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Georgiana89 (London)

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Baptism of Fire (The Witcher Book 3)
Baptism of Fire (The Witcher Book 3)
Price: £5.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good read but felt surprisingly generic in places compared to earlier volumes, 24 Aug. 2015
I went straight onto this novel as soon as a finished a Time of Contempt. The opening few chapters were very impressive, with a tense introduction of a new character and a clever and compelling approach to explaining events that have occurred between the previous book and this one.

However, most of the main plot, ie. the one focused on Geralt, who finally gets some real airtime in his own series after being rather absent for the first two full novels, revolves around a fairly standard "group of adventurers on a quest." There are some interesting characters with interesting dynamics, and lively events, but despite some twists and turns, it felt mostly rather generic for a series that tends to put an interesting spin on traditional fantasy tales. There was also a frustrating sense that after pages and pages, once I reached the end, little progress had been made.

The parts focused on Yennefer and the other sorceresses were more original and caught my imagination and attention rather more. I was in two minds about the Ciri bits. I'm always a fan of dark characters, but I'm hoping she doesn't become too broken and beyond redemption.

There were some great moments in this, and I enjoyed it overall, but it wasn't as good as its immediate predecessor, and for the second half, felt like a bit of a filler volume, getting the characters into place ready for the (presumable) drama of the next installment. I'll definitely read that (once it's finally been translated into English) and I'm looking forward to it, but not desperately awaiting it like I am some fantasy sequels.

Time of Contempt (Witcher 2)
Time of Contempt (Witcher 2)
by Andrzej Sapkowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Strongest installment so far in an interesting fantasy series, 24 Aug. 2015
Despite feeling that Blood of Elves has been a relatively slow start to the proper series (after two very good short story collections), I started this sequel as soon as I finished it. I got the feeling that the main plot was just starting as the earlier book drew to a frustrating close, and I turned out to be right. More or less from page one, this is much faster moving, with both action sequences and intriguing hints of prophecies and conspiracies. Everything felt a bit more fleshed out, with more characters, world-building and background.
There's still a surprising lack of Geralt, the nominal protagonist, for large swathes of the book, but he does get some good scenes, and the chapters with more of a focus on Ciri are a fascinating exercise in character development as she grows darker and more broken. A few sections were from the perspective of more minor characters (or in one particularly interesting example, the main villain) and these were also well done.
I generally wasn't wowwed by the prose - not sure whether I should blame the author or the translator for that - but it didn't notably take away from my overall enjoyment. Definitely worth a read.

Blood of Elves
Blood of Elves
by Andrzej Sapkowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars First real novel in the series, with a different character focus and a bit of an introductory feel., 24 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Blood of Elves (Paperback)
After two collections of short stories, the Witcher series changes approach with this installment, a full-length novel that sets up a story arc that continues through the rest of the books.

Even if you're not a big short story fan, It's pretty essential to have read at least the final two stories in Sword of Destiny before launching into this, otherwise (as I did on my first attempt at reading this) you'll find yourself pretty confused as the novel launches into a bewildering array of characters, places, plots and terms.

The focus is on Cirilla (Ciri) an orphaned princess connected to Geralt, the titular Witcher (a sort of supernaturally enhanced monster-slayer) by complicated bonds of fate, destiny and plot. With the whole continent at war and seemingly everyone of any significance hunting for the girl, Geralt takes her away to his Witcher castle and starts to train her.

The short stories tended to focus on a single adventure with a specific monster and/or emotional crisis that needed to be resolved. Here, we start to get much more of an understanding of what Witchers do in their quiet times, how their organisation works, and how the world fits together. Somewhat surprisingly, we get to see relatively little from Geralt's perspective. For most of the book, events are seen through Ciri's eyes. It works well, but can be a little jarring if you came to know and love the character in the short stories, especially considering that despite the quite complex plots, these are fundamentally character-driven works. For large swathes of the book, Geralt is "off-screen" altogether, as the responsibility of caring for and training Ciri moves to Yennifer, Geralt's ex and probable true love, but oddly, these were some of my favourite scenes.

For most of the book, I got the sense that the author hadn't quite got used to writing full-length novels, as the story was told in a very episodic way, almost like short stories in their own right - it's not a bad thing, it just made for slightly odd pacing, with a day or two told in a huge level of detail, before the plot suddenly raced ahead. It was a relatively slow start, with the book ending just as the plot really started to get underway.

