2014 is on its way out.... finally.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Man, 2014 was a year, huh.

It's definitely been an odd year for me. I have been reading, but not so much posting reviews. A few reflections from the year:

  • I read the Paradox series by Rachel Bach, really enjoyed them.
  • I took up with both of Kerry Greenwood's cozy mystery series, as they make excellent bus and airplane reading. Total read so far between both series: eight!
  • As a side note, this year I traveled twice for my job, which is twice more than ever before.
  • I reread one of my favorites (Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold) compulsively for a few weeks during a particularly stressful time.
  • I reread the entire Star Wars Thrawn trilogy this fall. It was less good than it was when I was a teenager, but still okay.
  • I expanded my genre window, reading literary fiction, memoir, YA, historical thriller
  • I've continued to cut down on the number of comic series I buy as single issues, but bought a ton of graphic novels I haven't read yet.
  • Even so, I read a bunch of awesomely weird comics this year I haven’t talked about here, including:
    • Pretty Deadly (started in 2013, surreal old-west-dark-fantasy-horror-fairytale)
    • The Wicked and the Divine (just re-read the first 5 issues, DAMN.)
    • ODY-C (just issue 1 so far, really intriguing - Odyssey retold as entirely female, and in space.)

And like so many, I became more of a podcast junkie this year. My favorites include Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, This American Life, 99% Invisible (so good!), Good Job Brain, and, of course, Serial. Podcasts do cut into my reading time, but I find them very enjoyable, especially when I have to stand on the bus.

Moving into 2015, we’ll have to see how many reviews I post. I still want to finish reviewing all the Hugo winners, and I have that giant pile of graphic novels I mentioned...

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Eight)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is post eight, section ten, the end!

A Classic Little Christmas

  • The Flying Stars, G. K. Chesterton - Oh, I actually quite liked this.
  • Christmas Party, Rex Stout - Really good except for the unfortunate racism.
  • The Raffles Relics, E. W. Hornung - Unlike others starring a ‘classic character’, it makes me want to read more about the character.
  • The Price of Light, Ellis Peters - Definitely a favorite in this book. Classic Cadfael: just lovely and sweet and Christmassy.
  • A Present for Santa Sahib, H.R.F. Keating - Odd. I guess it could be charming in some lights. Not sure about the dialect..
  • The Christmas Train, Will Scott - A charming crook fools the police. Not amazing but decent.
  • Markheim, Robert Louis Stevenson - Huh. takes a while to get going and the language is thick, but actually its pretty good.
  • A Chaparral Christmas Gift, O. Henry - Eh. A bit tortured in plot despite decent style.
  • The Chopham Affair, Edgar Wallace - Shrug. I’m not sure what all the business is about.. possibly a reference I'm not getting.
  • A Christmas Tragedy, Agatha Christie - Not bad. Not terribly gripping but the plot is fine.
The editor saved a lot of their big guns for this last section. Most of them feature the author’s popular recurring character. I’ll run through them from least to most enjoyable.

“The Chopham Affair” is a bit odd. It is framed as a story of an unsolved case, but that frame story seems to have little to nothing to do with the actual story - about a blackmailer laid low by the husband of one of his victims. I presume that one or more of the characters was previously established and knowing more about them would make it make sense.

“The Christmas Train” and “A Christmas Tragedy” are both decent, serviceable stories, but not really anything special. I really want to like Miss Marple, but I haven’t read anything that’s sold me on her yet.

“A Chaparral Christmas Gift” gets points for style (set in the Old West) but not for plot, which is sort of clumsy and dull.

“A Present for Santa Sahib” is in one sense a cute story about a detective who clears a small-time con man who’s been falsely accused of pickpocketing, as a bit of Christmas goodwill. On the other hand, eesh have I had enough of British writers’ impressions of Indian accents.

“Markheim” takes a while to get going, but then it’s really good, right up until the obvious twist. It’s about a thief turned murderer tortured by his conscience, (and/or possibly the devil).

“Christmas Party” is a Nero Wolfe story, and “The Raffles Relics” is about the thief AJ Raffles. Both of these stories make me interested to read more about the characters. The Nero Wolfe story’s only flaw is a bit of recurring dated language and attitude toward an “oriental” girl. The Raffles story takes place late in that character’s life, and I found it a fun teaser for the world.

“The Flying Stars” features a crime-solving priest (not the only one, as I’ll get to in a minute) who helps discover a thief at a local party posing as a member of the family. It also features amateur dramatics.

“The Price of Light” is definitely in the running for my favorite story in this whole dang book. I’m not surprised - it is a Cadfael story, and I love Cadfael. If you’re unfamiliar, Cadfael is a medieval monk who solves crimes and grows herbs (and has a slightly dodgy past as a soldier). If you have a chance to watch the television adaption starring Derek Jacobi, take it! This story follows the donation of a set of silver candlesticks to the abbey on Christmas, and their subsequent disappearance. There are several motives possible just from the people who arrived in the train of the minor lord who donated the things. Cadfael solves the case, of course, but in his own inimitable and unfailingly kind way.

Overall, despite quite a few duds, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a bit of murder and mayhem to brighten up the holiday.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Seven)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Here’s the seventh post, section nine.

A Puzzling Little Christmas

  • Sister Bessie, Cyril Hare - Not bad. Not awesome. Somewhat expected tragic twist.
  • That’s the Ticket, Mary Higgins Clark - Ha. Not a bad little story, cute resolution.
  • Death on the Air, Ngaio Marsh - Fine resolution, pace was a bit off.
  • The Thirteenth Day of Christmas, Isaac Asimov - Super cute bit of fluff.
  • The Christmas Kitten, Ed Gorman - A lot of buildup for not much substance.
  • The Santa Claus Club, Julian Symons - *snurk* the butler did it, naturally.

These were a little bit of a let down after the last section, but most of these stories were still pretty decent. Similar to the “Surprising” section, all of these stories had at least a bit of a twist or a reveal near the end.

“Sister Bessie” follows a man who’s being blackmailed by an unknown relative, and his efforts to stop whoever it is at all costs. “That’s the Ticket” is a humorous story of a stolen lottery ticket. “Death on the Air” is a murder mystery involving a rigged radio and an extremely acrimonious household: the premise and characters start out interesting, but flag a bit by the end.

“The Thirteenth Day of Christmas” is pretty good, which is predictable given the author. It follows a young boy whose father is responsible for dealing with a terrorist threat around Christmas.

“The Christmas Kitten” was probably the weakest in this section. I kept waiting for it to get better, but it just didn’t. The main character is ineffective, the reveal on the murderer is just depressing. “The Santa Claus Club,” meanwhile, had great style, but I rolled my eyes more than a little on the ending. The side notes and descriptions in that one are pretty fun, though.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Six)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. For today I’ve read sections seven and eight. (Section 123 & 45)

A Surprising Little Christmas

  • Noel, Noel, Barry Perowne - The long build up was kind of dull for the okay punchline.
  • Death on Christmas Eve, Stanley Ellin - A more interesting twist here, it colors the whole story before.
  • The Chinese Apple, Joseph Shearing - Fine, a bit obvious.

