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The cover to Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Lost Stars.

Star Wars: Lost Stars review

If Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is an indicator of the new Star Wars expanded universe, then I think we could be looking at something pretty cool.

I was a big fan of the old Star Wars EU. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wiped the slate clean. No more Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Dash Rendar, Galen Marek, Ysanne Isard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Star Wars EU had decades to build up success and history. There was a lot to live up to.

Lost Stars is a YA novel about two lovers, Thane and Ciena, both in the service of the Empire. Thane defects to the Rebellion. Cue tragic romance. I won’t lie, I really wasn’t sure about it. Could a couple of unknown, star-crossed lovers shoe-horned into the original trilogy really compare with the Thrawn trilogy?

Spoiler: it can’t. But it’s still good.

But by ending the war now, before it truly begins, the Death Star will save more lives than it took.

I wasn’t sure a YA tragic romance was a good fit for Star Wars, but actually the tone is almost perfect. That has something to do with what Lucas made, and something to do with Gray’s writing. She gets the feel of Star Wars. She captures that brisk sense of adventure so well you feel you could be reading a novelisation of deleted scenes. Almost

And the best thing Lost Stars offers is its fresh perspective. Thane and Ciena rationalise Alderaan as a necessary evil, a space opera Hiroshima. And the destruction of the Death Star is a terrorist act, a war crime that slaughters thousands of good officers. And these contrary viewpoints work well because Gray isn’t writing villains or ciphers. She’s writing complicated characters. Thane is a cynic, sure that no government is perfect, content to work with the one in place until he can no longer abide its methodology. Ciena is an idealist, seeing the order and the stability the Empire has to offer.

And who is this General Calrissian? Thane decided not to ask that question out loud. If the Rebel Alliance was happy turning over its two most critical missions of all time to a bunch of brand-new generals, okay, fine.

I’m always sceptical when a writer tries to weave new characters into an existing story. It smacks of a retcon. Why did we never see this guy? Why did they never mention her? But Gray pulls this off well. Thane and Ciena aren’t big players, and the only movie characters they meet are minor. Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain/Admiral Piet, and even they only have brief appearances. These cameos offer little glimpses and expansions to their characters and, by not leaning on the main cast of the trilogy, Gray builds a sense of a much vaster galaxy.

This also allows Thane to question who the Rebel heroes are, since he never sees them involved in any real military efforts, yet they always seem to be in charge. It’s funny, and a nice nod to the fact that both Thane and Ciena suffer from the same illness of Luke, Leia, Han and co.: they’re often in situations they don’t belong for the sake of the plot. Thane obviously becomes an X-wing pilot but is given ground assault duties. Ciena is a deck officer but gets sent out in TIE fighters. But this is Star Wars. Our heroes can’t be constrained by realism. Which is why a con man and a gas miner was allowed to lead the greatest Rebellion offensive of all time.

Sometimes we’re loyal to more than one thing. When there’s a conflict, we have to choose which loyalty to honor.

The biggest problem with Lost Stars is that it’s trying to serve two masters: the story and the hype. Released in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the cover is splashed with promises of exclusive content that ties into the new film and never-before-scenes from the Original Trilogy. Thane and Ciena don’t just find themselves in situations they don’t belong. They find themselves shoe-horned into events. Events conspire, contort even, to bring both into contact with Alderaan, Yavin, Cloud City, Endor. And in order to fit all that in and get some post-Jedi events, the plot takes big jumps through time. Sometimes it feels like Thane and Ciena’s Greatest Hits, and the final showdown seems a bit rushed, slotted in with very little explanation at all.

Which is a bit sad, because there’s a good story in here. And if Gray had been given a bit more space and fewer marketing boxes to tick, there was the potential for a deeper, more meaningful telling to match a deep and meaningful tale. The story between set pieces shows a war more devastating than anything the films portrayed, and the galaxy she created was big enough that Thane and Ciena didn’t have to be at every movie battle. Personally I think it would have been stronger for it.

