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).

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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.