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Sunday, 19 November 2017

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that I have intended to read for some time, but just hadn't gotten to. It had gotten to the point where my sister was shocked that I hadn't actually read it yet, especially considering how much I like the whole cyberpunk aesthetic. So when I rediscovered where I had put the book, I couldn't really put it off any longer.


Neuromancer follows Case, a former data-thief whose nervous system was burnt out by some former clients who he stole from. When he is approached by a mysterious employer who is willing to repair Case's nervous system in return for going back into the Matrix on a mission that could be more dangerous than anything he's attempted before. Soon it's apparent that the only ones he can trust are Molly, a mirror-eyed street samurai, and Flatline Dixie, an AI approximation of his old mentor.
I'm still not quite sure how to feel about Neuromancer. On the one hand, it has all the atmosphere that I could possibly want in a cyberpunk novel. There is the weird kind of 1980s Blade-Runner-style idea of what the future would look like, which I like a lot more than I probably should. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but immersive nonetheless. And if you're willing to stick with some unfamiliar terms or are a big cyberpunk fan, then this is an obvious title to pick up. You'd pick it up regardless of my overall review really. As such, for those of you still on the fence, here are a couple things that you might want to consider before picking it up, in case they prove to be deal breakers.
The first thing that really gave me pause for thought is that, as a protagonist, Case is surprisingly passive. After years of fiction in which the main driving force of a novel can be firmly placed with a handful of characters of which the protagonist is always withing that number, it's a real shock to the system to follow around someone who has more or less no say in where he goes or how he acts. Sure, he sometimes does the odd thing that his employers don't expect, but never anything major enough to throw a spanner in the overall plan. And I guess I can see why that decision was made, so that there was an appropriate sense of distrust and paranoia between him and his employers, but that understanding doesn't make the experience of reading Neuromancer any less jarring.
The second issue I have is with the character of Peter Riviera. On top of being just generally unpleasant for no real reason, I still don't quite get why he is brought into the run. He's acknowledged to be a risk due to his perverse and psychopathic nature, but is brought onto the team to act as some poorly defined honey trap. I doubt that it was meant to be any kind of surprise when he betrays them, it just sticks out to me as an unnecessary risk in a plan that was supposed to have been set in motion by an incredibly intelligent and patient character.

If you like cyberpunk, especially the stuff that has that very 1980s feel to it, then you have probably already picked it up and really don't need my encouragement. For those of you on the fence, it is an immersive story, but one with some odd stylistic choices that could bother some people. The main ones for me were the odd passivity of the main character and the logical flaw in entrusting a key part of a mission to a character who specifically has a betrayal fetish. 3.5/5

Next review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

The last time I took a look at one of the Mammoth short story anthology, I was somewhat disappointed, as it didn't really fit the theme terribly well. So I started The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons with perhaps a little more trepidation than I initially picked it up with. But it did have stories by Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin, so I thought that there could at least be potential.


The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons is an anthology of short stories focusing on angels and demons, both traditionally Christian in origin and more modern reimaginations.
First of all, and this might just be a personal gripe, but this is the first anthology where the editor has preceded each story with a snippet of information and a whole dollop of why this story/author is awesome, and it's really not needed. Rarely is the snippet of angelology or demonology especially necessary to understand the story, and it's really distracting to have the editor act as a hype-man. If you've included something in an anthology, I am going to take it as a given that you like the story in question, it doesn't need to be hammered home.
As for the actual content, I found that the stories were generally more consistent in meeting the brief than my last Mammoth anthology. There were a few duds, of which the worst was easily "Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark" by George R. R. Martin. Considering that I was expecting his entry to be one of the safe bets, it was really disappointing to find such a poorly-written mess under his name. But while there were only a handful of outright duds, there were only five that I would actively seek out to read again: "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel" by Peter S. Beagle, "Sanji's Demon" by Richard Parks, "Oh Glorious Sight" by Tanya Huff, "Elegy for a Demon Lover" by Sarah Monette and "Demons, Your Body, and You" by Genevieve Valentine. Beyond those four and the handful of duds, the stories included were just kind of okay. I would have hoped to get a better success rate than 5 out of 27, quite honestly.

Not a bad anthology by any stretch of the imagination, but there were only a handful of really good stories to appreciate here. While there were similarly only a handful of outright bad stories, that still leaves over half of the anthology as stories that will leave you going "meh". Having the editor act as hype-man before every story just made the experience aggravating on top of that. 3/5

Next review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Continuing with my non-fiction streak, I settled on Anime and the Visual Novel, if only for the novelty of finding an academic-style text focusing on anime, as well as the comparatively obscure genre of computer game that is the visual novel. Being fond of both of these media, I thought I could hardly go wrong with something that looked at them with a bit of critical thought.


