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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. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As you can probably tell by just glancing at my blog that I have a tendency to read fiction over non-fiction. Not necessarily because I dislike non-fiction, but perhaps because I am pickier about the topics that I read about in the non-fiction "genre". While I'm willing to maybe pick up something unfamiliar in a fictional frame, there's a part of me that remembers all the dense and incomprehensible textbooks from university that presupposed a certain level of prior knowledge whenever I glance at the non-fiction section. This time though, I decided to bite the bullet, and settled on a subject that I at least have experience of.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking focuses on the role of introversion and extraversion in society, particularly focusing on the obsession that Western cultures have with extraversion. With such a focus on charisma and the ability to sell yourself in the workplace, Quiet discusses the ways that introverts can use their more understated talents to get ahead, and why being the loudest person in the room doesn't guarantee that you're the best person for the job.
As is probably obvious, I am firmly in the introvert camp, and so was hoping that this might give me some insight into promoting myself better without having to change my core antisocial nature. While I may have a ways left to go, Quiet was certainly an interesting starting point. Starting with the origins of what Cain refers to as the "Extrovert Ideal", she then looks into how this focus of extraversion can lead to disastrous results, how introverts can flourish in business by relying on innate strengths, when it is appropriate to act in an outwardly extraverted manner and how the two personality types can benefit from each other. Admittedly, a lot of the points in principle seem kind of obvious to me, having experienced a lot of this firsthand, but the psychology and neuroscience behind it is fascinating. Like, it's not especially surprising that introverts are risk-averse compared to extraverts' more high-risk, high-reward attitude, but the fact that this is down to how each personality-type processes dopamine, amongst other things, is really interesting. And if you wanted to look further into a specific aspect of the overall subject, Cain has provided a detailed list of works that she has cited, so if she doesn't go into quite the level of depth that you would like then she's provided the means to do further research.

While Quiet more or less affirms things that introverts are already aware of, it does go into the reasons behind why introverts behave the way they do, and it provides a springboard for further study if the subject interests you. 4/5

Next review: Go Get a Roomie Volume 1 by Chloe C.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Fashion Beast by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston & Facundo Percio

It's been quite a while since my last comic, so I fancied something that was a little bit out of left field. In this case, that meant Fashion Beast, mainly because the artwork looked absolutely gorgeous, but also because I have a pretty good record with Alan Moore's work so far and I was interested to see how one of his lesser known works held up against the hard-hitters that I'd read, like Watchmen or V for Vendetta.


Fashion Beast follows Doll Seguin, an androgynous coat checker barely scraping by at a popular club, decides to take a chance auditioning as a "mannequin" for a world-famous, reclusive fashion designer after losing her job. Making an unexpected impression on the mysterious patron of the House of Celestine, she is initially delighted by the world of glamour that she now inhabits, miles away from anything she could have imagined in the nuclear winter outside. But she soon finds that all is not well, and that the secrets that inspire its head designer to create beautiful clothing could be the very things that tear the fashion House to the ground.
My first reaction to Fashion Beast upon finishing it was a deep breath, because it's quite a lot to digest over a lunch break. Having thought it over a bit, I find myself puzzling over it. In some ways, I like it and my initial reaction still applies as it tackles a lot of big ideas, like beauty and celebrity culture, the corruption of the creative process, gender identity, the class divide, and mental illness. It mentions on the blurb that Fashion Beast came out of an unproduced film script for a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, which would explain how it ends up feeling almost mythic in proportions, despite the comparatively small scale of the plot.
But then you look at some of the individual components and it starts to fall apart a bit. The characters, while vivid, are not for the most part written with much in the way of depth. This can make some of the emotional highs and lows come across a bit flat, as there hasn't been enough character build-up to warrant the change. The same could be said about the setting, which has an intriguing premise that isn't built on enough. Throughout the comic, you get glimpses of the outside world through radio segments warning about an impending nuclear winter, but it never seems to actually feel all that imminent. In the sections where the action is cooped up within the fashion house that makes sense, but even in the sections out in the poorest areas of the surrounding city it doesn't feel any more immediate. If anything, all the talk about a nuclear winter does it make it really obvious that Fashion Beast's story was written in the 1980s with the cold war still firmly in place.
The artwork is pretty much perfect though. It manages to combine the glamour of high fashion with the griminess of the surrounding post-nuclear world and somehow manages to make it all look weird and utterly gorgeous. I might have to look out for more of Percio's work if this is anything to go by.