These three stories each end in what amounts to a punch line. "Noel, Noel" is told by a man learning the story of what his good-for-nothing brother, Noel, did with his life. It’s fine. Not really a mystery. "The Chinese Apple" has a twist that I saw coming a mile off.

"Death on Christmas Eve" was a bit more interesting. It follows a lawyer called to a house. A brother and sister live there, and the brother is convinced his sister murdered his wife. The twist in this one gave the whole story a new tone and was quite well played.

A Modern Little Christmas

  • And All Through the House, Ed McBain - Adorable and humorous. Is this the first real (spoiler) nativity in the book?
  • An Early Christmas, Doug Allyn - Solid detective story. I really liked it.
  • The Live Tree, John Lutz - Well done creepy little tale.
  • Three-Dot Po, Sara Paretsky - Entertaining murder mystery adventure, good style, fast paced.
  • Mad Dog, Dick Lochte - Kinda neat. Just the final scene of a classic mystery structure.

Ooh, these were pretty good. The less interesting ones were "The Live Tree" and "Mad Dog", and they were both still pretty good. "The Live Tree" is about a guy whose black sheep brother comes home for Christmas, trying to make amends, while "Mad Dog" is a slow reveal of a crime long-buried, live on radio.

Both "An Early Christmas" and "Three-Dot Po" were solid mystery stories in the modern style. The first follows two police detectives trying to find out who killed a scum-bag real estate lawyer. In "Three-Dot Po", a hard-boiled female PI loses a friend to murder and teams up with the dead woman’s dog to solve the case.

"And All Through the House" was fricking adorable. I didn’t spot the punch-line coming, so it really worked. The style of the writing was excellent, a great balance between reality and breezy comedy, and so many people can’t pull off indicating action with dialogue, but this does a great job.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Five)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Here’s section six.
(Section 1, 2, 3 & 4, 5)

A Scary Little Christmas

  • The Carol Singers, Josephine Bell - A well told tale. I liked the extensive picture of the victim before the real plot.
  • Waxworks, Ethel Lina White - Creepy. I liked it, except for a hint of period-typical sexism.
  • Cambric Tea, Marjorie Bowen - Weird pacing, weird ending, a bit deus ex machina.
  • The 74th Tale, Jonathan Santlofer - First piece of true horror.
  • The Uninnocent, Bradford Morrow - Decent tone, but unsatisfying. A bit ‘mystery for it’s own sake’.
  • Blue Christmas, Peter Robinson - Nice vignette of melancholy and hope.

There’s a bit of everything in this section. The two that didn’t really work for me were "Cambric Tea" and "The Uninnocent". "Cambric Tea" is about a doctor called to the bedside of a man who believes his wife is poisoning him. The twist, of course, is that the wife is the doctor’s former lover. It has a slow pace and odd structure that hasn’t aged well, and the characters come out okay through no action of their own.

"The Uninnocent" and "The 74th Tale" are both portraits of dark characters from their side of the story, but The 74th Tale works better. The Uninnocent has an okay prose style, it’s about a woman looking back at a childhood marred by a belief that the ghost of their dead brother was causing her and her sister to commit awful acts. However, the payoff is kind of vague, and the story is left slightly too much of a mystery for my taste. The 74th Tale, meanwhile, has a creepy, steady build that you can’t look away from.

"Waxworks" is a fun story about a young ambitious newspaper woman who spends Christmas Eve in a supposedly haunted and cursed wax museum, and "The Carol Singers" is a solid investigation story. The only scary part of the latter is during the actual murder, the rest is first a detailed picture of the victim’s life, and then the story of how the killers are caught.

The standout in this section, though, was definitely the last story. "Blue Christmas" is about a police detective called in to oversee a missing person case on Christmas Eve. There’s something off about the family’s story, but the tale takes a turn into emotional crisis, when they find the missing woman perched on a high viaduct above train tracks. Detective Banks goes up to try to talk her away from the edge, and the story ends on a hopeful note, that sometimes people can change their unhappy lives, or at least try to be human for each other, even at Christmas.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part Four)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is section five.

An Uncanny Little Christmas

  • The Haunted Crescent, Peter Lovesey - Okay, yeah, I like it. Nice unexpected twist.
  • A Christmas in Camp, Edmund Cox - Huh. Very odd. Problematic.
  • The Christmas Bogey, Pat Frank - I don't know why this is in this section, but it’s funny and cute.
  • The Killer Christian, Andrew Klavan - Not bad. Not a style I enjoy. But not bad.
  • The Ghost’s Touch, Fergus Hume - Also not bad, though a bit obvious.
  • A Wreath for Marley, Max Allan Collins - I expected a dark twist, instead I got a solid sweet period Christmas Carol.

This section focused on ghost stories. The two I liked least of these tales were "A Christmas in Camp" and "The Killer Christian". The first is from 1911, and has all of that awkwardness about British authors writing about their time in India. The story itself is very odd, too. It’s a little bit a morality tale and a little bit a ghost story and a lot patronizing. "The Killer Christian" has a lot of baggage caused by the circumstances of its writing: it was a gift for customers of the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC, so it shoehorns in a bunch of references. The story is about a religious hitman who tries to change his ways after an experience in which he sees a (fake) angel, and it’s okay, but not really to my taste.

"The Haunted Crescent" is a more traditional ghost story, about an investigation on Christmas Eve into a long-ago murder. It's very well done. "The Ghost’s Touch" is a decent example of a ghost story being used for attempted murder.

The best stories are the two I haven’t mentioned yet, and they are very different from each other. "The Christmas Bogey" doesn’t seem to have much to do with ‘uncanny’, so I don’t know why it’s in this section, but it follows an unidentified radar blip on Christmas Eve, and the series of events as each person who could or should deal with it reacts differently due to the holiday. It’s a tight piece: a puzzle box and a joke in short story form.

"A Wreath for Marley" is a retelling of A Christmas Carol set in America in the 40’s. Richard Stone, PI, is the main character, and his partner, Jake Marley, has been dead a year when the story opens. Stone has been getting crookeder and meaner since before Marley died, and he’s due a little ghostly intervention. He is, of course, visited by Marley himself, who wants Stone to solve his murder, and three ghosts to bring him through the past, the present and the future. The choices of where to parallel the original and where to stress the differences make for both an intellectually and emotionally engaging tale. It’s got great style and swagger, and a satisfying close.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (part Three)

Monday, December 8, 2014

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. (Part one, two) Today I’ve finished the third and fourth sections; they’re a bit shorter than the others.

A Sherlockian Little Christmas

  • A Scandal in Winter, Gillian Linscott - Ridonkulously cute.
  • The Christmas Client, Edward D. Hoch - Well constructed pastiche if a bit too convenient with the names of secondary characters.
  • The Secret in the Pudding Bag & Herlock Sholmes’s Christmas Case, Peter Todd - Why would anyone write or read this ever?
  • Christmas Eve, S. C. Roberts - Charming. Slightly kinder than the originals but very well done.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Arthur Conan Doyle - Still love it.

