Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter K

I actually find it rather impressive ghat I've made it to my 3rd reread and this is the first time I've read a Stephen King novel for the letter K.

This is going to be a rather contradictory review. On the one hand It is not an easy book to read: there's the length (at over 1130 pages it is the second longest novel King has written, it may have actually been the longest before he added additional pages to The Stand), it has some truly horrifying scenes (I found the solipsistic psychopath Patrick Hockstedter more frightening than the titular monster, because people like him really do exist in our world), there's a rather problematic scene at the end involving prepubescent sex, and it doesn't have the strongest of ends, that ending is also one of King's bleakest as well.

However on the other hand it was an easy book to read for me. Despite the length I read it in just under 2 weeks. King's no prose artist, but what he does is write remarkably readable stories that make the reader continue to turn the pages until they get to the final one, look at the clock and it's 3 in the morning (that didn't actually happen with It this time, although it was a near run thing when I read The Stand for the first time last year). Then there was the story of the town of Derry and It's regular murderous rampages, some people don't appreciate interludes like this, they find them annoying and unnecessary. I love them. I find that they give the setting more depth and a sense of reality. The characters themselves and their stories, especially when they're kids, are genuinely interesting and multilayered.

There's a sense of nostalgia about It. Again this is something that really comes home in the scenes set in 1958. I was a little disappointed when the story took the reader out of the '50's and back into the '80's with the adult versions of the Losers Club.

I could clearly remember bits of the story (for all that I last read it about 20 years ago), however other parts of it, even certain key characters, escaped my mind completely, and I enjoyed remeeting those people and situations.

The book does still have problems. It is too long and there are some unnecessary scenes. I think King must have been on one of his infamous benders when he dreamt up the Turtle. It's one of the failings of his refusal to use an outline when he writes that he sometimes has concepts and scenes that simply don't go anywhere. The Turtle is a bit like that, it's an idea the promises a lot and delivers very little.

Overall though, the experience was one of my favourite rereads this time around, that means L has a lot to live up to.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter J

J gives me the same problem I had with I. I just don't have that many J authors I want to reread. The last 2 times I've done Tove Jansson's Moomin books. I'd like to do Catherine Jinks' The Reformed Vampire Support Group, but I cannot locate my copy of that. Then my eye fell on Redwall.

I'm the wrong age to really be into Brian Jacques and his tales of anthropomorphic woodland creatures in a medieval world. They really are kind of like Kenneth Grahame meets Bernard Cornwell. However, despite not being the target audience I did read and enjoy the first few of the Redwall books before they became rather formulaic.

The series opener actually isn't too bad at all. It's the story of a mighty abby called Redwall that shelters and feeds various woodland creatures in the forest around it (badgers, moles, squirrels, otters and the ubiquitous mice, oddly enough there was a hare, but I can't recall any rabbits). The abby becomes the target of a horde of vicious rats, stoats, weasels and ferrets, headed by a large rat called Cluny.

It's also the story of Matthias, a heroic young abby mouse who wants to emulate the legendary Martin the Warrior. Throughout the course of the book he does so and is the main reason that the abby fights off and kills Cluny. That was one thing that set Redwall apart from the likes of Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton. Creatures did die and were badly injured. Props to Jacques for having the guts to do that, and his publisher for letting it happen.

They've become minor classics now and they're one series that got kids to read in a pre Harry Potter world.

Overall Redwall didn't age that badly for me, although it is clearly a book aged at younger readers and it doesn't cross age lines quite as well as some other children's classics (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland immediately springs to mind. I can read that in an afternoon and it still impresses me every single time).

Have to revisit the land of the adults for K.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Great ReRead Project Mark III - The Letter I

I’m not really sure how to review A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve never actually reviewed a book quite like it. It’s not science fiction, and it’s not fantasy (although it could be argued that Owen’s long held belief that he saw his own gravestone in the set of a local production of A Christmas Carol in which he played the Ghost of Christmas Future as a child and then his later dreams that he also saw his actual death is a fantastical element. There’s also his and his parent’s belief that he’s the result of a virgin birth). A Prayer for Owen Meany, is like a number of author John Irving’s works, an excursion through the life of an extraordinary individual, set in the New England area of the US and mostly in the 50’s and the 60’s.

It isn’t actually the first John Irving book I’d ever read. Prior to seeing A Prayer for Owen Meany, I’d read The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules,  in fact I think I’d seen the films based on those books as well. They did later base a film on A Prayer for Owen Meany, it was called Simon Birch, it only covered the early part of the book and changed the ending, which seemed to bear out the author’s belief that the book wasn’t really filmable.

Despite not being the first of Irving’s novels that I’d ever read it is my favourite and the only one I think I’ve ever read more than once.