Fashion Beast is a bit of a strange one. If you read it as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, then it does work with that kind of fairy tale/mythic tone. If you look at it with more of a critical eye for depth of character and setting, then it may well disappoint you. Probably not Alan Moore's best, but the potential is definitely there, and I would love to see an expanded version of this if that's ever considered. 3.5/5

Next review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

As some of you may have noticed, I have something of a tendency to group my Discworld and Dresden Files reads together. In this case, I am following Reaper Man with Death Masks, which felt kind of thematically appropriate somehow. And honestly, I was looking forward to the next Dresden Files so much after the series had its ante upped during Summer Knight that I couldn't have resisted for long.


By the time Death Masks starts, the war with the Red Court of Vampires has been going on for a couple of years, with progress on either side more or less grinding to a halt. With this in mind, Dresden is approached by Count Ortega, who puts forward the following offer: agree to a fair one-on-one fight with him and potentially end the war for good, or he'll send hired guns after Harry's friends and former clients. On top of that, he is hired to find the Shroud of Turin after it has been stolen. While what seems like a comparatively mundane case soon proves to be anything but when demonic beings known as the Denarians show up, with Michael and his fellow Knights of the Cross determined to keep Harry out of harm's way.
I don't really know how Butcher intends to top Death Masks, because I loved this from start to finish. First, the reader is introduced to new characters that I can't wait to see more of. There's Butters, the night-shift mortician blaring out polka, who is surprisingly calm about the fact that the supernatural is real now. There is Ivy, a little girl who contains the entirety of written knowledge but still insists on sticking to an appropriate bedtime. And, my favourite, there is Sanya, the newest Knight of the Cross, one of God's chosen few, who still maintains a position as an agnostic and has little time for the old fashioned trappings of the Order.
Second, it develops some of the existing side cast nicely. Michael doesn't come across nearly as sanctimoniously as he does in Grave Peril, as he is balanced out by the other Knights of the Cross. Susan, while still far from my favourite character, doesn't feel like dead weight anymore; turns out she just needed to be turned into the undead to contribute something to the series beyond a target for Harry's emotional pining. And, be still my beating heart, I get to see more Johnny Marcone being more than capable of standing toe-to-toe with supernatural foes, as well as an unexpected emotional side.
Third, it introduces some great villains in the Denarians. They are seriously scary already, and I doubt that I've seen even a fraction of what they're capable of. The idea of an entity that takes over people through their own temptation is really unnerving, as is the fact that they're at such an obviously higher power scale than anyone Harry's had to fight before, with the exception of the Fae. Count Ortega is also an interesting villain, but he does kind of pale in comparison to the Denarians.

I really have no complaints with Death Masks. The pre-existing characters have been well-developed, a terrifying new enemy is introduced and it sets up so many cool plot threads to expand on. My favourite Dresden Files so far, and I'm really excited to see where the series goes from here. 5/5

Next review: Fashion Beast by Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston & Facundo Percio

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

I'd been really looking forward to my next Discworld installment, as Reaper Man is the next part of the Death series. And you're probably aware of how much I enjoyed the last time Death was centre-stage. The fact that my husband, the resident Discworld nerd, couldn't remember the plot was somewhat concerning though.


Having decided that Death has developed too much of a personality to properly perform his duty, a group of strange cosmic auditors announce that he is to be retired. With no work to do, and limited time on his hands, Death decides to venture out into the world and experience living before his successor arrives to take over. In the meantime, however, people are still dying, but with no Death to collect their souls, things start to take a bit of a strange turn elsewhere on the Disc.
I'm not sure how to feel about Reaper Man. On the one hand, it's Death, my second favourite character after Vetinari. On the other hand, it doesn't really feel much like a Death novel. For one thing, half the novel focuses on the efforts of Windle Poons and the other faculty members from the Unseen University. While I am quite fond of some of the faculty, *cough*Bursar*cough*, I thought that the wizard section was just generally weaker than the Death section, especially once it got to the weird sentient shopping centre thing at the end. But even then, the Death section is a surprisingly slow look at the rise of industrialisation in the farming industry. I just about works considering Death's proclivity for scythes, but when put together with the aforementioned sentient shopping centre, I get the feeling that the satire may have been a bit harder to work this time around.
Don't get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, but Reaper Man was kind of disappointing considering how well-written and conceived Mort was.

Another enjoyable read from the Discworld, but it seemed a bit confused. Death dealing with the rise of industrialised farming doesn't really mesh well with the Unseen University's battle with a sentient shopping centre. Of all things, why a shopping centre?! 3.5/5

Next review: Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Fires by Rene Steinke

The reason for me picking The Fires to read is going to sound really stupid and dull. For my birthday one year, I received a load of ebooks on a USB stick, some of which were some series that I had been very keen to get. But I'd also never transferred anything like that onto my tablet, so I picked a book at random to test out the process. That book was The Fires and since I never got round to removing it from said tablet, I figured that I might as well give it a whirl.


