Saturday, 24 January 2015

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

3 stars

It's tough out there for the heroines of dystopian YA novels. If you're not being forced to fight to the death for the viewing pleasure of the masses, you're due to get the equivalent of a lobotomy on your 18th birthday to make sure you never suffer feelings of love - which is where we find Lena, heroine of Delirium.

Set in a future version of Portland, in an America where love has been classified as a dangerous disease (‘cuz sometimes love hurts, y’know) and its symptoms eradicated by cutting into people's brains at the onset of adulthood, Lena is eagerly counting down the days until her procedure in the hopes of avoiding the same fate as her mother, who was unsuccessfully operated on four times prior to her death. This being a YA novel, the inevitable soon happens when Lena meets someone who makes her heart go pitter-patter and starts to realise that a life without love isn't worth living. Now she's faced with a choice - live a life devoid of all feeling or escape to the Wilds, which the fellow Invalids who've managed to escape lobotomisation or incarceration now call home.

I both enjoyed and was slightly nonplussed by this book - a world in which love is taboo was a fresh premise to me and I thought its execution nearly worked, but not quite enough to stop me from picking many nits. Aside from wondering how exactly you would go about isolating a specific emotion to be cut away from the brain, I didn't entirely buy why the procedure had to wait until near adulthood (it seems it's because of....erm, reasons) and I had to wonder what kind of scenario would see the entire population willing to give up on such a fundamental human emotion and settling for a numb and pointless existence instead, as well as wondering about the effects that would have on human society. While the continuance of marriage and procreation was explained, with them now viewed as a duty rather than a pleasure, I would have liked to have seen more on the effects of a lack of love that wasn't of the romantic kind. There are nods to this, as crying children go without comfort, but I had to wonder how a lack of any parental love and affection hadn't managed to produce generations of screwed-up, maladjusted children.

I did enjoy Oliver's writing style and applaud her decision to go where she did with the climax but I think her world must have rubbed off on me a little as, while I liked this, I didn't love it.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England

by Alison Weir - 3 stars

When it comes to my historical education, I’m finding myself drawn again and again to Alison Weir, who has a real talent for making lives led long ago pulse with real vitality. In this outing she sets out to not only tell us about the life and times of Isabella, one of our most notorious queens, but to rehabilitate her image. She’s not entirely successful – while she succeeds in imparting a lot of information on this deeply interesting woman, I didn’t feel that the rehabilitation part went so well. 

Long thought of as one of history’s femmes fatale thanks to overthrowing her husband, King Edward II, and making her lover unofficial ruler of England, Weir seeks to paint Isabella as a woman trapped by circumstance and a victim to her times, whereas I saw her as an enormous hypocrite with an insatiable lust for wealth and power, whose tyranny and corruption equalled (if not dwarfed) her husband’s. Whether or not she was involved in Edward’s death (Weir thinks not – and in fact also points to evidence that Ed wasn’t murdered at all but fled abroad and was later even possibly reunited with Edward III) didn’t affect my opinion anywhere near as much as her blatant grabbing of lands, wealth and titles for herself and Roger Mortimer (disinheriting people wherever needed) and I also felt that Weir was actually guilty of double standards; the very offences that Edward is guilty of – excessive lavishing of wealth, power and titles to his favourites and turning a blind eye to their crimes (which were indeed many) – and for which he is condemned within the book are the very same crimes that Isabella is guilty of, only in the latter case Weir shifts the blame from Isabella to Mortimer. 

In my book, if Ed was responsible for the excesses of his favourites and deserved deposition for it, so did Isabella. In fact, I feel that by shifting the responsibility from her to Mortimer, she’s actually being robbed of her agency. Whilst I am well aware that women in the 14th century were the property of men, I find it hard to believe that a woman who managed to overthrow the reign of her husband was entirely at the mercy of and a victim to the whims her lover, when he only wielded the power that he did through her. The fact that she didn’t even attempt to curb his behaviour and continued to lavish more wealth and power upon him – even joining him in bullying her son, the young King Edward III, into compliance with his wishes – shows me that she wasn’t a helpless victim but a partner-in-crime. None of this makes Isabella any less interesting in my eyes, in fact it makes her more so, and I’d rather have seen Weir revel in her bad behaviour than try to whitewash it.