Owen’s story is told by his best friend John Wheelwright. John is one of the most passive narrators I’ve ever encountered in fiction. He’s a character who is remarkable by being completely unremarkable. For most of the book John lives completely in Owen Meany’s shadow, which considering the fact that Owen is physically undersized for all his life (never even reaching 5 feet in height) is quite an achievement. But Owen is that sort of character; he’s larger than life and just seems to overwhelm everyone around him.

The story is told in quite an unusual structure and in the hands of a lesser writer than Irving probably would have failed.  It moves in and out of time, backwards and forwards, even in John’s reminiscences made from the safety of 1987. The second half of the book tends to follow a more linear path, with John’s current day interludes breaking up the continuing journey of Owen and John to it’s inevitable and tragic end.

The reminiscences about Owen’s life back in Gravesend do have a rather surreal quality about them and at times I wondered if they all really happened, and if they did were they as reported by John down the passage of years, from his embittered self imposed exile in Canada. I did start to think that maybe John was in fact an unreliable narrator and Owen and many, if not all, the folk in Gravesend were in fact not real, but fictional constructs that he used to make sense of his life. I later came to the conclusion that this was not in fact the case, but it was an interesting thing to consider at some points of the book.

The first half of the book is for me, more enjoyable than the second. In part this may stem from Irving’s affection for New England small town life in the 50’s and early 60’s. As he grows I found Owen to become a less likeable character and the wider world intruding on the lives of the folk of Gravesend, New Hampshire, gave it a more sinister feel. John’s interludes in 1987 became more frequent and longer and I really didn’t found John, his musings on religion, virginity, the Reagan administration (in particular the Iran contra affair) and classic literature, all that interesting. Owen’s speech had by then also become a little bit tiresome (Owen has a ruined voice, and every time he speaks everything he says is capitalised to emphasise how odd his voice actually is, at the start of the book when he’s a child it’s quite fun, but it becomes wearing as he grows).

I always have a deep sorrow for John and Owen when Owen accidentally kills John’s mother. I actually feel sorrier for Owen than I do for John, which is weird, because John’s the one who loses his parent. I should explain the nature of the death.

Due to his size Owen is not much of an athlete, but he does like baseball. Both he and John play on a Little League team. Owen can barely hit a ball and every time he tries he just about knocks himself off his own feet. However because he’s so small he has an almost non existent strike zone, which makes him a useful player if a base is needed.  Owen will nearly always get walked. On this one day he goes up to bat and is encouraged to ‘swing away’. He misses the first two pitches, but connects on the third. It’s a foul ball and it hits Tabby Wheelwright on the sidelines, who has stopped by to see the boys play and was distracted by someone in the crowd so wasn’t looking when the fateful struck her in the head and killed her instantly.

It’s the only ball Owen ever hit, it was a foul and it killed the mother of his best friend and a woman he had more affection than his own mother. Owen’s mother is a shut in, she’s more than likely mentally ill, and Tabby seemed to sort of adopt him. Now he killed her. The image of Owen desperately telling John ‘I’M SORRY!’  and then running away is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read and I feel so much for the character in that moment.

There’s a deep longing from John to go back to those days of the early 50’s when his mother was still alive, before he and Owen went to Gravesend Academy, before President Kennedy was elected and before the US got itself embroiled in a foreign conflict from which John never seemed to recover, and Owen did not survive.

Despite its flaws (it’s too long for one), A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that never fails to make me think, smile, frown, laugh and cry. It’s a worthy entry in the Great ReRead Project.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter H

I elected to go with Jim Hines’ The Stepsister Scheme for my H reread.

The first published work I remember from Jim Hines was Jig the Goblin. It’s probably still the series for which he is best known, although that could now be his current Libriomancer series.

I decided to do something a little different with The Stepsister Scheme, it’s actually the first entry in a 4 volume Princess series. As earlier in the reread project I’d tried to read the whole series, even though the books were relatively self contained, and wound up with less than successful results (I even got rather tired of Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series when I reread the whole thing a year or two ago, and that was even after I didn’t bother with the author’s inferior attempt to resurrect the series some years after the original was completed) with Jack L. Chalker’s Dancing Gods series and John DeChancie’s Castle series, yet only electing to read the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files was the way to go, I came out of it still liking Harry Dresden, I thought I’d only reread the first book of the Princess series.

