Monday 17 August 2009

Twilight - Stephenie Meyer

In Twilight Bella Swan reluctantly moves to the gloomy town of Forks to live with her dad, little realising that her life is about to change forever. As well as the usual issues with starting a new school and having to make new friends, she has to cope with her attraction to someone who initially appears to hate her - Edward Cullen. He is one of five Cullens who also attend the school - keeping themselves to themselves and scarily beautiful. As time goes on, Edward and Bella are drawn together more and more, but she is also realising her suspicions that Edward is not completely what he seems. As their love is declared, Bella discovers that Edward and the rest of the Cullens are vampires, but those attempting to deny their true nature. The problem is, not all vampires are so genteel, as Bella is about to find out...

Okay, it is extremely hard to review this book in the face of the extreme hype that has grown around the series. I read this early on - before the movie, before it was recommended by all and sundry and definitely before it had grown into a must-read book.

Consequently, for me, it is little more than a decent story - although one that has been told many times before in a much more fluid manner. For instance, L J Smith is a YA author who has been turning out tales about paranormal romance between teens for a long time, and I believe that she is extremely talented in comparison to Meyer.

Meyer's writing is clumsy, but somehow compelling. The dialogue is laughable at times, but I sincerely could not put this book down. For me, the strength of the book is in the two central characters and the memories it evokes of first love. Because we are in a first person perspective, we see everything that Bella does and suffer along with her as she struggles to come to terms with Edward's true nature and her feelings for him. Bella is a character that does a little too much analysing at times, and I certainly did not appreciate her desire to instantly become a vampire, throwing away her family and friends, but it is lovely to experience that thrill that comes when her love is returned by Edward. Anyone who has been in breathless love and aches to see a person can identify with Bella - her disappointment whenever Edward was out of school, her desire to constantly be with him, her devastation whenever he mentions the idea of leaving her.

Of course, Edward's behaviour is reprehensible and cannot be condoned - whether vampire or not. This is a guy who stalks Bella, who goes into her house and watches her sleep at night, who tries to control her every behaviour. Yet somehow you end up excusing all of this in the name of love (in fact, if you read 'Midnight Sun' on Meyer's website - the same story told from Edward's perspective - you do realise that his behaviour is dictated by overwhelming passion for Bella, but this of course is not revealed from Bella's first person perspective here).

So, altogether, a story that I thoroughly enjoyed despite its many faults - I will be reading the sequels, but I do not think that Meyer is doing anything particularly new or clever and therefore Twilight does not deserve the hype.

The Steel Remains - Richard Morgan

I have read a large number of reviews that indicate Richard Morgan is doing something fresh and new with The Steel Remains, his first book in a fantasy trilogy. However, I would respectfully disagree. I could see elements of David Gemmell and Michael Moorcock in the writing. Before his untimely death, Gemmell handled the creating of characters that are drawn from shades of grey - anti-heros and fighters held up to be heros but have the morals of the worst kind of human beings. Ringil, Archeth and Egar are characters from this same mould - ambigious motives and less than black and white characteristics.

The way in which Morgan differs from Gemmell is in both the well-publicised swearing and the homosexuality of Ringil. I was disappointed in the way that Morgan handled the latter, to be honest. I don't mind the homosexual sex scenes, and I don't mind the idea that Ringil is considered to be a degenerate, but I do mind the constant references to it. It was almost as though Morgan worried that if he didn't drum it home every few chapters, then the reader might forget this element of Ringil's character.

The start of the story was extremely slow. For such a slight fantasy novel (a mere 350 pages or so, in the edition I read) it took me well over a week to get through. I attribute this to the fact that the three main characters were completely separate and following different storylines up to about the last five chapters. I am familiar with cliffhanger chapter endings and multiple story viewpoints from many other fantasy books, but usually you are given a period of time with the group of characters together before they proceed on their separate storylines - this allows you time in which to bond with the characters so that when they do go their separate ways, you have an investment in the people and the trials and tribulations they face. With this book, Morgan plunged straight into multiple viewpoints and, just as one character got halfway interesting, we were shifted to the start of a new character's story and had to spend time getting to know this character.