Contrary to what seem to have been Weir’s intentions, I also felt incredibly sorry for Edward II. It’s believed his relationships with his favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Le Despenser, were homosexual in nature (many of the chroniclers of the time made allusions to this, and generally whipped themselves into such a froth that I can only believe that, like modern homophobes, they secretly got off on imagining in great detail the ‘wicked and forbidden sex’ that they thought Ed was having). If this was indeed the case, it must have been unimaginably awful for him to live in a society where homosexuality was viewed as such a vile sin that its practitioners faced a brutal death, complete with their genitals being cut off (while they were still alive) and thrown to the dogs (as was the case with Le Despenser). If anything, the only thing that I feel Ed was guilty of here was appalling taste in men (he seemed to have a thing for bad boys. But then, who doesn’t?)

With regard to everything else, once again I was struck by how our country has always been prey to the whims of the ruling class, who have always been an insanely greedy, duplicitous, ruthless and vicious shower of shits loyal only to their own wallets and ambition. I doubt this will change over the next 1000 years, either.

So, in conclusion, whilst I enjoyed this book enormously (anything that can teach me so much in such a short space of time has to be applauded), I felt that it failed in its stated aim, hence the 3 stars.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

3 stars

When I first opened the pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and saw a philosophical consideration of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return waiting to greet me, my heart sank, thinking I was about to wade through 300 pages of the same.

Thankfully, this turned out not to be entirely the case.

Following the story of Tomas and Tereza – he a surgeon who can’t keep his dick out of other women (or his hair, which often smells of the female genitals with whom he’s indulged in a spot of extra-curricular rubbing) and she an occasional waitress/photographer tormented by the jealous dreams his infidelities inspire, set against a backdrop of the Prague Spring on 1968 and the subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union, Tomas’ state of being is light – the attachments he forms are fleeting and his consideration of others minimal (he’s even jettisoned a son because he couldn’t be arsed with custody arrangements), while Tereza’s is heavy, her insecurities and her love for Tomas a weighty burden.

There’s also another pair of lovers – Sabina and Franz – who sort of meander through this, connected by the fact that Sabina is one of Tomas’ more long-standing mistresses, but I found their sections almost disappeared behind the story of Tereza (the more interesting character in this, for me).

While this was very readable – I tore through this in a couple of sittings – with some wonderful passages and moments of insight, I found that for something dealing with quite big themes it all felt rather ethereal and fleeting and,  much like Tomas, I imagine I’ll soon be distracted by something new and shiny and forget this altogether.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Tousle Me - A New Adult Parody, by Lucy V. Morgan

3 stars
"God damn my unpredictably violent and possessive tendencies." His voice cracks. "Damn them to hell."

If you've ever found yourself yelling at a New Adult book like a deranged person before going on a Like spree amongst its snarkiest, most GIF-laden reviews, and if you generally spend far more time on Goodreads than is probably good for you, then Tousle Me may well be just up your street. It was right up mine.

Featuring all the things we know and love to hate (or just plain hate) about the genre - ridiculous names, virginal and constantly confused heroine with poor alcohol tolerance, cage-fighting, ex-rock star, billionaire, 100% a dick romantic hero with fudge sundae tousled hair, slightly less attractive and slut-shamed best friend, Dark Pasts, thriller subplots, misunderstandings that keep the sex from happening yet - this made me snort my appreciation rather often. And while it may have been juuust a smidge overlong, this didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.

