Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

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Yes, I should have read the book first and then seen the movie, but when Starship Troopers was released in the cinema I was only eleven years old. And at the time my reading list wasn’t quite as extensive as it is now. But I have finally managed to get to this one and let’s just say it wasn’t what I was expecting after having watched the over the top action movie more times than any person really should over the last fifteen years. The names are the same. That is pretty much the extent of the crossover … Thankfully I will add.

I will say this to begin. I fully understand why this book is so highly rated. The ideas, especially when put into context of when the book was written, are thoroughly thought provoking. The battle scenes are presented like a scene from a blockbuster movie and really put you in the driver’s seat for the action. The philosophical questions posed in this future earth have not dulled with age.

Reading this I constantly found myself stopping to think that the arguments Robert A. Heinlein is presenting are very convincing. His characters talk of our time with disdain and even mock our system of government. And although the world they are living in seems so utterly ridiculous, you end up nodding along as they discuss why the way we do everything is wrong.

There were a couple of times when I actually thought I was sitting in a classroom myself hearing a lecture/debate on morality, civil service and the best way to govern a country. Those bits of the book were the highlight for me; the discussions and thoughts conveyed regarding personal sacrifice for the greater good. And when that is wrapped up in an action packed military fiction, you just can’t complain.

The description of boot camp and life in the mobile infantry is so gritty and thus, to its core so real. I have never served in the military but I imagine that anybody who has could relate to this book. The story follows Rico as he joins the mobile infantry and travels the stars to battle the Bugs. In many ways this book didn’t need to be science fiction. The Bugs could have been replaced with foreigners from another country, and the spaceships with planes. But it wouldn’t have been the same.

Heinlein’s words are a pleasure to read and have you drifting through pages with ease. Some classic works of SF can be a tad dry. This was vibrant, full of slang which helped to make it feel like our society and, most of all, believable.

If I had to point at something I did not like I would say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the way it ended. However, I cannot in any way suggest a better ending, so I will say he ended it well. I feel that this book could easily be one that students should study in high school. I know that many of the books that I read in my schooling did nothing to get me thinking differently. Yet, this book achieved just that, and all the while had marines splattering aliens across distant planets. What more could you ask for?

 

Rating 5/5

Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

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Like many I am a fan of Zombie flicks. Pure popcorn entertainment. I haven’t read many books in the genre. And though Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy is more a post apocalyptic vampire tale, the overarching story to me is very reminiscent of the classic Zombie ‘end of the world’ story.

I will set the scene and say that I really enjoyed this book. It is a change from my usual genre and I find that often it takes me longer to read non sci-fi/fantasy books. The Twelve didn’t present that challenge. I couldn’t stop reading it. It has a fast pace, with plenty of action, several different interwoven stories and characters that you can relate to, but also feel like they are from an alternate earth.

I read The Passage many years ago and when I started reading The Twelve I had no idea what was going on. Honestly … 50 pages in I stopped, had to hop onto Google and read a synopsis of the first book, to remind myself of what exactly had happened. If it’s been a while since you read book one, I highly recommend you do this. Otherwise it can be a little difficult to keep track of what’s happening and which characters you should know, and which are new. Once my memory was jogged I got right in and loved it.

The book introduces some new characters straight away and takes you back to the beginning of the viral plague. I was actually surprised not to take off with the character from The Passage. For a little while I was actually wondering whether the book was going to have a completely different cast all together. But Cronin does a wonderful job of bringing the story of the new characters together with those from book one. It is actually the highlight of the book to see new and old join together. The Twelve builds to a terrific finale which made me glad I stuck with it to the end.

Overall this trilogy is about modern humans. A good post apocalyptic tale with zombies, vampires or any other creature should be exactly that. The time jumping and shift from character to character at the beginning gets a little confusing, but by the middle of the book you are thoroughly caught up in humanities struggle for existence. Cronin has a wonderful style of writing which is easy to read. It never feels heavy or mentally draining. It flows page to page, with breaks at just the right spots to keep you engaged.

With the movie rights having been purchased for The Passage I hope more people will be encouraged to pick up these books. They are a hell of a read and a great window into a world that could be.

