Thursday, 31 December 2015

Rasputin, by Edvard Radzinsky

5 stars

Just a little over a year ago, I asked Santa to bring me some books on historical bastards. This was one of the treats that Santa (or rather, NikNak) responded with.

Rasputin - looks like a creepy bastard, right?

Prior to reading this, the only thing I really knew about Rasputin was that he was apparently Russia’s greatest love machine (thanks, Boney M). I now know that he was actually just Russia’s most persistent lech, but I also learnt a lot more (including the surprising revelation that this all happened so recently. Thanks to the ready acceptance of mystical bullshit on the part of the Royals, I’d thought this all took place in like, olden times.) 

Born a peasant in a Russia that very much gave a shit about that sort of thing, Rasputin spent most of his youth apparently being drunk and violent, before a sudden change of heart led him to travel the country visiting holy places and like, finding himself, man. Instead of just getting a bit religious, he’d go the whole hog and soon make a name for himself through his ‘prophetic visions’ and performing of ‘miracles’. Which would bring him to the attention of a Royal Family already prone to religious gullibility and worried for the health of their young son and haemophiliac heir.

Having already been hypnotised by another chancer into thinking she was pregnant (who explained, come her humiliation come her time of confinement and realisation that she was as pregnant as I am, that the pregnancy had disappeared due to her lack of faith), the tsarina was soon eating out of Rasputin’s hand (not literally), claiming his enemies as her own and alienating everyone else around her. As the Royal Family became increasingly isolated by the rest of their own family, the court, the church and the government, Rasputin would be dogged by controversy. Especially once he reverted back to drinking.

Rasputin during an early rehearsal for John Lennon's Bed-In
(not really, he's recovering from an unsuccessful assassination attempt)

Already prone to groping anyone he could get his hands on and visiting, sometimes in just one day, many, many prostitutes (apparently he could totally cleanse you of sin by having sex with you), he was also believed to be controlling the tsarina (although the tutor to the royal children had it right when they said, 'His prophetic words most often merely confirmed the hidden wishes of the empress herself. She herself did not suspect that she had induced them, that she was their 'inspirer'. Her personal wishes, passing through Rasputin, acquired in her eyes the force and authenticity of revelation.') But the belief of his influence, alongside his penchant for bragging about his connections and power whilst slaughtered, would apparently wind up the wrong people and he would eventually be murdered by two members of the Royal Family and a leading politician – a murder that would help build his legend, no doubt thanks to Prince Felix’s dramatic description of the murder which read like something out of a zombie novel (“…With an abrupt, furious movement, Rasputin sprang to his feet. He was foaming at the mouth. He was horrifying. The room resounded with a savage roar, and I saw the flash of his convulsively clenched fingers. Then, like red-hot iron, they sank into my shoulder and reached for my neck…”).

A big, thick book that I ripped through in a matter of days, I couldn’t put this down thanks to the incredible details of Rasputin’s life. Making a legend much more human (even if he was a very, um, complicated man), this was packed with astonishing, sometimes awful and sometimes hilarious facts (I don’t know why I find this so funny, but on being challenged on why he kept taking young ladies to bathhouses, he replied, 'The society misses were so puffed up with pride, and in order to deflate it, it was necessary to humiliate them by forcing them to go to the bathhouse with a dirty peasant.').

I could have filled this review with a million of my favourite excerpts, but you really ought to read them for yourself. Go on.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pawnee, by Leslie Knope

4 stars

If you're a fan of Parks & Recreation (and if you're not, do yourself a favour and watch it) then you'll find a lot to love in this jaunt through Pawnee in the company of The Author (and my imaginary BFF) Leslie Knope.

Find out about the dodgy history of the home of Sweetums and feral raccoons, the culinary delights of JJ's Diner (don't forget to try the waffles) and the former names of Mouse Rat. Snigger quite a bit through Ron's cabin and April's college diaries. Just don't leave the book on your bathroom floor once you're done - Leslie worked really hard on this, you guys.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Deadpool Vol1: Dead Presidents, by Posehn, Duggan & Moore

4 stars

A disillusioned necromancer, saddened at the state of modern America, raises all of America’s dead presidents with the aim of saving his country. Unfortunately, it turns out that the deceased leaders think that what America really needs saving from is Americans, and they set about cleansing the country with aplomb. SHIELD is struck with scandal from the start, when Captain America makes the headlines for decapitating Harry Truman, and realises it can’t afford to pit its popular heroes against dead patriots. Instead of superheroes, what they really need is a scumbag. And so there’s really only one guy for the job.

