Review – Department 19 – Will Hill

Department 19

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #49. Blood! Gore! Glorious fountains of exploding viscera and vital bodily fluids! Now that I have your attention…

It’s a very inauspicious day when I attempt to start a paragraph with “so” un-ironically. But it’s happened. And this means that I am clearly not in the mood to kiss another ass about good prose and beautiful style. However, seeing as with this book I don’t have very much choice, I suppose I’m gonna have to pucker up and smile about it. Because Department 19 (which I have been meaning to review for friggin’ ages) has just come to a bloodstained close, and with the last book hitting my gloriously new pinewood desk which has miraculously managed to fit into my office (room), I now have the answer to why I have delayed them the just desserts of being complimented by yours truly. The answer is that I haven’t been able to give them enough credit until I found out how they end. Or haven’t yet, technically, but I have a very good idea about how they will end as I am still gnawing on the last book.

Department 19 is one of the books which looks like a horror book, acts like a horror book and squawks like a horror book but really isn’t one. Sure, there are vampires and [werewolves] and things that go bump in the night, but when you’re looking at them through a mirrored purple visor with a stake in one hand and a Glock hand cannon in the other you aren’t as much scared as much as you are more prone to yelling “bring it on, bitch” all BuffyStyle (I have also started watching those lately, and nothing is quite as satisfying as watching Daphne, clad in a tight t-shirt and jeans, embed a piece of wood into a monster’s chest while throwing out a snarky one-liner).

And so (see! I’m doing it!), Department 19 is a no-holds-barred gorefest with plenty of plot and character development enough to make you think there is a real point to the fact that vampires explode in a glorious shower of blood and giblets (there isn’t, but it’s cool as fuck when it happens). The protagonist evolves throughout the series from an angst-ridden n00b to… a still-angst-ridden-but-slightly-less-so full-on badass, complete with [a turn to the “dark side” when he becomes infected with the vampire virus]. And throughout it all, he gains an ubergenius adorkable nerd friend, Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire girlfriend (who is also a badass).

A little about the plot, while we still have time/space ({insert TARDIS joke here}). Department 19 revolves around the journey of one Jamie Carpenter (direct descendant of the manservant of Abraham Van Helsing and co-founder of the titular organisation, Henry Carpenter), as he works his way up the British equivalent of the Men in Black (except with vampires). His dad used to serve, and of course after a tragic accident left precautions behind to ensure that his son would never be found prey by the creatures of the night. What does Jamie do when he realises what Department 19 actually is? Oh, only try to hunt down one of the oldest vampires in existence. Serial escalation is only possible because there are like, five of them.

Department 19 was published in 2011 by HarperCollins. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Department 19 – Will Hill

Review – Legion – Brandon Sanderson

Legion

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #48. This time, after following a (really good in hindsight) referral from a friend about this book, I cleared my queue and read it. Which turned out to be a better idea than I ever could have imagined.

Brandon Sanderson is a prolific author. This fact is about as obvious as the fact that the Harry Potter brand would be worth millions, or that fact that Stephen King can scare the shit out of a war-hardened veteran. In fact, only calling him prolific would be an understatement. However, as well-written as he is, it still surprises the hell out of me that he can construct an amazing story which captivates the audience in about 70 pages. This goes beyond the definition of a “novella” and more into the realm of “short story”, because I read Legion in one sitting, going through about one-and-a-half cups of tea and maybe a dozen or so biscuits whilst bored on a Sunday afternoon. Legion not only has amazingly well-made characters, it completely immerses you in an action movie-esque thriller of a plot which will absorb you for a good, long while after you finish the book (even though this story is technically called a “novella”, it’s been published in hardback and in my book qualifies as a book).

Legion tells the story of a man named Stephen Leeds, and as one of the best opening lines in all of literature tells you, “I’m perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad”. Leeds (sometimes nicknamed “Legion”, hence the book’s title) is an ubergenius with an eidetic memory, an off-the-scale cumulative IQ and advanced, specialised knowledge of over 50 different professional fields including handwriting analysis, psychiatry, architecture, fine art and [advanced quantum mechanics]. But there’s only one problem. His conscious mind doesn’t know any of it. Instead, Leeds literally hallucinates people who do have these specialised skills, and so when he needs to know something he just asks one of the many people who live in his head.

And if this sounds insane to you, well technically you’d be wrong. Stephen himself (or at least, what he defines as himself separate from his hallucinations, or “Aspects”) is perfectly sane by any definition of the word. But of course, since he sees people who aren’t actually there and they talk to him (and he talks back, which of course looks as weird as bacon flavoured jam from the outside), he’s not really a very comfortable person to be around. And (at least to him) his Aspects take up physical space, with needs and wants. So when his imagination begins to differ from reality (more than normal), Leeds begins to unravel. Throw in a camera that can take pictures back in time and [a plot to prove or disprove every religion in existence], Leeds is up to his neck, and he’s sinking fast.