The Stepsister Scheme is an entry in the ever growing subgenre of fairy tale retellings or reimaginings. Hines’ is largely a comedic writer, so a lot of this is played for laughs. It centres on 3 famous fairy tale princesses: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (as Hines uses the Livio Basile version of Sleeping Beauty as his source, she is called Talia. In fact Cinderella is given the name of Danielle), and largely covers what took place following ‘happily ever after’. The main character is Cinderella and the stepsister of the title is one of hers attempting to take revenge for the events at the end of Cinderella, Snow and Talia aid and abet their fellow princess in her attempts to recover her prince (his name is Armand in this, and he’s such a peripheral character in the original stories that I don’t think he was ever given a first name before) from her wicked stepsister. Although the story features 3 of the best known and most loved Disney Princesses, Hines does not use the Disney versions of their stories. The cover and their adventures inside kind of put me in mind of the fairy tale princesses if they’d actually been reimagined as Charlie’s Angels, this is an image that is reinforced and grows in the following books (Hines also wrote: The Mermaid’s Madness based on The Little Mermaid legend, Red Hood’s Revenge – based on the Little Red Riding Hood story and The Snow Queen’s Shadow, which contains elements of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen).

I did like all of them when I first read them (the chase of Hansel and Gretel in the opening of one was a particular highlight), but decided to just read The Stepsister Scheme and leave it at that. So how did it go? Did the suck fairy visit? Yes and No. I enjoyed it for the most part, but found it rather uneven. I think the best way to tackle it is list some goods and some bads.

The image of the princesses as independent women in charge of their own destinies and able to look after themselves without relying on the male heroes
The pegasi (I love flying horses)
Fairytown was a lot of fun
Snow White (the narrative tends to sparkle whenever she enters it)
The action is well written
Cinderella’s use of animals to help her

The character of Talia (I get that bad things happened to her, but she was a major downer for most of it and more obnoxious than tough)
The naming of Cinderella (I understand that in the context of both Hines’ story and the original legend, the name was intended as an insult, but Danielle just didn’t work for me)
There’s a bit of a reliance on someheretofor unknown magic, usually worked by Snow, to get the heroines out of a fix, it’s not total deus ex machina, but it comes close
The portrayal of most male characters as incompetent or stupid, quite often both (I know the book is all about girl power, but at times it goes a little far to try and hit the reader over the head with the message. I doubt a book that did the opposite published in today’s market would be well received, in fact it probably wouldn’t be published in the first place)
As I said the story was at times a little uneven and hard to swallow. It quite often veers from flights of fancy to a situation of high tension and it was hard for me as a reader to easily reconcile that.

So it balances out. Overall it was a solid entry in the reread project, but I is looking like being a strong entry, even if it’s fantasy credentials are extremely wonky.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter G

After such a success with The Eyre Affair I found myself at the G’s. I have a surprising number of G authors that I actually enjoy rereading. I’d reread Parke Godwin’s Firelord (great take on the Arthurian legend, and if you haven’t read it, you really should. Arthur as he probably never was, but should have been) a couple of years ago and last time around I did Mira Grant’s Feed (another excellent book. I describe it as the zombie book for people that don’t normally read zombie books), my eyes lit on Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Austin Grossman is the twin brother of Lev ‘The Magicians’ Grossman, and I actually saw Soon I Will Be Invincible before I’d heard of Lev or seen The Magicians. Of the two brothers I prefer Austin’s books to Lev’s. I was taking a bit of a chance with Soon I Will Be Invincible, as I’d only read it once and that was a few years ago when it first came out, and while I could remember enjoying it, I’ve had my memory play me false (or my tastes have altered) a few times during this reread project.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is one of the earlier entries into the burgeoning super hero sub genre. I still think of the books I’ve read in that vein that it’s one of the best. It reads a little bit like a crossover between two eras of superherodom. There’s the Golden Age characters mixing with the more modern type ones. It’s a bit of a love letter to comics, which for a former hard core collector like me, is awesome.

It’s written in first person, from two different points of view, the chapters alternate between old style super villain Dr Impossible (and it’s really refreshing to see a book written from the view point of the villain) and rising new heroine Fatale. Like Austin Grossman’s other books (he’s written 2 since Soon I Will Be Invincible: YOU and Crooked, also both excellent, particularly Crooked) it’s a fake autobiography. It mostly centres around the disappearance of the world’s most powerful and most loved super hero; CoreFire, and he’s also Impossible’s greatest nemesis, and for that reason everyone suspects Impossible of being behind CoreFire’s disappearance/death, even though he was in custody at the time.

Impossible, in particular, spends a lot of his time in the book going back through time explaining his origin and the connection between he and CoreFire. Fatale’s relationship with the missing hero is different, she never met him, even after she had the implants that turned her into a cybernetic crime fighter, she was a fan and finds it hard to fit into the team he left behind and find her own place within it.

I don’t know how much Grossman based on known heroes, but I get a lot of the Superman Lex Luthor story from the struggle between Impossible and CoreFire. The main differences are that Impossible has super strength and seemingly some invulnerability to go with the big brain he never tires of telling people about and that he was ironically responsible for creating CoreFire, or rather turning him from a good looking jock to the world’s mightiest hero.

