Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #1
Author: Laini Taylor
Pages: 418 (hardback)
Published: September 29th 2011
Published by: Hodder & Staughton

"Errand requiring immediate attention. Come. 

The note was on vellum, pierced by the talons of the almost-crow that delivered it. Karou read the message. 'He never says please', she sighed, but she gathered up her things. When Brimstone called, she always came." 
In general, Karou has managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she's a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to family. Raised half in our world, half in 'Elsewhere', she has never understood Brimstone's dark work - buying teeth from hunters and murderers - nor how she came into his keeping. She is a secret even to herself, plagued by the sensation that she isn't whole. 
Now the doors to Elsewhere are closing, and Karou must choose between the safety of her human life and the dangers of a war-ravaged world that may hold the answers she has always sought.

Karou has grown up living in two worlds. The world we know, and Elsewhere. There are four creatures who inhabit all she knows of Elsewhere and they have brought her up and loved her. Of course her life here (in Prague!) isn't allowed to overlap with Elsewhere and no one really knows her, her history. They think her drawings of her chimaera family are just her imagination, not realising the horrible truth. That Brimstone is real, and he really does collect teeth - from human to jaguar to elephant tusks.

I loved this book. Completely and utterly. I sat down and read it in a matter of hours, because of the characters, the settings, the world and the story. They're all beautiful, and there's mystery there to keep you reading on top of all that. All this is making it rather hard to review, because I just want to gush about it, but I'll do my best.

You're dropped into a mystery, knowing at first as little about Karou as her friends, but more is slowly revealed in the course of the first few chapters until you know as much as Karou. Which isn't saying a lot, because she doesn't really know who she is at all or how she came to be brought up in Brimstone's shop. The story slowly unfolds, and there are enough hints and clues along the way for the reader to work out what is going on, though the how and the why don't become clear until the end. And while I did work out what was going on, it wasn't obvious all the way through the book. It was a process rather than one thing being said and you realising everything while the characters just look stupid for not being able to.

There is something of a non-sequential aspect to this book and histories of a couple of the characters are visited in the later chapters. This normally bothers me in a book: I prefer to sit down and for it to go from A to B and not jump around on the time line but here it didn't bother me, I think simply because of how necessary it was. There was no other way the story could have been told.

Taylor has created a wonderful and intriguing world with the chimaera and her twist on angels and what they are. Mythologies collide with the modern-day in a great way, and I love that the magic isn't overt. It is there, but more in the little things (for the most part). The doors all over the world that lead to Elsewhere, but only when opened from the inside. Things like that, the subtle undertones rather than the full-blown spells-flying-around-everything kind. The whole thing put me in mind of Pan's Labyrinth - that collision of worlds and a girl stuck in the middle of it.

Zuzana is Karou's best (human) friend, and she's a wonderful, lively, bubbly character who I would genuinely love to be friends with. She shares something of my sense of humour, and she reacts in a believable way to the things she sees and has to put up with. Akiva is also wonderful, though in a whole different way. He is strong and handsome and deadly, but he is flawed and makes mistakes. Some pretty big ones, as we come to see. And Karou herself is a great leading lady. She is strong and could be self-sufficient, but she doesn't want to be. She wants her family, and she wants her friends. She has her priorities and will do whatever it takes to achieve her ends no matter what other people think of her. Even if that is just turning her hair blue.

Taylor's writing is wonderful, and you always have a really clear image of the places and the people - not easy when a fair portion of your characters are jumbles of half-human half-animal. Prague is beautifully described, and it just makes me want to go there even more! But it's the emotions that she can put across as well, how Karou feels as she goes through everything.

I got this book from the library, but I will definitely be buying a copy of my own and cannot wait for the sequel.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Title: Horns
Author: Joe Hill
Pages: 437 (paperback)
Published: July 2011
Published by: Gollancz

At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real. 

Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more—he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. 

But Merrin’s death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside. . . . 

Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look—a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It’s time for a little revenge. . . . It’s time the devil had his due. . . .

Ignatious 'Ig' Perrish had found the love of his life in Merrin Williams. Then she was killed. Everyone seems to think that he did it, but he was passed out drunk in his car at the time.