The Fires follows a young woman called Ella in the aftermath of her grandfather's suicide. She finds herself struggling with her grief, which is only compounded by her mother and grandmother's refusal to acknowledge that the cause of death was anything but natural causes. To try and cope, she tries to find her estranged aunt to pass on the news of his passing, and when that isn't enough to quiet her state of mind, she sets things on fire.
This is something of an odd novel. Its most obvious strength is the writing style, which is very lyrical and vivid. The problem arises because instead of accentuating intriguing characters and a dark, tormented family drama, it accentuates just how much the characters and plot lack in depth. With regards to character development, Steinke seems to have gone to the school of characterisation that dictates that the key to good characterisation involves mounting dysfunction on dysfunction like you're playing a particularly poor taste bingo game. Ella is a particularly egregious example. She sets fires, then she's an insomniac, then she has alcohol dependency issues from her attempts to medicate her insomnia, then she has body confidence issues stemming from burn scars from a childhood accident. And all of that is before you begin to touch the myriad of tedious micro-traumas that she has heaped on with her family members. What could be interesting character flaws individually becomes a featureless mass of depression. None of her flaws are aggravating, but neither can I really think of any positive qualities. She's not a racist, so there's that.
As for the plot, it seemed like it was going somewhere interesting, but then Steinke drops the biggest plot bombshell right in the middle. After that, nothing really tops that shock and the further revelations are a bit weak and predictable in comparison. If they'd been paced in a different order, then it would probably have worked out better, but as it is it's strong until the mid-point then an exercise in stretching out time and patience.

There's the basis of what could have been a really good novel in the mess that is The Fires, but it's just put together all wrong. The main character Ella is more an amalgamation of dysfunctions that probably aimed at making someone intriguing and tortured, but only leaves a confused impression of a person where her sole good quality is that she isn't a racist. The plot has a lot of revelations about Ella's family that are good on paper, but presented in the wrong order so that the tension leeches out almost immediately after the first big plot twist at the plot's mid-point. I wanted to care, but couldn't in the end. 2.5/5

Next review: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It's been a little while since I settled down with a proper fantasy book, and considering that the blurb promised a threat of a huge invading army I was more than happy to take a look at it. When I actually got round to reading Empire in Black and Gold though, my husband took one look at the cover and said, "Oh yeah, I remember reading that. Wasn't a fan." With that rousing recommendation, I forged ahead anyway.


After witnessing the invasion of the city state of Myna, an artificer by the name of Stenwold Maker has appealed to his peers in his home city, the Collegium, in the hopes that his warnings will lead to a better defence against the armies of the Wasp Empire. It soon becomes clear that few take his warnings seriously though, so he must recruit agents from amongst his own students, in the hopes that they will be able to muster their own allies and defences. When the Wasps arrive in the Collegium under the pretence of allegiance, he knows that he has run out of time for preparation.
At its core, Empire in Black and Gold is a solid fantasy and an excellent foundation for the rest of what I have just found is quite a lengthy series at this point. A lot of its success can be attributed to some interesting world-building. While in other fantasy series you would encounter races of elves and dwarves alongside the regular, boring humans, Tchaikovsky has instead opted to go with multiple races of human, all of whom share traits with certain insects. For example, the aforementioned Stenwold Maker is a Beetle-kinden, which means that he's methodical and tenacious, while an ally of his, Tisamon, is a Mantis-kinden and thus very combat-oriented and deadly. An interesting concept which makes for some unusual sources of conflict, as certain races are gifted with machinery while others are gifted with more magical arts. On the other hand, it does create one of the biggest holes in the world-building that just doesn't make sense no matter how I look at it.
So, the reader finds out rather quickly, through the character of Totho, that halfbreeds are very taboo. Totho, as a half-Ant/half-Beetle hybrid, is treated with only the barest of courtesy by most of the cast, with no real prospects for a career and with some outright willing to beat the stuffing out of him because of his mixed heritage. It makes up a HUGE part of his character, and I would be interested to see how that pans out. Now, with the taboo surrounding halfbreeds being so ingrained in this society, you would naturally assume that mixed race relationships would be similarly looked down on. Nope. The only time it's addressed is when Totho expresses interest in a girl. One of the main leads, a Spider-kinden girl, expresses interest in one of her friends fairly early on, and the fact that he's Dragonfly-kinden doesn't seem to bother her. In fact it kind of acts as a bonus for her, as his race are comparatively rare where most of the plot is set and therefore exotic. I just don't understand how you can have Totho on one hand, a character who has been completely browbeaten on the sheer basis of who he is, and then have several budding romances between people of different races go more or less entirely uncommented on. I just don't understand how that can work, as one prejudice should naturally lead to the other. If mixed relations are okay, then there needs to be an in-universe reason why the offspring of those relations aren't okay, and we're never made privy to it. It is a comparatively small part of the world-building, but it just annoys me.

