Thursday, June 30, 2022

Junji Ito's Cat Diary

My beloved husband keeps insisting that I read manga – or more specifically selected works from his extensive (and ever-growing) Junji Ito collection. In *general* I'm not a huge fan of the more commercial manga I've glanced at, but Junji Ito is undoubtedly in a league of his own. And I'll admit that it was easier to twist my arm and get me to read Junji Ito's Cat Diary because, well, cats. We've got the hardcover collector's edition and while the Cat Diary is not in Ito's usual creepy-AF, near-cosmic horror, what he does with the Cat Diary is special. Very special. 

For all his reputation for grim and exceptionally strange horror, what Ito does with this slim volume is tell us about his cats, Yon and Mu, and the (mis)adventures they experience. He fictionalises his life, casting himself as J-kun, and his then-fiancĂ©e A-ko in their own manga. The joy comes in with how he portrays life with these felines – darkly humorous takes that flirt with then subvert all the expected horror tropes he's known for. But with cats. And no one dies a grisly death, swallowed by a mountain or menaced by giant floating heads. Let's admit it: cats can be kinda creepy in their own way.

And I laughed. A lot. The little tales are short, so if you need to decompress after a torrid work day, then you'll most certainly gain a few much-needed chuckles that won't tax your concentration. I felt that this was almost a shorter, sweeter answer to Paul Gallico's The Silent Miaow (at least in my mind a vaguely comparable work). Interspersed between the strips we also have short interviews with Ito that offer small glimpses into his world. And he really does seem like a really lovely person (well, duh, he loves cats). Even if he draws his wife with no pupils in her eyes (which apparently made her rather vexed).

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

I don't read nearly as much horror as I used to, so when The Whistling by Rebecca Netley landed on my TBR pile, I really did look forward to sinking into a suitably unnerving bit of gothic horror. The story, however, could belong to nearly every other gothic horror novel or film released in the past hundred years or so, with a number of checkboxes that include: an isolated Scottish island; an orphaned nanny with a tragic past; a little girl whose twin brother has died under mysterious circumstances; surly locals; a spooky old house with strange goings-on ... You catch my drift, I'm sure.

We follow the doings of Elspeth Swansome, who accepts a post in the fictional Scottish isle of Skelthsea. Her charge is the rather troubled little girl Mary, whose brother William (whom no one, apparently, liked much) died. Her parents are dead, too, and since her brother's passing, she has not spoken a word.

Almost immediately, Elspeth runs afoul of some of the locals, and although she does not at first believe in the supernatural, the spooky phenomena eventually bring her around. She soon realises that nothing is what it seems, and with little else to do but care for a child she comes to love as though she were her own, Elspeth must also untangle the mysterious and tragic past that enshrouds the house and its inhabitants.

I'm not going to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but I am going to critique the things that bugged me. Netley's writing is what I would term adequate, so she carries the story well, but the pacing lags considerably. She spends much time creating mood and atmosphere, for which I must give credit where it's due. But then the story gets bogged down in piles of red herrings. When I started reading, I called what the big bad was (possibly based on the fact that I've read and watched a pile of horror in my time) and guess what? I was right. 

While the use of horror tropes to build tension isn't necessarily bad, it's when they're the ones you can see coming from a mile away, including jump scares (which somehow don't quite work in fiction, let's be honest) I didn't find any of the devices used to build tension or terror at all terrifying or effective. I'd hazard to say that this book felt like an amalgamation of every Gothic horror or mystery already in existence, that has been cherry picked for suitable narrative elements. No fresh ground is covered, in other words.

I'd say that if you are new to the horror or Gothic genres, you might find this work fresh and suitably chilling, but alas, I admit my jaded palate has already tasted many similar and better executed flavours over the years. At times I felt that this book would have been better served as a movie than the written word, where the mood and atmosphere could truly come into its own.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation by Catherynne M Valente

Tie-in fiction can often be a little hit and miss, and from what I've read of BioWare's offerings that supplement the games has often left me feeling somewhat let down. But then, on the other hand, I love the lore, can spend hours picking it apart, so there is that. And it's for this reason that I'll dig into the supplementary content because let's be honest, who has time to game much these days. 

I will admit that Mass Effect Andromeda was my starting point with the ME games, which is possibly not the best place to dig into the franchise, but there we have it. And while MEA didn't hit me with a cosmic 2x4 the way Dragon Age Inquisition did, I still enjoyed the game, glitchy as it was. As a noob to the ME world, I will also admit that I didn't have an established context for half the details taken for granted by others.

