Book talk · Reviewing my monthly reads

Reviewing my June reads

June brought us lots of sunshine, a mini heatwave here in the UK and quite a bit of change for myself. We’re in the process of selling our flat, buying a new house and had to move into a rented place to accommodate this change. It also saw me move into a new job within my current company so work was also chaotic. Cue us being without internet for a week and often tired. I ended up reading a lot due to this! Reviews below the cut.

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The Final Empire: Mistborn Book One: Brandon Sanderson

I got June’s reading off to a damn good start with this book. Another I picked up for 99p from Amazon, it was a combination of the book cover and synopsis that made me think why not. It’s a decision well made as I loved this one and endured many a later night because I didn’t want to put it down and sleep.

I know I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, but this surprised me with just how good it was and that it managed to blend other genres into it, there’s heist and action elements too. I was engrossed with the world from page one. A world shrouded in ash and where magic is both respected and secretive. It’s like it’s set in an entirely other world but you don’t know if it truly is or this is a futuristic outcome for our planet. I was on board very quickly and the class system helps play out some of the challenges we face here.

The characters are great. I obviously adored Vin but I really come to love Kelsier, who takes Vin in and mentors here. He’s very well written and more complex than our initial introduction to him suggests. Vin though is truly something to behold and I loved her development throughout, the way she interacts with others and how we see everything through her eyes.

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It’s another book that builds its world, introduces the characters and its ideas and sets us up for what I hope is a great series. I’m hoping to be able to get my hands on the next couple shortly so I can start reading those too.

 

The Dark Tower (The Gunslinger, Book 1)  – Stephen King

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Yes, finally I am catching up with what the rest of the world has known for years, this series of books deserves to be read and the character of The Gunslinger is brilliant. To think he penned this at nineteen puts whatever I’d done in the nine years since I was that age to shame. I feel obliged to say that I read the revised version, so I can only comment on this edition.

Clear that it will be a sprawling fantasy-western it gets off to an ominous start. We know our titular character is following The Man in Black, but we know little of either of them, or why. We know the end goal is The Tower though. Upon completion, I figured this is a book where multiple re-reads will pay off and only enhance on how you interpret the events and understand the motives of those involved.

What really struck me is the world that King builds. It’s influences are clear but it manages to conjure its own unique take on a future world, or two, and what happens there. What he’s done is clever, while you may initially think this world is in the past, there are hints that perhaps it’s on the same timeline as our world, but separate. For example, a very well known Beatles song features. It’s a world without cell phones and technology as we know it but one that fully accepts magic and where nobody seems surprised by it. The imagery is great and I enjoyed getting to know a little about the backstory, though it’s clear that much more will unfold in future books.

It also features one of the best opening statements of any book from the man himself, included below.

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The Dark Tower (The Drawing of the Three, Book 2) – Stephen King

While I enjoyed the first one, this one really ramps up to the next level for me. It helps that King had so many years between to really get to grips with the craft and also where he wanted the story to go. The writing here is exactly what we know of King, great at being descriptive and conjuring images. Some paragraphs and sentences are a joy to read.

Gone is the desert setting of the first, replaced by a beach that is nowhere near as fun or relaxing as I generally find beaches to be! We’re back with Roland, the Gunslinger, on his quest to get to The Tower and also dealing with the consequences of his actions from the first book. King’s decision to move us into a new environment certainly plays off and it’s the first real sign of the size of the world he’s creating here.

If people go on gaps years in between college and getting a job, this is Roland’s gap year from his quest. The things we see and that happen will become important, but there’s a noticeable absence of the Man in Black and in some ways, very little progress to reach The Tower is made. Roland does interact with some people along the way though and it’s a fascinating gap year if you want to look at it that way.

King introduces possibly one of my favourite, and most scary, things in a book here. The lobstrosities! I’ll try to avoid giving anything away, but it helps provide a fairly shocking opening that’s also pretty gory. The fact we get ultimately no real explanation as to what the lobstrosities are or their motives is intriguing. We get their language, terrifying in its nonsense and the repetitive nature of it, but that’s it.

