Slam

SlamSlam by Nick Hornby
Published: 2007
Length: 309 pages

I’ve really grown to love Nick Hornby books over the past few years, but this wasn’t one of his best. I believe this was his first attempt at a young adult novel, and while I enjoyed it overall, it felt a little trite. It still has some of Hornby’s hilarious dialogue, and there were a couple of moments that made me laugh out loud, but those moments were spread apart quite a bit.

The story is centred around a couple of teenagers who accidentally become pregnant and choose to keep the child. Sam Jones, the male teen and viewpoint character of the story, struggles as he sees his potential life and dreams of going to college vanish before him. His mother had him at 16, and he grew up knowing how hard that was, so this was the last thing he wanted. Hornby did a good job of creating a realistic scenario in which a kid like this, who already had the perils of teenage pregnancy on his mind, could end up having this happen.

There are some elements of the story that just didn’t ring true for me. As an example, Sam idolizes Tony Hawk and continually asks a poster of him, hanging on his bedroom wall, for advice. The responses come in the form of quotes from Hawk’s autobiography, which the main character has read a hundred times. It’s a gimmick that’s slightly interesting the first time it happens but gets old pretty quick. There are also a few chapters of time travel that feel out of place. Sam flashes into the future to see how his life with child will be. Unfortunately, nothing in those scenes cause him to alter his behaviour or attitude at all. They may as well never happen. You could remove those chapters completely and the story would still play out exactly the same.

The poster, the bizarre and unneeded addition of time travel, the underdeveloped side characters, and the fact that this felt like an extended pamphlet on teen pregnancy made this one of Hornby’s weaker novels. It’s worth reading if you’re already a big fan of his, because you will find some of what you love in here, but if you’re just getting into his writing I’d stick to some of his more celebrated books for now.

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The Magicians

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Published: 2009
Length: 402 pages

Hopefully this is not becoming a theme, but this is another book that I really wanted to love and just couldn’t. People seem to be describing this as ‘Harry Potter for adults’, and I don’t know if I agree. I suppose I took that to imply more depth than Harry Potter, but it seems it’s just labelled as such because there’s some swearing and sex.

This is a tricky book to boil down to a basic synopsis, because for the first half of the book there’s very little conflict, and then the second half of the book could essentially be a different story. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is admitted to a secret magic college after graduating high school, and then it’s Harry Potter without Voldemort for 200 pages. It then abruptly becomes Narnia without Aslan.

Vague, I know, but it’ll have to do.

I absolutely love coming of age fantasy stories in which a youth has to master a skill, whether that be magic, swordsmanship, basic survival or anything else, and I found that portion of the novel to be somewhat unsatisfying. There just wasn’t any of the wonder that you’d associate with being in a magic college. In Harry Potter, the characters were excited to be there and in awe of what they were seeing. In this he was trying too hard to show how a magic college could be as mundane as regular college, so much so that my own university days felt more wondrous than most of this did. What made it more frustrating was the lack of conflict while he was in school. The first half of the book can essentially be described as: he’s doing quite well in school, but he has to study hard.

Almost every character in this, Quentin especially, becomes completely insufferable by the end of the novel. The whole group of them are pretentious, selfish idiots who have no idea how good they have it, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if that’s what the author was aiming for or not. I try not to judge books by how much I like the main characters, because you can tell a fascinating story with an unlikable protagonist, but in a coming of age story such as this you naturally try to identify.

I obviously can’t say what Grossman’s intentions were, but it felt like he wanted to take Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia and show how they would play out in a gritty, less fantastical, world, one with real problems like infidelity and depression and desk jobs. Too much of a focus on that comparison caused the novel to become disjointed and suffer as a whole. As a quick example, there’s a Quidditch equivalent sport at the college, but it’s so underdeveloped that there was really no point in including it. You get no real sense of the sport and it does nothing to further the plot or develop the characters. It’s there because he wants it to be like Harry Potter.

At first glance, this feels like the perfect novel for me, which is probably why I found its shortcomings so disappointing. I like the idea, and even though I’m ragging on it quite a bit here, I didn’t hate it, but I haven’t decided whether I’ll carry on with the rest of the trilogy yet. Life’s too short for books you don’t love, but maybe I’ll browse some reviews. It’s possible that my grievances may get address in the next novel.

