Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Book Report: A Natural History of Dragons

www.goodreads.com
I'm very pleased to still be on a reading kick. I didn't quite get this book finished as fast as The City of Woven Streets but I did read it on my lunch break and while at home, which is always a good sign.

Expectations
Relatively high. I bought this book for Rebecca for her birthday last year, and she's since read it and enjoyed it. Plus, the concept is just excellent. A book about a Victorian-esque lady who goes off and studies dragons in a society where dragons are just an expected feature of natural history and there's no other magic? Sign me up!
Positives
This book was, as expected, excellent. It was actually even more excellent than I thought it might be. I particularly loved how Lady Trent managed to be both active and adventurous while still being aware of the social mores of the Victoria-esque society in which she lives. There was none of that fantasy cliche of the main character being the only person to see how her society is flawed and rejecting all of it. There were moments in the book where Lady Trent was very much of her time - which provided a nice sense of realism amid her fantastic adventures. 
I also really liked the narrative style, and Lady Trent's thoughts on the publishing process, and her looking back at her youth from a position of age and a relatively more permissive society. 

I thought all (or at least most) of the characters were well drawn, rather than just Isabella and Jacob, which is always nice. The plot was exciting enough to keep me reading - and to ensure I picked up the next book immediately. 

Final Thoughts
I'm honestly not sure I can think of any negatives. A Natural History of Dragons is a great concept executed well. It's not astounding, but it's very, very solid. 4 stars.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Book Report: The City of Woven Streets

http://www.emmiitaranta.com
It's been a distressingly long time since I finished a book. I almost finished a reread of Devices and Desires - which I love - but then I just sort of stopped. Sometimes it happens, and I wish it didn't because when I start reading again I remember how great it is! Fortunately, I had a little prompt recently, about which I shall be mysterious for the time being, and so I've finished one book, one audiobook and am already working on my next book. 

Expectations
Honestly, my expectations for this book weren't that high. I was reading it for A Reason, which is never the most auspicious beginning, and it didn't sound like quite my sort of thing. The blurb on the back reads: 
In the City of Woven Streets, human life has little value. You practice a craft to keep you alive, or you are an outcast, unwanted and tainted. Eliana is a young weaver in the House of Webs, but secretly knows she doesn’t really belong there. She is hiding a shameful birth defect that would, if anyone knew about it, land her in the House of the Tainted, a prison for those whose very existence is considered a curse.

When an unknown woman with her tongue cut off and Eliana’s name tattooed on her skin arrives at the House of Webs, Eliana discovers an invisible network of power behind the city’s facade. All the while, the sea is clawing the shores and the streets are slowly drowning.
It sounded a bit dystopian, which isn't usually something I'm into. However, it had good reviews and I quite liked the first paragraph (always my litmus test) so I picked it up. 

Positives
As indicated by the first sentence, the writing was good. Better than just 'readable', as well (though I'll take readable without complaint if the story is good enough). I didn't think it was quite on a par with Scott Lynch, who is my personal fantasy pinnacle for great description, but it was definitely noteable as a positive feature.
The story was nowhere near as dystopian as I feared. While the world is a dystopia, in the strictest sense, it doesn't feel like one enough to be oppressive. It's restrictions and dysfunctions are revealed slowly, which is what I'd much prefer. This is also definitely a fantasy world, not a future-of-earth or a science-fiction setting.
The story was solid and the characters were nicely established, though outside the two main characters they weren't given that much depth. Without giving away too much, there were a few character / relationship facets that came as nice surprises.

Negatives
The italicised dream sequences didn't really work for me. But then, italicised dream sequences that take part outside the narrative of the novel rarely do. I could see what Emmi Itäranta was trying to do, and I'd be curious to see what happens if you read all the dream sequences as one long piece — but not actually curious enough that I've done it, which is rather the point.
I also found the ending a little confusing / unsatisfying. Again, I feel like I understand the aim but it just didn't quite work for me. I'm sure it would work for other people, I just tend to prefer all-threads-tied-up to ambiguity.

Final Thoughts
This was a good book to get me out of my drought, and I'm glad I read it even though it wasn't usually the sort of thing I'd pick up. 3 stars.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Book Report: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

www.amazon.co.uk
A birthday present from Dylan, I'm actually quite pleased with how quickly I got around to reading this. I have a habit of leaving present-books by the wayside in favour of books I've chosen myself. 

Expectations
I'd seen the film adaptation some years ago but I must not have been paying very much attention because beyond the very basic premise I wouldn't have been able to describe the plot. 'Dowdy middle-class woman gets swept up in the life of modern socialite for a day' would have been about the best I could have done. Not exactly piercing analysis. I did remember that the film (and the book) also came recommended by Nickie - so with two friends who'd enjoyed it I was hoping it would be good. 

Positives
I really enjoyed the main character and the story. The author really gets inside the head of Miss Pettigrew — so much so that the other characters are a little bit cardboard cut out. It’s also a good story of the character you care about triumphing over her own hangups and sorting her life out, which is always satisfying. It's a nice look at the social mores of the time, as well.

