Klaus (Issues #1-7)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Note: Image not actually a
good representation of the story.
Klaus (Issues #1-7)
Grant Morrison and Dan Mora, 2015-2016

I remember seeing this title about a reimagined Santa hit stores. I've always been intrigued but also very tentative about it.

A big part of why I never read this book before now is that I've been burned before on Santa retellings, and the cover art was fairly realistic/Conan in style, making me think it would be too dark. I have strong opinions on what is appropriate Santa behavior and what is not. I have a history with this character that I'm protective of. In short, I have FEELINGS about this topic.

Now I've read it, and... y'all, this might be a new favorite.

Read the full review on Mainlining Christmas!

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

P.S. - This mini-series has been followed by a series of annual one-shot stories that have ramped up the superhero-flavor, the action, and the sense of an entire yuletide-magic-universe. I've read a few and they're fun, but I think I prefer this first story, at least so far.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards, compilation 2019 (US release)

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

Premise: A new collection of little-known stories with a holiday twist from the classic age of crime fiction from British Library Crime Classics.

Like most short fiction collections, this one is hit and miss. Some of these stories are fun, but none of them were exceptional.

Read the full review on Mainlining Christmas!

Overall I was left diverted, but not ever transported. The stories ranged from okay to quite good, never breaking into great.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

A Cup of Holiday Fear (A Bakeshop Mystery)

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Cup of Holiday Fear
Ellie Alexander, 2019

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

Premise: Jules runs a bakery in charming artistic tourist town Ashland, Oregon, where she is kept busy preparing for the Christmas rush and snooping around after an out-of-towner ends up dead.

I have two fairly substantial issues with this book, and in the end, I can't give it a pass.

Read the full review on Mainlining Christmas!

The more I think about it, the less I like it, and the writing just isn't nearly good enough to justify the moral quandary. I would like to visit the real Dickens event, though.

1 Star - Didn't Like It

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language

Monday, November 11, 2019

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Gretchen McCullough, 2019

Premise: A linguist examines the way language is affected by the internet and affects online behavior.

Somewhat ironically, I read this book in hard copy and was constantly annoyed that I couldn't highlight passages to reference easily later. I enjoyed reading it a lot, but I kept getting interrupted (and interrupted for longer - days sometimes - than I usually am when reading a book on my phone or Kindle). So I think I'd need to read it again to really absorb it.

Each chapter focuses on one language aspect of the modern internet - for example, how when and why a person started going online affects how they use language online. Or how the definition of meme continues to shift and change over time as what memes themselves communicate shifts. Each topic is fascinating internally, and together the book creates a patchwork picture of the complexity of online communication.

I especially liked whenever the book drew parallels between modern and historical conventions. It really helped me think about how language conventions spread and change. The book puts everything from acronyms to emojis in context of the larger study of language. It also makes a compelling case for the value of studying informal language and explains how the internet makes that easier than it's ever been before.

Word nerds like me will definitely appreciate this book, but I would also recommend it to anyone who wants to consider modern communication in a nuanced, educated manner. Also, it's a lot of fun. The author wrote for The Toast and made a needlepoint of the "behold the field in which..." meme, which she describes in an extended metaphor. You know if you're the kind of person who would be entertained by that.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Becoming Us: Travelers on the Jimmy Come Lately Road

Monday, November 4, 2019

Becoming Us: Travelers on the Jimmy Come Lately Road
Judy Bordeaux, 2019

Premise: This gentle memoir traces three generations making their way in America.

Judy Bordeaux passed away in 2018. She was a fantastic storyteller. I knew her briefly because we sang with the same chorus. The introduction to this book explains how it was completed posthumously.

I expected this to be well written and entertaining, but it also has a quiet depth that I really enjoyed.

The book tells the story of her family through parallel struggles and situations faced by her grandparents, her parents, and herself. Some of the vignettes chronicle significant events, others the small adventures of life. Around the edges of many of the stories lurks the racism faced by her Japanese grandfather and half-Japanese father. The author uses her ancestors' stories to color her own experiences.

Between the focus on the immigrant experience and the setting here in Washington state, this is a strongly American story. It doesn't feature action or much drama, but instead dwells with delight on small details and the specialness of every life.

Reading this book made me more curious about my own family history, and reminded me that everyone's story has something interesting about it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Study in Emerald (graphic novel adaptation)

Monday, October 28, 2019

A Study in Emerald (graphic novel adaptation)
Original story by Neil Gaiman, adaptation by Rafael Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, Dave Stewart, et. al., 2018

Premise: A certain notable detective and his partner try to solve a crime in a very different version of Victorian London.

