Friday, 27 February 2015

City of Dragons

(Rain Wilds Chronicles #3), 4 stars

With our dragons and keepers now settled, albeit on a different side of the unpassable river to Kelsingra, they and Tarman have fulfilled their contract with the Cassarick Trader's Council. Sadly,  the Council isn't keen on paying them their dues and news of their find has inflamed most with greed, ensuring that as Leftrin tries to make his way back to the colony (accompanied by some of our old friends, who have themselves fallen victim to Chalced's thirst for dragon parts) he does so with more than a few followers. Meanwhile, both dragons and keepers alike are discovering that there's more to Kelsingra than meets the eye.

Giving us some new viewpoints to consider (the bastardly Hest and the infinitely hateable Duke of Chalced - the man who most wants our dragons carved up), City of Dragons gave us a better view of how our group and their discoveries fit into their wider world, as well as reminding us that said world is about to rudely intrude on the one they're making for themselves.

I'm slightly concerned at the title of the next and last in the series - Blood of Dragons - but that's not going to stop me from diving right in.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Dragon Haven, by Robin Hobb

(Rain Wilds Chronicles #2), 4 stars

Accompanied by the livebarge Tarman and his crew, the dragons and their keepers are continuing their perilous journey toward the Elderling city of Kelsingra - if it still exists. But acidic water, flash floods and hunger aren't the only danger they must face - there's also those that come from within the group, and not just from those planning on enriching themselves through plundered dragon parts. 

As both groups are altered by the bonds between dragon and keeper, so are the relationships around them: as Alise is apprised of the true nature of her marriage and Sedric discovers just how wrong his previous notions of the dragons (and Hest) really were, Thymara is finding herself increasingly at odds with the 'choices' being imposed upon her by Grest's assumed leadership. Meanwhile, the dragons are growing stronger, and more dangerous, every day.

I love how Hobb takes things we already know, such as the Rain Wilds environment and its effect upon those who live there, and gives us a new light in which to see them, and I'm as intrigued by the metamorphoses of the keepers as I am by where we may go now we've reached this point in the journey. I can't bear to be outside of Hobb's world any longer than necessary, so I'm heading straight into City of Dragons.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

(Rain Wilds Chronicles #1), 4 stars

Every time I read a Robin Hobb book I think there's no way I could possible become as invested as I was in her last and then, within a few hundred pages, I find I've almost forgotten that there's a 'real' world that exists outside of hers, and that I'm more invested in her characters than many of the actual people that I know. 

Dragon Keeper has continued that trend (Note: Those new to Hobb would probably find much to enjoy here, but I'd definitely recommend having at least read the Liveship Traders Trilogy first or risk missing out on the thrill of crossing paths with old favourites - hi, Paragon! - as well as the richness of the back story of this world).

Catching up with events in the Rain Wilds since the end of our journey with the Liveships, we find the ancient serpents, guided by Tintaglia, are now cocooning ready for the transformation into dragons. But they've spent too long in their old forms and reached the beach too hungry and too late in the year to emerge as anything but starving, stunted creatures that are soon an unwelcome burden to the humans who'd agreed to care for them. Stirred by ancestral memories of the Elderling city Kelsingra, the dragons manipulate the human's greed into a plan to transport them, along with a group of young Keepers (those most touched by the Rain Wilds, whose populace would like to be rid of such outcasts) on a quest to find the fabled city.

Newbies may find Dragon Keeper something of a slow start, but I relished the chance to really get to know our characters before their lives are irrevocably changed. Ahhh, the characters - the real gift to the reader in any Robin Hobb book and, much like with the Liveship Traders, the fantastic female characters were something I particularly revelled in. In this we have Alise, married to a man she doesn't like, let alone love; Thymara, a Rain Wilds outcast unable to shrug off the rules that have governed her world until now; and Sintara, the imperious dragon under Thymara's care who's haunted by memories of what she should have been.

