Wednesday, January 11, 2017

1. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

This is book 2 of the much loved YA British fantasy series (also called "The Dark is Rising").  I started on it this summer and struggled with it for several months, taking it on trips and never opening it.  But I finally buckled down after the xmas break.  It's a good read in the end, but it just dumps so much of its own mythology on you that I couldn't keep interested.  Basically, young Will, who is part of a big, happy British family in the country is now also a sort of chosen one (an Old One) in the eternal fight between the Light and the Dark.  The first book took place during their summer vacation.  This one happens at their family home in a small village at the height of the Christmas season.  Will learns more and has to fulfill a bunch of small but dangerous quests.

What really works in the book is the setting and what happens there.  As Will learns more about the struggle he is invovled in, he moves back and forth in time, all the while the Dark mounts a vicious attack against the Light (and against his village and by extension all of Britain).  The attack begins with an endless heavy snowstorm.  So you get the battles and quests on the fantastic front all the while the regular people are struggling with all the effects of the weather.  For me, I wish the book had been more weighted towards the latter, but I imagine younger readers probably tend to prefer the magical stuff.  (It took me decades before I learned to appreciate the deep culture richness and joy of snow removal).

I'm not loving it, but it is not really the fault of the book but where my tastes lie today.  I shall continue to push forward though.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

2016 Wrap-up

Whew boy, book reading has taken a massive hit and we are at an all-blog low in 2016 of only 18 books read this year!  I thought the slide had started much later, but looking back it all starts with the birth of my daughter in 2012.  That year was my second-best year with 67, but in my wrap-up of that year, I had already noticed a huge drop-off in the last quarter and was not super optimistic for the future.  The thing is, while having a child certainly has an impact on one's leisure time, I am not sure that her existence is the real issue here.  I do have time to read, but I don't do it.  Most of my leisure time this year was taken up in food preparation of one kind of another, watching sports and worse zoning out slackjawed on twitter for hours at a time.  I don't even really participate in the online gaming community anymore, but somehow when my brain is exhausted, social media responds to some kind of short-term appetite in a way that reading books just can't compete with.  If I could even cut my twitter-fritting in half with reading, I would be a long way back on track.

Anyhow, enough self-indulgent whinging.  I did get a nice jolt over the xmas holidays with some fun Jack Reacher and the first of the First Law series and I have a new energy and will to read more this year.  Once I do get stuck on a book, I can pretty much plow through it.  It's the getting stuck part that I need to work on.

Another thing is that I did read quite a lot of comics this year.  I have a hard time considering them as a book and so don't count them anymore, but it was reading (and most in french, so that's worth something).  I discovered that my local library (where I have been taking my daughter a  lot) has a pretty decent bande-dessinée selection.  I am working my way through the works of Jodorowsky (L'Incal a classic that I never understood when it was in Heavy Metal and Les Technopères which was awesomely trippy), discovered Margeurite Abouet (first with Bienvenue but then Aya which is just great) and am also working on the managa Soil.  I'm not a big manga fan (I know, I know, it's not a genre, but Japanese comics are consistently littered with certain trademarks that really take me out of the immersion) but this one is a pretty engrossing and fucked up story about a designed town that goes bad.  Maybe if I finish an entire series or ouevre of one artist/author I will consider that a book and add those as write-ups this year.

My apologies for my absence to those of you with whom I used to interact in the online book reading world in the past.  My relationship with the internet is getting weird, as I suspect it is for all of humanity these days.  We shall see.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

18. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (book 1 of the First Law trilogy)

Well I had promised myself that I would try to avoid any books that were the start of a trilogy, simply because at my current slow reading rate, I can't afford to commit to more than one book at a time.  The Blade Itself was seductive enough (laying around at my parent's right next to the comfy armchair, strongly recommend by my brother-in-law who had left it there) that I decided to ignore the rule and I'm glad that I did.

First of all, it begins with a bang.  The first pages are a brief, but intense action moment, almost like starting after a cliffhanger that also revealed a really cool character.  From there, the book delivered a ton of the kind of political machinations that I like, more appealing and interesting characters and lots of great moments of ass-kicking and revelation of superior skills.  Though I doubted it was possible, the fantasy world is pretty interesting.  I love the dying empire element, especially to constrast (or render palatable) our own current dying empire scenario the U.S. seems to be accelerating towards.

I won't go into the storyline, because it is kind of complicated and the whole point of the first book is to slowly reveal all the layers of the story that is going to take up the rest of the trilogy (which I am now eager to keep reading).  But it's cool and fun as hell, believe me. If you like this sort of thing.  Which I do.