A solid fantasy with some intriguing world-building. I would be more than willing to continue the series and see how the politics and war stuff pans out. Unfortunately not all the world-building makes sense, with the attitude towards halfbreeds compared to the attitude towards mixed race relationships being the most obvious. Still worth a read though. 4/5

Next review: The Fires by Rene Steinke

Signing off,
Nisa.

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.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

I've had the Locke & Key series on my radar for some time, as I am a huge Joe Hill fan. I think I've managed to gather the majority of the series, so now the only thing left is to give them a read, starting with Welcome to Lovecraft.


Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft follows the remains of the Locke family after a disturbed student kills their father. They move in with their uncle in his New England mansion, known locally as the Keyhouse. But while they're only looking to move on with their lives, the house is filled with doors that transform those brave enough to travel through with the right key. And there is a relentless creature who will stop at nothing to gain the power over those doors.
Considering that there was a lot made about the doors themselves, I was kind of expecting to see more of them. But Welcome to Lovecraft is a bit of a slower burn, which seems to be working for this volume at least. The first half alternates the focus on the kids trying to adapt to life without their dad and the traumatic events that led to their move in the first place. The slow familiarisation with the characters really works because by the time things start getting more threatening, the family has moved from generic survivors to characters whose safety I do feel genuinely concerned about. Character-wise, the three that are perhaps most important are the children. The oldest is Tyler, a former friend of the boy that killed his dad, and convinced that he is in some part responsible for the tragedy that occurred. The middle child is Kinsey, who saved her little brother at the time and is now struggling to reintegrate with her peers. Finally there is Bode, the youngest by a fair margin, who seems to be coping the best out of his siblings, but is frustrated that his encounters with the supernatural elements in the house are being written off as worrying signs of emotional instability. That's one of the things that I really like about how the supernatural stuff is written in. It kind of takes a trope that's really common with child fantasy protagonists, where the adults are useless and unwilling to believe, and makes it terrifying. I haven't seen much of the house yet, but I already know that Bode is in way over his head and that's really unsettling. It's definitely made me want to read more of the series.
Since this is another comic, I guess that I should spend some time taking about the artwork. I hadn't heard of Rodriguez before now, but I would be happy to see more of his work following this. It's perhaps not the prettiest of artwork, but it's great at evoking atmosphere and character personality, so it does fit the tone of the writing really well. He really doesn't shy away from the blood and gore either, which works with this kind of horror. Sometimes horror works better without visible gore, but this is not one of those instances, so it was good to see that the visuals haven't compromised that way.

More of a slow burner than I was initially expecting, but it really works to set up appealing protagonists who I am genuinely concerned for. It doesn't compromise on the gore, so if you're squeamish you may want to come prepared. It's definitely set up a series that I am eager to continue reading. 4.5/5

Next review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

I have a feeling that this is the final book from that Humble Bundle that I had, and I'm rather chuffed with how the whole thing came out. I went into Signal to Noise with fairly positive expectations, as I've enjoyed what I've read of Neil Gaiman's work thus far and the comics that he's been involved with usually end up looking weird and beautiful. I couldn't seem to get a blurb that mentioned anything about the plot itself, only the rave reviews and the fact that there's a radio drama adaptation, but I've gone into a couple other books on this bundle with similarly vague notions of the premise and come out fine. Besides, if it sucked at least it was under 100 pages.


Signal to Noise follows a director in the months after he is diagnosed with cancer. As he refuses treatment for the malignant tumour, he begins work on his final film, the finished product that he doesn't expect to live to see. As he crafts a story about a village waiting for the apocalypse to come at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 999 AD, it starts mixing with his thoughts on his own personal, imminent apocalypse.
I kind of regret reading this on a tablet. While my tablet is okay for text, I think I needed to read Signal to Noise as a physical book. Because this is a beautiful comic book, and I don't think reading it on a tablet did it justice. I want to see the weird, angular depictions of the horsemen in that lovely glossy paper that decent comics are printed on. I want to be able to stare at the pages and really see the transition where the focus on the crowd zooms further and further out until you're looking at the creases in a man's palm. Signal to Noise, much like the world cinema films that it seems to be paying tribute to, is one of those pieces that is both beautiful to look at and never seems to stop being interesting in its subject matter. I don't want to say too much about the plot itself, as it's more a character piece and it's an experience that I don't think I can convey with the sort of grace that it deserves. Just read it.

