weir lays out a convincing argument for Richard III being the murderer of the Princes as well as the doer of many other dastardly deeds, therefore prompting the conflict with the Tudors that spelt the end of the sorry saga of the Yorks and Lancasters.

Despite having previously been staunchly loyal to his brother, Edward IV, Richard III has long had a reputation that's one of the blackest in our history. The youngest son of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, he was rumoured to have spent two years in his mothers womb before emerging with teeth, hair to his shoulders, and a humped back. Though it seems likely that he was born with deformities, it also seems that over the years these have been embellished and exaggerated, especially in light of his later reputation, with his perceived evilness of character being exhibited on his person by those writing of him (like Shakespeare, who's responsible for cementing this vision of Richard in the public consciousness via his play, Richard III).

Richard steadfastly supported his brother throughout the wars with the Lancasters (and is widely believed to have been involved in the murders of Prince Edward of Lancaster and Henry VI) and was therefore a natural choice for Protector of the young Edward V on the death of his father (especially as Edward IV's other brother, George, had been executed for plotting the King's demise and the rapaciousness of the Wydvilles, Prince Edward's maternal family, was notorious). However, Elizabeth Wydville clearly disagreed as she immediately spirited herself, her family (minus Edward, who was at the time under the care of his other uncle, Elizabeth's brother Lord Rivers) and quite a lot of the royal treasures to Westminster Abbey, where she claimed sanctuary. While it was apparent that Liz was trying to arrange for Edward to be kept under the control of her family and therefore retain the power she held as Queen, she also clearly feared the danger posed to her and her sons - fears which were justified as within three months Richard had declared his brother a bastard as well as a bigamist, disinheriting his lawful heirs and claiming the throne for himself.

The princes, having since been installed in the Tower of London and kept under Richard's guards, weren't seen alive following his coronation with their murders most likely taking place whilst he was on progress through the kingdom and trying to win the approval of his subjects, many of whom disapproved of the manner in which he'd seized the throne and were fearful for the safety of the princes. While seemingly a pretty good alibi, access to the Tower was restricted only to those with a warrant from the king, and Weir argues convincingly as to who was entrusted with the deed and how it was executed, while discounting theories regarding other suspects (such as Buckingham and Norfolk) or of the princes continued survival (as claimed by not one but two people later identifying themselves as Richard, the youngest of the two).

Certainly it was widely believed in Richard's time (not just in England but throughout Europe) that he'd been the architect of their deaths and this along with other acts of tyranny (he appeared to have no time for legal niceties, executing some of his biggest opponents without trial) and the committing of both adultery and incest with his niece while his wife slowly died...

...saw even those who had previously supported him unite behind the Lancastrian heir Henry Tudor and invite him to claim the throne for himself. Which he did after Richard was killed during the Battle of Bosworth, marrying Richard's niece and former lover Elizabeth York, and thus bringing an end to the rivalry between the houses of Lancaster and York. 

While not quite as insanely good as its sequel, The Princes In The Tower was yet again a deeply compelling, informative and rather convincing book seeking to illuminate one of the greatest 'unsolved' mysteries of the age, and I'm as eager as ever to devour every other book written by Weir.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

5 stars

Well that was fan-FLIPPING-TASTIC! I've just received over 400 pages of the most vivid, fascinating and comprehensive education on the Wars of the Roses at the hands of Alison Weir, that cleared up one of my big misconceptions (I was under the impression that the Yorks were the usurpers, but nooo!) and well and truly plugged the big gaping hole that formed my knowledge of one of the most turbulent times to ever rock the English Crown. And due to the way in which it was delivered - playing up the many personalities that made up the squabbling noble factions concerned (including a wealth of deeply interesting and formidable women, about whom I'd love to learn more) and reading far more like a deadly thriller than a history book, I could easily cane those pages all over again. I'm already looking forward to starting The Princes in the Tower as soon as I possibly can before going on an Alison Weir themed spending/lending splurge.

So, what did I learn? If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read 400 pages, then read on for my…ahem “summary” of events (this could take some time, so settle in).


