Book Review: H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

From the age of seven Helen MacDonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this widest of animals.

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When I first picked up this book, I almost immediately set it down again.

I know the old adage about never judging a book by its cover, but for some reason, this book struck me as another Eat, Pray, Love-style biography. [Character A] goes through a [personal tragedy] and [discovers themselves] in [exotic country/obscure hobby/a new pet/a challenge they set out to do], before finally concluding what changed people they are now that they’ve overcome this struggle.

I was talking with a GoodReads friend about this and she brought up how it really sounded (from the blurb, mind you) like the author was picking up a really, notoriously difficult-to-train bird just to fill a hole in her life. What happens then, after she’s conquered this mountain of grief?

It’s not like Macdonald purchased her goshawk Mabel on a whim (if you read the book), but her obsession does come across as a little… well, fleeting. Even if she has always had a vested interest in falconry, and is hardly a neophyte, you have to wonder just… why?

Well, I guess that’s the job of a good synopsis; it gets you to ask questions and have them stick in your mind until you eventually pony up the money to see what all the fuss is about. I downloaded the e-book shortly after it won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, and while I’m glad I did, I was still a little bit underwhelmed by the whole thing.

The writing in H is For Hawk is gorgeous. MacDonald is wonderfully gifted with words, making certain passages absolutely gorgeous to read. Macdonald’s really able to make obscure subjects like the history of falconry sound absolutely fascinating, bringing in her academic interest and just how she’s using her knowledge as a coping mechanism, a regression back into a happy childhood when she had an interest in birdwatching and raptors. She’s also really able to capture the feeling of grieving and depression, and the frustration of training animals, then the joy of realising they’re finally able to perform that trick you’ve been agonising over teaching them for the past few weeks.

‘Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.’

‘Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, bereaved, bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, to take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.’

‘[…] Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.’

But, I found the book fell flat after quite a while, and never quite picked itself up again. Macdonald and Mabel forge their bond, go out flying a few times, Macdonald muses over nature or an obscure tome of falconry/natural history, and then picks up Mabel and that’s the end of the chapter. I don’t want to give out spoilers here, but the ending of the book was incredibly underwhelming too; as Macdonald just returns to her mundane life.

I appreciated all the information on falconry too — it never oversaturated the book, and you can tell that Macdonald has a real passion for her hobby. My fears going into this about her just adopting a bird of prey and having no idea what to do with it were completely unfounded. I particularly liked the appendix at the back — I’m definitely going to try and pick up several of the books Macdonald brings up, including T.H. White’s The Goshawk. It’s always good when a book provides a springboard into something you personally find interesting, but have never had the opportunity to look into. Falcons, owls, etc., are my favourite birds, and my dad even bought me a raptor experience day at a shelter for my birthday… Only to realise that neither of us would be able to make it in time before I moved to university. Still, while I’m probably never going to be a falconer, it is a fascinating subject to read about.

Verdict: 3.5 stars.

December Update + Melancholia

So… that NaNo blogging project kind of sputtered out and died after a mere five posts. That’s my fault entirely, I was far too optimistic in assuming I could review a book every single day as well as keeping on top of coursework. I was initially thrilled to be able to queue four posts and then wait for a few days, during which I’d finish more reviews.

But, considering how my reviews skewed on average, 1,200 words… there was no way I would be finishing the NaNoWriMo word count on time. 1,200 x 30 = 36,000 words. Even if I bumped that up to 1,500, I’d be 5,000 words short of the target 50,000. Admittedly, I really struggled in some reviews to lengthen them, and probably came out waffling. For that, I apologise.

Also my anxiety’s been back for a little while now, and it sucks. I gussied myself up to go into university today, only to just sit on the bus and let it take me into town so I could potter around and not feel like utter shit in my flat for several hours. I have lots of great things going on in my life, though! Why should I be miserable? I try and tell myself this every day as I lay in bed, staying awake until the early hours of the morning and withering in bed until past 12pm on days off from uni. Anxiety sucks, end of story.

