Tuesday, April 22, 2014

RE: Book Review - World Without End

World Without End – Ken Follett


When I finally got round to reading "The Pillars of the Earth" I lapped it up. It was a massive book that if I am honest from the blurb did not sound very interesting. However, I found myself enthralled by the character's lives.

"World without end" is an even bigger novel and despite the positive reviews and a far more enticing blurb I was sceptical whether or not it would live to the standard of the first.

The Blurb:

On the day after Halloween, in the year 1327, four children slip away from the cathedral city of Kingsbridge. They are a thief, a bully, a boy genius and a girl who wants to be a doctor. In the forest they see two men killed. As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, love, greed and revenge. They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war. One boy will travel the world but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman. One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other will pursue an impossible love. And always they will live under the long shadow of the unexplained killing they witnessed on that fateful childhood day. Ken Follett's masterful epic "The Pillars of the Earth" enchanted millions of readers with its compelling drama of war, passion and family conflict set around the building of a cathedral. Now "World Without End" takes readers back to medieval Kingsbridge two centuries later, as the men, women and children of the city once again grapple with the devastating sweep of historical change.

As with "Pillars of the Earth," if took me an age to read this novel but it never once felt like a chore. A couple of times I finished a chapter and I was shocked that I was only 33% through the book for example but this was more due to the fact that so much had happened that it felt like I should have finished a novel rather than wishing I was at the end.

As the blurb suggests the book focuses on the lives of four children as they experience a significant event when they are young. It then follows them as they grow into adulthood and recounts the lives they endure.

All four of the characters are intriguing but some are more likeable than others. Merthin is probably the one most reader's will identify with. As a boy he dreams of becoming a knight but it is clear that he possesses neither the strength nor the ability to pursue such a career. Instead, his strength lies in construction and his ability to see problems and find solutions. In this regard he is not dissimilar to Philip in "The Pillars of the Earth" who wishes to build the cathedral. Merthin's ambitions are more lofty: He wishes to build the tallest building in England. Incidentally it is his designs that were used to construct the Shard by London Bridge - Ok so maybe I am kidding.

Still Merthin's practical outlook and strong moral code make him a character to invest in. He sees things plainly and when he falls in love, he is driven by his basic desires. This is also his greatest flaw. Merthin is unable to consider other people's points of view, at least not initially. For him things are black and white and often he is left confused by the actions of other characters until he analyses their motives. It makes him frustrating to read about but at the same time great to root for.

Caris is the female equivalent of Merthin. Intellectually she questions the religious hypocrisy of those in power who use their influence for their own greed. She is also very much against the conventional path set out for a woman. Instead she wishes to practice medicine. This leads to many a conflict with other characters where her heart says one thing but her head desires another.  It makes for a fascinating character if not a logical one. At times I did question why someone with such intelligence would make herself miserable when it was obvious what would make her happy.

The third protagonist is Gwenda. Born into poverty she is treated appallingly by her father and forced to steal. Unlike the other ambitious characters, Gwenda's dreams are simple. It is heartbreaking then, when she has to endure the most torrid of times to achieve her modest goals. Out of everyone's story, I enjoyed Gwenda's battle the most. There is an admirable quality in the way she is realistic about her lot in life but is still determined to make something of it.

Out of the four main characters, Ralph is easily the least likeable. He is Merthin's brother and unlike Merthin he is possessed with the attributes needed to become a knight – at least physically. The trouble is, Ralph is a bully, and has a sense of entitlement that is unwarranted. Follett tries to balance his character by showing a more human side of the man, where he fears disappointing his older brother and on occasion wants to do the right thing. However, his acts are so deplorable that it is hard to feel any sympathy for the man.

There are a host of other characters that add to the epic story, from the Prior Godwyn to the petty Elfric. All are a cut above your normal one dimensional forms and possess motivations that are plausible. What this all this leads to is a terrific story spanning many decades.

Characters that were inherently good when they were young, become bitter and twisted in later years. Personalities shift as events impact on characters and old feuds rise up again and again.

