Thursday, October 23, 2014

For Review: Bedlam ~ Christopher Brookmyre

Science fiction isn't really my thing but, as with any genre, I don't mind a wee dabble every now and again. At the time of writing this, I can't recall the last time I read a novel that was billed as 'sci-fi'. Seriously, I'll need to look through my reviews to figure it out. That said, the last Brookmyre novel I read had sci-fi themes, and I really liked the idea behind Bedlam. So why not?

Ross is a thirty something scientist working on medical research sometime in the future in Stirling, Scotland. He's extremely driven by his work, to the point where his girlfriend is beginning to feel incredibly neglected by him, putting his relationship on the line. When he volunteers to test a scan that his colleague has been working on, Ross finds himself somehow trapped in another dimension. He wakes up in a world that he definitely recognises - because it's the realm of his childhood favourite video game.

From the FPS Quake-style Starfire, Ross finds himself in a glitch that allows him to travel through multiple games. Some are GTA style, and others much more of a Skyrim roleplaying adventure. If the abbreviations FPS and GTA mean nothing to you, then Bedlam probably isn't for you. The none-gamer reader could probably manage with it just fine, but much of the humour would be lost on them. In particular, I had a good laugh to myself when Ross encounters an NPC who mentions taking an arrow to the knee. (Again, lost on any readers who aren't au fait with the gaming world). Forunately for me, I am, and though there may have been more references that I didn't pick up on, the concepts of rage-quitting and selecting an avatar make for interesting, and very amusing, reading.

Initially, I was really involved with what was happening to Ross (or, as the book and his online handle is named, Bedlam) and how he figured out what was really going on, making sense of his interactions as an intelligent character in an otherwise AI-filled world. He soon has to figure out how he can communicate with others, and discovers that he is not the only one that has been pulled into the video game world. There is plenty of action, adventure, and comedy - with some choice insults and swearing - so the first half of Bedlam was really enjoyable to read.

But I lagged a bit with the second half (approx) of the novel. There were even more characters introduced, and the setting changed so frequently that I felt things were moving on just as I was beginning to really enjoy a particular world or section of the book. Fast-paced is probably the word for it, but it was all too much too quickly for me. Perhaps it suits the moods of other readers, but personally I felt that there was just too much going on. That, and the computer jargon became a bigger feature, and more complex. Video games I can handle, and I do have some working knowledge of computers and the internet, but the second part of Bedlam seemed to leave behind the geekery fun and instead became dense and confusing. Again, this could just be my poor brain - but there's a world of computer 'geeks' out there who I bet would have a field day with this book.

Bedlam was a little trip into trying some more sci-fi, and I think Brookmyre was the right way to go, especially with a plot idea that I was so intrigued by. When the real science and explanationy bits start, though, I'm out of my depth and out of my comfort zone in a way that I don't really find enjoyable. Perhaps it is too fast-paced, and jam-packed full of lots of stuff, or perhaps that's what science fiction is always like and that, really, it just isn't to my taste. Still, there's plenty more Brookmyre out there that I look forward to trying - so long as the sentences aren't so dense and don't hurt my head so much.

Orbit Books, 2014;
448 pages.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

For Review: The Book of Lies ~ Mary Horlock

The blurb on the back of this book reads as follows:
It's been a fortnight since they found her body and for the most part I am glad she's gone. But I also can't believe she's dead, and I should do because I did it.
This alone was enough to make me want to read The Book of Lies - fifteen year old Catherine has killed her best friend, and the novel would be about figuring out what drove her to do such a thing. This is what the book is about, but it is so much more - I had underestimated how complex the story would be.

From the very first page, the reader knows that Catherine, fat and unpopular, has murdered her friend Nicolette, beautiful and popular. The scene of the crime is the cliffs of the island of Guernsey - a dangerous and perilous drop. Catherine isn't suspected of having killed Nic, and sets out her story of why it was that she had to kill her. She recalls how she and Nic became friends in the first place, and shows how very easily addicted she became towards the girl. But the friendship gradually, falls apart into bitter bullying. The story of two high school girls, though, is only part of the novel.

Between chapters about Catherine's life are the transcripts of secrets as told by her uncle Charlie Rozier. In the 1940s, Charlie details life in Guernsey at the time of the Nazi occupation. He explains what the island was like at that time, how people co-operated, and how people resisted. As a teenager at the time, Charlie found himself caught in difficult circumstances, wanting to out the Nazis and their sympathisers, while also being coerced into helping others escape.