This was an interesting section, all stories that connected to both Christmas and Sherlock Holmes. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", being original Doyle, is of course in a class by itself. (See my review of the television episode)

The Peter Todd stories are… odd. They are parodies, written in 1916 and 1924. The author’s real name is Charles Hamilton, and he apparently wrote a insane amount of content under dozens of pseudonyms. Most of his work seems to be children’s material. The kindest thing I can say here is that I do not think the humor has aged well. It’s a little bit like trying to read an episode of Saturday Night Live that was written a century ago. I can’t quite see what it is getting at.

Happily, the other stories are decent to great. "Christmas Eve" is sweet, written as a script. "A Scandal in Winter" follows a young girl at a ski resort in 1910 with her family that is visited by an aging Holmes and Watson, as well as a mystery surrounding one Irene née Adler. It’s a delightful perspective on these characters, subtle and well-crafted.

The notes say that story was written for a compilation of Holmes Christmas tales. Maybe I’ll put a pin in that for another year.

A Pulpy Little Christmas

  • Dead on Christmas Street, John D. MacDonald - This is the best investigative story so far that isn't Holmes.
  • Crime’s Christmas Carol, Norvell Page - Sweet & dark spin on "The Gift of the Magi".
  • Serenade to a Killer, Joseph Commings - Style was interesting, plot about bit doubtful.

Oh, now we’re talking. The tone of these stories was fantastic. "Dead on Christmas Street" is a solid little noir story about a witness who ‘fell’ out a window, and the investigators trying to get the real story. It’s marred by a bit of typical-of-the-time sexism, but nothing too egregious. "Crime’s Christmas Carol" follows a couple in desperate straits who each break their moral code for the sake of giving the other a decent holiday, only to be rescued by fate and luck.

"Serenade to a Killer" was the odd one out. In a sense a classic locked-room murder mystery, and in another sense a series of theories about abnormal psychological conditions. Do not take as medical science anything in this particular story.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part two)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. This is section two.

A Funny Little Christmas

  • The Burglar and the Whatsit, Donald E. Westlake - Short and clever, got great style.
  • Dancing Dan’s Christmas, Damon Runyon - Enjoyable. Nothing unexpected.
  • A Visit from St. Nicholas, Ron Goulart - Cute style, decent use of irony.
  • The Thieves Who Couldn’t Help Sneezing, Thomas Hardy - Solid tale, not really a mystery. Almost fairy tale style.
  • Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas, John Mortimer - Ugh. I guess youre supposed to enjoy the humor and ignore the horrid classism.
  • A Reversible Santa Claus, Meredith Nicholson - Longest story so far, pretty enjoyable.

These were mostly pretty fun, with a couple of exceptions. The Thomas Hardy piece was fine, I guess, but it was so different. It follows a man who is waylaid on the road, and then he manages to expose the burglars in the midst of performing a second robbery. The points of the plot are very strange, and it has more in common with most fairy tales than most mysteries. The Rumpole story is another case of ‘wow, I have zero desire now to read anything else about that character’. It would be one thing if the style or the plot was good enough to make it worth slogging through, but it’s all about lawyers bartering over a case only for their own sakes, and with no care at all for the actual people involved. Wikipedia says that the character is characterized by sympathy for the ‘criminal classes’, but I’m not sure I saw that here.

I expected to enjoy "Dancing Dan’s Christmas", and I did, although anyone who isn’t already familiar with the work of Damon Runyon would surely get more out of it than I did. "A Visit from St Nichola"s opens with this line, “THE MEDIA, AS USUAL, GOT IT completely wrong. The corpse in the Santa Claus suit hadn’t been the victim of a mugging and therefore wasn’t an all too obvious symbol of what’s wrong with our decaying society.” It’s pretty fun throughout.

"The Burglar and the Whatsit" may now be one of my favorite examples of the ‘burglar dressed as Santa Claus’ trope. "A Reversible Santa Claus" is the longest story in the book so far, a tale of a family of retired criminals accidentally kidnapping a baby and then getting tangled in the affairs of the upper class family he belongs to.

I’m not that surprised the the comedy stories were a bit more fun than the ‘traditional’ stories, but I am really looking forward to some of what’s still to come.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (Part one)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries
editor: Otto Penzler, 2013

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

This year, I am taking on The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, a 674 page tome containing 59 individual stories about the Christmas season. Conveniently, it’s broken up into blog-post sized sections. Shall we begin?

Section One: A Traditional Little Christmas

I actually need to start with a general formatting note. I am not a huge fan of the way the biographies of the authors are presented. Each story is prefaced by a quick explanation of the standing or fame of the author, often including whatever work they are most famous for, and the source of the story. Honestly, I’d rather simply have the source of the story and save the plaudits for afterward or the footnotes.

I started to skip or skim these pages after the third time that I felt disappointed by a bait-and-switch. For example, from the bio I see that such and such an author was famous for his comedies, but I discover upon reading that this piece is a drama. Or this one is known for this character, who stars in stories known for this style, but the story that follows has nothing to do with either of those things.

I would like either more context about why this particular story is important or less context about other works of the author before reading, and in the absence of magic editing powers, I’ll keep skipping them unless I have a question.

Okay, back on track, let’s run through the first group of stories. I’m sorry to say we don’t get off to a great start.

  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie - Cute, but unnecessarily convoluted.
  • Gold, Frankincense and Murder, Catherine Aird - Fine, a bit dry.
  • Boxing Unclever, Robert Barnard - Pleasant enough, the style is tangled.
  • The Proof of the Pudding, Peter Lovesey - Dark and savage, very nice.
  • The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll, Ellery Queen - Can’t say I think much of this.
  • Morse's Greatest Mystery, Colin Dexter - Maybe this is better with context. As it is, far too saccharine.
  • More than Flesh and Blood, Susan Moody - First one with any real style. Ending’s a bit flat.
  • The Butler’s Christmas Eve, Mary Roberts Rinehart - I'm not sure why it ends so suddenly. Other than that I liked it, very evocative.
  • The Trinity Cat, Ellis Peters - Best of the lot.

The ones I liked the most in this section were: "The Proof of the Pudding", which is a dark story about a family where horrible abuse is going on, and how one person twists a Christmas tradition to save the innocents, and "The Trinity Cat", which is a lighter story about how a cat’s odd behavior leads to the solving of a murder-robbery.

"More than Flesh and Blood" had nice style, although the Christmas connections were a little thin. It wasn’t much of a mystery, either, just a dark story about a man looking for the truth of his family and making a dark discovery. "The Butler’s Christmas Eve" was pretty decent, too, although I think the end is supposed to be a twist, and I’m not sure what I was supposed to get out of it.