Lasting more than thirty years, the Wars of the Roses were actually two wars - the first between Lancaster and York which spanned around 16 years, and a later, much shorter war between York and Tudor that resulted in the birth of one of the most successful dynasties to have ever ruled. The roots of all this trouble are traced here back to the rule of Edward III and his many heirs. Old Ed was a rather fertile man, having 13 children (not an unusually high number for the time) including five sons that grew to maturity. Marrying them off to heiresses, Ed would create the first ever English dukedoms for them, thereby also creating the 'magnates' who made up English nobility and were related to the royal line by blood, whose descendants would go on to cause the deaths of thousands in their fights for the Crown.

Ed's eldest son, The Black Prince, would die before Ed himself leaving his 9 year old son Richard as Ed's heir. Richard II wouldn't be a particularly brilliant king, as having been crowned at such a young age he'd had a long time in which to become incredibly self-important, extravagant and ostentatious while also being unstable and bearing grudges against any who dared criticise him (apparently even once having to be physically restrained from running the Archbishop of Canterbury through with a sword). Politically clumsy, he lavished honours, lands and wealth on his favourites, particularly one Robert de Vere (who was suspected of being his lover), dismaying many nobles - particularly Henry of Bolingbroke, Richard's cousin and the eldest son of old Ed III's third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Henry allied himself in opposition to the King's favourites and soon found himself exiled by the increasingly tyrannical Richard. Not stopping there, on the death of Henry's fabulously wealthy father Richard would also decide to allocate that inheritance to himself, pissing Henry off enormously and setting the stage for a confrontation. Returning to England and immediately setting about removing as many of Richard's advisors heads as possible while Richard's soldiers got busy deserting, Henry would soon take Richard prisoner and torture him into abdicating the throne and, conveniently forgetting the heirs of old Ed III's second son, Lionel (through which the York's would later have the better claim to the throne), be proclaimed King Henry IV, setting the dangerous precedent whereby pesky laws of succession wouldn't matter half so much as whoever could win a scrap (with most believing that winning a battle meant God wanted you to be King).

Henry soon discovered that seizing a throne wasn't half as hard as holding onto the bloody thing and his reign was dogged by constant tensions and rebellions, and certainly wasn't helped by the murder...sorry, 'voluntary starvation' of Richard who would become far more popular in death than he ever was in life. By the time the many rebellions had been put down in the latter part of his rule, Henry was suffering from increasing ill health and eventually collapsed and died while on a visit to Westminster Abbey. Surprisingly, given all of the rebellions against his father, his eldest son Henry of Monmouth would succeed him unchallenged to the throne.

Long fawned over by historians for being a great medieval king (i.e. he burnt lots of heretics and was extremely a particularly ruthless and brutal killer on the battlefield, especially of the French, which made him wildly popular with the English of the time) Henry V would also see a few rebellions along the same lines of those against his father, but as well as being extremely good at putting these down (and putting people off having any other rebellious ideas by chaining up and slowly roasting those who did) by this point people had become used to the Lancaster dynasty and didn't feel much inclined towards a change. Until he died, leaving behind a depleted treasury (having dragged the crown into bankruptcy through the long war with France), a bunch of nobles squabbling over whether the war should be continued, and a nine month old heir.

To govern through Henry VI's minority (childhood) a regency government was established in the form of a Council dominated by his squabbling uncles, the Dukes of Gloucester and Bedford. Meanwhile, Lionel's heir the Earl of March dies leaving his vast inheritance (and better claim to the throne) to his nephew Richard, also known as the Duke of York. This inheritance is initially 'sequestered' (i.e. nicked) by the crown, but he's allowed it back when he reaches his majority - for a hefty fee, of course. He's not, however, allowed a place on the Council due to the potential threat he poses to the throne and is instead placed firmly out of the way overseeing English affairs in France which aren't going too well, the French having rejected the treaty which entitled Henry VI to their throne. He'll have to finance this himself, despite promises of the crown meeting his expenses (sounds just like work now!), an early showing of the sort of treatment seemingly designed to provoke and insult him as much as possible - not the sort of behaviour that keeps a powerful potential threat on-side.

