Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books and I love the Norse Legends, so I thought that this book was would a great little read. However, I will admit I was left feeling a bit flat.

There is a little bit of context in my reaction, it isn’t just the book. My reading has slowed down in recent weeks as my own writing has been pretty dominant. Also, I bought the book in hardback, which was a massive mistake as I was discouraged from reading it simply because it wouldn’t fit in my handbag. So not the greatest context in which to try and read the book.

However, my biggest problem is very much centered on the fact that I much preferred Joanne Harris’ ‘The Gospel of Loki‘. I simply couldn’t put that book down. There was a central character to get behind, protagonists and antagonists to root for (Loki fell into both categories simultaneously). The plot was intricately woven together and there was pace that kept you turning the page.

I felt flat with Gaiman’s interpretation because there was no central character to get behind, and the characters themselves felt really two dimensional. I know that in Norse mythology the characters themselves probably aren’t that fully formed but I had thought that in a re-interpretation by Gaiman, the characters would have got fleshed out.

Instead there was a just a series of characters in a series of disconnected myths and legends that Gaiman had interpreted. I didn’t feel much incentive to read the next story, and coupled with my hardback mistake I struggled to motivate myself to read the book. And I was disappointed by this because I know this is a passion of Gaiman’s, and I just thought he would do a better job.

I try not to make massive comparisons between books on similar topics, but in this case I can’t help it. I would recommend Harris over Gaiman on this one. The former is just more entertaining.

 

Book Review – Vinland by George Mackay Brown

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I lost my heart to Orkney years ago. I think at first it was the tranquility and the silence. Then it was realising the silence (compared to a city I mean) isn’t as quiet as I first thought; the birds, the wind and the waves are the sounds of Orkney, and I grew to love it even more. That was my first trip; on the second trip I got engaged at the Ring of Brodgar, so what was already a special place for me became even more so for us.

The second best thing to being there, is reading about Orkney through the words of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. ‘Vinland’ might make its way onto my list of all-time favourite books. It is utterly stunning to read and I want more. I’m not familiar with Mackay Brown’s poetry, and the only other book I’ve read by him was ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’, which I will have to pull off the shelf again, but after reading ‘Vinland’ not only did I want the story to go on and on, I also want to see what else he wrote.

This the reaction I want when I finish reading a book. If I put off reading the last few pages because I don’t want the tale to ever end, it is for me the sign of a perfect book. The book is set in the Medieval Scandinavian world, including Orkney, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Ireland, as well as North America. The title ‘Vinland’ is a little bit misleading, as only part of it is set in North America, when Leif Ericson tried to settle a colony there, however the dream of Vinland is carried on throughout the protagonist’s life.

The book charts the life of Ranald Sigmundson, a boy who goes to sea with his father, and ends up with Leif Ericson in Vinland. He returns home to Orkney, and evens goes to war in Ireland. I’m particularly fond of this period in history, and while I certainly don’t know as much about the Scandinavian World as I think I should, I had briefly studied the Vinland Sagas as a student, in what I would say is one of the best modules I ever had the privilege of undertaking. This book brought this world to life.

History can seem at times to be a bit cold and a bit distant, and the further back in time you go, the less evidence there is to help you reconstruct the past. The reason I enjoyed this book so much is because of the people. The political and religious turmoil certainly made the plot intriguing, but it is the characters, mainly Ranald, that makes the book so evocative. I’m sure that there is more metaphorical meaning within the work than what I have interpreted for you here, and I’m sure many of you would enjoy the book for those reasons.

For me I loved it because I didn’t just escape into a book, I also got the chance to escape into a period of history that I adore.

I remember picking up the copy of ‘Vinland’ in a lovely little bookshop in Stromness where Mackay Brown lived in Orkney. These days I’m keen on having context and a bit of life woven into the tapestry of my experience with a book. While I am planning on going back, I don’t think I can wait to go back to Orkney to get more books by him though; I think yearning for them badly enough to order them will have to be experience enough.