We get two new characters to contest with so there’s much more dialogue here, which is entertaining and adds something else. Roland also crosses into the more familiar world we know which is both hilarious at times and gripping.

Much like the first, I’m sure I need to re-read it to truly get to grips with all of it and that each re-read will contribute to how I feel about it and what I take from it. I’m already excited to get my hands on the third one.

 

Blackout – Ragnar Jonasson

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I’ve been reading one book from what was the Dark Iceland trilogy (but recently became a quartet of which I’ve not been able to purchase the fourth yet) each month. They’re relatively short novels that I’ve been able to read in the matter of a couple of days of bedtime reading. That’s essentially what they’re perfect for.

By this third book, we’re very well versed with the small Icelandic setting and our main character, Ari Thor. How you feel about him may depend on how you read his actions form the previous two books. This third one jumps in time though and is set before the second one, which may change how you feel about Ari Thor in the second book (I’ll say no more in fear of spoilers). I quite liked Jonasson’s decision to do this, it makes you go back to things that happened in the previous book and re-think them. I’m always a fan of that.

The crime in this one turns out to be a little more sinister than the ones we’re used to, which does add a certain gripping aspect. Not least as time is played on and becomes important here. The story also explores paranoia and how we are scarred or made by our past experiences. Setting it during an oppressive time, back in 2010 when the volcano erupted and caused chaos throughout Europe with its ash clouds, helps tie in with those themes.

Jonasson also makes a decision to set more of this one in other locations, so it’s more generally set in Iceland as a whole. As I made my way through it, it very quickly became my favourite of the three so far, so I look forward to the fourth.

 

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

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I’d had this to read since Christmas, I’m really not sure what took me so long. It was brilliant and as much as I didn’t want it to end, I also didn’t want to put it down so I did get through it rather quickly.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world after a virus has wiped out the majority of the planet, it features many of the usual tropes; a road trip, dangerous meetings and reunions/losses but it approaches them all from a different standpoint. Rather than the dramatics, the intense doom and gloom, it’s a little more downplayed. Instead it focuses on what we preserve, how art lives on and how important art and memory are to humans.

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It’s full of interesting, and largely likeable, characters and I found it stayed with me long after I’d read it. It’s not too hard to believe either, which always adds something. I wasn’t so sure at the very beginning, it starts in Canada with a stage performance that leads into the main event. I realised shortly after though that this is why the book is so charming. It focuses on characters we find to be familiar. They feel real.

Much of this story also plays out in an airport, a fascinating setting, and one that ensures there’s always that stark reminder of life before, of how charmed it was. Not only is it an ever present reminder for the characters, it is also for the readers. There’s also a focus on some comics throughout, which I really enjoyed and it’s interspersed with panels or covers of the novels to make them feel more real.

I feel despite having read many a dystopian, apocalypse based tale, this one stands out for being that little bit original. I’d highly recommend this.

 

Postcards from the edge – Carrie Fisher

A different kind of read again from what I’d already gone through this month. Carrie Fisher knows how to keep the reader entertained, I can only imagine she was a fabulous entertainer in real life too. This book’s got a lot of amusing lines and provided a couple of moments where I laughed out loud. Not always a plus when you’re in public!

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The writing itself is fairly basic, but it’s a page-turner nonetheless. Part fiction, part reality and focused on the well versed highs and lows of both Hollywood and dealing with a drug addiction, it tends to move on at a fairly brisk pace, even if certain segments felt a little lengthy. Fisher manages to be as charming on a page as she came across on screen, I think I definitely need to catch the movie at some point.

 

Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras & The Drug War – Celerino Castill & Dave Harmon

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I figured after quite a lot of fantasy and very complex stories, something more real and very gritty wouldn’t hurt. I’ve long had a strange fascination with the drug trade and the complex, often vicious, world it occurs in. This is another I was able to borrow from my last trip home to my parents and I’d been meaning to read it for a while.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, or followed me on social media, you’ll know how much I loved Sicario and how much I also go on about it. The book is an autobiography of sorts, Celerino Castill spent many, many years fighting the good fight against drugs. He was a police officer and then working with the DEA. I can only imagine how disheartening this was a time based on his experiences. Yes, there were highs but Castill’s general views are that ultimately he barely touched the main man where it hurt, often stopped by his own colleagues or worse, those in the Government.

