50 shades of bad and a few shades of good

50 shades of Grey has been lambasted from here to eternity. I’ll agree that in most cases it has been rightly lambasted. The prose is appalling and the dialogue is cringeworthy (‘Holy crap”, “my inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”), the plot meanders about forever, the one-dimensional characters… I could (and frequently have) go on at length about this.

I could also rant and rave about the sexist messages and subtext in the book. The fact that it misrepresents BDSM, the fact that Christian breaks their contract by ignoring safewords, the fact that in pretty much every scene of note – including the one where the contract is drawn up – Anna is under the influence of alcohol, the fact that she repeatedly says no, states that she feels like an abuse victim (because she is), that his actions legally count as rape, that there are scenes when she runs away from him in fear, that after she drunk dials him he traces her phone and shows up and gives out to her and won’t let her drink, the fact that he stalks her, threatens her, tells her she can’t run because he will find her, convinces her that his mood swings are her fault etc. etc. etc. All are classic traits of abusive relationships. Like I said I could go on, and maybe I will at a future point, but if you’re interested in these arguments that it portrays an abusive relationship just follow the links in this paragraph. I’m not here today to talk about the bad things though.

No means no!!!

No means no!!!

But we have a tendency to only focus on the negative and, like I said, I don’t think I have anything game-changing to add to that side of the debate. I have a tendency to be cynical so in my bid to be a bit more positive in life I’m going to be controversial here and say that maybe 50 shades of Grey isn’t all bad, there are some (not insignificant) good points that should not be ignored.

  • This a HUGELY successful franchise, a massive money spinner whose popularity has launched the careers of thousands of writers in similar genres and really brought some credibility to self-publishing and ebooks in places like Ireland that haven’t really adopted it like the rest of the world. However, the most heartening thing about the whole phenomenon is that this HUGELY successful story was inspired by a successful woman writer (Stephanie Meyers), written by a woman, adapted for screen by a woman and directed by a women. In a world where industries like writing and publishing and film are traditionally dominated by men (pun intended), and in a world where this infographic rings dishearteningly true, this is a fantastic achievement for women and should be acknowledged as such.
  • This is a franchise written for women. Despite the highly problematic portrayal of relationships in it, and the justified worry that this portrayal may subconsciously influence people into normalising abuse and not recognising it when it occurs, there are still some positives to be gleaned from this relationship. One of my main problems with the porn industry is that it’s all for men. It’s all about men getting off and men enjoying themselves and women get nothing out of it. There is very little aimed at women, very little female sexual empowerment and agency or even very little female sexual representation except for the purposes of giving men orgasms and making them feel all macho and awesome. 50 shades has got women talking about sex and has normalised women’s sexual desires (not the specific desires represented in the book necessarily, but even the fact that we have desires at all seems to have come as a shock to some people). In our incredibly repressive, uptight, reserved society, I see this as a good thing. Porn where women get off too is good, and there is no denying that Anna enjoys some of the sex in the book, it’s just everything else that has her running in fear.
  • It has normalised non “vanilla” sex (to borrow a phrase from the book) and encourages people to explore sex and their own sexuality which I reckon is a good thing. Honesty and open mindedness is always positive, and it has helped dispel some of the notions that people tend to have about those who engage in non-traditional sexual practices. The BDSM is the book’s main hook, but I would caution anyone who intends to use it as a manual. Some of what’s represented in it is decidedly dangerous (don’t tie someone up with cable-ties, seriously, don’t, a trip to the emergency room is not sexy). And to be perfectly honest, none of the sex is that surprising (apart from Christian’s behaviour and refusal to uphold the contract), I’ve read about far more deviant and shocking sexual practices in ancient Roman texts than between the covers of this book so everyone needs to relax about the so-called depravity.
  • This point isn’t exactly positive, it’s more just speculation, but while I believe that we should criticise the book, and scrutinise it, as we should look at all art with a critical eye, a vast amount of the backlash has not been aimed at the book, but rather at the fanbase, mainly because they’re women. This angers me. Though the book gets people talking about sex and normalises women’s desires this is instantly dismissed (by people who usually haven’t read it and are usually men) as ‘Mommy porn.’ What a horribly condescending term! While the abusive relationship has the potential to have a negative influence on some of its fans, a lot of its fans are also sensible enough to realise this and read it as a guilty pleasure, they just enjoy the sex scenes while recognising the disturbed nature of the characters’ interactions. But this ‘Mommy porn’ criticism doesn’t look at the problems in the book, doesn’t look at the book at all. Instead it criticises and demeans women for wanting or doing or enjoying anything sexual or having any sexual agency whatsoever. We saw the same backlash at the Twilight fanbase of teenage girls and we will see it at the next predominantly female franchise despite its quality. Yet you never see this kind of backlash against male fans or male-dominated franchises like action movies or the WWE (which is arguably of equally bad quality). This policing of people’s tastes infuriates me, and while I feel that the abuse in the books needs to be highlighted I will not judge you for reading them or shame you for liking them (though in some cases I will point out why I don’t like them).
  • The sheer volume of the book’s detractors has gotten some people looking at relationships in a new light and has generally made people more aware of abuse, people who might not necessarily have become aware, had they not been exposed to this criticism and dialogue before or even been aware of this dynamic in fiction and in life.
  • And lastly, while I found the book pretty tedious to get through, there are hours of entertainment to be had from ingenious parodies of the series. From 50 shades of tae to 50 sheds of hay, to if the books were written by men, to Ellen Degeneres’  staring in 50 shades of grey, the lego trailer, the musical version, the Steve Buscemi version, the #IrishShadesOfGrey, Ellen Degeneres again – this time making the audiobook, this list of the exact shades of grey (all 50 of them), priceless google image searches, the list goes on. There is something for everyone, those who love it, those who hate it and those who are just looking for a laugh.