Overall, I enjoyed this enough to carry on with the series (which improves from here on in) and I would recommend it, but it felt very much like an introductory volume, which is slightly surprising when it's technically book three.

Sword of Destiny
Sword of Destiny
Price: £10.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable collection of short stories and an essential read before the main novels of the series, 2 July 2015
This review is from: Sword of Destiny (Kindle Edition)
First things first - though it's the fourth (and currently most recent) book in the Witcher series to be published in English, it was the second book to be written in the original Polish, and chronologically, very clearly sits between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves. I've just started reading the latter - the first proper novel - and I'd have been extremely confused for the first two chapters without the background provided in these stories.

Like the Last Wish, this volume consists of several short stories following the Witcher, Geralt, as he deals with monsters and his own emotions and scrupples. Many of the stories here are still loosely tied to either fairy tales or traditional legends, but on the whole, the connection is a little less concrete this time around, which makes the plots feel less forced. They also follow on from each other better - the real point of interest is Geralt and his friendships and love affairs and self-doubts, rather than the "monster of the chapter," format that dominated the previous installment.

Like most short story collections, some are better than others, but I enjoyed them all, and loved some. Geralt's on-off love affair with the sorceress Yennefer, introduced in the final story of the earlier collection, is a key theme running through most of the tales. There was a surprising degree of emotion and heartache for what is in many ways a very masculine set of stories. The last two stories, in particular, take a turn for the dramatic, and start to set up what appears to be the main plot of the novel series.

Unlikely my slightly guarded recommendation for the Last Wish (which, with the exception of the final story, you could probably skip without missing any of the wider plot), I'd wholeheartedly recommend this. It functions as a fun and sometimes moving collection of fantasy stories, as a coherent piece of character development and worldbuilding, and as an essential lead-in to the novels.

The Last Wish
The Last Wish
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great introduction to the world of the Witcher, but some flaws in this first installment, 2 July 2015
This review is from: The Last Wish (Kindle Edition)
Like most English readers, I came across this series of books via the computer game set in the same world, helped along by a heavy recommendation from my husband. The first thing to point out, for anyone who isn't clear, is that the books predate the games - this isn't some money-grabbing "book of the game," which tend to be awful.

It's a collection of short stories, each of which is a subversion of a classic fairytale - a version of Beauty and the Beast where the beautiful woman is the real monster, for example. These are artfully combined with elements of Eastern European mythology - lots of Strigas and Rusalkas and things - and an imaginative fantasy world.

They all centre around Geralt, a magically and physically enhanced "Witcher" who's job it is to deal with monsters - sometimes by killing them, sometimes by more diplomatic means.

I'm generally not a big fan of short stories, and while I enjoyed these, they suffered a little from the problem I often have with them - variable quality, and not enough time to become really invested in the characters or the plot before moving on to the next tale. Still, as they all featured the same hero and some other recurring characters and as they worked together to build up my understanding of the world, I enjoyed them more than most short story collections. It's perhaps telling that my favourite was the titular "The Last Wish" which was longer than the others, and gave the plot more room to develop.

In places, I got the impression that something was being lost in translation from the original Polish - moments that were seemingly intended to be profound or hilarious just didn't quite make sense (though other funny or deep moments managed to hit the spot).

I've since read the second collection of short stories "The Sword of Destiny" which, thanks to longer stories, a less rigourous application of the "each story is based on a fairytale" rule, and more continuity between stories, I enjoyed much more. I've just started the first full-length book, which gives itself space for more character development, world-building and extended plots, and which so far, I'm really loving. I'd therefore strongly recommend this as an introduction to the world, even though, as a standalone, it's an enjoyable fantasy read, but nothing remarkable.

Shogun: The First Novel of the Asian saga: A Novel of Japan
Shogun: The First Novel of the Asian saga: A Novel of Japan
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive recreation of a time and place, but quite hard work, 2 July 2015
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First things first, it's impossible to read this and not admire the effort, research and skill that clearly went into it. On this basis, there's no way I could give it less than 4 stars. The author skillfully combines all the worldbuilding of a fantasy novel with all the detailed research of a historical novel set in a time and place your average English reader is more familiar with. I felt like I learnt a lot about 16th century Japanese people, politics and culture, a subject I previously knew little about. The food, the places and the traditions are lovingly described, so you can both vividly imagine them and long to experience them yourself.