Negatives
The writing style had me questioning the book a couple of times. There are lines of dialogue that just go ???!!!???!!!??? which seemed like very lazy writing. There's also no great emotional depth to any character other than Miss Pettigrew.  

Final Thoughts
I enjoyed it. It was quite light and a little shallow, perhaps, but enjoyable nonetheless. 6 stars. 


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Book Report: Devil's Cub

www.goodreads.com
My first book in February seemed to go by very fast, probably because I finished The Summer Tree with four days still to go in January. That's fine, the further ahead I can get the better because then I might actually feel like I have time to tackle a longer book without falling off pace. 

Expectations
Mixed. Very decidedly mixed. This book was a present - years ago - from Nickie, whose judgement I trust. On the other hand, it's still a Regency romance novel and as such I expected it to be pretty predictable. I made a wordsearch about romance novels for Valentine's Day and I've been wanting to give a bona fide romance a try every since - I'm not sure this quite fulfilled that niche in my mind. I might still need to track down Dare I Be Happy? or Cupid Rides Pillion

Positives
At least one of the plot twists in this book actually surprised me! For the first several chapters I thought I could see exactly where it was going: respectable, strait-laced young woman gets involved with dashing, impetuous junior lord in order to save beautiful but irresponsible sister. Of course, opposites attract and the two main characters will slowly fall in love and end up properly married and living out their happily ever after, right? In broad strokes I was absolutely spot on, but there were more steps to get to that end result than I was expecting and a certain turn of events that I won't spoil honestly threw a spanner in the works. 

I liked the characters — especially Mary. The background characters were very much straight out of an Austen novel, but Mary and Lord Vidal were at least a little different. I also got a fair few laughs out of some of the dialogue, particularly when the uptight male characters (Mr John Marling and Mr Frederick Cummin) come up against the wilder of the ladies. Georgette Heyer has the advantage over Jane Austen that she's writing for a modern audience and therefore doesn't have her jokes hinging on the exact type of barouche the characters drive. (Which isn't to say I don't find Jane Austen funny, I do — Mr and Mrs Bennet have perhaps one of the best comic relationships in literature.)

Negatives
The plot was, after all, a little predictable. I knew from very early on exactly which characters would end up together and nothing ever happened that caused me to question that. 
The prose also suffered from a lot of showing not telling, especially when it came to Mary. Though Georgette Heyer describes how Mary feels for Lord Vidal it’s rarely shown in her actions, which causes her feelings to fall a little flat. 

Final Thoughts
I don't think I'll be rushing out to find more novels by Georgette Heyer, but it was perfectly good for what it was and I got a few laughs as well — 6 stars

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Music Monthly

Towards the end of last year, I read a description of someone's music ranking system. Apparently they kept track of their top ten songs each day, and then made a list at the end of the year. I thought that sounded interesting and decided to give it a go myself. Now, I didn't do it every day and I don't think I ever had a full ten favourite songs but I thought a monthy round-up would be worthwhile. So here it is: 

Two Magicians (Greg Russell, Ciaran Algar) - 10 points
No Doubling Back (Jason Mraz) - 10 points
Luck Be a Lady (Guys and Dolls) - 10 points 
Brave (Sara Bareilles) - 10 points
Oh Cecilia (The Vamps) - 10 points
Shenandoah (Peter Hollens) - 10 points
Stars (Collabro) - 10 points
 Who Am I? (Will Young) - 9 points
Friend Like Me (Ne-Yo) - 9 points 
Fight Song (Popchoir) - 9 points
Topsy Turvy (Hunchback of Notre Dame) - 9 points
Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat (Guys and Dolls) - 9 points
Pop 101 (Marianas Trench, Anami Vice) - 9 points
I Won't Give Up (Peter Hollens) - 9 points
I See the Light (Peter Hollens, Evynne Hollens) - 9 points 
 UB2 (Bend it Like Beckham) - 8 points
Boy Band Parody (Jon Cozart, Peter Hollens) - 8 points
Bad Day (Daniel Powter) - 8 points
American Girls (Counting Crows) - 8 points
Wake Up Little Susie (Everly Brothers) - 8 points
Air Guitar (McBusted) - 8 points
About You Now (Skipinnish) - 8 points 
Look at Us Now (Bend it Like Beckham) - 7 points
Nerdy (Busted) - 7 points
A Thousand Miles (Vanessa Carlton) - 7 points
Lucky (Britney Spears) - 7 points
Maybe Tomorrow (London Music) - 7 points
Girl Perfect (Bend it Like Beckham) - 6 points
Tough Love (Bend it Like Beckham) - 5 points
Mine, Mine, Mine (Pocahontas) - 4 points 

 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Book Report: The Summer Tree

www.goodreads.com
Second January book (which means I am on track for 24 books this year despite the fact that my work life has become a whirlwind) is The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. Let's get to it: 

Expectations
It must be at least a decade since I first heard about this book. I don't remember where, or what was said, other than that it was all positive and I put the book on my 'to read' list because it intrigued me. It proved difficult to find in shops, and this was before I had a debit card with which I could order things online. Then there were other things to read and... I just didn't get around to it. Until now. So, sadly, I can't really remember my expectations for this book. 
I was expecting it to be good, and I was expecting it to be fantasy. As it turns out, it wasn't the type of fantasy I thought it was. It was the kind where humans from the real world are dragged into the fantasy world. As much as I love C S Lewis, that isn't really my preferred form. 