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Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland #1)Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Published: 1865
Narrated By: Jim Dale
Audio Length: 02:57

I picked this up partly because I wanted something quick and light after The Windup Girl and partly because I was reading The Magicians and had C. S. Lewis on the mind. And until this very day, thirty-two years into my life, I thought it was C.S. Lewis who wrote this book. Wrong Lewis, it turns out. And wrong century. Audiobook fatigue and a case of mistaken identity may not be the best reasons to pick up a book, but I guess that doesn’t really matter in the end.

I also picked this up because Jim Dale was reading it, and he did an absolutely fantastic job. I think a large part of my enjoyment was due to his narration. He made the world come alive, effortlessly voicing every character perfectly, and even while driving through traffic I felt like a bewildered kid sitting in bed listening to this nonsensical story being told.

I feel like you have to try not to worry too much about understanding everything to really enjoy this, because that could get frustrating. Read it like a child might and just let it wash over you and enjoy the imaginative scenes and colourful characters. It’s essentially completely insane imagery, which we seem to love putting in children’s entertainment, mixed with constant little reminders to do well in school. And many threats of violence. The writing can be quite funny at times, too.

For a minute or two she stood looking at the house, and wondering what to do next, when suddenly a footman in livery came running out of the wood–(she considered him to be a footman because he was in livery: otherwise, judging by his face only, she would have called him a fish)–and rapped loudly at the door with his knuckles.

This is just the first half of the story. Unfortunately, Jim Dale doesn’t narrate Through the Looking-Glass, and the other productions have fairly mixed reviews and seem to be missing some of the original poetry, so I might wait and pick up a physical copy.

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The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Published: 1984
Narrated By: Peter Kenny
Audio Length: 06:11

I’ve been making a point to read more Scottish authors in the last couple of years but hadn’t yet gotten to Iain Banks. He’s been on my mind since he sadly passed away last year from cancer. I knew him as a science fiction author, but it turns out he has many mainstream fiction books as well. He publishes his mainstream fiction as Iain Banks and his science fiction as Iain M. Banks, so it makes his bibliography easy to navigate.

This is his fist novel, a novel as Iain Banks, and it was a fantastic debut. The story’s narrator, Frank, is a 16-year-old boy growing up on a small island with his father. It’s an island connected to the nearby town by bridge, but it gives Frank an isolated area to call his own. His day is made up of small shamanic rituals and island patrols with homemade weapons. The novel begins with Frank and his father learning that Frank’s brother has escaped from a psychiatric hospital, and we essentially spend the rest of the novel learning how messed up this family is.

A death is always exciting, always makes you realise how alive you are, how vulnerable but so-far-lucky; but the death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!

I was worried at first that this would mainly be about the shock factor, as a few reviews I had seen mentioned, and that just isn’t something that typically keeps me reading, but this was a lot more than that. I was entertained from the very beginning. What I hadn’t realized was how hilarious this novel would be. Frank is so polite and matter-of-fact that the gruesome acts he describes just cracked me up. That audiobook narrator reminded me of a chipper Alan Cumming, and he fit this absolutely perfectly.

There is some controversial content in this, animal abuse and the detailed murder of children for example, but it somehow never feels too dark. At least, to me it didn’t. Iain Banks makes you care about these terrible people, doing these terrible things, and that’s quite the feat.

Sometimes I wish I had a cat. All I’ve ever had was a head, and that the seagulls took.

I’m very excited to read more from him. And even though he unfortunately passed away relatively young, he was a prolific writer with dozens of published novels, so I’ll still be busy for a while.

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The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: 2009
Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
Audio length: 19:34

I feel like I should have enjoyed this more than I did. Normally I would say to take my opinions to heart, because I have fantastic taste, but this time it feels like my lukewarm feelings about this may be my own fault.

Firstly, I love the setting and the atmosphere. It takes place in a dystopian Thailand, in a future where fuel sources have run out and food has become scarce. Calorie companies control the production of genetically modified food, crops that have been designed to not produce seeds, and this has caused plague and crop failures to wipe out large parts of the population. The Environment Ministry controls food distribution, and the conflict comes from their struggle to keep that control.

