Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Feast For Crows – George R R Martin

As mentioned in my Asterix post, Book Club is on hiatus at the moment until things begin to look brighter here in the UK and it’s safer to meet as a group and socialise again. That being said, I’m still actually playing catch up from February when things were tough for me personally (I still have Akira vol 2 to go, not that there’s pressure to read everything, it’s my choice to do so), but I began A Feast For Crows shortly before the last time we actually met up, sat and listened to everyone discuss a book I’d only read about 200 odd pages of and then continued to grind my way through it.

And what a grind it’s been. If this book was a game, it’d be the tedious bit in a JRPG where you’re just doing random battle after random battle for what feels like forever as you try and get strong enough to actually finish the damned thing.

To say I struggled through it would be an understatement, but I’m here now, it’s done and it can be checked off. Now, I know this book divides fans, some think its the best, others think its the worst. I think I fall on the side of the latter, and if it’s not the worst, then it’s definitely my least favourite, and there are a few problems I have with it.

It’s biggest issue is the pacing, at over 700 pages long the reader knows they’re going to be spending a long time with these characters, and that’s not an issue. I wasn’t expecting things to zip about and lots to happen, this is A Song of Ice and Fire, after all, it’s famed for a lot of not a lot happening, but here, it feels like literally, nothing happens until the final few chapters of the book. That’s not to say that everything beforehand is pointless, but it feels like padding and like it belongs as part of something bigger. Of course, Martin admits this at the very end of the book, he wrote too much and rather than split the story in half (which I think kind of worked in the paperback publication of A Storm of Swords’ favour), he decided to pick a few characters and tell their stories with the following book telling the other characters stories. Why he chose this particular chain of events I’m not sure, there’s probably an interview out there somewhere, and this isn’t a case of me preferring other characters (I love Sam, Brienne and here Cersei is at her venomous best) but their arcs here mostly feel drawn out.

Whilst we’re on the subject of characters. I know most people regard this as Martin’s feminist book, maybe that’s the wrong term, but I’m putting all this down after only having about five hours sleep on the third Sunday of the British Governments so-called “Lockdown”. But the core of the cast here are his key female characters (aside from Danaerys), which when I heard that before starting, I was genuinely excited by. What I didn’t expect though was just how much oppression they’re all put through and that they all are imprisoned in some way or another.

Brienne, we all know how devoted she is to being honourable and servitude, but here she’s held captive by her own moral compass, spending far, far too long searching for Sansa Stark and doing so in a naive manner. It’s only when she has to begin to use her training as a knight that we begin to see her break free of these trappings and begin to see her question other peoples motives. Through Sam, we also get to learn more of Gilly, who herself is imprisoned by the orders placed upon her by Jon Snow as she travels with the Slayer to the Citadel.

Both Arya and Sansa are imprisoned by their identity, Sansa is in hiding, pretending to be someone totally different and has to be cautious all the time, her new persona is for her own protection, and whilst Arya shares some of these issues, her challenges with her identity are for a totally different reason, she’s trying to break free of her family name. Sansa actually surprises me here, I’ve complained about her before, but of all the characters she’s been subjected to the most horrific of things throughout all the books so far and if anything this book gives her a little respite, even if it’s not the world she dreamed of for so long, and despite Creepy Petyr being Creepy Petyr, she’s possibly in the best place she’s been in since she left Winterfell.

However, as I alluded to earlier, out of the female cast it’s Cersei that gets the vast majority of the good stuff, though its not good stuff that happens to her. We begin to see how her mind really works here, but we also see her dive headfirst into madness and paranoia, the more she tries to control everything around her the more things fall apart and slip through her fingers and this is best shown in her relationship with Jaime (who’s chapters are also brilliant I might add). Both constantly think of the bond between them, but whereas Jaime seemed to genuinely love his sister, Cersei’s thoughts on their relationship appear to be purely about having him under her control and being of use to her, with his sword hand now gone and her brother going through a lot of personal change (overall for the better I might add) he no longer provides the same uses as he once did.

I think, also, that the tone of the book is the series at its worst and that’s possibly situational, Westeros is in a bad place, its people have suffered due to the war, winter is definitely on its way and we get to see first hand that nobody is prepared for it, crops are burned, corpses hang from trees and nearly everyone (maybe aside from those at Highgarden?) are suffering, and in these troubled times we are all currently living through, its a tough pill to swallow. Still, its read and done now and there’s going to be a bit of a break where I can maybe read something a little more positive over the coming weeks.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Asterix in Britain – René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo

When Close Encounters posted on the Books With Pictures Facebook group page that we were going to be reading an Asterix book, I’m not going to lie, I had two thoughts, the first was “but isn’t that a kids book”, then it was “wow, I’ve not read one of those since Year 8” and it was at that point I became genuinely excited to read it. You see I loved Asterix as a kid. I was never big into comics back then, but on visits to the library I’d always check if any Asterix books had been added to their kids section, usually though it was the same three or four titles, but it was those plus comic adaptations of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Stingray that were my introduction to comic books. Friends would by the Dandy and Beano and I’d had a read of those, I’d also flick through them whilst waiting for my Dad to make his picks on library visits, but they never really grabbed me.