You know what, though? I have always turned to writing as an outlet to push through hard times. 2011 was a terrible year for me, yet I put out a huge amount of writing. In 2012, life started going right. I got a great summer job, got into university, and read over a hundred and eighty books that year. The YA blogging world just seemed like such a lovely place, recommending all these awesome books, and I had a great time reading them and writing reviews where I nearly frothed at the mouth over how good some of them were, and vice versa. I made some amazing friends and gained a new appreciation for the written word as entertainment, and yet…

I don’t know if I’m burned out, too old, or simply too familiar with the tropes of YA these days, but I can’t seem to find anything I particularly gravitate towards. There’s been a huge boom in YA lit over the past few years, and it seems to have left the market flooded with books that are either too similar, or books that have to be sold on the premise of being like a TV show or a movie or another author’s work. Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is supposedly just like Harry Potter, I should read Pierce Brown’s Red Rising if I want a sci-fi Game of Thrones… Heck, there’s Amy Ewing’s The Jewel out now, which I read the sample of, and was severely underwhelmed by. It just seemed like Megan McCafferty’s Bumped. I know it’s not the books’ fault at all — it’s the publishing house’s marketing department, but most YA just doesn’t sit right with me any more. Even if it’s not set in a high school, or a romance, or anything of that sort. I don’t get it. I’m only 23. There are people reading YA who are much older than me and they’re doing fine.

But, this blog was never going to be exclusively YA. It’s just strange that I went into that genre (yes, I know some don’t consider it a genre, please sit down) with such enthusiasm and have been spat back out the other side in such a dull stupor. The blog is a depository for my thoughts on books and such — hence its name. (Although I admit I’ve kind of grown to prefer nicknames other than ‘Nessa’.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read great books this year. The 5 star rating with ice cream and cherry on top has to go to my re-read of Homestuck, which has been a real help to me over the past couple of weeks. In that, I can establish a routine around its updates, and also keep a document full of predictions and such open and exercise writing for leisure again for the first time in what feels like ages. Then it trickles down to my perennial favourite Watership Down, and then to Undivided and a few other books and graphic novels I’ve seriously enjoyed this year.

Middling ratings (3 stars) are the easiest to give, really. If the book didn’t get much of a reaction out of me, then of course it goes into this pile. But I just seem to have been stuck in a bit of a rut, giving them out willy nilly. A third of the books I’ve read this year have earned that bland rating, and I just wish I could work out why I’m being so critical or blasé or whatever.

Honestly, I’m thinking of changing the grading system on here. Maybe from A+ to F, as well as a little list of positives and negatives at the bottom of reviews, like on Anime News Network. GoodReads, LeafMarks and BookLikes can keep their little five star ratings.

I’ve promised myself to get back into reviewing, when I have some free time on my hands. Uni’s pretty tough this year, but I’m determined to see it through. I have great support from my family and friends, as well as the uni, and I’ve just written over 900 words grousing about feelings and disillusionment with YA as a genre, and bleh. Sorry if you’re a first-time visitor to the blog and your first impression of me is that I’m rather moody. I’ll work my way out of this funk. I swear it.

Book Review: Cracked (Soul Eaters #1) by Eliza Crewe

Meet Meda. She eats people.

Well, technically, she eats their soul. But she totally promises to only go for people who deserve it. She’s special. It’s not her fault she enjoys it. She can’t help being a bad guy. Besides, what else can she do? Her mother was killed and it’s not like there are any other “soul-eaters” around to show her how to be different. That is, until the three men in suits show up.

They can do what she can do. They’re like her. Meda might finally have a chance to figure out what she is. The problem? They kind of want to kill her. Before they get the chance Meda is rescued by crusaders, members of an elite group dedicated to wiping out Meda’s kind. This is her chance! Play along with the “good guys” and she’ll finally figure out what, exactly, her ‘kind’ is.