Signal to Noise is a beautifully weird comic and my only regret is that I didn't read it as a physical book. It's the kind of comic book that you show people who try to trivialise the medium as nothing but superhero stories. It's visually experimental, and would definitely benefit from multiple read-throughs. It certainly feels longer than it's 80 pages. 5/5

Next review: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Unusually, I've gone for two short story collections on the trot. Maybe it's because I'm on holiday, but I've found myself really in the mood for something more bitesize. And considering that I've mostly enjoyed the dark fantasy stuff that Holly Black has written, I was interested to see how she holds up using short forms of fiction. Anything to take my mind off my sunburn has to be some good anyway. 


The Poison Eaters and Other Stories collects a series of short stories by the Curse Worker series author Holly Black. Some of the stories reference some of her longer work, with "Going Ironside" and "The Land of Heart's Desire" being set in her Modern Faery Tale series, while the opening tale "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" is set in the same universe as her novel of the same name. The subject matter ranges from vampires to unicorns and even as far as living books and girls whose touch can kill. 
Usually I prefer single-author anthologies, as you tend to get a more even tone and quality to the stories contained due to only coming from one author. Usually that's the case anyway. For some reason, Black seems to be a writer that I either love or could give or take, depending on what of hers I'm reading. It was very much in evidence here. On the side of absolutely love, I would have killed to have more stories like the eponymous "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" or "The Dog King"; those stories were my certain top three when I was looking over the contents in preparation for this review. And much of the rest of the stories were similarly strong. But for me, there were four stories that just fell flat for me: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", "Virgin", "In Vodka Veritas" and "Going Ironside". With those stories, there just didn't seem to be much actual content within them to grab a reader's attention. And considering that there's only 12 stories in the collections, I don't feel confident giving it top marks when there was around a third of the content that I was ambivalent at best about. Were there perhaps more stories with the quality of the three that I picked out as my favourites, then I'd perhaps feel a bit more positive about the collection. 

Quite a good collection overall, but The Poison Eaters and Other Stories is somewhat brought down by a few stories that, while not necessarily bad, are much less interesting. I'd still read it for "The Poison Eaters", "The Coat of Stars" and "The Dog King", but you might want to go in aware. 3.5/5 

Next review: Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there's only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.


Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can't see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I'm actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn't aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn't sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn't really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It's a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.

Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5

Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Eric by Terry Pratchett

So, I was a little torn going into Eric. On the one hand, it's part of the Discworld series, which I really like. On the other hand, it's a Rincewind book, the installments that I find closest to tiresome.


Eric follows Rincewind as he is summoned from the Dungeon Dimensions that he was trapped in at the end of Sourcery. Following an oddity in a demon-summoning ritual, he has been called to grant the wishes of a teenage Faust-wannabe named Eric. While the wishes themselves are standard enough (to be ruler of the world, to have the world's most beautiful woman, and to live forever), the magic that Rincewind suddenly has at his fingertips is determined to grant these wishes in the most awkward way possible.
This is probably the first time that I've thought that Pratchett's writing benefitted by being shorter than normal. With most of his Discworld books thus far, I've gone away wanting more of what I just finished, which is kind of what I want from a book. With Eric, while I'm more than happy to admit that it is by far my favourite of the Rincewind books so far, it's kind of obvious that there wasn't much substance to it. I can't imagine that I would have liked Eric half as much if it went on for a regular Discworld novel's length. It's main good point is its brevity.
With regards to characters, my comments from previous Rincewind reviews still stand. I harbour a great love for the Luggage, and I still don't think that Rincewind works as a main character. As for the eponymous Eric, he's kind of a generic spotty teen. Occasionally he's amusingly ill-informed but otherwise there's not really much to him either. Like the plot, I could see him getting irritating if the material was stretched. any further.

The best novel starring Rincewind thus far in the series, but there's not a great deal of material here. Its brevity is a definite benefit here, as I could see it getting tiresome if it were any longer. As it is, it's short and sweet, and it's a lot of fun. 3.5/5

Next review: Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

And now to return to the Dresden Files, partially because I'm going on holiday soon and my husband's threatened to bring the official board game with him, so I wanted to be at least a little further in the series. Also because I like what I've read so far and want to see how the series progresses.