Then in Year 7 and 8 my form tutor, who happened to look like a cross between Henry VIII and Obelix, was also my languages teacher and in order to help us learn sentence structure for French he’d often photocopy pages from his French language editions of Asterix comics and give us panels to translate (as best as we could for students in one of the worst schools in that area), funnily enough, during that time, French was one of my strongest subjects. However I changed schools (to a much better school) for year 9, found myself behind on everything and I struggled with my French teachers teaching methods from then on, plus hormones intervened and she happened to be a very attractive blonde woman who had a preference for fitted blouses (hell, on a fundraising day she wore a French Maid’s outfit). My marks should have gone up, in hindsight, but, well, I was 13…

As you can imagine, once I picked up my copy of Asterix in Britain, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, all of the above came flooding back to me. If I’d actually read this volume before then it didn’t feel like it, but my immediate reaction was delight at just how colourful and detailed each and every panel was. When compared to something from the big American comic houses in the 60s and even its competitors in the form of the Beano and Dandy, every panel is lovingly created and doesn’t feel like Albert Uderzo has skimped at all.

Characters are full of life, colour and detail, and I’m not just talking the key cast here, but side characters too are given plenty of attention. Of course these being caricatures there are things that tie them all together, every Englishman here has an extravagant moustache and prominent nose, but these make the artwork endearing more than anything else.

The story is full of amusing moments, culminating in a rather violent game of Rugby, though my favourite moment takes part towards the end of the book when the potion Asterix and Obelix had supposed to have provided for the British to help them fight off the Roman’s, actually ends up in a river, an unsuspecting angler thinks he’s caught a big fish, only for it to pull him off the banks of the river due to the added strength it has received from the Gaul’s special potion.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Handmaids Tale

A few months ago I picked up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from a charity shop, it cost me 50p, it went on the bookshelf with the intent to read it “one day”, that day came sooner than expected when during our previous meet to discuss A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold, it was suggested that we read The Handmaids Tale next, and so my dear readers here are my thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale.

I’ll start by saying that, unlike A Game of Thrones, I’ve not seen the television show that was adapted from this book, my partner began watching it but she said it was too difficult to watch based upon the experiences she had when she had our three children, each of them had some difficulty, be it physical, emotional or mental, attached to her pregnancy and labour and so she was unable to keep watching. After reading the book I can totally understand the difficulty this presented her and there were certainly moments where some difficult memories came back for me.

Thats not the only difficulty I had with the book however, I had to read it in short bursts as its just so incredibly oppressive throughout, which is obviously its intention.

Firstly, its setting, for me anyway, felt very vague. Some of this was definitely intentional, as shown by the closing “Historical Notes” chapter wherein the reader is taken even further into the future to an academic discussing the Gilean rule, but I struggled with understanding the location and how the world was able to change so quickly with seemingly little to no conflict, Offred seemed either unable or unwilling to provide the reader with details that would help.

I think the reason I felt like this is that we are given glimpses into Offred’s previous life, we learn about relationships she’s had, that she was a mother and that she was successful in her career, and yet that is all. I struggled to understand just how there was such a quick turn about in events that Offred’s prior life was still so fresh in her memory, though the point is made that the woman suffering under the new rule will be the ones to suffer the most as they all remember the lives they had.

I did find it very interesting though, especially taking into account the time in which it was written, where women were first beginning to really start to carve out powerful careers for themselves (though, not too powerful, the patriarchy couldn’t’ possibly let a woman have too much control, after all, who will cook their dinner and fetch their slippers?), it definitely feels like it was written with this in mind, and in a contradiction to my prior comments, I can see how Atwood could see the world change so drastically and quickly in order to place women back into their “proper places” and being reduced to oppressive serving roles: child bearers, domestic maids, concubines, teachers and wives. As a father of three daughters, and having been the stay at home parent whilst my partner studied at University, not to mention having to put up with the likes of Gamergate and seeing our own worlds politics change so drastically in the past decade, both at home and abroad, it has me worried for my own families future.