On reaching 16, Henry declares himself of age and takes finally takes control of the crown, and immediately shows himself to be spectacularly unsuited to kingship. Weak and inexperienced, naive and gullible, Henry's excessive generosity to his relatives and the many grasping and self-interested nobles surrounding him combined with his inability to stand up to anyone, his excessive piety and his mental instability to weaken him even further. Probably inherited from his mother, Katherine of Valois (daughter of the mad French king Charles VI, there's easily another book that I'd love to read on Katherine's life alone), from early manhood Henry suffered from depressive episodes, sometimes even lapsing into catatonic states. Not only inept when ruling, Henry was often therefore also completely incapable of it.

Despite being little better than a monk when it came to women, Henry married Margaret of Anjou (who made up in beauty and formidability what she lacked in a dowry) and quickly made the situation much worse. Already despised for being French (and for Henry secretly agreeing to give away lands in France in exchange for her hand) Margaret would soon be making most of her husband's decisions for him as he retreated further into his own world of prayer and meditation. Which wouldn't have been quite so bad if she hadn't completely misunderstood (or not given a shit about) the many prejudices of the English and frequently given their enemies advantageous deals, while also being rather corrupt and lavishly rewarding her highly unpopular favourites while insulting those like the Duke of York, who'd effectively beggared himself for the English cause in France only to see the money and reinforcements he was owed being diverted to the incompetent and the grasping. Yet more dukedoms are created for favourites, rivalry between court factions becomes ever more intense, and law and order declines as a blind eye is turned to misbehaving nobles doing whatever they want and people critical of the King's policies, like the Duke of Gloucester, are murdered...sorry, 'die of natural causes' (which were probably being smothered between mattresses).

Eventually, York has had enough and returns to England set on getting the king separated from his awful advisors. Having married Cecily Neville, his thirteen children (which include Edward, George and Richard, later to become famous themselves) are descended thrice over from Ed III, illustrating just how inbred the whole nobility was while also resulting in a much better claim to the throne than Henry's, but for now York is simply eager to reform the regime and promotes himself as a champion of good government, gaining himself much popularity amongst the commons and the enmity of Margaret who treats him more and more like an enemy, eventually succeeding in making him one.

Having become bankrupt, the crown now finds Parliament unwilling to raise any more taxes to pay their debts and fund the ongoing war with France (especially if Henry is busy secretly giving much of what was won back again) and rebellions start to spring up. While proclaiming all traitors will be arrested, Henry flees for Greenwich leaving the Bishop of Salisbury and various other hated nobles to be hacked apart by the people, although Henry's troops will eventually prevail (though not before many of them have also mutinied and run riot through London). A furious York initially evades armed forces sent to arrest him and confronts a terrified Henry in his apartment, who placates him with a position on his Council. But refusing to learn from his mistakes, Henry (Margaret) immediately gets back to losing yet more lands in France and promoting his (her) cronies into positions of power and influence. York prevails, however, when the King lapses into another catatonic state during which Prince Edward is born. Influenced by York, the Council decide they won't recognise him as heir unless Henry - currently completely incapable of doing so - recognises him first and the first of many insinuations is made as to Edward's paternity. A regency government is clearly needed, for which Margaret makes a determined bid but is beaten by York, who is elected by Parliament as Protector of the Realm.

The first thing he does is to order the Queen to withdraw to Windsor which she's not then allowed to leave, before deposing and ordering the arrest of some of her most corrupt favourites and starting to sort out the Crown's finances. At which point Henry promptly recovers and immediately returns everything to the way it was, prompting a backlash against York and his supporters. While the Queen busily whips up Lancastrian support and intercepts York's letters to the king protesting his loyalty, York ignores a royal summons and with his allies Salisbury and Warwick (one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the land) whips up an army and marches to London. The war is on.