In regards to being a sequel, the book is set far in the future from the events of "the Pillars of the Earth," the only thing that really ties the novels is the setting of Kingsbridge. I am no expert of the time period and have no idea how accurate Follet's research is, but for me he captures the period perfectly. He describes the hardships of everyday life of the townsfolk in unrelenting grim terms, but also tempers this with optimism. No matter how barbaric and harsh conditions were back in that era, life for the folk is just life. They of course knew better and so they are optimistic and enjoy the festivals etc when they happen.

There are flaws. Follett does not seem to be able to describe a woman without mentioning her breasts. Maybe this was a sign of the times, but a bit of variety would have been most welcome.

There is also a portion of the novel that takes place in Florence, which although is very well written and entertaining, feels a bit unnecessary and feels contrived to implement the historical significance of the events into the story.

As I mentioned previously, the story spans decades, Follett however does a good job of keeping the story focussed on the four main characters despite the plethora of new characters that enter and leave the fray. The ending is more than satisficatory, solving mysteries that began at the start of the novel and concluding all of the characters arcs.

All in all, "World Without End" is as good as if not better than "Pillars of the Earth." The characters are slightly more rounded and the events that endure are that bit more terrifying. This is a triumph of a novel and cements Ken Follett as an author I must read more of.

My rating: 9.3 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review - Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves – Matthew Reilly


Matthew Reilly is undoubtedly my guilty pleasure. Ever since I opted for purchasing “Contest” at an airport in 2005 I have loved him. Even though I recognised that the quality of writing is often derided and the character development is limited, in my opinion Matthew Reilly writes action scenes and adventure better than anyone.  In his own words all he wants to do is “entertain” his audience and he certainly does that.

However, with “Seven Ancient Wonders,” he lost me a little. The book was extremely weak in places and I worried that I have moved on from Reilly’s style. It was with a forlorn hope then that I dove back into the world of the Scarecrow.

The blurb:

Marine captain Shane Schofield, call-sign 'Scarecrow,' is back, this time thrown into battle against a large and secretive terrorist group known only as the Army of Thieves. The organization has seized control of an island in the Arctic and when the U.S. government finds out about its sinister plans to destroy the planet, the President has no choice but to enlist Scarecrow and his ragtag crew to fight against them.

Told in Reilly's characteristically gripping prose,
Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves features white-knuckle suspense and page-turning adventure, as a likeable hero battles truly evil villains. The action never stops, taking the reader on a journey of discovery, uncovering fantastic secrets about the CIA and other large governmental organizations.

The premise of these stories are never what it is important. They are usually based loosely on some scientific fact and then expanded. The plot also relies heavily on a number of coincidences. None of that matters though. The important thing is that there is a bad guy that wants to destroy the world and Michael “Scarecrow” Schofield in the only one that can stop him. 

I mentioned earlier that Reilly’s book do not often focus on character development. This book seems to be the exception. We rejoin the Scarecrow months after we last left him. In the interim he has struggled to come to terms with the events of the last book and the loss of the woman that he loved.

It is a great way to rejoin his character. Previously Michael seemed infallible. No matter how much the odds were stacked against him he always pulled through. Initially he seems to be no different and I was a little disappointed. I thought Matthew Reilly had missed a trick in exploring the vulnerable side of his beloved creation. However, Reilly cleverly inserts subtle hints that the Scarecrow is not quite up to his usual impeccable standards.

This is done through “Mother” worrying about her friend and leader. She notices little changes and is unsure just how stable he actually is. Although this is never fully explored and we very much deal with healed Scarecrow, it is nice to see that Reilly has considered the emotional trauma his protagonist has gone through. 

At the end of the day though, Schofield remains Schofield; Unflappable, fearless and inventive. Although I might yearn for a change in his personality, there is also a comfort in knowing what you are going to get.

Reilly introduces a host of new characters. The best of these are the two French Bounty Hunters “Champion” and “Baba” who look to cash in on the bounty put on Schofield’s head by the French President.  Champion has a personal vendetta against Schofield whilst also appearing his equal, whilst Baba is the male version of Mother. This automatically sparks a great dynamic between the two as they flex their muscles in an effort to impress the other.

