Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review Minis: Opening Volumes of Comic Series

Earlier in the year, I went through a bit of a binge of requesting books from my local library.  Volumes of comic books are pricey and I still don't feel as though I know enough about what I like and what I don't to be able to buy with confidence.  I'm starting to get a feel for what artistic styles I'm keen on and what I'm not and the types of story that I enjoy reading in comic book form and those I'd rather avoid.  Where £10 is a bit of a gamble, my library's 90 pence reservation fee is nothing of the sort.  My experiments have been a bit of a mixed bag...

The Wicked + The Divine: Volume 1 - The Faust Act by Kieron Gillon

This was...odd.  I can only imagine how confused my expression must have been the entire time that I was reading this.  I don't need things to be completely spelled out for me but I do need them to make at least some kind of sense.  Especially given that this volume is made up of the first five issues of the series.  If I'd been buying them as they were coming out, I would never have made it to volume five.  It's a shame because the concept sounded right up my street - twelve gods become incarnate every ninety years and get to live as human for two years.  What's annoying is that that's pretty much all I still know.  Laura, a sort of fangirl to these gods-turned-modern-celebrities, stumbles into their company and for some reason they let her hang around despite professing to want to be discreet.  There are no hints at all about why exactly the gods might be reborn, why they're only allowed to live for two years, what on earth might happen after their two years is up or...well, just what the whole point of the story is, really.

To be fair, it wasn't all confusion and bafflement.  The colours are incredible, bright and vivid but without seeming childish.  The art is quirky but still clear.  The gods that are featured aren't just your usual Ancient Greek or Egyptian gods but also Shinto deities and Sumerian goddesses.  If you're into ancient civilisations and lesser known gods, there's plenty of diversity and enough to keep you distracted from the fact that nothing else really makes any sense.  And I suppose the other upshot to not having much of a clue to what was going on was that nothing was particularly predictable.  I couldn't have told you what had recently happened, never mind guess at what might be coming up.  I might pick up the next volume to see if there is a point but I'm not too bothered if I don't happen across it.

2.5 stars for some stunning art and perhaps a little too much originality for me

Rat Queens: Volume 1 - Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

The Rat Queens are described in the volume's blurb as "a pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire...in the business of killing all god's creatures for profit", which sums them up far more neatly than I ever could. The first volume reminded me a lot of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, if slightly more sweary.  I think because the plot follows a group of misfits, a watch full of mysterious characters and a whole host of quirky races, all set in a world full of unusual creatures.  It has a sarcastic and dry sense of humour that suits me down to the ground.

While I was reading the issues, I really enjoyed them.  They're quite light and the dialogue is witty.  The kind of witty that actually prompted a couple of giggles too, rather than just a bit of a wry smile.  My only real problem is that for all of that, the volume was a little bit forgettable.  It was a series of amusing fights and parties, with only snippets of characters' backgrounds and hints at a bigger story arc.  I'll almost definitely pick up the next volume because it's just so damn readable but if you're looking for something that will really make an impact and have you gripped to the series, I'm not sure that this is that something.

3.5 stars for putting and keeping a smile on my face for a jolly afternoon or two 

Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder

For every moment in Rat Queens that made me laugh, there was one in this first volume of Wytches that terrified me.  I wasn't really sure what to expect from a comic in the horror genre but I don't think I was expecting it to be as scary as what I got.  Because man alive was this scary!  The art is horrifying; unbelievably dark and easily the stuff of nightmares.  The story (of child-eating wytches that haunt forests and lure 'marked ones' to their doom by twisting the minds of those in their communities) was scary enough by itself but the drawings and the colours made it something else entirely.  I won't pretend to know a lot about art but I really loved the use of colour slashing across the panels to create something truly, truly haunting. 

Aside from the fact that it was completely disturbing, the plot that follows a father trying to save his daughter across the six issues was well-paced and had just the right amount of twists and manages to tackle mental illness along the way. To be honest, if I wasn't such a great big wimp, I'd have rated this volume more highly.  It deserves four stars.  It sets out to scare and who am I to mark it down for doing its job too well?  In the end, rightly or wrongly, I've given it the rating that reflects my personal enjoyment.  If you're a horror fan, I really do recommend this series because it's just so twisted and clever.  Even I might pick up the next issue when it's released (to read during the day, obviously) just because I'm curious about where the story will go next.

