Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Midnight in Sicily, by Peter Robb

3 stars

A look at the post-war rise of Cosa Nostra and its intertwining with Italian politics (what with most of the Government’s ministers apparently being either a part of or closely tied with the group), this was an interesting although sometimes confusing book.

A complex subject at the best of times, the vast array of names (whether they be the many organisations like the Demochristians, the Red Brigades and the Cosa Nostra, the criminals and the politicians - who are often one and the same, the prosecutors or the people met by the author either during his past or along this journey) along with a habit of jumping around chronologically and wandering geographically sometimes left me a little befuddled as to who, when and where I was reading about.

I’m not entirely sure that the book’s byline (On Art, Food, History, Travel and the Cosa Nostra) really fit, as the parts that weren’t about the Cosa Nostra mostly took on the form of brief tangents or reporting of what Robb ate when he met such and such a person, and didn’t really bring anything particularly illuminating to the subject. The book may have even been more successful at getting across the huge amount of information delivered on the Cosa Nostra had these little distractions not been included.

Mostly I was left with a vague sense of how corrupt it seems Italian politics are, that ex-Prime Minister Andreotti was extremely dodgy (to say the least – Berlusconi seems a choirboy in comparison) and that I need to look elsewhere if I want to read about Sicilian food.

This is all probably starting to sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book. I did – it’s just more of an buffet than a fulfilling meal.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Prince Lestat, by Anne Rice

4 stars

It’s been some time since we last saw Lestat, acting strangely unlike himself in Blood Canticle (as if Lestat would ever say cool or dude. Although she wouldn’t say that either, I’m laying the blame for this solely at the door of the infinitely dislikeable Rowan Mayfair, who also unfortunately starred in that outing). It pleases me to say that not only is Lestat back, but this time it really is the Lestat we know and love, in all his lion-maned, arrogant and lace bedecked glory. And Rowan’s not even mentioned.

Catching up with not just my beloved but a host of other vampires besides, Prince Lestat finds the vampire world in an uproar – a mysterious voice is goading vampires into destroying one another and the Sacred Core, which animates all vampires and currently resides in the brain of the ancient and mute Mekare, is under threat. The vampires need a leader to take control – now who might that leader be, I wonder?

After the last few books in the Vampire Chronicles and the lacklustre second outing in the Wolf Gift Chronicles, I must admit I was a little nervous about this one, which is probably why I put off reading it for so long. Happily, I needn’t have worried. Aside from enjoying Lestat as much as I ever have, I also enjoyed the fleshing out of the pasts of some of the unnamed vampires from previous entries which brought to the fore Anne’s skill at embedding a sense of history in her characters – even if I couldn’t help but snigger every time one of them waxed poetic about how wonderfully complex and profound they found the previous Vampire Chronicles (which exist in this world as they were all ‘written’ by our vampires) and if the central mysteries (who is The Voice, and who started the Talamasca) were easily solved, I still found them satisfying.

The only minus for me was the story of Rose and Viktor, which didn’t really add anything new (she’s such a beautiful, delicate, battered flower and he’s….well, he’s really pretty too) other than giving Anne an option for a new series starring Lestat v2. Not that I wouldn’t read the shit out of that too, but for now they simply felt superfluous.

If you’re new to the world of the Vampire Chronicles, I really wouldn’t recommend starting here (although handy previouslies are provided throughout the text, you’d still be missing out on a lot of the backstories to these characters, as well as the two best books in the series) but if you’re a long-time fan, you’ll eat Lestat’s story up with a spoon.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott

2.5 stars

Hmmm, Ivanhoe - what did I make of thee? Of thine own self, not much, as it turns out that the titular character actually spends most of the book off-page recovering from injury. Instead, this was more concerned with the many crimes of Bad Prince (and later King) John and his cronies, the interventions of Robin Hood and the wanderings of Good (haha!) King Richard the Lionheart.

With Richard absent from his kingdom thanks to his disastrous Crusade and then imprisonment, Prince John rules in his stead, backed by a bunch of dicks including Norman noblemen and a Knight Templar. While John plots to keep Richard's throne, the disguised King (having returned unnoticed to our shores) pisses about entering tournaments, befriending Robin Hood and aiding distressed damsels who've been kidnapped by John's mates for their own foul ends. 

