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Saturday, 12 August 2017

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

I'll admit, I wasn't actually intending to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I first picked up my edition. Having tried and failed to read it when I was younger, I wasn't all that interested in the actual novel itself. But, as you can see from the below cover, this looked like it would be a manga adaptation, which I was interested in purely because I like that whole Wonderland aesthetic. When I got it home and out of the shrink-wrap, however, I found that rather than an adaptation, I had picked up an illustrated version of the original novels, which was a tad confusing considering it was a comic shop. Either way, it seemed a shame to waste a perfectly nice edition of a book, especially when the art looked so pretty.


The reader follows Alice, a young girl who finds herself in another world after following a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole. There she meets a series of strange characters and must navigate an assortment of situations in which logic appears to have disappeared entirely.
I went into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass expecting to absolutely hate it. As I mentioned above, I couldn't get into it when I was younger, so I wasn't really expecting a huge deal. As it was, I was pleasantly surprised to find it thoroughly average. In a weird way, I think it is both too universally well-known and also too hopelessly old-fashioned to really speak to people in the way that they expect it will.
Firstly, the too well-known part. There isn't much of either book that the general public isn't familiar with in some fashion. Off the top of my head, the only parts that were unfamiliar to me were the Duchess' pig-baby and the giant puppy from Adventures in Wonderland and the battle between the lion and the unicorn from Through the Looking-Glass. As for the rest of it, it's all pretty familiar. Even some of the more minor parts have become part of everyday pop culture. "What's the difference between a raven and a writing desk?" has been so over-analysed that the riddle has gone from having no answer to too many. Hell, I remember being told "Time for bed the Walrus said" when it was getting too late, which is unintentionally sinister now that I think about it. It's so ubiquitous now that public consciousness of the property is probably influenced as much by modern reinterpretations as it is by the original.
This mention of modern reinterpretations leads me to my second point, which is the hopelessly old-fashioned part. You can kind of tell from some of the poetry that Carroll is playing on rhymes of the time, but it's hard to appreciate the cleverness of it when the original rhymes aren't well-known anymore. Without that context, the book has to rely on its plot, and if you have any concept of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland then you can already tell what the problem with that statement is. Without the contemporary context, the book is left to rely on events that only barely have continuity with one another and don't have any stakes to speak of. It feels like a story that a child would make up and honestly it just strikes me as bizarre that it would last so long in cultural memory.

I think the only thing that really surprised me coming out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is how little the books actually hold up. The rhymes that it plays with haven't survived the test of time, and it means that the reader is left with a plot that is disjointed at best. The writing itself is okay but there's not much content to work with. It only really works on an aesthetic level these days. 2.5/5

Next review: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If anyone out there has seen the film The Princess Bride, then you should know why I picked up the book version. It is one of my absolute favourite films and so damn quotable. So obviously when I saw the book on sale, I couldn't help but pick it up and partake in that bittersweet exercise of comparing the book and the movie. To do otherwise would be inconceivable.


As a small boy, William Goldman learned to love literature after his father read him the story of The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, an epic tale of swordplay, revenge and true love. When he tries to pass on this love to his son, however, he finds that his father may have trimmed the novel down to "the good parts", sparing him countless pages of tedious satire. As such, he decides to abridge the novel, presenting the novel to the reader as it was read to him, with copious abridging notes along the way.
There was probably a part of me that knew that this was coming, but The Princess Bride was better as a movie. While I was very much a fan of some of the additional details, like Inigo and Fezzik's back-stories, I found that the majority of these details worked more to bog the narrative down. Take the asides by Goldman as part of the abridging work. The ones that work the best are the ones that he keeps short, sweet and to the point. Because when they don't, the narrative can take a turn for the overly clever or, more often, self-satisfied and mean-spirited. Honestly, that's the most disappointing part. What should be interesting to a reader, expanding what we know about characters that you loved from the film version, is ruined because the things that were mere niggles in the film are now amplified. Buttercup's lack of common sense is now stupidity to the point that the reader is in danger of completely missing what Westley sees in her other than her beauty. Westley's controlling behaviour is likewise made uncomfortable with such lines as "Woman, you are the property of the Dread Pirate Roberts and you do what you're told!" pushing his character neatly over the line into the list of characters most likely to commit mariticide at some point after the story's end. At the end of the day though, the film was an uncannily faithful adaptation, all things considered, so fans of the film should still enjoy themselves.

