Thursday, 31 May 2012

Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

I didn't want to get sucked into it. I really didn't. I did, however, kind of want to watch the show and decided that, the weekend after I finished work experience, I would have myself a nice marathon of HBO's Game of Thrones

Did I mention I was doing work experience at HarperCollins? And that on my last day, I discovered the employee store?

So, of course, the day before I had planned a marathon of Game of Thrones, I came out with all the books in paperback (which I had gotten for an astounding pound fifty.) Which meant, of course, I was going to have to read them first. 

If you have absolutely no idea what Game of Thrones is about, don't worry: I really didn't either. It's not high fantasy and it's not just blood and gore. It's really, at its heart, a historical novel that just doesn't happen to be based on real history. 

At the beginning of the novel, we join the Starks, a lord and his family that live up on their estate at Winterfell, keeping control of the North. However, the king, an old friend of Ned Stark from when they were young, journeys up to meet him and ask him to be his new Hand (sort of like a chief advisor/vice president), due to the unfortunate sudden death of his old Hand, another friend of theirs from youth. Reluctantly, Stark agrees and sets in motion this epically complicated and intricate tale about different warring families. 

Those of you that have heard it's basically the War of the Roses? Well, the two main houses are Stark and Lannister so you decide. :)

One thing I found very surprising about this novel was how quickly it read. Don't get me wrong; it's a monster at 780 or so pages. However, each chapter is no more than tennish pages and is told in varying points of view. The first chapter is told by Bran, the seven year old son of Ned Stark, only to get views from different members of his family (although, now that I think of it, not from Robb), various people of other houses and other characters that don't seem to be involved at all but we know they will become important later (I'm looking at you, Dany.) So, as you are reading through, you may find yourself flipping ahead, wondering when you're going to get to Arya again or catch up with Jon. Or that may just be me.

Another surprising thing, and I will say this right now so you don't find yourself trapped like I am, is that this whole first 750 page book? Is just the set up. It ends and that's when you know that things are really going to start happening. And it took 750 pages to get there. Can you imagine how long and epic this series is going to be? What I'm saying is, be careful. This series is a time investment.

However, it is surprisingly wonderful. I tore through the first book in a week or so. I'm halfway through book two at the moment. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it and am really looking forward to reading more. If you think fantasy or medieval nonsense isn't your thing, give it a try. You may be surprised.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Castle in the Air/House of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones

Both Castle and House are sequels to Jones's classic, Howl's Moving Castle. However, since much has been said about Howl already, both are set in different kingdoms not explored in the original novel. Both, as well, feel very different from the original.

Castle in the Air was the first sequel to Howl, coming out in 1990 and was set in a southern kingdom not really even referenced in Howl. Our hero is a young carpet seller in this Arabian Nights-themed kingdom who comes upon a magic carpet. He discovers that falling asleep on it causes it to take him to the castle of lovely young princess named Flower-in-the-Night who he, of course, falls head over heels in love with. Since this is a novel, though, things go horribly wrong when flower is stolen by an evil djinn and Abdullah, our young carpet peddler, is suspected of the crime and must go on a quest to find her again.

Although I enjoyed it, this sequel felt quite weak to me. None of the characters were quite interesting to me and the only real high points were when characters from Howl made an appearance. The plot was definitely quite original but it lacked the charm of Howl and was just simply not enough to make it truly special.

The second sequel to Howl, House of Many Ways, did not appear on shelves until 2008, a full 22 years after the original. Charmain Baker, a young girl raised to be very proper in the northern kingdom of High Norland, who finds herself suddenly the caretaker of a distant relation's house while he is away due to illness. Of course, that relation also happens to be the royal wizard and Charmain finds herself trying to navigate a labyrinthine house, dealing with disgruntled kobolds and putting up with some new acquaintances. And, naturally, a few of our old friends make guest appearances.

It seems really unsettling to have such a large time period between the first two books in the series and the last. Of course, House was not supposed to the last book, Jones wanting to write more but she was unfortunately taken away from us in 2011. House, however, is a fitting ending to the series. Charmain is a strong female character, if not quite up to par with Sophie. Along with Peter, her other house guest, they make an interesting pair with their contrasting strengths and weaknesses. While perhaps not being quite as lovable as Howl, House is definitely a worthy sequel.

Both books are quite charming, if perhaps not quite to the standard of the first. The problem is that Howl was just a really stunning book, a nice mix of clever writing, a surprisingly intricate plot and some lovely characters. The other books just couldn't quite revive the formula. They are nice, however, and will answer your questions as to what happened to the old gang after Howl ended. And do you really want to miss Howl disguised as a three year old boy? No, no you don't.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

From Hell - Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

I'd always wanted to read From Hell but had never really had the motive to buy the huge graphic novel. Luckily, however, my graphic novel book club decided to read it for the latest meeting and not only did I get to buy it, I got a discount as well. Lucky!

