#ReadingRush 2019: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

A fervour of scientific curiosity leads Victor Frankenstein to try his hand at creating life, but when he succeeds, he is consumed by fear and regret, and rejects his creature – who, in anger and loneliness, seeks his vengeance.

Frankenstein is an interesting read; Frankenstein’s tale is gripping, his fear and torments startlingly portrayed, his monster makes an incredibly sympathetic figure, driven to malice rather than born to it, and I thought the ending was really well-executed. But while I enjoyed the parts of the story that were narrated by Frankenstein, I feel that the real heart of the book is in its middle section, where the monster tells his side of the story – which seriously set off my nit-picky side. 😓

This part of the tale is all about the isolation that Frankenstein’s monster feels, and is an important part of his character development, but I found myself frequently rolling my eyes over how extremely eloquent he is – especially given that he apparently learnt to speak (and, more unbelievably, to read) over the course of a year, just by spying on a nearby family. I realise that an 18-year-old in the early 1800s would not necessarily understand how learning works, but it bugged me nonetheless.

THE FILM:
The only adaptation of Frankenstein that I was able to find on short notice was the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff, so naturally that’s what I watched, and I found it quite charming for what it was – a campy, old-fashioned horror film – but sadly it lacks a lot of the heart of the original novel, exchanging the intense character drama for a lot of cheap thrills… and thereby missing (or deliberately ignoring) the point of the book. However, despite the divergence from the source material, I liked Karloff’s portrayal of the monster, and the altered version of Frankenstein’s father was a brilliant addition to the film’s narrative (though he would have felt very out of place in the book); it’s easy to see why this has become such an iconic film.

MY READING RUSH PAGE

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Happy to have finished my first physical book, & looking forward to reading the next – which will be The Song of Achilles. This book counted for three of the readathon challenges: a book with a non-human main characteran author’s first book, and a book-to-movie adaptation… Or at least it will count for that last one; my efforts to watch the film have been delayed slightly by my family’s desire to watch with me, just not today. 😓 So I’ll be updating this post with a note about the film when I’ve seen it.

Books Completed: 2.5
Pages Read: 191
Hours Listened: 16:08
Challenges Completed: 5/7

[EDIT [29/07/19]: Saw the film last night, & so added my impressions.]

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#ReadingRush 2019: Update 1 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce. [AUDIOBOOK; Narrators: Tamora Pierce & the Full Cast Family]

[Warning: This review may contain spoilers for the previous books in this series, Wild Magic and Wolf-Speaker.]

Daine joins the Tortallan delegation as they head to Carthak for peace talks with Emperor Ozorne, but she’s not just there to take in the sights; Ozorne’s beloved birds have come down with a mysterious illness, and her new countrymen hope that, if she can heal them, it will help the talks to go a little smoother. Sick birds are far from the only problem in Carthak, however, and between politics, conspiracies, and angry gods, Daine will be lucky just to make it home alive.

This was a re-read, so I’m sure no-one will be shocked to hear that I love this book. When I first read it (maybe about 15 years ago) The Immortals was my least-favourite of Pierce’s series, but each re-read since has given me more to appreciate about it, and while it’s still not my absolute favourite of her works, I now consider it to be one of the very best parts of the Tortall universe. And as things currently stand with me memory-wise – I’m not super-clear on the plot of the final Immortals book – I think Emperor Mage may be the best book in this quartet. The plot is gripping, the new characters are multi-faceted and compelling, the returning characters have some great development (and face some shocking revelations), and this first foray into the Carthaki Empire paints a vivid picture of Pierce’s world beyond the borders of Tortall itself.