Rating 4/5

Review – The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard

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Batman & the Joker. Enough said. No point in reading any more of this review … But if you do choose to, I would actually suggest you go out and get yourself a copy of The Killing Joke instead, and read that.

I have loved comics for a long time, but for most of that time my allegiance has been to Marvel. You can thank the X-men and Wolverine for that. But in recent years my interest in DC and other publishers has risen (Image, IDW, Dark Horse etc.). I don’t know whether it is due to the Dark Knight films or the Arrow TV show, or whether I am looking for something different, but I have found my recent foray into DC to be enthralling.

The Killing Joke was the most recent graphic novel in my long list of ‘to read’ comics. It is a standalone story, never published as individual comics and created by the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Brian Bollard (Judge Dredd). It truly feels like Batman. It is gritty, dark, and gripping. Everything we have come to expect from the Dark Knight.

What sets this apart from other Batman comics I have read is the emotion. Comics have their own ability to create atmosphere. The merger of text and illustration provides a different insight compared to a regular book or movie. I haven’t read a comic in years which had me stopping at frames to think, “Whoa, intense!”

The Joker is a classic villain. In The Killing Joke he is at his best. His dialogue is terrific. It was a joy to read. Batman really takes a back seat in this and it is a good thing, because this is a story about the Joker. We are provided with the Joker’s backstory. And this is what the graphic novel is about. The turning point which transformed an ordinary man into the Dark Knight’s most famous adversary.

Make sure that you get your hands on the deluxe version in which Brian Bollard has re-coloured each panel to ensure the story is told as it was originally intended. The artwork is immaculate. Every scene draws your attention, making you study the figures and items in the background. I had to read it twice straight away to make sure I didn’t miss anything! That’s how good it is.

I recently read the Dark Knight Returns, consider by most to be the single greatest graphic novel of all time. As great as it was, I enjoyed The Killing Joke more. I actually can’t really flaw it. I was sad when it ended, that is the only thing I can say. I wanted it to keep going. I don’t want to spoil anything but I highly, highly recommend.

Rating 5/5

Image credit: The Killing Joke; Alan Moore and Brian Bollard (Deluxe edition, 2008)

Why Reviews Matter

 

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I had a discussion with a fellow artist not that long ago about why we do what we do. This person was not a writer, but their particular medium of art was also one where reviews are an important part of success. Our lengthy discussion revolved heavily on gaining enjoyment from seeing others appreciating our work.

Afterwards, on the train, I was looking through some of the reviews I have been lucky enough to receive and found myself feeling exhilarated. The profound truth is that though you may make a sale, or have someone download your work for free, you will never truly know whether they liked it or not unless they write you a review.

What is it that drives people to write reviews? I still don’t really know the answer. I know that I have only recently taken to writing reviews and much of that is driven by my own desire to receive reviews. I like to think of it as good fortune. If I give a little out into the world, perhaps I will gain a little back.

A review to an artist is a confirmation that what they are pursuing is worthwhile. That it means something to someone. Even if it is a bad review, we at the very least know that someone read or listened to our work. And we can learn from the criticism. This is the only way we will know as artists, what people like, and what they do not like.

So I encourage you all to take five minutes when you read a good book, listen to a great song, or watch a great film, to write a review. Or even just click a box to give that piece of art a star rating. The artists appreciate it more than you could know.

Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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Fitz! What a character … What a story! I don’t know why it took me so long to start reading Robin Hobb, but I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it because now I have so many of her other books to explore. Assassin’s Apprentice was hands down one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. There we go, review over. No need for any more praise than that. Ok, you aren’t here to read a ten second review. Here are a few more thoughts.

This was a refreshing example of a coming of age story for me. The first person narrative worked extremely well in making you feel like you were watching the story unfold from Fitz’s mind. It kept other characters mysterious and at a distance. It also kept up a good level of suspense. A good page turner for me is a book which constantly leaves you hanging, needing to know more, to unravel more clues. Hobb did this splendidly with Assassin’s apprentice.

The thing I reflect on the most is how much I liked the different characters. Fitz has many mentor figures as well as a few adversaries who are all unique, flawed and well developed. In addition to this his affinity with animals was something which added a real flavour to the book. I always like it when a character has great companions. To have great animal companions, well, it doesn’t get much better than that. Drizzt anyone?