Book Review: The Devil in Amber by Mark Gatiss

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Needless to say, I picked up the second of Mark Gatiss’ novels, and the protagonist Lucifer Box leapt off the page. Lucifer is so damned sarcastic, and I do love a bit of wit. There was context as well; I’d just finished ‘Slade House’ and was more than a little bit wired up, so I thought I’d make a start on ‘The Devil in Amber’ in order to lighten the mood (and ensure I didn’t need a nightlight).

One line was enough to ease my tensions about attics. One line; quite remarkable really. And the next day, when I did venture to the second line and quite a way beyond because it isn’t easy to put the book down (I really should stop tying books to myself as if they are mittens) I was once again hooked in by Lucifer’s adventures.

It is twenty years on from his romp in ‘The Vesuvius Club‘; he might a bit older, but still young at heart, and just as fun. I would say that the tone of the book is a little bit more serious, but it reflects that Lucifer Box has had experiences in the intervening years between the books (mostly World War One) that have matured him.

Though thankfully not too much; there is still plenty of wit and a few silly names, not least Lucifer’s sister who makes a prominent appearance and is called Pandora. (I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I realised the reference- no need to face-palm, I’ve done that myself already. Several times.)

The serious tone also flatters the subject matter better. The light-heartedness in which Lucifer dealt with the murders of the Vulcanologists suited the Edwardian Era and nature of the story Mark Gatiss told in his first book. Dealing with 1920s fascists and satanists who want to summon the devil does need to be a bit more serious in tone. The book is still fun and addictive to read, but it is respectful of history as well.

This seriousness and the slightly bittersweet tone of the protagonist lamenting not being quite a young as anymore is what makes me love this book. Except it is a different sort of love than the thrill I got from the first novel, which I fell in love with because of the vibrancy. This is more of a settled love; the sort you feel over time after you’ve got to know someone and are more comfortable with all their quirks and foibles.

When I reviewed ‘The Vesuvius Club’ I remarked upon how much I enjoyed getting to know Lucifier Box’s distinct character voice. It’s why he leapt off the page from the very first line. The groundwork of establishing the character in the first book paid off, because in the second novel Lucifer Box’s adventures held onto my attention from the first to the last line with minimal effort. I wanted to know what happened next because I already loved the character.

I enjoyed the story of the first book as well, but the plot of The Devil in Amber is even better. Lucifer was persecuted in the first book, but this time the threat to him is more personal, and the devilish plot to end the world much more sinister. There is a move from the slightly steampunk nature of the evil grand plan in ‘The Vesuvius Club’, to a supernatural threat in the second. Given Mark Gatiss is a talented writer he pulls of the change in which speculative genre to delight us with masterfully without the books ending up disconnected.

Can’t wait to read the third and last (sob) Lucifer Box book, ‘Black Butterfly’.

Book Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

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Slade House came to my attention via a recommendation from a member of staff in the Newcastle Branch of Waterstones. I will admit I don’t get recommendations very often, but on this occasion I was rather lost as I’m still figuring out the layout, which changed recently. I was also wondering in which section Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box books might have been kept, so I will have been looking more puzzled than normal.

Strangely I didn’t ask for help to find what I was actually looking for, but I did get recommended this book when approached to see if I was okay. I was drawn in by the recommendation, not least because the lovely gentleman was so enthusiastic, but also because the premise of the book is so wonderful. I was aware of David Mitchell’s novels, but I hadn’t read a novel by him. I have tried to read Cloud Atlas, whilst also studying for university exams; I didn’t get far. I will have to give it a better chance in the future, as I struggled to connect when distracted.

I absolutely loved Slade House though. I’ve always thought of myself as someone adverse to horror, but actually I’m not. Looking at what defines something as horror, I actually do read it, watch it and even write it myself more often than I realise. I am a lot more receptive to the genre than I thought, and discovering Slade House is part of my recent relish in exploring the genre.

I wouldn’t have even thought about this as a horror story if not for the fact I have been recently researching the genre and it does fall into the supernatural category. It’s not particularly horrifyingly though and I would definitely say it would be suitable for teenagers from about 15 and older to read.