50 shades of Grayskull

 

For the record I have not seen the film and have no intention of seeing it. I have read the first book in the trilogy, but slogging through that was a challenge so I didn’t bother with the other two. I’m just waiting for Valentine’s day 2016 so I can go see the Deadpool movie.

Short Story Sunday: ‘Zombie’ by Chuck Palahniuk

So I thought I’d bring short story Sunday back from the dead (hence the zombie theme). I really enjoyed analysing short fiction in a way that I don’t have the time or space to do with longer fiction here and I’m struggling with two short pieces I’m writing at the moment so this might help get me in the right mindframe – spark something off so to speak. I’m not quite sold on Palahniuk. Fight Club is one of my favourite films, I’ll watch it again and again and again and again and…. the book is as good as the movie, which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of it. I read Invisible monsters which was good but had some really sickening moments and I read haunted which had an amazing premiss that just fell flat and ultimately got quite tedious.

Click the image to go to the story

This story wasn’t really about zombie’s like I hoped (you know the way sometimes you’re just in the mood for the undead?), but nothing’s ever straightforward with this guy. Instead it’s about a new craze amongst teens and young adults to attach a defibrillator to their temples and shock themselves into idiocy. It’s kind of a painless but irreversible lobotomy. That way they don’t have to deal with the pressures of modern life, they end up with terrible jobs and are completes morons and simpletons but they’re happy. Rather than zombies traditionally hunting for brains and searching for brains to eat these guys are running away from brains, running from the pressures of everyday life and from the tragedies in the world and having to make decisions and take on responsibility and deal with things. I’d be lying if I said that kind of escape isn’t occasionally attractive.

Plenty of Palahniuk’s recurring themes also show up here – the dual destruction of the body and society echoing each other as well as the man child and infantile adults trying to recapture their youth as a way of rejecting society.

The ending of the story is a lot more hopeful and mature than I’ve come to expect from this man and to be honest I’m not sure if I liked it. The tone is not as rebellious as some of his other work and it seems almost like a lament for that kind of pigheaded rebellion for the sake of rebellion. It was missing something but overall it’s a good story with a good ending. The major problem with the story is defibrillators don’t work that way.  They won’t shock unless they detect specific heart patterns and (according to brief internet research) basically the entire premiss is flawed. So while it’s a good story, shocking your temples with a defibrillator just can’t happen (never mind surviving as a happy moron to tell the tale)

Notable Lines: ‘They continue to be young and hot but they no longer worry about the day when they won’t be. It’s suicide but it’s not.’

