Thursday, June 30, 2011

June Reviews

So this is it - The final month before the biggest release of the year for me. At long last we will be getting A Dance with Dragons in July. Maybe it was because I was so excited about this that I went on a reading frenzy this month. A whopping seven books read and enjoyed:
1)    Hyperion – Dan Simmons
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I am not a science fiction fan. There I said it. For some reason, as much as I adore Star Wars as soon as space or any techno babble is mentioned, I switch off and my eyes glaze over. I have never understood it because I love the idea of stories set in space and uninhabited worlds.  I have found that whenever I have tried to embrace the genre, the book are needlessly littered with complicated instruments and equipment that makes you feel you are reading a textbook to a complicated computer rather than enjoying a novel.
Despite this irrational hatred towards science fiction, one book I always felt I should try is Hyperion. Having read and loved the Terror by Simmons, I knew that the man could write and write well. I had purchased the book ages ago and I was just waiting for the inspiration to strike me to start reading. This month said inspiration struck.
After the first couple of pages I thought I had made a mistake. There was techno babble in abundance and try as I might I struggled to engage with it. This all changed once the pilgrims began to tell their stories.
For any of you that don’t know, Hyperion follows a similar format to the Canterbury Tales. 6 strangers are thrown together and seem to have a common goal. They decide in order to achieve this goal they need to understand their pasts. What follows is essentially a collection of short stories tied together by the same goal.
Each of these stories vary in style and tone. Simmons expertly provides individual voices to each character and makes you care for them. Some of these stories are excellent. The standouts for me are the Priest’s tale and the Scholar’s tale. Not surprisingly these two are the least sci-fi esque of the 6 but the other four stories (Soldier’s tale, Poet’s tale, Detective’s tale and the Scholar’s tale) are all compelling, as is the Shrike, the mythical creature they all set out to meet or destroy.
Has Hyperion made me more inclined to read sci-fi? Yes and no. I really enjoyed this book but there were times when I felt my mind wandering during the mention of various ships and weapons. Having said that, I will definitely be reading the sequel – it is impossible not too after the cliff hanging ending.
My rating: 8.5

2)    The Unremarkable Heart – Karin Slaughter
 Product Details
I was not aware of this short story until it was recommended on the Kindle. Of course it being on the Kindle it is difficult to know exactly how big it was, but I think it came in around the 72 page mark and therefore worth reviewing. I’ve only read one short story by Karin before and whist I thought it was good, unlike her full length novels it was instantly forgettable.

This story on the other hand stuck with me. The premise is rather grim, a woman is dying of cancer and the opening of the tale begins with her dealing with this. It is not until the relationship of her husband is truly explored that the plot begins to become intriguing.

What follows is a story that is slowly and cleverly revealed to the audience. I have to admit I read this in two sessions and simply had to know the truth behind the family. The conclusion does not disappoint and stays with you. It has made me realise that I must read Karin’s last book before her new one comes out.

My rating:  8.8
3) The Five – Robert McCammon
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Robert is easily one of my favourite authors, probably my favourite. His versatility and ability to produce great stories is unsurpassed. The Five came with strong praise especially from Stephen King – another favourite of mine. However, I have to admit the premise of the Five did not grab me at all. I mean a book about a band touring how interesting can that be? It turns out very.
I loved the book. It made me want to visit local pubs and soak in the vibe from small acts trying to break into the big time. The characters of the band members stayed with me – I found myself routing for Nomad, Ariel and the like as they struggled to deal with the tragic events that befall them. Despite never having heard the song, I defy anyone not to be humming “Bad cop” by the end of the book.
If I have one criticism, it’s that there were some sub plots or side stories that hinted at events which were so cool, I wished they were explored further. Nevertheless, they would make fantastic books in themselves if Robert ever wished to tackle them.
The five has been hailed as McCammon’s best book yet. Although it does not quite reach the heights of Swan Song or Boy’s Life it is still a very good read and better than 95% of other books out there.
My rating: 9.3
4) Seahorse in the Sky – Edmund Cooper
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About a month ago I got Lost withdrawal symptoms. I lamented that there was not another TV show that captured the imagination like that show did. I use to love sitting at work, wondering what was going on and coming up with various theories. I “googled books like Lost” and the most common answers were, “Lord of the Flies” and “Hyperion.” Both books are excellent, but only Hyperion comes close to posing the level of mystery I was after.

