Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Runemarks, by Joanne Harris

2 stars

“Seven o'clock, on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the end of the world, and goblins had been at the cellar again...”
With an opening line like that and the blurb promising Norse gods, Runemarks had the potential to become one of my new favourite books. Potential that it then squandered as it edged really, really, really slowly towards its confusing and chaotic end.

Teenaged Maddy Smith lives in the village of Malbry, in a world in which Ragnarok really happened. With the old gods dead or forgotten, they’ve now been replaced by The Order, an Inquisition-like bunch of religious zealots that presides over a suspicious and unimaginative population, making sure that it is regularly ‘cleansed’ of undesirables such as those with runes upon their skin, like Maddy.

Whilst ostracised and sneered upon by her neighbours, Maddy hasn’t yet been murdered by them and so spends her time working low-level rune magic to keep the cellars clear of the goblins that have been increasing in number. But then her old friend One-Eye (ooh, wonder who that might be, wondered no-one ever) sends her into Red Horse Hill on a quest for some treasure, setting her on the path to adventure – one in which she’ll encounter more not-dead gods, sort-of-dead gods, and gods-who-were-dead-but-then-got-better, severed heads and other dimensions, attempt to thwart prophecies, find out who she really is, and save the Nine Worlds from ending.

I enjoyed the early part of the book and the world and magic system that was set up – even the fingering (fnar!) that the practice of magic through runes required that makes anyone taking part in a battle look like they’ve got to the finger-tutting part of their breakdancing routine.

Sadly, instead of my enjoyment increasing once we got involved with the gods, it all went rather downhill from the moment Maddy entered Red Horse Hill, and while a lot happened on her trek through the Underworld and into others – far much to go into here – reading it felt rather like wading through treacle and seemed to take aeons to get through. The gods were all well presented – especially Loki, who gets all of the charm and the best lines (although I have to fear for the intelligence of a heroine who puts her trust in, and is always taken aback when someone known as a liar and who’s even referred to throughout as the Trickster, turns out to be a liar), but Norse mythology can be slightly confusing at the best of times and this wasn’t helped as Maddie’s quest progressed and we starting bumping up against the realms of Chaos and Dream. I understand that Chaos and Dream are, well, chaotic and dreamlike, but towards the end it got so chaotic that it soon became the reading equivalent of this:

Sometimes it’s not about the destination, but the journey. In this case, I should have probably stayed at home.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Pearl, by John Steinbeck

3.5 stars

Even the simplest of John Steinbeck’s stories carry a timeless power, and The Pearl is no exception. 

Apparently the re-telling of a Mexican folk-tale, here we meet fisherman Kino and his family. When Kino’s baby, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion, they are turned away by the avaricious doctor that resides in town due to their lack of money. Then Kino finds a great pearl, as big as a seagull egg, and everything changes. As those around him try to chisel some fortune for themselves out of his luck, or cheat him of it entirely, Kino becomes harder, prouder and fearful for his family – and with good reason.

An effective parable illustrating how capitalism only really benefits the few, while the rest of us are chewed up and spat back out, Steinbeck should be mandatory reading for everyone who puts profit before people.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

3 stars

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is exactly the sort of book title that makes my fingers want to start flinging cash at book stores. Add that everyone and their aunt seems to have had a fit of the wibbles when it comes to this trilogy, and you can easily see why I’ve finally succumbed.

The mysterious Karou is a 17 year-old art student, studying in Prague. Her hair grows blue, her tattoos are ever changing, and she claims the fantastical characters that populate the pages of her notebooks are her family. She’s not lying, either. Frequently disappearing on errands for Brimstone, the chimaera wishmonger who’s raised her as his own, Karou isn’t really sure what happens with all of the teeth she’s sent to collect. Nor is she sure how the wishes she’s always using have come to be. But when mysterious black handprints start appearing on the doors to Elsewhere, the place she was raised, and Karou comes face to face with an angel apparently set on killing her, she’s set on a path where she’ll not only find the answers to these questions, but that of who she really is.

I absolutely adored the first half of this book – Taylor writes beautifully and imbues her world with a fairytale magic that is hard to resist. I loved the chimaera and the idea of magical currency, and the settings were also imbued with a fantastical, romantic air. Sadly, that wasn’t to last, and as soon as Karou came eye to cartoon-heart-filled eye with the angel Akiva, a little of the magic was lost for me. As the setting of the story got more fantastic and we found out more about Elsewhere, Karou’s back story and the centuries long war between the chimaera and the seraphim, what should have sent me spinning off into the stratosphere with the awesomeness of it all (a heroine with horns and bat-wings? Hell, yeah!) soon had me plummeting into another-sodding-romance annoyance as the love story took over as the primary focus.