Lost Stars doesn’t always navigate its way around the Original Trilogy perfectly, but it’s an enjoyable story, well-written, with strong characters. Being YA it doesn’t have the heft of the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s got the fast-paced adventure Star Wars is known for. I’d readily pick up a sequel.

Poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Spoiler-Free Review

In the days leading up to The Phantom Menace I bought into the hype. Hard. I watched the Duel of the Fates music video almost constantly. I knew the soundtrack backwards and forwards. But, though I tried to love it, the film let me down. So this time around I played it cool. I watched the first two trailers a few times. Then that was it. No hype for me. No excitement. No expectations. Or low expectations, if you prefer. I wasn’t going to let The Force Awakens break my geeky little heart.

I needn’t have worried.

Warning: while I won’t spoil a thing in the words ahead, the truly spoiler-phobic should wait until they’ve seen The Force Awakens.

“Didn’t we just leave this party?”

There have been a few accusations that The Force Awakens is a remake of A New Hope. Those accusations are extreme and you can dismiss them. There are similarities, to be sure, certain elements that recur (super weapons, anyone?) But this is not the same film. And the stuff that looks similar has a new twist on it, keeping the call-backs fresh and familiar at the same time, so you smile when you see them instead of rolling your eyes. Abrams does play on your nostalgia, and I often got the feeling this film was made for those who saw the originals when they were young, rather than for the young themselves (unlike the prequels; there’s not one poo joke in The Force Awakens).

“Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”

Rey is my new hero. She was my favourite, not just a worthy successor to the strong female role of Princess Leia, but a layered, earnest character of loss and independence and capability. On the opposite side, Kylo Ren is my new villain. In one film, Abrams made Ren more interesting than Anakin was over six. Both Rey and Ren have typical Abrams twists in their stories. Rey’s tend to be either emotional or uplifting. Ren’s are mostly shocking. But both characters are strong and engaging, pillars on which The Force Awakens can rest safe.

Finn and Poe were, I thought, not as strong, but still great. Finn is a great mix of fear and decency and loyalty. Poe is a funny, capable character. And the two have a great chemistry. I want to see some more Finn/Poe bromance, please.

“I’m out of it for a little while and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”

A sad, but good, side-effect of such strong new and central characters is that it sidelines the old cast. We always knew that Luke, Han and Leia would only be in The Force Awakens to pass the torch. Elevated to the status of legends and generals, they are supporting cast only, but the strength of the new cast means that isn’t a disappointment. In fact, sometimes it felt like Abrams was shoe-horning in some of the old faces. Han was a great presence, but poor Leia was woefully underused, and don’t get me started on the droids.

“Vader doesn’t want you at all, he’s after someone named Skywalker.”

And Luke. Where is Luke Skywalker? Absent from the trailers, posters, TV spots, toys, and et cetera, this is a question so important it’s actually addressed in the opening crawl. Luke’s role in The Force Awakens was, for me, the biggest flaw in the film because it wasn’t quite tied up. My wife disagrees; she says it’s all there on the screen. But I say, just as with the ending of Breaking Bad, that Luke’s story needed just one more moment. Something to tie it up and acknowledge the journey. Just two words would have made a huge difference. Ask me what they are once you’ve seen it.

The other big disappointment? A certain character is barely a presence in The Force Awakens. If they don’t return, I shall become angry and use my magic.

“Look at the size of that thing!”

I’ve written a lot about the characters. That’s my bag, I suppose. But as for the rest, well, there was no prequel-esque reliance on CGI. The Force Awakens has real sets filled with real people and costumes blended with computer effects where necessary. This is the lived-in, functional world of the originals that you felt you could touch, not the sterile CG fantasy of the prequels. But, despite that, The Force Awakens has a grander sense of scale. Scenes are bigger, unhampered by low budgets or green screens. The camera can move across enormous battles and the Star Wars universe feels bigger for it.

