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.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Authors - Similar Ground

I haven't ever done this before, this isn't precisely a review, but more of a comparison between two authors who have some things in common in terms of what they tackle and how they go about it.

I'll cover Marissa Meyer first. Marissa Meyer published her debut novel; Cinder, in 2012. Cinder was the first book of the Lunar Chronicles. It was an anime inspired reimagining of the Cinderella legend. It was followed by Scarlet (Little Red Riding Hood), Cress (Rapunzel) and Winter (Snow White). The Lunar Chronicles were popular enough to spawn a prequel (Fairest) and a book of short stories (Stars Above). Given the popularity of the romance infused, anime inspired fairytales, the characters and the world that Meyer created, moving away from it was a fairly brave move for an author to make.

I felt Marissa Meyer took other risks with Heartless. It also involved a much loved fairytale (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), it was however set largely in a world that was very similar to Lewis Carroll's original, as opposed to the Lunar Chronicles world which was a futuristic Earth and vastly different from those of the stories that inspired it. It was also a prequel, whereas the Lunar Chronicles were a retelling of the originals. Audiences love series today, and by it's very nature Heartless is a standalone book. The author also chose to focus on a fairly unpopular character from the original; Heartless is the story of the Red Queen and how she got to be the character audiences encountered in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Now onto Danielle Paige. Danielle Paige released Dorothy Must Die in 2014, she had already had a a prequel novella (No Place Like Oz) set in the world and using some of the characters published electronically by Harper Collins, before the novel was published (it and two other related novellas were later published as paper books). Paige's series dealt with the world of Oz. It differed from what Meyer had done, in that she told reimaging's and the Dorothy Must Die books were sequels of a kind to Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She did also use characters and settings from some of the other Oz books. Like the Lunar Chronicles (I suspect the two series share an audience, aside from myself, I'm not their target audience at all), they were popular enough to have related books of short work released, and there's actually a 4th novel in the original series scheduled for release later this year.

After having success with her first series, Paige also took a chance by moving away from it. Stealing Snow is a take on Hans Christian Anderson's classic The Snow Queen. Anything related to that story due to Disney's Frozen is almost guaranteed to be successful, this is despite the fact that about the only thing Frozen and The Snow Queen have in common is a character who can control ice and snow. Stealing Snow ultimately takes less risks than Heartless. It's a reimagining of a popular story, currently riding a wave of success that the public can't seem to get enough of, it's also the first of a series (it does standalone, but has sequels planned) and it features a fairly likeable protagonist.

I felt of the two Heartless was the better book. Possibly because I'm more familiar with it's source material than I am with that of Stealing Snow. I also think it was better written and the author stretched herself more. The romance angle aside, Heartless is an ambitious undertaking, it's vastly different to what Marissa Meyer did with the Lunar Chronicles in style and setting. Even the characters are very different. She uses multiple types of story, there are elements of an Austenish comedy of manners, a Regency Romance, the sort of surreal children's story that Carroll originally wrote and a whodunnit. At times I wasn't sure I was reading the same person that wrote the Lunar Chronicles.

Stealing Snow doesn't stretch Paige's talents anywhere near as much. Snow isn't a long way removed from the protagonist of the Dorothy Must Die books; Amy Gumm. She has that same snark and tough girl exterior. It uses one of the same story devices. In Dorothy Must Die, Amy is whisked from Kansas to Oz when a tornado snatches up her mother's mobile home and in Stealing Snow, Snow enters Algid by means of a magical mirror. In both series the protagonist enters the other world to put everything right. Stealing Snow starts with Snow in a psychiatric hospital called Whittakers and housed with other patients who have delusions. The way Snow talks about them is rather like introducing a super hero team and their powers. I was kind of hoping that they'd appear in Algid with their powers real like Snow's were (maybe they will in future books), but once she got to Algid it followed a far more predictable path. The start had me thinking that the author was going to do something like Normal Again, but it was not to be.

Both are good books that will catch and hold a reader's attention, and will no doubt retain the author's existing fans and garner new ones, it's just that on my reading Heartless took me in more than Stealing Snow did.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great Reread Project Mark III - The Letter D

Last time I did this I went for Dave Duncan's The Reaver's Road (the first of his Omar the Storyteller books), unfortunately while I liked it and it's sequel (The Hunter's Haunt) the first time around, this time I just couldn't get into the whole send up of the sword and sorcery genre and it turned into a DNF. I wasn't sure who I'd do for D this time and I settled on John De Chancie.

John De Chancie wrote a number of science fiction and fantasy books back in the 80's and 90's. He is possibly best known for the Castle Perilous series.

These were short, funny fantasies that were quite popular at the time, along with writers like Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin and even some of Esther Friesner's work.

There were 8 of these originally (I believe a 9th; the Pirates of Castle Perilous was recently published) and because they're all pretty short by today's standards (I don't think any of them would break 300 pages) I thought I'd be able to read all of them.

They haven't exactly been visited by the 'suck fairy', but I did have to call defeat part way through Castle War! (the 4th book in the series). Partially this was my fault. They came out in 6 month intervals, and that's really how they were designed to be read. It is possible to overdose on something and the Castle books are an example of that. Shotgunning them the way I was only really showed up their flaws and took away from my enjoyment of them. They've dated terribly, as well.

The idea is pretty cool. A castle located in a place of it's own in space and time, which has 144,000 doors, each of which leads to a different world or reality. Unfortunately I don't think the author's imagination was up to the task and many of his worlds wound up becoming rather pedestrian. There was a lot of promise in the world that one of the lead character's; Snowclaw, hailed from, but it was never really explored.

I also found the inhabitants of the castle kind of boring given that premise. Most of them, Snowclaw excepted, were humans, who came from either Earth or a world very like it. There was a race of sentient dinosaurs in the first book, but they disappeared partway through that and weren't seen again by the time I bailed. They may have reappeared in some of the later books, but they can't have made much of an impact as I can't remember them.

I liked Gene initially, until he turned into a raving chauvinist in the 3rd book, something that turned me off the character and the books, and was evidence of how badly they'd aged. I did like Linda and Snowclaw, although the latter was really used as comedy relief most of the time. I found Incarnadine, the ruler of the castle, rather hard to take at the best of times and kind of wished he'd get lost in one of his castle's many aspects and not return.

Another thing that dated the books was the introduction of computers in the 3rd book. What computers could do and were in the late 80's, are a far cry from what they are now, and they simply didn't work in the concept. It's kind of weird when they're talking about mainframes and floppy drives, booting up programs and separate scanning machines, and I sit there and look at my phone and my tablet and think of streaming data and the cloud.

The one thing that kept popping into my head while I was reading them was how like Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books they were. I doubt John De Chancie had ever even heard of Enid Blyton, let alone read her Faraway Tree books, but they were very similar in concept and execution, although I kind of think Blyton did it better and with more spirit.

Possibly I would have been better digging out Tom Deitz's David Sullivan books.

The letter E has me worried as I'm going back to David and Leigh Eddings. The last time I did that it was The Belgariad, and that was an epic that aged very badly.