Despite some nice turns of phrase, I was the most disappointed with "The Adventure of the Dauphin’s Doll" and "Morse's Greatest Mystery", both stories starring the respective author’s most famous character. Both of these were dated in a tedious way and seem to require foreknowledge of the characters to get any enjoyment out of them. And from these samples, I am not in the least bit interested in knowing more about these characters. Similarly, "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" is a Hercule Poirot story, and it’s dull but not nearly so annoying.

Those Who Hunt the Night

Monday, October 27, 2014

Those Who Hunt the Night
Barbara Hambly, 1988

Premise: James Asher is a professor. He knows a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about linguistics and anthropology. He is also a retired player of the Great Game. This is why, when Simon Ysidro demands his help, Asher’s first response is to notice his unique accent. His second is notice that Ysidro isn’t breathing. Ysidro needs Asher to help him find out who is killing the vampires of London. Asher just needs to not get killed.

A little fun with vampires for Halloween.

I feel like it would be a little unusual today to see a novel that deals so well with the potential ambiguity of vampires. Even if they once were human, and retain some human qualities, that just makes them, at best, as untrustworthy as humans. Even when he becomes engrossed in the problem for its own sake, Asher never forgets that Ysidro might turn on him, or stops thinking about options should he need to turn on them.

These are dangerous predators. Asher is blackmailed into helping Ysidro try to discover the killer, even though most of the vampires would just as soon ignore the problem and kill Asher.

This is a really fun novel. It took me a while to get over how many annoying times James’ wife Lydia is described as a waifish beauty… but it’s in tone for the style of the time the book is set in. Plus she’s actually a medical researcher, and pretty great. It’s set in the early 20th century, shortly after the publication of Dracula, naturally. The characters are intriguing and the plot twists mostly satisfying. One of the biggest reveals was such a surprise to me, though, I had a little trouble following. Even so, the ending was great.

A solid thriller/mystery with some appropriately scary monsters.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Fountains of Paradise

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Fountains of Paradise
Arthur C. Clarke, 1979

Hugo Winner - 1980

Premise: Vannevar Morgan has a vision. He is already the most acclaimed architect of his generation, but now he wants to help man climb to the stars in the first space elevator. The only thing in his way is the monastery sitting on top of the ideal building location.

The Fountains of Paradise begins with a flashback to the ancient story of King Kalidasa (a fictionalized version of Kashyapa I http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashyapa_I_of_Anuradhapura) who terrorized his enemies and built a massive tribute to his own power, in sight of the proposed site of the elevator. The book, on a certain level, is all about men’s efforts to make a mark on history, to build something that will outlast them.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit. Like Rendezvous With Rama, it does a nice job of balancing the intricacies of theory around the technology with the human stories of the people interacting with it. It’s not a book for those that need their stories to be purely character driven. We observe Vannevar and the other characters from close enough to sympathize and be engaged with their stories, but never connect to them on a very deep level.

Another theme that I enjoyed centered on the relationship between the continued existence of religion and gaining new knowledge, particularly knowledge of extraterrestrial life. It’s only sort of tied to the rest of the book, and it’s (sadly) not terribly believable these days, but it’s a pleasant subplot, posing a fairly utopian outcome.

I’ve found both Hugo-winners I’ve read by Clarke so far to be excellent palate-cleansers: intellectual puzzles and intriguing worlds make a nice break from books (or movies/tv) full of over-the-top romance, angst, and strife. Fountains has its life-or-death moments, but they aren’t emotionally exhausting to read.

I found this book very solidly satisfying, and I’ll have to make room for some more Clarke in my to-read pile.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

Cold Fire (Spiritwalker, Book 2)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cold Fire (Spiritwalker, Book 2)
Kate Elliot, 2011

Premise: Sequel to Cold Magic. Armed with some, but not enough, of the answers, Catherine tries to protect her cousin, disentangle herself from her arranged marriage, not get arrested, decide whether to help one of the factions of radicals, and figure out who or what her father is. It’s sort of a busy time.

Let me start with the nitpicks. I don’t like how this book/series plays to the trope: ‘hot guy who is attracted to the main character conveniently secretly a good guy, despite initial evidence to the contrary.’ This was touched on in book one and expanded here. I’m willing to go with it, but… I like the magic plot and the politics plot so many times more than the romance plot here. I’m warming to Vai a little, but I need to spend like a few months sometime only reading books with NO romance to reset my internal calibrations.

I hated how many times Cat was just floored by a twist. There are a lot of plot twists in this book, but in book one it was established that she was trained from birth in subterfuge and spycraft and politics. Why does it sometimes seem like everyone in the world can pull one over on her? She gets a few wins, but I was just so annoyed by people tricking her.

Little warning for impaired consent in this book. It’s addressed (later) to a certain extent, but still. Be ye warned.

But saying all that makes it seem as though I didn’t like the book. I did like it. I really enjoyed the read. It’s fast paced. The world is greatly expanded in a way I really enjoyed, that gave it more depth and color. Cat finds out about her heritage and both embraces and fights it in a way that makes me not want to put the book down.

I missed Rory, absent for much of this volume, and I could have used even more Beatrice.

I did enjoy this book, and I’ll probably get around to the third, but not until it’s on sale.

And if you have any suggestions for great sci-fi or fantasy novels that feature awesome lady protagonists who decide to entirely chuck their would-be lovers because of duty or a higher purpose or just the desire to form a lesbian utopia, send them my way.

Cold Fire gets 3 Stars - A Good Book


Monday, August 18, 2014

Vonda McIntyre, 1978

Hugo Winner - 1979

Premise: Snake is a healer traveling on her first year out of training. After a heartbreaking setback, she is determined to return to her people with something worthy of the trust placed in her.

Looking at most covers of this book, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a fantasy. The first few chapters don't do much to discourage the notion, either. The full picture of the setting and the lives of the people there is only slowly revealed.

I liked Snake - her attitudes and assumptions felt right for someone caught between being highly trained and being still pretty young. I could have done with a bit less screen time for the guy crushing on her, but he was inoffensive and made a decent spearcarrier/exposition man.

I do want to mention: part of the early set up for the plot gave me a real emotional punch in the gut. It's supposed to, so that you feel Snake's own anger and despair, but if you, like me, have a particular sensitivity to cruelty to animals and an intolerance of superstition, it'll probably hit you hard as well.

I can't decide whether I liked the overall level of exposition about the world. Part of me thinks it's perfect - that we see the outlines but are left guessing about many of the deeper questions. Part of me wants to know more. We're left, though, with just this one story, just one part of one woman's story.

One thing I’m sure of: it is a lovely, surreal journey to take.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

The Superior Spider-Man: Volume One: My Own Worst Enemy

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Superior Spider-Man: Volume One: My Own Worst Enemy
Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, et. al., 2013

Premise: Otto Octavius has finally defeated Spider-Man. Defeated him, and become him. Now resident in Peter Parker's brain, with access to his memories, what will he make of Peter's quest to balance power and responsibility? Collects Superior Spider-Man #1-5

This is one of those cases where you just have to go with the insane set-up. Don’t worry, Peter doesn’t stay completely dead for even the entire first issue. The tension between the reader’s knowledge of Otto’s internal motivations and everyone else trying to make sense of his behavior is pretty fun, although not the real story. The real story is whether this Spider-Man’s different tactics and priorities will actually do a better job of protecting the city. It’s a classic ruthlessness-vs.-belief-in-redemption story that’s common to a lot of superhero tales, but it’s very well executed here.