I'm now desperate for Alise to launch herself into an affair with Leftrin, the barge captain who I still don't quite trust, for nothing but wonderful things to happen to Tats, and for someone to eat Hest (this one's for you, Hest):

But...I'm also very aware that Hobb's characters tend to get shat on by life, and so I'm diving straight into Dragon Haven with a little worried feeling in the pit of my belly.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

3 stars

Therapist Grace Reinhart Sachs is an incredibly self-satisfied snot. She's wealthy enough to never worry about money, with a Park Avenue apartment and Connecticut lake house, a son in private school and a paediatric oncologist husband (which, despite her protests to the contrary, she never gets tired of telling people about) and a job which allows her to sit in judgement of the poor choices which have led people to her practice. She's so good at this that she's written a book - You Should Have Known - in which everyone's relationship problems are shown to be their own damn fault for choosing assholes to marry in the first place.

Unfortunately for Grace, in the run-up to her book's publication, one of whom Grace sees as the less fortunate mothers at her son's school (whose own son must be on a scholarship as she doesn't wear cashmere or belong to the Yummy Mummy clique on the school committee) is horribly murdered. Not initially bothered as long as the school's reputation remains intact (that's what really matters, after all), Grace soon starts to unravel when the police start sniffing around and she realises that she doesn't know where her charming, handsome, paediatric oncologist husband is. And as the tissue of lies that was her happy marriage is shredded around her, she realises that she's never really known him at all.

Drawn in by the premise, I read most of this book in one setting whilst nursing a hangover that really only allowed me to move my eyes, and it might have been the hangover that prompted my misanthropic enjoyment of it - it wasn't the writing, the plot or the pacing (which were all decent enough, but could have done with a little tightening) but the fact that I could inwardly shriek with glee (it would have hurt too much to do so aloud) every time Grace discovered a new revelation that exposed the life she was so smug about as a not particularly well-crafted illusion.

This didn't just stop with her hubby as it soon became clear that this fantastically insightful therapist and self-considered expert on relationships actually had less insight than a shoe, and that she'd been wrong about virtually everything for her entire life.

I was disappointed that Grace didn't apply any of her book's insights to herself - I was hoping she might have started re-examining the warning signs from the early part of her relationship, but she never really got any further than listening to other people putting her misconceptions right, and I definitely didn't enjoy the too easy happy-ever-after she was gifted with, which would have rankled even if I hadn't been rejoicing in her downfall.

But, then again, this did make my hangover far easier to cope with and gave me an outlet for some of the less nice parts of my own personality (see aforementioned glee at the misfortune of smug bastards), so it has that going for it.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

by Neil Gaiman, 4 stars

A genre-hopping collection of short fictions from Neil Gaiman, intended to unsettle and disturb, which overall worked very well (for me – someone who much prefers novels to short stories).

As with any short story collection, this is something of a mixed bag – I have zero time for Doctor Who, even if he’s written by Neil Himself, and so Nothing O’Clock was definitely not my kind of crack, and I could have also lived without the Sherlock story The Case of Death and Honey, but these were completely overshadowed by my favourites which either took already familiar tales and twisted them (The Sleeper and the Spindle) or took mundane-looking lives and shone a light on their weird underbellies (My Last Landlady, Jerusalem, Feminine Endings). But my favourite by far, and a tale which alone made the book a must-buy for me was Black Dog, in which we catch up with American Gods’ Shadow as he visits a typical English country boozer and gets drawn into the lives of a local couple.

Perhaps strangely, one of the others that really stood out for me was the book’s opener, Making A Chair, in which our author writes about – you guessed it - making a chair. Quite an odd one to become a favourite, but it illustrated perfectly to me how much of a writer’s work is less inspiration and more actual work and that, much like an aspiring athlete needs to train, the most important thing any aspiring writer can do is just that – write. This somehow makes my work chore of pulling ‘stories’ out of one word emails for the weekly bulletin so much easier to bear…

Monday, 9 February 2015

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

5 stars

Though Patti Smith has long featured in my record collection, I’ve never really known much about her. Just Kids gave me the perfect opportunity to rectify that and it did so brilliantly, capturing the coming of ages of Patti and her friend/partner/sometime lover Robert Mapplethorpe in the New York of the late sixties/early seventies – a time and a place which has captured my imagination ever since I was considered the only grebo on the English housing estate I grew up on.

I started reading this at the beginning of Saturday’s Everton/Liverpool derby day, Patti’s words doing an admirable job of taking me away from the football and placing me instead in the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel – turn around and behind you is Allen Ginsberg, while Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix have set up court in the bar – and drowning out the cheers and shouts at the ref with the story of how she and Robert found one another on the streets of New York and grew together, living and breathing art, before sending me to cry quietly in the kitchen as Robert passed away.

