Archive | March 2011

100 Books in 2011 Review: Persepolis

I’ve decided graphic novels count towards the 100 books challenge, which is good, because this gave me a chance to catch up a bit this week. Still behind target though; last week was week 13 and I should have read 26 books by the end of it. I’ve only read 22. At some point, I’m going to have to read some really short books. Maybe some more graphic novels.

The March book for my work book club was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Having seen the film (and enjoyed it), I was looking forward to this.

It is the memoir of an Iranian woman, dealing with her childhood in Iran around the time of the revolution i.e. the late seventies and the eighties. She is the child of Marxists intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of the last Emperor. The book shows how her life was affected by the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech and movement. For a few months she lives in Austria, which provides different challenges.

It’s marvellous. It is so moving, both sad and funny. Satrapi reveals the things that had the greatest impact and is brutally honest with herself and her actions. Sometimes she leaves the emotion quite raw and at other times she gently pokes fun at herself. Given that there are so few words, she uses them to great effect.

This was lovely. And educational. So far this year book club has been swinging from one extreme to another – from amazing to turgid and back to amazing again this month. Persepolis is highly recommended.

100 Books in 2011 Review: Reaper’s Gale

I’m now behind target with my 100 books challenge and this is the reason why. Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson is book 7 in the Malazan Book of the Fallen and it’s a massive 900 pages. Not only is it long, it’s dense. There’s a lot going on and it took me two weeks to read it.

The story, at a fairly simplified level, is the fall of the Letherii Empire. There are a lot of storylines that weave together to create the story including characters in the Letherii army and secret police, characters amongst the Tiste Edur who have recently conquered Letherii, characters among the invading Malazan army and a handful of gods and their offspring.

There are a lot of characters in this book. On the one hand this is good. I like big, sprawling fantasy with a good selection of points of view. Some characters are really interesting and others less so. I did think that there were too many point of view characters and that there was enough time to really get to know the ones I liked best. Which is saying something in a 900 page book. Maybe it’s because this is book 7 and I haven’t read books 1 to 6. This is what happens when you join book clubs to get a million books for no money and then forget to tell them you don’t want the editor’s choice. You end up with loads of books from the middle of a series and never get around to reading the first ones.

One point I did take away from this book is that when you have several point of view characters it is not always necessary to show every step they take on the journey. Showing key scenes builds up the story without any waste. However, I do think you need a large cast to do this.

The writing is amazing. It is all show. There’s very little exposition and loads of dialogue. Reading this really brought home how dialogue can move a story forward, And that’s not all the dialogue does in this story; it does characterization, theme and exposition. It never feels stilted or forced. The description of the various worlds is beautifully done and doesn’t interfere with the action and dialogue. Instead it supports it.

I really enjoyed this, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on – that would be the six books I haven’t read yet. I liked it enough to want to read the rest of the series and then this one again.

Becoming Human

So, I just watched Becoming Human, the spin-off from the BBC’s excellent Being Human. Which takes a minor character (vampire) and adds a werewolf and ghost. New characters, but the same basic concept as Being Human. I thought I’d watch it because I love Being Human and I didn’t think it would be up to much – I thought it would be a bit samey and quite hard for them to differentiate it.

They set it in a school. The vampire has the body of a 16 year old and feels he needs some more education. So he goes back to class and meets a werewolf who’s being stalked by the ghost of a murdered classmate. And that was enough to make it work. I really enjoyed it.

Anybody else see it?

Do you keep books?

The last post made me think about keeping books. I used to. But that was a long time ago, before the internet and the collapse of the net book agreement, and I was a teenager and couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books. I was also a bit of a hoarder, like my parents were.

It’s really easy to accumulate stuff and books among them and you easily get to a place where there are so many books the house starts to feel claustrophobic. Last time I was house-hunting I went to look at a place that had bookshelves everywhere. Even above the doors going into rooms. It felt very crowded. But by that time I’d unlearned my hoarding habits and regularly de-cluttered – including my bookshelves.

So now, I keep reference books that I think I’ll need, non-fiction that I was particularly influenced by, a little poetry and the odd novel that I love (less than ten at this point). Everything else goes. I give books to local charity shops, to friends, and to the book dump at work. I think that if I enjoyed something I should let it go to give someone else the chance to enjoy it too.

What do you do with the books you’ve read? Do you keep them? If so, where? Do you buy books or use libraries?