As regards the audiobook, which this was my first time experiencing, Pierce narrates her stories very slowly, which can be slightly jarring when compared to the speed of the actors who read for each of the characters, but after three books I’m used to it, and I do enjoy knowing that the pronunciation and emphasis is all exactly as the author intended it to be. The rest of the cast all gave fantastic performances (though I’m noticing that the badger god seems to get more and more gravelly in every book 😉).4 stars

MY READING RUSH PAGE

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: I’ve been mostly audiobook-ing things so far, as my hands have been busy with knitting, so I’m a little surprised to have already finished a book and a half – I usually take audiobooks much slower than this… Since I didn’t get around to posting my TBR for this readathon, I’ll let you know here that this book ticked off two challenges, read a book with purple on the cover, and read a book in the same spot the entire time (a nice comfy spot at the end of the sofa). The aforementioned extra half-book was Keeper of the Lost Cities, but I don’t think I’ll be officially counting it as one of my readathon books, as I was most of the way through it before the Reading Rush started. (I do have things to say about it, however, so you may be hearing more about it in the not-so-distant future.)

Books Completed: 1.5
Pages Read: 13
Hours Listened: 13:23
Challenges Completed: 2/7

[EDIT (31/7/19): Changed rating from 5 stars to 4, as I am in the process of re-assessing my ratings.]

Library Scavenger Hunt: June

This month’s challenge was to read a book that’s thinner than your little finger, and I decided to take the opportunity to pick up a book which I’d been dithering over whether to just get rid of or not (yes, I’m cheating again this month 😓), Jack London’s Before Adam, which at 125 pages in paperback is just a smidge smaller than my (not particularly little) little finger… 😊 (And, having read it, I think I will be passing it on after all, but at least I’m making an informed choice!)

BEFORE ADAM
Jack London

A modern (at the time of writing, i.e. 1906) American man experiences the life of his prehistoric ancestor through a series of vivid and terrifying dreams, and as “Big Tooth”, he makes friends – and enemies – and learns about the beauty and danger of the younger world.

I was dubious about this book for a number of reasons… while I find prehistory interesting in a historical sense, as the setting of a novel it intrigues me not at all, and added to that, the basic premise of past lives/ancestral memory is one that I find distinctly off-putting*. So why, you may ask, did I not just dismiss this unread? There were a number of reasons (with varying levels of compelling-ness): 1) I really liked both of the other Jack London books I’ve read (The Call of the Wild and White Fang, naturally); 2) It was a gift, and I really dislike having to admit to people that I didn’t even bother to read the books they gave me 😓; and 3) It’s super-short, so if I did end up hating it, at least I wouldn’t have wasted too many hours of my life.

It would seem that this particular risk payed off, however! I’m far from in love with Before Adam (and it’s definitely my least-favourite of the three Jack London books I’ve read), but I found myself pleasantly surprised by it. It starts slow, and ends abruptly, but I found the bulk of Big Tooth’s life to be quite gripping, and while I found myself predictably frustrated whenever the narrator broke up the story with his (then-)present-day observations, this happened a lot less than I was expecting, once I’d got through the first couple of chapters.

*An aside: I don’t know why I dislike past-life stories so much, since I’m completely down for reincarnation ones – though I’m guessing it has something to do with the recollectory nature of the former, or because most of the reincarnation books I’ve come across have more of a mystical feel to them, and don’t try to bring science into it…

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: May

This month’s challenge, in honour of Japan’s new Reiwa era (the name of which is drawn from the words for “fair” and “gentle”), was to read a book with one of those two words in the title, and it proved to be more of a struggle than I was expecting! I wasn’t able to find anything that I’d specifically been meaning to read, but while browsing my library’s ebook collection, I came across an M.C. Beaton book that fit the challenge, and since I’d been interested in reading one of her (many, many) books for a while, I decided to give it a go…

(It was a bad decision. 😑)

DEATH OF A GENTLE LADY
M.C. Beaton

Everybody in the small Highland town of Lochdubh thinks that Mrs. Gentle is wonderful, but local policeman Hamish Macbeth has seen a more malicious side to her – so he’s the only one unsurprised when she’s murdered, and her own family are the prime suspects.