When I heard there was to be a graphic novel adaptation of "A Study in Emerald," I was immediately intrigued. Intrigued, and a little hesitant. It's a clever mashup story, combining Sherlock Holmes with Lovecraftian elder gods. I've read the original many times.

The story is already a visual feast - there's a fantastic version laid out like a period broadsheet, complete with advertisements full of easter eggs. But the conceit of the story also hinges on what is not seen by the reader, so I was curious how well the art would balance the need to illustrate the story with the desire to maintain a certain ambiguity.

Overall, I think it does very well.

It helps that Rafael Albuquerque is, in my opinion, the perfect choice for this piece. His art style meshes well with horror/mystery, and the texture fits the world just right.

My one quibble might be the design of the first horror, from the narrator's experience in Afghanistan. It was just a little too generic-Cthulhu in looks, in my opinion. Most of the other glimpses worked well.

On the other hand, I think the human character designs were right on target: conveying the sense of each character while serving the needs of the story and relative realism of the world. There are even a few visual flourishes that enhance the characters and story.

However, I would be very curious to hear the reactions of readers who aren't already familiar with the original story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Deepness in the Sky

Monday, October 21, 2019

A Deepness in the Sky
Vernor Vinge, 1999

Hugo Winner - 2000

Premise: Two grand fleets are converging to attempt to solve the mystery of the On-Off Star and potentially profit thereby. The inhabitants of the circling world face war and revolution, as do the humans coming in from the stars. Set in the same universe as (but having only subtle connections to) A Fire Upon the Deep.

This book is really impressive, but it wasn't quite for me, at least not right now. It might be another book that suffered from my recent change in reading habits. It’s long and hard to read in snippets. It's really, really long. It’s good, but it’s just so... long... that I might have quit reading it if not for this project. There are a lot of characters to introduce and civilizations to set up, and the plot takes forever to really get started.

The villains are extremely villainous (to the point that anything other than a final victory by the heroes would have been extremely unpleasant to read). Most of the descriptions aren't that explicit, but warnings for sexual assault, torture, murder, super-science used to destroy minds, techno-slavery, the death of children, and other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. The heroes are innovators, scientists, free-thinkers, and a culture of trade-focused humans sometimes described with similar language to Roma or Jewish communities, while the villains are religious zealots, autocrats, misogynists, etc.

So early on I was a bit bored with the morality of the story - when it wasn't making my skin crawl.

And not because half the characters are giant intelligent spiders.

The choices of style and meta-narrative around the Spiders were great, some really interesting techniques there. The world(s) were very interesting, the characters (on the good side) complex and well crafted. There’s a lot of great sci-fi concepts here around interstellar culture, the effects of space travel and suspended animation on culture and relationships, the morality of certain technology, the difficulty in understanding a truly non-human sentient species, etc.

To deliver such a complicated story probably required this length, but even the climax went on and on as little things were revealed and various characters acted in disparate locations...which were all lovingly described...at length.

I really liked the book by the end, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment, but I had to keep making myself go back to keep reading it. I just didn’t love it.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Index of Hugo Award Winners


Monday, October 14, 2019

Kristin Cashore, 2008

Premise: Some people are born with a special skill; they are talented beyond normal mortals. This one is a singer, this one a dancer, this one can read minds. Katsa is a killer.

I came at this book from the reverse direction from many readers because I already read and loved Jane, Unlimited, a much more recent book by the same author. (I remember hearing some dissatisfaction that the books were so different from fans of this series.) I knew this book had awards and lots of fans. I wasn’t looking for anything beyond an entertaining and relatively easy read, and I got that and a little more.

I’ve been reluctant to read YA again recently after being burned a few times, but this was quite good. Katsa is a great character, both vulnerable and strong, thoughtful and determined. She almost unconsciously finds ways to care about people despite her own suffering and difficulties. The romance is well written and any sappiness is fully justified.

The world and the Graces are really interesting, and I didn’t even mind that they weren’t explained. The book has a lovely quality that sits halfway between a fantasy novel and a fairy tale. The Grace powers remind me of the fairies blessing Sleeping Beauty, but the plot is grounded in surviving a world where such powers are real.

Worth the hype, this was a solid read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Queen of Ieflaria

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Queen of Ieflaria
Effie Calvin, 2018

Premise: While Princess Esofi is en route to her marriage, the prince she was to marry dies suddenly. To save an alliance and bring aid to a beleaguered kingdom, Esofi must decide whether she will instead marry the prince's irresponsible sister.

I found this fantasy/romance novel promising; in fact, I bought it on the strength of the sample. Unfortunately, for me it fell sadly short by the end.