With those negatives aside, this was a thumping good read - Ringil was never less than entertaining, and we are given a large number of hints into his background and into events from his past that give reasons for his world-weary take on life. The Dwenda are fabulous as enemies - I feel Morgan draws heavily on fey mythology (and I had echoes of the elves in Lords and Ladies while I read about the dwenda).

Eventually you completely invest in the characters and are cheering them on in the breathless climax, where Morgan demonstrates that his writing of fight scenes is second to none.
An impressive fantasy novel.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy - Jennifer Rardin

In a genre that contains such heavy-hitters as Kelley Armstrong and Kim Harrison, Jennifer Rardin's debut novel Once Bitten, Twice Shy is heralded as a fresh new take on the 'paranormal fantasy' (or whatever tag it is going by these days!) spectrum.

Indeed, the idea that the main character is a CIA operative is intriguing, and the vamp/supernatural elements of the story are dropped in without any painful info-dumps or unnecessary explanations.

In fact, the whole story invites you to cling onto a *very* bumpy ride and either hold on or slide off. Unfortunately for Rardin, I've decided to quit this ride on the first book and here are my reasons.

The pace is frenetic - in fact, too much so. There is no breathing space, no time to effectively build the characters, no pause from the constant action to really get a feel for the world we're supposed to believe in here.

Supernatural elements are thrown in without a full consideration of world-building, and characters suddenly develop new tricks without any true reasons being given.
The book tries far too hard to be funny and misses on most occasions: "Oh boy. I'm in smart-ass mode and Vayl wants to break his ex's neck. If we don't play this right, they'll be scraping parts of us off the bumpers of these cars for days."

Jaz is heralded as a sassy, spunky CIA operative. However, she is also held up to be a delicate-looking, beautiful redhead who, it seems, would be incapable of extricating herself out of the many, many dangerous situations her smart mouth seems determined to place her in. She is a loose cannon, and it becomes tiring to see that her only answer to everything is a wiseass comment and the threat of violence. I was also disconcerted by the fact she kisses a person she has only just met - there was no reason for this given.

I struggled with the, at times, distinctly odd prose and similies. For instance: "In the silence, the banging of our bumper took centre stage like an American Idol loser" - this just makes very little sense. Add to that: "Vayl made a sound in the back of his throat, a primal distress signal, the kind you might hear from elephants as they mourn over the bones of lost brothers." This is a vampire we're talking about - a sleek, killing machine and the animal Rardin associates with him is an elephant? And which elephants actually do mourn over the bones of lost brothers? The writing stank, to be perfectly honest.

Altogether a hugely disappointing read.

Watchmen - A review of the graphic novel

It is hard to write a review about Watchmen that will say anything new from the hundreds that have sprung into existence after the film came out, but hopefully I can provide a decent perspective! Let's say first that I have never read a graphic novel prior to this. In addition, I watched the film before reading the book, rather than the other way round, which might have affected my impression of one or the other.

Having given that caveat, I would say that this is a tour de force, a magnificent sprawling story that takes in many different ideas - including aging costumed heros; the idea of compromise; whether it is, indeed, a blessing to kill millions in order to save billions. The story is set against a backdrop of a fictional future, where Nixon has been elected for his fourth term, the Americans won in Vietnam with the help of Dr Manhattan, and the threat of nuclear war is ever present.

However, the plot itself - Rorschach has uncovered a possible conspiracy to take out costumed heros (not super heros, if you please - the only such is Dr Manhattan) - is pretty slight. The beauty of the book comes from the jumping back and forth in time to view the backgrounds of the main characters and how they became costumed heros; it comes from the many 'extras' such as snippets from Hollis' book and newspaper articles; and from the Tales of the Black Freighter that intertwine with many of the other plotlines.