The two stories intertwine, not just told along a parallel, but also reflected in each other. Similarities and differences are clear to see between the two, and Catherine becomes fixated in these and the other files that she finds in her dead father's study. Not only do the two stories connect in terms of some of the content and themes, but there are motifs and phrases of language that appear subtley in both. For example, lying on the grass outside a party after pushing away unwanted attention, Catherine calms herself by counting her breathing. In another chapter of Charlie's transcript, he also mentions using his breathing to stay calm.

The Book of Lies thoughtfully considers history, and how history can repeat itself, particularly between generations of the same family. The nature vs nurture argument appears throughout the novel, sometimes in a subdued way, and other times made more explicit in Catherine's narration. Most compelling for me, though, was reading Catherine's turmoil and tracing her gradual downward spiral. She is aware of how frustrated she is with life, and of the claustrophobia of living on such a small island. But she is an unreliable narrator, as it becomes clear, particularly towards the end of the novel, that she is quite unaware of her own mental breakdown and of the unhealthy ways in which she thinks and acts. Her relationships with male characters, for example, are especially interesting to read, particularly with her history teacher. With these relationships, Catherine has disillusions, or is naively unaware, of how an innocent relationship can be turned into something more sinister, and rather easily too.

In all, The Book of Lies had me thoroughly gripped, particularly by Catherine. As a reader, there was a real pull in seeing how Catherine made and broke relationships with those around her - her mother, her friends, her history teacher - and to have finally isolated herself, almost completely. Horlock has created some dark, brooding, and sinister, with characters and a story to match the bleak landscape of Guernsey.

Canongate Books, 2011;
Trade Paperback;
325 pages.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

For Review: Crash ~ JG Ballard

In a pub one evening my friends and I were discussing the books that we were reading. One friend outlined a particularly gruesome read that he was struggling with on the basis of how graphic it was. A fan of transgressive fiction, obviously I wanted to read it. That book was Crash, by JG Ballard. It's been on my list of books to read for some time, but hearing my friend describe his disgust made me bring the novel to the top of my To Be Read pile.

This book really isn't for the faint of heart, or the squeamish. Following a car crash accident, the narrator discovers a heightened eroticism in everything around him but, more specifically, in cars, crashes, and the resulting wounds. He soon meets Vaughan, a man utterly obsessed with eroticism of this kind. Vaughan follows car crashes, takes photographs of ruined cars and the wounds of victims. Ultimately, his aim is to orchestrate a crash that will involve Elizabeth Taylor. The two men grow closer as they share similar obessessions, and they really are obsessed - the entire novel is a narration of detailed descriptions of cars, crashes, and the sexualisation of wounds.

Crash is a short novel, but the prose itself is very dense so it's not an easy read. There is little in the way of dialogue, or light relief: any laughing I did while reading the novel was the awkward kind. Towards the end, I had become quite numb to the continuous repetition of vulvas, fenders, windshields, and semen, but I suppose there are only so many ways that these things can be described. Perhaps, though, that was part of the effect - the initial passages full of clinical detail disturbed me, but by the end they were par for the course. Not that I ever felt particularly comfortable while reading.

For the transgressive fiction fans, and lovers of all things squeamishly weird, Crash is a must-read. Endless lists of wounds, in-depth paragraphs of eroticism in car crashes, the novel is relentlessly unsettling. Tough to get through, and a catalyst for some really creepy dreams, Crash was nevertheless interestingly uncomfortable to read.

4th Estate, first published 1973, this edition 2011;
185 pages.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

For Review: City of Bones ~ Cassandra Clare

Finally, after months of being pressured by my pupils, I gave in and started reading The Mortal Instruments series. I'd heard a lot about these books, but more and more pupils were becoming increasingly amazed that their teacher had no idea about their fandom. As it was, I didn't start the book totally blind, and actually some girls had let slip some major spoilers (I think as a way to entice me into reading the books) but even without surprises, I'm pleasantly surprised by this series so far.

There's every chance that anyone reading this review has been there, done that, and maybe even made the fan art, but in case you're slow to the series like I am... City of Bones is about a 15 year old girl called Clary Fray (a name I still can't get round to liking) who accidently stumbles upon a hidden realm in Brooklyn. She comes across the Shadowhunters, a group charged with ridding the world of demons. Following her discovery, and the realisation that she can see them when other 'mundanes' can't, Clary's life becomes very quickly turned upside down. Her mother goes missing, and the rest of the novel sees her trying to get her mother back, all the while becoming deeper entangled within the world and the lives of the Shadowhunters.