100 Books in 2011 review: Dead as a Doornail

Dead as a Doornail is the fifth in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series. In honour of the fact that there’s a review for each one on this blog I’ve created a new category just for these. (Having just done that, it appears I missed one. There’s no review for Dead to the World, which I’m sure I read, but I don’t keep books so can’t go back to it. Annoying.)

Anyway, moving on. When I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse series it was because I was really enjoying True Blood and I was curious to see how the TV series would be different to the book. With season 2, True Blood diverged quite a bit so it was not really possible to compare it with Living Dead in Dallas. There is one point that is still worth picking up.

That point is about character. Almost all of the supporting characters have greater depth in True Blood. I said that I thought this was a combination of first person POV in the books and the greater space for character development in the TV series. By book five, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s really what’s going on. The characters that have been in the books from the beginning are still quite thin, with the exception of Eric who is more real. It was notable in this book that the characters that are here for just this story are a name, a brief physical description and a tic or two. While the writing is noticeably more competent than it was in the first book, characterisation isn’t much better. Having read lots of first person POV books in the last couple of years (and having been paying attention to the writing) I don’t think that this POV necessarily leads to poor characterisation. Some writers manage to do it well.

What really rankled was the poverty of female characters. There was a lot about Sookie that made her a great female character to start with and I felt that some of this is becoming lost. Tara is Sookie’s best friend but she has barely any impact on the story. In this novel, it felt like she was only there as a plot device. The best friend relationship is never established except for Sookie telling us this. The two of them don’t seem to spend time together and Tara is not who Sookie goes to for emotional support. She is certainly not the intriguing, complex character that she is in True Blood. The same is true for Arlene. In Dead as a Doornail, Sookie is surrounded by various supernatural men who are desperate to get with her. They are literally lining up. Which basically makes this a book about a hot chick who has all the dudes after her and no meaningful relationships with anyone. Disappointing. And much less feminist than it was because it reduces Sookie to an object to be possessed.

Sookie’s feminist credentials also slip in terms of the plot of Dead as a Doornail. In Dead until Dark, Sookie investigates, takes action, and eventually saves herself and I loved that. In Dead as a Doornail, stuff is done to Sookie, she’s manipulated into participating into things, and other people save her. The plot is that someone is shooting shifters and her brother is implicated. Or at least, it says he is on the back of the book but I didn’t feel that came across particularly well. In fact, the culprit is a minor character who appears to have the red shirt role. At the end, I felt a bit cheated by the resolution of the plot.

In spite of these major problems, I did still enjoy Dead as a Doornail. It’s an easy read and not very long. It’s fun and undemanding.

What I’m currently reading

I got tagged by Martin at From Sand to Glass to do another book meme. It would be rude not to. The rules are:

1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add to your post.
2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them or not. Why?
3. For every book you are reading you have to tag one person.
4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.

So here’s the picture:

And the books are:
1. Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. I’m about halfway through it and I’m really enjoying it. It’s filled with beautiful pictures of the solar system and is an excursion through our knowledge of the solar system circa 1995. It’s completely absorbing. I nearly missed my stop on the tube.
2. Sacred House: Where Women Weave Words into the Earth by Carolyn Hillyer. I’ve only read the first couple of chapters and it’s beautiful. It’s stories and poetry and mythology. Loving it.
3. Dare to Connect by Susan Jeffers. This is a re-read and the book I read if I have five minutes in the morning before I leave for work. It’s about learning how to connect with people and to trust. It’s quite useful.
4. Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy, which is a book of meditations for writers. I’ve only read a few and they are quite thought-provoking. I like them and I think I will share some of my favourites on this blog.
I’m tagging:
Freya Morris
Home Made by Baya

And anyone else who would like to share!

100 Books in 2011 review: Aces High

Aces High is the second in a shared world series edited by George R. R. Martin. It’s alternate history sci-fi which takes the 1950s as its jumping off point and postulates that a virus outbreak creates mutated humans. Some get superpowe

rs and others get physical and mental disfigurements. The first book deals with people coping with becoming either an ace (superpowers, normal looking) or a joker (physical and mental disfigurements).

In the second book, set in the 80s, both aces and jokers are fighting alien invasion. It’s a series of short stories, written by a number of leading sci-fi writers, that builds up a story arc over the whole book.