The Battle of St Albans resulted in hundreds of deaths and even Henry (who would spend battles sat on his horse under his banner, watching from a distance) getting an arrow in the neck. While he'd survived, the resounding York victory meant that while he was assured by York of his continued loyalty, his apparent subsequent breakdown would see York once again effectively ruling England and for the next few years York and the Queen would vie for control of the King, with York instituting reforms and recovering crown lands that had been given away to favourites only for them to be repealed and returned whenever Margaret had the reins. 

Until the Queen tries to have York's powerful and charismatic ally Warwick murdered, raising tensions and armies. The Yorkists respond with a propaganda campaign, accusing her of tyranny and once again calling into question the paternity of Prince Edward, and there’s an armed confrontation during which York's men are overawed at the sight of the tens of thousands arrayed against them and desert, leaving York and his allies to flee to Calais. With her enemies out of the way in France, Margaret returns to ruling in whichever way she sees fit - which is badly. An English public grown sick of Lancastrian misrule prove highly receptive to the propaganda still being spread, clearing the way for a Yorkist invasion which is given a warm welcome in the cities they travel through (though this is hardly surprising, as it seems most of the commons would cheer for whoever came through their city heavily armed, rather than getting stabbed). 

Another battle, notable for the treachery of nobles switching sides part way through, would result in another York victory and Queen Margaret fleeing to Scotland while Henry is captured. This time though, York would submit the genealogy showing his better claim to Parliament and an Act of Accord is passed naming him heir apparent to the throne and Protector of England. An enraged Margaret raises another army and even invites a foreign one to join her (England's hated neighbours, the Scots), scoring a victory with the deaths of York and his eldest son Edmund in the midst of a battle, their bodies mutilated and their decapitated heads adorned with paper crowns. 

Her triumph wouldn't last long however, as York's claim to the throne had now passed to his eldest remaining son, Edward, who would score a resounding victory at the subsequent and spectacularly bloody Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. The Queen's retreating army robbed, raped and burned their way back across the country with so many atrocities being reported that even staunch Lancastrians start to switch sides, before surprising Warwick at St Albans, killing another few thousand and rescuing Henry from under guard. Meanwhile, Edward races to London where he receives a rapturous welcome (naturally, he is at the head of an army after all), is proclaimed King Edward IV and hailed as the restoration of the true royal line.

It's not a done deal yet though, and with Margaret and her army still haunting the north Edward's army meets the Lancastrians in battle once more. This time the combined armies would number around 2 per cent of the English population at the time, and the resulting Battle of Towton would be the longest, largest and most important battle in the Wars of the Roses. Taking place in the middle of a thick blizzard (and brilliantly recreated in the book), the battle would end with the Lancasters fleeing back to Scotland and as many as 40,000 dead, the ground stained with so much gore that the battleground would shortly become known as The Bloody Meadow.

Now firmly ensconced on the throne, Ed proves to be a much firmer ruler than Henry had been, overhauling and reforming the Council and putting down the continued raids of the Lancasters. When not dealing with matters of state Ed gives himself over to pleasure, becoming notorious for seducing and then abandoning young ladies and presiding over an extravagant court, but powerful marriage alliances between France or Burgundy are scuppered when it turns out he's secretly married a commoner - Elizabeth Wydville, a Lancastrian widow and former lady-in-waiting to Margaret. Having cannily refused to become the love-struck Ed's mistress, the ambitious and greedy Liz wasted no time in promoting her entire family into positions and marriages of wealth and influence, setting up a whole new wave of jealousy between court factions. Meanwhile Margaret, having worn out her welcome with the Scots, starts intriguing with the French while Henry is captured once again and taken to London Tower. It's at around this time that the powerful (and power-hungry) Warwick, having been alienated from Ed by the rapid promotion of the Wydvilles, starts plotting with Ed's equally ambitious brother George to depose Ed and put George on the throne. The old troubles start again as feuding factions, high taxation and the corrupt practices of York favourites lead to outbreaks of violence and frequent uprisings, before Warwick announces his intentions to save the king from evil influence and promptly gives the royal army a royal kicking.