Be careful what you wish for. Playing capture the flag with her mortal enemies, babysitting a teenage boy with a hero complex, and trying to keep one step ahead of a too-clever girl are bad enough. But the Hunger is gaining on her.

The more she learns, the worse it gets. And when Meda uncovers a shocking secret about her mother, her past, and her destiny… she may finally give into it.

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Yes! This is how you do a paranormal YA, guys.

No, seriously. I’m surprised at just how worth the hype this book was. So many of my friends on GoodReads adored this book. I was a little apprehensive going into it that I’d probably have little patience for Meda, or the storyline in general… But I came out absolutely adoring it, and I’m definitely going to check out the sequel.

Cracked‘s premise is, to be rather blunt, quite generic from the outset. [Character] is introduced to a secret society of demon hunters after a run-in with one of the unholy beings, and from there must learn about [their] destiny. Yes, there are some differences (if you’ve read the book) but that’s the basic skeleton of the plot. And I’m amazed how Crewe was able to take it and just completely make it her own. She inserts perhaps the best POV character one could ever ask for: Meda. She’s really funny, and wise-cracks at the best moments. Her inner monologue had me laughing so many times.

Worries are for people who can’t pull grown men apart with their bare hands.

It’s rather humanitarian of me, helping them to count their blessings. Appreciate what they have — like their heads. Too many people take them for granted.

Now, Meda is a monster and she makes no bones about that. She’s super strong, super fast, and eats the souls of the wicked, but she’s neither fully demon nor human.

After a run-in with some demons intent to claim her as their own, she falls under the protection of the Templars, an ancient order of Christian demon hunters who assume Meda is a “beacon”, a soul born into the world to improve humanity, since they can’t quite work out what she is on a spiritual level. Meda, appropriately, finds this hilarious, and just goes along with it until she realises that she’s got a lot to learn about herself.

Jo, Chi and Uri are great characters to. I love how Jo is just a complete fire-spitter, and the narrative never seeks to demonise her for it. Her relationship with Chi is wonderful, although I do wish it hadn’t resorted to the bit about disabled people getting upset about being such a burden on their partners. Jo has one leg in a brace, and while she’s shown to be a really capable fighter and can protect herself, she does talk with Meda at one point about how she’s harbouring a lot of anger deep within simply because doesn’t feel like she can pursue her relationship with Chi because Templars always go fighting demons in pairs and she won’t be able to keep up with him. :/ I mean, sure, it’s better than the “WAH IF I’M DISABLED NO MAN WILL EVER WANT ME!!” histrionics in one of the Tiger’s Curse books, but I wonder if it could have been handled just a little better. Otherwise, I do love Jo’s character, and I was cheering for her and Chi by the end. The ship still sails!

Still, I have to commend this book for being such an enjoyable ride from start to finish. It could have been so generic with the whole ‘secret society of demon hunters’ premise, but it kept things fresh and original, and it’s narrated by an awesome main character, so there’s that!

4/5.

Book Review: Undivided (Unwind #4) by Neal Shusterman

The final gripping instalment of the critically acclaimed Unwind series.

Proactive Citizenry, the company which created Cam from the parts of unwound teens, has a plan: to mass produce Rewound teens like Cam for military purposes. But below the surface is of that horror lies another shocking level of intrigue: Proactive Citizenry has been suppressing technology that could make unwinding completely unnecessary. As Connor, Risa and Lev uncover these shocking secrets, enraged teens begin to march on Washington to demand justice and a better future.

But more trouble is brewing. Starkey’s group of storked teens are growing more powerful and militant with each new recruit. And if they have their way, they’ll burn the harvest camps to the ground, and put every adult in them before a firing squad — which could destroy any chance America has for a peaceful future.

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So, here we are folks. The ending of the Unwind series. I have to admit, I was surprised when I learned that Shusterman was going to make these books into a “dystology” (not that anybody knew what it meant), but at only four books (plus one e-book novella), it’s shorter than most big name series in YA publishing. And because of that, it doesn’t turn into tedious, overblown claptrap like other YA series I could name.