Oh, there’s also the side story about whether Otto will sleep with Mary Jane. (Don’t worry, the answer is no, it’s just really creepy for a while.)

Also, why anybody could fail to notice that something was seriously off...

Really, this guy’s a super-villain? Do tell.

With quite a bit of humor leavening the occasionally brutal action, this is a fun title, and I enjoyed it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Alias Hook

Monday, July 7, 2014

Alias Hook
Lisa Jensen, 2014

New Release! I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.
Premise: The story of one James Hook, his rise, his fall, and his struggle with the reality and surreality of Neverland.

If you read, I mean really read, Peter and Wendy as an adult, you discover a curious thing. On the one hand, it is the story of a delightful adventure in a land where children’s games rule. On the other hand, it is the story of the Darlings, left bereft and terrified by the disappearance of their children. It is the story of the pirates, men casually murdered by children with no moral sense and a great deal of power. It is about the tragedy as well as the joy of childhood, the utter carelessness and amorality of children.

All that is to say that I enjoyed Alias Hook for the way the author is building on the original story. (I’ve seen a few reviewers already not take this into consideration and it bugs me. Yes, it’s inventive, but it’s impressive BECAUSE it works with the original. BECAUSE it’s NOT a full re-imagining!) For one thing, she explains and describes the fairy orgies, alluded to once in the original text! I really liked the expansion on some of the aspects of Neverland and the way it ties into wider myth-systems.

The prose is well constructed, the description in-depth without dragging. I did enjoy Hook, the reality of his situation and his grasping for something, anything to end the cycle between him and Pan.

I liked Parrish (the woman whose arrival in Neverland may be an indication that things are changing). I liked her story and her gumption.

That’s the good.

There is a great deal of flashback, and Hook’s early backstory either needed more or less time. I found it fractured and split between dull and nonsensically violent. Once all of the plot (past and present) was on Neverland, the book improved dramatically.

I have real mixed feelings about the ending. I feel like there were different/better ways certain of the characters could have gone. I fundamentally disagree with the tone of the ending, and feel that it leaves a lot of really unpleasant plot holes created by the expansion of/meta explanations for Neverland. That said, it’s… uh… romantic? Sure. That’s fine. But not satisfying. The prologue is satisfying, the resolution is thin.

Okay. To sum up: Worldbuilding is really strong, meta-plot is interesting, resolution is structurally and tonally weak.

Still strong enough for: 3 Stars - A Good Book

Unwept (The Nightbirds, #1)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Unwept (The Nightbirds, #1)
Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, 2014

New Release! I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Ellis wakes up on a train after a terrifying dream. She is sitting across from a woman with a baby, who tells her that she’s been sick, and she is going to stay with her cousin. She has no memory, only a sense that something is terribly wrong.

This is one of those books where the discovery is half the joy. You, the reader, will figure out things faster than Ellis, who doesn’t have the ability to notice references and foreshadowing. I went back and forth while reading the book over which of a few possible reveals I thought it would be, and which I wanted. While I’m not 100% on board with the final reveal, I think the world could go interesting places from here.

The setting, a tiny New England town, is perfectly creepy, and the build slow without losing tension. It helps that the book is rather short. Ellis uncovers one unnerving thing after another, while everyone around her is so happy that she’s back, and so eager to hear about her trip to the city, which of course she can’t recall.

All the details about the town and the people in it just contribute to the mystery, and just a heads up: the tone of the book takes a swing from dark fantasy into horror for the last section.

I really liked Ellis, I liked the way she tried to stand firm as everything around her fell apart, I understood her fear and confusion, I liked where she chose to push and where she chose to conserve her strength.

I wish the book had more of an ending, but this is a ‘real’ series, where you’ll have to read the next one to find out what happens…

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

All-New X-Men Vol. 1: Yesterday's X-Men

Monday, June 23, 2014


All-New X-Men Vol. 1: Yesterday's X-Men
Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, 2013

Premise: Henry McCoy, aka Beast, is struggling with his life, with his mutation, with recent events, with their place in history. He has a crazy idea. It involves time travel. It also involves the teenaged original X-men. Collects All-New X-Men #1-5

I had heard all sorts of good things about this title, and I'm happy to report that it lived up to my expectations. I should mention that while everything is explained, if you don’t already know what happened with Cyclops and the return of the Phoenix and A v X and Schism and the splitting of the X-men characters, this might not be the best jumping on point.

This is one of those times, not all that rare in comics, when something awesome and intriguing comes out of something annoying. After A v X, parts of the X part of the Marvel Universe seemed too far gone, but give that wacky starting point to a solid writer with a good idea, and suddenly you've got a story!

The writing is strong here, every character gets their moments. The art is great, I love the details around uniforms and powers.

Honestly my main problem with this volume is that it's almost all set up. It has to set up a lot, from the teen team, what's going on with Logan and Storm and Kitty at the Jean Grey School, what's going on with Scott's team. Everyone has plans and plots and emotional issues. I’m glad I read this volume, though, and I’ll look for more. I’ll look for it to be on sale (how I got this one), but I will keep an eye out.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Earthly Delights (Corinna Chapman Mysteries, Book 1)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Earthly Delights (Corinna Chapman Mysteries, Book 1)
Kerry Greenwood, 2007

Premise: Corinna left a life in the corporate world and the spouse who fit there to move into a building full of friendly eccentrics and open her own bakery. She has a routine, regular customers, and cats. Then an overdosing addict shows up on her doorstep, the women in her apartment building start receiving odd threats, and she meets a charming man who seems to be charmed by her. It’s all a bit much at once, but Corinna faces everything in life straight on.

This is the modern-day series by the author of the Phryne Fisher books. And yes, I agree with all the folks who say that, at least in this volume, it isn’t nearly as good.

The characters are fun, if often stereotypes of a sort. The setting is interesting, and the dialogue and narration is snappy.

“I believe in absolutely nothing except yeast and the inevitability of politicians…”

The beginning of this book was exactly what I needed when I opened it up. I loved getting to know Corrina: her daily routine, her world, her attitude. Somewhere along the way it all started to seem a little too easy and ring a little false, though.

The main climax was… weak. Lets just say it was supposed to be both tense and erotic, and all I could think was: really? All the psuedo-realism earlier and no one’s going to mention how insanely unsafe of a sex act that just was? Not normally unsafe, crazy unsafe. This is not the 70’s. You could die doing stupid shit like that. The explanations about the plot were more than a little hand-wavy, too.

That said, I loved the beginning, and I did enjoy most of the other sub-plots, so I will try the next one to see if it finds its feet. Also, there are recipes in the back.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The logic of the to-be-read list

Monday, May 19, 2014

I’ve been thinking lately about how books get on my radar. I usually consider reading a book for one of three reasons:

(Note, this is all regarding books by authors I’ve never tried before. Authors I follow, I already know whether I’m going to read their next one.)