The plot is frantic as anticipated. The nice thing about it is that although the group of heroes have a time limit to save the world in, there is a sense of helplessness and futility about the whole event. The nemesis in the story also has a great back story. Yes, he is a little cartoonish but there are a few nice twists to his character that I never saw coming.

If there is a major flaw it is that Reilly relies on pulling the group of saviours out of the jaws of defeat once too many times. Sometimes, if it looks like there is no way to survive then the character should perish. But that is just my opinion.

The ending is one long great set piece that will satisfy any readers thirst for adrenalin. Planes, trains and automobiles are all present and all crash, smash and explode in vast quantities. There is also an excellent cliff-hanger that is written just right.

All in all then I loved this entry in the series. From the first couple of chapters I found myself with a smile on my face as I read. You smile at the implausibility of what you are reading and a few times the stunts that are pulled are just plain ludicrous but I at the same time I loved every minute of it.

My rating: 8.4

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review - Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes – S A Corey


As a rule I am not a big Sci-fi fan. I adore Star Wars but that has more of a fantasy feel to it than most mediums set in space. I always find that the technological babble and science speak gets in the way of the characters and the story.

There are exceptions. I liked “Ender’s Game,” “Retribution Falls” is great and so is “Seahorse in the Sky,” but the classics such as “Hyperion” I found merely okay.

When S A Corey burst on the scene with a highly applauded series that was not regarded as “hard sci-fi” and focussed on characters more than anything else, I was intrigued. Especially as one half of the duo of authors is Daniel Abraham whose work I am a fan of (the other is Ty Franck).

The Blurb:

Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Leviathan Wakes immediately sucked me in. Its opening chapter is terrific and the story instantly accessible. S A Corey have a way of explaining how equipment works without baffling the reader. There are no info dumps and everything is introduced organically and not to the detriment of the narrative.

The story focuses on two protagonists: Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Each chapter alternates between the two points of view which works well by the end of the novel but struggles initially. The reason for this is that Jim Holden is far more likeable of the two.
He is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility and struggles to find his way. The reader is able to empathise with his situation and root for him. It also helps that he primarily deals with the same crew for much of the first part of the novel. Returning to his chapters are like returning to an old friend.

Holden also possesses a strong moral code. He does not believe in killing unnecessarily and is still somewhat of an idealist. Despite this, he is also heavily flawed. His uncompromising views mean that occasionally he unwittingly makes rash decisions with catastrophic consequences. Throughout though he remains retains a certain charm. His crew adore him and demonstrate this through their unwavering faith in his decisions.

Speaking of Holden’s crew they are all very likeable as well. Naomi is perhaps the most realised of them but Amos also provides comic relief. The only character that slightly suffers from anonymity is perhaps Alex.

Miller’s world on the other hand, is a little chaotic. The scope is vast (literally the whole of space) and as he continues to investigate the disappearance of a young girl he interacts with a range of people. It is through Miller that S A Corey introduces a lot of their worldbuilding. Unfortunately this is a little clunky in places and despite liking Miller I always found my interest levels peak when I returned to the familiar Holden.

Miller is quite a dark character. Divorced and cynical he very much believes in doing what needs to be done. This too is an uncompromising outlook and quite often he clashes with Holden which makes for great reading.

Miller has two partners Havelock and Muss who disappear from the story just as the reader is starting to get to know them.  It is a shame as both were potentially good characters.
The contrast between the Holden and Miller is one of the best things about the novel. As one character grows, the other slowly descends. It is a fascinating study on human nature as both characters are inherently good.

The plot is great. The mystery is slowly unravelled and for a large part of the novel it is never clear whether the secret everyone is trying to keep is alien or man-made. It is also not clear who is on whose side which adds to the intrigue.

The action sequences are well handled with just enough detail provided to grasp what is going on, without leaving the mechanics open to any real challenge.