Slade House is a ghost story, well actually its several. It is a series of interconnected short stories, set over a period from 1979 to 2015, following people who every nine years enter Slade House, usually looking for the last set of people who disappeared never to be seen again. It has a fabulous plot, and the reasons why people are disappearing is slowly revealed over the course of the book, just tidbit by tidbit; enough to keep you wanting to turn the next page.

I started this book on my morning commute, eagerly read more during my lunch break, and then tucked myself under a blanket in the evening and read until midnight when I finished the last page. I was utterly addicted, and in the annoying hours in-between when I had to earn a living, I was constantly thinking about it. This book will get under your skin. It is compelling.

The character voices are so distinctive from each other, yet all of them draw you into the story to make you want to know more. It is a fantastic example of how to write a distinct set of characters very well and give them all a unique voice. And the setting of Slade House itself changes in each story. It is recognisable as the same place, but the descriptions of the house are evocative, and disorienting as they fall into the trap. Beware you will begin to dread the characters heading up the stairs towards the attic.

You will definitely get a shiver up your spine, and be left delighted by the tension.

Film Review- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Warning: Spoilers

I’ve hesitated in talking about ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve been a bit withdrawn from the geeky world of the internet of late. I talked about this in my essay ‘My Many Selves as a Geeky Fan’. I’ve been talking about the MCU since January, but because I’m a bit ‘meh’ about Marvel at the minute it hasn’t been as badly affected because of who I have become as a fan in recent months.

Star Wars, however has been, because I am a massive fan, and withdrawing quite a bit from social media pushed ‘Rogue One’ off my radar in-between seeing it at the cinema and waiting for the DVD release. I had originally delayed my review of the film, for the same reason I did The Force Awakens last year; I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone. I’ve come to terms with this personal change in my approach to being a fan, but there was another reason for the delay.

I had a rather strange reaction to Rogue One that I didn’t think would make it difficult to talk about. In truth it should make it easier, but I wasn’t sure how to approach this admission. Let’s just go with head on, shall we?

Rogue One is my favourite Star Wars film.

I’m not going to duck for cover. At first, I was feeling a bit ashamed that the amazing seven episodes of the Star Wars saga so far have been upstaged by a one-off anthology film, whose intent was to tell a story where we already knew the ending in order to make Disney a bit of money. I can remember thinking that when it was announced the film was about stealing the plans for the original Death Star. It was a money making venture; like Titanic, we knew the ship would sink and we knew they would get the plans.

Except it is bloody brilliant. I mean it is a film that cannot work without the existence of the rest of the Star Wars franchise; it wouldn’t make any sense what so ever. I never thought it was a story that needed to be told.

Until I saw it that is, and in truth of all the Star Wars stories (by which I mean the films) that have been told, it is the most important. It is the one that anyone can relate to and for the most shocking reason of all (at least for me to internally process); it is the story most grounded in reality.

I am a fantasy writer and I write about magic. It is one of my favourite fantasy themes, and one of the reasons I love Star Wars so much is because The Force, which is essentially magic, is found within a science fiction setting. Yes, The Force still exists in Rogue One, and having faith in it is certainly one of the most important and prominent themes in the film, but that is all it really is; it is faith in its existence. Proof of it is only seen in the film twice, and never in relation to the main characters. Like Darth Vader, The Force only makes a cameo appearance.

Everything that happens in the main plot can in theory be explained by human ability. And what they are doing is using that ability to fight an oppressive empire bend on destroying freedom in the galaxy. There are so many examples in history of humans having done this for real, which are still inspiring us. Rogue One is a fictional version of fights real humans have made. It is a story of characters sacrificing themselves for the greater good. For hope.

It is the characters that make it the best film. Don’t get me wrong, the Star Wars Universe has many great characters. Very few of them have left me feeling that perhaps the writers and creators could have done a better job. My review of Force Awakens is really just a long talk about how great the new characters are, and when I talked about The Phantom Menace, I even defended Jar Jar Binks.

Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Baze Malbus, Bodhi Rook and K-2SO are just in a different league. They are some of the most conflicted and complex characters that have ever been created in the Star Wars films. They aren’t black or white; good or evil. They are grey, they have made questionable choices and they are fighting to make those choices mean something when threatened by defeat and destruction.

From the moment I first saw Cassian shoot his informant in the back in order to spare him from falling into the hands of the Empire I fell in love with the film. Strange moment I know, but it is the first indication the film isn’t just going to be a simple fight of good versus evil.

This isn’t just the story where we know the ending and know they succeeded. This is the story where all of their complexities, their choices, and their faith in the universe is laid out and bared to the audience. It is the story of how they did it, why they did it and what price they paid in order to do it.

It is a human story, grounded in the reality of what it is to be a human facing a seemingly unstoppable oppressive force. It isn’t about the Jedi versus the Sith; it is about everyone else who lives in that universe.

It is about a father sacrificing his life and risking everything to seek revenge for the destruction of his family.

It is about the daughter coming to terms with that and all the pain she has suffered in her life. Facing it again is one of the best character developments I’ve seen, because being brave about what’s going on inside rather than outside is something that needs to be seen more often.

It is about a rebel spy, a man with ethics, giving his life to fight for his beliefs, a fight that costs him the chance to live his life in line with his ethics. A man who carries his prison within wherever he goes.

It is about a pilot, who seeks to redeem himself after being a clog in the oppressive machine.

It is about a blind man maintaining his faith in the Force, despite his life being destroyed and having been every reason to think it has abandoned him.

It is about an enraged warrior, who finds faith again, after the world broke it, when his friend dies and faith is the only way he can find him again.

It is about a reprogrammed droid facing the reality that he has to overpower other droids and even kill living people (seriously with K-2SO the fact Asimov’s Laws of Robotics don’t apply is what makes him intriguing), while he also tells the truth. The sarcasm he does it with is a happy bi-product.

And they all die.

This film is about hope, and for the audience the hope isn’t that they will succeed, but who will survive the attempt. That is one of the most heart-wrenching truths; heroes don’t always survive. They don’t get to see their success; in fact they only have faith in their success. They don’t have proof in it.

Faith in hope carries on right to the last moment; faith in the fight even when Darth Vader brings the one of the few moments of ‘magic’ into the film in that corridor scene, where again everyone dies, and not even everyone who wasn’t trapped behind the door gets onto the escaping ship alive. They all had every reason to think it wasn’t worth it, but they fought on even when they knew it was hopeless for them as individuals. The greater good was what made it worthwhile for them.

No wonder this is my favourite Star Wars film.

Book Review: SS-GB by Len Deighton

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I’ve always been tempted to try Len Deighton’s books, simply because I am partial to gritty and realistic portrayals of lives of spies. However, I never have got around to doing it, but when the BBC recently adapted SS-GB into a tv series (which I also didn’t get around to seeing) and given my recent enjoyment of ‘The Man in the High Castle‘, when I came across a copy of the book I thought it would give it a go.

Most unfortunately it is one of those books that I have had to give up trying to read. Usually when I review things I’m generally positive and I would recommend whatever film, book or tv series I’m reviewing. The thing is, I would recommend SS-GB, but I do have to say that I haven’t been able to finish reading it myself. I’ve only read about half of it and the decision to stop reading it wasn’t an easy one to make.

For most books, depending on the length, I have a 100 page rule. If I’m enjoying a book I’ll carry on, but if I’m not I won’t. I managed (struggled) to get to that point with Fifty Shades of Grey, just because I won’t dismiss something out of hand without reason. I want to have a basis for my argument. I did have a particularly bad experience with Miss Peregrine’s House of Peculiar Children, where I couldn’t get to page 100 for various reasons, which are only now beginning to disappear and feel like a distant memory.