One: Proximity and Pretty Covers

There have been times in my life, some not so long ago, in which the easiest way for an unknown book to end up on my list was for it to be available at my local library and have an interesting cover.

That’s how I read Recursion and Illium and By the Mountain Bound when we lived in New York. It’s why I picked up books from the middle of these series before reading the first one: Lost Fleet, Mercy Thompson, Kris Longknife, probably others. It’s why I’ve read a great deal of odd/obscure stuff from the 90’s. The Winter of the World. King of Morning, Queen of Day. It’s probably how I started on Anne McCaffery and Mercedes Lackey. In the town where I grew up, I eventually read almost everything in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the library.

I don’t discover many books this way these days, because I have trouble finding time to browse at the library and I prefer to read on my kindle, although similar logic does sometimes apply to books found on the dollar rack, like The Price of the Stars, or books that I’m considering requesting galleys of. On Netgalley, a pretty cover and an intriguing synopsis go a long way.

Two: Research

When I started this blog, I did a lot of themed reading. I wanted to read and compare a bunch of books on a similar topic. This required some amount of thought and research, to figure out which books I wanted to read or re-read on each subject, and then to seek out those specific books.

Today, I am still doing this with my project to read all the Hugos, although I am working my way through slowly and reading lots of other things in the meantime.

Three: Recommendations and References

Subtype One: IRL

I have a mixed history with recommendations from my friends. (Don’t we all?) Orphans of Chaos was a recent notable miss, and I wasn’t too fond of Kushiel’s Dart, which was recommended by a friend, but it goes way back for me. My high school friends thought I’d like Wheel of Time. They were, shall we say, wrong.

Of course they’re not all misses. Multiple people told me that if I wanted to read military fantasy, I should read Chronicles of The Black Company. Loved it. More than one person mentioned The Beekeeper’s Apprentice in a short period and I’m still reading that series. Special shout-out to my one-time co-worker ‘Buddha’ who saw that I was reading David Weber and suggested I try Lois McMaster Bujold. THANK YOU.

So a recommendation is enough to get me to consider a book, but not a guarantee.

Subtype Two: Virtual Readers in a Virtual World

Do you know who I trust recommendations from today the most? Two women I’ve never met.

I don’t always agree with them, and I basically ignore all the YA, but I have found more great books on recommendation from The Book Smugglers than anything else. I like that they’re clear about what they like and don’t like, and they like a LOT of the same things I like. Champion of the Rose, and all of Andrea K. Host, now my favorite indie author? Read about her first there. Fortune’s Pawn, which I just read and adored? I started to keep an eye out for the series when the author was interviewed on their site. I read my first Diana Wynne Jones because of a read-along there, and found it quite intriguing. If you’ve been mentioned positively there, and then I spot your book on sale, I’ll grab it.

I mean, I even found out about Code Name: Verity on their site, and eventually pressed it on all my friends.

There are other book bloggers I follow and consider their recommendations, although I’ve been burned occasionally.

Recently, I’ve read or considered reading books that I heard about on why I might call feminist-culture sites like The Hairpin or the Toast. Books like The Thing Around Your Neck or Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly. It’s been interesting expanding my genres some, although I haven’t written any reviews for this site about these books.

New comics and graphic novels I most often hear about on comic news sites, or I read an excerpt on Scans Daily. I love Scans Daily.

From radar to reading

So those are all the ways I hear about a book and consider reading it. But then I have to pick a book from that messy pile to read next. First question is whether any of the books are time sensitive: from the library, or galleys with an upcoming publication date. After that, these days I like to jump around. If I’ve just read a bunch of sci-fi, I might reach for historical fantasy next. If I’ve read a lot of long books - something short, a lot of euro-centric fantasy - follow with some Octavia Butler. New books, change it up with some classics.

I have a huge to-read list, and it grows faster than it shrinks. I recently cataloged most of my books, and I have about 37 books on my kindle I haven’t read, and about 200 hard copy books. Over half of those are graphic novels, though, books I either haven’t read or can’t remember whether I’ve read. Still, a lot are novels that I bought since 2012 (see the dollar rack reference above) and haven’t read.

I probably have enough of a to-read list for now.

Cleopatra in Space: Volume One, Target Practice

Monday, May 12, 2014

One of several Mike Maihack prints on my wall!

Cleopatra in Space: Volume One, Target Practice
Mike Maihack, 2014

Premise: On her fifteenth birthday, Cleopatra skips out on her lessons to explore the city with a friend. She ends up finding more than she bargained for. In the far future, her appearance is prophesied, although no one will tell her what her role in the intergalactic war is supposed to be, and in the meantime, she still has to go to class.

I’ve loved Mike Maihack’s art for some time now, and I enjoyed the early webcomic version of Cleopatra in Space, so I picked this up as soon as it hit store shelves.

This is a charming volume. Cleo is fun, funny and sharp, there’s enough intriguing backstory to flesh out the concept but not so much to weigh down the story. The pace flies; I finished this book extremely quickly and then had to flip back through more slowly to enjoy the art. The art style is so effortless and stylized that it’s easy to miss all the little details and subtle things like color choice and line weight that give a strong tone to each character and scene.

Also, I enjoyed the setting! A future obviously highly influenced by Ancient Egypt, containing multiple races working together, including intelligent talking cats, of course! Khensu is a great character, and all the other cats are pretty fun.

This is an all-ages book that skews slightly young: I enjoyed it, but I think kids would really love it. The only downside is that this volume is rather light on plot, and there won’t be more for SO LONG. However, I think about the fact that I read Bone all at once, so I didn’t have time to be annoyed at how little happens in the first volume. I think that Cleopatra in Space, if allowed to play out to it’s multi-volume potential, could grow into a similar classic.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Fortune's Pawn

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fortune's Pawn
Rachel Bach, 2013

Premise: Devi Morris is a merc with a goal: get into the most elite unit on her home planet. To do so before anyone else her age, she plans to get some bonus points spending a year pulling security duty on a ship known for trouble. But with a crew full of secrets, and even more trouble than Devi's got plasma shots, she may not make it out at all.

I'm going to come out on one point first. This book has a lot in common with a lot of current urban fantasy. First person female narrator, mysterious love interest, action, drama.

However, this book is superior, because it's in SPACE!

I had heard nothing but good things going into this book, and I can see why. Devi is awesome. Kick-ass, naturally, funny and clever. Stubborn and bad-tempered too, prone to shooting first and maybe asking questions if the other guy pulls through. (Her anger is something I really connect with.) She's not at the start of her career; she's a professional and it always shows. She's an adult, comfortable with her sexuality and her ambition.

I love her.

The world is intriguing and well-constructed. It's not hard sci-fi, but it doesn't pretend to be.

I did have a couple quibbles. Devi spends a lot of this book up against people way out of her weight class. There's a good reason for this, but I just wanted maybe one more out-and-out win for her early on.