Fabulously drawn, my second adventure with Deadpool was just as fun as my previous and prompted at least one snort (and often more) from me per page. I’m looking forward to hanging out with him much more often in the future.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Genghis: Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden

3.5 stars

…Or, as I like to call it, Genghis 2: Empire-Building Boogaloo, in which Genghis – you guessed it – further builds his empire having united the tribes into one vast and terrible army. With the tribes now all under his control, Genghis isn’t content to sit back and count the rancid mutton and has instead settled his sights on an old enemy of his people: The Chin. First taking Xi Xia (and one of their princesses for a second wife), Genghis shows that his people aren’t just good at annihilating their enemies from atop their ponies, but are masters of the siege and – more importantly – propaganda too.

Learning from every enemy he comes across, and being more than a little sneaky when he needs to, it’s easy to see why Genghis (at least how he’s characterised here) made such a stunning impact on world history. He wasn’t just hard as nails (here surviving not just many battles but also assassins with poisoned blades), but fabulously cunning too. Although, having no idea about how this all went in real life, I have a funny feeling that his one blind spot (his alienation of his eldest son, Jochi) is going to come back to bite him in the ass.)

The battles that spatter these pages are more than a little pulse-pounding, and I’m still struck with awe at what terrifying warriors the Mongolians must have been, but having read the first two back to back I’ll be taking a wee break from the series for a bit as my time in this world was starting to feel ever so slightly samey towards the end.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden

5 stars

Everything I know about Genghis Khan, I learnt from Bill and Ted. He may not totally ravage any sporting goods stores in this, and I have nothing but the afterword to go by regarding its accuracy, but it's one hell of a compelling and already blood-soaked book, and we're only at the beginning of the story.

The sons of Yesugei, khan of the wolf tribe, have been brought up hard. The life of the tribe is a harsh one - constantly at war with other tribes (as well as the Tartars) and eking out their existence in an unforgiving land (where something you have to soften under your saddle for days is a culinary treat, while fast food means drinking straight from your mare's veins). Following Temujin - our Genghis - from birth through his father's death and his family's cruel abandonment by the tribe, through his getting a wife and beginning to gather the tribes to him as one, I loved every moment of this and have been sucked entirely into the world that Iggulden has built. 

Having already had a lifetime's worth of action as I've torn through this opener, I'm now kind of glad that Bill and Ted didn't burden me with too much knowledge as I can just sit back and let me eager fingers tear through the pages, blissfully unaware of what's to come. Bring it on!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand & Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette

by Hampton Sides. 5 stars.

Since reading The Worst Journey in the World a few years ago I’ve been fascinated by explorers, particularly those venturing into the polar regions. Where Scott and his men were attempting to reach the South Pole, In The Kingdom of Ice is concerned with the other side of the world and takes place in the previous century, at a time when it was believed that once you broke through the ice around the Bering Strait you’d follow warm currents into a warm, open sea around a temperate Pole. 

Unfortunately for the USS Jeanette and her men, they were soon to discover that this was very far from the case.

A non-fiction book that reads like a thriller (which was no doubt helped by the fact that I hadn’t the first clue about this expedition or its outcome) I read this book in two sittings, huddled under a duvet and tearing through the pages long into the night as the ship became first trapped in ice (for over a bleeding year!) and then sank, leaving her men stranded in the Arctic with no hope of rescue. 

The sheer determination it must have taken for them not to have given up there and then is unimaginable to me – and that’s even before the attempts to try and cross the ocean, then Siberia, in the hopes of stumbling across salvation. That anyone made it back at all is astonishing. That someone then went back in the hopes of finding those still missing is truly astounding.

I take my hat off to all of the incredible people in our history who have taken on such incredible feats, and to the people who write about them and let me experience (albeit from the comfort and safety of my living room) even a little of their magnificence.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

4.5 stars

Visitors to the Waystone Inn would be forgiven for thinking that the mild-mannered innkeeper is just that. But having just laid waste to some demons who made the mistake of attacking a regular, it seems there’s a little more to this innkeeper than meets the eye. Tracked down by a famous scribe, The Chronicler, the innkeeper starts telling the story of how an orphaned travelling player survived a feral childhood on the streets, joined a magical university, and became a legendary badass.