If you loved the film version like I did, this is sort of a disappointment. The fundamentals are there, it's just that it becomes too clunky in places where the extra details only highlight the niggles in the more streamlined adaptation. Much as he berates the fictional S. Morgenstern for bogging the narrative down with too much detail for the sake of cleverness, Goldman finds himself falling into the same trap at times. I'd still happily recommend the book though, as the story is solid enough to endure the odd misstep. Just maybe accept that in this instance, the film is better than the book. 4/5

Next review: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

And we're back to Pratchett again, and I had very little idea about what could be expected in Moving Pictures. Judging from the title, there was a pretty good chance that it would be movie-related in some way, but considering the largely traditional fantasy trappings, I wasn't quite sure how that would pan out. 


Moving Pictures follows Victor Tugelbend, a student wizard who has been studiously avoiding passing his wizarding exams in order to maintain his life of leisure. But when a group of alchemists develop a process for filming and displaying moving pictures, he finds himself swept up in the furore of Holy Wood, new home of the "click". He soon finds that there is something unnatural about Holy Wood and the clicks, and he determines to find out what it is in between takes. 
So, the good but obvious stuff first. Pratchett's writing and humour is top-notch as usual. That he appears to be both pandering to cinephiles with an abundance of movie references (made appropriate to the Disc of course), whilst also being at his most intensely scathing about the whole fame thing only makes this more entertaining. 
I think the best thing about Moving Pictures is the way that the subject of fame is tackled. On the one side, there is Victor and his co-star Ginger, who are trying to get their heads around the idea that they are suddenly important for no reason other than who they are, or at least who they can convince others that they are. This is compounded by the two wonder dogs, Gaspode and Laddie. Gaspode is a dog gifted with intelligence and speech by Holy Wood's magic, but Laddie is the one everyone assumes is smarter because he looks the part of a wonder dog. I rather liked the talent vs luck/looks vibe that the book tackled, because usually stories set in the world of movies likes its audience to assume that of course actors are more than just the right kind of pretty face for the era. 
The characters were a bit of a mixed bag. I liked seeing more of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, and I look forward to seeing more of Archchancellor Ridcully and the Bursar. The two mains were a bit on the bland side though. I don't know whether that was meant to be some kind of commentary on vacuous actors, but it would have been nice to have a bit more personal motivation instead of being constantly prodded into action by the talking dog. 
Finally, the pacing is a bit odd. Not necessarily bad, but it does seem to have a lot of build-up and then a rather sudden climax. I didn't mind it so much, but I could see it being more distracting for those who were perhaps not expecting it. 

A bit oddly-paced and the main characters could do with some more oomph, but the subject matter itself is more than enough to make up for the aforementioned weaknesses. Definitely one to pick up if you want to both laugh and express your cynicism for the film industry. 4/5 

Next review: The Princess Bride by William Goldman 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Once again, I return to the Dresden Files. While I was a bit disappointed in the previous installment, Grave Peril did set up a massive conflict between the wizards' White Council and the Red Court of vampires that I was interested in seeing play out. Which is why I was a little confused to see it take something of a back seat.