The ending is excellent. Most of the plot is wrapped up nicely but it is clear that this is the start of a longer series. If I am honest I would have preferred a slightly different ending in some respects. One of the characters seemed to be heading for a perfect resolution until events changed. This is only a minor point however.

Overall, I really enjoyed this first novel in the Expanse series. It is not often that I am eager to read the next book in a sci-fi series but this is definitely the exception.

My rating 8.5



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review - Dreamlander (JS)

Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland


Review by Jacqui Slaney

I purchased this book on a spur of the moment, as I liked the sound of it. After reading an interview with the author, and having a quick glance at a few reviews, I was even keener to read it, as it sounded so good.

This is the description:

What if it were possible to live two very different lives in two separate worlds?

What if the dreams you awaken from are the fading memories of that second life?

What if one day you woke up in the wrong world?

Only one person in a generation may cross the barrier of dreams to reach the other world—a world of war-scarred countries and fallen faiths. When a Chicago-born journalist finds himself on the far side of his dreams, he must hurl himself into battle to save a princess from her own people, two worlds from annihilation, and himself from a dream come way too true.

Everything I read told me that this was an excellent book, that straight from the start the characters were well crafted, that the story hooked you from the first page. Sounds good does it not?

However, I found myself strangely disconnected from it, I would read a few pages at a time and then make excuses and put the book down, and even at one stage started to read a completely different book.

I cannot put my finger on what I did not like about the book, all the elements were certainly there, but for me when I started reading it, they just did not work.
The idea is clever, the main character Chris Redston when he falls asleep and dreams, awakes in a body in another world called Lael.  He is a Gifted and is fated to change worlds. A princess called Allara Katadin looks after him. She is a Searcher, and is linked mentally to him and who has felt him in her mind even before he travelled for the first time to her world.

Chris does not get off to the best start in Lael by bringing someone into the world that is going to start a war. This act of breaking down the barriers between worlds has also had the knock on affect of damaging the structure of the worlds and so Chris has to work fast to try to correct what he has done.

So as I say all the elements are there for a good read, but I came really close to just giving up on the whole thing. I will be honest and say maybe it was me, as maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind for reading a fantasy novel, but then again when I stopped reading this one for a while and started a Scott Lynch, I had no problem with that one at all.

However, I stuck with the story, I am stubborn and hate to give up on books so I persevered.

The character of Chris, I found in the first part of the book as being annoying, he was the classic, - ‘ I think I am going mad so refuse to believe what is happening to me!’ This is fine for a short time, but seemed to me to drag on far too long, and he seemed far to ready to believe everything characters were saying to him, who he had already been warned against.

Things did get better though luckily and I did like Allara who was actually a decent female character, strong but with flaws and doubts and Quinnon the old soldier and Orias who will do anything to save his people.

The book is long, and has plenty of action but I think it could have been shortened slightly which I think would have improved the pace of the book some what.

Please bare in mind that this is just my opinion and I would say give the book a go as though I found the start slow and dragging, it did pick up and get better and came to a good conclusion so is worth a read.

7 out of 10


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Review - The Touch

The Touch – F Paul Wilson

       


I first started reading F. Paul Wilson as I heard a lot of good things about Repairman Jack. I was surprised therefore when I learnt that said character only appears once in Paul’s first six novels. The first novel was fantastic; the second featured Repairman Jack and was great but not as good. I was excited to read the third.

The Blurb:

After a dozen years of practicing medicine as a family physician, Dr. Alan Bulmer discovers one day that he can cure any illness with the mere touch of his hand. At first his scientific nature refuses to accept what is happening to him, but there is no rational explanation to be found. So Alan gives himself over to this mysterious power, reveling in the ability to cure the incurable, to give hope to the hopeless—for one hour each day.

Although he tries to hide his power, word inevitably leaks out, and soon Alan’s life begins to unravel. His marriage and his practice crumble. Only rich, beautiful, enigmatic Sylvia Nash stands by him. And standing with her is Ba, her Vietnamese gardener, who once witnessed a power such as Dr. Bulmer’s in his homeland, where it is called Dat-tay-vao. And the Dat-tay-vao always comes with a price.

