Book Review – Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

To comic or not to comic, that is the graphic novel?

This is the first graphic novel that I have had on my list. To avoid the issue (or stumble straight into?) I will use the terms “Graphic Novel” and “Comic” interchangeably in this review. If you don’t like it, lump it 🙂

As well as being the first graphic novel on my list, Watchmen was also the first graphic novel I had read for a very long time. It is a book that I only recently acquired for my birthday in June 2016 and I pretty much instantly promoted it to the top of my reading list! I have read and very much enjoyed graphic novels in the past, most notable of these previous adventures was The Crow by James O’Barr. I re-acquired that for my birthday too, so it will be re-read and reviewed at some point in the future 🙂

watchmen_coverTo start this review I need to at least touch on the comic *thing*. I could waz on about the relative merits of comics and graphic novels compared to scripts and books for ages, but I’m not going to (Ha!) Others have and are doing that ad infinitum and it really isn’t overly relevant to this review. Suffice to say that all literary and visual art, books and comics included, allow their creator the latitude to deliver sublime beauty or a hideous pile of shite, sometimes at the same time.

All I will say is that I think graphic novels provide a very interesting way to bring image and word together. I touched on the subject of efficient, tight prose in my review of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. As a medium, the graphic novel provides a spectacular way to allow the text to concentrate on dialogue and story, while the pictures provide a wonderfully powerful symbiotic support. If a picture paints a thousand words, then Watchmen is longer than Anna Karenina (which I still haven’t finished!)

The actual review

Watchmen is, quite frankly, an excellent story told in an amazing, very deep and considered way. It is obvious that the original spark for this book was huge, but every further consideration, every extra detail of the whole story is etched into the quality of the characters, their floors, their heroism and the events that unfold in such a perfectly orchestrated way. You can see the quality of that creation process. Moore wrote a forward for the version of the book that I have. In it he suggests that the story is somehow weaker in its early stages as they had not developed the whole story arc and the characters. I never noticed!

The complexity of the various stories and the layers of characters, events and background is almost overwhelming. I found that you drew as much as you could from the text and images and still felt the rich reality of life sat behind what you gleened. There are so many oblique references and throw away observations that allow the the book to be of its time and timeless all at once.

If that wasn’t enough of a success, in multiple places, two separate storylines are told together and this device is used to infer deeper meaning in one or both. There is a pirate story, a comic within a comic, which is an obvious example. Sections of a person reading a pirate zombie comic interleave with a conversations and events in the real world. The medium conveys the reality of what is happening in an unambiguous yet extremely subtle way. It truly is sublime storytelling. This technique is also used in other parts of the book where two parts of the main story overlap and complete each other, or where one person is talking and the other is thinking. It is nothing short of astounding when I look back and think what pages of paper managed to do! (OK, pages of paper and a pair of extremely talented people!)

watchmen_example

Watchmen is also a perfect example of  the “show don’t tell” writing rule. Intelligence is expected of the reader (yeh yeh, and I managed to struggle through!) You have to join the dots you put two and two and two together and you get what you can out of it knowing there is more you missed. That’s it’s beauty.

A final example of the exquisite subtlety of this otherwise very un-subtle story is the way that you relate to the characters. There are two very distinct sides to some of the characters; mask on and mask off. Watchmen feasts on the fallibility of people. I have managed to get to this point without mentioning the Watchmen unique selling point. The Superheroes are real people and far from detract from the whole history of superhero comics, it adds its own layer of realism without causing damage to the original format (it might be naivety and the healing passage of time that has given me this view?) Watchmen has  however spawned a wealth of sub-culture. The likes of Mystery Men, Kick Ass, Super Bob and maybe even Scot Pilgrm if you squint (there’s also an Ex Machina reference in there as well.) were all conceived from the much more serious, more grounded and grander story that is Watchmen I can only imagine being into the comic/super hero scene and reading Watchmen when it came out.

Found heavier text at end of each chapter hard going against the fluidity of the comic sections. But they provide the depth, the background.

 

So, that’s it. Read Watchmen. I haven’t scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I was never going to succeed, so I didn’t try 🙂 I’ll end with a quote from the book that I loved.

“Whether tales are told by the light of a campfire or by the glow of a screen, the prime decision for the teller has always been what to reveal and what to withhold…”

Rating: 9/10

 

Book Review – Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

The Random Intro…

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter then you know that I tweet a lots of quotes from books as I read them. In every tweet, I do my best not to give anything away. I aim to give everyone who hasn’t read the book some thoughtful quotes and a reason to maybe read the book. If any of you have already read the book, then I hope what I deliver provides a chance to reminisce as we go along. 

I take the same approach when I review a book. I try to capture the driving themes, the good and the bad, without giving the story away. Sometimes I don’t even really mentioning the story. I want to capture the essence of the book, not simply create a facsimile of the blurb that you can find anywhere (including on the back of the book!)

fiveriverscoverThe Review

Why did I tell you all that? Lovely though it is, I am meant to be reviewing Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, not the justification of my approach to Tweeting. The all important link between the two is this; there were so many parts of Barney Norris’ book that I wanted to share. So many sublime sentences that captured a feeling or a mood or a situation perfectly. I restrained myself as much as possible, but you can see from the link below. There were still quite a few, and they are as good under review as when I first read them.