Our lives can be changed immeasurably by the people we meet along the way to becoming who we are, as illustrated beautifully by this book-long love letter to Mapplethorpe, and it’s hard to imagine what our lives might have been without them. It’s clear the impact these two had on one another, and just as clear that neither could imagine a life without the other – although AIDS would ensure that Smith would have no choice but to do so. It’s also clear that, no matter what form love takes - whether it be romantic, platonic or as tangled and tender as the one splayed across these pages – it can be powerful enough to reach across the decades and make a complete stranger weep.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Rogue's Honor, by Brenda Hiatt

1.5 stars

Last year I severely curtailed the amount of Kindle freebies I downloaded, and a much higher quality reading year ensued. This year, I completely ignored that fact when I was sent a link to Book Bub and went to town on the download button. Rogue’s Honor was the first of that bunch of freebies and doesn’t bode particularly well for my enjoyment of the rest. It wasn’t written so poorly as to be offensive to my eyes, but it didn’t really have much going for it either.

Set in Regency England, Lady Pearl is a noble do-gooder aching to get down and dirty with the poor of London so that she can improve their situations and bask in the glow of her own wonderfulness. Disguising herself as a servant she soon finds herself in one of London’s slums and in the company of the notorious Saint of the Seven Dials, a Robin Hood type figure who robs the nobility blind so he can improve the situations of the poor while sating his own feelings of hatred toward the ruling class. Of course, the two go gaga over one another. But…will Luke (the aforementioned Saint) still want Pearl once he realises she’s part of the hated nobility? There’s no real doubt that he will – a lifetime of prejudice is easily overcome by honey coloured hair, after all. 

But…society will never allow for a relationship between a poor thief and a rich lady. Luckily for Pearl, she easily deduces that Luke is blissfully unaware that he is actually the secret lost Earl of Hardwyck and gets his title restored. But…her awful stepmother wants her married off before her 21st birthday and so forces Pearl to choose between marrying Luke or marrying Lord Bellowsworth ( a man Pearl detests and has been trying to avoid marrying for most of the book), and so of course Pearl chooses Bellowsworth (because of, erm, stuff). But….will Luke let the marriage go ahead? No, of course he won’t, and after two duels wins her hand.

With both characters perfectly in love with one another there was no real tension throughout the book, and the many twists of the story were mostly ridiculous obstacles put in their way for them to hurdle on their way to a happy-ever-after that was never in doubt. Instead of adding much-needed tension to the tale, these merely added extra padding and helped make a light, inconsequential book drag on for way too long. 

Pearl, despite apparently being a spirited, intelligent woman, seemed to employ insane troll logic to make most of her imbecilic decisions and I actually started to hope that she’d been knocked up during one of her illicit trysts and would have her reputation ruined, leading to abandonment by Bellowsworth and discovering that Luke was really a rogue after all who had no intention of marrying her, so she could find out first-hand what it was actually like to be one of London’s poor. Sadly, I was disappointed in this and will have to content myself with not reading any of the rest of this series.

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O'Brian

4.5 stars

At this point, reading the Aubrey/Maturin series has become more pleasurable than slipping into a hot bath on a cold night, although the predicaments they've lately found themselves facing are much less pleasant.

Having survived the disasters of Desolation Island, the long-presumed dead crew of the Leopard have limped into safe harbour and are now bound for home (and a better ship). But they've got to get there first - something that won't be happening for a while if the events of this book are anything to go by. First, the ship that's sailing them to their new command burns to cinders leaving the men to take to the cutters in the hopes of rescue...rescue which is a long time coming and, when it finally appears, takes the form of an American ship. 

Which is unfortunate, as war has been declared between the United Kingdom and the States, and some of Maturin's previous activities are making life extremely difficult for my favourite BFFF's who are now suspected of being spies. Nor is the war going so well for the entire Royal Navy, who are getting their teeth repeatedly kicked in by a foe they'd assumed they could easily vanquish. 

Not that that's going to keep my boys down for long...

Filled with intrigue, intelligence, astonishing sea battles and hints of the changes to come to seafaring - the men are already muttering darkly and wholeheartedly dissaproving of rumoured steam-powered boats - this entry was as perfect as all those that have preceded it. I can hardly wait for my next trip to sea with them.