The power of the tale comes from recognising the parodies of superheros e.g. Nite Owl representing Batman and his gadgets.

I also loved the use of frames to reflect events that had happened in the immediately prior frame e.g. the whole sequence with Dr Manhattan's television interview cutting away to the fight in the alley with Laurie and Dan. This took time to realise but helped to lend weight to a lot of the writing and pictures.

The whole tone was extremely bleak and the book felt very intense and somewhat exhausting to read.

But overall this was an amazing achievement and should be read by everyone who has even a passing interest in super heros, alternate history, graphic novels, ground breaking techniques. I loved it.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

The Last Wish - Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish is an interesting collection of stories translated from its original Polish in an accomplished manner. The fairytales deal with Geralt, who is a witcher. We are given hints as to how and why witchers are created, and it's an intriguing premise that I hope is explored more fully in later books by this author.

Geralt is an entertaining character - a brusque individual who goes about his business with the minimum of fuss and maximum violence. In the course of his travels we also meet other fascinating people - including Yennefer, a powerful sorceress who manages to ensnare Geralt, and Dandilion, a rather flamboyant troubadour. Having said that, all of the characters suffer from being only minimally developed in this introduction to Sapkowski's world.

By far the most interesting part of this book are the monsters, sprites, djinns and elves. All of them take their inspiration from folklore, history and fairytales, lending the book a traditional and familiar flavour. I do like how Sapkowski explores the theme of appearances being deceiving. Some of the very prettiest creatures here act in a nightmarish fashion, while a couple of those gruesome in appearance are revealed to have good souls.

I am giving this a slightly above average rating for this aspect, but overall it was no more than a competently-written set of short stories linked by the character of Geralt. I would have liked to see a little more resolution of some of the stories, but I do look forward to reading more by this author.

The West Wing - "A Proportional Response", Episode 3, Season 1

This episode follows the aftermath of the events in episode 2, where President Bartlett learns that his personal physician (a man he very much liked and the father of a 10 day old baby girl) was one of those killed in a strike against the Americans. Here Bartlett has to decide what sort of justice to dole out, hence the title of the episode. The back story to this involves the issue of Sam Seaborn and the call girl ramping up when CJ gets wind of it and is forced to defend Sam to a member of the press (a man called Danny, who becomes a recurring bit-part character from this point on). We are also introduced to Charlie Young, a young black man who has been picked out by both Debbie and Josh as suitable for the position of Aide to the President.

It is a great episode, where the theme of justice and proportional response is carried through. There is a lot of righteous anger in a superb turn from Martin Sheen, who manages to convey the sheer frustration of wanting to make a proper impact on the people who killed his friend, at the same time as carrying the nerves of never having been in the military yet being expected to be the Commander in Chief.

There were also some lovely and quite humorous scenes (which helped to break up the moments of high drama) between Josh and Charlie. The latter is labouring under the misapprehension that he is still being interviewed for a messenger post, and is perplexed by the new role he is offered.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the discussion between Josh and Leo, and then Leo and Admiral Fitzwallace about the cosmetics of having a black man working for the President and holding doors open for him and such. I appreciated the fact that Admiral Fitzwallace (also black) stated that as long as he was paid a good wage and treated with respect, then it shouldn't matter a damn who served the President.

My favourite quote this time came from Leo McGarry, when he is trying to emphasise the responsibility that the President holds as the leader of a super power in the event of retaliation:

"So, my friend, if you want to start using American military strength as the arm of the Lord, you can do that. We're the only superpower left. You can conquer the world, like Charlemagne! But you better be prepared to kill everyone. And you better start with me, because I will raise up an army against you and I will beat you!"

An episode that definitely increased the quality levels and so I give it four stars out of five.

Monday 10 August 2009

The System of the World - Neal Stephenson

The System of the World is the third book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - well, the last three books, since Stephenson actually wrote eight books that made up the cycle which were then published to form a trilogy. Here the majority of the action takes place in London, where virtually all of the protagonists we have been following end up bringing the story to a mighty conclusion.