There were also some very good dramatic, romantic and tense moments, and the seemingly main character, an Englishman marooned in Japan, worked really well as both a genuinely sympathetic figure and a great lens for showing the cultural differences and mutual incomprehension between the two countries at the time.

When I picked up the book, I was a little nervous that it would either be a sort of boy's own adventure in which a plucky Englishman saved/educated the barbarians, or else an ultra-romanticized view of Japan. I was relieved that it was actually very well balanced, with each "side" regarding the other as uncivilised, and the narrative making clear that there are good and bad points about each culture, and good and bad people too.

On the more negative side, although I generally prefer to read something I can get my teeth into, this felt a little over-long. Between the huge page count and the dense and complex plot, it took me longer to read than anything I've read in several years, despite the fact that I regularly devour both heavy literary novels and fantasy doorstoppers. And to add insult to injury, after all those hundreds of pages, all those chapters that describe a hawking session or a trip to a spring or the intricacies of a family in loving detail, the book suddenly stops, and the outcome of the final, climactic battle is summed up in a single paragraph. I assumed the other books described as parts of "the Asian saga" were direct sequels, but apparently they are just works loosely linked by the theme of westerners coming to Japan at different times in history.

My other problem was the double-edged sword of recreating a culture that values honourably suicide over survival, and promotes absolute loyalty to feudal lords, right up to the point where you seem able to stab them in the back with total impunity. On the one hand, it was fascinating to read about, but on the other, it made it difficult to really understand or engage with the characters.

Similarly, the constant plotting and scheming was intriguing to some degree, but there was ultimately so much of it that it was hard to root for or be impressed by any one character, particularly as they had all done awful things. I struggled to see what made the man who ultimately comes out on top any different from his rivals, either in terms of morals or of cunning.

Overall, while I did enjoy it, I think this was a book I admired more than I loved. I'd still recommend it to people, but you need to be prepared to put in the effort to get through the length, get in the unfamiliar mindset of the characters and culture, and keep track of all the triple-crossing that's going on.

Bad Science
Bad Science
Price: £5.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A real education in the scientific method and critical thinking - but entertaining too, 17 May 2015
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This review is from: Bad Science (Kindle Edition)
Having studied biology and chemistry at A-level, while I'm far from an expert, I'm probably more knowledgeable about science than the average person on the street. And I'm certainly not one to panic about whatever the Daily Mail's decided to claim causes cancer this week, or to put my faith in homeopathic remedies, so I felt like this book might be preaching to the converted. Instead, I found it a bit of a revelation just how unscrupulous some providers or both traditional and alternative remedies can be and just how bad huge swathes of science journalism actually are.

This is far from a ranty polemic. While the author clearly has his own views, he puts his faith in research rather than opinion, and subjects everything from cancer treatments to detox regimes to the same level of scrutiny, starting from the principal that properly conducted experiments are the bedrock of all medicine. Throughout, he really shows his working. By the end, if you've been paying attention, you'll not just have learnt about specific examples of "bad science," but learnt what a good study should look like and the tricks people use. This isn't rooted in cynicism - far from it. The author is willing to give everything a chance, as long as there's strong research to back it up. And as a result, he scrutinises both medical journals and magazine articles and carries out his own bits of mini-research.

This was all very compelling. It's nice to read a book that actually teaches you something and that combines this with a bit of humour and some good storytelling. I felt that this should be taught in schools as part of both science and critical thinking.

I had a few complaints: though he was generally balanced and likable, the author occasionally came across as a little smug, and showed far too much disdain towards "humanities graduates." The book was slightly overlong and repeated a few key points over and over. Though I mostly enjoyed it, I found some parts to be a bit of a slog.

Still, this is a must read for anyone who realises that newspaper headlines about disease and the claims of some alternative medicine purveyors seem equally dodgy, but don't yet have the tools or knowledge to pick these arguments apart.

A God in Ruins
A God in Ruins
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A simpler, but ultimately better, book than its predecessor, 17 May 2015
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This review is from: A God in Ruins (Hardcover)
I had extremely mixed feelings about the first book in this series, Life after Life (my review here -, which is based around the idea of Ursula, an upper-middle class English woman born in 1910, living and dying over and over again, making small changes with have huge effects each time. In my review of that book, I wrote:

"The book certainly had some good points. The heroine, Ursula, was likeable and well-developed. Her family, servants and friends were fleshed out and believable. The scenes set in the early 1910s and 1920s created a wonderful sense of time and place. The writing is great throughout, and on the whole, it made me want to keep reading. Interestingly, all of these would have been just as powerful with a straightforward linear narrative and despite the reincarnation theme being the book's major selling point (and certainly the thing that mainly attracted me) I actually thought that on the whole, it was the weakest part of the book."