It raises a question of if every teenage boy and grown man was given this to read, would there be a huge shift in feminist politics? I’m not entirely sure it would, those who are likely to try and understand the books message are the ones that are likely to have feminist leanings in the first place whilst the others will no doubt take the mindset of “well, the Republic of Gilead doesn’t sound all bad actually”, no doubt thinking that they’d be amongst the elite alongside the so-called “Commanders” rather than the ordinary man who himself is oppressed and forced into servitude.

The core message of a woman’s body becoming a political weapon is probably The Handmaid’s Tale strongest one, in Gilead a woman’s only worth is if she is able to provide the Republic with children. Higher born women who happen to be unable to do so (because its forbidden to state that the man is infertile) are placed in a position where the only control they have is over their own household, and whilst there are other elements of use for women, it’s all designed to provide the Commanders with a concubine with other female members of the household being there to keep the concubine under control. This is done by turning each individual against each other, the Wife has nothing but distain for those who serve her (especially the Handmaids) and all parties see the Handmaids as being loose of morals.

Like a few of the books we’ve read as part of the book club, I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale is one that is supposed to be enjoyed, I think that it’s something that has a core message that should be listened to, but I also think it’s world building is a little vague and tied up to much in that worlds own language, it took a while for me to link titles such as Sons of Jacob to Jewish people and Sons of Ham to people of colour, for example and I couldn’t help thinking afterward that due to being a white male some of its commentary wasn’t obvious enough, though the fault there lays with me and not with Atwood.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

We3 – Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely

This month’s Books WITH Pictures pick was We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely through Vertigo. It’s a book I’ll honestly admit I’ve never even heard of so my expectations going in were all over the place, especially as I flicked through it on the bus home before I sat down to read through it properly.

First off, its not a very long book and there’s not a lot of text to absorb, instead Morrison provides the script to allow Quitely’s art to tell the story. A picture tells a thousand words and all that. That tale is one of three animals, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, that have been given cybernetic suits of armour that turn them into military weapons. After a senator visits the research facility that holds them and reveals to the staff there that the future for creatures is to have them decommissioned, one of the scientists (who happens to have closer bonds to animals than she does humans) engineers their escape and what follows is an ultra-violent version of Homeward Bound.

I mean there is dialogue, the humans obviously talk and the three animals have some very basic speech thanks to implants (the dog, referred to as 1, uses behaviour based commands that you and I would use to interact with him if he were our pet, so he responds to things like “good dog” and “home”), and its this sparse use of dialogue that really drives home the emotional aspect of the book, especially when 2 (the cat) asks “?HOME IS?” and 1 responds “HOME? IS RUN NO MORE”. This is driven home by the use of the original 3 issue run using Lost Pet posters as each of the three covers, all of which are replicated at the proper interval here, giving the 3 companions they’re true names whilst giving weight to the senators command that future projects will need to use animals specially bred for such purpose, so not only is “Bandit” (1, the dog) looking for a home, he already had one, as did  “Tinker” (2, the cat) and “Pirate” (3, the rabbit).

It’s not just the art itself that tells the story, throughout they use panels intelligently, this is most notable, in my opinion, in two particular sequences. The first is a 4 page series of panels where, rather than use the standard 9-panel format, the duo cram 12 panels onto each page, showing a variety of CCTV images that reveal the means of “Weapon 3″‘s escape. In another moment Tinker is on the offensive (and when that cat begins an attack there’s definitely only ever going to be one outcome, it’s one bad kitty) and the panels skew and contort giving the impression of a flicker book. There are other moments throughout that really play with the medium in this way and gives the action the kinetic energy that I’ve not often seen in western comics but certainly know from Manga (especially Shonen Manga). This point also applies to the level of gore on show, which at times reaches similar levels to that of Akira.

We3, as a whole, is something I’ve had to really think on, I’ve actually now read it twice and will probably read it again as I think the work that Quitely has put into the action element of the book is more likely to stand out as I return to it again and again and it’s for that reason I think I’d say I enjoyed it. The story itself is, I think, fairly easy to get to grips with and as I’ve mentioned, its hardly dialogue-heavy, but its definitely worth a go.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold – George R R Martin

Somehow, over a busy and stressful Christmas period, I managed to read the second part of George R R Martin’s A Storm of Swords. I came away from the first part feeling deflated, I liked the “ending” with all the stuff surrounding Bran and Jon, though the two didn’t meet, Jon seemed to feel something was going on. However, the book as a whole certainly did feel like it was building up to something more, however I fully admit reading these two books as the single volume they were originally released as would have been far too daunting for me.

This is the book where everybody dies, or it feels like that anyway, we lose Joffrey, Robb (and pretty much his entire army), Catelyn, Shae and Tywin. By the end of the book we only have Stannis and Danaerys left who have been vocal about their claim to the Iron Throne, Tommen is to be crowned as King but now theres no Hand to take control of things whilst he matures.

