Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

Sorry for the lack of updates everyone. There isn't very much fantasy news going around, unless you want to know the latest and greatest facts about the second season of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Personally, I think we can all live without knowing who has just been cast to play Chip Chip the Mouse.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle arrived on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. I was mean and keen to start reading this book, as Patrick Rothfuss (author of The Name of the Wind) is forever raging about its well-written beauty and lyrical genius. Okay, Patrick... you got me. Haha.

The Last Unicorn is a fantasy tale with no surprises in store. The story is about a lowly unicorn who sets out to discover what has happened to the rest of her kind. Along the way she collects a practicing magician and an elderly cook. Then she marches upon a castle and an evil king - the rest you could probably guess. The Last Unicorn is more of an elaborated upon fairy-tale than an actual story. If you enjoy fairy-tales, you probably won't enjoy this book.

The pace of the story is often confusing. Parts of the tale seem to linger longer in areas that I deemed unnecessary, but sped through scenes that I thought were crucial and important. I couldn't quite get my head about it. The characters were... well, bland. I didn't feel much empathy for any of the characters, really. They were just stoic pieces to be moved around as the story progressed. When something happened to a character, I hardly cared. This may sound dismissive and pompous, but I'm sure everyone has had this experience before.

The world is much like our own with a few more details added. Beagle does well in describing the surroundings, but after a while it just got tiring.

The story is short and in its defence, does well in evoking emotions in its lyrical songs and poems. I can definitely see where Patrick Rothfuss drew inspiration from. The story the legend of someone or something always shadows the reality of the thing itself. It's an interesting concept and those familiar with Rothfuss' work will know where I'm coming from.

I was disappointed in this book. But I attribute that to how much Rothfuss talked it up. Approach the book for what it is: a simple fantasy story with a story message.



- - -

Story: 5/10
Characters: 4/10
World: 4/10
Impression: 4/10
OVERALL: 4/10  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review - The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss

"There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in the storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man."

Indeed, all wise men do fear these things. But they should also fear one more thing: the sheer size of this book. Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear is a 1000-page monstrosity that could have attributed to my chronic back pain and occasional muscle spasms. Lugging this book around, I hardly had room enough for essentials, often choosing to leave university books at home. This book, of course, took preference.

The Wise Man's Fear is the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicle, a sequel to the hugely popular The Name of the Wind. It continues the story of Kvothe, a man of legend in hiding. Kvothe tells his story over three days - the real story and not the legend people have fabricated over the years. This book is day two of his story-telling, and there is no lack of story to be told.

I was very excited about reading this book. However, around 100 pages in, I knew I couldn't experience the story at its full potential, lest I re-read The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss continues the story with an assumption that his readers know and remember all the finer details from book one. I wasn't too fussed, but I can see how it might be an issue for someone who simply doesn't want to go back and re-read 700 pages. I found that I actually enjoyed going back, once again immersing myself in to the world, the characters, the stories and the plot in general. By the time I had finished book one, I was ready to pick up book two.

The characters are brilliant; the writing is brilliant; the stories are brilliant; the atmosphere... brilliant. The only thing I question is the length of the book and the overall plot. It seemed a little scattered. There was no true direction, and Rothfuss seems to have written about anything that came to mind (within reason). Don't get me wrong, it's all fascinating, but it's a bit jarring at times. However, I nit-pick. The Wise Man's Fear is a wonderful book if you take it for what it is: a good, long story. You'll feel right at home again with the characters and feel genuine emotions toward them. The little stories told throughout the book are funny and exciting.

Put a few months aside if you've yet to read these books, because you'll become absolutely engrossed in the story. The Wise Man's Fear wasn't as near as good as The Name of the Wind, but it was still a very satisfying read.

Characters - 10/10
Plot - 7/10
World - 9/10
Writing - 10/10
Re-Readability - 8/10 

Total Score: 8/10 (4 Stars)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

FANTASY REWIND: Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb

Back in the day when I still had my fantasy section at Borders, I always had at least one Robin Hobb book on the shelf (out of a possible 14 titles). This is because Robin Hobb is brilliant. It is also because people love Robin Hobb's stories. Yet, in my opinion, you cannot call yourself a fan of an author unless you know at least some basic details about them. One thing being THEIR GENDER

So, let's get one thing straight. Robin Hobb is a WOMAN. And her name isn't 'Robin Hood' either, no matter how adamant you are to the contrary. Still don't believe me? Let me prove it, then.