All my #FiveRivers tweets

It is pretty obvious that Barney can see life laid out in front of him. He is a young man, but he understands every age and every type of person. The perspective of others is such a powerful thing to be able to experience. I feel I can also see this way to a lesser extent than Barney. To be able stare out through the windows of someone else’s eyes, and feel what they feel; young or old, rich or poor, close or completely opposed to your experiences. It’s a powerful thing and Barney delivers it beautifully. He can also take the reader to emotional heights as well; love and death, happiness, despair and everything in between.

The book starts with an exquisitely wrought flyby of the history of Salisbury, it’s landscape and its cathedral. This is followed by Rita’s story which is a million literary  miles away from such a poetic beginning. These juxtapositions, the separation of each story, provide the structure for the whole book. The linkages and the multilayered connections between these different stories is the lifeblood of the book. Barney sows the threads throughout each of the distinct stories, but all the time the threads are being gathered, knitting together to make a complete and poignant story.

Barney uses strongly developed skills to deliver each character’s internal speech and his script style dialogue worked well providing direct, clean prose. It shines through that Barney comes from a script-writing background and the format of the book plays to these strengths. Barney sees the raw truth of people. The things they think between the things they say, and every character of the diverse set in the book is so different. You connect with each because they talk with an eloquent, intelligent, deep internal voice. For some characters this is conscious and others don’t fully understand the way they think. The book conveys so much truth of people.

On a related theme, there’s something I want to mention about ‘the magic of the real world’. As some readers will know, I grew up on a fantasy heavy reading list, and magic was one of the main draws for me. A well written supernatural scene, or a properly realistic, grounded piece of magic can make a book. Conversely, poor magic can kill an otherwise good book. I have read a few cross over books, Sixty One Nails by Mike Shevdon comes to mind,  where there is actual magic in an otherwise modern and realistic world. But Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain manages that exquisite other type of magic. The real magic of the every day. Emotion, intelligent interpretation of situations and a sprinkling of belief conjure (yes, that is a magic pun.) that same feeling, one that really is part of everyone’s experience of life, even if we don’t all accept it for what it is.

So to conclude, Fiver Rivers met on a Wooded Plain is a set of wonderful stories that intertwine not so much because they need to, nor because they have been created, but because that’s the way life is, and that’s how rivers work. The book shows the tangled web of life’s visible connections and the ten fold numbers that you don’t… It shows people in all their individual glory and it shows how the world has changed in 50 years. Lives change, but so does agriculture and travel!

Agriculture and travel. It’s subtle, but you’ll have to read the book to find out. I recommend that you do.

Rating: 9/10

 

 

 

 

 
A picture of how a landscape and a people with together

Book Review – Love all of the People by Bill Hicks

Oh my god! You know that I have found some draft book review hanging around on my blog that I never published? Well, either way, I have. The other two posts were skeletal lists of thoughts about Consider Phlebas by Iain.M.Banks and Eden by Tim Smit. Then I found this. Why I didn’t click the publish button I don’t know, but I didn’t, so here it is. My quite detailed thoughts on Love all the People by Bill Hicks that I finished reading in January 2015!

Actually, thinking about it, I think I kept putting the review off as I never felt it was complete. Bill Hicks was quite important to me in my formative years. Here we go…

—- 3rd January 2015 —-

2014-12-05 20.26.03This book review is not really going to be a book review, at least not of the book Love all the People by Bill Hicks and John Lahr! I suppose that in a way it is, but my relationship with Bill Hicks and his philosophies go so much deeper than that.

My first introduction to Bill was on a video (VHS) that my best mate got when we were about 17. It was at the time Bill, or at least his material, first impinged on the British consciousness.  Our relationship with him grew and peaked in unison with Bill’s spark of a life. Many a late night drinking coffee and smoking fags was inspired by Mr. Hicks! In reading this book I have rediscovered some of the most brilliant routines and original thoughts that had faded from my memory over the last 20 years, becoming part of the patina of who I am more that I had credited. You could say that I was not surprised when I read certain parts of Bill’s routines about capitalism and consumerism I had to introspectively acknowledge that there is some interesting reasons why I created a blog Titled “Post Consumer”. An un-recognised, unconscious homage to the philosophy of Mr. Bill Hicks. Thank you Bill.

For the record, I also know that I am not going to be able to do justice with this review. How do you review something that was as much remembered as read? I will try to review the book, Bill and his philosophies. I hope I succeed in some small way?

Bill Hicks is the iconification of a concept that I touched on in my unsustainable post. Most people can not relate global issues to individual actions. They ask “Why should that matter to me? ” Some people understand the global issues yet can’t take the message out there or affect individuals on a big enough scale. Bill Hicks was that perfect mixture of intellect and understanding. He also had the drive, wit and outspoken opinion to make people listen. He did everything in his own unique style, but it was “the message and not the words” that were important. Bill managed to do something that almost everyone else couldn’t, and he managed to make it funny too! I suppose that requires the introduction that powerful little word “genius”?