Help arrives from an unexpected quarter—Senator James McCready offers the use of his family’s medical foundation to investigate Alan’s supposed power. If it truly exists, he will back Alan with the full weight of the Foundation’s international reputation. Feeling that he has reached bottom and that things can only get better, Alan accepts McCready’s offer. But he has only begun to pay.

I had no idea how diverse F. Paul Wilson is. “The Touch” continues his standalone novels loosely tied together under the umbrella of the “Adversary Cycle.” As the blurb indicates this is a story of a doctor who suddenly finds himself with the ability to heal people (Dat-Tay-Vao). However each miracle he performs has a consequence.

Alan Bulmer is a great character. Wilson portrays him as a good natured empathetic man and who chooses to care for the welfare of his patients above the need to hit quotas of patients seen by the end of the day. As a result the people he treats love and trust him and he is both scorned and resented by his peers.

Wilson captures the character perfectly. The reader automatically identifies with Alan and fully invests in the character and his good intentions. Whereas some weaker people would seek to take advantage of the gift of the Dat-tay-vao, Alan’s intentions are pure and he wishes to only do "good" with the power that he has obtained.

Sylvia Nash is great as the pure hearted woman that selfishly has adopted a disabled child. However, Wilson cleverly flips this persona on its head in how others perceive her. The majority of the characters see her as a rich, slapper. It is a nice twist on her character and makes for an interesting dynamic, especially as she flirts outrageously with Alan on every occasion which makes both sides of her character believable.

The other characters are also strong. Ba in particular is mysterious as the strong, silent driver of Sylvia’s and Axelford is suitably repugnant as the jealous on/off boyfriend of Sylvia.

The plot moves away from the horror elements of Wilson’s previous two books and becomes a medical drama/mystery. As such rather than a slow burn the pace is quite frantic. Wilson inserts a plethora of medical terminology into his prose but it never feels out of place or difficult to follow.

The Dat-tay-vao is a really intriguing plot device. The reader is aware that Alan’s gift is far from the wonderful opportunity he sees it as, but they are not aware of the consequences of abusing the gift too much. Wilson expertly reveals the mystery of the Dat-tay-vao piece by piece without the mystery becoming frustrating.

Inevitably news of Alan’s miracles gathers momentum and several sinister organisations begin to take an interest. These leads to exciting tense scenes towards the end of the novel which sees several characters personalities develop in interesting ways.

If there is a criticism, it is that the main characters always seem to have someone that is need of the miracle cure. I am not talking close friend or a neighbour but always either themselves or a very close family member. I get why this is necessary in order to keep the plot hurtling forwards but sometimes it does get a little too unrealistic.

The ending is great. The novel manages to project just enough chaos without unravelling or losing its focus. So often in novels the supernatural elements are introduced and by the end of the novel someone finds a way to change the properties of the said element, for example the prophecy which is set in stone is suddenly changed. The Dat-tay-vao retains its mystery but also stays true to the rules Wilson sets out for it whilst still providing a suitable conclusion. At the end of the day this is all you can ask for.

Overall, F Paul Wilson has written another winner with “the Touch.” I urge you to go out and try his work if you haven’t already done so. It is worth noting that this version also contains a short story on the origin of how the Dat-tay-vao came to America. This also works well and adds to the overall experience of the novel.

My rating: 9.1

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review - The Dragonbone Chair (JS)

The Dragonbone Chair: Book One (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn) by Tad Williams


Review by Jacqui Slaney

For anyone who reads fantasy novels then the name of Tad Williams is probably very familiar,  I came across him early on when I was searching for decent authors to follow, and came across this series.

This is the description:

A thrilling, heart stopping quest that blends the machinations of a king gone mad with the politics of empire, breathtaking suspense with the pity of war, a brilliantly conceived world of ancient days with the joys - and terrors - of magic

First, let me warn you this is no small book, no thin paperback that you can quickly read and then move on to the next. This is a lengthy novel and takes time and attention to read.