Grave Peril follows Dresden as he teams up with one of God's chosen warriors to try and quell a sudden uprising from the spirit world. While ghosts are normally harmless with the occasional poltergeist making a nuisance of itself, Chicago's dead are now anything but quiet and unusually powerful to boot. On top of that, Harry soon finds himself having to contend with tracking down a vulnerable young wizard and a party where he has to play nice with Bianca and the vampires of the Red Court.
I personally found Grave Peril to be kind of a stumble in the series thus far. While I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading it, after the first two installments this one was kind of disappointing.
So, let's start with the positive. I really liked the ghost stuff. The confrontation at the beginning in particular was really harrowing and so well-written. If there had been way more of that, then I think I would have been able to forgive some of the mis-steps a bit more.
So, the first thing that bothered was the introduction of Michael. While I don't have a problem with practising Christian characters in the books I read, I kind of found him to be a sanctimonious bore. At first I thought he'd be a fun addition, considering how much he seems to enjoy winding Harry up, but he didn't really go much beyond that. And it's unexpectedly annoying to have a character telling someone off for language that wouldn't even get a PG rating.
Second, it either doesn't feature or actively incapacitates my favourite characters, instead choosing to focus large parts of the narrative on Susan. This is more a personal gripe, but it really hinders a story when I don't care if one of the main characters dies or not.
Third, there's a big chunk of plot that occurs because of a case that Dresden helps close involving a sorcerer that summons a demon. All of which happened before any of the novel's events and isn't actually shown properly during the entirety of the narrative. Now, it might just be me, but if an event had tantamount importance to why Dresden is having problems now, then I'd be tempted to include it somewhere. Not just a nightmarish "what-if" version where everything goes wrong. Because as it is, it feels like cheating when Butcher reveals "oh yeah, it's part of that case that I keep alluding to, but will never disclose in full".
Finally, after the initial encounter with the Red Court at the party, the story starts to drag a bit. It stops being tense and suspenseful, and starts being various repetitions of "Oh no! The last of my reserves! Wait, wait... never mind, found some more. Carry on." It stops being tense once Dresden uses up his last ounce of strength more than once, and starts feeling a bit cheap. I will admit, the wrapping up chapter makes up for it a little by introducing a bigger conflict that I hope to really sink my teeth into.

Overall, it's decently written, and if I could have had more sections focusing on the ghosts, that would have been brilliant. As it was, Grave Peril focuses too much on characters that really aren't that interesting out of the side cast he's made thus far, has a big chunk of plot rely on events that the reader never gets to see and the climax drags where it should be tense. I still enjoyed reading it, I just feel that compared to previous installments this felt thoroughly average. 3.5/5

Next review: Eric by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn is one of those stories that I only really heard of after I started venturing out onto the Internet a bit more, and even then I seemed to find mostly artwork of the eponymous unicorn, with surprisingly little about the actual story. So when I got round to actually reading it, it had become a weird kind of amorphous non-entity: apparently a really beloved classic, but with little actual substance that I could see and figure out why people liked it.


It is a regular eternally spring day for the unicorn, when she hears a message that she can't bring herself to ignore: that she is the last of her kind in the world. Venturing from the safety of her forest, she sets out to find out what happened to others like her. Joining her on her journey are Schmendrick, the world's worst magician, and Molly Grue, an indomitable spinster. But the three of them may not be enough to combat the terrible Red Bull that stalks the land of the miserly King Haggard.
What I'm about to say probably won't make much sense. Because I had a copy of the deluxe edition, my edition of The Last Unicorn came with a lot of additional material, including an introduction and an interview that hammer in one point about the writing process for this book: it was a complete chore and it took years before Beagle could look at it and admit to himself that it was any good. And while I did like what I read, I think that there is a part of that struggle that shows through the writing. The Last Unicorn is a truly beautiful book at several points, but as a whole it kind of left me emotionally cold. I don't know what it was, but despite enjoying it, The Last Unicorn probably won't be high on my list of books to re-read any time soon. It's like watching a dancer who is technically flawless, but who doesn't enjoy performing anymore and hits her cues more out of obligation than anything else. The parts that I liked were the points where the fairy tale stuff was juxtaposed by the moments of crushing reality: the spider crying in the night having discovered that it can't weave the moon in her web, or Molly asking why the unicorn only turns up in her life after her youth and loveliness have already left. The more traditionally fantasy elements, regardless of how self-aware they are, seem to be there more to fit the story structure. It is really well written though, so I would be interested to see some more of Beagle's work, perhaps something that hadn't been such a struggle for him.

