Monday, 30 July 2012

The Blade Itself

Title: The Blade Itself
Series: The First Law #1
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Pages: 517 (paperback)
Published: March 4th 2006
Published by: Gollancz

Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian – leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies. 
Nobleman, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, Captain Jezal dan Luthar has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules. 
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it. 
Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he's about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glotka a whole lot more difficult. 
Murderous conspiracies rise to the surface, old scores are ready to be settled, and the line between hero and villain is sharp enough to draw blood. Unpredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, The Blade Itself is noir fantasy with a real cutting edge.

Logen Ninefingers is a named man: one of the warrior barbarians of the north who has earned his own fighting name who finds himself dragged along to a city he doesn't understand and a reason he doesn't know. Jezal dan Luthar is trying to become a fencing champion while resisting amorous advances from a completely unsuitable - and off limits - woman. Sand dan Glokta is a bitter, pain-filled torturer who's trying to survive the politics of a dangerous government. Bayaz is a mysterious magician who no one really understands and has his own agenda which is barely even hinted at. These, and others, make up the wonderful and eclectic cast of The Blade Itself.

Joe Abercrombie is another bandwagon that I'm a little late joining. Yeah, he's not as big as like George R. R. Martin and stuff, but I've always heard good things about his books and they've always sounded quite interesting; I just haven't got round to reading anything by him up until now. And he's definitely a very talented author. His cast is wonderful, and you quickly and easily get a great feel for all of them. He gets inside their heads so well and makes all of them distinctive so you can from a few lines know who it is you're now following.

His story is intricate, even if for most of you don't have a clue what's going on: you're following these characters but don't know why or where they're going or what is really going on in the bigger picture for most of the time. When I was around 100 pages from the end of this book, a friend asked me what it was about and all I could answer with was a shrug of my shoulders and the very unhelpful answer of "People, doing stuff." It's all quite enigmatic, and I wished there'd been something more go on earlier than there is.

Of course this didn't stop me reading, if it did slow me down a little. It was just a little hard to get caught up in a story that wasn't particularly there.

I was enjoying it up until the penultimate chapter. Then there was an amazing scene - just a few pages long - that blew me away. I really, really want to know more about what was shown. Like really. Because there was no indication of anything particularly unusual, then suddenly - bam. You're hit with this information. And I can't wait to see what happens.

I'm interested in the fates of the other characters too, but bar one I'm less invested in them. Oh, maybe bar two. No, three. Ok, so turns out I'm more interested in some of the characters than I realised.

Outside of the characters, the writing was still very well done, and there was a nice mix of humour and violence. Nothing particularly horrific, but the fight scenes were realistically written without too much flying-about-of-viscera which I'm always a fan of. Though I if I can get through Battle Royale I'll probably be set for life on that front. And there were some laugh out loud moments, often not at times when you're expecting.  Most come from Glokta and his aides - Practicals - who I suppose have to make light of what they can in their line of work.

A very interesting book with some great characters, if a few too many ends are left a little too loose for my liking. Definitely a series I'll be carrying on with.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Series: Flavia de Luce #1
Author: Alan Bradley
Pages: 382 (paperback)
Published: January 19th 2010
Published by: Bantam

It is the summer of 1950 - and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

I grew up reading Enid Blyton adventure books: kids running round and solving mysteries; The Famous Five mostly but also bits and pieces of The Secret Seven. They were set in a different time, when four children (and their dog) could go on holiday together and snoop around new places. Sweetness was recommended to me by a friend, and as soon as he told me about it this sort of the thing was the first thing that came to mind and I was quite excited by the idea.

Flavia is a fiercely independent 11-year-old girl living in a big old house in the English countryside. She has two very annoying older sisters and a passion for chemistry, a love which riddles the entire book in the form of her thoughts and role-models. She is clearly incredibly intelligent and has spent much time learning about all things chemical, aided by a laboratory inherited from a long dead relation - one of the benefits of an ancestral home I suppose! When a dead body turns up in the garden, Flavia wastes no time in trying to get to the bottom of what's going on.

Bradley has created a very good leading lady in Miss Flavia Sabina de Luce. She is smart and quick-witted, if a little forgetful at times. Some things are forgiveable given the amount she learns in such short spaces of time, but forgetting that the local post office will be shut on a Sunday and going wandering about the back of it because of it was a little unbelievable. Though of course you couldn't have had her and the plot kicking their heels for a day, waiting to find out certain important pieces of information.

And of course, this is still a crime novel so the there are the requisite lengthy expositions about the past so that motives can be uncovered, and the the big long explanation at the end where all the clues are brought together. All this is necessary, but these are the things I don't like about crime books and may be part of the reason I don't really read them any more.

Flavia is really the only central character; there are secondary characters with whom she interacts, but her main companion is herself and her musings are all internal. I think it would have been nice for her to have someone to bounce off of, and also so she wasn't working everything out for herself but I can understand why she is so solitary given the nature of her two sisters. Maybe this is something that may be built on further in the series? Though her companion would have to be quite brilliant in their own way to keep up with Miss de Luce!

The writing itself is very easy to read and very descriptive of the surroundings, maybe overly so at times. On a number of occasions I was actually pulled out of the story and noticed just how much description was being used and it was a little distracting, but then Flavia herself is very observant so it is the way she sees the world, and probably quite useful in all her sleuthing.

I don't really have any complaints about this book, but while it was very good it wasn't amazing. There maybe wasn't quite enough happening during her actual detecting: there was a big finish, but after the inital murder the rest of the story is just her finding out stuff. Still, a very enjoyable book, with a mystery with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing and a nice story all-round. A series I'm sure I'll carry on with at some point.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Psychopath Test

Title: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
Author: Jon Ronson
Pages: 293 (paperback)
Published: June 3rd 2011
Published by: Picador

This is a story about madness. It all starts when journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist. She and several colleagues have recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail, and Jon is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for the answer, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness. 

Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths. Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power... 
Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is a deeply honest book unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges.

Psychology is a huge subject, and even though I spent three years studying it at university, psychopathy was one thing we never even touched on (to the best of my recollection at any rate...) which is a shame because it's an incredibly interesting topic. That there are people for whom their emotional reactions to others just don't work the same as in other people.

This book doesn't start out as being about psychopathy, but about a number of academics who received a strange book in the mail. When Jon Ronson is brought in to try and work out how it came from and why, it sets him off on a path that will lead him to many interesting people and places - because for it's a little disturbing, psychopathy is to me undoubtedly interesting. He learns about, and discloses, Bob Hare's checklist for finding psychopaths and while I don't know anyone who particularly stands out in any of the ways put forward there, it is definitely something I'll be on the lookout for in the future. He then moves on to thinking about madness in general and the place it has in society today, and there are definitely some interesting conclusions reached in the course of his research and the people he meets.

Ronson is a very good writing - not surprising considering that he's a journalist - and he quite easily engages you, weaving smaller side stories throughout the narrative of his journey through the madness industry. Still, I've got to say I think the earlier part of the book was better than the later purely because of the subject matter. I found the strictly psychopathy parts more interesting than the more general madness parts, even though the overall subject is still the same. He also manages to bring humour in, and I quite often found myself snickering at the thoughts he has, or the things he says and the way people react.

He is concise, and you never feel bogged down in any details of anything, but neither are you left confused. Yes, I have some background to the whole 'psychology' thing, but I've probably forgotten most of what I ever knew, and I didn't think there was anything that would have confused someone who didn't know anything about the subject. Ronson has obviously done his research very well and knows what he's talking about.

A good and interesting book with a good insight into something which few people probably really know anything about.