The book ends on a cliffhanger that made me rather crazy, until I saw that the first chapter of the second one was in my kindle copy. (Plus, books two and three are already out, so: yay, no waiting!)

Overall, this book lived up to the hype. It's super fun and hard to put down. Devi is my kind of hero.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Sex Criminals: Volume One

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sex Criminals: Volume One
Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, 2014

Electronic copy provided by NetGalley for review

Premise: Susie and Jon have something unusual in common. When they orgasm, time stops. No, literally. Once they find each other, what else would they do with such a talent... Collects Sex Criminals #1-5

I had heard only good things about this title, so I jumped at the chance to read the trade. I did really enjoy it, but I think it starts much stronger than it ends.

The story starts in medias res, then flashes back and forth to fill in all the background. Susie's origin story in the first issue was probably my favorite part. I'll agree with other commentators here, and say that for a book written by two guys, it does a fantastic job with a girl's sexual awakening. Susie's confusion, angst, loneliness and curiosity all felt very real and plausible.

I have less context for the plausibility of Jon's story in issue two, but it's interesting and sad.

As the book goes on, and we eventually get more and more of the present and less of the past, it feels like the theme loses focus a little. It's still interesting, but it becomes less an intriguing metaphor for sex and intimacy and more a story about people with weird powers. Still good, but not as good.

I really enjoyed the art. Both poses and body types are at least semi-realistic! I love the issue covers, too, and I’m glad they were included. They're evocative, simple, vibrant and just gorgeous.

I'm curious to know where Fraction and Zdarsky are planning to go with this, or if they had a plan beyond this point. The volume ends, not with the end of the story, but at a possible end. And it's satisfying, mostly.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

River of Stars

Monday, April 21, 2014

River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay, 2014

Premise: Sequel to Under Heaven. It is a different time for Kitai. The balance between the court and the army is finally tilted to the court’s satisfaction, but what will that mean when Altai riders from the steppe pour over the border? Into this time are born a few people who may affect the course of history. Or they may not. It is not given for mortal men to know.

It is hard to describe a book like this. I can describe the characters: subtle, passionate, vengeful, honorable, wise, foolish. I can describe the prose: meditative, textured, delicate. I can describe the themes: the place of men in history, the role of narrative in destiny, the secret small reasons behind the sweep of ages.

But somehow, all of this together is more than the parts. Kay's style of historically-inspired fantasy isn't for everyone, but I usually find it satisfying.

River of Stars is a book about an invasion and a war. It is also a book about extraordinary people and how they both shape the time and react to the time that is thrust upon them. It is also a book about a romance.

I need to speak a bit of Lin Shan here, Shan of the sharp mind and the careful words. On the surface, if I were to tell you all the things that make her special, you might think that she is a too-perfect character, an unrealistic attempt to cover the fact that women had very little public life in a time like this. However, she is perfectly balanced by the male lead, whose skills are near mythic.

And even if she didn't read as wonderfully grounded as she does, she is based (loosely) on a real person. A real person, who really lived, the greatest female poet of her age.

This isn't the kind of book I always enjoy. Much of it is almost a series of vignettes,many of the active scenes happen off-screen and you have to piece it together later.

But if you're in the mood for a rich, delicate visit to an ancient China that never was, then follow Ren Daiyan, Lin Shan and all the ministers, warriors and poets, and relish the journey.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker, Book 1)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cold Magic (Spiritwalker, Book 1)
Kate Elliott, 2010

Premise: Catherine Barahal was brought up by her aunt and uncle after her parents’ death. She plans to go to school. She plans to help in the family business. She would never plan to get swept up in the politics of nations, revolution and magic, but once events are set in motion, she’ll do whatever she must to survive and discover the truth of her past.

After I loved Jaran, I decided to pick up one of the author's more recent books. Despite being different in almost every other way, the books share a cross genre appeal and a compelling heroine. Cold magic is... fantasy steam punk adventure alternate history with a thread of romance. The magic is fascinating. The characters are complicated and varied. I was completely thrown by a sharp left turn in the plot, but was eager to discover where it was headed.

I loved how historical figures were different, but recognizable. The story swings from the concerns of young girls to the concerns of nations in a way that actually seems quite reasonable for the situation.

Cat's world is delicately balanced between industry and magic, between spirit and steel. She is trapped by her past, by the actions of others, by treachery and circumstance. It's the way she is determined to turn these very things to her advantage that has me marking the sequel on my to read list.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, April 7, 2014

Frederick Pohl, 1976

Hugo winner - 1978

Premise: Ever since humanity found ships left behind by the mysterious Heechee, people have been taking them out for the chance at a fortune, despite a much larger chance of death. Robbie Broadhead tries to be one of those prospectors, but he doesn't get what he expects.

I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. The ending was actually pretty effective. Getting there, however, was somewhat of a slog. I found the first third or so incredibly slow.

The story flips back and forth between Broadhead's experiences as a prospector and his sessions with an artificial therapist years later. It's supposed to be a mystery how he became rich and so screwed up, but the character is rather unlikable, and I wasn't able to muster much interest in his story.

However, I do think that there is some really interesting writing in this regarding unreliable narration and self delusion. The ending, as I said, is emotionally effective. It might be really interesting on a re-read.
But I just kept putting the book down and not wanting to pick it back up. Not a style that gripped me, I guess I might say.

Overall it clearly has merits, but I personally can't recommend it.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

List of Hugo Winners

The Price of the Stars

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Price of the Stars
Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald, 1992

Premise: Beka Rosselin-Metadi has no interest in being part of her famous family. She’s a brilliant spaceship pilot, and she’s happy working the trading lanes. But when her politician mother is assassinated, she’ll have to get interested in the politics of the galaxy. It’s the only way to stay alive, and bring her mother’s killers to justice.

I wanted some solid space action, and I got it! This book started a little slow for me, but it picked up. For one thing, apparently I didn’t read the back closely enough and it threw me that it’s sci-fi with magic. Once it gets going, though, the authors handle both the spaceships and the magic well, ending up with something akin to a more hard-edged Star Wars-type world.

I picked up this book for the cover. Look at the cover! Isn’t it awesome? Beka is great fun. Tough and prickly with only occasional sentimentality, she’s interested in getting the job done. She spends a good deal of time in male disguise, and occasionally it seems to be a safety valve for her. ‘Beka’ can’t shoot people in cold blood and fly uncaring into danger, but her alter ego can.

The story is also carried by a slew of other characters: Beka’s brothers, a mysterious helper called The Professor, a young mage, a medic, her father the general’s assistant who is investigating her ‘apparent death’, the multitude of people out to help or hinder them all…

It’s not super-brilliant writing: few of the characters are fully fleshed out and a lot of the world building seems to come out of nowhere suddenly whenever it becomes necessary, but the adventure is enjoyable, and I enjoyed it more and more as the book went on.

3 Stars - A Good Book


Monday, March 24, 2014

Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008

Premise: Lia has a problem. She thinks it's that her father and mother hate each other or that her stepmother is always on her case. Or that her best friend is dead. The way Lia looks at food and sees numbers, the way she gets around adults plans for her, that makes her strong, right?