Something I found refreshing was the fact that this was an opening book of a trilogy and did not focus on world changing events. Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive fan of the ‘save the world’ stories. But it was nice to see a first book focus more on the main character’s growth, with some world changing events only hinted at in the background.

Hobb also has a great magic system in place. One which makes it a powerful thing in the world but also dangerous to use. I felt it added that real fantastical element to the tale, but did not overtake the narrative. There were times when I really wanted to hear a little bit more about ‘The Skill’ but I am sure that will come in later novels.  

Now let me come to my favourite part of the book. The Fool. Most fantasy stories have some element of prophecy or destiny in them. The Fool is a character who is mysterious and hints at prophecy, but not in a blatant way. I did not at once feel like he was contrived or merely used to drive the story. I felt like he was a living breathing part of the world. And I can’t wait to find out more about him.

Overall I cannot more highly recommend this book to anyone who has not read it. In fact don’t read any more of this, go out and by Assassin’s Apprentice and start reading!

Rating 5/5  

Review: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson

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I have seen multiple lists of iconic fantasy novels to read. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have almost always made an appearance. Because of that I finally managed to find the time to read the first entry. I will be upfront, I did not really enjoy Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew little about it prior to picking it up, other than the fact that the main character was an anti-hero.

Having read the book, I now feel that much of this book’s success can be attributed to it being one of the few Fantasy novels of its time to push certain boundaries. Therefore I need to give it credit where credit is due and say that Thomas Covenant is a terrific anti-hero. By the end of the book I actually disliked him more than at the beginning. I do not want to spoil anything for would be readers but there is a particular event at the start of the book which really surprised me. And not in a good way. In a way that instantly made me want to read something else because I detested the character so much.

What saddens me is that Donaldson is a great writer. At times I really loved his descriptions, names and characters. But as a whole I just found it tiresome to finish the story. I didn’t care whether Thomas Covenant achieved anything. The basic premise of the story reminded me heavily of the Lord of the Rings. Yet it was different enough not to feel like it was borrowing too heavily.

What I particularly liked was the different cultures which Donaldson developed, such as his giants and the people of the plains. They were a unique take and I found that refreshing. Saltheart Foamfollower was a character I instantly liked and, to be honest, kept me reading when I considered giving up. After finishing the book I hopped online to see what others had thought. Normally I do not do this but as I really didn’t enjoy the book that much, I felt that perhaps I had missed something.

Never have I come across such polarizing reviews. It seemed that people either loved it or hated it. One star or five. I found few reviews that sat in the middle. Many of the negative reviews centered on that certain event at the beginning, and I can understand how that could turn someone away from reading any more of the book quite quickly. However, I found that when I read why people loved the book I started to see their points.

Lord Foul’s Bane is best looked at through a lens. It may not be the best story, but it set out to create a unique world, with an anti-hero main character whose actions and behaviour go against what we expect in a novel. I think you need to consider when it was written whilst judging it. Fantasy writing has changed significantly since then. Modern novels trend towards faster pacing, more dialogue and less exposition. Donaldson covers some great themes in his book and I think it is true to say that reading the Chronicles is hard work. You almost feel as though you are studying an ancient roman text. That being said it is an exceptionally well written story.

So now I ask myself would I recommend this book to my friends. The short answer is no. I do not feel that I would be looked upon favourably in doing so. But credit must be given. I understand why some people would love this book. And Donaldson is a great writer. I have simply decided it is just not to my taste.

Rating: 2/5

Review: The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

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You know you have read a top class book when it’s over and you feel depressed. I have post trilogy depression, amongst the worst kind of book related disorders. One where you have invested so much of your time and soul into a multi character epic that you tend to forget that in the morning you have a job to go to. Yet at the same time I feel like my eyes have been opened to a new world. Grimdark!

Prior to reading Abercrombie’s work I had never experienced such truly gritty and dark fantasy. I now know it is a genre of its own, but to be honest I look at it more as ‘Real Fantasy’. In a similar fashion to the mass market popularity of Game of Thrones, where other fantasy series have failed to grow, the First Law gives us everything we would expect from a well constructed fantasy universe, but also gives us characters that could have come from a history book. They don’t just have faults, they live and breathe by their faults. Reading Joe Abercrombie’s books has shown me how characters can be despicable and make you root for them at the same time.