Instantly sucked into Kvothe’s world, I am now desperate for my very own Bast (Please, Santa?) and can’t wait to find out more about him and how he fits into Kvothe’s world. If I had any quibbles at all with the book, it’s that it ended. 

I’ve already ordered the next.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer - by Johnathan L Howard

4 stars

I’m more than a little behind with my reviews (for the usual reasons) as I actually read this one over Halloween weekend - and a very good Halloween read it was too.

Johannes Cabal, necromancer, sold his soul to the devil years ago and now he wants it back, leading to his current predicament. He’s made another wager with the devil, you see – if he can get him 100 new souls in the next year, he can have his back – which is how he’s become the head of the travelling Carnival of Discord, designed entirely to corrupt and tempt as it makes its way through small town after small town.

As well as being a supercilious ass, Johannes Cabal turned out to be immensely good fun, giving me plenty of genuinely laugh out loud moments while still starring characters that were really quite human (despite being, y’know, mostly not human).  Feeling like a slightly less nice Douglas Adams had written Something Wicked This Way Comes, it was rather pleasing to find out that this is only the beginning of a series. I can’t imagine it will be long before I pick up the next.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Urban Shaman, by C.E. Murphy

3.5 stars

If I’d read this book at any other time I probably wouldn’t have rated it quite so highly, but Urban Shaman gave me my reading mojo back (I inhaled it in a matter of hours at the start of a day off) and so it gets a thumbs up from me.

When police force mechanic Joanne Walker spots a damsel in distress from her aeroplane seat (yeah, I know, stay with me) she feels compelled to track her down and help. Enlisting the aid of an ageing cabbie on landing, she soon finds herself confronting her Celtic and Native American heritage (and real name of Siobhan Walkingstick) and newly awakened shaman powers (yeah, I know, shut up). Which is handy, as it turns out some Celtic deities have decided that they’re relocating to Seattle.

While the writing wasn’t always spectacular, I liked the sarcasm on display from most of our characters at the situations they were finding themselves in (Gary the elderly cabbie was a particular favourite) as well as the characterisation of the deities, even if I didn’t always enjoy the way some of the magic scenes – with vague metaphors of fixing cars – were handled (these were especially vague to me as I know nothing about cars and have no wish to rectify this). That said, I did appreciate that Joanne’s magic skills were all about healing, rather than the killing skills the heroines of these types of book usually develop, and found it a refreshing change that I hadn’t been aware I’d wanted from this genre.

I won’t be adding the rest of the series to the top of my to-read pile just yet, but they’re definitely in there somewhere, ready for the next time I need some brain candy.

The Time-Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer

2 stars

This book fell victim to the Great Brain Drain of October 2015 – a month in which I was so busy that I barely sat down to read at all and when I did, I’d find my brain skittering off the page and back to worrying, planning and fretting at whatever I’d been trying to take a break from. And so, a book that would normally be my kind of catnip – full of mostly interesting facts about medieval life, and this time including more ordinary people alongside the great and the good – gets just 2 measly stars from me.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O'Brian

4 stars

As we’ve now reached the eighth book in this superlative series, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed it immensely, as it seems that Patrick O’Brian is incapable of writing anything I don’t enjoy. Even when not much is happening.

The Ionian Mission is nowhere near as action-packed as its predecessors, as instead of dashing up and down the Med taking prizes, Jack and his crew are now just one small part of a blockade. Without much fighting or sailing to do, Jack can’t bank on his strong skills (and luck) in those regards and is instead having to push his little grey cells into playing politics.

It’s a testament to O’Brian’s writing and fantastic characters that the daily life of an all but stationary ship and a bored crew can still make such great reading. And while I might have missed my beloved Stephen a little at times (he’s still here, but off-ship or in the background for a good part of it) the sarcastic and nagging Killick made sure that I still got more than my fair share of smirks and sniggers. Add in a quick stopover in my hometown where a purchase of cheap gunpowder results in Jack’s ship sending cannons across the water powered by shrieking flashes of fireworks, and the result is me being tickled pink. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard

4 stars

I’m more than a little tardy with this review having finished it over a week ago, partly due to being ridiculously busy but also because…how do you review a book like this? A Stolen Life isn’t going to be winning any Nobel prizes for literature, but it’s such a powerful book it seems churlish to down-rate it for any lack of literary flourishes.