So I had a lot of fun with this otherwise concise book. There’s going to be a series, which is what I found out when I realised there was a (longer) second book and promptly finished it, leaving me with a cliffhanger. So Legion will be back, and let me tell you I am totally going to be there to see it end. And hopefully so will Leed’s sanity.

Legion was published in 2012 by Subterranean Press, and can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Legion – Brandon Sanderson

Review -Never Always Sometimes – Ali Alsaid

Never Always Sometimes

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #47, and May the 4th be with you. No, I’m not doing a Star Wars novel, I don’t consider many of them canon anyway. Not since Disney… Anyway! Enjoy my rant this week.

Never Always Sometimes had the misfortune of being the bounce-back book I read while still in the rage-haze of Eleanor and Park. So while I was fuming over the shitty ending scene of one of the best Teen Fiction novels I read in a long, long time, Never Always Sometimes is like taking that ending and rubbing shit all over it before ramming it up my nose. Thusly, I thoroughly hated the characterisation, found the cheaply exploited faux-love-triangle angle irritating and compared every character to their more three-dimensional and more interesting E&P counterpart. Also, the style just rubs me completely the wrong way, as if it’s a shitty paper façade of the nigh-poetic prose of Rainbow Rowell. I dislike rating scales, but if E&P was *here*, then Never Always Sometimes would be… *here*.

Gods, is this the part where I have to explain the plot? *sigh*. Alright, so the general idea of this novel is based along the eternal friendzone of High School Best Friends who are clearly and obviously a couple but one half of it fails to see that they are Supposed To Be. So of course, instead of pining over the currently-unavailable-but-nevertheless-inevitable, the second half finds someone else, and then first half realise their mistake, and from that point the end writes itself. It’s been done to death, and will continue to be replicated come the end of time.

Let me pick apart the many narrative techniques this author abuses/fails to mention/fails to deconstruct. Look, I can list them: the really weird and exotic (but white, must be white) feminine half of this unfortunately stereotypically heterosexual (why haven’t I been able to find a proper Big Gay Love Story which deconstructs these romance tropes yet?) focal pair has clear, family-related traumatic pain in their backstory; the adorkable, sensitive and geeky masculine (hardly!) half of this pair is naïve enough to think they know what they’re doing all throughout act two; and the third wheel, being the amazing goddess that they are, completely understands the protagonist’s true calling (by the end of act three, at least) and is completely fin with being left by the side of the road by what is clearly the better person for them.

<<OK Jester, you can breathe in now. Breathing is a good idea.>>

Apart from one of the many voices in my head having to give me some tips on how to breathe, you understand my point. Never Always Sometimes (one of the few titles I would give a DIY sundial with French instructions to when asked for the time of day) is supposed to be about not really subverting American high school romance stereotypes, but looking like it should so it actually does subvert them. Make sense? No, not to me either. In my book, slightly lampshading the tropes one uses while still playing them extremely straight does not excuse said trope’s appearance. So pooh-pooh to that

Never Always Sometimes was published in 2015 by Harlequin Teen. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review -Never Always Sometimes – Ali Alsaid

Review – Sword Art Online – Reki Kawahara

Sword Art Online.jpg

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #46. This light novel series and eventual, inevitable anime adaption has a recognizably large fanbase in both Japan and around the globe. With good reason.

Now, I’m not going to begin to justify myself when I shamelessly say that originally I saw this series as an anime, and have since then watched all of the first season and about 11 episodes of SAO 2, then stopped, complaining it was getting rather crummy. So when I realised I was missing an experience by not reading the light novels, I was quick to snap up the few copies of the series I could find. And, while the story and character development were exceptional in the anime (well, at least they were in the first 14 episodes), one thing I can say about the light novels is that the writing style is something completely mind-blowing. I mean, really, honestly astounding. I managed to scrounge up a copy of the first novel, eagerly finding a nice corner with an hour to kill and some fond memories to relive, and in one two-and-a-half hour sitting I was left hungering for more. One lightning-fast uber-speed-reading session was all it took and I was blown away. And it felt like I was only sitting there for 15 minutes.

This kind of style is something inspiring. Kawahara (is that his last name? Japanese surname-first name structure confuses me) manages to paint the picture of a world as vivid and visually inspiring as the anime adaptation while keeping the audience hooked on his every word. And, thanks to the fact I cannot speak nor read Japanese (always wanted to learn, along with Spanish) I have to give no small amount of credit to the translator, who is probably diligently transforming specific metaphors and references into ones which a western audience would understand (the lack of the use of honorifics caught me at first, because I read more manga than I should, but…).