I have a feeling that Bill was beginning to separate comedy from philosophy and politics towards the end of his life. In reading the letters and interviews in the book, it looks like Bill’s message was getting through, but that after being his first love and break though, comedy was beginning to get in the way. His style of delivery didn’t portray the real Bill Hicks’s, not fully anyway. The source of his material was always the inspection of people, the very translation of national and global problems into individual, personal idiosyncrasies, the amazement that people couldn’t see the stupidity in their actions and their beliefs. For those that understood and agreed Bill’s condemnation of these mentalities were very funny. Either they were thoughts and ideals that you had experienced, or ones that you didn’t consider as being so dangerous until Bill told you. I think that by the time he died he was beginning to feel that stand-up was now holding his serious ideas back. He was practically screaming about these subjects and all he was getting was a laugh. Bill definitely spoke to me, but I don’t think he really ever got feedback from his audiences that anything was going in. I don’t know, maybe for many others it didn’t? If he could have found a different way to “advertise” his message and still do the comedy he may have found a more successful, more harmonised balance. Keith Olberman says in the front cover of the book “With his clarity of vision and gift for words, if Bill Hicks had had any more time he might have started a revolution.” I think that revolution may be a strong word, but I also think that it wouldn’t have been as a comic.

Bill was quite obviously someone who pushed himself relentlessly into whatever he did, but that single mindedness was as much a floor as a strength. He was hoist by his own perturb. He knew it I think, but it meant he missed out. Smoking is great, I used to do it, but Bill took it to the limit and it cut him short. He rebelled against a lot of things (like ‘the beach’) that many people do, but discovered after it was too late that there is merit in these things, that’s why we do them. But Bill had to be the way he was, his intellect and opinions produced the brilliance that we all know, but maybe sometimes at the cost of the person??

One thing I was surprised at in reading the book was Bill’s religious beliefs. He was always very obviously attacking the church e.g. Fundamentalist Christians. There was also quite a high Devil content in his material “Thank you Vanilla, now send in MC Hammer.” So Bill believed in God, but not in organised religion. As I thought more and more about Bill and his routines the whole thing made more sense. I am an atheist, but I do occasionally give a nod to the sky. Not sure why, but that’s just the way it is. If I’m going to have a paragraph about God, then I have to include Bill’s (IMHO) slightly OTT relationship with various other aliens 🙂 I can see where he was coming from and the way that considering that opened the mind, but you have to admit that that was a particularly powerful batch of mushrooms!

Capitalism, consumerism and advertising. It is pretty obvious that I have an issue with advertising similar to Bill’s. The stuff is poured down our throats and you can’t get away from it in the modern world. But it is a necessary evil. If you want to make a good product and sell it to people you need to advertise. The problem is that there is a pretty obvious line where honest selling becomes manipulation and everything very quickly becomes cynical from that point forward.

Bill used advertising. His books, DVDs and shows were all advertised. His face appeared on posters, he did the circuit of interviews and appearances to achieve the success he did, but he did not step over the line. His hatred was of the other side of the line.

I have a similar problem. If I want to increase readership of my blog, then I will need to use the same processes. For me it is like the decision I made to call my blog Post Consumer instead of anti-consumer or any other more negative title. There is a place for buying things. If you don’t buy stuff good people and good products wouldn’t be made and then where would we be? The arts of all denominations need patrons and followers to be involved, and to get that you need a way for everyone to find out what you’re up to. The problem is that the whole advertising world needs a huge slug of ethical, responsible restraint and in a capitalist system that is never going to happen.

The advent of the internet has accelerated consumerism and the way that advertising is used is at the heart of it all. They are two halves of a slightly odd Yin Yang. The internet does so much good and provides spectacular access to information and learning. The internet is driven by the money that is made from advertising. The vast majority of websites make their money from advertising, and that is because it is easy. WordPress puts the odd advert on my blog so that I can run it for free. I can take that off for a small fee and add my own to monetise my site. A lot of people use this to make their living and some do it without giving a shit for anyone. Google makes it so easy, and that is why they have made it so big (and you thought it was all about searching!) The question is what could you replace advertising with to make money on a website. I dont have an answer for that yet. We need the adverising equivalent of Bill Hicks’ shooting bananas into people mouths.

So, that ‘s it, a disjointed wander through some of Bill’s drivers along with some of mine. The book is in there somewhere. It contained a large number of Bill’s routines. It was repetitive in places, but for your persistence you got to see how the routines evolved over time. The book mixed in some background and interviews that gave a good insight into Bill off stage as well as some of his letters and a couple of snippets of very powerful writing that I am truly glad that I have now read.

Oh, and I’m not even going to mention Alex Jones? A million plastic surgeries and at least two brain transplants and you might be close on that theory!

Rating 9/10 (as much because I really like Bill Hicks as anything else)

link to  Love all the People by Bill Hicks and John Lahr on Goodreads

Book Review – Cold Calling by Russell Mardell

Russell and his new genre

Cold Calling is the second book I’ve read by Russell Mardell. My first was Bleeker Hill back in December and I really enjoyed it, but this new book is completely different: Russell has moved from ghost story all the way to romance at the other end of the literary spectrum!

It’s rather refreshing to see an author who is able to move between genres. If you have the talent, generally speaking only the very famous and the self published are allowed to make that sort of  switch. An agent or publisher will usually be concentrating on a single focused path and that means a restricted set of genres. I guess that this is an astute approach: if you find a seam, you mine it, but at what cost? Life is a many faceted thing and people are built to live in it. As a reader I can cross any genre boundary I like, I feel strongly that authors should have the same right!