Then on one forum someone suggested Seahorse in the sky. I immediately checked the book out and the blurb sounded exactly what I was after. 16 people wake up in are on a flight to London and then suddenly wake up in coffins in a deserted town. Food and drink is mysteriously replenished and they can all speak the same language despite coming from different parts of Europe. They also encounter humans from a different time period.

This book filled the whole left by Lost. The prose is tight but effective and the characters intriguing enough. My only problem is that the book is so short. 190 pages in fact. Normally, I find books are unnecessarily blotted. In this case I was lamenting that it wasn’t. I wanted a series made of this story. I would quite happily have read a trilogy of books. No disrespect to Edmund Cooper, but I couldn’t help rue the fact that Stephen King or Dam Simmons had not come up with this premise and run with it. I wanted the books told from multiple points of views and the mysteries to keep layering themselves on top of each other.
Instead, what I was left with was a very good story, intriguing and satisfying but more of an outline to what could have been fantastic. The conclusion to the mystery is excellent. In fact as much as I liked Lost and had no problem with its finale, I wish they had gone with the explanation that Cooper came up with.
I will be checking out more of Edmunds work though, so that can’t be a bad thing.
My Rating 7.8

5)    Solomon Kane – The Complete Tales – Robert E Howard.
 Product Details
I really enjoyed the film of Solomon Kane and was disappointed that it was not popular enough to procure sequels.  I think Hollywood missed a trick by not believing in the franchise but hey what do I know?

I was pleased to discover the complete tales available on the Kindle for a very reasonable price. I purchased them immediately (I love the fact that I can do that) and settled in to enjoy Solomon’s adventures.
To begin with I was reading with a big smile on my face. Solomon was the true hero, putting right the evils of this way. However, after a while the stories all felt the same, Solomon would wander through the jungle, stumble across some evil and then be determined to defeat it. The formula became jarring, so jarring that it became a chore to carry on. I stopped reading the book and read something else. I then came back to the book and groaned. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are not bad and the writing holds up quite well in today’s times but it is like watching the same episode of Quantum Leap over and over. Other than the obstacles Solomon faces nothing changes. Even the way he is introduced (a tall puritan dressed in black wearing a hat with no feathers) is the same ever story. Quantum Leap was great because it stuck to the same formula but no two episodes felt the same.
There are some stories that stand out above the others. My picks are: The moon of skulls and the footfalls within. However, I would recommend you read this book slowly over time and not all in one go.
My Rating: 7.2
6)    Re-Read – A Feast of Crows – George R R Martin
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A Feast of Crows gets a raw deal in terms of the A song of Ice and Fire series. It is largely thought to be the weakest of the four books with many fans feeling cheated at the lack of key POV characters. I suppose it matters when you read the book. I began reading the series in 2007 and about from A Dance with Dragons, never had to wait for any of the books to be released. I also knew that half the characters would be missing well in advance of reading the book. Having said that, whilst I enjoyed Feast of Crows the first time round, I couldn’t help but acknowledge it dragged a little in places (Brienne I am looking at you).
So has my opinion changed upon the re-read? Yes. 100% yes. Having enjoyed all of the books the second time round, I probably enjoyed FoCs the most. Armed with the several theories that fans have suggested, it was fun to appreciate the book and all it tried to achieve. Where I first thought the Brienne chapters were there merely to illustrate the horrors of war on the common folk, I now appreciated the way they were used to set up future events. Cersei and Jaime’s point of views are superb and the chapters dealing with Dorne and the Iron Islands are all expertly handled.
As I write this, it is just over 2 weeks to go until a Dance with Dragons is released. I cannot wait.
My Rating: 9.2
7)    Pet Sematary – Stephen King.
Product Details
I knew very little about this book going in. I did not even read the blurb on the back. I had a preconceived notion that it would be about pets coming back to life and haunting a family judging by the covers I had seen over the years.
I was not expecting the excellent story that unfolded. This story has heart and bundles of it. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely creepy in places, but what makes it such a great book is how easily I could identify with the main character Louis. Louis is in his 30’s, married and has too kids and a pet cat. We are about to have our second child and have a dog.  Therefore everything that happened to Louis and his family deeply resonated with me. I was so caught up in the emotion of this book that I genuinely couldn’t wait to get home and hug them tightly at the end of each day.
You can guess where the book is going very early on, but the skill in which King unfurls the plot reaffirms why I regard him as one of my favourite authors. I don’t wish to speak too much about the plot but the ending is one that will stay with me a long, long time. I also love the reference to Cujo the King makes. Little tips of the hat to the reader really ingratiate me to an author.
If you haven’t read King I strongly recommend you try this book. You will not be disappointed.
My rating: 9.5