A little needs to be mentioned about the plot of SAO, though I tread timidly into this area as I was first introduced to it by the more chronologically-accurate anime series. In a nutshell, new “full-dive” virtual reality has become the latest craze, and through the use of a fully immersive VR helmet that hacks into your nervous system and simulates actual feelings, you can literally live in the virtual world. But when a new MMO released for VR consoles overrides the safety mechanisms and ensures that when you die in the game, you die IRL, a lone swordsman begins his fight to the end of the game and his freedom. And so the first arc of SAO begins, which is wrapped up in the first book and followed with a bunch of short stories collected in a second volume which explain some smaller “side quests” the protagonist goes on throughout his time trapped in the game.

Reading SAO (one of the first light novel series I have read) has been an enlightening experience. I’m no stranger to translated novels, but the pace and turn of phrase this book has kept throughout the novels I have read is amazing. I tip my hat to both he author and the translator here, for the umpteenth time. Nice work.

SAO Volume 1 was published in 2009 by ASCII Media Works. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Sword Art Online – Reki Kawahara

Review – Afterworlds – Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds.jpg

Hello Internet. And I present to you, Review #45 (the only thing predictable about unpredictability is that it refuses to be predicted)! Wow, I’m nearing a half-century. This is alarming. Oh, am I far enough away from Leviathan to write a review on another Westefeld novel? Hm… Yeah, looks like it. Yippee!

Lemme ‘splain you a thing. When somebody jumps around with their style in the middle of a piece of literary text, constantly changing their perspective, genre and tone, the effect is frickin’ weird. It’s a bi’ like they jus’ dinnae care no more about formal structure, coherent writing and proper English. S’like they can’t care ‘tall ‘bout seemin’ any whit like a structured, sane person who is attempting to write a decent story. The fact that this past paragraph was so easy to write unnerves and confuses me, as it’s clearly going to be impossible to read. Note to future self: Don’t let accents fork out instances of your personality. Ya migh’ end up driftin’ off inta some faraway land wif no way back…

OK, hypocritically humorous paragraph over. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming: Afterworlds, hey? What about it? I think it’s stupid. Well, let’s break down why I think it’s stupid: It’s not one book. Afterworlds bases its entire premise on the fact that it is more than one book. It’s a reading experience, which means it is supposed be read like it was written by two different authors who happen to share the same general writing style writing two different books in two different genres and smashing the result together with a dutiful word-processor command and some poor, simple code. And it suffers for it.

The main problem with this is that for this kind of thing to work, both books have to be excellent reads, and they need to have enough similarities on a chapter-by-chapter plot breakdown that the audience never loses the feel that one story gives but lets it continue into the next story seamlessly. Meanwhile, the characters need to be different in each story so they aren’t confusing, and don’t let the reader mix-up characters between the stories. Afterworlds doesn’t do this. Afterworlds is like a scrapbook. It’s messy. Charmingly so, akin to a family album made by a six-year-old who uses pattern scissors to cut out the photos, but Afterworlds lacks finesse which should be expected from an author of this calibre.

Westerfeld has dropped the ball here. Afterworlds is one of those novels which sounds good in theory. The formula for a more pronounced version of two-lines-no-waiting, using different, interlocking stories which fit together to display an overarching dramatic meaning sounds fucking awesome, if it was put together by someone like George RR Martin or Alastair Reynolds. Seriously, this kind of pseudo-madliterary-science is something which could fundamentally change modern literature. But what we are left with is Afterworlds, a clear example of “Oooh, here is a cool idea. Let’s stitch another story into this one we already have to make this book have a neat marketing gimmick!” “Wow, sounds like a great idea! While you write this call an ambulance, you need to recover from an emergency frontal lobotomy!

Afterworlds was published in 2014 by Simon Pulse. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Afterworlds – Scott Westerfeld

Review – Unwind – Neal Shusterman

unwind

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #44. I’d like to use this part of the Review to have a moment’s silence for the end of one of the greatest webcomics of all time, Homestuck. Ending today, the 13th of April, exactly 7 years after it’s beginning, we see it’s end. Let us all honour the greatest narrative told through the internet. *bows head in respectful silence* 

The surgical dismemberment of people to sell their organs to the highest bidder, while the subject remains conscious and knows what is happening to their body as they are sliced to bits! MUAH-HA-HAAA! Oh, I tell you, if I was able to properly let out an evil genius laugh I would do so now. But doesn’t this just sound like the scheme of a mad villain in a B-grade horror movie? Probably one with a lab coat and an Evil German Accent? “I have you now, my pretty little thing! Begin ze operation!” “No! Save me from the horror!

