The many and varied reasons why everyone should read A Song of Fire and Ice

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A Song of Fire and Ice (more commonly known as Game of Thrones) has been a big part of my reading life over the last year, and I sadly finished the fifth book a couple of weeks ago. For the present there are no more, and not likely to be for the foreseeable future. I read on a random blog that Martin was only going to start writing the next volume in January, so it looks like another five year wait. Le sigh.

Realistically if I were to write a review of A Dance with Dragons, it would consist of me scrawling ‘AAAH’ and ‘IT’S AMAZING’ across the screen.  A Dance with Dragons cannot really be taken as a stand alone book; it is meaningless unless you have read the rest of the series. Also if you are unfamiliar with the whole Game of Thrones world it is impossible for me not to reveal spoilers for the earlier books. There are five books currently, detailing the fight for power over the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The cast of characters and their various feuds, battles and allegiances is dizzying, which is why I recommend reading the books one after the other without stopping. I read the first one last August, and although I read other stuff the only significant break I had was between the fourth and fifth book.

Anyway I said I was going to give you reasons why you should make this massive commitment, and reasons I have!

1.       No character is entirely good or completely bad

Game of Thrones begins with Ned Stark lopping off the head of a teenage boy, and as a character he’s about as moral and noble as you’re going to get. However, even the characters that seem totally evil are hard to hate once Martin gives you a glimpse inside their heads. In the last volume I even found myself sympathising with Queen Cersei (I KNOW!). By allowing different characters to narrate the story, a method made popular by Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker, Martin ensures that no one view point is presented. This is in keeping with his obvious intention to present a full history of a political conflict between many different factions.

2.      Martin is inspired by history

A Song of Fire and Ice is a medieval fantasy based in a fictitious world, but inspired by the wars, betrayals and political intrigue of real history. The medieval period has often been an inspiration for fantasy, but Martin wanted to more realism into the genre, and focus more on political intrigue rather than magic. He also wanted to show the gritty, hard reality of medieval life. The Wall was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, and Martin was also inspired by the history of the U.K, such as the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses.

3.    There are some really great female characters

Women are relegated to the status of property in Westeros; raped, sold, married, murdered, brutalised, and mocked. It is hard to read sometimes, but I guess that’s how things used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of this, there are some really interesting and awesome female characters trying to make their way in a Patriarchal society. My favourite is Arya, who manages to escape while her more refined sister Sansa is trapped. There has been controversy about the treatment of women in Westeros, especially since the TV series, but the issue hasn’t stopped me enjoying the books.

4.         The books are unpredictable

In Lord of the Rings, it is obvious that Frodo is never going to die and that he is going to succeed with his quest. In A Song of Fire and Ice nothing is certain and no character is safe. This once led me to cry out loud with shock and disbelief on a packed commuter train.

So you’ve heard my reasons, and really the best advice I can really give you (this may be odd coming from the writer of a book blog) is to watch the HBO TV series. The first season has just come out on DVD and the second will be shown starting April 1st. If you love it, as I did, then the books are definitely for you.



Don’t go back to Pemberley.

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today feels like the first day of spring. I may be being overly optimistic, the beginning of March is a little early after all, but it feels like the time of reading books wrapped up in bed is coming to an end for this season. One of my best memories from last summer is devouring almost the whole of One Day sitting under a tree in the park, before going for a leisurely al fresco meal. It’s not often that Sheffield feels like being on holiday and I want those days again. Last weekend I finally finished reading A Dance with Dragons and I feel bereft. I know that I face another five years of waiting before the next book comes out, and I’m FURIOUS that I’ll lose the momentum I’ve built up reading the whole series at once. In danger of letting my reading lapse in favour of becoming George R.R.Martin’s full-time stalker, I needed a proper pick-me-up of a book, something that would stop me googling the price of airfare to New Mexico. So I made the mistake of going back to Pemberley.

I am a huge Austen fan, I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was twelve. I did not in any way appreciate it at the time, but I’ve read it countless times since. In fact I’ve read all Austen’s novels multiple times, a side effect of having to study her at university. Check me out, my expensive education may have been pointless and ultimately resulted in me being in debt forever, but I sure know my Austen. A hollow victory perhaps. Due to my love for Austen, and my snobbish Lit student attitude problem, I tend to be dismissive about sequels. I don’t want to go back to Pemberley; I don’t want to know anything about Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. Austen was wise enough to leave things at the altar; she knew that no marriage could be perfect. I also suspect that Austen realised that the excitement of her novels results largely from the uncertainty that came before engagement; once a young lady had made a good marriage she was settled and her place in society largely secured. And Austen’s young ladies all make fabulous marriages.

I tried, and failed, to make it through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and have distant memories of a terrible trashy novel I read as a teenager where Elizabeth was barren and Darcy distant. So I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of Death Comes to Pemberley. It is at least, I thought to myself, an original idea, and it’s written by P.D. James so it can’t be totally awful. And it wasn’t; it just wasn’t great. The novel centres on a murder in the woodlands of Pemberley, which involves all of our favourite characters from the original novel. As this is a mystery story I don’t want to give spoilers, but I can say that I had no real issues with the plot. It was a perfectly well written, serviceable murder mystery. It was just a bit dull, missing the spark of social intrigue that makes Austen so readable. The novel is 300 pages long, and nothing happens for the first 100 except setting up for a ball that never happens. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in my opinion was the murder happening the night before the ball instead of during it. Lydia staggering hysterical into a ballroom full of the cream of society, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered would have been an excellent scene. Alas, it was not to be. Fellow Austen fans will be relieved to know that everything is sorted out fine in the end, and Elizabeth even manages to get Darcy to open up about his feelings. Yeah right, like that would ever have happened.

