Saturday, 7 September 2013

Review: NOS4R2

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been a while since a book has conflicted me a much as this one. I wanted to adore it, my expectation was high (especially after Hill's 'Horns' one of my favourite reads of 2012) and I'm sure that's why I was cross with the middle section of Hill's latest, the scary 'never think of Christmas the same way' NOS4R2.

We start at breakneck speed with the creepy ramped up to 11 with main protagonist Vic speeding from place to place on her bike; a special bike that enables her to travel across a long-ruined bridge which always manages to take her where she needs to be. Think the TARDIS but rickety and smelling of bat pee. It transpires that Vic isn't the only one with this ability, and he's not using it to find lost things either; he's taking them instead.
For Charles Manx (think a cross between Max Shreck's famous vampire and Montgomery Burns from the Simpsons) his conduit is a road, and an extremely evil car: Christine after listening to too many Marilyn Manson albums...

As far as Manx is concerned there are some very unhappy children out there who need rescuing, and where better to take them than to land where Christmas is everlasting? Unfortunately, they'll be disfigured, soulless and their 'useless' parents will be dead, but Hey! Candy canes!!

Without delving too deeply into the plot, while going through a somewhat predictable teen-age phase, Vic gets on the wrong side of Manx, but unlike the others she escapes and lives to fight another cliché....I mean day. And this is where the novel falls down a deep hole for me personally. Hill creates a distinctly unlikeable character in the grown up Vic; petulant, arrogant, selfish and self-destructive. Yes, she's had a traumatic time, but there are times she comes across a bit 'movie of the week' and her 'trials' just dragged on and on. So much so that I longed for her sections to come to an end and the novel to return to Manx and his wonderfully creepy sidekick Bing, one of the better written side characters along with the brilliant Maggie and long-suffering Lou.

These smaller characters are where I feel the book is at it's strongest and I found myself wanting to spend more time with them rather than whiny Vic. Thankfully, this is the strength of the last third of the book as the action is ramped up and resolutions are reached.

One other bugbear I had regarding NOS4R2 is the references to Worlds and works other than his own. As an avid reader of King I'm used to crossovers between an author's other novels, but what Hill does is reference his father's books (most notably the Dark Tower series) as well as other recent novels such as Cloud Atlas. When King self-references it's because he's written it as an inter-weaving World, and regular King readers expect it. But Hill referencing Mitchell was irritating beyond belief. I spent the next few chapters wondering if there was a link, a hint of things to come. But unless I've missed it totally, it was just a nod, I presume to an author he admires.

If goodreads gave reviewers the ability to use half stars NOS4R2 would definitely be a 3.5: too good to be just 3, but not quite 'there' enough for 4.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Review: Drama: An Actor's Education

Drama: An Actor's Education
Drama: An Actor's Education by John Lithgow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superb. Would highly recommend this as an audio book:as you can imagine, Lithgow's tone and delivery is exemplary and his unflinching honesty about his life is a joy to behold in a modern autobiography.
The only thing I would have like more of is his time in Hollywood over the last 20 years as this is skimmed over in the last chapter. But if that meant editing out some of his earlier years and any of the wonderful anecdotes about his early years and his wonderful father, then it's a worthy sacrifice.

View all my reviews

Review: Joyland

Joyland by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We all know King. We all know that King can write epic, sprawling, huge and fantastical stories. But there are times when King is at his best when he scales down the chapters of set-ups and scene-setting, when the characterising speeches are minimized, and the locations are sparse and few. It's a long established opinion that the best film adaptations of his works come from the shortest stories (Stand By Me and Shawshank Redemption being the obvious candidates), and Joyland, is another one of his 'short but sweet' wonders.

It's 1973 and 21 yr old Devin Jones is disillusioned-with his love-life, his education and himself. On a whim he applies to work at old fashioned carnival come theme park Joyland, and finally his life begins.

