Book Review: Stardust

Stardust
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally picked up this delightful faery tale for adults by Neil Gaiman. Like all his books, I immediately fell in love with it. It has a whimsical playfulness that enchanted me as he took a traditional form and made it his own. It is not heavy duty, two or three quick sessions and you’ll be finished, although I dare say it has a lot to say once you let it weave it’s magic. What are the things that bind us today? How far will we go for the things we love? Thanks again Neil Gaiman for the magic you liberally sprinkle into our world, and for the way you open our eyes to the magic all around us.

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Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bought this one a couple of years ago having seen it everywhere and heard the hype. Sounded my kind of book. Started it at the time and read the first section, totally taken by the feel of the language and world it described. Quite different from other fantasy books I’d read. The only catch was that it was such a large book that taking it out with me anywhere or away was not so easy and I ended up reading other books promising to come back to it. Sadly I didn’t for sometime and so recently when I spotted it on offer for the Kindle I grabbed it straight away. Much more convenient! This time I finished it.

So what did I make of it? Wow, what a fantastic book, a début novel at that! As before, the language and world created grabbed me completely. If you were to ask me what it was about, my description would be vague and not so compelling, but like The Night Circus, it grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Britain devoid of practising magicians, suddenly discovers that it has two Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, master joined by pupil. The tension between then and different attitudes to making magic available and promoting it spill over into a series events that changes the face of the country, sometimes quite literally!

Perfect? Maybe not. Could it have been shorter? I think so. But I’m glad it is as it is. Now I really wish I’d finished it the other year when I got it in paperback.

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Review: The Big Over Easy

The Big Over Easy
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if fairy tale characters were real seems to be the in vogue concept at the moment with the graphic novel series ‘Fables’ and the TV series ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Grimm’. Jasper Fforde in this book takes this theme and gives it a different twist, rather than fairy tale characters, how about nursery rhyme characters. And so in this gripping whodunnit we find the likes of the Three Pigs, the Gingerbreadman and Humpty Dumpty, that latter who is found at the bottom of a wall, dead. My favourite is the mafia-esque Giorgio Porgia (try converting that from an Italian sounding name to an English one if you’re not sure who it is straight away). Inspired.

Seeing as this is a world based on stories, it isn’t surprising that it’s inhabitants value a good yarn over boring truth, and so DI Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division doesn’t just have the criminals to tackle, but those, including his investigative nemesis, who would prefer a resolution to an investigation that makes a good read, rather than one that actually nabs the right man/creature.

This is a cracking read, full of clever ideas and funny lines from the start to the finish. It’s full of life and invention. Absolutely loved it! There are some wonderful characters, and the language is spot on. A special note must be made of the quotes at the start of each chapter – it’s worth reading just for them. Was especially delighted to find reference to Goring, a little town outside Reading where the book is set, where friends of ours live and one of our churches is based – wil mean nothing to others, but tickled me.

This is my first Fforde novel and won’t be my last.

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Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lent this by my daughter after she had read – ‘read this Dad, I know you’ll like it’. Of course she knew I liked Neil Gaimn and so it was a fair bet from the start. Not surprisingly I loved it! A wonderfully quirky story about a boy who is adopted by the ghostly inhabitants of a graveyard. I especially enjoyed the epitaphs by which the various ghosts are introduced by after their names. Another highlight is the line drawings which do a lot to build up the atmosphere.

It’s a quick read, and not everything is explained – and that is ok, adding to the mystery. Although it’s a children’s book, don’t be put off by that, I’d say all ages would enjoy it.

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Review: Sepulchre

Sepulchre
Sepulchre by Kate Mosse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was leant a copy of this after reading Labyrinth, the first book in the trilogy, and as in the case of the first I thoroughly enjoyed it. Mosse’s writing is very engaging, reminding me of Joanne Harris. Whilst the setting outside mediaeval Carcassone is smaller in scope, the plot and characters easily compensated. Some have grumbled about the inclusion of many French and Occitan phrases. I wasn’t put off by this; although there was quite a bit I didn’t understand, the language helped set the feel and context of the story, and make it a different world. I shall certainly look out for the final installment, confident that it will be worth reading!

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Review: Jack of Ravens

Jack of Ravens
Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An engaging and challenging read with a very distinct style that lived up to the quote from The Times emblazoned on the cover, ‘A sumptous feast of fairytale, magic, dark gothic horror and romance’.

This is the tale of Jack Churchill, ‘Church’, who finds himself transported mysteriously back to 100BC and a Celtic Tribe, far from the woman he loves. So begins a journey to discover his identity and to make his way back to his beloved. On the way we plunge through a number of different time periods, meeting a number of others like him. The history sounds like ours, but isn’t always. Things are being changed, challenged by the forces that rise up against Church and his companions.

I enjoyed this book a lot – although having now discovered there was a previous series I wonder whether somethings might have been clearer had I read this first. The moving through time periods, some much explored in similar novels, others not so, was fun, although occasionally I wished that Chadbourn would settle in one a bit longer – although I suspect that sense of disorientation was something he was after. This is also seen in the style of writing which gives the book a distinctive flavour. He regularly changes the way he tells the tale, switching between the characters, moving from the events being told in the present to their being narrated in hindsight, or even simply alluded to by one of the characters in another discussion. It is a complicated plot with many characters and elements to be considered, leaving you wondering if you have grasped what it is really about – but again, that may well be what is intended.