So go on - you know you want it...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Wolves of Midwinter, by Anne Rice

3 stars

Hmmmmmm. What did I think of this one? I'm not so sure that I know yet, so am hoping that as I write this review I'll discover what my true feelings were. On the one hand, it was deeply pleasurable to be reading Anne Rice again, with her vivid sense of place and sensual powers of description in full flow. But on the other hand, it all felt a bit (whisper it) pointless. Stuff might have happened, but it felt as though most of that stuff involved putting up Christmas decorations...

Following on from events in The Wolf Gift, Reuben is now fully ensconced at Nideck Point and surrounded by the Distinguished Gentlemen who share his gift. His girlfriend, Laura (she who likes schtupping while he's in his wolf form) is undergoing her own transformation mostly off the page, leaving Reuben and the lads to go about setting up a Christmas spectacle. Which they do wonderfully, for pages and pages and pages and pages and pages. And that's before the spectacle actually happens, which of course needs lots more pages devoted to it.

In the meantime, we're also introduced to some of the 'Ageless Ones' who've long acted as servants to the Distinguished Gentlemen (although what they get out of doing so is beyond me), the 'Forest Gentry'(spirits who inhabit the forest surrounding Reuben's home) and the others who are coming together to form Reuben's extended family. A bit of plot floats around during all of this - Marchent's ghost is haunting Reuben and seems to want to tell him something - but only in the loosest possible sense and the climax of this thread turned out to be completely underwhelming.

Continuing with the negatives, Rice's unfortunate habit of having her characters love positively everyone while pontificating at length on philosophy and morality was also present and correct and far more noticeable for the lack of much to get my teeth into, as was her insistence on including children who are terribly grave and precocious and speak like elderly Victorian gentlemen, who stretch my credulity far more than a bunch of Morphenkinder ever could.

Although it's probably starting to sound as though I hated this, I did still tear through this in just a couple of sittings and will still be making sure to read the next instalment. I just won't be getting as rabid as I did for Lestat.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths & Legends

by Peter Berresford Ellis, 3 stars

I’ve always loved a bit of mythology but have until now always been drawn to the Greek and the Norse, so it was high time I read a little about the myths that were formed in my own country. Being both mammoth and full of re-tellings of Celtic myths and legends, this one lived up to its title’s promise.

Split into sections covering the different Celtic regions – Ireland, Manx, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish and Brittany – each came with a preface explaining the historical context in which these tales should be placed, something I greatly appreciated. Prompted by the prefaces, it became easier to see how these tales had been shaped and influenced by the landscapes in which these storytellers lived, as well as how they started to change with the influence of Christianity (and the pens of contemporary Christian authorities as they sought to alter or suppress the beliefs native to whatever land they’d ‘converted’).

I enjoyed reintroductions to some of the beings I’ve encountered in modern paranormal stories – such as the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorrii (thanks to Harry Dresden), early versions of stories I’ve come to know through fairytales (Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to name two) and, in my own favourite section (the Cornish, being in my part of the world), the Bukkys and piskies that can waylay unwary travellers.

If I had hoped to get a little more on the deities of the Celtic regions, I was to be ever so slightly disappointed, but in all this was a good introduction to a fascinating subject.


Friday, 2 January 2015

2014's Most and Least Enjoyed

With 2014 now finally over, it's time for my annual list of the books I enjoyed the most - and the least - over the last year.

2014 wasn't quite so heavy on quantity (working too bloody hard took care of that, along with some new responsibilities and a bunch of books that clocked in at the 1000-page mark) but it did also feature a lot more that I enjoyed (probably due to no longer downloading as many Kindle freebies. They're free for a reason, it seems) and so, without further ado, let's take a look at 'em, shall we?

(Click for full reviews of each)

Most Enjoyed

1. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Quite simply, I fell head over heals for Eleanor and Park this year, and so should you.

2. Lancaster & York: The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir
The most vivid, fascinating and comprehensive education I could have wished for. Bring on the quizzes!