(Click to Feel the Power of the Beard)

Robin Hobb is a pen-name, as is her other name, Megan Lindholm. Her real name is Margaret, but she prefers to be called either Robin or Megan (depending on which fan you are). I picked up Hobb's first novel, Assassin's Apprentice, on a curious impulse. I went against the old sayings and judged the book by its cover. It was beautiful, well-illustrated and there were little images in each corner of the book, promising a possible revelation of secrets if I were to open its pages and start reading.

So that's what I did. I started reading. 

Do not be fooled. This book is not about an assassin. It's a tale about a boy who is born a bastard of a king. He is rightly called Fitz (which literally translates as "a bastard of a king"). It is told in a first person perspective and you are privy to some interesting details, such as Fitz' ability to communicate with animals. The book is full of intrigue and suspense, oftentimes violent and at other times, sweet and harmonic. Assassin's Apprentice isn't a book you can't put down (note the double negative), but it's certainly a book that will capture your attention and leave you appreciating a good fantasy story if you are willing to forgive the minor irritants. 

If you have never read a fantasy novel in your life, Robin Hobb is a very good starting point. Assassin's Apprentice is a book that will grow on you over time, therefore warranting a before and after rating from me. I'm looking forward to re-reading Robin Hobb when the time is right because it's definitely worth my time.



Sunday, August 7, 2011

"In the Shadows with Madeleine Cleary" - The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Today's blog is written by Madeleine Cleary, who will be appearing as a regular guest, writing reviews of books not normally associated with fantasy.

The Help, the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, was rejected 45 times by publishers before it skyrocketed to the New York Times best-sellers list. This is a novel that will surely resonate with readers for many years to come.

Mammy in the classic novel, Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell is a loveable and loyal house-slave of the O’Hara family. She accepts her role as a slave very willingly and there is much affection between her and the white O’Hara family. Nobody ever asked Mammy whether she would like to change things. The concept was foreign and the white and black roles in society were accepted and firm. Moving away from the civil war era, Stockett sets her novel in the Deep South in Jackson, Mississippi. Set in the 1960s, just before Martin Luther King and before the civil rights movement, Mississippi was renowned by the rest of the United States as being slightly behind the times. Stockett draws from her own fond childhood memories of being raised by her African American nanny, Demetrie.

The novel follows three perspectives. Arguably the main protagonist is Aibleen; a loyal, polite and dedicated housemaid who has a talent for writing. Her best friend Minny is a fiery and smart-mouthed housemaid with cooking to die for. Last is Miss Skeeter; a single and upper class white woman who begins to question the black and white roles in society. Miss Skeeter, with the help of Aibleen and Minny, begings to construct a novel of interviews of African American housemaids and nannies about their experiences in white households. The divide was so great that African Americans in Jackson at that time were being beaten for using a “white” toilet; hence, the risk was immense.

Stockett wanted to capture the often-complex relationship between a white household and their black housemaid and nanny. Hence there was an emphasis in The Help on stories of love and respect juxtaposed with stories of neglect and abuse. The latter stories highlight the particularly strong racial prejudice and division at the time. There was a particularly poignant scene where Aibleen makes the ironic connection that whilst black women are trusted in raising white children, they are not trusted with the silver service sets. Irony is further teased out by Stockett: while the children love and dote upon their nanny, who generally played more of a presence in their lives than their own mothers, they generally would end up with the same racially divided mindset of their parents. It was a continuous cycle that seemed to never relent.

I was really intrigued by the persistence of the character of Aibleen. She had been ‘rearing white babies for 20 years’ and had watched them all grow into versions of their parents. Aibleen said that as soon as the children stopped being “colour blind” she would pack up and move to another family with a young baby or child. It took Miss Skeeter to ask Aibleen quietly, ‘do you ever wish you could change things’ to spark a flame to tell her story. There should not be any confusion, however, this is not about a white woman who writes a book. It is about the stories of the struggles faced by those dedicated and hard-working women who slaved away over children that were not their own.

This book is not just about sending poignant messages about race relations. It is also utterly hilarious. You will find yourself laughing out loud at the character of Minny who is so outrageous and controversial. However, I must caution, the “Minny’s Pie” incident may make a few readers feel a little queasy in the stomach. There is also some quite amusing toilet humour that will soften even the most serious of readers.