3 stars for scaring my socks off and giving me art that made me think

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Review: 'The Day of the Triffids' by John Wyndham

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When a freak cosmic event renders most of the Earth's population blind, Bill Masen is one of the lucky few to retain his sight. The London he walks is crammed with groups of men and women needing help, some ready to prey on those who can still see. But another menace stalks blind and sighted alike. With nobody to stop their spread the Triffids, mobile plants with lethal stingers and carnivorous appetites, seem set to take control.

I'd always imagined that The Day of the Triffids would be kind of frivolous; a faintly comical post-apocalyptic jaunt in which the world is under threat from lumbering plants.  I think perhaps because I couldn't see myself finding a story about sentient topiary particularly threatening.  But oh, it so is. It's threatening and it's haunting.  I finished the book in January and there are some moments that still bring a shudder to my bones when I think about them.  Growing potatoes is all good and well until you read a book that makes you wonder if they're going to get up and flail menacingly at you...

From the moment Bill wakes up with bandages over his eyes and braves the streets of London to find that the streets are empty and everybody else has seemingly gone blind, the tension starts to build (with one of my favourite quotes:  "When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere").  What unravels in the following pages is a glorious blend of action and peril, tragedy and humour.

What's worrying about The Day of the Triffids is that it's one of those stories that was written decades ago (in the 1950s in this case) but that has become more and more relevant as the years go by.  We meddle with genetics and we test the boundaries of modern science and who's to say that one day a plant that we think of as perfectly harmless but with physical quirks that we can't fathom out won't turn out to be utterly destructive?  Ok, so perhaps they won't start walking around and maybe there won't be a huge comet shower that renders all but a few humans sightless and at the plants' mercy but that doesn't mean that there isn't something we can take from the dark message behind Wyndham's witty writing.

Speaking of which, the writing itself is understated and quiet and has a distinctly classic British feel that I just don't feel you find in much modern fiction with the increasing melding of British and American cultures.  I'd expected flailing and action in the face of an onslaught of murderous vegetation and instead what I got was moral wrangling and political musings.  If almost the entire country has gone blind and no longer find food or other supplies, is it the duty of the few who can still see to save as many people as possible for as long as the resources left last or to sacrifice the many to enable the few to focus on rebuilding communities who can work on creating a sustainable future?  

That makes the story sound cumbersome and dreary or as though the invasion of the triffids is just a flimsy veneer to give Wyndham the excuse to wax lyrical on the virtues of democracy or of the perils of unbridled experimentation.  It isn't at all.  Bill Masen, the main character is a reluctant kind of hero; he stumbles upon Josella while wandering around and trying to understand the new world and is jarred into action.  Their friendship is borne of necessity, almost, but it's sweet and...simple against the complexities of their new world.  Their fight to find something like a life gives The Day of the Triffids heart and it takes a cautionary tale and makes it a story that you want to keep on reading.

"And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past

Overall:  A science fiction classic that is as relevant now as it must surely have ever been.  I started The Day of the Triffids because it's iconic and because I have an enduring memory of my Nan trying to compel me to read her worn hardback copy years ago when I was a teenager.  I don't know that I would have enjoyed it all those years ago but I do know that I really enjoyed it as an adult.  

Date finished: 26 January 2016
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
Genre: Science fiction; Dystopian fiction
Originally published: in 1951
Pictured Edition Published: in August 2008 by Penguin Books

Help me out: what Wyndham do I need to hunt down next?

Friday, 1 July 2016

Wheel of Time Re-Read #2 and #3: The Great Hunt and Dragon Reborn

I've said before that the Wheel of Time series is one that I find it impossible to judge objectively.  It's the series that made me realise I was a fantasy geek through and through.  It's the series that out of all of the books I read as a teenager still stands out in my memory.  The reason I started to re-read the series in the first place was that I found that because of the gaps in publication, I became distanced from the story.  I was reading the books occasionally but without a particularly strong memory of the books that had gone before and I was starting to just go through the motions.  This series deserves more than that. 

I've kept this review spoiler free but it's probably the last of these posts that I'll do that with to avoid them all being variations on the "I read another Wheel of Time book and it was great" theme!

I read The Great Hunt during November last year.  I've seen reviews on GoodReads from people who bemoan this book as being weaker than the first.  I'm not just being a gushing fan when I say that I honestly don't see that.  The world is expanded to include new cities and the cast of main characters is widened.  If there's some travelling, there isn't nearly as much as there is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and there definitely aren't any rambling songs so I don't buy that as a major criticism.  There's political intrigue, plenty of fighting (of the sword and magical variety) and there's kidnapping and slavery and romance.  Even though I knew what was coming, I was completely sucked in.