Clary herself comes across as an actual contemporary teenager with her likes, her dislikes, and her relationships with others. There's at least another five books in this series for me to read, and I hope that I'll get to see how she changes and grows up over the course the novels. She is likeable, determined, and not stupid, so I was glad to find myself with a female protagonist that I actually enjoy reading about. Shadowhunter Jace started off as a predictable and uninteresting love interest type guy, but as the novel progressed Clare introduced more layers to his persona. City of Bones is populated with beautiful people, a feature of young adult fiction that often annoys me, because there really need to be more normal folk in the world, but this was something that I was able to get over in favour of enjoying the story.

As the first in a series, the start of City of Bones came with plenty of exposition, lots of characters chatting about stuff in dialogue that seemed awkward or unnecessary other than for the benefit of the reader. I'm not a big series reader (I think the last full series I read was Harry Potter, and that ended several years ago) so I'm not sure how well this is handled elsewhere, but I suppose it's part of what has to happen in setting up a completely new world, along with its history and politics. Clare offers some lovely prose in places, although some motifs and phrases are repeated often. Largely, though, the stage-setting for the story doesn't mean that style of the prose itself is lacking. That, and I love the references to anime series and geek culture - it added to the authenticity of the characters and our contemporary world.

Given that my pupils had spoiled a big reveal from the end of the book, I'm not entirely sure how surprised or not I would have been if I didn't know. There were enough clues, however, that I think I'd have figured it out for myself. This happened in a few places, where I seemed to arrive at understanding turns in the plot before the characters spelled it out. I'm a good sight older than the average readership of the book, I imagine, but I do wonder if these things act as surprises for young adult readers.

All said and done, the characters are likeable, enough so that I do want to read the next book in the series because I care about them, and I'm interested in seeing how relationships might develop or, in some cases, might decay. City of Bones is an easy read because of how gripping the story is, and how quickly the pace moves along. The real joy of reading this book was that there wasn't a single chapter where something very exciting didn't happen - in every one there was drama of some kind, be it adventure or romance. It's easy to see how such a large fandom has come about from The Mortal Instruments series: just as any young adult might, I read City of Bones and witnessed all the feels.

Walker Books, 2007;
506 pages.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

For Review: Buddha Da ~ Anne Donovan

Last year I taught Anne Donovan's play version of Hieroglyphics to my second year pupils, and as a class we all thoroughly enjoyed it. So, when I saw Buddha Da at a second hand book sale, I thought I'd like to read her prose too. The only thing that nearly put me off getting it was the fact it was second hand. It's the first second hand book I've bought in basically...ever. I have a real thing about having new books, in perfect order, but that will be another post for another day.

Buddha Da is the story of a Glaswegian man who finds himself converted from atheism to buddhism. While this might be helping Jimmy achieve clarity and enlightenment, it is also confusing and isolating for his wife Liz. Meanwhile, their twelve year old daughter Anne Marie is caught between their disagreements. The novel moves between their three separate narratives (told in varying degrees of Glaswegian dialect), giving direct insight to the lives of each of the characters and how familial relationships affect each of them.

Jimmy's chapters focused largely on buddhism and his search for mental peace, reflecting while he continued with his job as a painter, as well as considering how he can be a positive role model for his daughter. Liz narrated her growing distance from her husband, in large part due to his new religion taking up a much larger part of his life. She also spends her time focused on looking after her elderly unwell mother, leaving her with little time to spend and focus on herself and what she wants from life. Anne Marie observes the changing relationship between her parents, but her energy and attention are spent with a new friend and persuing dreams as a singer. Essentially, every member of this family is trying to figure out their place in the world, seeking out the things that make them happy, and they goals they want to achieve in life. Unfortunately, not all of these complement one another easily.

The novel begins with the three characters very close together, but gradually sees them drifting apart. They're never too far from each other's thoughts (as revealed through their narrated thoughts) but the family do find themselves reaching out to other places and, crucially, to other people to find their happiness. The movement from one character to another does still work rather seamlessly, though there were points closer to the end where I wanted to hear more from Jimmy and Liz, but that might just be my preference of character. Liz was okay, but I did have a soft spot and a lot of sympathy for Jimmy. Of all the characters, I thought he was the strongest, and my favourite.