I made a few mistakes in choosing this book; I’ve been curious about Beaton’s writing for a while, but Death of a Gentle Lady was probably not a great one to start with, firstly because it’s the twenty-third book in a series, and secondly – and most importantly – because it’s a murder mystery, and I’ve never read a murder mystery that didn’t bore me to tears (except Fatherland, but I liked that for other reasons).

So you won’t be surprised to hear that I hated it. The characters (both new and recurring) were flat, the writing plodding, the mystery contrived – all its major developments coming completely out of the blue – and the investigation dull, and despite the extremely short length of the book (the edition I found was 177 pages, of which the last 15 or so were actually a preview for the next book), I really struggled to get through it. In the book’s defence, I expect that many of the recurring characters would have felt less one-dimensional if I had read at least a few of the other books in the series, but that’s not an excuse that holds up for any of the other problems I had.

On a more specific note, there were two small but persistent annoyances in this book: One of the new characters introduced was a Russian detective whom Beaton kept calling “Putin-like”, which I thought was a lazy description at best, and xenophobic at worst; and it was also rather tedious how the female characters seemed to throw themselves at Hamish, and continued to do so despite his very wishy-washy attitude towards even the ones that he’s supposed to have a history with.

Anyway, the tl;dr is that this was definitely not the right book for me, but at least I’ve learnt that there’s no point in my picking up any more of Beaton’s books.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (Spoiler-Free)

Alan Turing’s life-instead-of-death in 1954 sparks great advancements in artificial intelligence, and thirty years on, serial idler Charlie Friend purchases Adam, one of the world’s first synthetic humans. Together, Charlie and his beautiful neighbour Miranda design Adam’s personality, but the maybe-person that comes of their joint venture is something far more than either of their expectations.

The main thing that held this book back for me was its setting. Alternative history seems like such a specific and deliberate choice for an author to make, that it feels very strange for the setting to have no real bearing on the story. The political drama of the era only effected the characters insofar as giving them something to argue about, and while the portrayal of Alan Turing as playing a(n even more) key role in the development of artificial intelligence obviously necessitates a world in which he didn’t commit suicide, his direct role in the book was actually very small, and could have been taken on by any scientific genius, real or imagined.

I can’t say that the setting detracted from the story, exactly, but it was distracting, and for no apparent reason; I frequently found myself in the middle of lengthy passages of alternative-history-backstory, wondering if this particular (often not all that interesting) bit of information was going to matter at all, and spoiler: the answer was always no.

But disregarding this – admittedly small – issue, there’s a lot to like about Machines Like Me: I didn’t always like Charlie and Miranda, and was never entirely convinced that they were as in love with each other as they believed, but their relationship was very interesting regardless; the way that it changed throughout the book felt very organic, and Adam’s integration into (and interruption of) their relationship was also well-done – though to call it a love triangle would, I think, be somewhat misleading.

I found Miranda’s backstory incredibly powerful, too; we find out early on that she’s keeping a big secret from Charlie, and both the secret itself and the way in which it’s eventually revealed provide a huge amount of dramatic tension, as well as doing a lot to flesh out her character.

Finally, the idea of sentient AI, and the ethical dilemma it presents, is something that’s always fascinated me, and McEwan’s exploration of Adam’s personhood-or-lack-thereof portrays that dilemma perfectly; do Adam’s words and actions indicate feelings or programming? And how much does it matter, if we can’t even tell the difference? Naturally, you won’t find any answers here, but you will find a compelling human drama, and plenty of food for thought.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi (Spoiler-Free)

The Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid, is exactly the first assignment that Andy Dahl was hoping for, and he’s off to a great start, forming the basis of a solid friendship group among his fellow new crewmen before he’s even on board. But the longer he’s there, the more he starts to realise that there’s something rather strange about the Intrepid – and its secrets are deadly.