3. Mauritius Command & Desolation Island, by Patrick O'Brian
Numbers 4 & 5 in the continued adventures of Jack Aubrey and his BFF Dr Stephen Maturin, and they just keep getting better and better (and my crush on Stephen gets worse and worse)

4. Necropolis: London & Its Dead, by Catharine Arnold
A brilliantly readable look at how London has dealt with its dead through the ages, that had a wealth of astonishing facts to tell.

5. Beyond Lies The Wub, by Philip K Dick
A collection of Dick's short stories, than housed zero duds.

6. Small Favor & Changes, by Jim Butcher
I tore through everything remaining in the Dresden Files this year, finding each as fun and fantastic as the last, but these two well and truly raised the stakes and nearly made my head explode with glee.

7. House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
Reading like Jane Austen's older, more scathing, worldly-wise and scandalous cousin, House of Mirth was what might have been had one of Jane's heroines not managed to snag a husband.

8. Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
An informative and funny (yes, really!) book that gave me plenty of food for thought, but be warned as if you're at all squeamish it may also give you plenty to throw up about.

9. Storm, by Tim Minchin
A late entry but managing to storm (ba-dum tish!) into my top 10 by giving me plenty of stuff to throw back at people wanking on about bollocks.

10. The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory
Not only a sequel that betters its predecessor, but a look at a formidable lady from the Lancaster side. A formidable and very, very bitter lady.

With honourable mentions to Tesla, The Princes in the Tower, and The Robber Bride.

Least Enjoyed

The second in a trilogy about King Arthur, this one managed to ensure I will never read the third thanks to the rage-gasms it inspired.

The start to a paranormal series starring a crap version of Constantine and a crap cop who between them completely mangle the English language, bicker constantly and work my last fucking nerve. 

A lesson in why you should always read the synopsis before buying a book.

4. Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, by Ed Hamilton
Definitely breaching the promise of 'legends', Hamilton decided to ignore the more famous residents in favour of reporting fascinating anecdotes about eavesdropping on boring conversations, amongst other gems.

5. Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison
At no point did the heroine of this book die, which was unfortunate as she was one of the more irritating 'heroines' I've ever had the misfortune of reading about.

6. Space Captain Smith, by Toby Frost
I think this book was supposed to be funny. It wasn't.

7. Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett
I'm still trying to become a fan of the Discworld series. But while every now and then there is a good entry, so far many have been more like this.

8. Runemarks, by Joanne Harris
Featuring lots of Norse gods, this ought to have been right up my street, but it sadly squandered its potential.

9. Hotel Babylon, by Imogen Edwards-Jones
Making me quite certain I don't ever want to stay in a top hotel, as they're exclusively populated by pricks.

10. The Way Home, by George Pelecanos
Another lesson: Don't buy books just because it has 'by one of the award winning writers of The Wire' on its cover.

What about you? What blew your mind this year, and what made you wish you'd never learnt to read in the first place? 

God Is Dead - Vol 3, by Mike Costa

3.5 stars

In which Jesus returns, only to discover that we're now extremely trigger happy. Not to worry though, the hoodied hippy has that whole resurrection thing going on - as does everyone else now too (Jesus! Probably don't get quite so baked before your next big decision, yeah?), leading us to our next problem: If you can't die, then life is just unending suffering.

Which is the case everywhere: after some meddling by Hephaestus down in the Aztec Realm of the Dead, the gods are back for yet another supernatural smackdown, while the destruction unleashed upon Gaia in the second volume means that Earth is on its way out too...

What to do? Looks like I'll have to buy the next Volume to find out.

God Is Dead - Vol 2, by Mike Costa

3.5 stars

More than a century after the old gods were defeated by Gaia (the goddess formerly known as The Collective's tit-strap girl), she now spends her days being worshipped by the humans that remain. Except for a bunch hiding out in the The Dreamtime, biding their time to launch an attack. Meanwhile, some other pantheons have also been waiting in the wings, culminating in another supernatural smack down.

While many of the ladies in this volume still insisted on having at least one boob out in order to get anything done, the plot felt a lot tighter this time around and I'm still interested in seeing wherever it will take me.