One of the many viewpoint characters in this novel is Emiko, the windup girl from the title. She is a genetically modified person, a New Person, who is a slave in a sex club. She moves in a stuttered fashion, like a windup doll, which makes it difficult for her to hide what she is, and in Thailand New People are treated with mistrust and disgust. She leads an absolutely miserable life, but learns of a possible way out, and spends the novel trying to break her programmed instinct to serve and find a way to make her freedom happen.

There is a lot to like about this. The writing is beautiful at times, and the narrator, Jonathan Davis, is one of my favourites and does a great job with this, but something just didn’t come together for me. It just didn’t catch my interest, and it wasn’t until the last third of the book that I really began to care. I think it was partly due to the characters being too disconnected from each other for too long, which made it hard to know why I should care about them all. I just didn’t have any drive to see the outcome.

Also, as much as I loved the idea of the setting, I found the pace at which I learned about it was too slow. Part of my confusion over the characters’ connection to one another can be attributed to how long it took me to understand the world they were in. I really appreciate the lack of info-dumping, but I always felt like I should know more than I did. Which is entirely possible. It felt like I missed some important descriptions in the introduction of the novel.

As I said above, Jonathon Davis did an amazing job on the narration, and my only complaint on the audiobook specifically is that it started with an introduction by Paolo Bacigalupi. He discusses how he came to write the novel and the themes he was tackling, but it felt like the sort of thing that should have come after the novel. I like to go in to the story fairly fresh, without being told the aims of the author. Although, looking back, maybe I should have paid more attention to that.

Even though I wasn’t in love, I’d still recommend this to anyone interested in the setting.

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July in Review

Books Acquired:
Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration by Nigella Lawson
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland #1) by Lewis Carroll

Books Read:
Saga, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland #1) by Lewis Carroll
The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman

I managed to only buy one physical book this month (the other three are audiobooks), and that was a cookbook. I’m not sure how to deal with cookbooks in my obsessive online tracking. I add them to Goodreads, but when can you really say you’ve ‘read’ a cookbook? I’ll typically read through the introduction and skim all of the recipes when I first buy one, but I’m not sure at which point to give it a star rating. After cooking three recipes? Five? Half the book? I don’t think I’ve ever cooked more than five or six recipes from one cookbook. I do enjoy the pretty photos, though.

This is just one of the many stressful issues I deal with in my life. It’s a rough existence.

Our new condo allows dogs, so we dog-sat for some friends this month. I really enjoyed taking her out for her daily walk and play around the park. It made for some excellent audiobook time. We’re considering getting our own dog at some point, but at this stage we’re happy to do some trial runs with other people’s pets. I’m still not sure I want to commit to morning walks.

Movies watched:
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – It was a slow movie month for us, this being the only movie we watched, but it was fairly good. It’s a bit silly and predictable, and at some parts quite unbelievable, but the acting was strong and it was beautifully shot on location. There are also a lot of references to Indiana Jones, which I can always appreciate, even if they’re distracting and completely out of place.

TV watched:
Wallander, Season 2 – I’ve decided to only mention series in which I completed a season, which doesn’t leave much this month, but we did continue on with Wallander. The second season wasn’t as good as the first, but I still really enjoyed it. It started off weak, but it bounced back. It’s worth it just for Kenneth Branagh’s acting and the cinematography.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle – This is a little mini-series I stumbled across on Netflix. It’s three hour-long documentaries on the history of comic books, through interviews with the creators. If you have any interest in comics and the history behind them, it’s a great watch. It’s hosted by Liev Schreiber, seemingly against his will. He’s very wooden, but he only takes up a couple of minutes at the beginning of each episode.

Games played:
The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings (PC) – I actually just finished this tonight, but I’ll count it for July. This was an excellent Action RPG, but it did have some odd faults. There are some really poor design choices, and it’s still riddled with bugs three years after release. Some of the voice acting and dialogue is also questionable, the worst sadly being the main character. He sounds like Christian Bale’s Batman, only less enthusiastic. The game mechanics and story compelled me on despite the flaws, though, so that’s a good sign. I’ll be looking forward to the third in the series, which is due to be released next February.

TowerFall Ascension (PS4) – My girlfriend and I played quite a bit of this. There’s a co-operative mode for 2 players, which has been a blast. It can get pretty frustrating if you get too hung up on winning, though, because you tend to die a lot. Especially when your girlfriend shoots you in the face. There’s a multiplayer versus mode which is also really fun. We’re looking forward to trying that out with four players.