Thoroughly beautiful at times, but I can't honestly say that The Last Unicorn did much for me emotionally. There's nothing specifically wrong with the novel, but this just wasn't really for me. Pleasant enough and probably enough to warrant reading other works by this author, but this work seemed a bit too beholden to obligating fairy tale tropes to really stretch out and become something truly wonderful. I am probably in a minority here though. 3.5/5

Next review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

On a sidenote: Project Skylark

Not a review this time, but an appeal to whatever regular readership I have out there. I have a friend in the real world whose book is currently on Inkshares. This site is kind of like Kickstarter but specifically for publishing. At the moment, her manuscript is in the pre-order stage, and if she gets enough people to order copies then it will be properly published. She's been working on it for a long while now, so if you like the sound of the book pitch, then please consider ordering a copy. So, without further ado, may I introduce Project Skylark by Jennifer Hart.

Lost in Space meets Dune.
The crew of a marooned ship struggle to survive a hostile alien environment, whilst discovering that every decision they make will have far reaching consequences for the future of humanity. 
So, if you interested in Project Skylark then please click the enclosed link. The page includes a sample chapter to whet your appetite, and some very reasonably priced pre-order options.

Thanks for reading!

Signing off,
Nisa.
 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Returning to the Humble Bundle, I settled on another science-fiction title in the form of Spin. Much like my last foray into science-fiction, there wasn't much that I could glean from the blurb beyond "the stars are gone", but I was mostly optimistic. My last book entered with more or less a blank slate outlook was a resounding success, and I was hoping for perhaps another sleeper hit.


Spin follows Tyler Dupree and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, in the fallout of a massive cosmic event that starts when all the stars disappear from the sky. It soon becomes apparent that there is some kind of unnatural barrier surrounding the Earth, and that it is affecting more than just the appearance of the night sky. As more is found out about the mechanics of the Spin, Tyler finds himself torn between his two friends: while Jason throws himself into researching the Spin and why it was put there, Diane retreats into increasingly unorthodox religious movements in order to find meaning in a world that seems to be facing the end.
I found myself liking Spin, although not necessarily for my normal reasons. This is the first book that looks so closely at the world-building aspect of writing that hasn't left me entirely cold. Possibly this is because for all the understandable fascination that Wilson has for the actual scientific aspects of what would go into a phenomenon like the Spin, he balances it with how the science affects society at large. For the most part, there doesn't seem to be much reaction at all unless there's something big and showy happening in the sky. It's a slow creep of realisation instead of constant massive panic. I also liked that even when the narrative is dealing with some seriously out-there cults, there isn't the kind of anti-religious bullshit that you sometimes get with science-fiction dealing with potentially world-ending consequences. Even when the results of their actions turn out poorly, the people within these sects aren't depicted as crazed loons, just people who are scared and need somewhere to turn for answers. It's a surprisingly balanced look that is sorely welcome.
If I were to criticise anything about Spin, it would be the main character and narrator, Tyler. While there's nothing that I can think of that is actively aggravating or off-putting about him, neither can I think of anything really interesting about him either. The only thing that really stands out about him is his unhealthy obsession with the Lawton twins, and honestly it just makes him come across as embarrassingly needy. While not a huge issue, it does make the stakes a bit lower than they otherwise might be with a more engaging protagonist.

A really interesting look at a society abruptly reminded of their fragile place in the universe and how different parts of humanity look to try and cope. The main character is remarkable only for his unhealthy obsession with his two friends, but he's not enough of an issue to make Spin unreadable. Definitely one for readers who like solid world-building. 4/5

Next review: The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

After a long while of reading things that were in no way Pratchett-in-origin, I returned to the Discworld series and my husband rejoiced. Right up until I started incessantly quoting it at him whenever a funny line came up. Which was quite frequently.