In Summer Knight, the reader returns to find Harry Dresden a mere shadow of his former self. Obsessed with finding a cure for the vampirism that has infected his girlfriend, he has completely withdrawn from friends, is struggling to keep up with rent and has even fallen behind on basic hygiene. When he is at what is arguably his lowest ebb, he finds himself drawn into a murder mystery that could cause an Armageddon-level war between the Summer and Winter courts of the Sidhe (Faeries to you and me, but don't let them hear you call them that). Worse than that, if he doesn't solve the mystery and somehow lives, then the White Council will call for his execution for his part in starting the war with the Red Court.
Whatever issues Grave Peril had, it would appear that it was only a temporary blip in the quality of the Dresden Files. Summer Knight is everything that I love about the series in one spot. There's all sorts of dangerous politics, both from the White Council's willingness to throw one of their own under the bus, and from the seductive and pernicious deals of the Faeries. There's an unwelcome face from the past in the form of Elaine, the ex-girlfriend who teamed up with his former teacher to try and bring him over to the dark side. Apparently she wasn't acting under her own power, but as she is acting as an emissary to the opposing Faerie court that has hired Harry, how much of her word can he believe? There's the introduction of changelings, half-mortal and half-Faerie and not really at home in either world. And, best of all, there is my absolute favourite cop, Karrin Murphy, being a complete badass even when she's having to work through the magic equivalent of PTSD. What more could I ask for?
If there was something that did bother me, it was that for a conflict that wiped out one of the White Council's most senior wizards, the war with the vampires only seemed to get the most cursory of nods right at the beginning and again a little before the final conflict. It would have been nice to see a bit more direct conflict with the Red Court, because what we do get seems to be a bit throwaway and nonsensical.

Summer Knight is probably my favourite so far of the Dresden Files, and a welcome return to form. I loved the politics of the Faerie courts as well as the sheer scale of their power. And honestly, it was just so damn good seeing Karrin Murphy back on her feet and being badass again. I look forward to the next installment, where hopefully we'll get to see more of the conflict between the White Council and the Red Court. 4.5/5

Next review: Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

After the disappointment that was The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, I was in the mood for something familiar. I hadn't read Treasure Island in years, and remembered really enjoying it when I was younger, so it seemed like the perfect book to revisit.


Treasure Island follows a young boy named Jim Hawkins. Helping his parents run their inn, the Admiral Benbow, he meets a cantankerous old sailor who is rather keen on avoiding other seamen. When he dies after his old crewmates turn up to harass him, Jim gets his hands on the old man's sea-chest, with a treasure map inside. Joined by Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney, they embark on a journey to retrieve the treasure, gathered initially by the infamous Captain Flint. But all is not well, as their crew of honest hands has been infiltrated by former members of Flint's crew, most notably the one-legged Long John Silver.
It might just be the innumerable film adaptations overriding my memories of the book, but I do not remember there being quite as much malaria in Treasure Island. I'd also managed to forget a whole chunk of the book in which Jim manages to steal back their ship, the Hispaniola, which is probably more worrying. Regardless, I still enjoyed it about as much as I did when I was a kid. There was a small part of my brain making things weird by thinking of my two favourite adaptations (the Muppet version and Disney's weird but somehow still coherent Victoriana Space Opera version), but it does definitely still stand up by itself.
One thing that I will mention for those of you who haven't read Treasure Island, but have seen a bunch of the adaptations is that Hollywood has a weird obsession with trying to make Long John Silver into a kind of weird father-figure for Jim. There isn't really much of that in the actual book, with Silver being more or less a child-friendly depiction of a psychopath. Sure he switches sides towards the end, but not out of any genuine affection for Jim; considering that the alternative is dying on a malaria-ridden island with three former comrades who really aren't satisfied with the way that his grand voyage has panned out, it's a purely pragmatic decision. That's not a bad thing, it's just something that would stand out if you've only ever seen film versions before.

Treasure Island is a classic for a reason. The characters are great, the action is gripping and who doesn't love pirates? If you've only ever seen the film versions before though, you might want to prepare yourself for a significantly less likeable Long John Silver. 4.5/5

Next review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Mammoth Book of Body Horror edited by Paul Kane & Marie O'Regan

You may be wondering what could have possibly made me pick up The Mammoth Book of Body Horror. I have something of a soft spot for the body horror sub-genre, as it's pretty much the only type of horror that I can watch without having to worry that the orchestra will set off my noise aversion with jump scare chords. And having come across a book that included not only the inspiration for one of my favourite horror movies, John Carpenter's The Thing, but several other stories on similar themes, I couldn't really resist the temptation to check it out. 