In effect, my wish for the same writing and characters only with a more straightforward narrative is more or less what we get here.

Life after Life ends in an ambiguous and confusing way, that's provoked lots of discussion on book blogs and forums. Ursula kills Hitler (which has been hinted at throughout as being the reason for her constantly getting a second chance) but is immediately killed by his guards and born again once more. This time, she focusses on ensuring that both her beloved brother Teddy and his childhood sweetheart Nancy make it through the war (in every other life that's lasted beyond 1945, one or the other of them has died) and have a chance at happiness together. This could be seen as the culmination of her lives' work, or it could be seen (as the final chapter hints) that her cycle of reincarnation is genuinely neverending. Nonetheless, taking the book at first value, Ursula has placed saving her brother and his girlfriend over killing Hitler. So you've got to hope they make a go of their lives. A God in Ruins shows them spectacularly failing to do so, and as a result is utterly heartwrenching, both in and of itself, and with the context of the first book's ending at the back of your mind.

On the surface at least, this is a much more conventional tale than its predecessor. There's no playing around with Teddy dying and being reborn, just a beautifully told tale of his life from a boy in the twenties to an old man in the present day, with a particular focus on his life as a bomber pilot during WW2. It was a delight to return to the familiar characters, but this time around, without the reassurance that "it will all be better next life," I found it far easier to get emotionally invested in their fates. That said, it's far from a straightforward linear narrative. Most notably, the timeline is all jumbled up, with a chapter set in 1943 followed by one set in 1925, one in 1980, one in 1947 and so on. More subtly, within chapters and even within paragraphs and sentences, a narrator so omniscient that he'd have given a Victorian novelist pause reflects on earlier happenings and tells us things that will happen in the future. The same events take on different meanings depending on whether we are shown them as part of the past, the present or the future, and this is all beautifully handled, much more so than the resurrection in Life after Life.

And yet, in a way, the relatively conventional telling of the story is itself intriguing in the light of the earlier book. Speculation ran through my mind: which of Ursula's lives was this? The one from the end of Life after Life, or something else? If Teddy dies, will he start his life again too? And what happens when Ursula dies? In the earlier book, its as though time restarts, but here, when she dies in her fifties (and is presumably reborn) people in this timeline carry on without her. It all got quite wonderfully mind-spinning. And that's before you get to the final twist, which I was 50/50 between seeing as a cop out and seeing as total genius. Either way, it left me in tears.

Like the first book, this is ultimately about war and about family. Teddy, veteran of tens of dangerous raids, had almost reconciled himself to dying in the war, so living in peace proves a challenge. It left me thinking of the words we hear every Remembrance Day "we will not grow old as them who are left grow old. Age will not weary us, nor the years condemn," and with the chapter in 1993 called "we that are left," this verse must have been on the author's mind too. Poor old Teddy, more or less the hero of the first book, remains a lovely, if slightly dull, man, but gets thoroughly wearied and condemned. But while it reminds us that there is no such thing as a happy ending, there are touching, lovely scenes in amongst all the pathos.

The narrative structure is fascinating. The writing is beautiful. The characters and any number of times and places are artfully created. And the research that must have gone into recreating the experiences of a bomber pilot is truly impressive. Overall, a definite 5 star read, keeping all the strengths of its predecessor and benefiting from a change of approach, though be aware that it's really quite depressing in parts. In addition, while its structure is clever on its own terms, once I saw the big picture, it didn't gel well with the first book - I don't want to give spoilers, but this book's ending and that book's ending just don't work well together. Even so, this is a must read if you loved book one or even, like me, enjoyed it but found certain aspects frustrating. It's also worth a look if you like stories of WW2, books that give an overview of the twentieth century, or just artful storytelling.

Granny Was a Buffer Girl
Granny Was a Buffer Girl
by Berlie Doherty
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A very personal read for me, 9 May 2015
I'd always meant to read this book as a young teenager - it was heavily promoted as my school - but somehow never got round to it. I spotted a copy in a charity shop last week and dived into it in a fit of homesick nostalgia.

This felt like a very personal read for me. It's set in Sheffield, where I grew up, which isn't a place I've often seen represented in fiction. And when I have, it's tended to be a grim vision of strikes and/or post-industrial malaise. This book portrays the city as somewhere with a proud industrial heritage and sense of community, but just as importantly, a place where the town segues into the dramatic countryside of the Peak District and that has beautiful views from its seven hills.