Russell has used his artistic freedom (unfortunately not as very famous author, but fortunately as a very talented self published author !) to produce Cold Calling, a book every bit as good as Bleeker Hill (Russell has written 5 books.) It is so totally, completely different that I’m not sure what measure I would use if I tried to compare the two books, so I won’t 🙂

Cold Calling

cdgv3n7xeaq4ler-jpg_largeOur story starts: Two star crossed lovers… [cue sound of needle scratching across a record.]

Cold Calling is not a conventional love story, nor does it have a simple A to B plot. The story just sort of happens, and you are taken along as the two main characters and their supporting cast open themselves up to you and to each other. Most, if not all of the book is written in first person, and we join a varied cast as the story unfolds. I was reminded of Dracula here, but Cold Calling is not a written account that we read as a posthumous voyeur, we join live events and thoughts; thankfully no one has to write a bloody diary! Russell cleverly uses the supporting roles to reflect the thoughts and actions of Anya and Ray. This creates depth and an ability to subtly cross examine the story.

Characters carry the day

The whole book is full of insightful, realistic characters. The story comes alive as layer upon layer of high quality observational writing is laid down. It really does feel like a window on people’s lives more than a story.

Subtlety, depth and insightfulness all come together to allow Cold Calling to encompass some very personal thoughts and emotions competently. There were multiple times when I recognised my own internal thoughts in someone else’s!

When Anya starts talking about her past life it becomes obvious that Anya is more closed off and is obviously forcing herself towards a confession of reality. Ray, on the other hand, has received counselling and is happier to voice his issues. Characters who can hide or articulate so much are the lifeblood of this book. Writing that  is able to articulate those personal emotions can only be described as excellent. The characterisation in Cold Calling is one obvious place where l could describe it as “better” than Bleeker Hill, but its a different type of story, in this case one that needs a deeper emotional attachment to it’s characters. It has delivered.

l don’t want to wax on about the same subject for too long, so I will close the characterisation section with love… Yes, dear reader I love you very much, you must know that by now? But you miss my point. I’m still talking about Cold Calling. It depicts love in many ways: caring, friendship, real, melancholy, lost, misunderstood, brotherly. My list is not exhaustive, yet my point is simple. Cold Calling is wonder fully complex.

Anya and Ray’s cold calls, and all the events that surround them, come together to form a coherent whole. A group of story lines that blend very well throughout the book. I dont think there was a story strand I didn’t like or actually any part of the book that I wanted to skip through.

The Publishing industry

Anya’s best friend Eva is a successful author.This character had a dual role in the plot. There was a beautifully self indulgent aspect to her that drew stark contrasts to the more fundamental events other characters were experiencing. On the other hand Eva provided an interesting glimpse into what literary success might look like? There is some good observations of the publishing industry in there, but importantly, Eva hates her fame. This created an interesting sub-plot in the book, but I really empathised with the dislike of this dual life that authors now need to lead: part literature generating hermit, part self promoting limelight junky.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that I really enjoyed this book. It took me through a very articulate set of emotions in a story that was believable and engaging. It managed to deliver all this and was still able to inject just the right amount of comedy. There were moments that I almost laughed out loud. Cold Calling didn’t affect me in any fundamental way, but I know that some things will happen in my life and l will be reminded of a situation l read in Cold Calling!

For the hundredth time since I started this blog, Cold Calling is not a book l would usually have read. But I’m very very glad I did.

Thanks Russell.

Rating: 9/10

 

Book Review – Lieutenant Hotshot by Julia North

Lieutenant HotshotLieutenant Hotshot is a Young Adult novel from first time author Julia North. When I ventured into the local bookshop and bought a copy, I had heard an excerpt of it in our book group and knew only a little of the story. I can not say that I expected what I read, but it is an amazingly good book. I originally planned to read it then pass it on to my 12 year old son. I will come back to that at the end…

Lieutenant Hotshot is about child soldiers in Uganda, but that doesn’t even start to convey the harsh, gory, grittiness of the novel. It contains violence that at times felt overdone, and language that further draws you to a place that you would probably rather not go. But this is the book’s strength; the picture it paints is hard to read and at the same time utterly compelling.

If I had been reading an adult horror book, then I would expect some of the scenes as an attempt to appal me because of the genre; something to excite the senses. Lieutenant Hotshot contains these same horrific scenes, yet it is a Young Adult novel! The book is not for the faint hearted, but it works perfectly for the simple reason that it is based wholly in fact. Adults and young adults combined will read this book and become consciously aware of what happens all too regularly somewhere on our planet.

People do terrible things to Modetse (the main character), he does terrible things to others, yet ultimately, the book is one filled with hope and love. Positive thoughts are strewn throughout the book and are all the more obvious when set against the horrors. To be dramatic, love and hate are rendered as close together as Yin and Yang; there is very little room for grey to separate the two extremes in this book.

The whole story is written in the first person and this is fundamentally important to it’s success. It is only as you take the journey with Modetse that you fully appreciate how the environment and the actions of others pulled him into a way of life that he didn’t understand. If there had been other perspectives, the spell would have broken and the reality of what was happening would have spoilt the story as soon as it was started.