Halloween Reads

A brief summary of some of my literary halloween exploits

Dracula

book-cover-dracula-2 A classic and for a very good reason. I don’t usually like classics but this is a very thrilling suspenseful read. I bought a simple English version of it to read with my English as a Foreign Language students and they seem to love it, so much so that today some of them dressed up as characters from the book and acted out scenes with multiple Draculas, a Mina, a Lucy and many unsuspecting victims (no one wanted to be Van Helsing for some reason)

The Bram Stoker Festival has concluded but the events I went to were amazing. On Friday I saw an open air screening of the 1930’s Dracula in Meeting House Square. The atmosphere was excellent and the§ provided blankets for the cold. On Sunday myself and my boyfriend went to a gothic romance themed banquet in the crypts of Christ Church Cathedral. The décor, the food, everything was amazing. I’ve never eaten so many blood themed dishes (and also a pigeon).

The Call of Cthulhu

I received a wonderful birthday present of the Necronomicon from some wonderful IMAG0319friends who know me far too well. I flicked through it and read a few stories, they’re a lot creepier when they’re in a proper leather-bound tome compared to my battered old Penguin classics paperback.

There’s not much I can say about it in such a short review other than read it, read it now! What are you still doing here? And when you’ve finished go and listen to this podcast.

Death Note

Death Note the Black edition, Vol. 1I’ve seen the manga and recently started collecting the black edition because it’s goth and cool (goths are still cool, right?) The Manga is awesome, the comics are just as awesome, the TV show was surprisingly faithful to them so far. It’s a great concept, very suspenseful, very complex games within games kind of suspense. The only negative thing I have to say bout it is that it get a lot less interesting just after halfway through when the show jumps forward a few years and one of the characters leaves.

Click Clack the Rattlebag

This is a short story released by Neil Gaiman as part of the festival he invented ‘All download (1)Hallows Read‘ where people exchange scary books for halloween. it was only released in audio format and I think that;s for the best. The slow build of tension works really well when you can’t control the pace of the story and rather than sitting and reading you have to take a passive role, sit back, listen and let the story surround you (much like the main character in ‘Click Clack the Rattlebag’)

I’ve never been a fan of Gaiman’s novels but his short stories rarely disappoint

Other 

Listening: Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie

Watching: Psycho, The Shining, Cabin in the Woods, the new Dracula TV series

Playing: Limbo, Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

download

I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.

Short Story Sunday: ‘The Blind Chinese Soldiers’ by Hirabayashi Taiko

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

I haven’t read any long Japanese literature. It’s only ever been poems and short stories. I’ve seen a lot of their cartoons, films and played the games though. ‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’ is the most striking story I found in this little gem of a collection.

The author is a woman who was writing at a time when both Japanese women writers and working class writers were beginning to distinguish themselves. By all accounts she was incredibly intelligent, very politically active and had a very tough life – she suffered from tuberculosis, cancer and her only child died from malnutrition. Despite this her prose is very measured and avoids the over-the-top flowery sentimentality that would be easy to slip into.

‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’  is set in Japan near the end of World War Two and while much more understated than the obvious comparison that’s part of the point. The whole country was devastated by the war yet very little information was available. The story is set in a train station and as the protagonist is waiting to board his train a lot of Japanese policemen arrive and it turns out that the train is occupied by both Prince Takamatsu and almost 500 Chinese prisoners of war. These soldiers have been blinded, most likely by experimentation and they are lead off the train and treated very roughly by the Japanese escort.

Stop what you’re doing. Go watch this now. Bring tissues.

People stand and gawk but ultimately are more concerned about their own personal tragedies than the larger problems of the country. The train is a great metaphor for this as people come and go, have brief moments of connections and then forget, yet they are all connected through the train of carriages.

There is massive diversity in this collection but this story is so brief – much like the encounter it depicts – so pared back and raw, that it is one of my favourites.

Notable Lines: All of them half-closed their eyes as if it were too bright, and tears were dripping from every eye. It was certain that every one of them was blind.