I’m not really into superhero stuff but I quite like these. The writing is variable in style (not in quality) but all the stories blend well together. It has a kind of noir-ish feel, is a little bit pulpy and comicky, and is perhaps a little dated. But overall, it’s fun, lightweight, easy reading.

100 Books in 2011 review: The Heroes

This one is hot off the press! For me at least. Every so often a book comes out that I’m so excited about I buy it in hardback as soon as it’s published. I’m a fan of Joe Abercrombie’s work and his latest book, The Heroes, came out at the end of January. I bought it and read it immediately.

The Heroes follows three characters during a three day battle at a henge called the Heroes. Bremer dan Gorst is on the side of the Union, has lost everything and is trying to redeem himself through the only thing that ever gave him any sense of self-worth – fighting. Curnden Craw has been a warrior all his life and now he’s tired and struggling to work out what the right thing to do it. Prince Calder is a dispossessed prince trying to figure out how to make himself King of the North without doing any actual fighting himself.

This is a book about heroism in all its glory and stupidity. It’s also about the horrible reality that is lost in the glare of heroism but without which it wouldn’t be possible. Abercrombie pretty much does everything well but his stand-out skill is characterisation. His main characters are not always very likeable; what they are is identifiable. He reveals their inner conflicts, fears, self-delusion and insecurities in a way that opens them up to us as real people. We may not like them but we understand them. I particularly enjoyed the layering of Bremer dan Gorst’s crippling loneliness throughout his POV chapters.

I like the way the story uses several POVs. As well as the three main characters there are three minor characters who have story arcs through the book and a handful of others who get the odd occasion to talk. There is one chapter, called Casualties, where each scene is from the point of view of an individual who gets killed in one of the engagements. A character has a scene, is killed, and then the POV switches to the head of the character who killed them. And is in turned killed and the POV passes to the next killer. This lasts for six characters and the last is one of the main characters. I honestly didn’t know whether he would be last, or whether he would die. Abercrombie doesn’t necessarily keep his characters alive to the end of the book. He’s prepared to do what the story requires and my heart was in my mouth for the whole of that scene. Genius.

Abercrombie is a visual writer who creates scenes quite filmicly, probably as a result of his previous life as a film editor. His action scenes are full of detail, movement, and sensory information. The worldbuilding is good, but lighthanded, at least for me. I’ve read all of Abercrombie’s books and the world is familiar to me. My only criticism would be the lack of female characters. Abercrombie writes women well – meaning that he writes them as people who happen to be female – and has created some really memorable female characters. There were only two (aside from background characters) in The Heroes, who were great, but had small roles and I would have liked more balance.

The ending was really a mix of endings. Each of the six main and minor characters come to a turning point in their lives. Most get what they wanted but find that it’s not quite what they thought it would be. Two thought they wanted a life that was different from what they had, but when they get it, find that what they had was better. One finds that getting what she wants comes with a very high price. Another finds that getting what he wants doesn’t solve his problems or make his life any better. One gets what he thought he wanted but gives it up when he sees that what he wants really comes in a different package. And Sargeant Tunny finds himself right back where he started. I find it insightful and realistic. It’s satisfying because it speaks to emotional and psychological truth.

I loved it. This is modern fantasy at its finest. And I can’t wait for the next one. Highly recommended.

12 Dystopian Novels

Book meme! This list of twelve dystopian novels we all should have read comes from the Huffington Post.

1. We by Yevgeny Zamayatin. I’ve never even heard of this, much less read it.
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. One of my favourite books; I’ve read it several times.
3. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. Haven’t read this one, but I think I’d like to.
4. Anthem by Ayn Rand. I’ve never read any Ayn Rand because I think the politics might annoy me a lot, but I suppose I should.
5. 1984 by George Orwell. I read this at school and I loved it.
6. Blindness by Jose Saramago. I haven’t read it but it really appeals to me. This one’s going on the wish list.
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Another one I’ve read and loved.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve always meant to read this and never quite got around to it. I should really.
9. The Faber Book of Utopias, ed. John Carey. Nope, not read this either.
10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read this a few years ago. It was alright, quite interesting ideas, but the style wasn’t my cup of tea.
11. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I think I’d quite like to read this but haven’t yet.
12. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Zombies aren’t my thing, although this sounds quite interesting. If it wasn’t about zombies.

Four out of twelve for me then. How many have you read and did  you enjoy them?