Anime and the Visual Novel focuses on a set of visual novels that have had subsequent anime adaptations, analysing how the animated adaptations have dealt with the problem of condensing a game with the core feature of branching narratives into a singular cohesive narrative. Additionally, the text also discusses particular narrative tropes and themes that are common to the visual novel medium and how those themes affect both gameplay and adaptation into a singular narrative.
This is kind of an odd book to discuss. As it's more of an academic text in style and focuses on such a niche subject, it's one of those books where you can tell more or less instantly whether it will be to your taste or not. The arguments presented here are fairly solidly reasoned, with a nicely varied set of primary texts to draw upon. So if that tickles your fancy, then you should be fairly well served by Anime and the Visual Novel.
That's not to say that it's without flaw, and there are two main issues that I could potentially see putting readers off. Firstly, there is some of the vocabulary used. A problem that a lot of academic texts have is that they couch themselves in overly-complicated language and syntax in order to make themselves more highbrow, when simple words could have expressed their point in a clearer, more succinct way. Anime and the Visual Novel is unfortunately not an exception to this rule. It is the first time I've had to consult my dictionary in months, and most of the time there was a far simpler term that could have been used in its place that would have made the point more accurately. So that's one part of the language that could be off-putting. The other aspect of the iffy language is perhaps a more personal bugbear, but there is something intensely irritating about seeing texts repeatedly being called "yarns" throughout the book. First of all, it all but proves that this was written by someone fairly new to the whole academia bit, because there is no way that a seasoned academic would refer to anything that wasn't textile-based as a "yarn". Hell, I was taught that in my first year of university, Cavallaro should have no excuse. Second, a yarn in the slang definition is specifically a long, rambling and usually implausible story, which is an entirely unsuited moniker for visual novels. While a visual novel may have multiple endings to experience, thus lengthening the amount of time spent replaying, this only increases the need for the story to be tightly-written and plausible within its own world. For Cavallaro to refer to them as yarns only diminishes the medium that they are trying to celebrate.
The second issue I have is with, of all things, the proofreading. Whoever edited this needs to be sacked, because my copy was absolutely littered with punctuation errors. Comma-splicing, missing spaces between words and extra words that should have been deleted pre-publishing, it was all in there. I could possibly forgive one or two errors, but this was a handful within more or less every chapter, enough to make me annoyed at paying money to interpret someone's rough draft. If I couldn't get away with it in uni, I'm sure as shit not letting someone get away with it when money is being exchanged. It's just not professional.

A solid set of essays analysing a wide range of well-received visual novels and their anime adaptations. Somewhat marred by a reliance on a vocabulary that is far too complex for the subject being discussed, and a series of punctuation errors throughout the text that is honestly just sloppy. For a fan of either medium discussed, I would say that there's a fair chance you'll like it if you can keep the above flaws in mind. 3.5/5

Next review: The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want & Piero

I return to a non-fiction title because I wanted something a bit different, and thought that with an introductory title I could find out whether the subject as a whole was something that I could see myself reading into more. Aesthetics sounded close enough to my prior studies that certain concepts would be less obtuse, but unfamiliar enough to still be interesting.


Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide provides a brief history of the development of aesthetics as a philosophy. It covers a period from the Roman Empire to the late 20th century, looking at philosophers ranging from Plato to Nietzsche to Baudrillard.
Introducing Aesthetics really needed to be longer. At 171 pages that are about half the size of the average paperback, and around half of each page dedicated to illustrations, there's only really enough room for the barest of explanations of each concept that is discussed. And considering that over 2000 years of thought is being covered, that's really not enough space to adequately cover the material that it wants to cover. While you do get a general idea of how and why art has moved from having a singular objective Subject to a fragmented sense of self that can never be in possession of the entirety of a scene's contexts, it's not an especially clear route at times.
In addition to that, I wasn't all that fond of the art style used for the illustrations. It's an odd style that is kind of half-caricature, and instead of quirky it just kind of came off as ugly. In addition, whenever there were reproductions of particular artworks, the quality of the print wasn't particularly great.

While a general idea can be gotten from reading Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide, there is just too much material that the author is trying to cover in too few pages. I wouldn't mind looking into the subject of aesthetics again, but with perhaps more room to explore and expand concepts. 2.5/5

Next review: Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Doctor Strange: Season One by Greg Pak & Emma Rios

Doctor Strange: Season One has been sat on my shelf for perhaps longer than it should have. First, I'm pretty sure this was a present, so it's a bit embarrassing that I've left it this long. Second, I have been meaning to look into Doctor Strange comics a bit more ever since watching the film with Benedict Cumberbatch, which even he couldn't ruin for me.