The Force Awakens feels different. That was natural, since Lucas isn’t calling the shots anymore. So there is more modern camera work, different techniques, more twists and turns in the storytelling. But it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Different doesn’t mean bad. This is still a Star Wars film.

“My ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.”

There’s a reason I’ve been quoting the original films throughout this review. They have a place on a pillar in my consciousness, seminal and influential and, yes, untouchable. Abrams et al realise this. The Force Awakens is their attempt to create something worthy of those films. It doesn’t always work; the plot has some holes as a direct result of that effort. But they use the original trilogy as an inspiration and a strength, and that lends strength to their film. I’ll never love The Force Awakens the way I love the original trilogy. But I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to love it in a very different way. And I will. It’s a worthy sequel, one I’ll watch again and again, and I’m already looking forward to Episode VIII.

Cover to the UK edition Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb: Review

Sequels are tricky things. They suffer from anticipations and expectations. They promise more of what you loved, but there’s always a secret fear that the writer will have lost “it”, “it” being that magical touch that made the prior installments so good. Everyone has been crushed by a sequel at some point. Once you’ve experienced your own personal Phantom Menace, the prospect of a sequel is never the same. So it’s fair to say that I approached epic fantasy Fool’s Assassin with a mixture of hope and dread.

Worst still was the fact that this was the second time Robin Hobb had done this to me. The story of royal bastard FitzChivalry (or Fitz) began in the Farseer Trilogy and had a downbeat but definite end. That ending was opened up in the Tawny Man trilogy but, while it was something of a retread of the first, Hobb pulled it off and gave Fitz a happier ending. Now Fool’s Assassin would be the beginning of a third trilogy, a third attempt to open up a closed book. Would the law of diminishing returns strike? Could Fool’s Assassin be the book where she lost “it”?

We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show, but never heal.

To enjoy the Fitz books, you have to love Fitz. Stubborn, headstrong, sometimes maudlin, not always wise, with a strong sense of morality and rarely a sense of how to employ it. You feel less that Hobb has created the hero of an epic fantasy and more a real, flawed man to hang her story on. Fitz is not the same character he was in the first trilogy, though. His experiences have battered him, strengthened him in some senses, weakened him in others. He’s older, more mature, but in some ways he’s the same old Fitz. He’s not a bad analogy for the novel as a whole.

Robert Zemeckis once said that people like a sequel because they want to revisit characters and places they loved the first time around. Hobb understands this, and so Fool’s Assassin respects, recalls and revisits the previous installments. Thus there are visits to Buckkeep, and characters like Chade and Kettricken and Dutiful make appearances. Even absent characters are present through recollection or, in a sense, resurrection. Fans of a particular relationship they might think ended will not, I feel, be disappointed. In some sense, Fool’s Assassin is the same old Fitz story.

But just as Fitz’s new maturity and responsibilities are the most interesting things about him, Fool’s Assassin works best where it leaves behind all the old intrigue and politics of prior stories. Instead of trying to preserve a royal family and its kingdom, the focus of this novel is closer, more immediate: Fitz’s family. This by necessity creates a smaller story; so small the first map is of Fitz’s house. But though it is smaller in scope it is deeper in feeling, which is where Hobb’s novels always do best. And it’s a perfect way to open up Fitz’s world to new narratives. Yes he’s had a happy ending, but happy endings very rarely lack their own complications.

Hobb also takes this opportunity to open up the story to new narrative techniques. Fans of these books might think it heresy, but trust me: you will love reading the chapters written from a viewpoint other than Fitz’s.

You might be surprised to find that facing life can be much harder than facing death.