As I read and experienced some of the harrowing scenes, I could see how something so counter intuitive is able to happen and how the whole awful wheel of manipulation works. There were even very well architected indications that some of the adults who were leading the soldiers had started out as child soldiers themselves and were still under the spell of their conditioning; so well converted that they could know the truth as an adult and still be able to believe themselves to be right. The blinkered way that an individual’s perception can can be warped reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but more extreme, in more depth and based on reality.

There is a quality to the book that I have wanted to capture for some time in my own writing. The articulation of the real world in a magical context. Not really ‘magical realism’, more the realisation that magic exists in our mind, in our intrinsic interpretation of the world (wow, deep man.) Lieutenant Hotshot is essentially a story of war. Not just the physical war that it directly describes, also a theological, nay, magical war for the ‘soul’ of Modetse and others like him. Julia has perfectly balanced the whole storyline of the book to convey both of these battles beautifully.

A final perfectly executed balancing act is that of religion in the book. The book portrays a strong understanding of the power or religion in a very specific way. You can see how Christianity is supremely effective in the battle against real evil in Uganda and I was minded to think how it’s use in that powerful way might have been a reason why the world’s major religions have spread so far and wide from their original countries.

As an agnostic I was concerned that Christianity may sit too heavily on this book. I was wrong. Julia writes in such a way, walking the tightrope perfectly to balance the anger, gore and belief of the first part of the book with love and a different belief at the end. I can imagine that some of the passages would have been extremely powerful if I was Christian, but I can still appreciate the drive and purpose of the mission and it’s positive effect, maybe more now! How else do you fight bad spirits but with good ones??

To start to bring a close to this review and my Yin Yang analogy a, I have created a list of some opposites that I noticed as I read. They are quite a powerful, thought provoking list in themselves. Hopefully they will give you an idea of the places the story goes without giving too much away, even, maybe whetting your appetite?

  • Bad spirits from the witch doctor – Good spirits and Jesus
  • Drinking blood of enemies – Drinking the blood of Christ
  • Cutting as a rite of passage – Baptism

So, there you go. As I said at the start, I found Lieutenant Hotshot to be an amazing and surprising read. Try it for yourself.

My final thought; will I let my 12 year old son read it?

Yes

There is definitely an emotional maturity required to read this book (child or adult!) My son has that, and he knows just about every swear word under the sun to boot. The evil that people do and the good that balances it? It is a reality that we all need to understand, accept and try to resolve. So yes, yes I will let him, if he wants to…

 

Book Review – Bleeker Hill by Russell Mardell

I’ve been itching to read this book since I got it back in the summer. I met Russell in a pub with some other writing types (you know who you are!) and was enthusiastically recommended his book by one of my friends. It was hurriedly procured from the local Waterstones and I quickly added it close to the top of my reading list. I’m sure I had a good excuse to buy it, but the date in August is not near any special dates like birthdays or fathers day? I think Bleeker Hill may have the dubious honour of being the first book that I have added to my list without excuse since I started the blog! (Good grief, that’s rule 10 broken for the first time!)

There have been quite a few distractions from reading over the last few months, most of which I have already mentioned. Not least, finally writing some fiction! I succeeded at NaNoWriMo and it felt great. The downside is that writing doesn’t let you get many books read! I also got a bit stuck with Anna Karenina; not as stuck as Vronsky, and in a totally different way, but stuck none the less. I am glad to say that I am now unstuck; in more ways than you can imagine dear reader, in more ways…

Bleeker Hill, the actual review

bleekerhillBleeker Hill’s main storyline builds wonderfully from the first pages of the prologue right through to the finale. The book takes you on a journey with a set of well realised characters into a vision of the future that is shrouded in confusion. The central character has been out of touch with the world for some time, and his lack of knowledge is followed through the book. This provides a back story that leaves you wanting to know more about what has happened, while giving enough to support the main story. I would love other books to be written in this world so that they can elaborate on it’s interesting version of the future…

All of the story arcs come together well to support the main event. At it’s heart, Bleeker Hill is a ghost story with realism to give it credence; a broken vision of the future.

Bleeker Hill bought various films and books to mind and I give some examples below. I need to be very clear that there is no relationship between the book and any of these references. I hold all in high regard and it is the feeling of the environments that Russell Mardell has built that evoked memories of the other stories for me. When I am talking about some of my favourite films and books, this can only be a great thing:-

The distopian future depicted in the story echoed “Children of Men” (the film) to me. Political parties struggling to keep order in the face of disaster. There is no dictatorship in place, but there are a lot of people trying to make sense of a broken society.

V for Vendetta also popped up in my mind. This time for the human experiments back story. There are again no real story parallels here. Bleeker Hill is the setting for experiments so much more profound than an attempt to create a super human. Trying to solve the human condition? Maybe.

Lastly, Woman in Black. Now, Bleeker Hill is not as jumpy as Woman in Black, but it definitely has the good old ghost story at it’s heart. If you were to take the Children of Men setting and play out a ghost story in it, then you would get somewhere close to Bleeker Hill.

To conclude, Bleeker Hill delivered exactly what I needed from this type of book. A well paced ghost story in a realistic and viable setting augmented with great characters.