The theme of time-and-or-continent-hopping hero or tragically separated lovers is nothing new, but the way this tale is told has a very fresh feel to it which caught my imagination. This is not your regular run-of-the-mill time fantasy of which there are now sadly all too many. I will be looking out for the sequel.

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Review: Preludes and Nocturnes

Preludes and Nocturnes
Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you will have picked up that I’m a Neil Gaiman fan. I love his whimsical, quirky style. With this in mind, it was inevitable that I would have to eventually track down some of the Sandman graphic novels which I got the impression were among his finest works. When Preludes and Nocturnes, the first compiled volume, popped up in our local library, I grabbed it immediately.

The plot is a locate and retrieve quest – ‘Dream’ has been ensnared by mistake and the tools of his trade taken from him. When he eventually escapes his captors, he sets out to regain his tools, and with them his former powers. His quests take him to Hell and back. Literally.

The plot is not overly original, but good fun nevertheless. In many ways it is secondary to the discovery and development of the character of Dream, who I can see will become a highly original and fascinating person in time. At this point not quite there yet, but enough in place to capture the imagination.

I loved the covers of the original comics which are included. The art here is dream like, hinting at images left at the back of the mind as waking, insubstantial and not quite graspable.

Not quite sure about the inclusion of the Justice League of America (superheroes). Not being a great superhero fan, the appearance of these jarred and broke my suspense of disbelief. I can see how Batman might fit in a similar mode as Dream, but to me caped heroes don’t belong in this world. (That said, not being an avid comic reader, I may come with a different vision of them that graphic novel readers who know them through that medium.)

I enjoyed this volume, and will most certainly hunt down the next. Not Gaiman’s best work, but certainly hinting at what may follow.

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Review: King Arthur Pendragon

King Arthur Pendragon (Pendragon 5th Edition)King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just realised that I had failed to add this classic to my Goodreads.com bookshelf. It is without doubt my favourite rpg. Full stop (or for my American friends, ‘Period’).

At its heart is a simple rpg system. Roll a d20, aim to roll under or equal to a target number (your skill etc.). If you manage this you succeed. If you roll equal to your score, that is a critical success. If the roll is opposed (eg. in situations where two characters are competing against each other) the higher succeeding roll wins (unless one is a critical, ie. exactly equal to the target number) as this is a higher rated success.

What makes this game so special, however, is the way it marries the system to the genre the game is set in: Arthurian legend (primarily Marlory’s take on it). Its introduction of Character Traits and Passions brings personality to the fore and reinforces and encourages playing in a style that accords with the source material. Love, honour, glory and even fits of madness are the heart of the game, rather than combat or spell lists.

The Fifth edition is more streamlined than the somewhat bloated fourth edition, and along with the Great Pendragon Campaign provides in my humble opinion, a perfect example of great game design.

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Review: The Passage

The PassageThe Passage by Justin Cronin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a book I would have normally picked up to read. I don’t tend to frequent the horror section at the library and would generally avoid like the plague any ‘vampire’ theme books – I am not the demographic that the Twilight Saga et al are aiming at! But this was recommended to me by a friend who’s suggestions have always proved worth reading and as usual he did not let me down!

So, what’s this book about? Will try and tread carefully here so as to avoid spoilers (now I sound like River Song from Doctor Who). I think I can get away with saying that this becomes a post-apocalyptic survival book, but with vampires rather than zombies or nuclear fall out. The ‘main’ character is Amy, a young child. I say ‘main’ because although she isn’t the focal character, the story clearly revolves around her and the mystery of who she is. There are other characters and themes that take centre stage, but she is the heart of the novel.

This book doesn’t pretend to be a literary masterpiece, but instead a no-holes barred thriller, and I would say on the main it achieves this very well – it certainly had my attention and I shall be looking out for the sequels. Occasionally I did find myself wandering and wondering how on earth there could be so many pages left, but this was a rare occurrence. I can’t quite see how there will be another two books (I heard it was to be part of a trilogy) but there have been enough twists and new stories and ideas in this first installment, that I expect there will be plenty to get our teeth into (please forgive the bad pun…)

Amy is special. Her book ain’t that bad either!

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Review: The Domino Men

The Domino MenThe Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Henry Lamb, a fairly dull average bloke who works in filing, discovers that his life is not what he thought it was. It would appear that Britain is at war against not another nation, but against its own monarchy, who is in league with, well, you’ll have to read it to find out… Key to sorting out this mess is his Grandad, only he lies in a hospital bed in a coma. Its all his fault!

Not quite sure why I picked this one up at my local library, but glad I did. I found it one of those couldn’t put down reads, finishing it in a week (quite a contrast to my last book, Game of Thrones, which seemed to take forever!)

Found this very Neil Gaimen-esque, which is very much to my taste. Loved the way the plot developed and new characters and threads were woven in. Plenty of twists and surprises. Now I know that this is a sequel of sorts, I shall look out for its predecessor (The Somnambulist) and see if that is anywhere near as good.

Some have said that this book has a great start and then goes downhill. Personally, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Recommend it.

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