But, just as Fitz can’t let go of some of his old, poorer habits, so Hobb couldn’t quite let go of old story elements. So Chade inserts new intrigues into Fitz’s life (without any explanation for Fitz or reader) and, perhaps worse, too many old characters remain. Consider how much time has passed since the beginning of the first trilogy; some characters just shouldn’t be breathing anymore. I’m not usually so bloodthirsty, but Hobb only highlighted this by teasing a number of character deaths only to snatch them back from the jaws of death mere pages later.

Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful.

Fool’s Assassin also made me realise something about Hobb’s books I’d never noticed before. Have you ever described a story in a single sentence? “Unassuming hobbit must destory a magic ring to defeat a dark lord”? “Young rebel must learn the powers of the mystical Jedi to topple an evil Galactic Empire”? “Royal bastard trains as an assassin to help save his kingdom”? Most stories make sure you can offer such a description early on. “Here’s the type of story you can expect”, they say, and either fulfill that expectation, subvert it, or disappoint it.

Fool’s Assassin doesn’t do that. And not just that, but all the Fitz books. Hobb writes a story that ambles its way through the plot. It’s certainly a pleasant amble, even an entrancing amble. But it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo. The reader doesn’t know what to anticipate, what to dread, what to attend to and what to be intrigued by. This is what makes Chade’s new intrigues frustrating. They seem so disconnected from the new world Fitz lives in and there is no explanation to them. So they stand out like a sore thumb and even seem like filler. Most readers of Fool’s Assassin won’t mind this, because they’ll have read prior trilogies and thus be happy to go where Hobb leads. But I suspect newer readers might not be willing to offer Hobb the trust she deserves.

Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now.

But here is why I love Fool’s Assassin, and all Hobb’s work, despite those grievances: you don’t worry about them whilst you’re reading. Hobb’s prose is beautiful in its description, searing in its truth, compelling in its narrative, and it forces you to forgive all sins. It puts character before lore and it lets character drive plot. Her worldbuilding is not overbearing; it intrudes on the page only rarely, when it needs to. There is still the magic, the grand locations and action scenes that epic fantasy demands. But it’s all focused on character. And those characters are so well-drawn, so deeply developed, that you’ll love them by the end. It isn’t the plot that keeps you turning the page; it’s wanting to see your beloved characters delivered through that plot, safe and sound.

If you’ve read the previous Fitz books but you’re worried about Phantom Menace syndrome, set aside your fears. Fool’s Assassin is a worthy sequel to the series. If you haven’t read any Fitz books, don’t start here. Yes, you might enjoy it and, no, you don’t need to have read the others. But you’ll miss out on the history, the nuances, and the clever callbacks, and I like you too much to let you do that to yourself. So go read Assassin’s Apprentice and work your way up to Fool’s Assassin.

You’ll thank me for it.

Get Fool’s Assassin from: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Apple iBookstore

Annah Wooten's incredible artwork for the cover of The Fey Man

The Fey Man Promo Codes

Reviews are great (ask me why), and whilst The Fey Man is gathering some good ones on Goodreads and Amazon, I’d love to get some more on Apple’s iBookstore.

Therefore I’ve secured 5 promo codes for readers willing to write an honest review. These codes will let you download The Fey Man for free!

Please note I’m seeking honest reviews. That means you’re under no obligation to say nice things; if you hate it, by all means say so!

Like I said, I’ve only got 5 promo codes at the moment so let me know if you want one in the comments!

The incredible cover art to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

2014: Year in Review

Is it me or years getting shorter and shorter? It doesn’t seem that long since I was last trying to remember what I’d read and which I should write about. For newcomers to the blog, I always jump on the “year in review” bandwagon, but I review my year. Everyone else is listing the best books released in 2014, I’m listing the most impressive books I read in 2014, regardless of when they were published.

The way I figure it, “the cutting edge” sounds painful and something to avoid; I prefer the comfortable middle.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

So good it garnered a review of its own, this was one of the few instances when a book lived up to its hype. The main character used to be a spaceship and the society she comes from has no concept of gender. Original, imaginative and engaging, I’ve not read a space opera like this for a long while and I can’t wait to read more.