The Mammoth Book of Body Horror is a collection of body horror stories, ranging from classic writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe to more modern writers like Clive Barker and Stephen King. 
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm really rather disappointed. Considering just how grim body horror can get, I couldn't believe just how many more or less unequivocally happy endings there were in this collection. I could kind of understand this with some of the pre-20th century stories, but once you get to post-war stuff I was actively stunned by the unbelievable level of optimism that a share of these stories had. I mean, "Who Goes There?" the story that I picked up the volume specifically to read, has the characters kill off everyone assimilated by the Thing and then everyone has a big sigh of relief and gets back to work happy that they interrupted the Thing before it perfected anti-gravity. And no, that last bit is not an exaggeration, which only takes the story from mildly disappointing to outright silly. I think I'll stick to the film adaptation. 
There are also a few stories that I would argue don't really qualify as body horror at all. The two that stick out most in my mind are "The Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe and "Changes" by Neil Gaiman. I love both of these writers, but I couldn't tell you why either of these stories was included. With Edgar Allan Poe, not only does the inclusion not make sense, but it's made all the more baffling by the existence of his story "Ligeia" which is infinitely more appropriate for this collection. And with Neil Gaiman, the alteration detailed is gender reassignment. First, the last time I checked involuntary gender reassignment was claimed by the stupider sub-section of romantic/teen comedies. Second, nice going alienating your transgender audience. Third, it's a change that can be easily reversed, so it hardly counts as horrifying. It just fails as a body horror story on all levels. It's an interesting story on its own merits, but shouldn't have a place here. 
That negativity out of the way, there were a few stories that did scratch my body horror itch, if not to the extent that I had hoped. Probably the best of the actual body horror stuff was "The Body Politic" by Clive Barker, "The Chaney Legacy" by Robert Bloch, "The Look" by Christopher Fowler and "Residue" by Alice Henderson. Some stories that were good, if not necessarily proper body horror were "Survivor Type" by Stephen King and "Black Box" by Gemma Files. 

A rather disappointing showing actually. I might be somewhat inured to body horror, seeing as I have yet to see the microwaving baby scene from Victims beaten for most uncomfortable, but there wasn't much in the way of proper scares or discomfort. Some of the stories even had happy endings which was just absurd. There were a few decent stories though, so not a complete wash. 3/5 

Next review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers is one of those classics that is so culturally prevalent that I felt almost duty-bound to look into it. So when I found that it was one of the free ebooks when I fired up Google Books, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to take a look at a much-beloved classic.


The reader follows D'Artagnan, a young and hot-tempered noble who sets out for Paris seeking glory and fortune. Upon arriving in Paris, his attempts to gain acceptance into the elite musketeer company are initially hindered when his haste to avenge a slight causes him to anger three musketeers: the quiet and stoic Athos, the boisterous and vain Porthos, and the womanising would-be priest Aramis. And having befriended his would-be opponents, he finds himself getting involved in the private affairs of several august personages.
I went into The Three Musketeers expecting adventure and maybe a bit of intrigue. I hadn't realised just how much modern adaptations remove some of the more unsavoury aspects of our heroes' behaviour. I mean, I was kind of expecting some dissonance with regards to values, considering when it was written. But at the same time there is a surprising amount that adaptations leave out, such as the utterly shameless way that they seduce married women in order to get funds that is almost immediately squandered on high-living, or the servant girl that D'Artagnan uses and casually abandons to avenge himself on her mistress. While they are undoubtedly the lesser of two evils compared with the duplicity of Milady de Winter, it does feel a bit more grey than was perhaps intended by the author.
The unexpected underhandedness of the eponymous heroes aside, The Three Musketeers is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, with a fair bit more depth than I had expected at first. And while I do have some reservations about some of his misogynistic tendencies, I did end up developing a bit of a soft spot for Athos. That may well be because he seemed to be the most competent and collected of the four protagonists though.

Overall, The Three Musketeers was an enjoyable read. The heroes are perhaps less likeable than adaptations would have you expecting, but they still have their good points to them. It has a lot more depth than I was expecting with regards the whole political powerplay aspects, and a surprisingly bittersweet ending. 3.5/5

Next review: The Mammoth Book of Body Horror edited by Paul Kane & Marie O'Regan

Signing off,
Nisa.