To say I adored this book is an understatement. It was a perfect ending. All the loose plot threads were tied up. The corrupt officials were overthrown in a manner that didn’t feel like the hurried, ass-pull ending of Mockingjay. Our three main characters were reunited. Others fell in love. Others learned forgiveness, or they were redeemed. And for that I truly commend the author.

Shusterman is incredible at writing short, yet incredibly effective prose. He wrings out the precise amount of action or emotion needed from each sentence and never tries to unfairly tug on your heartstrings. There were parts of this book that made me tear up, or gasp out loud, and it was absolutely exhilarating.

But that’s not to say Shusterman always wrote amazingly well. I adored Unwind (the first book in this ‘dystology’), but would argue that the series dipped a little in quality from Unwholly to Unstrung to Unsouled. Admittedly, Unstrung was written with a ghost writer, so my hang ups on that book aren’t particularly fair, but Unwholly and Unsouled had a certain je ne sais quoi missing from them. Not the case with Undivided. If you are looking to get into this series, don’t assume that this means you should skip the other two (and a half) books in this quartet. You need them for the rest of the story, of course. But tread with caution, I guess — they really aren’t as good as Unwind and this final book.

In fact, I’m almost too starry eyed to write this down properly. I know I should go into talking about the characters and bring up a few quotations, but… gah. This is the final book in the series, and it feels like it. The door’s been closed, people. Just as amazingly well as the end of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. (Discounting the epilogue of that book, if you prefer. I know it’s a love it/hate it kinda thing.)

Every character in this series is so wonderfully fleshed out. Even the ones who don’t make much of an impact on the plot. You can feel their presence, even after they’ve died or been otherwise taken out of the plot proper. (Kind of in the same way that an Unwind or a Rewound can feel the presence of all the other people within them, it could be argued.)

Hell, you want to know how Shusterman made me cry at one particular point? By referring to one character’s mother opening a letter he wrote to her, and realising how wrong she’d been for taking his step-father’s side. Said character was tragically unwound in book one. Or how about Lev being commended for his bravery, for taking charge in an event that made him the hero of the masses?

Okay, sure. There’s a bit of a reliance on scenes where one character reveals they’ve been secretly recording another character revealing some kind of dastardly plan, and broadcasting it to the world. (As far as I remember, it happens at least two or three times.) But, arguably, that’s the only way public opinion could have been swayed in this world. Shusterman’s world-building is brilliant. He’s included a lot of relevant news articles and think pieces throughout the series, and it’s worked to really make you believe in this world. There are comparatively less of these in Undivided, but it’s clear that society’s opinion on unwinding ‘troubled teens’ is changing, especially towards the end of the book.

The book’s ending is a teeny bit inconclusive as well. I mean, for everything it built up, I would have preferred seeing an epilogue or something to tell us just how the United States is coping after coming to its senses and realising that a dystopian police state is not the best method of governance. Sure, stem cell research is being looked into now, rather than unwinding, but I want to see more, even though every single loose end has been tied up.

That’s the great thing about this whole tetralogy. It’s been so conclusively ended, yet I still want more. The storytelling is just that great, and I truly doff my cap to Mr. Shusterman for writing such an enjoyable series, even if it had to go through a few bumps and kinks along the way.

5/5.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

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In the early 2000s, science journalist Rebecca Skloot set out on a journey to reclaim the life story to a woman who had died fifty years ago. Researchers and scientists had robbed this woman of her agency and dignity in death over the following decades, marking her seemingly-immortal, replicating cells with the clinical abbreviation “HeLa”. Some newspapers didn’t even bother to get her name right when reporting on this new biological discovery that they warned was going to allow scientists to “play God.”

Henrietta Lacks was a woman living in the 20th century in the racially segregated United States. Her family had to beg for treatment when Henrietta was dying from multiple cancerous tumours inside her body, and they were barely told that doctors had taken cell cultures from her, nor that they were profiting at least $100-200 each time they sold a vial of HeLa cells to researchers.