Unbroken Ties by M. Latimer-Ridley

The sequel to Legend Unleashed, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. There’s a world, under the one we know, of magic and wizards and werewolves. The war between the latter deepens in this installment and it also explores the ramifications of what happened to wizard Alastair Byron and werewolf Halvard Wolfram in the last book. Although it felt a little rushed at times, it was great to see that the Byron/Wolfram arc wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow; things get complicated for a while, which is how I like my fiction.

Min by Lola Rayne

A raunchy contemporary romance, I should state that I am totally not the target demographic for this novel. I would never usually pick up a book like this, but Rayne has an excellent style that’s filthy and funny and makes me smile; she could probably write a treatise on farming tools of the 1300s and it’d still be an enjoyable read. So although this type of book isn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed it immensely, and you should definitely give it a try.

You by Austin Grossman

You was a strange reading experience. The tale of a successful guy who quits his job to work at a video game developer set up by his schoolmates, I don’t think it works well as a novel; elements of the story disappear unresolved, some events have no reason for being other than the writer wanted to write about them, and frankly it’s all a little contrived. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, largely because it was the first time I’d read a novel that dealt with video games as if they mattered. So if you’re a video game geek, you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise you should probably read something else.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

If, like me, you thought The Da Vinci Code was a decent if over-hyped summer blockbuster book, do yourself a favour: don’t read The Lost Symbol. It appears to be a mere clone of its older brother. Langdon on the run from the authorities. A strange, unstoppable figure enmeshed in his faith, hunting Langdon. Even the same historical figures and books are recycled at times, and you can see the “twists” coming from the first page. I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol but I hear Inferno is a better read?

What books did you read this year? Leave a comment and tell me all about them; I’m always looking for more to read!

The Best Books of 2013

Another year, another pile of books to reflect on. The Internet is awash with “year in review” posts and this blog is no different. But, as with previous years, I haven’t read many new books. Mostly because I usually only read paperbacks (it’s cheaper that way) but also because I let word-of-mouth lead me to books. And that takes a little while. So this is what I read in 2013 and what I recommend you read too.

Turin Shroud: How Leonardo Da Vinci Fooled History by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Don’t let the subtitle fool you. Yes, the authors try as best they can to draw a grand conspiracy theory around the idea that Da Vinci created the Turin Shroud to fool the world. The truth is that no conspiracy theory is needed. The notion the Da Vinci created the Shroud is fascinating enough, and there’s enough evidence to convince you that this might indeed be the case.

Bad Blood by Ginny Lurcock

I am very over vampire romance. Kind of over vampires in general. But Bad Blood was an absolute joy to read. It’s written incredibly well, with a tongue firmly in cheek and it pops the tragic vampire romance balloon before it can inflate. Even if you’re tired of vampires, trust me: you’ll enjoy Bad Blood.

A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver

I watched the TV series and was fascinated. Ancient Britain isn’t taught much at school so it’s easy to be left with preconceptions perpetuated by lazy writers. Oliver’s book goes beyond the series and shows a remarkably advanced and civilised world that we’ve all forgotten about. Worth a read and great for fantasy writers!

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

I enjoyed the second book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series more than the first. While the first was a brilliant set up, the second kicked into high gear. Battles and intrigue and, of course, more Tyrion Lannister. What’s not to love?

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

A sombre entry, this. It’s written from the perspective of a ten year old boy whose older sister has died. The boy is living with his dad – his mum has left – and is starting a new school. He makes a new friend, but the shade of his sister means his dad might not let him be friends with a Muslim girl. Sad and heartbreaking but full of hope at the same time.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Friends and family have told me that Aaronovitch’s work reminds them of me for years so I finally read it. I see what they mean. It’s a bit facetious and sarcastic and weird. But it’s great for it. “Magic is real” is an old idea but Aaronovitch mixes it with the boring reality of real police work and it works. You can tell it’s his first book – the story wobbles in places – but I’ll definitely check out his others.