There's a lot of potential for content in the ME games, and I vaguely recall that the two books that tie in with MEA were meant to supplement the main storyline – and in Annihilation by Catherynne M Valente, we discover the fate of the Quarian Ark, the Keelah Si'yah.

The plot is very much a case of 'let's make a list of anything that can and will go wrong on a space-faring vessel' ... and then some. And considering when the novel came out, it was, ahem, oddly prescient in investigating how people deal with a pandemic. Part 'whodunnit', part MacGuyver-style quest, our desperate team must battle against the spread of a deadly disease and lack of resources, all while a metaphorical clock is counting down. No one ever said colonisation was easy, and if you're 600 light years out from your home world, there are no do-overs. You must make do, instead.

This was my introduction to most of the races that I didn't get to meet in the game, and I particularly loved the elcor doctor Yorrik with a penchant for Shakespeare. I will also admit that I struggled to tell my drells apart from my voluses, so if you've not played any of the games, you may want to visit the Wiki before plunging into Annihilation

This was, to my knowledge, the first Catherynne M Valente book that I've read – and she's been on my radar awhile now, and I reckon she does a good job with this story. It's a bit slow-moving, I suspect, for some tastes, but I enjoyed the gradual unfolding and ramping up of tension. And ick, the pandemic theme was a little too close to the bone for me. Tom Taylorson does a bang-up job narrating, and I have no complaints there.

While this hasn't been the greatest hit I'm going to crow about in reviews, this was still an enjoyable read for someone who's wanting a better frame of reference for the ME universe. Alas, poor Yorrik. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

I'll kick off by saying that Jacqueline Carey is one of my all-time favourite fantasy authors. Kushiel's Dart, and the subsequent novels set in that same universe number among my beloved epics. So, I had really high hopes when I picked up Starless, especially since it's a standalone novel and I simply don't have the stamina to work my way through entire series at present.

We meet Khai, who's a warrior-monk training in a desert fastness, destined to be the shadow (guardian) of one of the Sun-blessed in a royal family. So, that's the premise we start with, and Carey spends much time in the desert building up Khai's unique situation and allowing us to get to know him. I really got stuck into the story at that point. Then, Khai is taken to meet his charge, and the story kinda starts to fall flat for me.

I get the whole "these two are destined to be close because of the Prophecy" kind of relationship that is akin to an 'insta-love' zing across the room, but the ease with which Khai and Zariya kindle their close partnership felt a little too effortless for me. The concept of the novel, too, while interesting and well realised – with the gods walking among mortals, feels a bit too epic in the sense that I actually struggled to suspend disbelief (!!!). Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. This not-so-gentle reader who happily accepts dragons and inter-dimensional portals stumbling over larger-than-life deities and the relentless pursuit of nasty world-ending critters.

There's a point later where the story performs a sharp, ninety-degree turn into a completely different direction that threw me off, too. Stuff happens, and the affected parties were so calm, once again taking the shift in their fortunes so calmly, it didn't quite ring true. If you lose out on a deal that cost you a lot in terms of your wealth and time, you're not going to be calm about it and wish all parties well, merrily on their way, is all I'm saying.

I feel the main problem with this novel is pacing. We spend a good chunk setting up Khai as a character at the Fortress of the Winds, then arrive in the capital Merabaht, where we are plunged into an Islamic Golden Age-type intrigue. All this comes across as set-up, with Khai turning into a bit of a lovestruck loon that feels almost at odds with his character at the start. Then about halfway through, what initially felt as if it was going to be a novel chock full of courtly intrigue, we are suddenly flung into a sea-roving quest with a completely new cast of characters we simply don't have enough time to get to know enough to care about.

Or, rather, the support cast was intriguing, and I'd wanted to know more.

In terms of the general theme of a world without stars at night, and gods incarnated in the flesh, I kinda called the ending and what would happen. And all I'll say is I was not surprised. There was something quite Frodo-esque about how things were resolved, and from there the story sort of just ends on what I feel is a wee bit of a damp squib. I get the idea that Carey had a fantastic concept for this story but then didn't quite develop it to its full potential. This could have been a trilogy, but instead we had everything squished into one novel that almost felt like a ttRPG in terms of the way the action plays out. Not that this is a bad thing, but it felt rushed halfway through, as if she wasn't quite sure where she wanted to take the story. So we go from intricate detail to rushed, broad strokes – and this felt jarring to me.

My overall verdict is that this could have been so much better. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Was there stuff about Starless that annoyed me? Yes. Carey remains on my list of favourites, but this is not her strongest work.