REVIEW: My Summer Reads

So I recently spent a week abroad. I don’t do so good on sun holidays because I burn easily enough in Ireland and I like doing stuff instead of lying down, which I do quite frequently at home for free. Prior to leaving I was told I could only bring five books to keep me going because the bags would be too heavy, they’d cost extra, I’d make someone else carry them, blah blah blah. So I brought four books and my kindle (fight the system!). Here are some micro-reviews of the ones I read.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

13147230This is a Pratchett’s first foray into sci-fi since he wrote Strata back in 1981. It is about parallel universes and the travel between them. Pratchett and Baxter manage to get around the complicated confusing plots of certain other authors I could mention by making these worlds uninhabited by humans. Our earth is a freak or ‘Joker’ earth where humans evolved. Across the Long Earth sentience is quite rare but there are lots of interesting versions of the world out there and the absence of humans lets the authors explore more interesting topics, such as what happens once resources become infinite? The technology to travel, or ‘step’ to these other earths is very very cheap. What happens when anyone can get gold or land or anything they need right next door for free? And next door to that, and that… The book ends on a hell of a cliffhanger though so while I’m waiting for the next one I think I’ll have to read more of this Baxter guy.

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve meant to read more of Palahniuk since I read Fight Club. Marla Singer is more messed up in the book than she is in the film but she doesn’t hold a candle to Shannon McFarland. Invisible Monsters deals with a supermodel who becomes severly disfigured and her various methods for dealing (or failing to deal) with both this and her pre-existing insecurities. There are plenty of twists and funny moments, particularly with Shannon’s parents. The book deals a lot with reinvention and plays with identity and gender – particularly with transgender characters and the hyper-sexualisation of the modelling world. Another major theme is self-destruction and self-mutilation. Because of her deformity she is quite literally the silent protagonist. It’s no Fight Club but definitely worth a read (particularly the remix version) .

WARNING: I can take a lot of gore in books – not so much in films, but in books usually nothing is too gruesome for me – and there’s a scene in this book that made me physically ill. I had to stop reading get some fresh air and cancel my plans for the evening. Not for the faint hearted.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

This one was a bit of a struggle. The premise was great: global warming has been accelerated exponentially due to solar flares and the equator has become uninhabitable. The book follows a team of scientists at the borders of the uninhabitable zone studying the ecology and trying to find a way to delay or at least document the advance of the floods. This is hard sci-fi and is very well written for the first half. The narrator is compelled by this drowning world and the book has quite a few Heart of Darkness moments as the environment’s devolution parallels that of the characters. However the imagery is endless (there are only so many ways to describe a lagoon before it gets boring) and while beautifully written the plot stagnates at points. He spends quite a lot of time hammering home his themes as well which makes the already introspective character a bit too detached for me. I reckon if it had been told in the first person he could have avoided most of these pitfalls. I stopped in the middle to read other books so when events accelerated near the end I found it hard to get into again. But it’s only 170 pages long so definitely worth a try.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

So after all the hype around Slaughterhouse Five I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t a war novel. The Western World obsesses over WWII to the neglect of all other tragedies so I definitely wasn’t thrilled to be reading yet another book about it. I’ve read a lot of excellent holocaust narratives and this one starts out very blandly. The first chapter is a bit tedious but then the time travel and alien abduction starts. This has nice parallels with Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil as both stories try to discover new ways to talk about trauma and the answer unanimously seems to be evasion and surrealism. It’s an excellent book that plays with narrative conventions. Now I finally know where the phrase ‘So it goes’ comes from and why so many people get it as a tattoo. Vonnegut repeats this phrase to provoke every emotion under the sun in reaction to death, highlighting how omnipresent it is.

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

I only got one chapter into this on the plane home so my opinion is still pending. But so far it’s pretty interesting. Standard enough sci-fi opening (until a bit at the very end of the chapter which makes me think this one’s going to be pretty low on the Mohs scale) but told in a very compelling way. If it’s any indication of the way the rest of the book is written I’ll stick with him for the long haul.

REVIEW: ‘Once More With Footnotes’ by Terry Pratchett

I don’t normally read short story collections. I read plenty of short stories but it’s only recently, since foraying into short story writing territory myself, that I find myself reading collections from cover to cover. I used to discriminate, read the shorter ones if I was pressed for time, or the title story, or the one that was recommended to me, or even just read the opening paragraphs of each until I found one I liked and stuck it out until the end. Now I seem to read them from cover to cover, as if they were a novel.

