Tuesday 16 August 2016

Invaders- 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature: Review

4 stars

This arc was provided by Netgalley and Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review

If you ever needed a manual on how to write a good short story, this collection would well and truly suffice.

Each story is bursting with imagination; exciting prose; thought-provoking vision. These stories are the cream of the crop, truly fine examples of what make speculative fiction so fascinating. Every piece has a crisp, literary quality to its writing, perfectly melded with the surreal ideas and themes explored within them.

Some favourites were: 'Fugue State' by Brian Evenson, an unnerving glance into a future afflicted by a violent amnesiac plague; 'Escape from Spiderhead' by George Saunders, a brutal look into the ethics of scientific research; the short but incredibly touching 'Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover' by Robert Olen Butler; the amusingly inventive 'Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated' by W.P Kinsella about an alien posing as a baseball mascot; and 'Beautiful Monsters' by Eric Puchner, a fairytale-esque sci-fi which depicts a world where no one is supposed to grow up.

I will certainly be reading more work from the authors showcased in this collection, and also more from Tachyon Publications' backlist: after releasing this and the wonderful 'Central Station', they are swiftly becoming one of my favourite publishers!

Monday 15 August 2016

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson: Review

3.5 stars

Thankfully, this was a book which started off somewhat weakly, and only got better from there!

'Brown Girl in the Ring' is set in a dystopic Canada where Toronto is almost completely sealed off from the suburbs surrounding it. The rich live prosperously in the suburbs, whilst the poverty-stricken remain in the ruined city, for they could not flee it during the deadly riots that caused its collapse. Toronto is now ruled by a ruthless gang led by the vicious Rudy, who has been tasked with finding a human heart for a suburbian politician's transplant. He orders a member of his Posse, Tony, to carry out the transplant, despite knowing that the heart will be harvested through an act of murder. The novel from there follows the life of Ti-Jeanne, a woman who has very special powers, and also happens to be Tony's on-off again girlfriend. Ti-Jeanne's grandmother has the power to invoke magic as a healer, and Ti-Jeanne herself is being troubled with increasingly disturbing visions of the deaths of those around her. As the worlds of Tony, Rudy, and Ti-Jeanne collide, Ti-Jeanne must learn to harness the powers she has been gifted with in order to save her family.

As you may be able to ascertain from this summary, the story is quite a unique dystopia, fusing together elements of social commentary with urban fantasy and Carribean folklore. It was refreshing to read about a different culture's myths (contrary to traditional Western legends): I loved reading about the Gods, especially the Prince of Cemetery. Throughout the novel, Ti-Jeanne experiences various mystical visions sent by the spirits, including many of the Jab-Jab, a sinister creature with a devillish sense of humour. These 'waking dreams' were vividly described by Hopkinson, and were so enjoyable that they significantly increased my appreciation of the book after a disappointingly dull start. Once the fantasy elements had begun to seep into the text, 'Brown Girl in the Ring' really improved.

The magic system was lovingly described by Hopkinson's captivating prose. The ritual scenes are genuinely unsettling and exhilirating, and this atmosphere that she conjures is partly created by her manipulation of language. Here Hopkins describes the music during a ritual: "Mami took her place on the stool, put the drum between her knees. With her fingertips and the heels of her hands, she began to beat out a rhythm. Ti-Jeanne recognised the pattern of sounds. She'd often heard that rhythm in the loud drumming coming from the chapel at nights. She hated it; it tugged at her blood, filled her head with sound until she thought it would burst from within, her skull cracking apart like an overripe pumpkin to reveal the soft, wet interior." (P92). It's simple, but very effective.

I did have some qualms with the novel though. Some of the characters were a little underdeveloped, especially Rudy, who was only a little better than a one-dimensional villain. Later on in the novel, we gain greater insight into his character, but for the most part, he remains relatively flat . However, Ti-Jeanne showed some strong character growth, and Tony was also well developed, although I was not very invested in the relationship between them both. However, it did open the door to this wonderful little quote: "like everything Tony had ever given her, this gift had thorns". I appreciated how the novel resolved key events and tied up lots of loose ends, but I felt that a lot of the narrative twists were clunkily revealed. I also was not entirely convinced by the connection between the transplant/life in the suburbs and city life: Premier Uttley's character felt almost redundant, apart from a redeeming arc later on in the novel.

However, on the whole this was a fresh, exciting urban fantasy that is well worth a read for fans of speculative fiction.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones: Review

3 stars
Arc provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

A solid novel that successfully blends commentary on family life with werewolves. 

Our narrator is surrounded by werewolves. His grandfather, aunt and uncle: the only family he has left, are all a little more lupine than most people. All this boy wants is to be a werewolf, to be like the uncle he idolises, but as the years go by it seems increasingly likely that he is not destined to be a lycanthrope. We follow his childhood and adolescence as he learns to accept his own identity. As well as getting to read about grave-robbing werewolves and roadkill-chomping action!