The intriguing aspects include the magic and the larger world, including the complicated religion of this group of small kingdoms. Even more interesting were the two main characters, who each subvert their initial stereotype. Esofi, who is frothy and girlish, is also a stone-cold magical badass and has been raised with all the training befitting a future queen. Crown Princess Adale is an action girl on the surface: she wears pants and goes out hunting and drinking. Once she starts trying to impress Esofi, Adale eventually finds that her actual strength is in mental work and research.

Their growing romance is sweet enough, but the overall plot was rushed and disjointed. Plus there were a number of interesting or alarming plot threads that were teased and then completely dropped.

Adale might have to talk Esofi out of destroying a research lab in an excess of religious zeal? Oh no big deal, we'll have one conversation about it, get distracted by other things, and never mention it again. One of them will have to master some pretty significant magic in order for them to have a child? This seems like it's going to be a significant part of their courtship, as it ought to be important for the royal family's continuity, but after the first few mentions, it's handwaved away as something to deal with later, after they're married.

There's a significant part of the plot about the fact that Adale's cousins would be terrible rulers, although they come courting Esofi in the hopes of gaining power, but she barely reacts or even seems to realize when their misdeeds are revealed. Why were they even there? Plus one of the major stressful, potentially political issues that the characters face is solved by some literal deus ex machina. Again, why was it built up so much only to be summarily solved nearly off-screen?

After all that, the book ends with fighting some dragons, and all the loose threads are just left hanging. These characters aren't even in the next book set in this world! So much promise in the premise, but I'm not sold enough to read more.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Damiano Trilogy (previously published as A Trio for Lute)

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Damiano Trilogy (previously published as A Trio for Lute)
R.A. MacAvoy, originally published in three volumes, 1984

Premise: Damiano Delstrego is a witch by heritage and a musician by choice, although few musicians, even those with second sight, have an Archangel for a lute teacher. Damiano and Raphael face tribulations, hard choices, and danger (both human and demonic) across Renaissance Italy.

I loved this series (originally published as three slim volumes: Damiano, Damiano's Lute, and Raphael) in high school, and I've been meaning to reread it literally for years. I even reread the first book back in 2014, but then got distracted by other, newer works.

Honestly, I finally reread it this summer because after I fell hard into fan content for Good Omens after the Amazon miniseries came out, I was reminded of the first book I loved about an angel interfering with humanity.

Going back to it is... odd. I still think it's quite good. The writing is lovely, the world is intriguing - including the coexistence of celestial powers and multiple human types of magic that might or might not have a heavenly/hellish source.

However, what I remembered about it were these evocative images such as Damiano facing Satan in his palace, Raphael mantling giant wings over his protege, the powerful way the magic was described, and the existential anguish and triumph in the final volume.

And the series has all that, but it's much more a solid fantasy novel and much less a poetic experience than I remembered. Especially the third part. I still really liked it, but I was prepared for something much darker and more transcendental than I got. Plus there's a dragon in it. I didn't remember the dragon at ALL, but he's a major factor in the plot.

Where this series excels is the way actual religious and historical elements are blended with fantasy. Christianity is treated similarly to many religions in fantasy novels, with perhaps a bit more power. Damiano is facing the political and ecclesiastical powers fighting for control of the Italian city-states, and his character is very grounded in the time and place he comes from. Another major character is from what is now Finland, and she might as well be from Fairyland for all she has in common with the Italians. But she at least is mortal, while Raphael sympathizes with his human friends, but cannot understand them, not really.

I might be a smidge disappointed to let go of what I remembered this series being, but what it is is still great.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Side Note: The Open Road Media Kindle version of this trilogy has the WORST OCR I've suffered through in a while. Avoid if possible.

A Conspiracy of Truths

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Conspiracy of Truths
Alexandra Rowland, 2018

Premise: A collector of stories is in prison, accused of witchcraft. What he tells his captors could not only determine his fate, but the fate of the nation.

I had seen some positive reviews for this book, so I picked it up when it was cheap. Unfortunately, it didn’t fully work for me.

It’s well written, and many of the stories that pepper the narrative are intriguing. The idea of a person dismantling a government by telling the right stories is cool, but despite his admitted role, Chant seems more swept along by events than anything else. The one huge thing he does has little to do with storytelling and more to do with networking. Alternate family structures and homosexual and bisexual characters are seen as normal, which was nice, but this didn’t really affect the plot, just added interesting flavor. The gimmick/twist that the first-person narrative is, in fact, being told to an actual character other than the reader is cute, but I felt it was introduced at a time that made the end of the plot too obvious.

It might have just been the wrong time for me to read this book. My reading time these days is extremely broken up, often at odd times of my sleep-deprived new-parent schedule. Maybe because of this, I never did learn to keep all the characters in this story straight, so a lot of the political maneuvering just read as fantasy name salad.