Monday, June 27, 2011

My history with fantasy books and comics

This rather long entry is inspired by an article posted by Niall over at Speculative Scotsman last week. Niall talks of his love for comics and how despite drifting away from the medium, he is now subsequently finding his way back. It is an excellent read and can be found here:
As always, if you comment on one of Niall’s posts, he gets back to you quickly – a sign of an excellent blogger and an action I am very remiss about. Niall responded to one of my comments and stated he would like to know the full story about why comics got me into reading fantasy. The more I thought about it the more I thought it was something that others might find interesting.
So let me take you all the way back to the summer of 2000. I had just started a new job and soon established a friendship with a colleague that would swiftly become one of the closest friendships I have to this day.
Said friend was interested in everything I was interested in. Football – check, massive star wars fans – check, films – check. We shared the same sense of humour and soon became the darlings of the office with our cheeky chappy attitude and the ability for management to both hate us and love us at the same time. Our attitude was that as long as the work got done, then we were not harming anyone and giving management no cause to complain. This led us to start up a weekly newsletter where we would humorously mock events that occurred in the office that week. It was affectionately known as the Back-Office news and was a major hit. I think I still have a few copies lying around somewhere.
Anyway, the only thing I was not interested in that my new friend (let’s call him Utah Khan –his nickname) was, was his devotion to comics. Every Thursday, I would accompany him to Forbidden Planet or A Place in Space and wait for him to buy his weekly trades.
It was not that I didn’t like the medium, I was aware of it, but had no interest in getting bogged down in collecting a comic that would take me 15 minutes to read a month.
Time passed and Utah persuaded me to try some comics. He leant me the first three trades of Bendis’ run on Daredevil. Needless to say I was hooked. I promptly purchased, X-men, Wolverine, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman (both the amazing and ultimate). I never liked the DC universe, I don’t know why it just didn’t grab me. I liked Batman but Superman was a no, no.
As the months went buy, I increased the titles in my collection until I was collecting well over 20 issues a month. I began to go online and see what other comics were available. It was then I discovered the amazing company that was Crossgen comics (or not so amazing if you look at their infrastructure). Crossgen was filled with titles that had ongoing stories, and I mean proper ongoing stories not just arcs where a superhero would fight a new supervillain and then move on to another.
The idea behind the company was that although the stories were all isolated, the main characters were all linked by a “sigil” and you knew that one day all the titles were going to cross over.
I was enthralled by the concept as with the many titles. I was soon devouring the likes of: Brath, Scion, Meridian and Route 666. Later El Cazador – a pirate comic (how many of them do you see these days?) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang entertained me. However the best of the bunch was “Sojourn.” Man I loved that comic, pure fantasy entertainment. The illustrations were beautiful and the story compelling, with  great characters.
I soon found the Marvel titles formulaic. I purchased them every week out of habit. I would read them and forget all about them seconds later, The Crossgen titles were different. I actually looked forward to the Crossgen titles every week. Fantasy became cool again and more than just about Lord of the Rings or the Dark Crystal to me.
But then, disaster struck. Crossgen announced it was to fold. The authors were instructed to wind up their stories as quickly as they could. The much anticipated Negation War” cross over was rushed and although it began well, like all the titles was not completed or not completed in a satisfactory manner.