I liked this book, although I did not have strong feelings about it. The family dynamic between the narrator and his near foster-parents Darren and Libby was well-established by Jones, and their love for each other was palpable. They could be viewed as a dysfunctional family: always on the move to avoid the consequences of their identity being discovered, and the fact that they are simply meat-eating werewolves. But their bonds are so strong that their family seemed more functional to me than many families.The writing was OK: it was as nothing fancy, but it worked well. 

Overall, this was a good book that I'd recommend if you enjoy the horror genre, or are looking for literary fiction with a bit more 'bite'!

Thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing me with this arc

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar: Review

4 stars

Arc provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review- thanks to Tachyon Publications for the copy

I've never encountered a novel quite like this. The last great sci-fi novel I read was Theodore Sturgeon's dazzling 'More Than Human', and finally I've found a worthy successor!

The titular Central Station is a space port located in Tel Aviv, Israel. As Earth's only link to vast swathes of the Solar System, Central Station is a melting pot of culture. Immigrants from all over Earth live both within and outside of Central Station, searching for a life close to the stars. Visitors from other planets, the descendants of human settlers, are all drawn to the hive of activity that is Central Station. And infiltrating the lives of all who live in this universe is the digital realm, encompassed by the constant feed of information, 'The Conversation', fed to people through nodes installed in their bodies at birth. The divisions between humanity and digital intelligence are blurring: half-human, half-cyborg robotniks fall in love with human women, vampires roam the universe feeding on data rather than blood, and the omnipresent 'Others', sentient digital intelligences, lurk in the background. Tidhar follows the lives of the people and digital beings caught up in the midst of Central Station, weaving a beautiful tapestry of words that both tantalises the boundless depths of imagination, and affirms the bonds that unite human-kind. 

This is sci-fi done well. The world-building is impeccable: the reader is whisked away in a panoramic view of Central Station and all its inhabitants as we flit between new and old characters, fleshing out this truly vibrant society Tidhar has envisioned. We meet interesting characters such as Brother R. Patch-It, a robot priest who questions what it means to be both human and robot ("To be a robot, you needed faith, R. Patch-It thought. To be a human, too".), drug-dealing robotniks and genetically-engineered children. As their lives intersect, the reader gets the sense that they are witnessing the growth of one big family: if not by blood, they are all connected by the power of Central Station and the continuous stream of data threading between them. This world is exciting: I felt like a child again, suffused with Tidhar's creativity. 

Tidhar's writing is vividly poetic: he describes Earth as "the womb from which humanity crawled, tooth by bloody nail, towards the stars". Imagery of nature, fertility and rebirth can be found in harmony with scientific discussions of cyber-space and gaming, again emphasising the grey area between what is human and what is technological. I was left fascinated with the multitude of themes this novel explores, from religion to love to digital evolution.

This was a great book, and my only issue with it was that it was rather plotless and as a consequence I did not feel that the strands of these characters' stories were pulled together effectively enough at the novel's end. I needed a little more. But despite the lack of a solid plot, the story is never boring. It's a joy to read, and I highly recommend it!

This title will be published on the 10th of May by Tachyon Publications

Tuesday 3 May 2016

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater: Review

4 stars

A flawed finale that ultimately left me rather unsatisfied, but was well worth the read.

Firstly, the cover was gorgeous. It summed up the magic and the dreaminess of a fantasy world very much entwined with the mystique of nature. We have the motif of ravens, which of course features prominently in a novel named 'The Raven King', and a beautifully ethereal colour scheme. And best of all, a really cool stag. Because who could say no to that?

Now we've got my drooling over the aesthetics out of the way, let's talk about the actual book.Things are taking a dark turn after Persephone's death, and the happy whimsy of previous instalments is mostly absent from 'The Raven King' (apart from some notable exceptions). A demon is amok, determined to destroy Cabeswater. Time is running out for the Raven Boys and the women of 300 Fox Way. Glendower must be found soon, or they may all pay the price.

The writing was beautifully-crafted, as one would expect from Stiefvater by now. The sickness invading Cabeswater was fantastically-evoked by her description of the black ooze poisoning the trees. At times her writing was magical and fairy-tale like, similar to Laini Taylor's style, but this didn't occur as often as in previous instalments. 'The Raven King' is more plot-driven than the other novels, and consequently the writing is written in a more abrupt, frenzied style occasionally punctuated with intensely lyrical interludes.

As I've always said, what I love most about these books is the characters. And as befitting a final novel in a series, 'The Raven King' is the crystallisation of their growth into something more, as Blue would say. Adam's evolution into a man at ease with his past, his present, and his future is one of the high-points of the series. He gradually overcomes his bitterness, his fears, and his insecurities, transforming into someone I'd want to be friends with. Gansey doesn't showcase significant development as he always had been a strong character, but the reader was given more insight into his vulnerability (the fear of his personal harbinger of death, bees). Ronan learns to accept happiness, by creating dreams rather than destroying reality. These characters are real and loveable. Maggie Stiefvater has created some of the best characterisation I've read in all my years as a reader. What did disappoint me, however, was the lack of Noah. I love Noah's character and yearned to see more of him.