One of my favourite moments in this book is the passage that takes us from Jaime trying to redeem himself to his brother Tyrion, though his revelation surrounding the truth of Tyrion’s marriage to Tysha, where we find out that Tyrion’s relationship was genuine and that Jaime had been forced by his father to make Tyrion believe she was a whore. Jaime was obviously hoping that his confession would heal some of Tyrion’s pain and hopefully heal and bitterness between the two of them, though there has always been some warmness in their relationship, this particular event has always been an (understandable) sticking point for Tyrion. It doesn’t have the required effect though, in fact its the total opposite, which again, I find perfectly understandable when Jaime had defied his father by joining the Kingsguard in order to try and (secretly) be with Cersei, Tyrion, having kind of kept his siblings secret, evidently feels betrayed. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that Tywin is killed whilst trying to deal with a rather stubborn bowel movement. The guy was so up himself that his shit was packed in there too.

I’ve said in previous A Song of Ice and Fire posts that I’m not much of a fan of Sansa, I think I began to warm to her in the first half of A Storm of Swords, but I do think we see so much more growth here. She’s still a typical princess, but she’s also beginning to become far less trustful than those around her, and with good reason. There’s a genuine sense of caution in her dealings with Ser Dontos during her escape from Kings Landing, particularly prior to her having to climb down the cliff face. But she’s also wary of Littlefinger, there’s no obvious signs, but I always felt she seemed uncomfortable when in his company. You could argue she’s silly in trusting Lysa, but despite not knowing her aunt, she’s always been raised to believe that bloodties matter, and she isn’t really aware quite how mad her mothers sister has become.

There are two things I want to address before I finish up. The handling of Jon becoming Commander of the Night Watch was well handled but fairly predictable, I’d say it was predictable even if you hadn’t watched the show. However, we definetly get to see the reason why so many people look up to him and why the old guard fear him so much when he’s handled control of the Wall during the battle with the Wildlings. Every single man commits to his instructions, but not only does he apply sound commands that work, he seems to have a natural flair for looking after his men, allowing them to make wagers that keep morale up but keeping himself seperate enough that there cant be any sense of betrayal (and that part in particular reminds me of the Bastogne episode of Band of Brothers). He also acknowledges when certain men, and indeed himself, need to step away from the action for a while.

Lastly, onto the Epilogue, I had to Google this after reading, its the first time that I’m certainly aware of that something that happened in these books wasn’t translated to the screen. I understand there’s fan theories around whether Catelyn does indeed come back in the TV show, but its only rumour and speculation and I’m not getting into that. Do I like the idea? Why not, if they can bring Gregor Clegayne back (in the show, thats not happened in the books yet) as a giant zombie, then Thoros bringing Catelyn back and the repercussions for the Frey’s from that is definetly something I’m looking forward to.

In a way, its a shame that there’s going to be a months break between this book and the next one in the series, I genuinely really enjoyed this one, I’d say it was my favourite so far and I’m itching to see where it goes next (especially as alot of what happened in the show is foggy in my mind). I’m also happy for the break and reading whatever is nominated next as I don’t want to burn myself out on them when there’s still a few (three?) books to go.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson

Novembers “Books Without Pictures” book was I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I originally read this book years ago, not long before the Will Smith movie, so its been I’ve enjoyed going back to it, particularly as I’d somehow managed to blur the lines between some of the events of the book and the film, though, I must point out, that doesn’t include either ending, which I won’t discuss here.

I’m going to go out on one here and say that I Am Legend isn’t a book that an individual enjoys. That’s not so say it’s not an excellent read, but to enjoy it would, in my mind, kind of miss its point? Well, I think so.

The reason I say this is that it’s so unbelievably bleak, which you’d expect as post-apocalyptic vampire filled piece of literature. But its not just these elements that contribute to its bleakness, as many other authors have had fun with such concepts over the years.

No, what makes it so bleak is its leading character, Robert Neville, and his utterly white aggressive attitude towards pretty much everything. Throughout the story, its driven home that Neville lives in Compton in the 1970s (though the book itself was written in the 50s) and the impression is given is that Neville is a typical blue-collared White American male just trying to go about his daily routines but is afraid to go out after dark because of the number of vampires in his neighbourhood, many of whom gather on his lawn at night trying to goad him into leaving his house, a former colleague calls out his name constantly whilst “the females” all try and gain his attention via their sexuality.