The first time I read Soon I Will Be Invincible I polished it off over a weekend, it’s that sort of book, you just keep on reading to find out what happens next. I didn’t read it quite that quick this time, but it had the same effect on me. I often read more than I intended just to read that little bit more. I didn’t remember many characters apart from Impossible, Fatale, CoreFire and Damsel, but this time the character of Elphin really fired my synapses. She was the last remaining elven or fairy warrior on Earth, possibly the only one of her kind anywhere. That was reminiscent of some of the characters I can remember Marvel using, like Hercules and Thor, they also had an actual elemental being in Meggan in Captain Britain (that was a majorly weird, but very good title in its day) and DC also dabbled in mythological heroes with Wonder Woman and her Amazonian background. I don’t think Austin Grossman does sequels (he hasn’t yet), but I’d definitely be up for some more stories about some of the more peripheral characters in Soon I Will Be Invincible, especially Elphin.

Let’s hope H can live up to F and G.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter F

I was definitely in a bit of a rereading slump (the last 3 letters turned into DNF's effectively), so I decided to go back to an old favourite.

Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair has been one of my favourites from the first time I picked it up when it was originally published. I've read it a number of times and I even gave my original copy to a friend when she went overseas. I have since replaced it.

To be honest I don't think I'd ever encountered a book quite like The Eyre Affair. It's fairly extraordinary, especially as a debut novel. It's a love letter to literature. It isn't necessary to be widely read to enjoy The Eyre Affair, but it does help and if a reader doesn't at least have a decent working knowledge of the plot of Jane Eyre, then they're not going to get one of the book's main jokes.

Being a child of the 80's I quite liked and saw the fun of Thursday Next's alternate 1985. How alternate? The Crimean War is still raging nearly 130 years after it ended in our reality, extinct animals like dodos have been cloned and make good house pets, and these people love their classic literaure: performances of Richard III are like repeat screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in our world (I think the audience participation screenings have largely died out now, but they were big in the 80's).

The plot is pretty out there. Arch villain Acheron Hades has stolen Jane Eyre from her book and os holding her to ransom from a literature loving public, and it's up to feisty LiteraTec operative Thursday Next to get her back. She will travel through time, into Wales, and the world of fiction itself to save Jane and her uncle Mycroft.

It was a wonderful and original excursion, and it never pales on subsequent rereads. Fforde was quite prolific for a number of years after writing the book. He wrote 6 further Thursday Next novels, the related Nursery Crimes duology, 3 volumes of the YA series The Last Dragonslayer, and the first book of a planned trilogy Shades of Grey. He hasn't published anything since 2014, but is supposed to have 3 books scheduled for release in 2018, including the long awaited second book in the Shades of Grey series (I've heard about that one before, so I'll believe it when I actually see it).

If G is anywhere near as good as F, I'm back in business in this reread and will have temporarily banished the suck fairy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter E

Image result for The Elenium

I have to admit I'm not having an awful lot of luck with the reread project this time around. Of the 5 letters I've done so far I've only been able to carry 2 of the entries through as far as I wanted.

It could have something to do with the last 3 things I've selected being published 20 - 30 years ago and my own tastes and views having been altered considerably in that time.

This one requires some explanation. In the 80's David Eddings was one of the biggest if not THE biggest name in fantasy. Despite the popularity of the books, they weren't very good, They were old fashioned, riddled with cliches, repetitive, fairly racist and sexist by today's standards and he commented some major offences against the English language when he tried to use archaic speech patterns with words like thee and thou. Even with all that they were entertaining and easy enough to read. Back then there wasn't a whole lot else to choose from in the epic fantasy field either, so that helped.

Their legion of flaws doesn't make the books great subjects for a reread. I reread Eddings' first fantasy epic The Belgariad some years ago and found it a real chore, although I stuck it out to the bitter end and read the whole thing. From memory the trilogy The Elenium was a little better than The Belgariad, so I decided to give it a whirl.

That was a mistake. Admittedly the hard bitten hero Sparhawk is a little less annoying than the wholesome Garion, and his companions are more interesting, although they mostly stick to the same stereotypes. Having reread a book and a half of it, I've become convinced that it would have been a better series if they were written from the point of view of the child goddess Flute.

When I found myself regularly reading chapters and thinking I'd already read them because the author felt the need to repeat things so often I gave up.

The Elenium has a harder edge than The Belgariad and some of the characters are better written., admittedly most of them have direct analogs in The Belgariad, Flute is at least original. There's actually a half decent book in there trying to get out, the author just didn't have the skill, possibly the will to make it happen.

I really hope the letter F gives me an upturn.