When she was just 11 years old, Jaycee Dugard was abducted while walking to school. For the next 18 years, she was held captive in the ‘secret backyard’ of Phillip Garrido for his sexual gratification, birthing two daughters by the time she was 17 years old. Aided and abetted by his equally sick and twisted wife, Nancy (who not only knew that her husband was raping a child in their back yard but who also scouted girls for him), Garrido would somehow manage to avoid the scrutiny of the parole officers and other members of authority (he had previously been convicted of sexually assaulting a 14 year old) who not only managed to never take more than a quick peek around his property but also never thought to question the word of a convicted sex offender about who the fuck the little girls living at his house were (it seems I still haven't calmed down a week after reading this). It would eventually take him actually taking Jaycee and her two children into a parole office with him for the authorities to realise the identities of the girls and reunite Jaycee with her family.

Told in Jaycee’s own words, her story is not only harrowing and heartbreaking but also astonishing for the quiet strength that enabled her to not only survive her 18 year ordeal but to emerge still hopeful for her future and that of her children. Having had to educate herself in the years of her captivity, Jaycee has a very simple writing style which really places you in the shoes of her 11 year old self, with the jumbled timeline and interjections recreating her own childish confusion at what was and did happen to her and enabling the reader to understand how her dependency on Garrido for everything could make her afraid of his control being taken away.

While not an easy book to read, A Stolen Life is a very powerful one, and one I don't think I’ll ever forget.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Gossip From The Forest, by Sara Maitland

4 stars

I've long had a fascination with the woods. For me, a large part of their appeal comes from how they spark my imagination (which is heavily influenced by the fairytales with which I grew up). Therefore feeling as though it was written especially for me, Sara Maitland's lovely book look at precisely these things - forests and fairytales - taking in their tangled histories and how they have inspired and influenced one another.

Above: Venford - just one of the magical spots that can be found in my, er, neck of the woods
(courtesy of NikNak - for more from his Flickr stream click here.

Each chapter focused on a different forest at a different time of the year, and a different element of forestry and fairytale theme. Reading during my lunch breaks, each felt like I'd just taken my own refreshing stroll through the woods (I also learnt rather a lot, and now can't stop noticing pollarded trees). Even better were the retellings of well known fairytales that ended each stroll and that showed each tale in a fresh light.

A delight nearly every step of the way (with a star deducted simply due to some editing mistakes present in my copy), I highly recommend Gossip From The Forest to any fellow nemophiles.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

2 stars

In Never Let Me Go we meet Kathy, a carer, as she’s brought into the orbit of two of her old schoolfriends, Ruth and Tommy, prompting her to look back over their shared past and to contemplate their futures.

It’s soon clear that Hailsham, the school where Kathy and her friends were reared, isn’t your typical school but one where the students have no contact with the outside world and are driven to create by art-obsessed teachers who are forever dropping little hints about how special the students are. It takes a little while for the students’ special purpose to become clear – and it’s a very interesting special purpose – but sadly I can’t say the same for the rest of the story.

Whilst I enjoyed the bits set at school as we watched Kathy and her friends grow up along with the slow drip of information that slowly reveals the truth of the students’ situation, I found that once this was revealed the rest of the story – with the late love realisation and attempts at deferrals (I won’t say of what for fear of spoilers) - a little pointless and even a bit dull, and I’d often find myself putting the book down for something more interesting to do in between chapters.

Having spent so long on the lead up, the last third of the book also felt a little rushed, despite me finding it boring, with the bulk of the important missing pieces being revealed in one big information dumping speech right near the end. While I was glad that this meant that the love stuff was over pretty quickly, I felt that some of the things brought up in this speech – such as how students at other institutions were raised, and how they’re seen by society – would have been made for a much meatier story.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Love's Curse, by Darren Gallagher

2.5 - 3 stars

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*

Love’s Curse is a fast-paced zombie adventure that had me wavering between 2 and 3 stars - it needed just a little more meat on its bones for me to really sink my teeth into.