To call Joyland a 'horror' or 'thriller' story would be doing it a disservice and I notice a lot of reviews claiming it's "nothing like King". I can only presume that these people haven't really 'read' King properly, as it's EXACTLY like King as it's what he does best. It's 100% a character study with the 'crime/horror' element firmly in the background. Every single character is believable: full of heart, full of sorrow and pain, all with the common bond of living for the now, the future being something they don't want to consider.

Don't pick this up expecting another 'IT' or 'Salem's Lot', Joyland is a novella full of heart with a side-order of menace and the perfect beach/flight/curl up in your book-nook and not come out 'till you're finished novel.

Go and get it.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Review: Lexicon

Lexicon by Max Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to find contemporary literature that crosses over with Sci-Fi that produces satisfying results, yet Max Barry manages this and then some with his latest novel Lexicon.

It starts at breakneck speed with the capture (and apparent torture) of male protagonist Wil as he fights against two agents determined to extract something via his eyeball (yeah…still uncurling the toes over that one) his subsequent escape and recapture while racing through an airport lounge. It appears the info the agents need could be vital in fighting an organisation known as The Poets, one in particular known only at this point as ‘Woolf’. Woolf’s done some bad things, some very bad things and it would seem only Wil can stop her.

We then meet Emily a young fraudster living on the streets. She’s good at would she does; she can read and persuade people and this brings her to the attention of the Poets. She’s scooped up (almost literally) and taken to a unique training facility where among other things, she’s taught the power of words and to hone her powers of persuasion.

We follow Wil, Emily, and an amazing cast of supporting characters as the novel gives us both the build-up as well as the aftermath of the ‘Very Bad Thing’. And that’s where Barry shines as an author. At no point is the reader patronised or spoon fed plot details; the chapters are simply numbered, there are no dates or locations as sub-headings and the book is merely separated in sections with only quotes from books or poems to guide the way. Barry acknowledges that the reader may well have the brains to work it all for themselves and this is so refreshing. It makes for a better novel too, as there are moments in the story that are genuinely jaw-dropping ‘did not see that coming’ affairs. Another excellent device is the use of other printed media at the end of each chapter; these range from memos to staff in the diner Emily has been using, news articles on incidents occurring in the story, even questionnaires used by the school to screen applicants.

I borrowed this from the library (after a lengthy wait) but will definitely be buying a copy to keep as I feel it’ll be one of those novels that you gain a little something more from on each reading. Full concentration is required (this isn’t a doze off at bedtime book) but you will be handsomely rewarded with a clever, mature and thought provoking read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Review: The River of No Return

The River of No Return
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll be honest with you, right from the beginning, I'm not one for 'love stories' in my literature: 'girl meets boy, boy's an idiot/oaf/rich egotist, girl pines, boy realises mistake, and hilarity/heartbreak/humping ensues' etc etc. It all bores me witless, especially if there are bonnets or Bennets involved. But, when that love story is set as the background to a clever, witty, tightly constructed novel with time-travel as its main crux, then that’s me sold.
The opening prologue sets us up nicely for the journey to come by introducing us first to Julia Percy a 19th Century orphan left in the care of a Grandfather on his deathbed. As he faces his final moments he tells Julia that she “…must pretend-“before using his mystical ability to speed up his demise. Soon we discover that Julia has powers of her own and that she must indeed ‘pretend’ several times to save her own life.

We’re also introduced to Nick, a wealthy playboy with a nice little side-line as a Vermont cheese farmer in 2013. His world is about to be torn apart by a summons from a mysterious organisation known only as The Guild, the society that gave him his new affluent life after he ‘jumped’ through time seconds before he was due to be slaughtered on the battlefield 200 years previously.

What follows is an amazing ride across the time lines full of good guys, bad guys and quite a few ambiguous guys as well, but it’s testament to Ridgway’s writing that none of them feel forced or surplus to the plot. And what a plot it is! I’m no dumbo, nor am I naïve when it comes to the topic of time travel, but I was genuinely kept guessing by Ridgway, and it’s rare that I’m impressed by a debut author as much as I was by her. My only gripe (though its reasoning could mean a sequel) is that there a few threads left dangling at the end of the novel. I’m hoping there is, as I would love to take a trip with these characters again.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Review: May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuesday. 1am:
3 stars would be unfair, so this is really 3 and a half. A brilliant last 100+ pages really made up for the animosity I was feeling towards the books central characters and themes. Will review fully when I've slept on it....

