Monday, August 14, 2017

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye - Tania del Rio

I received this book as a giveaway through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Warren the 13th has lived in his family’s hotel his entire life. Run by his lazy uncle, the building has fallen into disrepair and hasn’t seen a visitor in five years. Apart from trying to keep the place together, Warren is also busy thwarting his new aunt from her obsessive search for a legendary family heirloom, the All-Seeing Eye. One day after cleaning up after her destructive behaviour, a stranger wrapped in bandages checks in. From that moment on his life will never be the same again.

The gothic art style is reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the illustrations not only helped set the mood but were also essential in the telling of the story. Every chapter has a title page with gorgeous typography and artwork that hint at what’s to come next. There’s also a secret message hidden throughout the book that spells out where Warren’s going next. This fit in with the mystery in the book as well as the graphical info in the illustrations.

This story is filled with a variety of quirky characters that lean towards the fantastical. There’s a witch who’s missing her voice, a pirate who only comes ashore every ten years or so, a creature who speaks in whistles and more. With each though we only get a taste of their background along with an illustration, leaving the readers wanting more. Part of the reason is the pace of the story. It moves so quickly that readers don’t spend much time with anyone apart from Warren. There could easily have been another hundred pages added onto the book to flesh out people and places.

Clearly this is only the beginning of Warren’s story as the ending was left open with several plot threads unresolved. It will be interesting to see where he goes next. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bobcat and Other Stories - Rebecca Lee

“As I walked home, I turned back and saw through the trees again that window, ringing with clarity and light above the dark grounds, the way the imagination shines above the dark world, as inaccessible as love, even as it casts its light all around.”

Bobcat and Other Stories is a collection of seven short stories. There is a softness to Lee’s writing and a melancholy that hangs over the book. The stories themselves give the impression that there is a before and after to each world, with the text nestled in between.  It speaks to the skill of the author that Lee was able to populate worlds that are larger on the inside. The reader only dips in for a short moment in the lives of the characters but details in description and dialogue create the idea that events will continue to unfold long after the story is over. The endings however all have a truncated feel to them and rather than creating a desire for more content, it left me with the idea that they were incomplete or rushed.

Also the unity of voice throughout the stories was appreciated because they helped to create a cohesiveness to the book overall. But this also meant there was a tedious repetition to the protagonists in each story to the point where it was difficult to distinguish between them. It created the question of whether the stories were in some way connected as each was told through a first person perspective with themes of deception, acadaemia, familial discord and writing. It appeared to be too much of a coincidence to keep finding similar ideas throughout each story but perhaps that was the reason for them to be collected together in this manner. Instead the only variance appeared to be in length of story. A wide array of characters and plots would have done more to showcase Lee’s range and abilities.  

This would be a great option for a rainy day coffee read if you’re looking for some light and short reading. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Sword of Shannara - Terry Brooks

Herein lies the heart and the soul of the nations, their right to be free men, their desire to live in peace, their courage to seek out the truth. Herein lies the Sword of Shannara.

Shea Ohmsford doesn’t know it yet but he’s the most important person in the world. As the last descendant of Jerle Shannara he’s the only person capable of wielding the Sword of Shannara, an ancient weapon that can destroy the Warlock Lord. Unfortunately this makes him a target, forcing him to flee home and confront his destiny.

It will be obvious to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings that this is close to a carbon copy for the first few hundred pages. Shea is joined by a disparate group of heroes consisting of humans, elves, a wizard and a dwarf and it’s easy to recognize their parallel counterparts in LOTR. Allanon is clearly a Gandalf remix as Balinor is for Aragorn. Palance is a mix of Denethor and Theoden, Stenmin is Wormtongue, Orl Fane is Gollum. Shea and Flick Ohmsford are Frodo and Sam, Menion is Legolas, Hendel is Gimli, etc.  As well there are various plot points that are similar as well. There’s a chosen one, a reluctant hero, a fake death, a dangerous lair and a magical device capable of defeating pure evil.

But while Tolkien clearly inspired aspects of plot and character, Brooks does put his own personal spin on the story. There are a variety of settings accompanied by good description that creates solid imagery for the reader. As well, the backstory for this world is only hinted at but is enough to understand a cataclysm befell Earth thousands of years ago and shows that previous decisions are responsible for current events.

The story is fast-paced and keeps the reader on their toes as circumstances can change within the space of a paragraph. That said at times it’s at the expense of character growth. Menion seemingly falls in love in the space of several days and there’s no reunion scene with Flick, Allanon and Eventine after the elf king’s rescue which could possibly have been a great scene. Several times throughout the story the plot will leapfrog over what appear to be great setups for dialogue or exposition that could further the plot. These missed opportunities are a shame considering how many characters Brooks has that require good progression and development. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Lost City of Z" Trailer

I thought it highly amusing that shortly after finishing the book a trailer came out for a movie based on Fawcett's life and adventures. It will be interesting to see how accurately they stick to the original story. From the casting it looks like they're going to stick with one of Fawcett's earlier adventures.