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Saga, Volume 2

Saga, Volume 2Saga, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by: Fiona Staples
Published: 2013
Publisher: Image Comics
Collects: issues #7-12

There’s always a bit of a worry when picking up the second volume of a comic, particularly when the first was such a nice surprise. Crushing disappointment is always a potential, but I’m happy to report that this was as good, possibly even better, than the first.

Alana and Marko are still running from…everyone, really, but the story is also interlaced with flashbacks showing how the two met. This is more about fleshing out the story and building on relationships rather than shocking us with more insane aspects of the universe. There is some of that, giant testicles come to mind, but it’s good to see the balance there. A monstrous ballsack is fun and everything, but you need the story to support it, otherwise everything starts to…maybe I’ll leave it at that.

Anyhoo, more characters are introduced in these issues, which can sometimes feel like a chore when you’re really interested in the current characters, but they’re so well realized that they fit in perfectly and really add to the story.

And while it is more character focused, there’s still some incredibly inventive ideas presented here. It really feels like they’re using the medium to tell a story that couldn’t be told as well elsewhere, which is always exciting. Fiona Staples’ art fits the writing perfectly. She can draw some mean balls.

I’m really eager to start the next volume now.

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The Time Machine

The Time MachineThe Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Published: 1895

I finally got around to reading some H.G. Wells, and I was not at all disappointed. The Time Machine is so imaginative that it’s difficult to wrap my head around it being written nearly 120 years ago. I’m not entirely sure what I expected, but I thought the plot would seem primitive in comparison to all of the great stories this has inspired throughout the years, but somehow it manages to have more substance than a lot of the derivative works of the last century.

This overview will contain spoilers, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s an issue.

The story is told by the time traveller himself, and we listen from the point of view of a guest at his weekly dinner party. At one of these dinners, the traveller explains his theory to traverse time as one would traverse the three physical dimensions, and he demonstrates this with a scale model of a device he’s developing. The device disappears before the guest’s eyes, and that night they leave the party skeptical yet intrigued.

He was in an amazing plight. His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer—either with dust and dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it—a cut half healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering. For a moment he hesitated in the doorway, as if he had been dazzled by the light. Then he came into the room. He walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps. We stared at him in silence, expecting him to speak.

A week later, they arrive for dinner to find the traveller is late. He eventually emerges from his workshop dirty and stunned, in what I imagine is the original scene of this particular trope. After cleaning himself up, he tells his story to the group. He had managed to travel forward in time about 800,000 years. There he found civilization in ruins, with humankind having split into two separate species – the cheerful, soft, and cowardly Eloi and the underground-dwelling, carnivorous Morlocks.

The traveller theorizes that the Morlocks and Eloi are the two species that evolved from separate ends of the class system. The Morlocks having descended from the working class and the Eloi from the middle class. The trend towards darkened underground factories and mines is what led the Morlocks to reside in the darkness. In fact, they still maintain the old machinery out of tradition. The Eloi grew weak and stupid, but also happy, on the surface of the world, now essentially acting as cattle for the Morlocks.

We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. With out them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence.

He discovered all of this while trying to retrieve his machine, which disappeared mysteriously the first night after his arrival. Before returning to his original time, he decided to travel further into the future. He watched the world around him grow more harsh and barren as he pushed further and further in a great scene at the end of the novel.

I really enjoyed this, and I’m excited to read more from him. I was a little worried when I had to look up multiple words on the first page, but he seemed to chill out after that. It’s not a difficult read, and it has that classic adventure storytelling that I just love. There’s a lot of great older science fiction and Wells is a shining example of it.

It feels a little ridiculous to even type that last sentence. He’s been incredibly popular for over a century and there’s obviously a reason for that. It’s not like I’m exposing the cutting edge of fiction here. Hey, have you guys heard of this Shakespeare? He’s pretty good. I think you’d like him.

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The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Published: 2007

This is an odd little novel. Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a mobile library that has been put in place for the workers in the castle and becomes obsessed with reading. She has never read for pleasure in her life, but to avoid offense she decides to leave with a book. She quickly realizes what she’s been missing and sets out to make up for lost time by reading as much as she possibly can.

Books are not about passing time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.