Tuesday. 6pm: ...So. I've slept on it and knocked it back down to 3/5, purely for the fact that I found a third of this novel infuriating, and here's why.

Harry is the older brother of the bullying, violent, egotistical TV executive George and the book opens as he and his Asian wife (the first of the sickening borderline racist stereotypes) are visiting his house for Thanksgiving. And from there on in it all goes wrong. In the first 50 pages we're presented with an amazing series of events culminating in tragedy that affects everyone around them. No matter how hard Harry tries to make amends for his 'bad deed' he's constantly either screwing it up, or just adding to his woes. The problem is, Harry is such a child that in the beginning, his inability to grow up hampers everything, resulting in a spiral towards internet hook-ups for sex, picking up a very strange girl and taking her home...for sex (for such a loser, Harry does get around a bit) and then there's the self-medicating anything and everything he can get his hands on, causing a major health alert in the first half of the book.
But eventually, the responsibility he is forced to take on in the form of his niece and nephew, give Harry a massive wake-up call and he starts to face up to what he's done and his journey to redemption begins.
It's a long journey too, during which his work as a Nixon scholar and author takes him closer to the disgraced President than he thought he would get. His re-evaluation of Nixon causes Harry to also look at his own life, work and what he actually needs in this World as opposed to what the American Dream is telling him he needs. Sometimes the Nixon analogies get in the way and Homes lays the satire on a bit thick. It's also annoying as that sub-plot means another showing for the clipped Asian accents-I'm all for realism, but when it's used to voice a character who was born in the US, achieved a high standard of education and is hired to work with the printed word, it's lazy and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as you read it.
When it comes to the supporting characters, several are definitely surplus to requirements, as are a few of the bizarre scenarios that Harry finds himself involved in (and readers will know exactly what I mean when I say 'The Woodsman'...why Homes...why?) and I felt this dragged the narrative about Harry's journey down. Also, for a novel so grounded in the harsh realities of life (no matter how daft, they do happen) the two instances of 'magic' jar and are out of place; whilst one is an understandable metaphorical narrative device, the other is forced.

As a commentary on all that's wrong with the Western world, it works well: can't solve your problems-take medication, the key to happiness is a massive tv, elderly and those with mental health problems either locked away and forgotten about or treated like lab rats, the threat of bad publicity worse than the welfare of an 11 yr old girl and Homes weaves these opinions into the story well.

Other reviewers have commented on the novel's almost 'Disneyesque' ending and while I can see their point, I did kind of like it: hasn't everyone got an Aunt Lillian, totally devoid of tact, opening her mouth and saying just the wrong thing at the wrong moment?

Without giving too much away, Harry's redemption is hard-earned, but well-deserved, if only it was better edited and with less of the 'Mickey Rooney School of Asian Depiction'.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was harsh to rate this only 3 stars when I finished it last night, but I was slightly annoyed by the last 100 pages or so. My inner voice was screaming "Oh get on with it" as we (yet again) go from the stands, to another room, for another long protracted discussion about a movie deal that's ultimately going nowhere.

Billy Lynn is very much a 21st century hero- a wild, reckless and bored youth, forced by circumstance into the army and from there, into bloody conflict in Iraq. His story is told, mainly, on a cold Thanksgiving before, during and after the big game at Dallas Cowboys. There's booze, there's punch-ups, there's a hot cheerleader, but most of all there's a very well painted picture of attitudes towards not only soldiers, but the wars they are fighting. While these attitudes are portrayed as solely American, among the banner waving patriotism, as a UK reader, it also rings true of attitudes over here, so don't let the 'All-American' setting deter you from picking this up. Admittedly, if American football isn't you're thing (are you broken?) then you may zone out for small sections of the narrative.