Once More with Footnotes is an odd book. It was published by the NESFA press in honour of Pratchett’s attendance as guest of honour at the 62nd discworld convention. It gathers together his short stories (including his first published story), speeches, introductions to other books and articles and journalism. I had actually read several of the short stories online before I became aware of the collection. As soon as I discovered it I immediately wanted to buy it, then discovered that there had only been three limited print runs back in 2004. Only a few thousand copies were printed (and when you sell books by the skip full like Pratchett that’s a meagre number). So then I got sad. After awhile though I rediscovered my ebay account and started bidding furiously on the few copies still in circulation. After spending a diriculous amount of money on one book (and I won’t say how diriculous) it was just a matter of waiting for weeks while ebay sorted itself out and delivered it. Having read only his novels for years it’s amazing to see what he can do with a much more contrained word count.

However the book has some flaws, which I’ll briefly discuss first:

  • His journalism becomes a case of ‘Read one, read them all’ after awhile. Being the prolific force of fantasy that he is he was frequently asked to write articles defining fantasy, explaining, fantasy, telling how he got interested in fantasy, advice to people writing fantasy, theories on fantasy… While the non-fiction end of the spectrum is well written it all gets a bit samey after awhile.
  • Some stories are longer than they needed to be. They weren’t really edited between their initial publication and being added into this collection so it’s fair enough that he was younger, less experienced etc. and overall it was a pretty brave move to leave them as tehy were.
  • His juvenalia really stands out as being stylistically different to the rest of the book, there’s a real sense of him struggling to figure out his voice and style. These early pieces are much more formal and don’t flow as well. (that being said they’re far better than anything I wrote when I was starting out, and better than most of what I write now. He had an insanely large vocabulary as a kid)
  • It’s hard to figure out what logic there is behind the order of pieces but there’s no real continuity or flow. It leads to a very disjointed reading experience. The little introductory notes he writes at the start of each piece, while often unnessecary, help maintain some kind of flow.

But the stories are awesome! Wow, I can barely keep myself from gushing about the first story ‘Hollywood Chickens,’ which was written as an ecological study of chickens and how they attempt to cross the road (but no-one can answer the all-important why)

There’s a brilliant Discworld story where an philosopher tries to outsmart Death (that’s the anthropomorphic personality that TALKS LIKE THIS), and a monologue featuring Death written as a transcript of a police interview.

There are some great Discworld moments such as Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax competing at the witching trials or when the Watch investigates the murder of a Punch and Judy stall owner.

There are also brilliant moments where we get to see what fantasy staples Pratchett might have turned to if The Colour of Magic had flopped. One example is the time travelling physicist named Mervin who gets stuck in Arthurian times and rigs up remotely controlled electromagnets to ensure only the person he deems appropriate will be able to pull the sword from the stone. Another is told from the point of view of a labourer on a monolith thousands of years ago trying to deal with a documentary film crew.

Overall Once More With Footnotes was worth the price for the fiction alone. It’s not a great place to start if you haven’t read Terry Pratchett though, I’d recommend picking a thread on this chart instead and just keep ploughing through those for awhile, but if you’ve read and loved everything he has to offer and are willing to spend a some moolah then this is a must have.

Game of Thrones Fatigue

So Season 2 is drawing to a close. What have we learned? Peter Dinklage is awesome (not that we needed to be reminded), this season is much less anchored without Sean Bean, and boobies solve everything.

Sean Bean Death Statistics

When will the madness end?

Awhile ago I wrote a post about prostitution in the first few books basically trying to come up with a possible explanation for the sheer volume of violent sex scenes, however, try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for the addition of even more violent sex scenes (almost exclusively against women) in the TV show other than more boobs = higher ratings = more money to roll around in. Sex may sell but the lack of male nudity is particularly vexing, at least balance it out HBO!

At the time I was planning to write a post reviewing each episode of season 2, I even mentioned it in the comments, because I was still caught up in the excitement of the New Big Thing. Way back in the distant past of last summer I was all for Game of Thrones (or GoT as all the cool cats are calling it). It was exam season so in an attempt not to study I turned to TV for a distraction. Actual real life TV, not internet TV (desperate measures for desperate times).