The main focus is that Castill uncovers mountains of evidence against his own Government and bodies for supporting Contras smuggling cocaine into America. As the book plays out, we learn how Castill came to be so interested in stopping the drugs, a fascinating few chapters in itself as he covers off his time fighting for his country in Vietnam. It gives us context as to how he works and operates and why he struggles to accept it when others knowingly try to brush his findings under the carpet.

If nothing else, this is a tale of a man who destroys his own life and career by trying to do the right thing. If ever you wonder just how corrupt or dangerous those in power in your country are, this book will do nothing to ease your fears, but it will confirm what you probably know deep down. Money talks, and power more so. Some of the things we read about are shocking, unsettling and ultimately heart-breaking. Mainly because the likelihood is that a very similar scenario is probably playing out in other countries, the powers that be knowing it’s happening and simply turning a blind eye to it.

 

Alias: Volume 2 – Brian Bendis, Michael Gaydos

In Volume 2 Jessica Jones helps out Daredevil, has a brief fling with a policeman that starts on a car and goes on a date with Antman. If you didn’t already know she’s a) A bass and b) awesome, surely this cements it.

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I should probably start buying more than just one volume at a time because I end up enjoying them enough that they are demolished. This one is peppered with little easter eggs or mentions of the wider Marvel universe, which only makes it more fun. The Avengers come up again, there’s more to hint at The Defenders and mutants also come into play. As we’ve come to expect from Jessica Jones, the dialogue is witty, full of sarcasm and doesn’t hold back. Combined with very well done illustration that makes colours pop off the page, there’s nothing I don’t like about the Alias series so far.

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There’s a slightly unique edge to Volume 2 as well. As part of the case that Jones ends up investigating, the missing girl’s sketchbooks. They’re a collage of drawings, images and text and the pages from it are inserted into the comic in beautiful watercolours and often haunting imagery. Some text at the end confirmed that the man tasked to illustrate them actually put together the full sketchbooks and truly made them come alive. It’s a really good touch.

 

The Revenant – Michael Punke

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Having been quite so surprised by how much I enjoyed (probably not the right word but let’s go with it) the film adaptation and the world that this took place in, I figured I really should seek out the book. A tale set in the 1820s about fur trappers hadn’t previously appealed but this really shows why you don’t judge a book by its cover. As the golden rule tends to be that the books are better, I had high expectations of how the environment and weather and the incident (trying to avoid spoilers) would be described in all their glory.

Safe to say that I wasn’t disappointed by this tale of betrayal and revenge. The novel does an incredibly effective job of portraying how cold, desolate and desperate both the landscapes and the situations are for Hugh Glass and all involved. Perhaps I should have picked up the book first, but I’ll admit that prior to Alejandro G. Iñárritu adapting it, I’d not heard of it. Obviously when you choose to do things this way around, you’re reading about characters that your imagination doesn’t really have to do much to conjure images of. That said, with all the descriptions, it still slipped seamless into me imagining it as Leonardo Di Caprio and co. so it seems to have been well represented.

I think it’s fair to say that I did race through this one. Even though I roughly knew how it was all going to play out, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment and as with any film, there’s much that cannot be covered or certainly not in the same way. It was also a testament to the writing that the incidents felt no less tense than watching them had been. It’s brutal in its depiction, but accurate. This was something I had to admire about it as a whole, at no point did I ever doubt that this was a story in the 1800s, the historical aspects felt genuine. I don’t proclaim to be any kind of expert but I’ve seen many also praise it for its merits here.

 

So what is planned for July?

The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands (Book 3) – Stephen King

The Raven Cycle (Book 1, The Raven Boys) – Maggie Stiefvater

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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