However, since the meeting got postponed and now I can't attend the next one, I thought I'd turn my thoughts into a review. Because, honestly, this book needs to be talked about.

Originally released in 10 issues, the collected novel tells the story of the Jack the Ripper murders through an extremely convoluted but very ingenious theory linking events and answering almost everything there is to question about the situation. 

What makes the book really unique, however, is that Moore does away with all of the whodunit and makes this more of a how and why done it. You know right from the beginning who the murderer is; it's never a question. The reader follows right from the beginning with the birth of a bastard royal through to the retirement of the policemen involved and "Jack's" death. In the 120 years or so since the murders, who the killer is has been discussed to death. This new take on the issue is a breath of fresh air.

The complicated web of theory that Moore creates is impressive and confusing. It is just unimaginable how he came up with his solutions. Almost anything that could be conceivably questioned is answered. But at the same time, he also likes to throw in people and events that are timely but not necessarily connected. Oscar Wilde appears for no reason other than he was conveniently alive and in the neighborhood when one scene was being written. Although it's fun to see Wilde, it does sit a little uneasily.

Truly, both the downside and the incredibly helpful thing of this book are the notes in the back. When I began reading this at first, I got through about the first four chapters before being confused by a panel and flipping back to see the endnotes. And that's when I realized that this is what I was supposed to be reading. Notes are pages long and explain things that there is no earthly way you would have figured out on your own. I had to go back and begin again; this time, I read a few pages, then the notes, constantly flipping back and forth. 

Without the notes, I doubt I would have gotten a quarter of what I got out of the book. They explain a lot and even go into more depth with things briefly mentioned. Casual remarks would have been overlooked of their significance and I would not have recognized important characters. However, is a book truly readable if you have to read the notes to truly understand it? I can't imagine reading through the entire thing without touching the notes and actually knowing what the entire plot is, ignoring the small details. I was getting lost while reading, hence why I turned to the notes in the first place. Is that a good sign?

No matter what you think, the book is definitely thought provoking, entertaining and all around a good read. I was really looking forward to discussing this with my comic book friends but all you out there in internet land will have to take over for me. What are your thoughts? 

Oh, and there was a movie with Johnny Depp at some point. Ignore that. It's rubbish.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones

If you're a fan of Hayao Miyazaki (and you should be), then you are familiar with the title of this 1986 YA classic. In 2004, Studio Ghibli released their movie version of the book and we ate it up. It was a lovely movie, full of fantastical images and classic Miyazaki moments. Entranced by the movie, I, of course, sought out the novel. And it's better.

Howl's Moving Castle was inspired by two things: firstly, Jones stated that she wanted to write a book where fairytales were real and just a facet of everyday life and secondly, one day a boy in a class she was speaking to asked her to write a story about a castle that moved. Combining the two turned out to be a wonderful idea.

Our heroine is Sophie, a young hat maker and oldest of three sisters. Due to the fairytale nature of their world, Sophie knows that, as the eldest, she is destined to fail the hardest at any quest she sets out on and won't be blessed with any riches or magic, so she contents herself with working in the family hat shop.

One day, however, as she works, the fearsome Witch of the Waste comes to confront her, although as far as Sophie knows, she hasn't done anything worthy of notice. Regardless, the witch puts a spell on Sophie, transforming her into an old woman. Not able to tell anyone about the spell she's under and knowing she can't stay home, Sophie sets off to find a way to break the spell, or at the very least, find a nice place for an old woman to relax.

As she goes out, however, she notices Wizard Howl's moving castle on the heath. Wizard Howl is notoriously wicked and is rumored to eat girls' hearts. But Sophie's an old woman now. Surely he won't be interested in hers. And the fire seems so cozy….

Sophie is a ridiculously lovable protagonist that grows into her own as the book progresses. Howl, our hero (?), is just as lovable in the completely opposite way, a drama queen of a wizard and surprisingly Welsh. Beyond them, there is an expansive and lovely list of side characters who all have memorable personalities and interesting plot lines. From the dog man without a head to the apprentice in love with the cake shop attendant, or, my personal favorite, the Count of Catterack, each character is very fleshed out and adds to Jones's magical world.

I must have read Howl's Moving Castle at least four or five times. It's a very fast, very easy read but it's just comfortable, like watching a favorite movie when you're sick. It may not change your view on life but it will definitely make you smile. If you don't come out of it loving Howl and having a bit of a girl crush on Sophie, you're doing it wrong. And I don't think you exist.