Warwick takes Ed prisoner and attempts to rule in his name, although he's roundly ignored by everyone and soon has no choice but to free him once more. Warwick won't be put off though, and through the intercession of King Louis in France switches his allegiance to the Lancasters. Another invasion is launched.

Once again the invaders find themselves welcomed with open arms by the people of the cities they ride through (that’ll be those swords again) and their forces soon swell to nearly 60,000 men, including many of Ed's deserting army, and Ed has no choice but to flee for Calais. Henry is liberated and restored to the throne, although he's now little more than Warwick's puppet. Another massive army is raised when Ed returns to England and more scraps ensue, resulting in another race to London for the winner to be proclaimed king. Ed gets there first, where Henry is handed over to him by the Archbishop, and then he's off to confront Warwick again who still has an army three times larger, complete with newly invented handguns. They don't matter much though as in the midst of the confusion of battle Warwick's own troops start mistakenly attacking one another, and Warwick is killed while attempting to flee.

With barely any time to rest, Ed is soon facing off against another army - Margaret's (in which the now of age Prince Edward, Henry's son, is seeing active service for the first time). This battle will see Prince Edward dying along with the hopes of the House of Lancaster, with the finishing touch delivered via the murder…sorry, ‘dying of excessive melancholy’ of Henry in the Tower (probably at the hands of Ed's brother Richard). And with that the Wars of the Roses was finally brought to a close, leaving the Lancaster dynasty shattered, thousands of men dead (Margaret herself would eventually die in great poverty in France) and a great many fortunes vanished. Edward would rule over England for a few more years, before his sudden death left his two young sons at the mercies of their Uncle Richard. 

But that's a whole other book…

Monday, 10 November 2014

In The Beginning...Was The Command Line

by Neal Stephenson, 1 star.

Sometimes I can be a complete plonker, but never more so than when I start grabbing virtual copies of books without bothering to read their descriptions. Which is how what I thought would be a little slice of sci-fi turned out to be an essay on computer operating systems.

I’m far more computer-friendly than most people I know and also have a thing about always finishing what I start, but for the first time in years I couldn’t bring myself to finish this, giving no shits whatsoever about the subject.

I normally wouldn’t review a book I hadn’t finished, but as I’m currently 6 books behind schedule on my Goodreads challenge target, I’m claiming it.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike

2.5 stars

I was already really familiar with the film adaptation when I picked this up looking for a campy and fun pre-Halloween read, only to find myself somewhat disappointed at the very different tone of the book (not the only way in which this differs from the film, which also seems to have cast the lead actresses in the wrong roles as well as being in possession of a far more charismatic Darryl Van Horne than the one written). 

Usually I'm a book-first kind of girl, and I did admittedly struggle thanks to having the film so vividly in my head, and found myself continually comparing the two.

Alexandra, Sukie and Jane all reside in the Rhode Island town of Eastwick where their powers flourished once they'd been relieved of their husbands through either death or divorce. They spend their time sleeping with the remaining married men of the town in between their Thursday meetings where they raise their power as a coven and raise small but mean-spirited spells on their neighbours while boozing and gossiping. Until the arrival in town of the mysterious Darryl Van Horne, taking up residence at and renovating the old Lenox mansion. He's soon having the ladies over for orgies, testing the bonds of their friendships and separating them from the rest of the town before disappearing, leaving their friendship forever changed and them facing a new coven of opposing witches, whose own powers arrived once they were deprived of their husbands by our witches. Eventually, our witches too leave town, having magicked themselves up new husbands.

For such a relatively small book it took a long time for me to get through, quite possibly due to the lack of narrative thrust - I'd quite often put it down and then forget to read it again for a few days. And while Updike writes well - and never more so than during the incredibly effective passage on the murder-suicide of the Gabriel's - his flair for description didn't do enough to counteract what I felt as a lack of narrative drive.

Having neither loved nor loathed this, I'm probably not destined to remember much about it either.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory

4.5 stars

The White Queen was a decent book that gave us the War of the Roses from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful former nobody who became the wife of Edward IV. The Red Queen is an excellent book from the Lancaster side, particularly that of Margaret Beaufort – cousin to the Lancastrian King Henry VI, child-bride of Edmund Tudor, possessor of saint’s knees and barely-even-teen-mum to the future King of England Henry Tudor (who was helped in large part to become King by the determination and conniving of his mother).