Since the zombie apocalypse arrived, Justin and his friends have been sheltering in the fairly safe haven of a Post Office Sorting Office, venturing out only on food and supply scavenging missions. That is, until Justin receives a phone call begging for help from a girl he’s long pined for and, despite the protests of his friends (who don’t think much of Camille), is soon winding his way across the country to go to her aid – only what he finds when he arrives isn’t quite what he was hoping for.

While I was intrigued by the set-up and liked the pace with which the story was told (the action scenes were a particularly highlight – especially the one at the petrol station), I found the focus on Justin and the dynamics of his relationship with Camille to be rather restrictive. I would have liked to have known more about the zombie outbreak and Justin’s history with his friends – when did it start? Did society collapse all at once? How did he and his friends manage to survive? Are they bothered by what they’ve been through? How are their phones all still working? Was Camille ever an actual girlfriend? What is it he likes about her? 

I must admit that I struggled with the dynamics of the relationship between Camille and Justin and, aside from not being clear why he liked her (other than thinking she was beautiful) and at the risk of sounding like a pretentious actor, I didn’t understand the motivations behind the actions of she and Vic come the end of the book. A better understanding of this, and a few more details on things other than those that affected Justin’s love life would have gone a long way to build a better picture of the world our characters were living in and helped bump up my rating.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

4 stars

1321 turned out to be a pretty cruddy year for the village of Ulewic.

Times are tough – crops are failing and the meagre harvests are blighted with mould, while the livestock is falling foul of disease, and what passes for the local power is too busy preying on the populace to be of much help.

Ruled over by a lord obsessed with chastity whose nephew is obsessed with relieving people of theirs – consensually or not - their priest is also too busy fornicating, and then worrying about getting caught, to attract any to his flock. Instead, the villagers turn to the beguinage on its doorstep for help and charity, or to the older gods and the Owl Masters that apparently serve them for justice and revenge.

It’s with the women of the beguinage – a community of religious women of the kind that apparently flourished across Europe at the time – that this story is chiefly concerned. Already suspicious due to being foreigners, and attracting the ire of what passes for the church due to being women and for not doing exactly as the priest says, when the daughter of the local lord becomes one of their number events are set in motion to sorely test their faith.

Breathing life into an age that was dogged by superstition, bullied by the church, where the less fortunate were the playthings of the powerful and where being a woman is one of the biggest sins anyone could commit, The Owl Killers told its tale slowly and effectively, with multiple narrators showing us multiple viewpoints and letting us question what we’d seen or been told (although not all of the narrators were as effective as others and the slowness sometimes felt a little too slow) but the end result was largely an atmospheric and intelligent take on the lives of women in medieval England.

Read it when the nights are drawing in, the wind is blowing and the rain is dripping from the trees and you'll soon be nervously eyeing every bird (and man, especially religious ones) that crosses your path.

Rogues, by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois

3 stars

An anthology of stories all featuring - you guessed it - rogues, while the entries within have been gathered from across a variety of genres, my favourites – Joe Abercrombie’s blistering opener, Tough Times Ahead (featuring not one, not two, not three, but a whole town of rogues), Scott Lynch’s A Year And A Day In Old Theradane, and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Lightning Tree – were all plucked from the fantasy branch of the bookstore.

While there were a fair few stories of a high standard featured – as well as my favourites there were other great entries from Neil Gaiman, Carrie Vaughn, Daniel Abraham and Bradley Denton (the only non-fantasy flavoured that really got me going) – there were also more than a couple of duds. It was another fantasy that really scraped the barrel here for me, in the form of Matthew Hughes’ The Inn Of The Seven Blessings which really should have been read aloud by Jemaine Clement in Gentleman Broncos ("This part of the forest had become uninhabited after Olverion's final misjudgment and the large predatory beasts that now roamed free had no compunctions against dining on wereflesh.")

Ending with a short tale from George RR Martin, as with all of the other anthologies he’s busy putting together instead of writing the end of a particular story, I’m starting to find that these enders are neither here nor there for me. Detailing the lives of past Targaryen’s in a dusty, dry style that’s nowhere near as visceral and involving as what I’ve previously inhaled of Westeros, I’m starting to find that I now give no shits whatsoever what might have happened to whichever Targaryen was the sister-marrying psycho in charge at the time.