Buddha Da presented as a whole novel, but with three separate stories, at least where the characters were carrying on their lives without one another. Each was enjoyable to read, and while Jimmy was the one I was most invested in, it was impossible not to care about each of the characters in one way or another - for Liz it was for her situation, for Anne Marie is was for her likeability, and her youthful hope. The novel ended rather abruptly - the kind of ending where I turned the page and was actually confused that the story didn't continue,  For all the difficulties the characters faced, Buddha Da offered space for redemption, forgiveness, and hope in a beautifully written story. I'm looking forward to reading more by Donovan soon.

Canongate Books, 2003;
330 pages.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For Review: The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter ~ Ambrose Bierce

Never Always judge a book by its title. Titles speak greater volumes than book covers because if an author can think up a great title then there's a better chance that what's inside will entertain you. The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is one such book - there was no way I was going to resist that. True to such a title, the novel itself didn't disappoint.

A tiny classic first printed in 1892, The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is about exactly that. A young monk is learning the ways of his faith - to be pure of thought, and to exist without any need for earthly desires. That is, of course, until he meets the hangman's daughter - a young woman shunned from the rest of the town and shamed for moral decisions. The monk Ambrosius finds himself rather infatuated with her, but insists that this is because he has been charged by God to look after her soul. Throughout the first half of the novel, Ambrosius continually deludes himself into denying that his feelings are anything less than pure and devout.

That can only last so long, however. Eventually, while praying in isolation, he recognises the truth of his feelings, and is aware that they are far from innocent. That said, he still allows himself the time and solitude to first ask God for forgiveness, then to forcibly stop Benedicta's lover from seeing her.

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is a short novel, but even so, Bierce's depiction of Ambrosius' devotion to his faith is thorough. More than that, it's interesting to read his delusions between the lines, and to watch his gradual decline into 'sin' and earthly desires.

First published 1892, this edition 2011;
93 pages.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

For Review: The Night Circus ~ Erin Morgenstern

When there's a lot of love for a book I can be a little bit nervous about starting to read it for myself. Sometimes I'll even opt out of reading them altogether (like I did with The Hunger Games for a very long time - and I still haven't read the others). Still, there was an allure to The Night Circus that meant it was a read that I knew I wanted to get round to eventually. Now that I've read it, I'm very glad that I did, and I found it to be worth the affection it receives.

When they are young children, Marco and Celia are bound together as challengers as part of a game. They don't know what it is, or even who they are up against, but they both grow up knowing that they have to work very hard at their 'magic' skills to ensure that they are the very best. As way of showing off their skills, The Night Circus is created as a venue. It is as the name suggests - a circus that travels the world, but it only open during the night hours. The circus features illusionists, acrobats, wild cat tamers, and contortionists. To those that visit it appears to be an exceptionally beautiful place with highly skilled performers, but little do they know the real truth of the powers that hold the night circus together.

The story follows Marco and Celia as the two challengers as they participate in the games they have been made to complete, even though they don't entirely understand what it is they have to do to win. Meanwhile, the novel follows another line of narrative about a young man called Bailey who becomes fascinated with the circus, and involved in ways he can't explain. Mystery and the unknown play a large part in the lives of the characters in The Night Circus. Each chapter was titled and dated (from the late 1800s to 1902), so that the reader could piece together how the stories were working together. Storytelling also plays a part in the novel, and it's a gift that Morgenstern executes quite beautifully in The Night Circus.

The narrative itself is sumptuous. Morgenstern creates a world that is just so alluring that I had such a good time being lost in it. The characters, the setting, and the gorgeous circus itself are such so delicious when combined. While Marco and Celia may be considered the protagonists, The Night Circus is peppered with all sorts of flavourful characters. Though not many of them are explored in too much depth, they were all peculiar and interesting in their own way.  The people that visit the night circus, however, are bewitched by it, can't get enough of it, and can't wait to return to it - those were the feelings I had myself, particularly when reading the passages set in the circus. Morgenstern appeals to all the senses with a writing style that is appealingly lyrical.
Picking up the novel again after a short pause felt like a treat.

Words used to describe The Night Circus often include 'dazzling', 'enchanting', 'magical', 'spell-binding', and any words I would use myself would be synonyms of the same. Ultimately, I finished the novel feeling all warm and cosy inside, not to mention utterly jealous that I can't visit the night circus myself. Apparently, The Night Circus is to be made into a film, but whoever is directing it will have quite some work to do if they want to capture the atmosphere of the novel.

Vintage Books, 2012;
490 pages.