Logan Ninefingers and Glokta are amongst the most interesting and unforgettable fictional characters I have ever come across. Ferro and Jezal made choices throughout the books that felt so real. Often one expects a book to go a certain direction, or a character to say or do a certain thing, especially in fantasy writing. Not for Abercrombie’s characters. As I turned the pages my inner voice was constantly saying no, no, don’t do that, don’t say that. However, this only kept me wanting more.

The Last Argument of Kings is a fine climax for the trilogy. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so I will only say that it was good to see things come together in the final battle. Abercrombie takes us into the head of the many POV characters. Using his amazing blend of vivid description and gritty language, we are taken right into the thick of it. I bled with the characters. Swore alongside them. I cringed and laughed with them. Few books draw you in so deeply. I felt I lived the First Law rather than read it. And that is the biggest compliment I can give Mr Abercrombie.

I feel there is little need for me to do an in depth review of this book. It is extremely well written. All of the characters that you love are back and in fine form. The story develops in an interesting way and does not repeat itself. There is action, emotion, suspense, drama and just about anything else you need in a good book. Just go out and read it.

I don’t often recommend books to my close friends but I will be telling every fantasy fan that I know to pick up these three books and get stuck into them.

Rating 5/5

Review: On Writing by Stephen King

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Even if you aren’t a writer, I would say read this book. Part autobiography, part guide to writing, On Writing  had me nodding my head so many times, people on the train must have thought I was a bobble head. I will admit that I haven’t read a lot of his fiction. I am familiar with most of his stories through their TV, movie and comic adaptations. Yet I was fully engrossed for the whole book.

King’s early life is described in such a vivid way that I felt as though I was there with him. At other times I was sitting in a chair right beside him, listening to him talk on a lazy Sunday afternoon, recalling the days of his youth. I have a new found respect for the man whose life never seemed to be easy. I can appreciate how he is able to bring so much character and feeling into his own writing. That being said, it is obvious from his tips on writing that more than life experience has brought him success.

I will not go into the details of what he suggests every writer, new or established, do when practicing the skill. However the idea of having a toolbox from which to draw is one that I feel could translate to any art form. And that is why I would recommend the book to anyone who dabbles in some form of art. King provides not only advice on techniques, but a philosophy which inspires you to stop reading his book and get to it. Often I was torn between putting the book down and getting back to writing, or continuing to turn the engrossing pages.

The amazing thing, now that I look back on the book, is that I did not agree with all of his advice. Those who have read my blog before will know that I feel there are many different techniques and forms of writing. There is no absolute right or wrong, other than traditional grammar and structure, and therefore one shouldn’t feel as though you need to follow everyone’s rules. If you tried to you’d never get any actual writing done. You’ll find conflicting advice anywhere. However, despite my occasional disagreements, I found myself finishing the book and feeling invigorated. I felt like I have the power to turn on my computer and begin typing pure gold. For King to be able to do that whilst still have me questioning some of his advice, honestly amazes me.

One thing King mentions which I could not agree with enough is that without constant reading, particularly of authors who are considered masters, or books that are popular or acclaimed, one can never truly learn to become a better writer. To see examples of good writing, to absorb them properly, will do you more good than reading 100 guides on how to write. (Ironic really to make such a point in a book on writing advice.)

I don’t and will not hesitate to give ‘On Writing’ 5 stars. It strikes a fantastic balance between motivation, technique and biography. You don’t need to agree with everything he says, but you will feel like you have the capacity to achieve your goals once you have finished reading.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

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Wizards and Football…Hold on, did you just mention two of my favourite things together? Unseen University and Football, Discworld and Football. I think my brain just melted a bit.

That was my reaction when Unseen Academicals was released. Sadly my reading list was too large. But now I have finally gotten around to reading Terry Pratchett’s foray into the tug and war of foot-the-ball. Being upfront, I had very high expectations of this book. Did it meet those expectations? Short answer – no. However there was no way it could have ever done so. So I will pass my judgement with an open mind.

All of the Discworld novels are entertaining. It is extremely rare to pick one up and not turn the pages with enjoyable ease. Unseen Academicals is no different. Give it a go, you most likely won’t regret it.