So, while there were a couple of 5 starred stories in there (the three mentioned at the top), the majority of the 21 stories (2/3 of them, in fact) dragged the score down a couple of notches to a mostly entertained (but not always) 3.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

5 stars

Narrated by the ghost of a man killed during the building of the Bahia de Darwin cruise ship, Galapagos is an absurd, original and funny look at the evolution of man, from the perspective of a million years into our future.

Detailing the tiny accidents, coincidences and circumstances (mostly caused by humanity's troublesome big brains) that led to the few passengers booked on to the 'Nature Cruise of the Century' during a financial crash getting trapped on a Galapagos island and unwittingly becoming the ancestors from which the future human race evolved, once again Vonnegut packed more wit, perception and ideas into a page than most manage in an entire book.

Filled with wonderful observations from our ghost and interjections from Mandarax (an invention of one of the Darwin's passengers that's almost a primitive Hitchhikers Guide), Galapagos was yet another of his works that makes me wish I could kiss Vonnegut's magnificent big brain. Instead I settled for highlighting all of the parts that delighted me, and now my copy is basically one big highlight.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Half A War, by Joe Abercrombie

4 stars

Since the events of Half The World, the High King has turned his gaze from Gettland and Vansterland and settled instead on Throvenland. Having his champion, Bright Yilling, slaughter its king and anyone else he can get his hands on should mean that Throvenland will fall easily. Except there’s someone that Bright Yilling has overlooked – a young princess, Skara, who turns to the only people left who may be able to help her: our bunch of ‘heroes’.

Changing perspectives once again, this time around we get the POV’s of Skara, Koll (who we already know and, in my case, enjoy) and Raith – former cup bearer to Grom-Gil-Gorm and now Skara’s initially reluctant protector. With the odds surely stacked against them, each take their place amongst those we’ve already come to know and love (well, I love some of them) as they make their stand against the greed and ambition of the High King and his chief enabler, Grandmother Wexen. But to get their last stand, some difficult choices must be made.

As with the previous entries, each of our new characters get to grow and change throughout the course of the story - Skara grows from a scared young girl into a woman capable of leading a country at war, and Raith was a stone cold killer who is slowly developing a conscience, while Koll serves as our window into the activities of Father Yarvi and is struggling with the decisions being made ‘for the greater good’. Through them we’re forced to recognise the ways in which the years of war and vengeance have altered our ‘heroes’ and reconsider whether they’re actually that heroic after all, a more unusual approach than that usually taken in series aimed at a slightly younger audience.

Less unusual for YA but definitely unusual for Abercrombie was the more overt romantic element in Half A War (not that we haven’t had characters develop feelings for one another in previous books, but this time around it was one of the more central threads). While I wasn’t initially sure that I was that keen on this, I somehow seemed to find myself inexplicably turning into someone who internally bellowed ‘KISS HIM!!’ at Skara every five seconds, and I liked the pragmatic outcome of this relationship even more. But – and there is still a but in spite of my fangirling – I still think that Abercrombie’s true strengths lie in other areas and I’d have preferred if the romance had been shoved a little further to the side.

Definitely a series that’s well worth a read, I’m now counting down the days until Abercrombie’s next.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Deadpool Killustrated, by Cullen Bunn

4.5 stars

I’ve always been a sucker for smart-mouthed psychos, and so Deadpool seems my exact flavour of super-powered catnip. Having recently had a major wibble on viewing the trailer for the new film and being far too impatient to wait until February to get my teeth into it, I decided it was high time that I check him out in graphic novel format. My local bookstore offered a few variations, so I went with this, in which Deadpool takes on the classics. It was the perfect introduction for me.

Deadpool’s particular brand of crazy means that he’s aware that he’s a fictional character, living in a fictional world. Sick of it all, by the opening of this book he’s already slaughtered the entire Marvel universe and knows that there’s no such thing as dead when a writer can simply resurrect you, and so he hits upon an idea – to kill the very idea of superheroes. And so he goes to the source – the classic characters of literature who inspired their tight-clad alter egos. Which is how we find him going after Moby Dick (Midge would love him forever should she read this), Tom Sawyer, the Musketeers, the Little Mermaid, Ebeneezer Scrooge, monsters from Greek myth and more, and we find me cackling with glee while rubbing my hands together at the anticipation of the fun I’m going to have inhaling more of his work.