I have never read anything by P.D. James, so I have nothing to compare Death Comes to Pemberley with, but I’m going to assume that her success is well deserved. However I think that imitating Austen is a step too far for even the most accomplished writer. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I think everyone should resist the urge to go back to Pemberley. It never turns out well.

TV free evenings with The Tiger’s Wife

February 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been making a huge effort to turn the TV off lately, and it’s making me feel calm. Last night I sat in bed with my cat friend and read 80 pages of A Dance with Dragons, and it was epic. I’m starting to feel a little disgusted with George R. R. Martin though; how can you be so cruel to your characters?

Over last weekend I read The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, to have a break from all the horror. Perhaps a novel about the death of a beloved Grandparent set across the backdrop of the Balkans conflict was not the best choice, but I’m think I’m pretty desensitised after Game of Thrones. I love folk tales and fairy tales, so I knew I was really going to enjoy Obreht’s first novel.

I don’t usually say this, in fact I usually say the opposite, but I think this book should have been longer. It was an epic undertaking, so the novel itself should be an epic. Another 300 pages would have given Obreht more time to flesh out Natalia, as it was I felt she was lost amongst the story she was telling and I didn’t feel a connection with her. The novel felt unfinished, and although I loved the stories with a story, the main narrative strand was drowned by them. I kept reading for the parts about the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man. I loved the clever, subtle little connection Obreht dropped in between them. It was blink and you miss it, but one of those things that marks Obreht out as a great writer. However, although I enjoyed the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man as stand alone stories, I didn’t really see how they connected with the overall plot. I was expecting to find out something about Natalia’s Grandfather, but instead these were just things that had happened to him. Similarly, Natalia’s journey to collect his possessions from the clinic where he died was a bit of an anti-climax. I’m guessing the purpose was for her to discover that his copy of the Jungle Book was missing, therefore confirming the truth of the Deathless Man. It didn’t feel like enough of an ending though, and I finished the book profoundly unsatisfied. The writing was great and Obreht’s imagination is extraodinary, but I wanted more.

I know there’s been some controversy over The Tiger’s Wife winning the Orange Prize. I can’t really comment because I haven’t read any of the other books on the shortlist, but surely we should all be happy to see a young writer succeed rather than debating her worth. Also, she will make excellent use of the prize money and publicity that more established writers are perhaps not in such need of. I genuinely think that Obreht will go on to write many great things, and I’ll definitely look out for her next novel.

It’s been so cold this week, and we even had some snow. I’ve been reading A Dance with Dragons again, but slowly. Somehow I want to make it last forever.

Winter is still coming: A Dance with Dragons progress report

January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

After almost three weeks I am 430 pages into A Dance With Dragons; slow progress but I am reading consistently. I had a job interview last week that didn’t go too well and right now I want to curl up into a ball. It was my fourth job interview in the last year and although I know that the industry I want to get into is super competitive and jobs are scarce, the rejection still stings. The grey, dreary weather isn’t helping my mood, and it’s making me wonder if I’m craving fantasy because of how dissatisfied I am with real life.

So far, A Dance With Dragons is surpassing my expectations. It is unbelievably epic. I’d say to anyone who is currently halfway through the series- you have to keep going, just to get to read this book! Game of Thrones has to be the most brilliant series of books I’ve ever encountered, just for the insane level of detail and plotting. I can’t even imagine what George R. R. Martin’s office must look like. How does he keep track of it all?

Winter is coming!

January 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ll begin with a cliché; wow, how time flies! Autumn is my favourite season, and I’ve really been enjoying how mild the weather has been the last three months. Unfortunately today it is wet and windy, and somehow, January. With it being the new year, amidst plans and promises to be more productive, my mind has flown back towards this blog that I began at the beginning of October. I’ve read plenty of books since then.

I was reading Perfume by Suskind when I started the blog, and I’m still not sure how I felt about it. I was torn between wanting to give Grenouille a good slap and hiding under the covers from his creepy face. Possibly, having seen the film, my experience of the book was a little spoiled. I knew what was going to happen and there was no suspense. My favourite character of the novel was Baldini. I found all the little details about the perfume business in France and Baldini’s petty little professional jealousies really interesting. Then Grenouille goes off and lives in a cave for a year and I completely lost interest.

Over Halloween I dipped into some seasonally appropriate books; We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill. The Shirley Jackson was a re-read, she’s one of my favourite authors and I feel sad that I’ve probably read almost everything that she’s written. I still mournfully scan charity shop shelves looking for some obscure out of print treasure. Sometimes I think that my love of Halloween comes from the sort of books I love to read; twisty Victorian Gothic masterpieces and weird, sad novels about loneliness and madness.

As the ghostly days waned and Christmas lights started to appear in the streets I returned to my current reading obsession, which began back in August in Estonia. The title of the post probably gives away that I am talking about Game of Thrones. I admit that I’d never even heard of the series until all the publicity over the HBO series (which is amazing); I tend to have my head in the sand over anything published after 1960. I devoured the first book in the series on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, and by November I was ready to start on the fourth. I don’t want to give any spoilers, because I would hate to ruin anyone’s experience of reading these amazing books, but I was expecting to be disappointed by A Feast for Crows. The Amazon reviews were largely ‘blah’, with a lot people saying that the series had lost it’s way. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The book set up an incredible amount of ‘oh my god’ cliffhangers, and left me desperate to read the next book (which is my favourite Christmas present). The series is slow-moving, and I can understand people’s frustration at the sheer scale and the amount of time they are expected to dedicate to reading it. I don’t think it’s meant to be fast moving though, it’s meant to be huge and epic, almost like trying to write about the War of the Roses from every possible angle in minute detail. The only thing I could wish for is that George would write a bit faster so that we could have the next installment sometime in the next five years please!

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