As well as the adventure element, Ivanhoe also depicts the bigoted divisions of 12th century England - the Saxons and the Normans can't stand one another, Christians despise Jewish people, and everyone hates women - and lampoons the hypocrisy of this age of chivalry, where Knights are usually anything but honourable and the nobility couldn't behave nobly if their lives depended on it. It mostly does this fairly well, and never more so than with Rebecca (a skilled healer whose kidnap by one of the Knights Templar sees her put on trial by the head of his Order - him wanting to rape her is all her own fault for which she must die, what with her being guilty of the crimes of being a woman and Jewish).

But while Rebecca emerged as the true hero of this story, it fell down somewhat when it came to her father, Isaac. While being quick to decry the awful bigotry of the age and its institutions (especially the Church, who seem to think that their God loves mass murder above all else), Scott deflated his success by being far too quick to stoop to racist caricature whenever it came to Isaac. While I could overlook some of this as his depicting a less enlightened age, more often than not it left a nasty taste in the mouth whenever I came across one of these scenes. This, along with Scott's habit of including way too many songs and conversations that halted the action and made my attention wander, led the scales that had been weighing in favour of the adventure tip slightly too far the other way for me to say that I truly enjoyed this.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Graveyard Shift, by Angela Roquet

1 star

Lana is a Reaper, living in Limbo City, making a living collecting souls on their deaths and delivering them to whatever Afterlife suits them best - it turns out that all religions were sorta right, you see, and so their believers are simply measured against their own beliefs before being ferried on to Heaven/Hell/Nirvana/Summerland etc. Unless they're unbelievers, in which case they're thrown into the Sea of Eternity. 

Despite not being a very good Reaper - she breaks rules, is insubordinate, lazy and generally a pain in the ass - Lana has somehow just been given a promotion. Grim, the boss of the Reapers, wants her to head a crew looking for a particularly special soul who can hold Eternity together.

This initially appealed to me because of its ideas, but unfortunately fell flat in the telling. We jump from plot point to plot point with most of the contents feeling like ideas for scenes and characters not yet fleshed out, and neither the relationships (be they the apparently romantic one that springs up between Lana and an angel she supposedly despises, or those with her friends and peers) nor the plot points felt remotely organic but simply appeared because Roquet wanted them to. Description wasn't a strong suit either, so I was left with only a vague sense of what this world looked and felt like, what happened in the battles that frequently kicked off, and no clue whatsoever why both Lana and the soul she was looking for were so ruddy bloody special.

On the plus side, this was free...

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson

2.5 stars

The Mistborn trilogy has put on a lot of weight since we started - where Mistborn: The Final Empire was tight, lean and exciting, The Well of Ascension became a bit flabby around the middle after getting bogged down with too much thinking and not enough action. The Hero of Ages tried admirably to perk itself up a bit towards its last stretch, but its ingrained bad habits proved to be just slightly too much to overcome, with too much of this feeling like a retread of what had gone before.

Having ended The Well of Ascension with Vin having been tricked into releasing Ruin into the world and with Elend Venture reanimated as a Mistborn, we pick back up to find the world still dying - the killing mists now come during the day as well as at night, and every day sees ash fall more thickly while the Venture crew are busy tracking down the secret caches left by the Lord Ruler in preparation for the end of the world. Which is how we find ourselves having yet another siege, with Elend this time at the head of the besieging army. Thankfully, this time around Vin isn't quite so riddled with self-doubt, but unfortunately that doesn't mean we've seen the back of all the whining. It's just Sazed's turn this time.

With the besieging and the whining taking up a good three quarters of the book, I started to take less and less kindly towards it as time went on and, where I'd previously at least enjoyed the characters that were being put in such a predicament, I started getting irritated that those that had fleshed out the crew were mostly forgotten and shoved towards the sidelines while those that remained in the spotlight were no longer very interesting. Where I'd previously thought Vin a bit of a badass, I now couldn't care less which metals she flared as she took down thousands upon thousands of enemies all by herself. And while I appreciated the work that had gone into crafting Ruin's long-con, I couldn't help but feel it would have been helped by some judicious editing during The Siege 2: This Time It's Less Interesting to have brought a little more of the excitement of the last quarter of the book to the 500+ pages that preceded it. 

Don't get me wrong, this is still a series I enjoyed, with an especially blistering opener. It's just a shame that the excitement didn't last.