‘”Hopkins say they gave them cells away,” Lawrence yelled, “but they made millions! It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”‘ (Loc. 2408)

The history of African-Americans being considered so sub-human that they were fair game for medical experimentation goes back to the 19th century, with slave owners making threats about “night doctors” who would kidnap people of African descent in the name of medical research. It’s disgusting to hear that a mere 20 years after the Tuskegee Study (carried out on African-American males because, I kid you not, ‘whites at the time believed black people were: “a notoriously syphilis-soaked race”‘), a living, breathing person was turned into a cell culture that has gone on to do so much in the world of biomedical research, while her family saw absolutely no recognition or profit whatsoever, and continue to live in poverty.

‘”The American Type Culture Collection — a non-profit whose funds go mainly towards maintaining and providing pure cultures for science — has been selling HeLa cells since the sixties. When this book went to press, their price per vial was $256. The ATCC won’t reveal how much money it brings in from HeLa sales each year, but since HeLa is one of the most popular cell lines in the world, that number is surely significant.’ (Loc. 2746)

Many people know the story of Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine and refused to monetise such a life-saving treatment, even though he could have earned billions of dollars. Few know about Henrietta Lacks’ cells, which were in fact used to create the polio vaccine. They’ve also been shot up into space, cloned, and used in multiple areas of medical research.

A warm, vibrant Southern woman, Henrietta had nobody to write down her story while she was still living. It’s only now that she’s physically nothing but a cluster of cells in multiple laboratories around the world, that her real biography can be written. By a white woman.

While there were those in Henrietta’s extended family who had opted to forget and ignore the painful memories of being ignored by medical authorities, or watching Henrietta succumb to her illness, there were those who were insistent that Henrietta’s story be told. Skloot tackles such a harrowing subject extremely deftly, although I did wish she didn’t prod some of Henrietta’s relatives quite so harshly, even if it was done in earnest, as she claims. Sometimes the Lackses just wished to let sleeping dogs lie, and yet Skloot barged into their lives to demand their painful memories out of them.

The narrative of trying to reclaim Henrietta’s life from those who have reduced her to a mere label on a petri dish is fascinating, and done respectfully. Skloot never intrudes and makes the story about herself, which is a real danger with a lot of biographies — especially when they aren’t being penned by the person who actually lived that life. Some parts of the book are worded rather dryly, but considering Skloot’s background as a scientific journalist, that’s to be expected. She otherwise delivers this account of Henrietta’s life and her cell line in a captivating way, and it’s an absolutely fascinating read.

4/5.

Book Review: Interview With the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles #1) by Anne Rice

Here are the confessions of a vampire.

Hypnotic, shocking, and chillingly erotic, this is a novel of mesmerising beauty and astonishing force — a story of danger and flight, of love and loss, of suspense and resolution, and of the extraordinary power of the senses.

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Warning: fairly average rating ahoy. Sorry, Anne. I promise I’m not a nasty member of the online book reviewer mafia you rally against. I’m a sweetheart in real life. Honest. Lots of love, Nessa.

So, I’ve read Interview several times in my life now. The first time I got it, I was going through a particularly embarrassing phase of being what I’d recognise today as some poor Goth poser. So naturally, if a book promised vampires and darkness and all that, I would have eaten it up. I read IWTV at least twice in one week, watched the movie multiple times… and then I read the book a few years later and kind of wondered why I’d fell for it so hard. I mean, it wasn’t bad, I just didn’t see what I saw in it back then that caused me to croon about Louis or Lestat and pore over the pages again after I’d finished reading them. (Yet for some reason, I never dipped my toe into the rest of The Vampire Chronicles. Not because I heard about all the bad press a lot of them got, but just because it never particularly occurred to me to do so. Funny, that.)