I watched all of season 1 as it aired and immediately bought the first four books off amazon. I read them all over the summer, the per cent read on my kindle crept up ever so slowly. I took breaks to read other books. Had one tantrum after a certain event and stopped reading for a while, got bored on several occasions and took holidays from Westeros. Then my cousin kindly lent me Dance with Dragons. I couldn’t hack it though, reading it in bed was a dangerous past time, one slip and I could have broken my nose. So I got the kindle edition instead. Some day soon murders will be committed with the hardback edition and bloodied copies will be held up in plastic evidence bags in courtrooms (just how George would have wanted it).

Overall the whole process of discovering TV show, getting really excited, reading all the books and getting sick of the whole thing took about 5 months(ish).

Now that push has come to shove as it were, I can’t bring myself to review each season 2 episode individually. I’ve tried watching and can’t. A few minutes into the second episode I found myself looking wistfully at the ironing and started tackling that instead. This is the only way they can keep me interested, if I watch them while doing something marginally less interesting; the flat has never been cleaner! I think I’m suffering from overexposure. After a summer long binge on slowly declining prose I’m sick of it (quite literally, in bed with a throat infection today, maybe I’m allergic).

The problems I have with GoT are x-fold (x because I can’t be bothered to count and I reserve the right to add more reasons as more books and episodes are released).

  1. It should have been a trilogy The first two books (in my opinion) are the strongest and the most action packed. Then they get gradually more dragged out as they fall into a wormhole and time is warped so that nothing happens for hundreds of pages. In Dance with Dragons sweet FA happens until the end, and even then, shocking deaths and gritty plot twists are no longer that shocking or gritty the 20th time they happen.
  2. Too much repetition this is really a sub-complaint from number 1 as I believe this is a consequence of the series being stretched over 7 books rather than a nice neat trilogy.  In every book one character is travelling across a continent. Seen one seen ’em all. I don’t mind reading about the few interesting things that happen on these journeys but there’s only so many campfires and tired voyagers I can take before it all gets a bit samey. A lot of stuff repeats itself in the series but I’ll stick with this example because (MINOR SPOILER INCOMING) by the time Brienne sets out on her journey to find Sansa (one of her many treks across the continent) the trope gets completely absurd. We know even before she begins that the whole thing is futile because, by virtue of Sansa’s POV we know Brienne is heading in the complete wrong direction! The whole way along we know that these chapters are pretty much pointless. Now semi-interesting stuff happens at the end of Brienne’s plotline but the entire thing drags out for ages beforehand telling us virtually nothing. Her whole plotline could have been compressed without loosing anything (/SPOILER)
  3. Gritty gets dull without substance The many deaths are no longer shocking. They get fairly predictable and they don’t stick. We know it’s coming so we’ve gotten over it before it happens and quite often once a character is killed they’ll be back later. A quick guide to GoT deaths: if you don’t actually see a character die – as in there is no way they can physically recover and the viewpoint character sees them actually take their last breath – then they’re probably not dead. And if they definitely are dead I’m going to bet by book 7 there’ll be a 50% chance they all come back as white walkers. It’s hard to mourn characters once you recognise this pattern. The last time a death surprised me was (one of the many) at the red wedding. Gritty ‘realism’ can only take you far. If your prose and characters can’t carry it then it becomes a gimmick like everything else and I believe Martin’s characters are less and less capable of picking up the slack. Also, having read a lot more of the books than I had when I wrote that last post, I no longer stand by my vehement defense of Martin’s use of sex as realistic, plot relevant and useful to explore characters. 