The basic plot is that of a murder mystery, but comprises many other components. Daniel Waterhouse has completed his epic trip back across the Atlantic at the urging of Princess Caroline. She wished him to bring about the reconciliation of those two mighty Philosophers Leibniz and Newton. In the process of which he ends up stumbling across Jack's scheme to debase English currency (which he is being blackmailed into by the King of France and the dastardly Edouard de Gex). Trying to summarise the plot - the many strands and the different events - is difficult without having to repeat what happened in earlier books or flick through many pages trying to remind myself of exactly who Saturn was and why the Tsar of Russia made an appearance.

The cast of characters is enormous and it can be difficult to keep them separate at times, although our main characters have become extremely three dimensional. Daniel, Eliza (although she makes a small appearance in this volume), Jack, Isaac Newton, Dappa, Bob Shaftoe, Ravenscar, Princess Caroline, Leibniz - all these characters become beloved and it is of interest to see what happens to all of them.

The three volumes as a whole - the Baroque Cycle - are a truly amazing achievement. It is nigh on 3000 pages dense with facts, with ideas, with characters, with exciting escapes and political machinations. We are shown the beginnings of the world system that we know today - with law enforcement, political parties (Whigs and Tories), real estate and, of course, currency. Either this was written as a fact or Stephenson came up with an extremely clever idea in that currency is called such because of the current of money flowing into London, in this case. There are many such moments during all three books, where you marvel at the level of research and detail that has gone into every element of the story.

It is interesting that these books are almost always shelved in the fantasy/sci fi section but, barring the presence of Enoch Root and his little procedure (I shall not say more, for fear of spoiling certain things!) they are more historical in nature.

One of my disappointments in this and the previous books is the pacing - we can go from thrilling page-turning events into a deep philosophical discourse and this can make the reader grind to a halt. Despite the exciting nature of the plot in general, there were times when I felt as though it was a struggle to read any further, and this is a sad fact when considering that this should be a series read by everyone. It is a classic in the making - or would be, barring the slow and turgid prose at times. Having said that, it didn't do Tolkien any harm and some people may, in fact, find this one of the charming aspects of Stephenson's writing.

I am extremely glad that I read this series, but I shall not be embarking on a re-read for many, many years - if at all. However, I do have the notion that the characters and events will niggle and stay with me - the mark of a book that has had a big effect on me. This should have been a five star experience, but I keep it to four stars purely because of the difficulty of the reading. Recommended (with reservations!)

The Confusion - Neal Stephenson

I am entirely perplexed by this trilogy! Usually by the time I have read the first book in a trilogy - let alone the second - I know well whether I am intending to keep the series for an indulgent re-read in the future. After reading Quicksilver, I had been intrigued enough to read The Confusion but felt that overall I would be discarding the series.

What a difference a book makes! Over the course of this second book, I found myself musing on the story even while I was not reading about the continued adventures of Eliza and Jack. This book is reward for struggling through the first, which was enormously dense and detailed.

The book is shared between Eliza (Juncto) and Jack (Bonanza), their stories intertwining. We find Jack alive and well, and free from the French pox (syphilis). He has been captured by Barbary pirates and his tale involves a convoluted plot between him and other members of the Cabal - to capture a shipment of gold that will lead to their fortunes being made. His story leads him across the world - through the Far East and finally taking a dangerous trip to Acapulco. The capture of the gold has massive repercussions across the world, affecting many including Eliza, who starts her story being waylaid by Jean Bart and carried back to France, where she once again begins manipulating trade.

This time both stories are equally gripping for one reason or another, and the skipping between both allows Stephenson to develop two different tones - the formal, slow burning plot of Eliza and the swashbuckling adventures of Jack Shaftoe.