The plot was where the novel fell down for me. As the novel neared the end, certain events seemed anticlimactic. The conclusion felt rushed and abrupt. I don't normally mind loose ends in a novel, but this was just too messy for me. Everything was confused and disjointed as if I'd been tossed from the whirling vortex of a tornado, rather than having simply emerged from a surreal dream. Haruki Murakami's novels have the same dream-like quality to them as Stiefvater's, and the same inconclusiveness. But the difference is Murakami gently walks you in and out of his dream-world, allowing you to come to terms with the fact you don't understand all that went on: whereas Stiefvater promptly evicts you just when you're getting somewhere.

Overall, I love The Raven Cycle as a series, and really enjoyed The Raven King as I did with all the other instalments. But I was frustrated by the messiness of the ending, which I believe could have been executed slightly better if a little more resolution had been sprinkled in.


On to the juicy stuff! (A.K.A disjointed thoughts on Pynch and the warping of time)

Adam and Ronan. How could I not start off with their romance? The best part of the book was their romance finally coming to fruition. As Cabeswater's dual care-takers, they have to rely on each other to survive the evil infecting it. Throughout the series they have bonded through the enormity of the tasks they have undertaken together, and 'The Raven King' consolidates the intimacy of their relationship. It was wonderful to behold.

As I said in my review for 'Blue Lily, Lily Blue', I struggle to get my mind round time-bending concepts. And this book was one big timey-wimey stir fry. Noah's role in Gansey's death and rebirth was puzzling, but I'm glad that Noah was the one to have helped Gansey along all these years.

The abrupt gap between Blue telling Gansey to wake up after they attempt to bring him back to life, and the epilogue, did not work for me. We learn nothing of the fate of The Gray Man, of Maura and Calla, of Noah and what the others think about Noah being lost forever. We are left not knowing whether Laumonier is still out hunting for strange supernatural artefacts.We just switch to Blue, Gansey and Henry proverbially walking off into the sunset. Although I appreciated the happy image, I needed a little more of a narrative bridge between Gansey's rebirth and the trio going off travelling in their gap year.

I did love the very end of the novel, however. The final line was perfect.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater: Review

4 stars

I really enjoyed this book. Marathoning this series has been so much fun. I desperately need to read The Raven King but my Amazon order is taking a long time to dispatch... Ahh!

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES! And warnings for incoherent rambling. 

I grew to like Adam once again in this book. Finally. He started off so well in the first half of The Raven Boys and then it all went downhill from there; I could barely tolerate him. Thank goodness he has improved in 'BlueLily, Lily Blue': his lessons with Persephone have helped refine his character. Plus, his interactions with Ronan are giving me hope for a happy ending for them (a fully-fledged Pynch romance would definitely make my week). 

Jesse Dittley, a new character with a minor part in the novel, also warmed my heart. He speaks entirely in capital letters, a stylistic reference to his gigantic height, and this was surprisingly endearing. The subtle humour and camaraderie between the characters is one of my favourite aspects of the series: little happy interludes between the action, such as The Gray Man's almost paternal relationship with Blue, Gansey's late-night phone calls with Blue, and Noah and Blue's ever-adorable friendship, are just as entertaining as the clan's magical adventures. The alternating chaos and harmony at 300 Fox Way when the worlds of Blue's psychic family and The Raven Boys collide is so much fun to read about. For example, Calla's yelling at Gansey: "GO BUY US PIZZA. WITH EXTRA CHEESE, RICHIE RICH.", was a lovely, silly glimpse of normality in the midst of all these wild escapades. 

The mystery in this novel is still killing me and my brain feels like mush, but I don't mind as the fantasy world is, as always, wonderfully-encapsulated by Stiefvater's prose. The fluidity of time is such a confusing concept for me; all the discussions in this book about the collisions between past, present and future were intriguing but also too elusive for my tired mind. It reminded me of that enigmatic quote from 'True Detective' when Rust Cohle says; 'Time is a flat circle'; as in, these ideas about time are hard to wrap my head around. 

Overall, this is a great series that I am both excited, and scared, to finish

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: Review

4 stars

I preferred the first book, but I still really enjoyed this instalment, despite some pacing issues and my frustration with the repetitive story arc of Adam's character (although later on in the novel, Adam grew somewhat interesting).

 'The Dream Thieves' primarily explores Ronan's story, which I greatly appreciated as Ronan is possibly my favourite character in the series. He's just awesome. It also introduces a new character to the table, the enigmatic Gray Man, who I wasn't fully invested in unfortunately, although I really liked the way Stiefvater described his off-kilter yet pragmatic thoughts. Although the mystery was frustratingly vague at times, I appreciated how gradually some magical elements came together to shine a light on what exactly is going on this weird paranormal world. Though of course many questions are left unanswered.

Beautifully written as always, and I can't wait to read the 3rd book and see these wonderful characters again