The day that Crossgen went under, was the day my wallet was better off but my reading habits wasn’t. I still collected comics for a couple of years, but my interest had waned severely. The only titles I really enjoyed were: Fables, Y: the last man and the Walking Dead. These three were not enough to keep my interest sustained. The Walking Dead often failed to meet its intended publication date and I found myself not going to the comic book shop on a Thursday for weeks at a time and then having to fork out £40 when I did to purchase all the titles that had been reserved for me.
It was whilst trying to fill this void left by Crossgen that I started to pay attention to fantasy books. Before then I read mainly thrillers or crime books. Fantasy books always held a stigma of the geek in his room with his computer. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise the hypocrisy of that narrow minded view, as reading comics often had the same stigma. I guess it was because I used to visit the shops on a Thursday and never once saw these stereotypes and therefore did not associate the comic market with them. Instead I saw normal every day guys (they were predominantly guys) enjoying a medium that was frowned upon.
I had tried Robert Jordan when I was around 16 and thoroughly enjoyed him but, socialising and girls interested me far more than reading and so I only got up to book 4. I had no interest in re-reading Jordan again (I have only just changed my views on re-reading books) so other than Tolkein I had not read any fantasy. My first real fantasy book as an avid reader was Raymond E Feist’s “Shadow of a Dark Queen” book one of the Serpentine War Saga. I don’t know why I opted for this book but it was on the shelf in a comic book shop one day and I bought it on impulse.
After reading the prologue I thought I had made a massive mistake. It made no sense to me, talking about portals etc. However, after that initial prologue that seemed to have no relevance on the rest of the book I might had, I was swept away in an engaging story experiencing enjoyment levels not dissimilar to when I read Crossgen. I read the saga over the coming months and thoroughly enjoyed them
I enjoyed the saga so much that I immediately rang up my friends at A Place in Space and cancelled my folder they kept for me, reserving all of the marvel titles. Why spend £2.95 on a comic that takes 15 mins to read, when I could spend £6 on a book that would take 10 days to read – I was a slower reader back then.
I began to research the best fantasy books out there, which led me to George R R Martin, to Hobb, to Abercrombie, to Lynch etc etc. The rest as they say is history. I now read lots of fantasy to the extant it is the predominant genre I go for. I look back and laugh at the man I was then for shunning such as a great wealth of literature. It is a genre that is completely underrated and I feel sorry for those that ridicule it. I don’t blame people for their narrow minded opinions, only recently I found myself ignoring historical fiction for ignorant and juvenile reasons but that is a story for another time.
Fantasy has opened up a whole new world of happiness for me. I love perusing the various blogs on the subject, visiting the forum and gauging others opinions and theories on the latest offerings from the highly skilled authors. It has even inspired me to write my own book and hence set up this blog.
Niall recounted his love affair with comics and whilst there were many similarities with my history, he couldn’t pin point why he gave up reading comics. I can, it was when Crossgen comics folded and I no longer got my fantasy fix. I loved that comic company but if it had never have folded I doubt I would have discovered fantasy books in such a big way.
Mind you, Marvel have apparently bought the rights to Crossgen it will be interesting to see what they do with titles. I don’t think they will persuade me to go back to reading comics but I will keep my eye on the situation.
Oh and in case you were wondering about Utah, he works in another office far away. He still collects his titles and we make the effort to meet up once a week, never on a Thursday though, you know… just in case the lure is too much.