This year, my Gothic course put Interview on my syllabus, so of course I had to read it! In the waning months of the summer, I was determined to get to grips with how I’d once been so in love with this book, and then so apathetic towards it.

Oh, the homoeroticism in this book. Despite Anne Rice’s hardline views on there being no fan-fiction whatsoever of Interview, well… you almost kind of don’t need to slash Louis with Lestat. It’s right there in the text, and sometimes you don’t even need to read between the lines. I’ve always found Louis to be more fascinating than Lestat, really. Lestat’s appeal kind of dies away after a while.

The writing in Interview is gorgeous, if a little overblown at times. I think this was probably the first time I ever thought: “Well, that’s throbbing bright mauve.” Still, it is part of the charm of the book. The atmosphere, the tragic characters, certain elements of the plot all make Interview incredibly gothic, and also incredibly engrossing. You really do feel for these characters, as Louis describes the loneliness of being a creature of the night, and Claudia describes her crisis of forever being a vampire child… even though lots of aspects of Claudia’s character creeped me out then, and she still creeps me out now.

Vampires are monsters, however, no matter which way you cut it. They rise from the grave to feast on our blood and they’re generally unpleasant characters, cursed by immortality. Dracula is really freakish and not at all redeemable if you’ve ever read the Bram Stoker novel. He’s a fascinating villain, sure, but he made my skin crawl. Anne Rice’s vampires are much the same. They’re not just guys with superpowers who just so happen to drink blood and agonise over it whilst wearing a frilly shirt. Or falling in love with yet another YA hero/heroine.

The main problem I always find it IWTV is that I get so goddamn bored after the second act and into the third act. Sure, the Théâtre des Vampires is cool, and I like Armand, but honestly, I just stop caring after the first act. Not because Lestat is out of the picture (which is a common complaint I hear). Nor because little happens – which isn’t a valid complaint, considering that a lot does happen – but I just got kind of sick of the story after a while.

The narrative device that the author uses, with a centuries-old vampire telling his autobiography to this amazed journalist, is genius. It allows Louis to tell his story and the journalist to simply shut up and listen, occasionally prodding his subject for more detail or pulling us back into the much more mundane present day by changing the tape over in the recorder. Louis is so old and has so much story to tell that you’re left on the edge of your seat, almost groaning every time “the boy” insists on pulling us out of the lush landscape of historical Louisiana and into this boring little room with a table and a tape recorder.

Louis has to be the stand-out character. Sure, the story is biased towards him since he’s the narrator, but honestly, I don’t see the need to seek out any more material about Lestat or Armand or the vampire queen Akasha or whatever. (I know about her because I was one of the unfortunate people who sat through Queen of the Damned, right after really enjoying the 1994 ITWV movie.) Also I’ve heard that Lestat really does join a rock band in the books, and right there is my reason for not continuing with the rest of the series. Unless there really is a lot more Louis involved.

So, while I do like this book, I am kind of… well, sour on it. It’s like going back to a TV show you really loved when you were younger and discovering that while it’s decent, there really isn’t the same spark there any more that caused you to obsess over it and watch the movie so many times that the DVD now has permanent residence in your bedroom. I’ve tried to articulate why the book is such a ‘meh’ read for me nowadays, and I guess I’m missing the trees for the forest. I was a teenager when I first read it, and ITWV being so richly gothic and flowery in parts really appealed to me. Now, I guess I’ve read around a bit and moved on from what really made it tick for me back when I wished the UK had its own Hot Topic branch.

Meh.

3/5.

Day four of NaNo Blogging.

Book Review: Final Fantasy VII – A New Threat by M.J. Gallagher

This novel is part of a large-scale adaption of the bestselling and critically-acclaimed video game. All material without exception based on Final Fantasy® VII (1997), as well as all other Compilation titles and official publications, is property of Square-Enix Holdings Co., Ltd.