A year later, he wakes up with horns which make people reveal their darkest thoughts and desires, and means that Ig knows their deepest secrets with a simple touch. He  can push them into doing all the things they've been scared to because they're afraid of what people will think. And being the prime suspect in the murder of his girlfriend...Ig really doesn't want to know what people really think of him.

I almost stopped reading this book about 50 pages in, because the depravity of the things which were revealed to Ig seriously put me off. I mean, yeah, some people probably do think about some of the things these people do. But to believe that everyone he comes into contact with has those kind of thoughts? And that kind of sums up a lot of my issues with this story. Yeah, Ig's horns are working a little to draw it out of people, but it doesn't seem like there can be that many people with such horrible thoughts around just one person. I guess I just have a little too much faith in humanity to really believe it.

Ig does some horrible things with his new-found abilities, but it was the times that he didn't, where he did the right thing and tried to help people that kept me reading this book. Though, of course, you never really know which way he'll go, so you're always kind of wondering.

This is a crime story with a difference. You find out pretty early on who did actually kill Merrin, and then it's all a matter of what Ig does with this information. I would have preferred it if the mystery could have been kept a little longer, and maybe delivered in a more suspenseful way than it was because after that it was more about morality and less about who/why. I would have enjoyed the story more, I think, if Ig had had to do some more hunting and digging to find out the truth - it all came a little too easily for my liking.

The writing is good, and Hill has certainly inherited his father's (Stephen King) ability of creating suspense with his writing. You want to know what's going to happen, or how things came about. The story isn't told sequentially - there are jumps back and forth in time relatively frequently - and so you're always left with plenty to wonder about. But the ending isn't unsatisfactory and everything is tied up quite nicely. There are hints of what would follow, but you're left to make up your own mind.

Overall, an interesting book, maybe not entirely suited to my sensibilities.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Title: Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Author: Louis de Bernieres
Pages: 534 (paperback)
Published: 1994
Published by: Vintage

It is 1941 and  Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscientious but far from fanatical soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous - and a consummate musician.

When the local doctor's daughter's letters to her fiancĂ© - and members  of the underground go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?

I'm not really a big fan of books about war, but between this and Birdsong by Sebatian Faulks my opinion is being changed. True, the focus isn't so much on the fighting itself as it is in Birdsong, but it is the backdrop and catalyst for all that happens. Yes, soldiers are followed, but the focus is really on Pelagia and her father and the way in which the war impacted normal people who had no way to fight back or get away.

It follows Pelagia during, and after, World War II as she lives in her little town on the Greek island of Cephalonia, and because the Greek/Italian side of the war isn't something I'm particularly familiar with I did find it quite interesting.

There is a great cast of characters - Velisarios and Lemoni were particular favourites of mine in terms of side characters - and you grow to care for Pelagia and her father Iannis as you follow their life before the war really hits them, and their struggles once it does. Various characters are followed throughout the book, all offering something in their viewpoint but some more easily read than others in my opinion. Iannis' (Pelagia's father) chapters were often concerned with his writing of his book 'A Personal History of Cephalonia' which served as a history lesson more than anything.

Rather unexpectedly, there were also a number of quite amusing characters and moments through the book - the simple shepherd who thinks a soldier parachuting in is a falling angel stands out for me in particular, as do various other parts relating to this 'angel'. Captain Corelli himself is also often amusing, and I think his character is my favourite of them all.

The writing in general seemed unnecessarily over-thought, and it often struck me that the author was using big words for the sake of it. His descriptions of the island itself, though, are wonderful and he paints a beautiful image of how it was before the war. I now really want to go there, even if by the end of the book the civilised world seems to have taken a lot of that away. There are various passages where we are faced with the reality of what it was like for soldiers fighting in this time and the sheer brutality of what they had to try to survive. Again, these parts and wonderfully written and because of this quite horrifying to read.

The last hundred pages or so are about life after the war, and whilst I think it is quite obvious to the reader what has gone on the, characters don't work it out. For this reason, I found it a little frustrating, but there were still some nice moments in there.

P.S. Nicolas Cage totally is not Captain Antonio Corelli.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

Title: Before I Go To Sleep
Author: S. J. Watson
Pages: 384 (paperback)
Published: January 2nd 2012
Published by: Black Swan

Memories define us.