While not exactly someone I’d have ever wanted to spend any time with (I’d have spent most of my time being denounced for my vile whorish and ungodly ways), Margaret was a truly fascinating and formidable woman and made for a much more compelling central character than Elizabeth, supported by Gregory’s seeming to have far more of a grasp on her voice. The circumstances of her life were also much more interesting (I may point some of the many people who have told me I’m bitter and cynical Margaret’s way, although she is probably near the top of the list of people who’ve ever had just cause for such feelings) and due to the lack of the privileges shown to Elizabeth as Queen was also a far more informative source on the harsh realities of life for the women of her time (whether it be regarding upbringing and expectations, marriage, childbirth, property law, or having your child taken from you for being a possible future threat to the current holder of the throne and still having to serve and obey the shits responsible).

Interestingly (to me), The Red Queen also made me consider what my own position and thoughts might have been at that time with regard to the monarchy. In our present society I’m staunchly anti-monarchy – having not truly ruled over our democratic country in a very long time, I see the Royal Family as a parasitic and unnecessarily expensive tourist attraction that has no more right to their unearned wealth and luxury than my nan does – but I’m also a stickler for rules and so, coupling the laws of succession** with an abhorrence of bloodthirsty shits who can’t even be trusted not to murder their own families let alone vulnerable prisoners...

...I think I’d have been firmly on the Lancastrian side.

While bearing in mind that it is fictionalised, I found The Red Queen brought a turbulent and sometimes confusing period of history to life for me, and I highly recommend it for people like myself who are interested in history but intimidated by more scholarly texts.

**Edited 7 Nov to add:

Having read further into the roots of the Wars of the Roses I now realise that, according to the laws of succession, it was actually the Lancasters that were the usurpers. And while the Yorks were indeed spectacularly stabby, King Henry VI was a particularly crap king who really ought not to have been ruling. So with regard to whose side I'd have been on - they're all as appalling as each other and so I'm declaring myself firmly on the side of the peasants.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Phoenix, by Chuck Palahniuk

4 stars

After Fight Club, I went on something of a rampage through the books of Chuck Palahniuk which only ended once I got to Rant. Not many of Chuck's books since then have really popped up on my radar, but Phoenix makes me think it might be time for us to get reacquainted (in fact, I may need to read Survivor again)

A short story that took no time at all to read but stuck in my mind for a long time afterwards, Phoenix sees us visit the hotel room of Rachel, working away from home and checking in by phone with her husband Ted and three year old daughter April. Except April won't talk to Rachel, and as we learn through flashback of the fate Ted's cat Belinda Carlisle and their former home, this darkly funny tale builds to a disturbing finale.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe

4 stars

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,—

At the grand old age of 35, the only exposure I’ve ever really had to Edgar Allan Poe was in a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode. And so, as we shiver our way towards Halloween this week, I thought it was probably high time to rectify this.

I have to say that I’m really glad I did. I’m not usually much of a poetry fan (mostly to do with reasons as illustrated by the long and pompous introduction to the poem by Edmund Stedman that almost made me hate the poem before I’d even started it), but The Raven still stands the test of time with its wonderfully spooky atmosphere, mournful air, clever rhyme scheme and wonderfully musical rhythm that just begs to be read aloud. If anything, this would be my only complaint – I felt that there was something lost in just reading it, rather than hearing it performed.

And so without further ado I give you The Raven, read by Darth Vader (P.S. If anybody can track down Clancy Brown and make him read this, you will receive my undying devotion).

For iPhone/iPad click here.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory

3 stars

An imagining of the journey of Elizabeth Woodville from widowed mother of two to Queen of England as the wife of Edward IV, to being a widow once more and the mother of the two princes in the tower. As this is the first I've read about this period in our history I can't speak to whether this is an accurate depiction, but I found it a compelling one that finally enabled me to make sense of and differentiate between many of the famous names of the time (which was a feat, as it seems our royal families have always had a lack of imagination when it comes to naming their children and so they're all Edward's, Henry's, Richard's and Williams, with the occasional George thrown in for good measure).