The story of this instalment revolves around the Horn of Valere, a mythical object hunted by hundreds of men and women looking for glory that is said to call back dead warriors to fight for whoever blows it.  There are Darkfriends (the bad guys, obviously) hunting for the horn to call heroes of old to fight for the Dark One and our band of village folk turned potential heroes hunting it down to stop that happening.  What's not to like?!  It's a good focus for a single book, as well as providing some of the grounding for later books.  If re-reading has shown me one thing, it's that these books are jammed full of hints and portents about later events and playing spot-the-foreshadow has become a favourite hobby of mine!

The Dragon Reborn was one that I'd remembered as being one of my favourite instalments out of the books that I've read so far.  At a mere 674 pages, it's the shortest book in the series and even by 'normal book' standards (as opposed to epic fantasy book standards) is action-packed.  The characters visit new places and there are some (excellent) new additions to the cast but most of the book builds on the solid world building of the first two books and focuses on moving along the plot with some pretty significant twists and turns.  The pacing on this one is spot on so even if you read The Great Hunt and you weren't 100% sure, I'd really, really urge you to pick this next one up and give it a go.  It introduces the Aiel (a warrior population from the 'Waste' (read: big desert)), who I love.  Their 'Maidens of the Spear' kick some pretty serious ass and they balance out the otherwise largely silk-dress wearing ladies nicely.

As far as stacking up against my fond memories, goes, The Dragon Reborn surpassed them.  I don't know if it's because I've read more fantasy in the intervening years or if it's because I feel such a sense of familiarity when I'm reading them but whatever it is, I absolutely flew through this one while I was reading it.

One thing that I'll give to the critics is that the writing can be a little dawdling and there are some phrases that you'll read a few too many times.  I don't find it to be any more than in any other fantasy series, though, so if you're used to reading long series, you'll be fine.

If you haven't read any of the series yet, I just don't know what else to tell you other than that, even after all these years, it has a firm place in my heart and I really do believe that it has stood the test of time.  Read it.  If you've read The Great Hunt and found it a bit slow-paced, absolutely pick up The Dragon Reborn and give it a try.

I'll admit that I'm a little wary about The Shadow Rising, which is the next book.  It tops 1,000 pages and I remember it taking me ages to read when I was a teenager so we'll see if the same is true this time around!

Now, go and read Wheel of Time already, ok?!

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #6

This week has been a dark week in the United Kingdom.  I won't talk too much about politics but I will say that I was (and am) a passionate believer in the European Union and of UK being part a member of the EU.  I am devastated by the decision taken by the UK population and extremely concerned about the ideologies that it has legitimised and what it will mean for the country.  Now more than ever I feel that it's important to remind myself that the bright spots are still there.

1)  The Wheel of Time.  Even before the result on Friday, I was feeling in need of a comfort read.  As it's been a few months since I read The Great Hunt as part of my re-read of the Wheel of Time series, I reached for the next instalment: The Dragon Reborn.  I absolutely adore it.  I'm happy to find that I remember just enough to know what moments are pivotal and to spot the hints at events to come but not so much that I'm not completely wrapped up in the story and enjoying it just as much as I did the first time.  Reading it just makes me smile.

2)  Sunshine.  It hasn't felt particularly like summer much yet this year but this morning I snatched a couple of hours out in the sunshine reading my book and it was delightful.  Restful and relaxing and just all round lovely.

3)  Like-minded people.  I am fortunate enough to work in an environment where I have been surrounded by people who are on the same page as me politically (at least on the EU referendum).  We shared in our despair on Friday morning and it made the whole experience slightly easier to bear.  Boyfriend and I visited my parents yesterday and we all had a cathartic rant over a few beers sat outside.  There are times when you need to vent and I'm lucky enough to have people to vent at who share in my frustrations.

4)  Being challenged.  I've been working long hours this week but I'm involved in a project that is challenging and exciting and even while I'm lamenting the early trains and the lack of sleep, I'm so grateful that it's all part of a job that I love.  I work with great people who I learn from all the time and I've reached the point where I absolutely know that moving firms was 100% the right choice.  Sometimes you really do need to make that jump and give it every chance to pay off.