The Shinra Corporation is draining the Planet of its life-force. Cloud Strife, a cold-hearted mercenary with a history connected to Shinra’s elite army, SOLDIER, finds himself working for a rebel band of eco-warriors who are set on bringing the Company down. His immediate past unknown to him, Cloud accepts a mission from the group, AVALANCHE, unaware that it will begin him on a journey of self-discovery which will change not only his life, but the lives of every soul on the Planet.

Final Fantasy VII is a story of love, hate, war, and peace — in which one man can make a difference that will last forever…

GoodReads

Earlier this summer, I discovered there was a Final Fantasy VII novel available for download on Lulu. It sounded really impressive too — it had had multiple people contributing to it, and the author sought to create a really rich novelisation of the 1997 Playstation game, utilising elements from the spin-off games and lore that have cropped up over the years. Of course, to a massive Final Fantasy dork such as myself, there was no better incentive to download it. (How big a dork am I? I own and have completed Crisis Core in Japanese and English, and I have roughly 20 save files on my FFVII game. I also have three different copies of the original and actually strove to complete Dirge of Cerberus even though it was 100% terrible and all of the writers seemed to have had a collective moment where they declared: “ALL OF THE CHARACTERS WILL BE REALLY OOC. ALL OF THEM!” “What about ret-cons?” “ALL OF THE RET-CONS TOO!”)

Oh, and I’ve read several people’s translations of Before Crisis and the On The Way to a Smile novels. I also have a mug with Cid emblazoned on it, saying: “SIT DOWN, SHUT UP, AND DRINK YOUR GODDAMN TEA.” To say this iteration of Final Fantasy VII is one of my favourite things is a wee bit of an understatement.

But now I’ve kind of discovered that this e-book has all but disappeared from the original sources. I mean, I’m sure it’s still up somewhere, but Lulu seem to have pulled it, and I’m guessing litigation-happy Square Enix must have slapped these guys with a cease and desist of some kind. Shame, because it’s actually really good. I mean, it’s not like we’re going to be getting any source material from you guys, Square Enix! Source material as in the novels and stuff, I mean. I’m not about to import the special edition box set of Advent Children from the United States because they get a little book with a couple of the On The Way to a Smile stories in it.) But yeah.

You don’t often see novelisations of video games that are actually as decent as this. I’ve read plenty of them, from Halo to Metal Gear Solid to Assassin’s Creed, and bluh. I don’t want to be nasty to the poor writers, but they really don’t bring their A-game to these books. It’s the same case with movie novelisations. You pay full price for them and just get a washed out, soulless version of what you witnessed on screen. From what I’ve heard, these books are churned out under the tiniest of deadlines, and it’s not often that the writer is an actual super fan of the games/movies themselves.

It’s amazing to see just how many references to really obscure FFVII ephemera there is in this book. Any FFVII fans reading, you get cookies if you know who I’m talking about: Arkham and Johnny. No, seriously, there’s a mention of these guys in there, as well as references to Crisis Core and Before Crisis, and it was awesome. There are some that kind of… well, I don’t think they transition well, personally. Once or twice there’s a mention of a piece of music from the game’s actual soundtrack playing on a stereo or something. You know, because a band named The Moogles would totally have a hit record called ‘Parochial Town’.

Otherwise, the writing is actually of a really good calibre. It’s been edited really well and the characters are actually better written than they have been for years in the Compilation. They’re all as well-rounded as you remember them from the game, and only a few liberties are taken, really.

Honestly, it’s a really decent adaptation, but it is kind of let down in parts by just how much detail is crammed in, and it does get a little dry in parts. I can imagine that somebody who hasn’t played the games would enjoy this, but it really is best enjoyed with knowledge of this game property, perhaps. If you only played Final Fantasy VII once in 1997 and only remember bits and bobs of the storyline, I’d say the same. But still, it’s a labour of love by fans, for fans, so I don’t want to be too harsh on it, especially considering that it is written really well for what we usually get out of video game adaptations!

Shame the plug’s been pulled though, from what I can tell. :(

3.5/5

Day 3 of NaNo Blogging.