Neville’s actions really drive home the Nuclear Family father figure element, pre-outbreak, he goes to work and comes home to his wife and child, the feeling is there that when he gets home he puts on his slippers and his dutiful wife brings him his evening meal. Post-outbreak, he’s reluctant to really do any standard household chores, these things are a distraction from the “Man in his shed” system of him throwing himself at his hobbies (researching how he can rid the world of the so-called vampires), there’s absolutely no change in his behaviours throughout the book and he is shown to be an absolute dinosaur right to the end.

But that’s not why it’s so bleak.

Why then, do I keep saying its bleak? Well, because the world that Matheson has created seems to revel in being consistently cruel to Neville from the very beginning. Each and every time there’s the hope that something will happen that may help change him, that may help allow the character to grow, its ripped out from under the feet of both Robert and the reader, every bit of research he does leads to a dead-end, each time you think he’s finally got someone to offer him companionship, be it the dog he tries to befriend or Ruth, its literally torn away by the end of the chapter that Matheson introduces it, and yet somehow, after a period of drinking himself stupid, Robert Neville gets back up again, dusts himself off and goes for yet another round.

It’s like a Rocky movie, but without the knowing that despite being absolutely beaten up, the lead characters going to turn out okay, he’ll learn along the way and defeat the mountain in front of him, instead, he relents, he decides to try and fit in with the new world presented to him by Ruth, and guess, what… that’s ripped away from him too.

It’s an absolute car crash of a book, and by that I’m not criticising the writing at all, you find yourself reading to find out just what will happen next to this character, this sole individual who, lets be honest, doesn’t really have any redeeming features, I’m definitely not of the mind that we’re supposed to like him. But at the same time, we don’t really want him to be floored over and again before the referee awards the victory to his opponent, that’s not how we consume our media, certainly not in 2019 where even the anti-hero (such as the Joker in Todd Phillip’s recent film) gets their day, Richard Matheson’s Robert Neville never gets his moment (unless you watch the movie).

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Akira Volume 1 – Katsuhiro Otomo

Way back in July I wrote about the reasons I was glad that the Hollywood movie of Akira had been put on hold (though it’s still in the works), this time out I’m taking a direct look at volume 1 of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga as its the book we’ve discussed in “Books with Pictures” this month.

Despite Akira being one of my favourite stories, both from the collection of manga’s and the movie, I’m going to try and remain unbiased, it’ll be tough, but let’s see how it goes.

For those who have never read the manga nor watched the movie, the basic plot is as follows. Tetsuo Shima is a teenage boy, part of a biker gang in a post World War III Japan in the city of Neo-Tokyo. After being involved in an accident, Tetsuo develops psychokinetic powers and is then thrown into the centre of a political and military based human experiment. The leader of the gang Tetsuo belongs to, Kaneda, gets pulled into a political resistance group as he tries to find answers regarding what has happened to his friend.

Flicking from page to page, looking at each and every panel, its astounding the level of detail that Otomo has put into each and every image, take the second bike sequence for example. Every action in every panel is clear and concise, the energy flows through the page and you really get a sense of the chaos of the running battle between Kaneda’s gang and their opponents the Clowns. In this volume there’s not a huge amount of dialogue, at times it often feels like Otomo is story-boarding for a movie (though the movie wouldn’t be released for another six years after the first chapter of the manga was released)

I’ve read through all six volumes many times, though it’s been a few years since I returned to them. So the one thing that surprises me is just how little of the story volume 1 actually covers. Within this book we are introduced to a few members of Kaneda’s gang (Kaneda, Tetsuo and Yamagata), Tetsuo has his accident and begins to develop powers that he struggles to control, we get more time with the Clowns than we people coming from the movie will have expected, Kaneda spends some time with the resistance group though Ryu is quite distant and Kei is reluctant to be around him and lastly we have moments with Colonel Shikishima, Doctor Onishi, Takashi (#26), Masaru (#27) and Kiyoko (#25). Other characters appear but aren’t named at this point in the tale (the key ones being gang member Kaisuke and the member of parliament Nezu).

So Volume 1 is a combination of world-building, setting up the factions that will feature in coming volumes and the beginnings of Tetsuo’s story. We see that Kaneda is the leader of a biker gang, though based upon his behaviour its unclear how he has gotten to that position, and my only conclusion is the sheer amount of self-confidence he has earns him the respect of the others. Tetsuo is only a minor member of the gang, and really looks up to Kaneda, but once his powers are unlocked he begins to challenge this position and we begin to see a different side of the boy, namely his incredibly short temper which are exacerbated by the side effects that his powers bring upon him if he’s not medicated properly, he later tries to control this using a cocktail of drugs that the Clown gang get for him with the manga closing after Colonel Shikishima offers him the help to unlock his potential and keep the negative effects his powers have on his body in check.