This isn't the type of book I generally read. If you'd told me that I would be swept away utterly by a book which portrays the mental state of someone suffering from anorexia, I might not have believed you. But this book is amazing.

The style is evocative and appropriately chilling. Lia is completely sympathetic and her feelings are comprehensible, even while the reader despairs of her decisions. She lives in a world more and more unconnected from reality.

And then she starts to see things.

Maybe. Maybe not.

In Cassie's words: “You’re not dead, but you’re not alive, either. You’re a wintergirl…”

Lia eventually has to decide whether to save herself, there’s no way for anyone else to do it for her.

This is a beautiful story: sad and lovely. It is also upsetting, visceral and haunting. If you can take it, I highly recommend it.

4 stars - A Very Good Book

Orphans of Chaos

Monday, March 17, 2014

Orphans of Chaos
John C. Wright, 2005

Premise: Amelia and her friends go to an unusual school. The hardly ever leave and it seem like they’ve been there an awfully long time. Will they ever discover what their true backgrounds are? Do I care?

Warning up front: there will be spoilers of a sort for this book. I wish I'd known more going in, or known enough not to go in. Don’t read it. Just. Don’t.

I came close to not even finishing this book. I just... it’s terrible. It’s boring and unpleasant and I hated it. But here, let me explain a couple of the specific subjects I took issue with.

1) Women.

I believe and have experience that corroborates the fact that men can write perfectly believable and sympathetic female characters, but I did not find that to be the case here.

The main character, Amelia, starts out as a fairly stereotypical tomboy. She has little use for the only other girl of her age, who is more stereotypically female (her name is even Vanity). She has a few out-of-nowhere comments about suddenly understanding the purposes of makeup and high heels, and they’re all super-submissive and male-gazey and ugh. Amelia says that she wants nothing more than to be an explorer, but we never see that. Her personality is mostly told, not shown.

With one exception:

Conveniently, Amelia is put into situation after situation where she is confronted with her own arousal at being restrained. She seems mildly disturbed by this, but eventually seems okay about it, even after it’s revealed that she was altered by another character to like that. Now, age is unclear, but since she presents as around 14, all I can say about this is that it made me feel kind of scummy to read.

I am so glad I couldn't have read this as a teenager. I think I could have swallowed Amelia’s thin perspective hook line and sinker, and ended up even more self-loathing of myself for being female than I was at the time. Hence: why I have no patience with it now.

2) Gods.

So it's eventually revealed, through a lot of tedious narration, that the kids are the descendants of the Titans, and they're being held hostage by other factions among the Greek gods to keep the peace. Which, okay, that could be cool. Even though it makes the title of the book somewhat depressingly literal. The kids each have vastly different and incompatible power sets, and we learns very little about any of them except Amelia’s. It should be cool that she can see into/interact with other dimensions, but it just felt so clinical to me.

My biggest problem is that except for a lot of obscure references that are probably very satisfying for scholars of greek myth, and arguably one scene with Aphrodite, it didn't feel mythic at all. It felt pedantic. It felt like a badly designed game, where fire beats water and water beats earth, so to win you.... The kids might as well have been space aliens. It might have been more interesting if they were. Their relationship to the actual myths was only sketchily outlined, although i may have been skimming by then.

Also, why the Hades was Grendel in a book about greek myth, but not any figures from other myths? Why, if the gods are so powerful and so present is earth more or less the same?

Finally, the ending is completely unsatisfying. I’d like to close with something I really wanted to happen to all of the characters in this book, courtesy of a more interesting character who is better at magic than they could hope to be.

1 Star - Didn’t much like it

Important PS: when I was about 3/4 of the way through, I got so bored that I got curious about other peoples reactions to the book. I found that Wright has distanced himself from this book, not for any particularly good reason, but because he is now a “Christian” super-raging unhinged bigot. FUN TIMES. Yup, going to stay far far away from anything else by this one.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Sarah Waters, 2002

Premise: Susan Trinder was raised a thief, in a family of thieves. An older male friend convinces her to go in on a scheme to swindle a young gentlewoman out of her fortune, by posing as a maid. Think you know how this story goes? You’re wrong.

“When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin.” - Susan, page 117

Fingersmith is a maze of lies, tangled history, pornography, madhouses, jails, thieves, murderers, and passion. Susan tells her story in the first person, but doesn’t give away much of what’s to come, just enough to darken her story with a great deal of foreboding. It’s an uncomfortable story in many ways, full of unhappy people acting out their unhappiness in desperate acts and hurting everyone around them. It’s completely compelling from first to last, though.

Sue and Maud (the aforementioned young lady) are the main characters. They are completely different in temperament and history, but are consistently drawn together.

Sue is determined to live up to (or down to) her mother: a burglar hung as a murderess. Maud has a complicated relationship with hers, a woman who died young, but visits her grave often. Sue has a substitute mother in Mrs. Sucksby, a woman who consorts with thieves and fosters and sells infants, who raised Sue from a child. Maud is raised by her uncle, an off-putting eccentric, obsessed with his books and studies.

Gentleman, a man of many names, is the catalyst for the story, but the women are always the heart of it. Sue is simple in ways, but good-hearted, clever and determined. Maud is emotionally cold, but brilliant, strong and focused. Neither of them are characters I might want to know personally, but both are characters I wanted to see happy, despite them often being at odds.

This book takes turns being a slow-burning mystery, a thriller, a drama, and a passionate romance. I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that I don’t want to tell you much about, and this is another. The first person account means that secrets and plots are revealed only slowly over the story. However, I will tell you what sold me on reading this one was knowing that it is a (small spoiler:) lesbian romance-thriller, plus it just sounded amazing.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Monday, March 3, 2014

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Kate Wilhelm, 1976

Hugo Winner - 1977

Premise: David’s family has lived in the valley for generations. Many members of the family go out, work in vastly different fields, but they remain connected to each other. When rumors begin of coming disaster, the valley becomes the last hope for them all.

This is a unique story that also manages to capture a sense of the common bonds of humanity. It is split into three sections, with three different view-point characters, separated by generations.

The writing is lovely; the characters are complicated and sympathetic. There were a couple of future-science things that made me think: “wait a minute, I don’t think that’s how that works”. Like the best books of its type, though, it’s the social and cultural ramifications of the developments that are interesting and important, not whether it’s scientifically plausible.

This book is the story of the survival of the human species, and what physical survival might mean to the human spirit. It’s about love and life and art and humanity’s relationship with nature.

It’s about individuality and both the danger and the value it holds for communities. It’s about creativity and the way it comes into conflict with safety.

For me, this book was served by knowing very little about the plot, but I don’t think it would hurt your reading to know more about the premise: it’s about a project to save the human race through cloning in the face of a worldwide drop in fertility due to radiation poisoning. At least it is at first.

Because really it’s about love and families, children and societies. It’s beautiful, and one of my favorite Hugo winners to date.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book