P.S. Completely unplanned, my friend Lizzy posted a review of this yesterday. Check it out!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks

To be honest, as much as I love horror, I'm always a little cautious when it comes to zombie things. It's not that I'm not interested in zombies (who isn't?), it's mainly something I've mentioned before: I like books to have the potential for a happy ending. Most zombie books/movies/anything? Don't fall into that category. Because even if our heroes survive whatever the climax of the media is, that still means that there are more zombies out there and their big happy ending is just that they survive a little longer in this miserable, zombie-filled world. What a load of joy, huh?

Well, perhaps the reason that I loved this book (besides other things) is that this is a book written in hindsight, after the Zombie War. You know what that means? We beat the zombies! And you know that right from the get go! So, consider this worrywart soothed.

The basis of the book is that a reporter is going around after the war ends and getting firsthand accounts of various people around the globe before, during and post zombie war (the titular World War Z.) It makes for a very interesting read as there is no basic plot line, just short accounts of various people around the world and how each country dealt with the zombie menace. Because of the use of this style, the book reads very quickly and that keeps the reader on their toes.

Of course, a basic narrative comes out, of the countries starting to realize there is a real problem, to people that tried to profit from this, from different generals and their great acts and famous battles of the war, to the ultimate ending of the war. However, by using different voices and characters (almost no one speaks more than once), this seems much more nuanced and interesting than if Brooks had just written a straightforward zombie war book. It really adds to the feel of the book.

Really, that's the genius of the book: that it reads like a war report and not like a zombie novel. It's the kind of thing you would read on the UN website or in the papers, not on the horror shelf of your local bookshop. It actually puts gravitas and depth into something that is usually used for cheap thrills.

A movie version of this is in the works and is likely to come out next year. I'm really not sure how the novel will translate to screen as there is no real linear plot line but apparently Brooks is very behind the script and if the author likes it, it should be rather good. I'll ignore that Brad Pitt is starring. 

So yes, even if you don't think you're a fan of the genre or detest zombie things, this is really a book that's worth checking out. I really think it will surprise you.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James and Florence & Giles - John Harding

I've chosen to review these two books together as they are clearly intertwined, one influencing the other. Basically, if there were no Turn of the Screw, there couldn't be a Florence & Giles. And that would be a tragedy.

I'm sure you've all heard of Turn of the Screw, if you didn't have to read it for school at some point. It's Henry James's most famous work, the tale of a young governess sent to watch over two children in the country who either becomes haunted by spirits or slowly goes insane, your choice. I treated myself to this book a few months ago when visiting a friend who works at Hatchards (a dangerous game to play) and was quite excited to read it. It sounded just up my alley. 

Disappointingly, I could barely get through it. I would have to read another to be sure but I don't think I really like Henry James's style. He is quite concerned with using as many words as he can fit in and generally going on rants where it is quite easy to zone out. While I was reading, I found myself wondering if there was really a plot or if I was just missing details that were somewhere I couldn't decipher. After reading a few articles on the text after finishing, though, (stereotypical academic here), I found that no, I had gotten everything. I just wasn't impressed, I guess.

It is remarkable, telling a story from three distances away and using this distancing effect to play upon the perceptions of the reader. And the idea of a psychological study in that time period of a young governess is a rather good one. I just couldn't really get into it.

Fortunately for me, on a whim, I picked up Florence & Giles and I fell in love.

Florence & Giles is basically Turn of the Screw from the children's point of view. It follows the same basic plot line: Two children, a brother and sister, live in a large estate in the country with their house keeper and a few servants. The first governess sent to them dies in strange circumstances and the second governess is sent later. There may or may not be ghostly things going on in the background. Heck, even the main characters' names (Florence and Giles) are reworkings of the children's name from Screw (Flora and Miles.)

The difference in this novel is the protagonist; instead of following the governess, we get first person point of view from Florence, the big sister of the pair. A young girl that has been teaching herself to read from the library in secret, her narrative style is lovely as she enjoys 'shakespeare-ing' words, or just making up words to suit her own purpose. It adds a delightful narrative voice to the novel, as well as establishing an untrustworthy narrator. 

The plot, while largely the same as Turn of the Screw, makes detours as in this case, it is the governess who is potentially evil and the children who have to look out for themselves. Florence is the one who starts seeing eerie things and causes us to question what she's telling us. In fact, one thing I love about the novel is that it never flat out tells you anything. All of it is in little hints and throwaway lines. You have to construct the plot from the bits that Florence gives you.

I could not put Florence & Giles down and raced through it. It really keeps you questioning until the last page. The morality and logic that Florence comes up with and the narrative voice that you get wrapped up in is pitch perfect. I adored this book.

And that is why I have to say a big thank you to The Turn of the Screw. Because, despite the fact that I never could really get into you, it's thanks to you that we have Florence & Giles. And that's a thing to be glad about.