What were your best books of 2013? Anything I should read in 2014? Leave a comment and let me know!

Super Review: Woman in Black by Susan Hill

You’ve probably heard of The Woman In Black, no doubt thanks to the film starring Daniel Radcliffe. That’s how I heard of it. I saw a trailer for it that looked scary and cool. But mostly scary. So I decided to go see it. But before I could, I heard that the book was excellent. And that, if I enjoyed that, I should really go and see the play too. So that’s what I did. I resolved to read the book, then see the play, and only then would I watch the film. What I found was that they all form a triptych of stories, each with a similar core but also very different due to the medium itself.

For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.

I started with the book (because you should always start with a book). And I should start my review of it by saying the perfect ghost story is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (for reasons I briefly mentioned here). Susan Hill has obviously read the book because her story displays nearly all it’s best qualities: it’s short, tense, filled with emotion. The pace is almost perfect. While a plot summary might sound dry or even slow, I was frenetically turning the pages. Sometimes it was obvious what was coming next but, in the best tradition of horror, the dread of waiting for it and the hope it wouldn’t come were kept alive in equal measure.

I was also pleased that the story wasn’t set in the modern age. We’re just too sceptical these days for a ghost story to have the same impact, whereas characters who can believe in ghosts give the reader permission to do so as well. Hill also made it easy to empathise with the titular Woman and that made her all the more believable.

If I were to recommend a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw would be it. But The Woman in Black would be right behind it.

The Woman in Black was adapted for stage in 1987.
Who is she? Your surprise?

The play came next as it did in life. I was surprised to learn the cast had only three members: Arthur Kipps (the protagonist), The Actor and The Woman. Interestingly, The Actor plays Arthur in the narrative and Arthur himself plays the supporting characters; the play adds to the story the premise that Arthur has hired The Actor to help him tell his story. It makes the play rather meta – it’s a play about putting on a play – and it intrudes a little on the narrative at the beginning, making the play slow to start. But once it gets out of the way, this gimmick allows the play a small cast, which lends a more intimate air to the play. Perfect for a ghost story!

Like all good plays a lot is left to the imagination. This area was easier for me because I’d already read the book; I went in with images in my head. But my girlfriend, who hadn’t read it, confirmed that the play evoked the necessary imagery with both words and effects. The latter, mostly restricted to lighting, smoke and the occasional yet still heart-stopping scream, were kept to a minimum and so more effective for it.

Far more effective, though, was when the Woman silently swept past me as she headed down the aisle to the stage. I’m not too proud to say I jumped!

The best thing to say about the play, though, is that it retained the tension of the book. That’s what makes it worth seeing. If you get a chance to go, don’t hesitate!

There will be a sequel to the Radcliffe-starring Woman in Black.She makes us, she makes us do it. She makes us! They took her boy away so now she takes us.

And so to the film. Last and, unfortunately, least. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible film. It tells the core story with a few interesting changes, most notably that Arthur’s wife is dead, a haunting woman in white to contrast the darker, physical haunting. And the film explores more of the Woman in Black’s rage; you get a real feeling of the force of emotion that keeps this Woman’s spirit tied to this world.

Unfortunately Radcliffe couldn’t properly convey the age required by the role, leaving Arthur seeming a boy in a man’s clothes. And the film itself was more visceral than the book or play; we were treated to some of the typical ghost story tropes. Bodies rising out of pools of blood. Shadows flitting over doorways. Lights going out in a hallway. And so on. Some of them succeeded in making me jump. But Woman in Black was about the sort of fear that grows in your mind and then festers once the story is done. Moments that make you jump induce the sort of fear that is gone moments later. It’s not the same at all.