    A concise summary of books 1-5

  4. Too much is kept behind the scenes In a series where incresingly little happens – or as a former GM of mine said ‘events happen, but the general plot just trundles along at a snails pace‘ – Martin can’t afford to be coy and maddeningly obscure about absolutely everything. I’ll never complain that nothing happens in Westeros, I just get angry at reading more and more details of feast preparations, when these feasts largely serve as exposition to try and get me to memorise thousands and thousands of minor characters, while at the same time so much is actually happening just never described. Events at the tower of joy are only ever hinted at but in away that make them seem pivotal. Too much exposition (and sexposition) spaces out the interesting stuff until he finally adds insult to injury in Dance with Dragons when fascinating, exciting and plot essential events finally happen during a feast in Winterfell (when *spoiler* eats *spoiler*) and it’s barely referred to! The meal is described in the usual boring detail and it was only afterwards on the Westeros forums I learned all the details. Now one or two events like this are fine. This subtlety encourages speculation and keeps his fan base loyal and adds some much-needed depth. I don’t give a fiddler’s what they eat or wear but I want more than occassional hints at the bigger picture.
  5. We’ve Stagnated I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended but by the end of book 5 most characters haven’t moved very far and don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon. The next few books will either be incredibly exciting as he plays catch up to get all the characters in roughly the same place and to fullfill all the many themes he’s been setting up and plot events he foreshadowed then ignored. Or else they will continue in the way they have been going: with very little happening on-screen/page and a hasty wrap-up crammed into the last hundred pages.

Kindle

Well the stars have aligned, Mars has come into cojunction with Venus and I am suddenly and unexpectedly in possession of some money.

I won a quiz about Bioshock Infinite on the Escapist Magazine, the prize was $100 dollar gift voucher for Amazon.com. My internet service provider, for reasons that I’m not going to question, has decided that I only owe them €30, not €100, and i received a long awaited tax refund.

So what to do with this newfound wealth? Pay rent? Buy groceries? God no, nothing so mundane and practical.

I bought an Amazon Kindle. I think I’m in love with it.

First things first, if you’re buying from Ireland you have to buy off amazon.com, NOT amazon.co.uk. A minor thing but I think it could do with being clearer on the website. I’d also recommend buying a cover. This one is ridiculously overpriced but I like that it has a little light in it, it means I can read late at night without annoying my boyfriend. It’s also a little bit bulky but the kindle can easily be removed and even with the cover it’s still lighter and smaller than a lot of paperbacks.

The screen is probably my favourite bit so far. I can read for hours and because of the e-ink my eyes never get tired. I also regularly read it at the beach over the summer, I could read it in direct sunlight and sand and knocks and bumps don’t seem to damage it at all considering how often I’ve dropped it when I’ve fallen asleep reading.

I’ve downloaded the kindle programme for my computer as well, I love whispersync. Whatever page I’ve read to or whatever new books I’ve bought on the kindle automatically link to any other devices you’ve downloaded kindle to. I also love being able to buy a book through the kindle and have it within minutes. No need for a computer or organising programme like iTunes.

Getting the first chapter of books free is a great idea, I’d normally read them in the bookshop before I buy but this is just more convenient. I read the fist chapter of The City and the City by China Mieville, decided I didn’t like it enough to spend money on it and that way I got to try it without actually spending anything (I have shelves of books I’ve started but got bored of).

I like that you can highlight passages and write your own notes in it. I’ve downloaded a few books for college and research as well as plenty of pdfs so this really helps. The feature where you can link passages to facebook and twitter seems good, as do the audiobooks, but I haven’t used either.

Books overall are cheaper on it. A Song of Ice and Fire was selling in my local Easons for €11 a book (which would make €55 considering book three was published in two parts). I got the whole thing on kindle for $20, which is €13. Anything out of copyright is also free so I’ve been working my way through the Sherlock Holmes books without spending a cent. Give me a few more months and the kindle will have virtually paid for itself.

Considering how big e-publishing is now I reckon and e-reader is a must for any author.

However, one of the best bits for me, possibly even better than the screen, is the weight. I have permanent back damage from carrying an insanely heavy school bag in and out to school, by 6th year it averaged at two stone a day. As a result I now have several disks in my back damaged irreparably, one technically has to be removed but the operation is too risky and complicated because my ribcage is in the way. So to be able to carry 1,000’s of books in my bag and still have it weigh only a few ounces is brilliant.

The cons (Because there’s always cons)

Some books I’ve downloaded seem to have formatting errors. In the Game of Thrones series long passages will be justified then it will suddenly switch and be left-aligned for awhile. In Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things there are large gaps between every paragraph, just blank spaces. And I’ve noticed quite a few spelling errors across different books. Hopefully this will improve as editors take e-books more seriously and they get more popular.