The main character of the tale is Simon, a scullery boy, with a mysterious past who lives in a castle- The Hayholt, where John is High King. Unfortunately, John is dying, and the people worry about his heir Elias who is an unknown quantity and there are whispers about his strange aide Pryrates and the lights at night from the deserted tower.

There is another son, Joshua, but he is not popular and is hated by his brother who blames him for the death of his wife.

Simon though leads almost an ideal life looked after by the staff in the castle, he is given the job of looking after an old advisor who lives in one of the towers. Simon at first resents this, but as time goes on Morgenes and himself become good friends until the day, his friend dies at the hand of Pryrates.

Awful events are now taking place and Simon flees the castle and out into the wilderness hoping to join with Joshua who has also fled for his life. He meets along the way a servant girl who it seems is in disguise and a dwarf like figure called Binabik who also has a wolf as a friend.

The story follows these four in their attempt to get to relative safety although it seems the whole world is steadily getting darker.

This is only the briefest of brief rundowns and barely does justice to the story, as I am conscious of the fact that some of you may not have read this book. However, I hope it gives you a taste of the excellent book and series that you have waiting for you.

As I said at the start of the review this is a long novel and the pace of this first book is necessarily slow, which can be off putting to some. This world though is created carefully with the different characters and races developed for the reader as they go along. There are many of these, but the writer carefully guides you through this enjoyable maze, as there are some great characters especially Simon and good evil baddie.

The scenes that are described are believable and though there is magic, it is necessary, not over done in any sense, and fits seamlessly into the tale.
Though Simon is the main character and you see the events mainly through his eyes, there are chapters where the view point changes, these are cleverly done and give a good different perspective.
It has been a while since I first read this book, but having reread it again, I found much to my pleasure that I still found the same enjoyment from it.
Though it takes a while to read, it is definitely worthwhile, and now I cannot wait to start on the next.

8 out of 10


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review - The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire - Guy Gavriel Kay


I went into the Summer Tree with high expectations and was unfortunately sorely disappointed. A third of the way through the novel I nearly gave up and although things did improve, I could not understand what all the fuss was about.

I approached the Wandering Fire with slightly more caution then.

The Blurb:

This is the second book in the Fionavar trilogy. It finds the evil Rakoth threatening the existence of Fionavar. To stop him, Kimberly Ford and her companions from Earth must summon the Warrior. But desperate measures can have desperate consequences when curses and prophecies are involved.

Before I begin I will state two things. Firstly, this is a review of the audio book and secondly, this review will be short. The reason I mention this two things as they impact on my review.
I did not enjoy the Wandering fire. I tried, I really did but it did absolutely nothing for me. 
 You know when you find yourself not really concentrating and then having to go back to the start of a paragraph and remind yourself what you have just read – that pretty much summed up my whole experience with the Wandering Fire.

The book features a comprehensive recap of the events that took place in the Summer Tree. Although I remembered parts of the first novel the recap was very much needed and highly useful. So there was no excuse for me not to be immediately engaged with the novel.
 
As I mentioned I was listening to the unabridged audio version of the book. However, I must stress there was nothing wrong with the narration, it certainly didn’t impede on my enjoyment of the book. I simple struggled to follow what was going on. 100 pages in and I found I was rewinding the audio book and listening to it again and again determined to concentrate and each time failing to do so. I even stopped listening and went back to good old fashioned reading – the book only marginally improved.

This is a difficult review to write, as I can’t really pinpoint what exactly I didn’t like. The characters did not grab me in anyway. I guess it didn’t help that GGK does not linger on any character for too long before drifting off to another character’s PoV.  Even the injection of Arthur as a character did little for me.

As I recall the book now, the only scene that I truly enjoyed was near the beginning at Stonehenge. I apologise for those reading this review and looking for a firm reasoning for my dislike but I cannot give it. GGK’s writing is fine – although not to my tastes. I guess it boils down to the fact that I found the characters bland and the plot rather dull.

Overall then, I will hold my hands up and acknowledge that I am in the minority but GGK it seems is not for me – which I hate as I wanted to love his books so much.

My rating: 4.5