Read it ASAP.

Rating: 9/10

 

 

Book Review – Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

FoundationAndEmpire_CoverI am a little behind on my book reviews, but in relevance to this post, I have also had another epiphany: My blog posts can be rather too long! This means that they aren’t quite as consumable as I would like, and they take quite a long time to create to boot. I want more time to read, more time to write and more time to interact with Twitter and bloggers. Here, therefore is a short review of Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov.

This is the second Asimov book that I have read. Unsurprisingly the first was Foundation. I read it quite a while ago… On starting Foundation and Empire I was reminded of the wonderful quality of Isaac’s writing. There is a conversational tone to it, but it is not a conversational prose per-Se. Isaac manages to hit that illusive target of “just enough”. The reader is expected to understand the world in which the story is set. This lean, intelligent approach draws you in.

If that doesn’t float your intergalactic battleship, then the main story really should. I would suggest that this is a series of books that really does need to be read in sequence. The story is epic. A hugely expanded human population and a story line that interacts with it, all on a galactic scale. It quite literally tells the future story of a whole civilisation through the deeds of a few key people. Events move beautifully from the macro to the micro without skipping a beat. At the grander end of this scale, battle scenes and more importantly tactics feature quite a bit. In places I was reminded of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, another fantastic book.

You can tell that this story is the Foundation (‘scuse the pun) of many other Sci-Fi books. All aspects of writing and story telling are bought together so well that it couldn’t help but influence a lot of stories that have arrived since. It astounds me that I can read a book about the future that was first published in 1952, yet there isn’t anything out of place, it’s still contemporary. The golden rule is; if you’re writing about the future, write about the far future. Hover boards in 2015 is just never going to happen… The only place that Foundation and Empire appeared dated was it’s references to smoking. You never know though, if we ever do actually crack the hover board, we may actually manage to create a way to smoke that doesn’t kill you??

Foundation and Empire delivers, exquisite Sci-Fi. I’ve got no more to say except, possibly, the Mule is one of my new favourite characters of all time! Appetite whetted? Go read it then 🙂

Rating: 9/10

Book Review – The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

2015-04-04 08.55.02The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller is a book that illustrates a project so close to my own bookish journey that I have found it very difficult to review. As a book in its own right it’s great. Andy delivers a fantastic articulation of his emotions and his opinion about the books that he read. More importantly though, he describes a process that changed his outlook on life. The book is a well written account of a year in Andy’s life and how 50 neat little piles of paper-potential made their impact… OK, OK, some of them were actually quite big!

The reason that this review has taken me quite a long time to write is not because I wanted to do justice to Andy’s prose (soz.) It is that the book has many rather disconcerting similarities to my own Post Consumer Book Club. I experienced a truly odd feeling when I unwrapped a Christmas present to find this book. Unexpected and unknown to me, yet so close to the journey which I had started 6 months before. As I read I found so many familiar feelings described, so many similar situations that drove Andy towards doing something more than just read occasionally, made him commit to something to see where it took him.

I expected there to be some fundamental difference in our reasons for doing what we’ve done. Mainly because the manifestation of our discontent is quite different. Andy chose a list of special books, books that he needed to read, books of betterment.  I chose everything I own that I hadn’t read! Yet I could have written the formative sections of TYPOD (all be it badly!) We both found ourselves looking at bookcases full of unread books and wanted to commit to something meaningful; his motivations were startlingly close to mine. The difference? Well, as I said, Andy chose to commit to a list of well thought out books; a subjective list, but a good list. There was one slight problem with Andy’s approach; it took him a long time to create the list. It took him years in fact, but once done, he had a strong list of 50 books of betterment. In my case, I wanted to take some more immediate action, in recognition of the fact that I wouldn’t have done anything if I had waited. The difference in the two approaches meant that, relatively speaking, I started about 2 years early, but I have a few more books to get through so I guess, duration wise, it may be a dead heat in the end? We might even find out in a year or two unless I’m still going? That’s always possible, as I’m already demonstrating, my book list is going to grow and be added to. As long as change is strictly in adherence to the rules then that will be fine! I also know that I will have to let some of my books go along the way, for the obvious reason that they will be shite! Still, when I started The Year of Reading Dangerously, all these parallels built up and I felt an affinity with Andy and his well written reasoning, his books and his dangerous year.

The Year of Reading Dangerously does not describe reading on a cliff, or in the middle of the M25, or even next to a crocodile! Although these could definitely be considered dangerous in the usual sense. Andy’s interpretation aligns with the definition of the word that has always been synonymous with the written word; reading some things is still illegal, some are revolutionary and some will take you to places you don’t want to go. Andy’s reading changed his life and made him consider what’s important in it. I was hoping for something similar when I started my blog. I can feel my understanding and opinion of my path through life changing as I read and as I work through some of the reasons I embarked on this interesting path. So Andy has completed his year and is changed for it. For me, it was decidedly odd to read through to the end of someone else’s reading experience when I am not even half way through mine yet.