Positives
Despite that, I did enjoy this book. It didn't take long at all for me to get past the 'why is this book set in Toronto?' factor and start really getting into the emotional meat of the characters. And the characters certainly do have a lot of emotional depth which is slowly uncovered. Not only the humans from our world but the Dwarf King and the Magician as well. I struggled to keep the five humans straight for a while, but eventually got the hang of it. The relationships between them are interesting, as are the varying relationships between each character and their families. There's not a lot of that, because they move to the fantasy world fairly fast, but what there was was enough to keep me interested in their stories. 

The structure of this book did some interesting things. At the beginning, it seemed normal as we followed the group of five humans plus two Fionavar residents. Then, as the character went their separate ways the narrative started switching between them. There was no warning that this was happening, the book would just launch into a new viewpoint. (This may have been a fault in my ebook, but I doubt it.) I swear, towards the climax of the novel the sections got much shorter and it started to feel almost like they were weaving in and out of one another.Which is appropriate, as there's a lot of reference to The Weaver (a god figure) and The Tapestry (fate). Then the narrative went back in time to almost the beginning of the story, which was incredibly frustrating because I want to know what happened. But then, as with the best authors, I got into the new story - which wasn't presented in the tapestry form. Even though this structure didn't really carry through, it was still interesting. 

Negatives
I don't have a lot of criticism for this book, and most of what there is revolves around the end. I was not entirely pleased to find that there's surprise rape and torture about thirty pages from the end. It was well written, and not explicit, but I still could have done with it. Though, that said, it made the actual final-page ending a lot more powerful. The other problem with the ending was that it was a cliffhanger. Now, this is part of a serious so I wasn't expecting everything to be neatly wrapped up, but I do prefer not to be left wondering if everyone is still alive.

Final Thoughts
I'm not sure this book is AS good as the praise I heard made it out to be, nor am I convinced it was worth waiting ten years for. I did enjoy it, though, which is more of an achievement given I don't like this specific subgenre that much. The characters were enough to carry off any faults with it, and I find the structure interesting. 7 stars. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Book Report: The Tortoise and the Hare

http://www.waterstones.com
My first book of the new year was The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I finished in six days. Ever since doing NotSoNaBooReaMo, I'm realising just how quickly I can finish books if I just devote a little time to it outside of the daily commute. I hope I'll keep this up and read more books this year than I have since leaving university. 

Expectations
Rebecca recommended this book to me and said it was excellent - so my expectations were pretty high. I've never heard of it outside of that conversation, nor am I familiar with Elizabeth Jenkins, but I knew it was about a man and two women. Rebecca compared Blanche to someone else, though I can't remember who now, which is how the conversation got started.

Positives
I absolutely enjoyed the latter half of this book, and at least some of the moments earlier on as well. There are lots of gorgeous descriptions of the houses and the English countryside. I found that many of these focused on the light, which is something I tend to be interested in so I imagine that added to how much I enjoyed them. 
It's hard to talk about what was so great in the second half of this book without spoiling it. I want to describe it as a very elegant, polished cover on a rushing river of emotion and that emotion is done so well, and so unobtrusively, that it really carries you away. There's a turning point - and anyone who has read the book probably knows exactly what I mean - after which I stopped thinking I wasn't going to like this book and immediately saw what Rebecca had recommended it for. 

The ending is also superb, but again difficult to describe without risking spoilers. It felt very emotionally real and surprisingly satisfying. 

Negatives
The first half of the book isn't as strong. If I hadn't gone into it knowing what the main plot was, I'm not sure I'd have picked up on what was happening. For the first few days I thought I was going to be disappointed, that I wasn't clever enough to 'get' what Rebecca had seen in it. She talked about how it was devastating and insidious and at first I couldn't see that at all. 
Several of the characters are quite similar. I struggled to differentiate between Paul and Hunter. Over halfway through the book, I couldn't explain to Rebecca who Hunter was! This made it quite difficult for me to get a grasp on the background characters, but in the end that didn't really matter. The characters you need to know are Imogen, Blanche, Evelyn, Tim and Gavin. Everyone else will fall into place. Another criticism would be that a few of the others are quite superfluous, certainly to a modern reader who isn't as likely to pick up on what I suspect is a slight satire of contemporary attitudes. 

Final Thoughts
In some ways, this book reminded me of Madame Bovary - which you wouldn't think would be a good thing, since I hated Madame Bovary when I read it in school. I definitely didn't hate this, at all. Once I got into it I thought it was wonderful. I'd like to read it again now that I know the ending. 7.5 stars. 

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