What volume 1 does offer us though is some interesting insights. For me, this particular volume is Otomo’s response to post-war Japan that he grew up in. Due to the treaties that were signed after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (which are kind of referenced by the image of an atomic like explosion that started World War III in this world), the US-occupied Japan throughout the years from 1945 to 1952 (and referred to as Operation Blacklist), despite Otomo not being born until 1953 the American occupation (the only time in Japans history that it had been occupied by foreign powers) had some major impacts on Japanese culture. The youth of the country began looking to Western media and behaviours, this saw the rise of the Bosozoku movement, teenagers began purchasing motorcycles and gathering in gangs, wearing colours and patches to state which gangs they belonged to. It comes as no surprise that these gangs reached their heights around the time that Otomo began writing Akira.

There’s also elements of the human experimentation programs from around the second World War and into the sixties with Japans Unit 731 and the US’ MK Ultra programs feeling like they could have been key influences on Otomo’s writing.

Going back to Kaneda for a moment, there is one worrying aspect to his character whilst reading this in 2019 and that’s his attitude towards women. Early on it’s established, he has had a sexual relationship with the girl who works in his schools’ infirmary, she tells him she thinks she might be pregnant with her basically telling him that the baby would be his. He couldn’t be more disinterested if he tried, his only interest is in her getting his gang their next batch of drugs for him (and testing the drug he snatched after the gang’s first altercation with Colonel Shikishima). Later on, he’s constantly trying to get it on with Kei, though she brushes him off at every turn. Now, this is admittedly typical teenage boy behaviour, and in fairness, he is something like 15 or 16 in the book, but it’s still a little disconcerting seeing the lengths he’ll go to to try and get what he wants from Kei.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow – George R R Martin

It’s that time of the month again, first Wednesday of the month means Book Club update and we’re back to the A Game of Thrones series. This month I’ve been reading A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow, which is actually the first part of the much bigger original release of A Storm of Swords, we’ll be reading the second part in December I think.

Straight off the bat, I’m going to say I’m so glad that for the paperback release they split this book in half, I’m not a particularly fast reader and with a half term during the time I was reading this I wasn’t sure if I’d even manage to complete this one. I have though, in fact, I finished it a few days early.

I also think the style Steel and Snow is written in made it a struggle, for all the relief I felt that I was only having to read “half” a book, I also think it’s easy to realise that it’s only half the story whilst you’re reading it. There’s far more plodding narrative here than in either A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings whilst its gathering things together after the events at the end of the second book in the series, so we’re seeing key characters recovering and playing politics, more so than ever, after the Battle of Blackwater. Which is interesting to a degree but the politics never seem to go anywhere. We see the gradual build-up to a number of events, Joffrey’s wedding for one, but none of them really feel like they go anywhere in this book, in fact, a lot of the time the things being discussed don’t come to fruition because they’re all events being saved for the latter half of A Storm of Swords.

This means you’re left with a book that doesn’t progress things and thus feels frustrating to read and its only really a handful of chapters where the reader is given anything to sink their teeth into.

It’s a book full of journeys, with no end in sight, which is fine, it puts you in the shoes of all the key players and whilst it ends on a genuine cliff hanger it feels a bit cheap getting to that point.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like here, I love Jon’s story throughout, I love that his tale has kind of turned into a spy movie, complete with a girl trying to turn him to the other side by playing on his sexual desires, I like Ygritte as a character, I find her to be both amusing and strong, and whilst I know the outcome for her, I’m enjoying any time we get to spend with her (though as the book ends, her and Jon have been separated, so to speak).

Another character I’m enjoying is Lord Beric Dondarrion. Up until this book we’d only seen him at the tourney in A Game of Thrones, since then he’s been mentioned rather a lot as there have been quite a few characters hunting for him for a variety of reasons, but here Arya happens upon him and I like the contrast between the books Beric and the shows Beric, they’re both the same person, but their physical appearances are (in my mind) very different. In the show, Beric’s been brought back from the dead and received a lot of injuries, but the only visible one is his missing eye which he covers with a path. In the book he doesn’t even do that, his eye socket is there for all to see not to mention the caved in part of his head. The description of him gives the impression of a dead man walking (which of course, he is), but he’s still an absolute badass. I have, however, found myself have to force myself to overlook the fact that The Hound wasn’t scared of his flaming sword when the two fought (even though a point is made that Thoros defeated Sandor Clegane in one tourney due to the latter’s fear of fire, though I may be misremembering that)

The key thing in this book for me is that I think, for the first time, we are beginning to see people’s morals being torn to some degree. Jon is torn between serving the Nights Watch and completing his undercover mission (though that also comes with the caveat that no one knows he’s alive, let alone that he’s acting as a spy rather than turning traitor) and his lust (which he’s mistaking for love) for Ygritte. Tyrion has been forced to marry Sansa to protect her, himself and Shae. Brienne so obviously wants to kill Jaime but must keep that in check in order to serve Catelyn whom she has sworn her allegiance to, and this is a pattern that’s seemingly repeated throughout the book for a lot of characters but I think may have originally begun with Arya’s story from A Clash of Kings onwards as Arya is mostly doing whatever she needs to do to survive despite her not really agreeing with serving the Boltons (for example).