For those who don’t know, Redshirts is a parody of Star Trek, and uses as its central theme one of the show’s most dark-if-you-think-about-it-but-usually-you-don’t tendencies: killing off minor characters (who usually wear red shirts, hence the name) for dramatic tension. As with most parodies, this premise probably won’t hold much appeal for those who aren’t aware of what it’s poking fun at, but as a fan, I was eager to see what is essentially Star Trek as told by the extras. And although parody isn’t my usual genre, I was pleasantly surprised by the balance Scalzi struck between humour and sobriety; the situation was absurd, but it was having a serious impact on the characters.

That said, the book definitely had its flaws. Though the characters were generally likeable, most of them were largely indistinct from one another, which wasn’t helped in the audiobook version by the fact that Wil Wheaton (the voice actor) didn’t do much to differentiate the voices. Most of the secondary characters were also completely forgettable whenever they weren’t being directly mentioned, and I found myself having to frequently pause to remind myself who everyone was… and considering the small size of both the book and the cast, that’s an impressive feat.

The other major mark against this book is its dialogue, which, with every single line attributed, was abysmally repetitive. (Conversations between Dahl and Duvall – who get the most screen-time out of everyone – were particularly bad, as their rhyming names made the line-attribution almost comical.) This was perhaps necessary, as the aforementioned character-indistinctness meant that it would often have been difficult to tell who was speaking from context alone, but it certainly wasn’t necessary to this extent… And in any case, the issue could have been much more satisfactorily fixed by giving the characters a bit more individuality.

I was also a little disappointed by the solution that the characters came up with to their main dilemma, as I was (eagerly) anticipating something quite different – which I still think would have made for a more entertaining second half, though admittedly it would have been much more full of plot holes. Nevertheless, my expectations were completely baseless, so my feelings on this can’t really blamed on the book. And as it was, I did get drawn back in once I’d overcome my initial impulse to sulk, and I found the three codas (which dealt with the consequences of the main characters’ actions in the second half) very interesting.

Overall: A quick, amusing read (/listen), if you can get used the the continuous stream of he-said-she-said.

#TomeTopple Readathon: Update 2 & Review

JUST FINISHED: Eragon by Christopher Paolini. [497 pages]

When a mysterious rock appears before Eragon in a blaze of magic, he has no idea that it’s about to hatch into one of the first dragons to be born in Alagaësia in close to a century, or that the almost-forgotten legacy of the Dragon Riders has just become his inheritance.

I’d realised before I decided to read this that it’d had pretty mixed reviews, but I had no idea it had reached such Marmite levels of polarising-ness… Have I become that rare person who has no strong opinions on Marmite? No, Marmite is gross, but my views on this book are very centrist; buried beneath the fanaticism and vitriol, I think both proponents and detractors of it have made some good points. But before I go into the book’s pros and cons, I want to address the thing that always, always seems to come up in every defence of Eragon: Paolini’s age when he wrote it.

So, people seem to love to excuse the poor writing in this book by citing the author’s age, but I really don’t think this defence has any merit; there is, after all, no junior league for writing. Eragon is competing for your attention with every other book that’s ever been published, and should therefore be judged by the same standards. Yes, it’s pretty impressive that a teenager managed to write a book good enough to be published, but while his age might make people more inclined to forgive the book’s flaws, it doesn’t change the fact that those flaws are there, and they still have an effect on the reading experience.

In actuality, while the writing isn’t super-great, it’s nowhere near as bad as all the criticism might lead you to believe, and in particular Paolini seems to really excel at describing things very vividly. I did have a problem with the dialogue, however, in that it was often very stilted and over-formal (for instance, when he meets the dwarven king in Tronjheim, he seems to be using almost ceremonial language, but it’s difficult to imagine where he might have learned to speak in such a way). I only found this occasionally distracting coming from most of the characters, but it was especially unconvincing coming from illiterate farm-boy Eragon.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen of Eragon is that it’s unoriginal, and I’m inclined to agree; it reads like Star Wars set in Middle Earth, with added dragons, and a liberal dose of fantasy tropes that render the plot predictable, though not unenjoyable… The influence of The Lord of the Rings on Eragon‘s setting is particularly noticeable throughout the book, but while this perhaps shows a lack of… world-building initiative (?), it doesn’t automatically make the book bad. After all, one of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is so popular is that it takes place in such a rich, compelling world, and Alagaësia has managed to retain a lot of that charm.