My only criticism of the novel is I would have like more flashback to the family, his sisters especially, as they fascinated me.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Review: Sock

Sock by Penn Jillette

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult novel to review, especially if you are a fan of Jillette not only in his roll as bullshit bashing magician, but as a social commentator. Penn tells it like it is-constantly. And that is the problem with Sock.

As a debut novel it is brave, clever, insightful and raw. Unfortunately,if you've read any of his other works as I had with God,No!, read any of his work online, or seen Penn & Teller:Bullshit, it's all old and just comes across as preachy ranting.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the first 100 pages or so, and using 'The Little Fool's' childhood sock monkey as the central voice is an inspired move. After that, it does tend to become a chore, making the 'broken fourth wall' trick just tiresome and annoying; so much so, that in the end you're praying for another voice to come through. Annoyingly, when that 'voice' does come through, it's just and even louder, shoutier version of what's preceded it.
Like other reviewers, I'm split on the song lyrics gimmick. At times they're clever, but there are instances where it takes you out of the story while you sit there running said lyric through your head.

If you're new to Penn and his ways then go for it. If you're experienced, then don't get your expectations up.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was another one of my 'I really should have read this by now' books, and I'm glad I did.

For the first 100 pages or so, I was surprised that this was a début novel as the prose flowed so well and the story was tight and consistent. After that though, it did begin to flounder and the inexperience showed. Without giving anything away, once Lewycka moves the plot on it tends to get bogged down.
Thankfully, it's a very easy and quick read, so it wasn't a chore to get to the final third's denouement which is both satisfactory and heartfelt.

I would have loved to give it four stars (maybe it is time for Goodreads to implement the half star?), but any faults with this novel certainly would stop me from tracking down any of her subsequent releases.

Great for the garden or the beach or those annoyingly long commutes.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Review: Ford County

Ford County
Ford County by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a busy week, I needed a quick read that didn't get me too hooked and this was perfect. It was also my first experience of Grisham as an author. Sure, I'd sleepwalked through the movie adaptations of his novels, but I'd never felt the urge to pick up any of his books. Suffice to say, after this collection of short stories about small town life I will be.
Be warned though, some of the stories don't make for easy reading: a family visiting their son on death row for the last time, a man ostracised by his family and community for his 'condition', but some will supply the odd wry smile and they're mostly based on revenge.
What Grisham does well is write characters you can empathise with, even if they're unlikeable (take note Sue Townsend ) to the extent that by the end of each story you feel for almost everybody caught in that situation.

This is a great 'weekend/long journey' book, but don't think you'll be able to do 'just' one story at a time. You'll be onto the next on in no time.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review: The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Very rarely do I come across a book that makes me so angry and disappointed in it's author that I cannot finish it.
Townsend (who I was a fan of due to her brilliant Mole series) really dropped the ball with this one.
It is full of characters so horrific and unlike-able with no redeeming features whatsoever.
From the selfish, melodramatic and (cliché-ridden) doormat of the central character Eva Beaver who married a bigoted bully when they didn't even like each other, to her neurotic, pampered, almost incestuous prodigy twins (named after that father no less) this is a mess.
Don't be fooled by the reviews claiming it's "hysterical" either. Unless you find someone so obnoxious that she asks three people to deal with her waste (via funnels and carrier bags) rather than touch the floor on the way to her lavish en-suite, a real rib-tickler of a situation.

You wouldn't have these people as friends. Don't waste precious reading time inviting them into your lives.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Review: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I *adored* this book. Funny, clever without being condescending and with a heart so big it envelops you with every page.
Very rarely do you come across a novel that actually understands the Reader (note the capitalisation there) but this spoke to me from page one.
It's not just a 'love story' between the reader (little r) and the written word either. Even though it was written in 1979, there is an underlying satirical subtext exploring how we are 'fed' our culture that resonated with me now in 2013.
I'm also very glad I read this after Cloud Atlas as it's a clear influence (something I had confirmed when researching this after finishing it) and I would've been cross with Mitchell instead of just appreciating the homage.
A word of warning though. Make this a 'nook' book. Hide yourself away. Throw yourself under the duvet. Distractions will only get in the way.

View all my reviews