Another problem is not every book is available on kindle. I was looking for the left hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin and Amazon didn’t have it. This happened with some of my more obscure college books as well. I had to download LeGuin off a different site and reformat it using Calibre. It was only a minor inconvenience though, one or two extra steps and the programme is free. To balance it out a lot of people are only publishing e-books now, so there’s plenty of books on kindle that you can’t get in bookshops.

Overall I thoroughly recommend it, 5 stars.

REVIEW: Attila: The Gathering of the Storm by William Napier

"Attila: The Gathering Storm" Book CoverAttila: The Gathering of the Storm by Wiliam Napier

2 out of 5

So this is marginally better than the first in the series. It deals with Attila’s return from exile and his gathering of the various Hun tribes to march against Rome.

That’s about it. Not much else happens in the plot. In my last review I said that his major problem was trying to squeeze in as many facts about Rome as possible to the detriment of pacing or characterisation. This problem all but disappeared when Attila returned to the Huns, the only information we have about the Huns is from a Roman perspective, we have no sources from their point of view. So for the last 50 pages or so the story really picked up because he didn’t have hundreds of facts to show off. This installment is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Huns and if far better for it. My favourite character, the Hun shaman and token madman Little Bird, is much more prominent here. The story opens up with a lot more action, Attila usurping King Ruga, and there is some mystery about how exactly he intends to get his revenge on Rome. He also displays a sense of humour, largely absent from the previous book, in the character of Little Bird, in occassional jokes amongst the men and in ironically scorning novels as ‘arrant nonsense that openly delights the unlettered multitude ‘ (78). (Novels were considered pretty trashy in the ancient world)

And then he ruins it all with a 60 page digression summing up what’s been happening in Rome in the past thirty years. 60 pages! It just goes on and on. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had actually told it as a story but he skims over nearly everything, providing a summary so that we never actually get to know more than a cardboard version of any character.

This tendency to summarise rather than involve the reader in the moment, I feel, is Napier’s biggest problem. His narrator for the series is Priscus of Panium, the only historical account surviving from this period. As such he attempts to imitate the ancient style of historical chronicles, which frankly can get pretty boring. We have very little of the internal deliberations of characters, rather their actions are summarised and padded out with endless description.

Once he returns to the Huns this description is everywhere and I found myself skipping over paragraphs and sometimed even pages only to have missed nothing but a three page monologue on some opposing barbarians tattoos and topknot. He is very good at describing battles and the acts of cruelty common in ancient histories (But the battles are much more engaging). Overall there is far too much description that doesn’t add to anything and there is still not enough plot. The book could have done with more editing, especially to get rid of errors in continuity such as Attila berating a man for shooting a horse when they attack a column, then his very next order is to shoot the horses. Similarly Priscus applauds the woman Athenais for boldly defending herself in court full of men and refusing the emperor’s offer, then condemns women who are audacious enough to sit at the table with their husband and his friends. Also his characters occassionally quote Shakespeare which gets kind of annoying condidering the story is set 1100 years before Shakespeare. I’d say Napier didn’t realise he was doing this, some half remmebered quote from school just seemed to fit the situation he was writing about but it is a bit jarring when barbarians and Romans say things like ‘it is an honour that I dream not of’ (Romeo and Juliet) and describe jealousy as a ‘green-eyed monster’ (Othello).

His characters clairvoyance from the previous book is replaced with a remarkable passivity in this one. They follow Attila unquestioningly. He returns after a thirty year exile for treason, murders their King in his own tent and declares himself ruler and everyone just nods along. He defeats the Kutriger Huns in battle, a people Napier repeatedly describes as filled with bloodlust and extremely cruel, but rather than seek vengeance they join him. He slaughters hundreds of their warriors in battle and threatens their women and children and then the Kutriger force of thousands bow down to Attila’s 80 remaining men. It is for these reasons that his slight improvements (such as hugely cutting back on infodumps, his sense of humour and his vivid battle scenes) do not make up for the lapses in this story for me.

Overall I didn’t enjoy reading this which made it feel far too long, for anyone wanting to learn about Attila pick up a textbook. I don’t think I’ll read the next one for a long time.