To begin with, I thought there would be a lot more football in this book. And yes, the overarching premise is a revolution to Ankh Morpork’s ball game, to make it more closely resemble modern day football, yet there is more focus on a handful of characters working in the University. I found them genuinely likable for the most part. I wasn’t in love with them though.

The story is tied into one of these characters in particular, Mr Nutt, who is an interesting fellow; polite, skilled and articulate. I liked Mr Nutt the most and will not go into revealing any of his secrets. I don’t want to spoil the book. Any part with him in it kept me interested and it was worth reading just to uncover more about him.

I found the toughest parts to get through those focusing on Glenda; the tough, motherly night kitchen cook. She was a great character, but the end of the book had a lot of Glenda. I feel it would have been better served with a bit more football or focus on the actual Academics.

My biggest criticism is an odd one, but it is the fact that the Librarian did not get enough of a cameo. I can understand that a character who cannot speak is a difficult one to write about in length, but this was the opportunity to do so! (An Orangutan for goodness sakes. The perfect goal keeper.) His participation in the actual football had so much potential, but was too brief to be memorable.

That aside, Vetinari stands out once again. I don’t need to go on in length as to how well Pratchett writes this tyrannical man. And the side story, which sees Juliet, one of the University’s staff, modelling dwarf designer clothes, was an interesting change. More dwarf culture is never a bad thing.

The sporting culture of Ankh Morpork was terrifically colourful, even if those colours were primarily sickly shades of browns, yellows and greens. You get a real sense of the common people milling together in the streets and those scenes stand out for me with vivid imagery.

Overall this was more of a story about a few quirky individuals, which used the coming of proper football to the Discworld as a backdrop. A little part of me wonders, if the roles had been reversed and the actual game had been centre stage, with the drama of the University’s staff less prominent, would it have made for a better story.

We will never know. But we will have enjoyed the book regardless!

Rating 4/5

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Cover of "The Blade Itself (First Law)"

Cover of The Blade Itself (First Law)

Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he is a master of modern fantasy. I will be honest I have not had the chance to read a great deal of new fantasy. I am still working my way through piles of the classics. But having read ‘The Blade Itself’, I now realise I need to pay more attention to the new wave of fantasy authors.

Abercrombie’s writing is absolutely stand out. It is fluid and gripping, with a terrific use of both modern and old vernacular to truly paint a picture in your mind. Often I took a moment to re-read one of his metaphors or quirky descriptive phrases because they were that good! I found myself thinking, ‘God what a brilliant way to describe that.’, something I don’t do that often when I’m reading. The book is full of curse words you rarely see in fantasy writing and I sincerely believe that if used properly they really add to the story. They provide a gritty realism to the world often missed by traditional fantasy authors. So hat’s off to Joe for changing the way I think about my own writing.

The true strength in ‘The Blade Itself’ is the diversity and sincerity in its characters. Few books have twisted and uncouth characters as the main protagonists. Sure there are some great examples, but this has got to be up there as one of them now. Every POV character is flawed. But not flawed simply to have a flawed character, flawed in a real sense. Each character is utterly believable, which in a fantasy setting is not always possible.

They are selfish, frightened, mean, arrogant, and deplorable at times, loveable at others. From start to finish you are wondering whether you should be cheering for a character or hoping they plunge into an endless chasm. If Tolkien had his Fellowship of the Ring, Abercrombie has his Band of Merry Misfits.

And that is what the book seems to boil down to. I haven’t started the rest of the First Law trilogy, and do not want to give away big spoilers, but this book is a tale of gatherings. Whilst most first books in a trilogy culminate in a disaster or reveal a large looming catastrophe, this one only hints at a larger issue, but really focusses on getting the characters together. I found it unusual to flick over the last page and think to myself, ‘I don’t really know where this is going, and don’t know whose side I should be one.’ But damn, I can’t wait to read more.

There were no particular scenes that jumped out to me. If you ask me what was your favourite bit? I find it hard to pinpoint any particular event. Yet the whole thing kept me turning page after page. And there is no truer sign of a good book. If you like hard edged fantasy, go buy this book!

Rating 4.5/5