With the events of the War of the Roses being as bloody, backstabby and intense as they were, it would be very hard to make a book with that as its setting boring and Elizabeth Woodville - beautiful, ambitious, vengeful and dogged by rumours of witchcraft - is also a very interesting character. I loved the fact that this was a version of history as seen by the woman at its centre when history books have mostly focused on the men and their wars, although I will admit that I thought the book was stronger when we slipped out of Elizabeth's voice and into that of the historian, putting us at the edges of the battles between Edward and his many foes, particularly in the case of the Battle of Barnet where we got a flavour of the carnage and confusion with men fighting their own armies in the mist.

More than anything, this book really brought home to me once again what a shitty deal women had, being mostly slaves to the whims of their husbands or fathers, and that our rulers have pretty much been whoever was the best and most bloodthirsty killer of their day. Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine made me boggle at the viciousness of the children of Henry II (Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John), but it seems that the Yorks were worse again, constantly laying waste to their own families to further their ambitions for the crown. Their family motto was most definitely not this:

Gregory's isn't the most powerful writing when it comes to placing you inside the heart of the matter - there's a little too much reliance on foreshadowing, and the love of Elizabeth and Edward felt a little Meyer-esque up until they started speaking dispassionately of all of Edward's extra-curricular bonking - but it was good enough for me to pick up The Red Queen next to start learning about how things went down on the Lancastrian side.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

1 star

I think I must have been well and truly spoiled by the Jim Butchers and Kelley Armstrongs of the paranormal genre, as Dead Witch Walking is the latest in a long line of paranormal series I've attempted only to find myself rolling my eyes and tutting loudly nearly every time I turned a page.

In a world post-Turn, where the human population found itself hugely diminished thanks to and still quivering with terror at...um...tomatoes, they've now found themselves living side-by-side with a wealth of supernatural races collectively known as Inderlanders. The wildly irritating Rachel Morgan is a witch and runner for Inderland Security, which polices the supernatural community and tags its ne'er-do-wells. Except she's no longer wanted in the I.S. and, backed by her vampire colleague Ivy and tiny pixy partner Jenks, finds herself on the run from their many assassins (standard I.S. termination policy). Trying to buy herself out of her death, Rachel plans to take down and hand over local big-bad Trent Karramack, but as we'll soon find out Rachel's plans have a habit of being completely crap and falling apart quicker than something that falls apart really quickly.

Constantly overestimated by everybody despite the fact that all of her 'plans' end with her getting captured and having to be rescued by others, Rachel is also constantly jumping to incorrect assumptions as well as having some serious trust issues - as in she refuses to trust anybody who proves they can be trusted, preferring instead to trust people she has just met (but only as long as they act reallllllly suspiciously). In case you can't tell, Rachel made my shit itch as badly as if Jenks had pixed me. 

As Dead Witch Walking preferred to focus more on its characters and their relationships than driving forward the story, the fact that I hated pretty much everyone bar Jenks and his family meant that my only real enjoyment came in rooting enthusiastically for Rachel's death. I'll be pretending that that's what happened come the end instead of reading any more of her adventures.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, by Ed Hamilton

1 star

As a huge music fan as well as being interested in various counter-culture figures, the Chelsea Hotel has always loomed large in my imagination and so a book with this title was always bound to appeal to me. Reading the blurb sent my excitement sky-rocketing even further, promising to immerse me in tales of Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, Thomas Wolfe and a million others besides.

You can imagination my disappointment then when it turned out that this chose to focus on its lesser known but still rather dotty permanent residents instead of the hotel's long and chequered history and famous guests (as for the famous folk, well some guy who might have been Ryan Adams (but maybe not) might have been our author's neighbour for a short time, and Sean Penn once glared at him outside an elevator).