I mention all of this, because I want you to understand the context of this decision; I started to have the same feelings with this book as I had with ‘Miss Peregrine’s House for Peculiar Children’. I was dreading having to pick it up and read it, baring in mind I was nearly at page 200 by this point. I had been enjoying it, and then for whatever reason that feeling just stopped. I will read several non-fiction books at a time (just because as a student I had to) but I never have more than one fiction book on the go at a time. I interrupted reading this book to read another, and that is an extraordinary thing for me to do.

And it isn’t because it is a bad book; on the contrary it is actually a really good book. It is just one of books in the world that just isn’t for me. The premise that attracted me to read this book is that the Battle of Britain was lost, and that Britain is currently under the occupation of Nazi Germany. What I was enjoying about the book was the story world; the creation of Britain and what it might have been like under occupation is fantastically brilliant.

The initial murder mystery plot within a war time setting, and a police officer having to find justice under extraordinary circumstances reminded me a great deal of the tv series ‘Foyle’s War’ which I am fond of watching. However, the book began to lose my interest because of the plotting, and the fact I struggled to connect to the protagonist.

It just ended up with too many layers to the plot; to many conjectures made by the protagonist based on seemingly no information at all as to where he needed to go next in order to move the plot forward. There ended up being too many supporting characters, some of whom were very well fleshed out but insignificant, with many of the main characters remaining too mysterious and two dimensional for my liking.

It was a very difficult decision to stop reading the book; I never make that decision lightly, especially when I don’t necessarily think it is a bad book and when the premise and the setting is so well thought out. It just isn’t for me, but if you like counterfactual books and period mysteries, then it might be for you.

Book Review: Cheer Up Love by Susan Calman

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I’m rather fond of Susan Calman; she makes me laugh and has always seemed like a genuinely lovely person. I was a bit surprised by the title of the book ‘Cheer up Love’ when it caught my attention in the corner of my eye, because I absolutely hate that expression. However on getting a bit closer I saw that  the full title of the book is ‘Cheer up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate’, and I immediately forgave her when I realised using that phrase would have a point. I even picked up the copy of the book (and not just because it was a signed copy either) without reading the blurb.

I really like this book. It is an incredibly honest, sometimes hilarious account, of Susan Calman’s ‘adventures’ (the word ‘battle’ is more apt in my experience) with depression, which she calls The Crab of Hate. I have read books by people in the past about depression, but this the first time I’ve ever been able to read a one fully, because let’s be honest they are usually depressing. Somehow, this wonderfully witty woman has managed to write about depression and I’ve been left with a smile on my face.

She has managed to make understanding what it can be like to have depression and anxiety incredibly accessible. It isn’t easy to talk about having depression or any other mental health problem, and I know this from experience. I mention it frequently on this blog, but don’t for a second be fooled into thinking it is easy to do so. I have agonised over posts for days, especially in my Book (Re)Writing series.

To write an entire book is nothing short of heroic, for which I thank Susan Calman a great deal.

It has not been the easiest of times lately for me, and this book came along at a good point. I needed to be reminded that I’m not alone, not only in having mental health issues, but also in being re-assured that others like to arrive in a timely fashion for appointments and trains etc. I call it ‘Departure Anxiety’ and no-one yet has managed to convince me that I’m leaving too much time to get to places; it was nice to hear Susan Calman has a similar attitude.

And that short paragraph near the end of the book, is one of many things that I took away from this book. One small bit of reassurance that I am not the only one. I will admit that on the whole I generally have a different experience with depression than Susan Calman, but that isn’t the point of the book. It is one person’s experience of a mental health condition; it is not a be all and end all description of what it is like for everyone. This is her experience, but what you can take from it is a great deal of empathy, maybe a few points here or there that are the same.

I highly recommend it to any one who has suffered or is suffering, because she understands, and that is an incredibly important notion. She understands and does not dismiss what you are going through. I also recommend it to anyone who hasn’t suffered, because if you do need to understand; it will help you be better at being supportive.

It is not a guide on depression nor a cure, but it is an important book.