I opened this basically complaining that its a book that doesn’t really go anywhere, but I also think its allowed the characters to breathe a little, I think I have a better understanding of the likes of Arya, Jaime and Jon than I had done prior to picking this book up, that said, I do think its the weakest of the three (or two and half…) books I’ve read in the series thus far.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore, David Lloyd

Once a month for the past few months I’ve been attending a book club at my local comic book store, it’s called “Books Without Pictures” and has focused on novels, now they’ve started up another club, called “Books With Pictures” we’re we read a comic book/graphic novel/whatever you want to call them. Our first meeting centred around Alan Moore and David Lloyds “V for Vendetta”.

Both David Lloyd and Alan Moore provide an introduction to the book and its hard not to look at the political climate we currently find ourselves. They mention tabloids voicing ideas of concentration camps in order to deal with the aids epidemic of the 80s (when V for Vendetta was written), now we have a climate where the US are seperating families they don’t want living within their borders and where, in the UK, the atmosphere is such that everyone is turning on each other dependent on whether you voted Remain or Leave and the disinformation we are fed from our politicians and media is such that once you delve into the content of V for Vendetta itself, its not difficult to see that the world Moore and Lloyd have created becoming a reality, even without a third World War to create it.

It’s literally impossible to not hear the broadcasts of Fate ending with the line “Make Britain Great again”, and not immediately think of Brexit, UKIP, Farage. Of course it was Margaret Thatchers electoral campaign slogan long before the European Referendum was even a twinkling in the eyes of our politicians, and of course V was written as a response to Thatchers Britain.

Very early into the book V blows up the Houses of Parliament whilst reciting the nursery rhyme “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November”, as the events take place between 5th November 1997 and 5th November 1998. The Houses of Parliament, underneath where Guy Fawkes was discovered protecting barrels of gunpowder intended to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I as part of the Gunpowder Plot. My thoughts during this moment in the book turned to how we see those events now, I always felt the way I was taught about it at school was a little confusing and my memory of those lessons is very shady, however, I wonder how relevant it is now? Halloween seems to be the focal Autumnal celebration now and Bonfire Night has fallen down the pecking order, though when I was a kid it was most certainly the other way round. Kids would pull Guy’s along on their sisters toy prams or go-karts and call out “Penny for the Guy” and families and neighbourhoods would have big gatherings to let off fireworks, now those firework displays are extravagant but authority run affairs and I wonder, has its lost its meaning? Also, what was its meaning, was we supposed to be celebrating the discovery and failure of the plot or is it a celebration of a right to protest? I’m not entirely sure it would have been i. originally allowed or ii. celebrated quite as long as it were (from 1605 to present) if it was the latter, but it does seem to me that Alan Moore wonders this very thing in the article printed in the back of the book.

There’s alot of uncomfortable moments within these pages, the treatment of Evey throughout the book borders on abuse, she eventually takes up the mantle of V during the closing moments, but her journey to get there is rather tortuous. First she’s rescued from an attempted rape by V, he takes her back to his “Shadow Gallery” but provides her with no answers and it does feel like she’s kept prisoner by her grattitude towards him saving her, she then offers to help his cause and is put in a position where her youth and sexuality is used in order to lure a bishop whom V has an agenda against into a false sense of security.

Later she questions his methods, unhappy that she has been used in order for V to kill the Lilliman (the bishop) and is then abandoned by V. She finds herself in the company of Gordon Deitrich who takes her in, the pair live together for some months and eventually form a relationship that is short lived when Gordon is murdered. She tries to take revenge on Gordon’s murderer but is caught before she can enact her plan and imprisoned and tortured for information on V, which she refuses to give. When ultimately, after months of physical and mental torture, a threat is made on her life, she states she’d rather lose her life than her beliefs, it is revealed that it had been V doing this to her all along in order for her to learn the ordeal he was put through at the hands of the people who ran the Larkhill Resettlement Camp where he had been experimented on (and where the people he has murdered all worked).