OK, fine. I’ll save you from all the bad clichés. But let me tell you, this book is not for the politically passionate. Unwind was written in response to the problem about abortion, set in a future where a war has happened between people pro-choice and pro-life. After ultimately pointless battles and acts of terrorism, the answer was a newly-passed law where it’s now legal to abort children up to 18 years after birth through a weird technical loophole where they don’t die, just have their organs removed one at a time until there is nothing left. This process is called unwinding, and like its purpose in the book it is originally designed to get both sides of the abortion debate to shut up because this is what a compromise looks like. But of course, in the book the government sees it as a great idea and BAM! Dystopian sci-fi.

And now that I’ve taken a paragraph to discuss the key theme, here is the part where I explain how spectacularly the author actually fared with the narrative part of the book (here is the part where I make a snide reference about how spectacular is both a word of praise and one of criticism. And we wonder why ESL speakers complain about our language). Thankfully Shusterman has achieved the good kind of spectacular. As opposed to “romance novels about a time-traveling Viking turned Navy SEAL” kind of spectacular (you think I’m joking? I never joke about Vikings).

Shusterman has managed to create a rather enthralling world with Unwind. Although, ultimately his characters make the story. The book is something of a chase novel, but with cool creepy sci-fi enabled horrors waiting for the protagonists if they don’t escape. On the run, the pressure is real, and the protagonist seriously is tested. And the golden rule of characters is that pain equals character development. Connor and Co. are all believably real, and the bad stuff that happens to them is seriously troubling. Which evokes a sympathetic reaction from the reader, causing them to associate with the yada yada yada. You understand. But there is a problem with this series! Specifically, the fact that it’s a series. Unwind wraps everything up in a nice little bundle at the end. All the loose ends are tied up. Fade to black and close the white curtains. But no! The sequel keeps happening! And it follows someone we don’t care about! So I’ll do what Shusterman apparently can’t and just end already!

Unwind was published in 2007 by Simon and Schuster. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Peat

Review – Unwind – Neal Shusterman

Review – Virals – Kathy Reichs

Virals

Hello Internet. Welcome back for Review #43. Now, instead of looking at the very best of a prolific author’s achievements, and judging their writing talents by the quality of their Magnum Opus, I’m going to take a look at their worst to see what happens when fantasy YA meets forensic crime thriller.

Virals is what happens when a prolific writer of adult (operative word) crime fiction attempts to write a YA novel. Virals is a hot mess of fantastical liberty taken with diseases and genetics; teen characters who sound exactly like adults but with more naivety and snark; transparent futures regarding relationships between the main character and the obvious future love interest; and the stupidly addictive and well-written plots that Reichs writes regarding crime (added alliteration bonus points!).

Now, I might be too much of a cynic when it comes to YA fiction. I do wallow in the stuff most of the time, so it makes sense I would get sick of it pretty quickly. But I’m sure it’s not just me who feels that this book (and quite possibly the rest of the series, if I do get around to finishing it) is clearly written by an author out of their comfort zone and contains just the wrong amount of YA tropes and stereotypes to feel… odd.

I mean, out of the possibly two Bones books of hers I have actually read, Kathy Reichs is an amazing crime author. Her stories really are detective fiction, running along at a brisk pace which really engages readers. You’re encouraged to think, and work at different theories along with the main character (who is pretty cool, as far as forensic scientists go). But after Bones, Virals seems like the weird, bastard offspring of a Bones novel and a YA fantasy novel. The book attempts to be genre-busting and have a cool, relatable protagonist who appeals to a wide range of teenagers. But thanks to the fact she’s an introverted tomboy with a nose constantly stuck in a book about dead things, she isn’t someone who would relate to the typical high schooler.

And of course, although Viral’s protagonist (whose name escapes me at the moment) is designed to be immediately likable (the complete opposite of Temperance Brennan, whose coldness the reader grows to appreciate when compared to the warmth of the rest of the cast), you end up missing how much better her aunt is at actually solving crimes and doing gumshoe work (Bones and Virals are in the same universe, although Tempe does not appear in Virals, and nothing is mentioned in Bones about any wolf-like superpowers Tempe’s niece may or may not have). Tory Brennan (that’s it!) is hopeless by comparison, and the ensemble of misfits who serve as her entourage are pointless to the point where their main skill is clanging their heads together to miraculously come up with epiphanies because of plot.

Look, in honesty, Virals boils down to the misplaced time and effort made by an author clearly out of their comfort zone with a YA novel. Don’t get me wrong, Reichs has really done a number on Virals, and it’s better than most YA swill out there by virtue of good style and a brilliantly clever plot, but it’s clearly in the shadow of Bones and its success, so it’s never going to live up to Reich’s better work.

Virals was published in 2010 by Puffin Books. It can be found on Amazon here.

Yours: J.M. Pear

Review – Virals – Kathy Reichs