More please!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Half The World, by Joe Abercrombie

4.5 stars

Yarvi has come a long way since Half A King. Now Father Yarvi and Minister to his uncle, King Uthil, in Half A World we get to see him through new eyes – eyes that allow us to see just how deep cunning he’s become.

Thorn and Brand are in training to become warriors but when Thorn accidentally kills a boy in the training square, she’s named as a murderer. And when Brand approaches Father Yarvi to appeal on her behalf, they’re both soon swept along on a journey across half the world, seeking allies for Gettland against the power greedy High King.

I really enjoyed the first book of this series, but I flipping loved this one. The second book in a trilogy usually feels like something of a lull in proceedings but Half the World, while obviously building to something bigger, carried on the fantastically gripping pace already established and then ramped it up with action scenes that genuinely made me hold my breath.

Filled to the brim with yet more awesome characters that made me care about the eventual outcomes even more, Thorn has already snarled, spat and stabbed her way to the forefront as one of the more memorable Abercrombie characters (and half made me want to shave half my head while doing so), but even the secondary characters soon had me twisted around their little fingers. I can’t wait to find out who I’m going to meet in the last of the trilogy, so I’m diving straight in to find out.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Half A King, by Joe Abercrombie

4 stars

The youngest son of King Uthric of Gettland, Yarvi was always meant for a life as a minister. Destiny, however, has other plans and when his father and older brother meet their untimely deaths, Yarvi is called to the Black Chair.

Not a popular king – as well as his youth, Yarvi faces prejudice due to his half-formed left hand – one of Yarvi’s first lessons in kingship is in how hard it is to hang on to your throne. Especially when even those closest to you can’t be trusted. And so starts a quest for vengeance that sees Yarvi travel strange lands, in the company of strange companions, learning that you don’t have to be a fighter to be dangerous.

Clearly written for a slightly younger audience than his usual, Half A King is still recognisably Abercombie (if a little less bleak...but only a little) – a proper page-turner with plenty of banter, betrayals and blood, brilliant characters that are full of personality, desperate situations, deep friendships, and a main character that isn’t a perfect white knight but a flawed human being who makes mistakes and doesn’t always learn from them. For me, however, Yarvi wasn’t the star of this book. That honour goes to Nothing, who’s the sort of character that Abercrombie excels in creating and who wouldn’t be out of place amongst his Northmen (I reckon he could have been great mates with my old favourite, Cracknut Whirrun).

Having torn through this in two sittings (thank you, Joe, for helping me get my reading mojo back!), I’m now straight on to the next.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Circles of Hell, by Dante

2.5 stars

Some years ago, I bought a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but a rather academic and intimidating introduction saw me soon putting it back down again. This Little Black Classic was the perfect taster, comprising as it does a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ of a handful of cantos from Inferno.

I was surprised to find how easy this was to read in comparison to that dreadfully off-putting introduction from so many years ago, with a rich and evocative use of language that sometimes amused as well as conjuring hellish images (particularly when a thief came out with the terribly modern sounding ‘It pisses me right off’). However, the fact that this comprised only a handful of pieces of the whole also meant that big leaps were often taken between cantos, meaning that I’d often start a new one completely flummoxed as to how we’d got there. Additionally, it seems that it was largely taken for granted at the time that we would know the people and images Dante was conjuring up – aside from recognising the name of Judas Iscariot and the Emperor Constantine (thank you, Inheritance of Rome!) these all remained meaningless to me.

And so, in conclusion, while I’m glad that I read this (even if it was at a time when I was entering my very own personal Circles of Hell, from which it didn’t provide much relief) I think my copy of the Divine Comedy might continue to gather dust for a few more years yet.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

3 stars

Covering a whopping great 600 years of history, it's small wonder that this book took two months to read. Whilst some of that was at least partially the fault of my daily life becoming increasingly demanding and therefore not yielding up half as much reading time as I'd had before, it's also due to the staggering amount of information imparted. 