The film also added a malevolence to the Woman by making her directly responsible for children’s deaths and then trapping their spirits with her in a sort of grey limbo. This adds a quest element to the story that wasn’t there before with Arthur and supporting character Daley trying to pacify the Woman and free the children. Which is all well and good but it wasn’t in the original story and it isn’t needed. It also alters the ending dramatically and not for the better.

But, as I said, it’s not a terrible film. It’s very watchable. But this experiment has proven the hypothesis that we all knew to be true: the film adaptation is almost never as good as the original book. Despite being a solid film, it sits at the bottom of an ascending list of quality, in which the play sits in the middle and the book sits triumphant at the top.

So that’s it! Super review over. But now I want to know what you think. Did you like the book? The film? Have you seen the play? And what do you think of plans to make a sequel to the film? Leave a comment and let me know.

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

If you read my review of House of Leaves, you may finish reading this review thinking I have a weakness for narrative gimmicks. You wouldn’t be wrong. Sometimes I read a book purely because it sounds like it’s doing something weird with narrative. But, in this case, I read the book because I saw the trailer for the film. And I didn’t understand it at all.

Cloud Atlas tells six stories from six different time periods:

1) notary Adam Ewing’s travels around the Chatham Islands in the 1850s;
2) composer Robert Frobisher’s apprenticeship to composer Vyvyan Ayrs in 1931;
3) journalist Louisa Rey’s investigations into a coverup surrounding a nuclear facility in 1975;
4) editor Timothy Cavendish’s incarceration in a nursing home in the present day;
5) rogue clone Somni~451’s interrogation in a dystopian future;
6) goatherd Zachry’s encounter with a technologically advanced visitor in a post-apocalyptic future.

If you’re expecting the stories to link up, get ready for some disappointment. The only connections are thematic. Well, that and one character in each story has a similar birthmark. I never did figure out why.

A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.

Here’s my biggest problem with Cloud Atlas: the stories are all split in half around the centre of the book. So you read the first half of story one, then the first half of story two, then the first half of story three, four and five. Then it’s all of story six before you get to read the ends of stories five, four, three, two and one. This has the effect of making the first half of the book an exercise in frustration and the second half one in relief. Sad to say I reached the end of Cloud Atlas and said, “I’m glad that’s over.”

Now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.

That’s not to say that Mitchell is a bad writer. Far from it. I enjoyed a lot of this book, particularly Frobisher’s letters and Somni~451’s interrogation. Mitchell writes in very different styles in this novel and he does so successfully. Except for the sixth story. The style he adopted is annoying and I skimmed that story in an effort to escape.

Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds, an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.”

Aside from that awful style, Mitchell is a good writer. I would pick up another of his books, though I couldn’t recommend this one. The series of beginnings left me dissatisfied for the first half and the series of conclusions left me breathless with resolution for the second half. It’s a nice narrative device in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work.

In short, I can’t recommend Cloud Atlas. But, off the back of it, I would recommend Mitchell as a writer. Which is an usual result from an unusual book.

Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It’s time to ‘fess up: I have an English Literature degree. That means I know what the meaning of words like “mimesis” and “bildungsroman” and “post structuralism”. They mean “I want to sound clever so I shall use big words.” Sometimes they also mean “I don’t understand so I shall hide behind big words so people will assume I know what I’m talking about.”

Knowing that was very useful for reading House of Leaves.

“We all create stories to protect ourselves.”

House of Leaves is the story of Johnny Truant, a young man who comes across a manuscript. This manuscript is a critical analysis written by a blind man called Zampano of a film called the Navidson Record. The film tells the story of the Navidson family who move into a house only to find that it is, to use a technical term, downright weird.

So there are at least three stories: Johnny Truant’s efforts to deal with the manuscript; Zampano’s efforts to deal with the film; and the Navidsons’ efforts to deal with the house.