Andy says that reading made him ask serious questions about art, work, family, freedom, integrity and packed lunches. Good. I really got a sense of how different books evoked emotion and  concepts as The Year of Reading Dangerously played out. The book is not about mentioning all 50 of the books Andy read, its about the journey, but I would have liked to find out a little more about why some of the books were on the list. I would also like to have heard about one or two that didn’t make the final cut. Both our lists shared a book in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. For me it  really did make an impact. I was jaded by consumerism and  interested in ethics when I started reading for PoCoBooC. I agree that it was pretty dry in places, but it doesn’t half speak to a dispossessed class. I try to imagine what reading it would have been like if I were one of Tressell’s peers? I suppose that I took the realisation of something that I already knew from Andy’s experience: Read, look, investigate, understand, question. Art provokes, but its a foil for us to test ourselves against. Someone else’s concept to accept or reject. Serious, dangerous, questions indeed.

There were so many aspects of this book that I want to talk about or mention, but I verge on writing a whole book about about a book about book, and that is just silly. I will end this post by saying that because I read The Year of Reading Dangerously:

  • I now have a book list in creation to give my challenge some form. I had previously not been so definite in my organisation.
  • I have also been considering the balance between writing both blog and twitter against reading. I’m keeping the blog, but will regularly check.
  • Lastly, I have Andy to thank for the addition of 3 books of betterment to my list. In a week, on my birthday, I will be adding War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick to my list. Not sure where they will be inserted yet though…

Thanks Andy. Great book and a great project. Keep up the good work 🙂

Rating: 9/10

Book review – Fated by Benedict Jacka

I’m going to start with a rather puerile confession: I tend to do word association, similarities, spoonerisms and silly things like that in my head just to pass the time. Whenever I look at the cover of Fated by Benedict Jacka, or if I write #fated on Twitter or anything like that; my eyes read farted instead of fated. This is stupid and childish and, well, quite funny. Now that you have an insight into how my brain works, lets get on with the actual review of the actual book…

2015-03-31 07.45.24I liked this book from the moment that I started reading it. It’s not often that this happens, but Fated really does have a wonderful feel to it. This comes, at least in part, from its setting in a hidden backwater of central London; a safe haven that for me evokes a mixture of a Black Books style magic shop with easy like Sunday morning city life (This Halifax advert has aged, but the end part is what I remember). A coffee and a good view somewhere safe. Even as the story unfolds and some peril is introduced, there is still a comfy feeling, it really is a nice place to be.

The book is the first in a series of Alex Verus stories. Alex is a strong lead character who is a modern day mage with the ability to see the future (I will come back to that later.) Even Alex  contributes to the comfortable feeling I got from the book. No matter what situation he finds himself in there are ways and means to get out of it; options to evaluate. The suspense is firmly directed towards how we will get out of the current predicament. I suppose that you could say this is true of most fiction books because you ultimately know that lead characters are the heroes who will survive. The subtle difference is that in most cases our protagonist doesn’t know they are going to survive, so suspense is built as we empathise with them. Alex is pretty sure he is going to survive, and it is only when the options get a bit thin on the ground that things get fun.

Alex is joined by a selection of other very well realised characters. There isn’t a cast of thousands, which keeps the story nice and tight, but there were quite a few characters who I would like to know more about. I suppose that also goes double for the hidden magical world. You are never going to find it easy to create a magical world that exists alongside the one we live in when creating in the shadow of J.K.Rowling, but Benedict’s world is realistic, well described and all his own.

Benedict has created a very clever way to describe Alex’s precognition. It feels extremely natural to be able to evaluate your options in the way that Alex does. It’s a shame that this isn’t the way that life actually works 😦 There were a few times when I though Alex should have been able to use his ability to see the future when he didn’t. I usually find that plot issues and plot holes really get under my skin, but in this case they were relatively minor and could easily have been a realistic part of the situation. They didn’t really bother me as much as it should have because:-

  1. When the ability was used, it was very good, well integrated and well written, so I might have been wanting Alex to see the future options a bit too much?
  2. I knew that Benedict had constructed the plot for a good reason; I trusted the author
  3. I liked the book enough to allow the story to out weigh the occasional teeny tiny “could have used it there” plot issue
  4. No one is perfect; Alex is a believable character

To conclude the description of a book well liked, I have a final reason why the book felt as comfortable and well realised as it did. Benedict has topped off a brilliantly imagined world with an equally agreeable modern, conversational writing style. We (the reader) are sitting in a comfy chair being told a story. The style, and Benedict’s control of his prose, allows the book to easily encompass tension and comedy in close quarters. I feel like I could quite happily read Benedict’s writing even if it was describing how to make custard and I would remain engaged and satisfied (bad example there, I really like custard, but you get what I mean?) I would love to write a book like this, but I think that if I tried Benedict’s style, my story would revert to my blog style and I would end up cracking too many jokes and putting too many side note (like this.) I suppose I will just have to try it if I get a chance…

To conclude some more! I think what I’m driving at is that this book ticks two boxes. It is a really really enjoyable book to read, and the story is brilliant too. If I wasn’t on my quest I would be seeking out more books by Benedict Jacka.

Rating 9/10

Book review – Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

2015-03-24 07.39.03For me, today was the last day of the Easter holiday. I have been off since Friday and today is Wednesday, so it wasn’t a long break, but nothing to be sniffed at 🙂 As usual, my aims for the holiday were high; I managed to some how finish Pawn of Prophecy really quite quickly and so optimistically lined up the next 3 books as well as a list of blog posts I needed to finish. To be honest, I managed to finish one book (Fated by Benedict Jacka) and got quite a few of the posts finished, so I didn’t do that badly really. With the exception of the Fated review that I now need to do, this review of Pawn of Prophecy brings me almost up to date.