Friday, December 02, 2016

The Lost City of Z - David Grann

Percy Harrison Fawcett, renowned Amazon explorer, was most famous not for his many expeditions and contributions to the mapping of the Amazon but for his disappearance. Having departed along with his eldest son in search of the fabled city of “Z” in 1925 he was never heard from again. His absence resulted in various rescue expeditions with most invariably vanishing into the jungle, possibly leading to the deaths of up to 100 people with no one any closer to discovering the fate of Percy’s last expedition. Cut to 2009 when journalist David Grann also falls under the spell of Fawcett and the Amazon. He too lands in the jungle, determined to find out truth.

Much like “Into Thin Air”, author David Grann divides the book up into his own adventures and a history of Fawcett’s. This helps provide a background on the explorer as well as the challenges and perils of the Amazon.

Fawcett is a surprising character and largest than life. He was apparently the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger in “The Lost World”. On expeditions he appeared practically immune to the diseases and illnesses that plagued his companions. Luck and speed helped bolster his reputation, earning him a Founder’s medal and a well-respected name among the Royal Geographical Society as an Amazonian expert.

His travels though were interrupted by World War I and he spent years planning and dreaming of finding traces of a lost civilization in the jungle on the same scale as Machu Picchu. All the while he’s getting older, technology is shrinking the world and he’s being slowly but inexorably pushed out of his field by men with degrees in the emerging field of modern anthropology.

The book was engaging despite the interruption in narrative to switch between Fawcett and Grann’s stories. It was also interesting to see how expeditions and the jungle changed over time due to the evolution of technology and modernization. While not every question was answered, Grann provides a satisfactory ending that would surely have pleased Fawcett himself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Arrival" (2016)

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and university professor trying to teach a class when news breaks that a ufo has touched down in Montana, causing no little amount of panic among her students, her mother and humanity in general. She seems unphased though and images hint at a tragedy that may be taking up more space in her thoughts. 
Despite her preoccupation though she’s contracted by the military to help communicate with the aliens thanks to her translation skills. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) she must learn their language in order to find out why they’re here. Timing is everything though as eleven other ships have landed all over the world with eleven other governments trying to do the same thing Banks is. 
The aliens are well-conceived in that they are so ‘other’ from what we are. Their appearance, their speech, their language and the way they perceive the world are entirely differently. They aren’t a facsimile of humans in any way. 
As well, beautiful cinematography is paired with an evocative soundtrack but those aren’t the reasons you’ll want to rewatch this. There’s a twist at the end that will make you think and without giving anything away the circular theme found throughout was appreciated as was the communication versus action aspect of the story.
The pace does slow down in the middle considerably which accompanied by long shots and a lack of physical action made the film drag. Also, Renner’s character felt wasted. It would have made more sense for his character to be a fellow linguist than a theoretical physicist as his skills aren’t utilized to the same level as Banks’. Seeing them collaborate over language would have made their bond more believable as the chemistry between the two was lacking.
If you’re interested in a sci-fi story that will cause discussion after the film, try this one on for size.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer, journalist for the adventure magazine Outside, was hired to document an expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996. What he couldn’t know was that by the end of the expedition, eight people would be dead and he would be left with a very different story than what he originally planned.  

We begin with the victory of Krakauer summiting the mountain, quickly followed by ominous words that presage what’s to come. But instead of heading straight into the disaster we know is coming, we’re given a history lesson on Mt. Everest instead. The book provides a mass of information on the dangerous of climbing and what summiting Everest requires in terms of equipment and fortitude. It also touches on Mallory and Irvine and Hillary and Norgay, building a solid foundation on the history of the mountain and how climbing has evolved over the years. Today it’s a commercial operation where inexperienced clients can add to the risk of climbing, endangering not only themselves but also guides and Sherpas.

In stories where the outcome is already known the ‘what’ becomes less important than the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Before reading this book I already knew it involved death and that things were going to go very wrong for a large number of people trying to ascend the mountain. This left me to discover the details around the larger story. Told in hindsight, it creates a growing anxiety as an accumulation of small problems and mistakes leads our climbers towards a slow but inevitable plod towards doom. It was unnerving, knowing some of the people I was reading about would never go home, that I was essentially reading about ghosts.  

Finishing this book I was left with one question. What is a human life worth? I already knew the story was a tragedy but I had no idea how the actions of some climbers would horrify and depress me. The actions and mistakes made along the way were one thing but to discover that climbers were left for dead, that others passed them by on the way to the summit or believed they were beyond help was sickening. It seemed callous and possibly criminal to make no attempt at saving a fellow climber and human being. The excuses made in the book were myriad. “We didn’t know them.” “It’s dangerous to help others at this altitude.” “I was worried for my own life.” But at what point does someone become culpable? They may not have had an active hand in their deaths but what if they could have been saved? Krakauer on other dwell on this, second-guessing themselves, wondering what might have been.

“The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.”