So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?

Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love - all forgotten overnight.

And the one person you trust may be telling you only half the story.

Welcome to Christine's life.

She wakes up not knowing who she is, or who the man sleeping next to her is. Assuming a drunken one-night stand, she creeps into the bathroom to escape and instead finds herself decades older than she was expecting and a mirror surrounded by photos of her with a man she doesn't recognise.

Christine is suffering from both retrograde and anterograde amnesia: she has forgotten most of her life from before the accident which caused it, and has been unable to retain new memories ever since. She is a stranger to herself, and lost in her own life. You can't help but feel sorry for Christine and Ben for what they have to go through every day.

We join Christine as she begins trying to piece her life together and we are just as lost as she is. We only know as much as she can remember and there always great swathes of time left unexplained. Unremembered. The tension built through this is wonderful and I read this book in a matter of hours because I wanted to know what had happened. Having said this, the beginning of the story was a little slow because of this as we establish what has happened. Necessarily, the same past events are covered on multiple occasions. Watson skims over them a little more after the first instance, but it's still slows the story a little as you're relearning things you already know even if this happening is necessary to the story.

Another problem I had with this book was that we are told Christine has often woken up still believing she was a child, and indeed see one day where this was the case. While it is only her episodic (autobiographical) memories which are affected, I had some trouble with the way this was done. I felt it should have had more of an impact on the way she handled the situation she found herself in and the language used by Christine but this may be me being a bit finicky. There are a couple of others things in a similar vein which didn't quite sit right with me but I won't go into to avoid spoilers.

The entire time I was reading this book theories of what had happened were floating through my head as half-memories begin to return to her. But just when you think you've got it worked out, something else will come up making you question it. Another memory. Something someone says.  A photograph. The end of the book sorts everything out beautifully and the climax is incredibly tense.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Atlas Shrugged

Title: Atlas Shrugged
Author: Ayn Rand
Pages: 1069 (hardback)
Published: September 1st 1996 (first published 1957)
Published by: Signet

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was Ayn Rand's greatest achievement and the last work of fiction genre. In this novel she dramatizes her unique philosophy through an intellectual mystery story that integrates ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics, and sex. 

Set in a near-future U.S.A. whose economy is collapsing as a result of the mysterious disappearance of leading innovators and industrialists, this novel presents an astounding panorama of human life-from the productive genius who becomes a worthless the great steel industrialist who does not know that he is working for his own the philosopher who becomes a the woman who runs a transcontinental the lowest track worker in her train tunnels. 

Peopled by larger-than-life heroes and villains, charged with towering questions of good and evil, Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical revolution told in the form of an action thriller!!

There is no doubt in my mind that this is an epic book – in the true sense of the word, rather than the more popular form which has worked its way into popular use of late. It is its wide-spanning reach and incisive analysis of humanity that make it so for me. Though focused in America (namely New York), there are implications in the story for the whole world and numerous references to other countries.

Or rather, to other ‘People’s States’ as the majority of other nations had named themselves in the world Rand has built. We follow Dagny Taggart, the Chief Executive of Operations of the national rail network of Taggart Transcontinental, as she tries to fight the failure of her railway in the face of the collapse of American economy. The story spans years (indeed, what I was initially expecting to be the entire story took up only about 200 pages) in this endeavour, and though you can kind of see what is coming sometimes, there are times when the story heads off in a completely opposite direction.

All of the central characters are quite clear-cut: industrialists (good guys) or politicians and pretty much everyone else (bad guys), though there are a couple where it is a little less clear. Of course this makes it quite easy to understand them, and while I didn’t particularly connect on an emotional level with any of them I still appreciated the things they did to try and achieve their aims and the battles they face.

On the more negative side, for me this is a book of oppositions. The beginning was a little slow, then I fell in love with the story, then Rand began to insert huge expositions (and I mean huge…like, pages and pages long) about…heck, I can’t even remember. I read a lot of them without really paying any actual attention to the words. Economy and expansion and stuff. This meant that there were whole sections of the book which if found tedious as hell. I read some pretty dense stuff during my time at university thanks to neuropsychology, but that had nothing on this. And ‘the’ speech. Anyone else who has read this book will know what I mean…I swear it took me two days of slog and putting the book down every few pages to get through it.