Ordinarily this wouldn't have been enough to disappoint me - interesting people are still interesting people, after all - but the pedestrian way in which the book was written made even the wildest of them seem rather bland, helped no doubt by the author inserting himself into many of these anecdotes (he seems to feel rather superior to many of the residents, making sure to judge, condescend and sneer at them whenever he can). Aside from his bathroom obsession (won't somebody please keep the junkies out of the john?!) and insistence on ferreting through the trash for objects he can put up as 'art', Mr Hamilton is nowhere near as interesting as he thinks he is - nor are the articles included to give a little flavour to the proceedings:

THRILL!! As some guy tries to sell him a watch outside the hotel.

QUIVER!! As he overhears one homeless guy tell another that he doesn't like salad.

GASP!! As he returns a neighbour's wallet found in the bathroom and receives a coffee pot he doesn't like in reward.

RAGE!! As a couple shares a cab with him, and then pay him half the fare.

At one point, chatting to another resident about Ethan Hawke's film 'Chelsea Walls', his neighbour rages, "How can you mess up a movie like that? With all the material this hotel has to offer, all the history! It boggles the mind."

I hope she told him the same thing when she read this book.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King

4 stars

Plain speaking Dolores Claiborne was once the long-suffering wife of Joe St George, as well as the long suffering live-in housekeeper/carer for Vera Donovan, the wealthiest woman on Long Tall Island. But Dolores is no longer either of these things and, as she sits down to talk to the police following Vera’s death, we learn how that came to be.

Having married young, Dolores has repented at leisure ever since. When it comes to his wife Joe St George is free with his fists, but cowardly enough to back off when she stands her ground. He’s also twisted enough to start bestowing more than fatherly affection on his fourteen-year old daughter (his defence? “She’ll be fifteen next month”!), and underestimate what a mother will do when she’s desperate enough.

But this is more than just the story of a woman pushed to extremes by an abusive husband. It’s also the story of the unexpected but deep bond, if not friendship, forged between two women and the indignities and horrors of old age, as Dolores’ employer goes from being a formidable, high-ridin’ bitch (whom I adored) to a bed-ridden and senile old lady, stewing in her own faeces and terrorised by hallucinations.

Told in monologue as Dolores narrates her story to what passes for the law on Long Tall Island, I found this an incredibly atmospheric and effective book with the only downside being the flash of the supernatural that occurs during the eclipse. Whilst I love King’s supernatural books, when the story being told is more rooted in the real, unless it’s happening in someone’s imagination I find that his insistence on bringing a little of the unreal into play snaps me out of the spell somewhat. Still, that’s a minor niggle in a book that was otherwise incredibly compelling and that, at times, felt all too real.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

(ish) stars 

While I’ve seen Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, I’ve not yet read any Dennis Lehane and so I thought it was probably high time I gave him a go. It turns out that having seen the latter would set me in good stead, as in Moonlight Mile I’d apparently picked up the follow-up to Gone Baby Gone. Not only that, I’d also apparently picked up the last in a series. 

Twelve years ago Patrick Kenzie helped return a missing four year-old to a neglectful mother and a hard life. Now a jaded sixteen, Amanda Macready has vanished once again. And once again Patrick is drawn into tracking her down.

Featuring great characters and smart, witty dialogue there was a lot I enjoyed about Moonlight Mile. I enjoyed the writing style and Lehane was great at giving a little depth to even the most peripheral of characters. Not only that, I loved that Patrick was a flawed man doing his best in a flawed world –the cases that we saw him work all had questionable outcomes, and none more so than the original case of Amanda Macready where doing the right thing meant also doing the wrong thing by pretty much everyone involved. 

However, with the introduction of Yefim and the Russian mob in the last quarter, what we gained in comic banter between he and Patrick didn’t make up for what we also gained in cliché. I’d already been starting to compare it unfavourably with Gone Baby Gone, which was the far more interesting case for me, and the stereotypical psychotic Russian crime boss really didn’t help its cause.

I’m sure I’ll come back to Dennis Lehane again – the writing was far too enjoyable for me not to. But next time I’ll probably do a bit more window-shopping before picking blindly.