It’s probably my fault as the reader for not properly reading the synopsis or any reviews before plunging in, as it’s certainly not Taylor’s writing which, as I said, is beautiful. Given another story (with less focus on romance) I could even become a bit of a fan. It’s just not going to be this story.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Street Magic, by Caitlin Kittredge

1 star

I've been casting about for a new paranormal series to start chomping my way through, but if Street Magic accomplished anything, it was to prove that Black London is not going to be that series. Set in a London in which the walls between this world and the shadow-world that runs parallel are very thin, children are going missing. And tough female cop Pete Caldecott is going to need the help of street-mage Jack Winter, who supposedly died in front of her 12 years ago, to get them back...

Some books, like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, dream up a shadowy parallel London that is wonderful and strange while still feeling plausible and recognisably London. Street Magic is not one of those books. Aside from a few mentions of place names and some mangled Brit-speak we could have been anywhere, parallel London - the Black - was a good idea that we then barely bothered with, and our main characters, Pete and Jack, were probably supposed to be charming assholes but unfortunately forgot to show any charm.

We know that Pete is a tough cop because she's always threatening to put her boot up someone's arse, being bitchy when it's not called for, and thinking nothing of indulging in a little breaking and entering or a spot of police brutality. Her detective work is based mostly around arching an eyebrow - it's certainly not based on anything like, I don't know, piecing together evidence or asking any pertinent questions (despite having apparently seen Jack die, it takes her 3/4 of the book to ask why the hell he's not dead, wonder why everyone keeps calling him a crow-mage, or what the hell that means anyway) and she seemed to forget all about the missing children for long stretches of time in favour of thinking about or looking at Jack instead.

The wildly off-putting Jack is a really crap version of Constantine who seems to have learnt to speak English solely through listening to Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Spike and, as well as having no redeeming features whatsoever, is responsible for some of the more unsuccessful attempts at being British (you won't find many of us who use 'fuck all' or 'bugger all' as exclamations - they're instead swearier ways of saying 'nothing', i.e: 

And as for all the magic, I've still no idea what gives Jack such super bloody special status amongst mages, how much of the magic worked, or why sorcerers are so supposedly badass when they can be easily vanquished, again and again, by someone with no clue as to how to fight them, as instead of building a plausible world or magic system we'd settled instead for pulling random plot points and magic rules from out of someone's ass.

To top it all off, with long stretches of nothing happening other than two unlikeable people bitching at one another and any action that did occur quickly becoming repetitive, what should have been a little piece of brain candy took forever to slog through. I won't be wasting any more precious reading time in this world.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Gerald's Game, by Stephen King

3 stars

A study in tension and utter helplessness as a sex game between husband and wife goes horribly wrong, Gerald's Game introduces us to Jessie and Gerald, who have been experimenting with a little light bondage in an effort to perk up their sex life. Handcuffed to the bed in their lake house, Jessie is no longer enjoying herself. Gerald, however, is enjoying himself quite a lot, possibly even more now that his rape fantasies may be about to become a reality, and so a scared and angry Jessie lashes out...and things get much, much worse. With an unmoving Gerald lying at the end of the bed, her world shrunk to the tiny area in which she can move and her body wracked with pain and dehydration, Jessie knows no-one will be coming to rescue her. 

When dealing with the tension of the primary thread in which Jessie is trapped, this book really worked for me, as well as when dealing with the childhood abuse and the guilt and shame that she'd struggled to repress - even while it made for distressing reading. But I wasn't particularly keen on the other person in the room aspect, as I thought that had worked much better when it was more likely a figment of Jessie's stricken night-terrors, and I also found the internal voices something of a struggle - almost jarring at times (was it supposed to suggest some sort of schizophrenia? Or were they supposed to be the kind of voices we all talk to all the time?) Unfortunately, these mostly reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey's 'inner goddess' and spinsterish 'subconscious', and once this lodged I kept sniggering inappropriately, particularly whenever faced with the image of what would have been Christian Grey being gnawed on by a dog formerly known as Prince. 

Overall this wasn't a bad book, in fact some of it ranks up there with some of King's most tense and effective writing, but for me it was ever so slightly weighed down by all the extra baggage towards the end.

Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt, by John Cooper Clarke

4 stars

When I was 15, I was pretty certain that poetry just wasn't for me. I could see why others liked it, but nothing I'd read so far really seemed to be speaking to me. And then, hidden away on a punk mix-tape (I was at least 15 years out to have actually been there), I stumbled across Kung Fu International: 

For iPhone/iPad click here.

Poetry was no longer just the province of long-dead men in cravats contemplating the nature of love, but of men in drain-pipes, contemplating the nature of getting your head kicked in in a phone box. Something told me that this dude was more punk than anyone else snarling away on my tape, but little did I know then that Kung Fu International wasn't even his best.