Many, many characters take centre stage here and become beloved to the reader over the course of 800 pages. Obviously Jack and Eliza will have the attention of the reader, but there is also Leibniz (the dignified and friendly Natural Philosopher who has befriended Eliza from the beginning); Bob Shaftoe (brother of Jack, more upright and stolid); Princess Caroline (beautiful and fiercely intelligent); and the many entertaining members of the Cabal.

We also see the beginnings of Minerva - the ship that is carrying Daniel Waterhouse back to England at the start of the first book in the trilogy - and meet her captain van Hoek (a Dutch captain who feels the need to shed body parts when in gravest danger).

Altogether I am being overwhelmed gradually by the trilogy of books, and can find much to love about them. On the flipside, the writing is still inpenetrable at times and leaves me feeling confused as to what is actually occuring. At times the pacing of the story is woeful - leaving spells where I actually avoid picking up the book, although curiosity in the fates of Jack and Eliza always brings me back.

I would tentatively recommend this book to everyone I know - with the proviso that it is still not *easy* reading (and that they have to suffer through book one to reach the heights of book two).

Friday 7 August 2009

The West Wing - "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"; episode 2, season 1

In this episode Sam Seaborn decides to go against the advice of Toby and Josh to cultivate a friendship with Laurie, the call girl he "accidentally" slept with in the first episode. There is a touching scene between Morris (a medical doctor, who is celebrating the recent birth of a daughter) and the President. And CJ tries to mediate between the President and the Vice President without a great deal of success.

This is the episode where the West Wing settles into its more usual pattern, after the flurry of the pilot episode. We see CJ performing one of her usual press briefings; Donna and Josh continue to snipe at one another in a gentle manner; the day-to-day issues that plague the running of a country are covered almost by incident.

The staff also realise they need a more effective media director after the Ryder Cup team decline an invitation for a photo opportunity with the President. This is where Mandy is introduced - she has worked with the team before, and it isn't make clear why she didn't stay with them. She has romantic history with Josh, and he is fervent in his desire to not bring her on board.

Personally, I can see why he wouldn't want her around. She is the first character introduced that I haven't felt immediate affection for. Even Toby, who is difficult to like, has some wonderful lines and you feel a huge respect for him and what he is trying to achieve. Mandy is abrasive, arrogant, and tries to cover every weakness. She is argumentative, and I ended up disliking every storyline she was involved in. This for me is the weakest point of the episode.

As I mention above, the strongest point is the warm conversation between Morris and the President. It affected me enough that the shocking end to the episode left me moved. I include this piece of dialogue as my favourite quote from "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc":

Bartlet: I don't need a flu shot.
Morris: You do need a flu shot.
Bartlet: How do I know this isn't the start of a military coup?
Morris: Sir?
Bartlet: I want the Secret Service in here right away.
Morris: In the event of a military coup, sir, what makes you think the Secret Service is gonna be on your side?
Bartlet: Now that's a thought that's gonna fester.
I really enjoyed this episode, especially the ending, but the series hasn't yet risen to the heights it is capable of, so here I give three and a half stars out of five.

The West Wing - "Pilot", Episode 1, Season 1

The West Wing is widely acknoledged to be one of the finest slices of television, consistently good across seven seasons, with sparkling dialogue and memorable characters. For a Brit viewer, some of the episodes – those politically heavy – sounded as though they were being acted in another language, since I have absolutely no knowledge of the American political environment, but even those gripped me.

A forum I frequent recently began discussing The West Wing, and I decided it was high time I dusted off my DVD collection and began a rewatch.

So here we are at the first episode, which dumps you straight into a chaotic White House and introduces you to all the major players, as well as setting up some of the future story arcs. I love the fact that you are never treated as an idiot viewer – as I say, the dialogue fairly crackles along, being intelligent and witty.

However, there are also moments of gravitas even this early on – thanks mainly to the introduction of the President himself. Martin Sheen plays such a brilliant, eccentric turn as the President – a man who knows his Scriptures as well as his political opponents as well as his Latin. I think a lot of people watched this President and wished heartily that he was truly in charge of the White House!