Monday, June 6, 2011

May reviews

Before I start with the reviews, some of you may well be wondering what is happening with the writing and the seeking an agent part of my life. The short answer is nothing. This is not really anything to do with writer’s block or a lack of passion but to do with circumstances at the moment. My wife is pregnant with our second child and unfortunately been seriously ill. As much as I am dedicated to writing, I am finding it too difficult to give my full attention to the project at the moment.

There are 7 weeks before the baby is due and until that time, I have decided to have a break from writing. Who knows? When my first boy was born I was inspired to write Ritual of the Stones and never looked back. It is a shame because the completed chapters I have so far are actually very good in my opinion.

Anyway on with the reviews:

1) The Keep – Paul F Wilson

Product Details

I have been meaning to read this book for a while. Every time I tried to buy it from Amazon it was out of stock or listed at a very high price. Having recently acquired a Kindle I was pleasantly surprised to find this book in the store for just over £1.

The story was better than I hoped to be honest. The Keep oozed with atmosphere, every brick seemed evil and in a world where vampire tales are aplenty this older story really comes up trumps.

If I am honest I found the first half of the book stronger than the second. The characters that are initially compelling seem to fade away in favour of a love story. One of the main POV characters seemed to just stop (you pretty much assume what happens to them but having read about them throughout the novel it just seems a bit too abrupt). Having said that I really liked the explanation behind the monster and thought the loose ends all came together nicely.

I will definitely be checking out the other books in the Adversary cycle, I just wish they were on the kindle too!

My rating: 8.1

2) Twilight – Stephanie Meyer.

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Surprise! Yes after reading many horrid reviews about the series and been reliably informed that the books are badly written and for teenage girls only, I decided to hide behind the anonymity of the kindle and see for myself.

Well the surprise was on me. To begin with I wholeheartedly agreed with the reviews. The opening chapters are badly written and definitely for teenage girls. If I had to read about Edward’s azure eyes one more time I would have pulled my own eyes out. But a strange thing happened. When I went to put the book down, content in the knowledge that I had given them ago, I found that I couldn’t. I picked up the book and read a bit more and then a bit more. Even though nothing happens for the whole novel expect for gushing over Edward, I could not stop reading. I would even go as far to say (infuriating as it sounds), I was enjoying the book.

Twilight is not the greatest novel in the world but I can see why it is popular. It is sort of akin to liking a James Patterson book. You know it is not great writing but it works.

My rating: 7.8

3) A Storm of Swords – George R R Martin (Re-read)

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 A Dance with Dragons is little over a month a way now and the anticipation is reaching fever pitch. Once again, I was pleased that I took the plunge and re-read the books before the 5th one arrives.

Simply put, this book is the best book in any series. Every chapter seems to be a pay-off. Martin seems to be at the height of his writing skills. Each character is riveting, delivering excellent lines of dialogue and even though I knew what was coming (mostly, I had still forgotten parts) the impact was just as great.

Jaime and Brienne are new POV characters and both are excellent. Martin handles their awkward alliance deftly and their friendship and distrust of each other is one of the highlights in a book filled with massive events.

Only Feast of Crows to go before I am ready for Dance. I cannot wait.

My Rating: 10

4) Gone – Mo Hayder

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I have read all of Mo Hayder’s books. The early ones are a lot stronger than the latter ones. That is not to say that I am not a fan of the Walking man series. They are still good and better than the majority of books in their genre.

With Gone, Mo has returned to her glorious best. Someone is stealing kids from the back of cars and Jack Caffery and Flea Marley are making all the wrong decisions in their pursuit of the Jacker.

Whilst the killer is easily identified from very early on in the novel, it is a credit to the book that it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. The grieving parents are well portrayed and Caffery’s and Marley’s characters as well as the walking man’s are developed nicely.

My rating: 8.6