It wasn't just the setting that got to me either. My Grandma, a Yorkshirewoman born and bred, died last Christmas, and while I don't think she'd been a buffer girl per se, she did work in the steel factories from the age of fourteen, so I wanted to read about the titular Granny to remind me of her.

From the title, I was sort of expecting a fairly gritty tale of life in industrial Sheffield in the early half of the twentieth century, but (almost to my relief) that wasn't really what I got. Instead, this is a collection of ten chapters that to all extents and purposes are individual short stories. Each of them gives a snapshot from the life of one of Jess, the nominal main character's, relatives, and each deals with the broad theme of love, be it romantic, familial, or platonic. This structure reminded me of a teenage version of one of my all time favorite novels, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and if it never quite reached those heights, there were some really touching moments. I was on the verge of tears at several points, but I think a lot of that was due to the personal resonance. I'm not sure it would hit the average reader as hard.

The history, and the changing times, fashions and mores made for an interesting read. Rather strangely, the book was written in 1986, the year I was born, so the "present day" sections felt almost as historical as the bits set in the twenties or fifties. I can't quite decide if that added to or detracted from the book's appeal.

I have to say there were a few things that sat a little uneasily with me as a modern reader. The implication that it was touching that a woman stayed with her emotionally abusive husband. The suggestion that Jess was overly cruel in pushing aside a slightly predatory OAP. The idea in the titular story (probably my favourite) that the "granny" - then a girl in her late teens - did the right thing by immediately settling for marriage to the boy next door after being rejected by the man of her dreams.

Overall, this is a bit of an oddity, but worth a look, particularly if you have any connection to the area and/or a particular interest in twentieth century social history.

Ignite Me: Mafi Teen #3 (International Edition)
Ignite Me: Mafi Teen #3 (International Edition)
by Tahereh Mafi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.46

4.0 out of 5 stars strong end to a great series, but not without its issues, 6 May 2015
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From about halfway through Book Two to about three-quarters of the way through this third and final instalment, I felt really quite in love with this series.

I loved our heroine, Juliette’s, increased physical/supernatural strength and emotional stability, and I loved the way that Warner became ever more nuanced and likable, while still maintaining an edge. I liked the way the emotional rollercoaster kicked in from page one and barely let up, and I liked both the scenes of restrained sexual tension and the really quite seductive more conventionally steamy ones. On balance, I think I liked the fact that, in homage to Juliette’s improved mental state, the author almost completely abandoned the strikethroughs and flights of fantasy, though part of me slightly missed the weird prose that made this book so unique.

So in summary, this is basically a fitting end to a great series, and if you’ve enjoyed things so far, you should definitely read this installment, though I preferred book two (5 stars) on balance.

That said, I did have some quibbles. The first was the extent to which crucial things were left unresolved. The most obvious was the lack of even a token explanation for where people’s powers had come from, but others including things like why Adam has a tattoo of the bird Juliette always dreamt about. And what the hell did Warner had to do to convince his father he was suitable to head Sector 45? Seriously, his father mentions how he did something awful, and Juliette never asks him about it.

Secondly, plot has never been at the forefront of this series. Character development, romance, and emotional intensity have always taken precedence, and that’s basically fine with me, it’s just the sort of series it is. But I would have liked to have seen a bit more action here, perhaps by speeding up some of the scenes of everyone training/sitting around emoting, and slowing down the final confrontation.

My biggest complaint, however, was probably the way the dealt with the love interests. Let me be 100% clear. It’s not the outcome that bothered me (which was 100% in line with what I wanted to see) but the way that she released Juliette from having to make a difficult choice. Rather than either having to break a nice guy’s heart and/or by having to come to terms with her attraction to someone who’s done terrible things, she made Adam significantly less pleasant than he’s ever seemed before and she attempted to explain away literally every bad thing Warner has ever done. Some of these explanations were clever, and were necessary to make him an at all palatable love interest, but I’d preferred that a little more darkness had been maintained. And while we’re on the subject of characters, in a world of nuance, the cartoonishly evil Anderson felt a little out of place.

I’ve lingered on these faults because it’s a shame to see such a genuinely good and potentially great series not quite fulfil its potential, but they didn’t actively detract from my enjoyment, and I’d still strongly recommend this.

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