On top of this, aspects of the story (namely the government) required huge amounts of suspension of disbelief on my part. I just cannot comprehend how on earth they could think that the road they were taking the country down was a good one at any point in the run up to the book, or indeed the early days. It just seems completely nonsensical to me.

And I get that it’s based on the premise that people are greedy and want to get as much as possible for as little as possible, but in my opinion this is a dreary view of humanity. Yes, there will always be people like this, but I don’t think society would truly support any government which attempted to implement the things the one in this book does. There would be people going ‘Yeah, that’s just plain not going to work.’ There are too many who would see the greater implications, would see that it wouldn’t be sustainable and that there’s no way it would actually work.

While there are times when this book is truly amazing and I immensely enjoyed reading it, there are too many times when it was just too heavy and the expositions were just too long. A great book and one which I think anyone who thinks they can get through it should give a go, but not one I’ll ever be reading again I don’t think.

As a final note, given just how long it took for me to read this

Ha, book! I win!


Title: Angelfall 
Series: Penryn & the End of Days #1
Author: Susan Ee
Pages: 255 (ebook)
Published: May 21st 2011
Published by: Feral Dream

It's been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back. 

Anything, including making a deal with an enemy angel. 

Raffe is a warrior who lies broken and wingless on the street. After eons of fighting his own battles, he finds himself being rescued from a desperate situation by a half-starved teenage girl. 

Travelling through a dark and twisted Northern California, the have only each other to rely on for survival. Together, they journey toward the angels' stronghold in San Francisco where she'll risk everything to rescue her sister and he'll put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemies for the chance to be made whole again.

Penryn is the responsible one in her family despite only being 17 herself. Both her younger sister and her mother are disabled - one paralysed from the waist down, the other afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. Not great when things start to get really crazy. When they, along with the rest of the world, are thrown into 'The End of Days' Penryn does her utmost to make sure they are all going to still be together at the end of it, no matter what it takes.

I really enjoyed this book. It was incredibly easy to read and only took me two days to get through. The writing is beautiful at times, the first few paragraphs in particular stand out in my memory, and Ee is wonderful at describing the characters' surroundings. Unfortunately, this is sometimes taken that little bit too far and I would find myself wondering exactly why we needed to know certain things about various places because it seemed to bear no relevance to the story, instead simply being their for the sake of it or to show that Ee had done her research and knew exactly what she was talking about or whatever.

Penryn is a wonderful and incredibly likeable character, and I especially like her sense of humour. She is strong in herself and has very clear (and sensible) motivations which she refuses to compromise on no matter what situation she finds herself in. Her mother's schizophrenia is an interesting twist, especially given the situation the world has been thrust into. For a woman who already imagines demons are stalking her, the sudden arrival of angels and the descent of society into chaos only makes matters worse. When I was studying psychology we touched on schizophrenia, and I've got to say I think the depiction of the disorder is done very well, though her few appearances strike me as a little too timely on occasion. Raffe is the typical paranormal guy - amazingly gorgeous and completely unattainable. His angelic nature is very clear in the decisions he makes, though there is the not-so-underlying desire to regain his wings working there too and you're never really clear on how much this in motivating him in certain circumstances.

But while I liked all the characters you are supposed to it never really got past that at all. I've read some books where I love the characters and this just wasn't one of those books for me. While I was caught up in the story, I wasn't caught up in their lives. There were points where this was nearly reached, and I'm hopeful that spending more time with them in the next book will do it for me.

Most of the story is pretty clear cut: reach x to achieve y, overcoming various obstacles along the way, but the pace is good and there is always something different getting in the way, and all of them unavoidable. What I hate in books in when the characters make all their own problems by making stupid decisions. Yeah, nobody's perfect, but I will only tolerate so much stupidity from any one character. Happily, I can say that this wasn't a problem here.

There are a couple of quite creepy/tense moments through the course of the story, and then some quite shocking but incredibly compelling reveals at the end. These cast light on some mysteries from earlier in the book but leave you (or me at least) wanting to know where all this will lead. Most definitely looking forward to reading the next book in this series.