Some of the characters received only short screen time, but this is more than made up for in future episodes. Even so, each of them was given their defining characteristic in this first episode – Toby is cantankerous but fiercely loyal; Leo is a driving force, thinking only of the President and the Democratic Party; CJ is worried but clever, and slightly paranoid that she is the new kid on the block. We also had our first introduction to Josh and Donna, and their somewhat dysfunctional but affectionate relationship as boss and assistant.

So, great stuff right from the get-go, but, being aware that future episodes will increase the tension, the emotion, the comedy and the drama I will award this a solid three out of five stars.

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson

It is so very hard to classify Quicksilver - the first in an extremely weighty trilogy (this book alone weighs in at over 900 pages!) Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? It is historical? It most certainly is dense, dull, delightful and dry.

The book is split into three different sections. The first of these looks back on Daniel Waterhouse's early life in London and his association with the Royal Society and the pre-eminent philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of that time, including Isaac Newton. This period of the book can be extremely difficult reading, and needs intense concentration. Even with that, I found myself struggling with the esoteric vocabulary used and the overwhelming amount of science on display. I find science and maths difficult at the best of times, and this book did nothing to ease me - often I found myself understanding only one paragraph in three and had to really persevere to get through this section. There was light relief periodically from present-day Daniel, travelling by ship back to England and being pursued by pirates. One thing I enjoyed immensely about this part of the book - science aside - was the way that Stephenson conveyed the wonder and mystery of the discoveries that were coming thick and fast, driven by certain people whose ideas have not been surpassed even now.

The second part of the book dealt with Eliza and Jack Shaftoe. This section flew past in a flurry of giggles and adventure, including an amusing interlude with an ostrich and a Turkish harem. Jack is a lively character, seemingly destined to die from the French pox (syphilis), but determined to make a life for himself and generate an inheritance for his two boys. Eliza is enigmatic, alluring and tom-boyish by turns - both drawn to Jack and repelled by him. They travel together across a lot of Europe and end up in Amsterdam, where Jack leaves Eliza to make his fortune in Paris and ends up on a ship bound for deepest Africa. I loved this part of the book, and it more than made up for the dryness of the first section.

The last part draws all the threads of the story together, culminating in the revolution that Waterhouse has spent his life working towards. There is intrigue, and gripping letters between Leibniz and Eliza, who, by now, is the Countess de la Zeur. James II is overthrown and Daniel suffers a spell in prison.

So, all in all, a massive book with massive ideas and massive characters. It should have been unbelievable and unforgettable, but I was left feeling a little as though it were too much work. I will read the other two volumes in the trilogy for completeness, but I don't embark on them with a lightness of spirit!

An Introduction

I have put a few bits and pieces about me in my profile, but thought I would add some detail. I've wanted to blog my book reviews for a while now, especially since I'm very religiously reviewing each book I read. So far in 2009 I have read 51 books, and I would deem this to be a slow year being as I got bogged down in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle for over three months! That was a hell of a read - a proper slog, but very rewarding.

I read a great deal, but mostly across fantasy and sci fi, with a smattering of chick lit for those lazy Sunday afternoons! However, I have been known to try anything and my wishlist on Amazon just gets longer and longer with all the book recommendations from friends that I am now desperate to try.

I decided to call my blog Floor to Ceiling Books, because that is literally the state of my living room. I have far more books than I could probably ever read, and would most certainly consider myself a bibliophile. Charity bookshops and eBay are my friends! I buy books rampantly, always thinking that I'll get round to reading them at some point...

Okay, that is a little about me. The bulk of posts on this blog will be book reviews, but I'm sure a few other things will slip in, such as reviews of movies or of TV series that I'm wading through. I'm planning a rewatch of The West Wing at some point in the not too distant future, so look out for episode reviews of that.

I hope you enjoy and I welcome any/all comments!