It’s during this time that I really began to wonder just what V is up to, everything that comes from his mouth is hidden in riddles, rhymes and quotes, he gives the impression that he wants to overthrow the current government and bring about his view of Anarchy (wherein people rule themselves), but his actions are born of revenge and mirror those of the very people he is fighting against. The character, and our worlds adoptation of his mask, would have you believe he is a freedom fighter, but he himself is not above imprisoning, torturing and killing people to get whatever it is he wants, not to mention him spying on people using the governments own monitoring systems.

Once the bigger elements of V’s plans are put into place there are some really excellent moments, during this period The Eyes (video surveillance), The Ears (audio surveillance) and The Mouth (radio broadcasts) are all nullified and the people of Britain are given three days where they are able to do whatever they please. Of course, this leads to rioting and looting, but there’s one moment amongst all of this, where a young girl, out delivering newspapers, utters the word “bollocks” out loud, her parents are around to hear her and she knows that The Ears cannot hear her, she can’t get into trouble, and feeling free she begins to repeat the word louder and louder, amongst all of the oppression prior to this moment and the chaos that comes from V’s actions, this one little girl has that moment we all have when we’re younger where we suddenly realise that we can swear outside of our parents earshot and not get in to trouble for it. Maybe thats Freedom.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

Book Club get together week again and for September we had been reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch.

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” is about an orphan who becomes a thief in a city where certain rules are in place, the key one for this tale is the “Secret Peace” whereby the nobility are protected by the gangs of thieves that operate within the city of Camorr. The tale is split between two narratives, one being the core plot about Locke Lamora as an adult alongside his group of Gentlemen Bastards who do indeed break this Secret Peace but do so in a manner where said nobility hide this fact due to the shame of being led down a path of deceit due to the share level of plotting and planning that Locke provides to his small group of thieves. The second narrative covers the training of four members of this group (Locke, Jean and the twins Calo and Galo Sanza), there is a fifth member, Bug, but he is only introduced in the former narrative where he is a Gentlemen Bastard in training under the tutorship of the other four members.

At its heart, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a mafia story. I say this as the setting feels like Lynch has taken influences from Renaissance era Italy, and also because there are a number of gangs but all of them have their own territory and all answer one boss, their Garrista, who takes a cut of everything each gang steals, though the breaking of the Secret Peace by Locke and his companions isn’t known outside of the Gentlemen Bastards as they put up a front, only delivering minimal (but believable) amounts to their Garrista, Capa Barsavi.

However, during one particular scheme, for which the Gentlemen Bastards look to earn tens of thousands of “Crowns”, things begin to unravel.

It’s at this point I have to admit that I struggled with the first half of the book. It was laying a lot of ground work, introducing the world, its rules and characters, whilst also trying to weave Locke’s plot to steal a huge amount of money from a noble, Don Lorenzo Salvara, and his wife. It’s not that these moments were particularly dull, its more that there was so much plotting and Lynch seems to be taking great pride in describing minute details of characters clothing that it often felt like you weren’t making any progress through the story itself. But as people begin to figure out who Locke is and begin to plot against him behind his back, and as things begin to fall apart from Capa Barsavi at the hands of the “Grey King” and we start to see characters for who they really are, everything begins to move along at break neck pace.

This all comes to a peak when things go from bad to worse for the Gentlemen Bastards and the reader is left feeling, much as the troupe do, like there’s no way out. Fortunately for Scott Lynch he’s written a character here that (ad-libbed) “works best when he doesn’t know what he’s doing”, meaning that there’s always an opening for Locke and co to escape peril, though it goes without saying that, during a particularly exhausting moment in the tale, not everyone makes it through leading to some very heavily revenge filled closing chapters.

The thing I enjoyed most of all though was the city of Camorr, it felt grimy and lived in and the people we got to meet along the way really helped flesh it out. The Salvara’s were very naive throughout, despite Locke feeling like he was struggling to fool Dona Sophia Salvara, whilst any time we spent with The Falconer there was always a sense of dread, that things were going to go awry, but one moment that really stuck out was during Locke’s first ever plot whilst he was still being trained by Father Chains. He had been tasked with stealing a dead body to provide to some Black Alchemists as they had no legitimate way of obtaining a cadaver, though once he had managed this particular task, he couldn’t help himself but increase the risk of the task at hand in order to obtain a higher reward (in this case, money) and feigned having his purse snatched (by one of the Sanza’s in disguise), but the way in which the people in the district rallied around him (as he was feigning being an apprentice of one of the churches) and provided him with money (and had the local authorities try and find the purse snatcher/Sanza twin) really drove home that these people, despite not having the best of lives, really valued each other and, for me, that gave real character to the city as a whole alongside Lynch’s excellent descriptions of each district that Lamora or Jean Tannen visited.