So it’s not a straightforward book by any means. And sometimes that’s fantastic. There are layers of narrative and meaning; it’s like an onion. Or an ogre. Either way it’s full of hints and clues and mysteries. There are references to Yggdrasil, Cherenkov Light, the labyrinth and the Minotaur, all suggesting a meaning just out of reach. It’s like the TV show Lost in book form and I love it.

But sometimes the layers are just in the way. The analysis is supposedly satire but all too often it comes off as straight. Too clever for its own good. Too full of big words in an attempt to seem like a big, dense, literary work. Yet, in contrast, Truant’s story wastes its potential and degenerates into a parade of drink, drugs and derrières.

Lude sure as hell doesn’t understand it. One-because I’ve fallen for a stripper: ” ‘fuck a’ and ‘fall for’ have very different meanings, Hoss. The first one you do as much as you can. The second one you never ever, ever do.”

In truth the best story is Navidson’s. Danielewski’s house is deep and dark and unexplained and Navidson’s exploration of it is tense and has you turning the pages frantically. Not only that but it stays with you. Reading this book won’t scare you; it will frighten you in a deep and dark place. It will remind you of the unknown depths of the world and make falling asleep very difficult indeed.

The house is history and history is uninhabited.

But despite how unsettling and frustrating and frightening this book is, Danielewski claims this is a love story. But if it is, I have the same problem I have with Jane Eyre: one party is elevated above the other and love cannot be found until that party is damaged or maimed somehow. It leaves a fundamental inequality in the relationships of this book and it just feels wrong to me. If it is a love story, I can’t recommend as such.

That said, I have to recommend House of Leaves. Because while the overly-present author, too-clever “satire” of critical analysis and redundant narratives could be as annoying as all hell, this book affected me. It touched me and altered me and changed the way I think. And it’s such a rare book that can do that. So go read it.

But not at night.

“Since when did you bring a gun?” Navidson asks, crouching near the door.
“Are you kidding me? This place is scary.”

Why Amazon Needs To Be More Like Facebook

Amazon’s review system is broken and open to abuse. Certain writers were posting damning reviews on competitors’ books and glowing reviews on their own. Others were paying strangers to leave reviews. And readers were swarming good books with bad reviews because they didn’t like what it had to say and wanted it to fail. It’s all bad voodoo and something needs to change. So Amazon decreed that no writer is permitted to review books in their own genre. But that punishes every writer for the sins of the few. And it doesn’t stop the swarming problem. So what are they to do?

Easy. Make Amazon more like Facebook.

Sounds strange? Not at all. There’s three good reasons for my cockamamie scheme.

1. Transparency

A major problem with Amazon reviews right now is the anonymity; anyone can create multiple accounts and hide behind a username. Obi1 can swarm a book and drag down its star rating. lukes88 can post fake reviews of his book. But Facebook demands your real name. And a picture. There’s nothing to hide behind.

2. Conversation

Furthermore such a system wouldn’t even require formal reviews. Each product page could collate conversations about the product. So sending a public message to a friend suggesting they check out a book pops up as a “review”. And though these people are strangers, a shopper can see someone making the effort to recommend the book. That’s a strong review in and of itself!

3. Judge and ye be judged too

Doing all of this will also mean that when I review a book you’re better equipped to judge me as well as my review. After all you can see my activity. You can see I’m a writer, for instance. You can also see that I have a hardcore devotion to Michael Jackson. And look, I’ve liked a page called “Vote down this Michael Jackson book”. My review probably isn’t legit…

If this all sounds like an extreme solution to the problem, it shouldn’t be. If readers can’t trust the reviews on Amazon then Amazon itself becomes viewed as unreliable as the reviews it allows to remain on its site. And the same applies to others; Goodreads, for instance, has suffered from swarming as well.

Trustworthy reviews are vital to any online book seller. Removing the anonymity and adding a social element can go a long way towards restoring them. And then I can review books again.

Would you like to see Amazon become more like Facebook? Or would you avoid that like a big, corporate plague? Please let me know; I’m interested to hear what people think!