I suppose the best way to review the Pawn of Prophecy is to say that my first thought on finishing the book was “I must read book 2 of the Belgariad!” As you know, I try to mix my genres as I read through my books. I therefore forced myself to read different book after Pawn of Prophecy, but I’m straight back into the series with Queen of Sorcery later this evening.

So it’s now a given that I really liked the book. “Why? Why PoCo? What did you like” I hear you… murmur a bit.

The quality of the writing was great. In stark contrast to some of the other fantasy that I have read both before and since starting this blog, David Edding’s prose was simple, direct, descriptive where required and a joy to read. The best way that I can describe David’s writing is “clean”. There is not anything that gets in the way, it is well polished and is one of the most direct, well implemented texts that I have read. The story arc moved between sections of history where centuries passed at a time and the intricate detail of the current situation; these changes were smooth and the various parts of the story were told very well. I was always kept interested to find out what the next part of the story was and that story was believable and engaging.

I also liked the way that the legends surrounding some of the characters (obviously Mr.Wolf and Aunt Poll) were well integrated with the other sub stories. This built understanding through the book as Garion (the main character) finds out himself. This not only built a good story, but also performed a fantastic job of setting up those epic characters that will live through a lot of David Eddings’ work. I know that I want to read a lot more about Belgarath the Sorcerer!

I must add that I was introduced to David’s books a very long time ago by my friend Mike. He suggested that I read one of the later books that David wrote called Belgarath the Sorcerer. This book was written after the Belgariad quintet and after the next series too! It is essentially a memoir that charts Belgarath’s life before the main books start. Chronologically speaking this was a good recommendation, but it didn’t sit well with me. I think these prequels will be good to read once I have developed a wonder for the characters, seen them wield their might a few times: without properly knowing who they were, the prequel was a bit dry to be honest. Maybe my previous experience can be seen as a reason why I liked the Pawn of Prophecy so much? I have put off reading David Eddings for a long time. I knew they should be good, but I didn’t quite trust them. I was almost scared to read the book because I wanted it to be good, but a large part of me thought that it wouldn’t be. Thankfully I was OK and to book was so good that I wanted to read the next one straight away 🙂

A thing that slightly annoyed me that was done for no apparent reason

My memory is really poor. For the odd, wierd thing it is the best, but for most things it is below par. Now, as you should know if you have read almost anything I have written on this blog (?), I have read a lot of fantasy, and fantasy usually has a lot of odd names that are hard to remember and harder to pronounce. That;s fine, I can deal with that: Drizzt Do’Urden’s cat in R.A Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms books is a case in point. Firstly, I never even tried to pronounce it for most of the books, I just mentally said “placeholder for the name of the cat.” I did eventually take the time to work out the pronunciation only to find that I pronounced it completely differently to my friend! (other friend, I have more than 2…) Anyway, my point is, picking names is important. I found 2 name based similarities in the book that could have tripped me up and I can’t see any reason for making the names so similar? If there is in future books, then I will take this back (I won’t) but check these out:-

  • The story started on Faldor’s farm, so called because it is owned my Faldor. The first Sendarian king was called Fundor and to make matters worse he was also a farmer!
  • Barak is one of the main characters and has quite bear like, especially in one important part of the story. Cherek Bear-shoulders was the last King of all Aloria.

So you see, there is some issue not just with the similarity of the names, but also the context in which they are to be remembered!

Details checked at the David Eddings Codex Wiki. Thanks a lot 🙂

A final note on politics  and religion (because why wouldn’t you if you could?)

I really wanted to talk about socialism a bit in the Bourne Identity review, but didn’t get the time to do it justice. In that case I wanted to cover quite a wide subject where as my comment on the Pawn of Prophecy is more of an observation:

Faldor’s Farm where we the story begins is essentially a depiction of socialism. There is a leader, but there are multiple descriptions of everyone contributing, of the communal good and the shared prosperity of the group. There is no real need for David to push the point, but he does with the introduction of Faldor;s Daughter and Son-in-Law. They live in the town and work to make money to buy “stuff” and see the farm as backwards. Not making the staff work for their money is seen as deficient. Faldor is obviously in charge, so nothing is going to change for a while.

Religion wise, Faldor is also adamant that everyone should observe the religious festival when it comes around. There is a huge slug of tradition intimated in this part of the book. I was surprised to see that the majority of characters bowed their heads, said the words and got on with their lives. Religion was more of a custom than a belief. I think this was true for many people 50 years ago and more??

I haven’t managed to blog as much as I would like about the ISMs and their related subjects, but I really do find it interesting that each book I read has it’s own take on the political spectrum, and I think that maybe more than some other aspects of writing, political views and ideology are a little more personal to the writer than characters or plot. The more subtle truisms leak through? I have always felt that fantasy as a genre was a way to return to our pagan nomadic routes; make the magic real and sit round a camp fire. Pawn of Prophecy managed to do that amazingly well 🙂

Rating 9/10