Ten Years In an Open Necked Shirt is a brilliant collection of John Cooper Clarke, which includes my favourite:

For iPhone/iPad click here. well as more of his other best and most-known works, plus a few others.

Full of acerbic wit, this is full of lines I'd like to memorise so that I can pull them out the next time I'm called upon for a witty comeback (or so I can spew A Love Story In Reverse at them, if they've really annoyed me. Oh, you haven't heard that one? Here, let me oblige) 

For iPhone/iPad click here.

The only reason this is getting a 4 rather than a 5 is solely down to not hearing them spoken in Clarke's nasal, Salford twang (although my imagination did its best to supply it).

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Mauritius Command, by Patrick O'Brian

5 stars

Running off to sea again with Lucky Jack Aubrey and his BFFF (and my imaginary boyfriend) Dr Stephen Maturin has been long overdue, and so it was with an eager hand that I opened The Mauritius Command. I wasn't disappointed as it turned out to be as rollicking good fun as its predecessors, even if I still don't know my mizen from my masthead.

Having married his sweetheart, Sophie, and settled in a long-dreamed for cottage, The Mauritius Command finds Jack Aubrey on land and on half pay. His dreams didn't quite match reality, however, and the cottage is not only pokey but also contains his domineering mother-in-law and two hairless twins who, to make matters worse, aren't even boys. His cabbages are being munched by caterpillars, and even the bees that were Dr Maturin's gift have died (not the bees!). Thank heavens then, for the timely reappearance of Stephen and a set of secret orders to sail the frigate Boadicea to the Cape and onto Mauritius, where Jack is to harry the French while flying a Commodore's pendant.

A step-up in command brings its own problems, however, and Jack is soon striving for success while managing the difficult personalities of the Captains under him - the showy and insecure Clonfert, the capable but cruel Corbett who takes better care of his brass than his men, and Pym, the numpty whose incompetence nearly spells disaster - while Stephen spreads subversive literature and schools the crews in an early bit of Hearts and Minds - no thieving and raping, please, gentlemen! 

Everything that I've come to love about this series is still present and correct - the fantastic characterisation, the astounding amounts of food that Jack puts away, the wonderful insights into life at sea and the throwaway asides that make me snort ("...the surviving swine struck down into the hold together with the goat, which, in the general silence, could be heard bleating angrily for its long overdue tobacco") and most of all, the relationship between Jack and Stephen ("Jack loved him, and had not the least objection to granting him all the erudition in the world, while remaining inwardly convinced that in all practical matters other than physic and surgery Stephen should never be allowed out alone.")

Ahhhh, Stephen. Skilled surgeon, dedicated naturalist, super-spy, the man I'd most want on my side in an argument and an all round colossus of a character, Stephen has wormed his way into being my favourite character of all time, and made it look as easy as kiss my hand. Wibble.

I was going to give this a four as its not even the best that I've read in this series so far, but sod it. I loved every minute of it so much, it's getting a five.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Getting Old at Colston Hall

Well, yesterday it was Bristol - Colston Hall to be exact. And after a short road trip and a mooch around, so were me and Rerab.

After a viewing of Jay & Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie (a movie which has already apparently bought Jay a house...nice!) it was time for a Get Old Q&A Podcast, including the now obligatory sex story from Jay, the giving of hugs, a celebration of Jay's 4 years clean and his attempt (and failure - you had one job, man!) at doing this:

For iPhone/iPad click here.

This was all rounded off, naturally, with a game of Let Us Fuck. 

Sadly, there were no recreations of Goodbye Horses (which is probably a good thing, as I was already nearly overcome with heat exhaustion):

For iPhone/iPad click here.

But it was still enough to make me want to steal a monkey.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

4 stars

All things must die, but what about Death itself?

In Reaper Man we find out, as Death is given an expiration date and sods off to get a bit of living in. Finding work on the farm of Miss Flitsworth, Death becomes Bill Door and finds that, like many more before him, when his time comes he really doesn’t want to go. 

Unfortunately for the residents of Ankh-Morpork and in particular one Windle Poons, recently deceased wizard, Death’s absence has left too much life-force knocking about with some strange consequences, including the popping into existence of little snow-globes. Not such a bad problem on the face of it, but wait until they hatch…

Continuing the Discworld trend of books starring Death being better than the others (save for the City Watch – and bumping into Sergeant Colon guarding a bridge from theft made me miss those guys) there were quite a few little treats in this entry, including Mrs Cake the medium (but more of a small), a shy banshee who can’t face wailing at people so instead slips notes under their doors, the Death of Rats, and a little shout-out to the Scott Expedition’s Lawrence Oates (“I’m just going outside and may be some time”) that made my lip unexpectedly wobble...

...Reaper Man now ranks fairly highly amongst my favourite Discworld books to date.

More Death, please!