Being a reigning monarch doesn’t usually leave much room for hobbies, and she likes to appear absolutely neutral in conversation and public image, holding no preferences or strong personal opinions. Unfortunately, reading doesn’t lend itself well to that mindset. A reader may prefer an author or genre over another, and the act of reading exposes you to ideas and opinions that force you to consider your own.

Not only does the Queen’s change in attitude worry her staff, but it also distracts her from her duties. She was once full of patience and attention, but now she has a book stuffed in her purse and she really needs to get back to it.

You don’t put your life into your books, you find it there.

This is a quick and funny read that celebrates, and pokes fun at, the joy of reading. It’s an examination of why reading is special, and while it’s obviously preaching to the converted, there’s nothing wrong with a little affirmation in one’s life.

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June in Review

Books Acquired:
Slam by Nick Hornby
Songbook by Nick Hornby
Saga, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
The Unwritten, Vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words by Mike Carey, Peter Gross

Books Read:
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

It’s been another slow reading month. I got a little distracted by video games, to be honest. Steam had one of their big sales, and while I didn’t really buy much, the talk around it put me in the gaming mood I suppose. I also wasn’t really feeling my current audio book, and since I’m unable to do the smart thing and stop a book I’m not enjoying without finishing it, I usually just let that block all reading (or in this case listening) until I power through. Let’s just pretend the two books I read this month weren’t novellas. They were huge, you guys. And one was, like, super old.

In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to go over some other media I’ve enjoyed this month.

Movies watched:
Edge of Tomorrow – This was a fun science fiction Groundhog Day. It’s exactly what a big budget Hollywood action film should be. Funny, interesting, and it had explosions and exoskeletons. And I didn’t even find Tom Cruise annoying.

Veronica Mars – This was basically just a long episode of the show, which is a good thing. The entire cast, even minor characters, returned for this, and they managed to not make it feel like an awkward queue of cameos. Definitely watch this if you enjoyed the television series.

TV watched:
Wallander, Season 1 – Each episode, and there’s only three in a season, is an hour and a half long, so it gives them time to let the story and characters slowly develop. It’s a crime series, very Rebus-esque I think, set and filmed in Sweden (although everyone has English accents). Kenneth Branagh is fantastic in it, the plots are interesting, and the cinematography is beautiful. It can be fairly slowly paced at times, but I find myself enjoying the calm moments as much as the tense.

captain-america-1991-03-g-1

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 1 – I’d heard a lot of bad things about this, but by the end of the series we were really enjoying it. The first quarter of the episodes felt very ‘meh’ and monster-of-the-week, but by the second half my girlfriend and I were watching multiple a night. I think Joss Whedon series are often like this, and they’re always worth the effort. It’s also really interesting how they tied it in with the latest Captain America movie. That’s quite the accomplishment for Marvel, to be able to create this interacting universe that spans both film and television. No one could have thought that would happen when the first Captain America movie was released in 1990. I mean, he had rubber ears on his hood. Look how far we’ve come.

Games played:
Infamous Second Son (PS4) – Yes, I bought a PlayStation 4. No, there’s not enough games out yet to justify this. This is really the only AAA game that’s been released for the system so far, but it’s pretty great. The story was interesting, the voice acting was well done, and it didn’t feel full of filler. I don’t have a lot of patience for long games these days, and this didn’t feel stretched out for the sake of it. I even finished all the optional side quests, I was enjoying it so much.

Transistor (PC) – One of my favourite games a few years back was Bastion, and this is that studio’s second game. The art direction and music in these games are spectacular (both soundtracks are worth buying actually), and combat in this was a blast. Here’s the trailer:

 
Mount & Blade: Warband (PC) – A friend of mine, my girlfriend, and I all picked up a copy of this in the Steam sale. It was cheap and looked like it might be fun, and we’ve had a great time with it. There’s apparently quite an extensive single player campaign, but we bought it for the multiplayer. It’s a medieval action game in which you run about and bash people on or about the head with swords and sticks. Or you can shoot them with arrows. The controls are a bit bizarre and the player actions are slow, but once you get the timing down it’s a really fun combat system. We basically just die a lot at the hands of people named ‘Big_Dick’ or ‘AnalInvador’, but it’s a hilarious time. The Napoleonic Wars DLC allows you to play as a bagpiper, which is just fantastic.

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