The novel is classified as fiction yet the novel reads like a collective memoir. Stockett used true stories gathered from experiences from others ,as well as her own, to form the characters of Aibleen and Minny. Aibleen’s strong sense of dedication contrasted with Minny’s own unique, flippant character which created an eclectic pair.

There is a strong sense of justice and proving that the voiceless can be heard. Even today there are still racial tensions and prejudices that exist in the United States and around the world. This novel, just like the novel that is written by Miss Skeeter, is controversial in its own right. There may be room for criticism that Stockett, as a white woman, does not have the right to write first-hand as a black housemaid. Stockett employs the black “dialect” in her writing to capture the thoughts of Aibleen and Minny. Some may say that this was not her story to tell.

This is the kind of book that you cannot leave alone. You are engulfed into the worlds of Minny, Aibleen and Miss Skeeter and you cannot wait to dive back on in again. I wanted to savour every last page until the very end and yet, contradictorily, I also needed to finish it.

I would say that this book has one flaw and that is that it ends. I wanted to continue to relish in the faithful and spiritual mind of Aibleen who decided to share to the world her words and her story. Compared with the vibrant and colourful characters of Minny and Aibleen, Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy seems like an empty shell. When Stockett began writing on The Help no one could have predicted the success it has become today. It has sold over 2 million copies in the United States and is now being made into a feature film released in Australia this September. Those 45 publishers must be kicking themselves.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Outpost, Adam Baker

Outpost by Adam Baker is the latest take on the zombie genre, an increasingly popular trend in recent fiction and entertainment publications. This book was published by Hodder & Stoughton, home to several popular crime/thriller authors. However, they’ve really missed the mark with this one. The book is told in a third-person perspective through several character’s viewpoints, and to be quite frank, it’s bad.
“He used to tell a joke. ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’” Did you expect me to laugh aloud? Clap my hands? Baker used the most over-used, humourless joke to progress his character’s development. I think he actually took a step back as I simply stared at the page, dumbfounded at what I had just read. It really sums up what I thought of this novel. A bad joke.
The novel takes place on a refinery in the Arctic, which doesn’t really do anything for the story. It’s cold. The refinery could have been in the desert and achieve the same level of suspense. As mentioned, the story is a zombie… thriller. A very cliche’d, zombie thriller. The only thing that differed from the old paradigms was that some zombies were semi-aware of their existence and metal grew, yes grew, from their bodies. The main character takes an educated guess at nanobots gone wrong, which I suspect is the correct answer, since the author lacks any subtlety. 
The author is a film projectionist (you work in a bloody cinema! A spade’s a spade so don’t sugar-coat it!). Because of this, the book reads more like a movie than a piece of literature. The chapters are separated by chunks of text, often three to four paragraphs long, which jump from scene to scene. If the author has ever heard of exposition, he has obviously chosen to ignore it. The result is a jarring journey where you’re constantly disorientated by plot and character. Think of being in a car where the driver keeps slamming on the breaks. And you’re without a seat belt. To be fair, this book might appeal to new readers who have never picked up a book in their lives. It’s fast-paced and spends minimal time on the unimportant aspects… like character development. For those of us who have read more than Dr. Seuss, it’s apparent that the author has a clear case of ADD when writing scenes that lack a body being thrown across the room or a brain smashed in with a baseball bat.  
What is the author’s message in this book? I’ve read the book and I still don’t know. Ration your food? People are born inherently evil? Each character can be labeled. Bad guy, wise man, crazy lady. The characters are one dimensional and lack any ulterior motives. Y’know, that thing that define all human characteristics. On the subject of characters, it seems Baker was a little confused. In one chapter, a character is defined as the recluse and unwilling to help anyone. In the next chapter, the very same character is taking bullets for the rest of the men on the refinery.
The plot is somewhat underwhelming, the ending left open for a sequel. The twists and turns are unoriginal and I found I just didn’t care. The book wasn’t hard to read, but I wouldn’t recommend spending your time doing so. If you’re looking for a good zombie novel, read Max Brook’s World War Z or The Walking Dead
Outpost was a book I was looking forward to reading. It sounded unique, suspenseful and generally a fun read. It had potential, but the author has simply not read extensively enough into the genre or has relied purely upon the zombie movies he projects as a film projectionist. The writing of the novel is brilliant (grammar, punctuation, etc.), but the core of the story has failed to impress, which in the end is all that really matters.