5)  WEDDING.  I'm still so, so excited about getting married.  I have a Pinterest board that is packed full of ideas for favours and decoration and other beautiful things and I can not wait.  This week I've been emailing our wedding planner in readiness for our trip to Florence in August and we've been chatting photographers and make-up and it's the BEST!  I have weekends coming up where I get to dress my bridesmaids and it's so nice to have an excuse to spend a lot of time with my favourite people.  

The world could do with cheering up - share your happy!  #sharethehappy

Sunday, 12 June 2016

(Late late) May Wrap-Up

Image credit
I knew that it had been a while since I'd last written anything on here but I didn't think it had been nearly six weeks!  Oops.

Life Stuff

I started a new job at the beginning of May and I've been super busy ever since.  Moving jobs is always unsettling and the change has taken some adjusting to but I feel much more settled and involved in the team now that I've been there just over a month.  It's nice to feel less adrift again.  Working back in Leeds has made a massive difference to my days; not having to spend two hours a day in my car is a huge bonus and the buzz of working back in a city I love doesn't exactly hurt.

At the beginning of the month, we went to the wedding of some good friends and had the nicest day.  It was beautifully sunny for most of the day, meaning we all got to stand outside and enjoy some canap├ęs and champagne in the sun before the dinner and dancing part of the day.  To add to my list of wedding ideas I want to steal: piles of cheese instead of a wedding cake; sweepstake cards on the table for people to guess at things like the first person to cry during the speeches and the lengths of various speeches and whatnot. 

Plans for our wedding are coming along nicely too.  I've found The Dress (which I adore), we've picked our venue in Florence and have a trip out to Florence planned to meet our planner and start looking at the details.  All incredibly exciting. 
Image credit

Then at the very end of May, we headed to Montenegro for a week.  Kotor bay is absolutely stunning and we spent a week reading and relaxing in the sun, cycling to explore the nearby towns, eating tons of seafood and drinking local beer and wine.  I'd absolutely recommend it if you're looking for somewhere a bit different to visit that's not yet got particularly touristy.  It was a bit more chilled than the slightly hectic city breaks we usually go on and the break was just what we both needed.  Countdown to our next trip away in August starts now...

Book Stuff

Needless to say, what with work and various wedding related days, I didn't get a great deal read.  I started If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and that really stalled my reading.  It's an odd story that is written half in the second person, with events described as happening to "you".  It's entertaining at first but to be honest, it lost its appeal later on and I felt like I was reading one of those 'choose your own story' books that I loved when I was a child.  The basic idea is that 'you' pick up a book but then part way through find that pages are missing.  On going to find the book at the local bookshop, you're given a book with the same title but entirely different contents and so on and so on.  The chapters then alternate between the main character's efforts to track down the original story and the first chapters of each of the writings that he's given by various third parties as the book they believe he is looking for.  In the end, I returned it to the library unfinished.  It felt less like a novel and more like a range of creative writing exercises smushed together with a loose narrative and I just wasn't interested in reading it, which is sad because I was really looking forward to it. 

On a brighter note, I then picked up Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  I'd heard a lot about the book on YouTube so I had high hopes.  It absolutely lived up to every single one of them.  It's a YA science fiction story about the population of a small planet who are attacked and mostly killed. The survivors are on board a couple of spaceships trying to outrun the team sent to finish the murdering job.  I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads and I'll review it soon but until then, if you do like science fiction and want something pacey and unique, get yourself Illuminae.  It can't wait for the next bookk to come out.  

On the comic front, I read three volumes: Rat Queens: Volume 1 - Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe; Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder; and, Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan.  I really enjoyed Rat Queens.  The characters are great, the writing is witty and the artwork was bright and fun.   A series that I'll definitely keep reading.  Wytches was about a horde of children-eating wytches who have targeted the protagonist family.  It's incredibly dark and actually pretty damn freaky in places.  One I only read in daylight! It was brilliant in places and there were some great twists but it just wasn't quite my thing.  Paper Girls was...weird.  It's about some paper girls who find themselves largely alone after the world is attacked by...something.  I didn't follow a lot of it, really, and the whole thing felt haphazard and as though it was trying to do too much.  I might read the next volume if I come across it at the library but it isn't one that I'm going to be buying.

And that was it!  My reading month.  June has been better already so I'm hopeful that I'm starting to find a balance between the busy day job and finding time to read.  Any books that I need to be squeezing in sooner rather than later?