Friday, December 23, 2016

17. Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

I watched the latest Jack Reacher movie on the plane.  I did not have high hopes, but it actually was even slightly more mediocre than I had expected.  The bad guys were generic, the locations were generic (another drippy alley, another drippy warehouse, ah big chase during Mardi Gras!, etc.), the action was overly-edited and without any real excitement (though it had a certain brutality at brief moments).  Worse, the story got all caught up in a family metaphor which was really awkward with Tom Cruise trying weirdly to be human and normal (always a bad idea).  The only redeeming factor was the female lead, who was convincingly fit and (other than the aforementioned stupid "family" scenes where she and Reacher "argued") was a badass in her own right.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, was that it skimmed over the main thing that is cool about the Jack Reacher character: he's surrealisticly free.  The movie paints him as a kind of freelance MP detective, meting out justice and uncovering conspiracies.  But in the books, he is really a true drifter, who stumbles into situations that force him to use all his MP detective skills to mete out justice and uncover conspiracies.  I know it doesn't sound much difference, but believe me the real pleasure in the books is how Reacher is just walking places with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  He travels across the country with nothing, not even a wallet!  He is the modern-day equivalent of Saki's "unledgered wanderer" and every middle-age, middle-management white male family man wants a little, teeny bit to be that guy.

The beginning of Nothing to Lose exemplifies this perfectly.  Jack Reacher is in the middle of desert Colorado, halfway between the towns of Hope and Despair.  There is literally a dividing line on the highway, solid, new tarmac on the Hope side and crumbling, greyed-out road on the other.  The town of Despair is pretty despairing and weird as hell too as Reacher gets purposefully ignored by the few townsfolk and then aggressively rousted by the local constabulary.  Of course, he breaks some noses and then decides to go back and see what the hell is going on.  Lots of intriguing investigation, punctuated with ass-kicking and then finally busting into full-on chaos the way only Jack Reacher can do.  Ultimately, the journey was better than the payoff, but it was well worth it.  There are so many Jack Reacher novels, and the situations are all just exaggerated enough that you wouldn't want to read too many of them close together, but it is great to know they are out there when you need an easy and entertaining read.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

16. The Goblin Emperor by Katharine Addison

I picked this up from a stack of my nephew's books.  His dad said they hadn't read it because it was too old for him.  I don't know what prompted me to pick it up, but I am glad I did, because it is the best fantasy book I've read in a while and probably one of the most enjoyable books I've read of any genre in the last decade or so.

It's the story of an exiled orphan, who is yanked from his role as bullied supplicant to the capital city where he learns that he had become the emperor.  The story is about him going from fearful, inexperience naif to someone who could actually manage the role of leader of an empire. There are dangers and challenges everywhere and the book is a super satisfying study of someone slowly finding confidence and opening his innate abilities to succeed and even do some good in the world.  I'm not doing a good job of selling this to you, but if you like courtly intrigue, diplomacy and battles of wit in a cool fantasy setting, you should check this book out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Read this during our late summer vacation at PEI, but am only unfortunately reviewing it on New Year's Day 2017.   So an extremely truncated review that does not accurately reflect how much I thought about this book.  I was overall disappointed.  I found the storyline much less naturalistic and more overtly emotional than Middlemarch.  That being said, I found the ending really painfully sad and it stayed with me for quite a while.  The portrayal of the middle agricultural class and the family of sisters who had achieved various levels within that class was rich and entertaining.  These aunts and their intense pressure to conform to certain behaviours gave me a better understanding of some of the parents of my friends on Vancouver island (many of whom had emigrated from Britain).  However, major parts of the storyline felt melodramatic and forced on to this deep backdrop, giving the book overall an inconsistent and unsatisfying feel, at least for me.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

14. Pentallion by Vanessa Blake

I have to admit that I am feeling quite pleased with myself having read this book.  Now, I am sure there is a large group of gothic romance readers out there who would read these words and think of me as a total newbie.  I am pleased, because I suspected that the genre of gothic romance would deliver some of the same kind of thrill that I have gotten from the more masculine genres of crime and action that I have spent most of my life reading.  I picked up Pentallion in the dollar box outside the way too cluttered Westcott Books on the Main (so cluttered that I actually don't go inside anymore because the entrance is blocked by several precarious stacks of books as high as my shoulder and leaving about probably just a little over 2 feet of space to get through) and it did not disappoint!

At first, it felt heavy-handed, with a ton of exposition being dumped on the reader in the first few pages: a young woman, Rosanna, whose father was a British spy in the Peninsular wars and mother a Portuguese lady is left orphaned in her small house in the countryside outside Lisbon.  There is immediate danger from neighbour and supposed benefactor "Dom Luiz" who had wormed his way into her father's society and now has designs on Rosanna Pentallion herself.  However, she is quickly saved by the arrival of her aunt and cousin, who take her back to her family estate in England.  The narrative relaxed at this point and eased into the real story.  I won't go into details, but it has all the classic elements of the gothic romance: the jealous relatives who are up to unrevealed shenanigans, the sworn enemy of her father who also happens to be ruggedly handsome and of good character, hidden wills, dangerous cliffs, miscommunications, faithful servants and so on.

Most of it was kind of predictable, but I still actually got a bit teary when the lovers finally understand each other and I was psyched when the conniving family members got theirs (though Blake pulls the punches with them so that the only real antagonist is Dom Luiz whose "hooked nose, hooded eyes, and excessively swarthy skin hinted of a Moorish strain.").

I am looking forward to finding more of these as I am sure there are some writers in this field who could take the form to an even higher place.  As it is, Vanessa Blake did a more than adequate job in keeping me entertained and I hope to see some of the variations that others will bring.  Good stuff!