Taking us from the fall of the Roman Empire up until the year 1000 and the so-called 'Feudal Revolution', this took in the post Roman States and cultures that grew out of this fall, including looks at the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Vikings, the Merovingians and Carolingians, as well many more that I'd never even heard of before. Examining tax systems, religions, economies and exchange systems, iconography and much, much more, it seems that Chris Wickham left no stone unturned when writing this book. The only thing really missing is much on what life was like for the unpowerful (other than probably rather hard), thanks to the dearth of evidence on this aspect of life as contemporary chroniclers couldn't have given two shits about their lives and preferred to concentrate on the kings and other noblemen that were constantly blinding one another (apparently a preferred way of eliminating rivals for centuries, thanks to a commonly held belief that a ruler should be 'whole').

The jumping around in time and place, along with the lack of any real common narrative drive sometimes helped to hinder my progress as I found myself having to concentrate far more on all of the incidental facts and opinions presented in order to make them stick (as it is, I'd still be hard pushed to tell you anything I learned with any sort of specificity, and would probably be reduced to statements like 'the Vandals were well lairy', and 'aristocrats have always been a complete shower of shits'), but it certainly succeeded in helping me to decide which groups I'm interested in reading more on (that'll be all the ones beginning with the letter V).

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe

5 stars

This Little Black Classic, comprising The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of The House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado, is more than worth the 80p it took to own it. Having previously read and enjoyed The Raven, I knew I’d probably enjoy this but was pleasantly surprised at just how insanely good it actually was.

The pictures that I’ve seen of Poe all make him look like an interesting, if very spooky, dude:

This impression would be borne out by this book’s contents - all three tales are imbued with the mad and macabre – two told from the perspectives of murderers and the other dealing with grief – and while all seemed like simple, short stories, they still managed to be incredibly intense and packed with fantastic imagery, with their economy definitely adding to their effectiveness.

This one gets a slightly anxious and definitely spooked standing ovation. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Goblin Market, by Christina Rosetti

2 stars

I should probably be a little more ashamed than I actually am to admit that, John Cooper Clarke aside, I've never really been very drawn to poetry. While this Little Black Classic was a bargain at just 80p, I can't say that it's succeeded in changing my mind.

I've been accused of being more than a little morbid in my time, but even I can't help but think that Christina Rosetti would have been a bit of a bummer to be around. Aside from the vague warnings on sex and sin that appear to make up the titular Goblin Market, most of this collection was preoccupied with death - whether it be the death of innocence, the death of seasons or death of the body. As well as making the collection feel a little repetitive, this made sure that while it was easy to fit one of these poems into a short lunch break, I also went back a little more depressed than I had been before. 

I can understand how this might appeal to others, but it's not for me.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Robber Bridegroom, by the Brothers Grimm

4 stars

This little collection of seven tales from the Brothers Grimm – The Master Huntsman, The Robber Bridegroom, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, The Six Servants, The Bremen Town Band, Snowwhite, and Lazy Harry – has definitely whet my whistle to read a bigger collection of their work.

The tales I remember from my childhood were occasionally grim, but I don’t remember them being as grisly as this – or as funny. I also seem to remember them having some sort of moral, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of what the morals of Lazy Harry and the Bremen Town Band were.

Taking in greedy, arrogant kings, lucky young men, unlucky princesses, clever animals, proud queens, forbidding forests, foul murderers, cannibalism, the Devil and his grandma, and dense young ladies who won’t listen when you tell them not to open the door to anyone, I can’t help but think that had the Brothers Grimm been around today they’d have probably been frogmarched from the offices of children’s publishers and targeted by a Daily Mail campaign.

As it is, someone needs to get on with adapting these older versions for film. I’d happily throw money at the chance to watch that.

Jason and Medea, by Apollonius of Rhodes

3 stars

I’ve always been a fan of Greek mythology, so when I saw this range of Penguin’s Little Black Classics (just 80p each – bargain!),  Jason and Medea was one of the first that my eager hands grabbed.

If you’re not already familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts this probably isn’t a very good place to start as it drops us straight into Jason reaching Colchis on his errand for the Golden Fleece, and being set an impossible task by Aeëtes – to yoke two flame breathing bulls and plow a field with serpents teeth which would sprout into an army of earth-born men who he must then defeat. 

Aided by Aeëtes daughter, Medea, Jason accomplishes the task – which is where this book ends.

If you’re after the full story then you’re likely to be dissatisfied (I’m always disappointed when we don’t get to hear the end of their tale, having long been a fan of the unhappy-ever-after ending), but if you want a quick dip into one of the more exciting parts of the tale, then this is the book for the job.