Doctor Strange: Season One recounts the origins of the eponymous Doctor Strange. When a talented but arrogant surgeon loses the use of his hands after a car accident, he travels to the Himalayas to seek the aid of a sorcerer known as the Ancient One. Whilst training there, he meets and butts heads with a fellow apprentice, a martial artist named Wong. Together they must fight Mordo, a former student turned to evil by the power of the demon Dormammu.
This version of the Doctor Strange origin is decently written, if not exactly hugely original. The story only really starts when Strange arrives at the Ancient One's mountain home. After the initial confrontation with Mordo, the bulk of the story focusing on Strange and Wong's rocky enemies-to-friends relationship. While the whole head vs heart thing has been done countless times before, it's always fun to see when it's done well. It coincides nicely with Strange's development into a decent human being too.
The best part of the book though has to be the artwork. Emma Rios has taken what is a decent enough but unremarkable retelling of Doctor Strange's origin and makes it a wonder to behold. You could really tell that Rios enjoyed the full-page panels full of magical energies and god-heads, because they're a sight to behold, with such care and detail. The character designs are also interestingly angular, which is kind of unusual considering that a lot of comics aim for clean lines.
The main story is followed by the first chapter of Matt Fraction's run of The Defenders. It wasn't bad, per se, but I couldn't help but feel that it was a bit out of place after the weirdness of Doctor Strange.

A decent enough story elevated by some absolutely top notch art. Certainly enough to make me seek out both more Doctor Strange comics and more works by Emma Rios. The issues of The Defenders tacked on to the end felt more than a little out-of-place though. 3/5

Next review: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want & Piero

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

I hadn't realised just how much I had missed the witches until I picked up Witches Abroad to read. Adding to my enthusiasm was the little gleeful grin that my husband gave me when I told him what I was reading next.


When Desiderata Hollow, a fairy godmother, dies without training a successor, her wand finds its way into the hands of Magrat Garlick. With the wand comes a set of instructions to prevent a servant girl from marrying a prince. And under no circumstances is she to be accompanied by Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg. Those instructions go down about as well as was to be expected, so the three witches make their way to the city of Genua, sowing chaos and poorly understood foreign words in their wake.
I'd forgotten just how much I love the witches together. I mentioned it as the prime strength of Wyrd Sisters but the chemistry between these characters is just so good that I feel I have to repeat myself. It's made all the better by taking them out of their normal environment, as they become pretty much the worst two old ladies you could take on holiday along with a long-suffering relative/babysitter. So a really good place to start from.
When you add to that a truly unnerving villain in the form of Lilith, the rival fairy godmother, it leaves me struggling to find fault at all. I love villains that are firmly of the belief that they are the good guys, no question, but they're so difficult to pull off. Most of the time it ends up being a villain who acknowledges that they do bad things but justifying that it's for a good reason. It takes a special kind of author to write a villain so self-absorbed that questions of morality are just ignored entirely, and Lilith is a prime example of what happens when it's done right.

With the great chemistry between the witches, a really well-written and creepy villain, and his regular hilarious writing, there's nothing that I can really fault with Witches Abroad. Eagerly awaiting their next installment now. 5/5

Next review: Doctor Strange: Season One by Greg Pak & Emma Rios

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Go Get a Roomie Volume 1 by Chloe C

After a comparatively brainy read, I felt like picking up something a bit quicker and lighter. Go Get a Roomie certainly fit the bill, and it has been so long since I was up-to-date with the webcomic that felt like a nice way to reacquaint myself with the series. 


Go Get a Roomie follows a young woman known only as Roomie, who lives by couch-surfing with friends that she meets at her regular dive, Jo's Bar. When heading back after a few too many beers, she accidentally finds herself crashing with a lazy introvert named Lillian. Finding Lillian to be unaffected by Roomie's charms and tendency to initiate physical intimacy, Roomie finds herself confused, but oddly endeared by her strange new roommate. 
I'd forgotten just how meandering Go Get a Roomie was in the early stages of the comic. There are a few extras in this volume, mostly artwork and guest comics, but there was a little tidbit in there stating that Lillian was never intended to be one of the main characters, instead just being another of Roomie's friends from the bar. It kind of illustrates what I think could put some people off, which is that the plot is obviously written without an overall plan. The first couple chapters in particular can seem disjointed, with some strips feeling episodic even within their own chapter. It does start to feel a bit more coherent, around about the time that the art starts to clean up as well weirdly enough, after Lillian starts accompanying Roomie outside her house though, so if you have the patience you would be rewarded for sticking around. Honestly though, even in the really disjointed stuff at the beginning, there's a lot of good character work, with the two mains being utterly charming in their own diametrically opposite ways. And it's kind of nice to see loads of queer characters just kind of doing their thing, whatever that may be, instead of the tired "coming out" stuff that seems to be so prevalent in LGBT narratives. 

A bit disjointed at the start, but definitely worth reading as it has a buttload of charm and humour. Worth it for the abundance of queer characters alone. 3.5/5 

Next review: Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 
Nisa.