Guards! Guards! follows the misadventures of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a much-maligned group attempting to keep order in a city where theft and assassination are well-regarded career options. Whilst they try to rein in a rather enthusiastic new recruit, a book about summoning dragons is stolen from the Unseen University and things start getting a whole lot more scaly and fire-breathing.
I'm not going to beat about the bush. I loved Guards! Guards! from start to finish. I wouldn't have necessarily thought that the kind of grizzled noir detective tropes would work with more traditional maiden-eating style dragons, but somehow it does gel quite nicely. And it leads to some great character introductions for the Watch. I have been told that Vimes gets even better, but even at this early stage I really liked the weirdness that is the hardboiled alcoholic detective within a fantasy setting, so I can only look forward to more of him. Carrot is the 6 foot dwarf (by adoption) who is the first genuine volunteer to the Watch that anyone can actually remember, and his overly enthusiastic rookie status worked fantastically against the infinitely more cynical and self-preserving veterans. Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs are somewhat less memorable than the others at the moment, but their generally pathetic and cowardly natures make for some great comedic moments. And then, be still my beating heart, there's Sybil. I thought she was the best thing about the book, bar none. An Amazonian mountain of a woman, who has more authority in her than that of the entire Watch combined and dedicates her spare time to breeding the most ridiculous specimens of dragon that I have ever seen in fiction. She is marvellous and I want to take her home. Also, it was nice to see Patrician Veternari start to come into his own. He is probably the only one who doesn't seem to be phased by anything that the plot decides to throw at him, and he manages to have one of the funniest scenes in the book whilst at the same time having probably the grimmest scene. He's just one of those characters.

Definitely my favourite Discworld novel thus far. I would say that of all the ones that I read of the series thus far, Guards! Guards! strikes me as the novel that is most beginner-friendly, possibly drawing with Mort. So really, there isn't much excuse not to pick this up if you haven't already. 5/5

Next review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn't have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I'd vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I'd never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.


Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn't think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn't gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it's throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I'm actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled down to internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren't easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I'm a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don't think I've really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren't in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It's established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

As some of you may have noticed, I am currently working my way through the second Humble ebook Bundle. I remember being vaguely interested in Little Brother when I first got the bundle, if only because it was dealing with a subject that I could discuss with my husband. If nothing, it would be nice to be able to actively engage with one of his special interests a bit more.

Little Brother follows Marcus Yallow, a more or less regular teen with a particular interest in technology and the ways that it can help him bunk off school. One particular day, he and some friends skip class, only to find themselves in the vicinity of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. During the chaos, he and his friends are arrested by the Department of Home Security and interrogated for nearly a week. When he is let out, he realises that his best friend Darryl wasn't released with them. Combined with the fact that the DHS has made San Francisco into a police state, and Marcus has more than enough reason to take them down.
Right, so there's something that I want to get out of the way right away. While I did enjoy Little Brother overall, there is a lot of stuff that Doctorow explains, especially at the beginning. While I do acknowledge that there's a fair bit that does need to be expanded on, especially if computers and security systems aren't subjects that you've looked into before, there is still a fine line with how much is necessary for proper engagement. I don't know whether this is because my husband has tried to explain at least some basic concepts to me, but I personally found that the stuff at the beginning kind of went overboard with the detail. Contrasting that, a concept that comes up later in the novel was so strangely explained that I had to get my husband to re-explain it for me when I got home from work. That last point aside though, there isn't really anything complicated enough to derail the plot and I can understand that you would want to err on the side of too much information when you're targeting a slightly younger audience. So this might be more of an annoyance if you're more familiar with coding when you go into this, but for complete beginners I can see the overabundance of detail being more useful than annoying.
Having gotten that negativity out of the way, I will say that I really enjoyed Little Brother. It is a really insightful look into what could happen if a country decides that the needs of "security" overrides the rights of its citizens' to privacy and free speech. The fact that I finished this on the day that Erdogan banned Wikipedia in Turkey, in order to block out content by writers accused of "supporting terror", is not something that has escaped me. Following the initial terror attack at the beginning, terrorists aren't even considered a credible threat by the narrative, regardless of how much the DHS try to insist that they're the only threat. And I think that that is very telling actually. While terrorism is something that has mentally and emotionally shaped Western society since the turn of the century and I wouldn't want to underplay the damage that these individuals have caused to the families of their victims, I don't think that terrorists are what we are really scared of. At least for me, there is the awareness that terror groups just don't have the resources or numbers in order to actually change things or even react to the increased measures against them. In contrast, working as a public servant I am keenly aware of just how much information that a government has about its citizens, and the prospect of what could happen if my government decided that it could exploit that in the name of safety feels a lot more real and legitimately terrifies me at times. But then I talk to my parents about this, and they're of a generation that doesn't necessarily understand technology as much and would perhaps prefer to err on the side of security over internet freedom. Little Brother gets into this younger mindset really well, and is probably a good place to try and introduce these kinds of concepts to those who aren't as familiar with them.

Definitely one to recommend for someone looking for a semi-realistic modern dystopia. It's a bit over-the-top when it comes to explaining concepts at times, but for the most part it appears to be pretty accurate when it comes to all things coding. 4/5

Next review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Signing off,
Nisa.