On the whole I found the world-building rather lazily done. The world itself is, as I mentioned, quite interesting, but it’s built up chiefly through massive info-dumps from Brom. Naturally this tapers off as the book goes on; after all, the more of the world we’re told about, the less of it we need to be told about, but it made the first half of the book a bit tedious – and it definitely didn’t make me care much about Brom. And speaking of Brom, what he was and wasn’t willing to reveal at any given time seemed extremely dramatically convenient in a very unrealistic manner.

Characters that I did really enjoy included Saphira and Murtagh, who were hands-down the most realistic and compelling members of the cast. Arya I also thought had potential, as she was interesting in the scenes that she was conscious for, even though there weren’t very many of them. I imagine that she’ll be getting a lot of development in the later books, however, as she seems to be a pretty important character to the series as a whole.

Eragon (the character), on the other hand, was really frustrating, and swung from eye-rollingly stupid to super-genius and back again on a regular basis. He was incredibly overpowered, as well (and gave off some definite teenage wish-fulfilment vibes). For example: Only a couple of chapters after he begins to learn to read, he is able to competently (if not confidently) read inscriptions in “the ancient tongue”; he’s able to match Murtagh with a sword only a few months after first handling one; and his dream visions are apparently an incredible, unprecedented feat. Saphira’s powers also seem very random and vaguely-defined, but were less annoying because she used them much less frequently. (And hopefully more will be explained about the strengths and limitations of dragons’ powers later in the series.)

Lastly, for a book that’s supposed to be all about dragons and dragon riders, it’s surprising how much this book focuses on Eragon exclusively; namely on how being a Rider effects him and his powers – Saphira isn’t even present for much of the book! In its defence, the characters are trying to keep her hidden for much of the story, but it’s notable that she doesn’t show up until the very end of the climactic fight between Eragon and Durza. When the narrative did focus on exploring their relationship, however, I found it one of the most compelling aspects of the book (and I was especially pleased that Saphira wasn’t shy about pointing out when Eragon was being an idiot 😉).

My main problems with Eragon were all the info-dumps, the distractingly unrealistic dialogue, and (less frequently) how overpowered Eragon was. Ultimately, however, I enjoyed myself with this book, and wouldn’t be adverse to picking up the next one (though realistically I doubt I’ll get to it, as there are myriad other books that are higher up my to-read list). For younger readers, I think this makes a pretty solid introduction to the fantasy genre; for everyone else, temper your expectations and you might have fun.

CURRENT READATHON STATUS: Super-satisfied with my progress so far; I might even be able to get through a third book before the readathon ends! 😁 I’m a little frustrated, however, that it turns out that if I’m being really nit-pickey (which I often am), none of the books I chose should count for the challenge; Cloud Atlas because I had already read the first 100 pages, Eragon because the last 20-ish pages turned out to be a sample chapter for the next book, and The Stranger from the Sea because, although the edition I was looking at on Goodreads was 512 pages, the copy I managed to find at the library was only 499… 😓 I’m still counting them, obviously, but it’s a mildly unhappy coincidence.

On a more positive note, however, Eragon is also my pick for the Library Scavenger Hunt this month! The challenge was to read a book with a name in the title, and this was the only one on my (e-)shelf that was also 500+ pages (or claimed to be!). And I suppose what I’ve learned from all this is that readathon-review-formatting trumps LSH-review-formatting… at least for now. I leave it to you guys to determine whether that’s a valuable lesson or not. 😋

Tomes Completed: 2
Pages Read: 918
Challenges Completed: 5/5