The narration was interesting enough to keep reading though, and the pace and characterizations really took on more life in the last quarter. I feel like there were many interesting things in this world that were only vaguely alluded to in this book.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, Book 3)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, Book 3)
Seanan McGuire, 2018

Premise: Cora is a new student at the Home for Wayward Children - the school and refuge for those young souls who traveled to other worlds and came back to Earth despite it no longer being their home. Sequel to Every Heart a Doorway.

When is novella three a sequel to novella one? When novella two is a prequel. Beneath the Sugar Sky picks up plot threads from the first novella with mixed results, in my opinion. I still love the characters and the world(s), but I found the pace of this one much less compelling. It meanders, introducing characters and ideas and then moving on, almost a travelogue with a goal more than a quest.

Cora is a great character, but she is underserved by the plot hinging so directly on previous events that she wasn't present for. It makes her feel like an extra in a story told largely from her perspective.

Again, I still really enjoyed this read, but I wasn't nearly as blown away by this installment.

3 Stars - A Good Book (with great moments)

Books About Being a Working Mom

Monday, September 9, 2019

As my maternity leave winds down, I find myself impatient with long fiction and more compelled to seek out books that might help me navigate this new aspect of my life.

Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Motherhood
Allyson Downey, 2016

Even though I read this book late, and thus skimmed through chapters that no longer applied to me, I’m glad I found this one. From information about planning to take leave and being pregnant at work to discussing the division of household chores and balancing work and childcare, this book is full of concrete advice delivered with good humor.

It covers the bases without getting too far into the weeds in a style that’s breezy enough to read when somewhat sleep-deprived. The narration is peppered with personal anecdotes, examples, and quotes. It’s definitely targeted to white-collar office workers, but that works for me.

My favorite part of this book might be a brief section about research into “mommy brain.” The takeaway: sleep deprivation is real, busyness and shifting priorities are real, but the cultural idea that pregnancy causes memory loss, etc. causes many pregnant and postpartum people to perceive that they have lost much more function than is actually borne out in research.

The further reading section looks to be full of interesting titles too.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Work. Pump. Repeat. The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work
Jessica Shortall, 2015

This short, targeted text is exactly the kind of practical, friendly manual that this topic needs. I found it at just the right time, too, when I was having trouble with feeding and low-key panicking about being ready to go back to work.

The section on pump technology is already a little bit out of date in terms of brands and models, but I already had all my equipment in hand, so that didn’t make a difference to me.

After reading this book, I feel both ready to take on pumping for a while and ready to adjust the plan depending on how it goes. After slogging through so much advice online or in other books that seemed only for stay-at-home moms or breastfeed-or-die die-hards, I loved so many parts of this book. The funny-sad stories of the lengths people go through to feed their child breastmilk; the section on when and how many people balance pumping with supplementing; and especially the section on keeping perspective and dealing with your emotional reactions and pressure from others.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 2)

Monday, September 2, 2019

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries, Book 2)
Martha Wells, 2018

Premise: The continuing adventures of a security unit with free will. When your actions and your memory can be controlled by outside forces, how do you understand your own past?
Sequel to All Systems Red.

While not quite as instantly charming as the first novella, this opens up the world and expands the plot. Murderbot is still a delightful narrator, and in this one, it gets to interact with other AIs and other constructs, as well as humans.

The two main plots (Murderbot investigating an event from its past and a cover mission pretending to be a human security specialist) trip along briskly, neither dragging nor moving too fast. The novella is just the right length for the plot, although I look forward to reading the four novellas in one go at some point.

4 stars - A Very Good Book

Trouble Is My Business

Monday, August 26, 2019

Trouble Is My Business
Raymond Chandler, 1950 (stories originally published 1934-39)

Premise: Four long short stories (not quite novellas) by the master of hard-boiled detective fiction.

Chandler and his creation Philip Marlowe are always a delight as far as I'm concerned. These stories may not be the best of the best, but they are each satisfying in turn. Marlowe gets tangled up with wealthy families with gambling debts, mysterious women, corrupt politicians, corrupt cops, and aging ex-cons.

I especially enjoyed "Goldfish," about the search for a string of valuable pearls stolen years earlier, because it was quite different in setting and characters than the others. The best one is probably the last, "Red Wind," which starts with weather and murder and spirals quickly out of control from there.

It's the tone and the style that carry you effortlessly through Chandler's work, and that talent is developing here before it comes to full flower in his brilliant novels.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Monday, August 19, 2019

To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis, 1998

Hugo Winner - 1999

Premise: Takes place in the same world as Doomsday Book. Time-traveling researchers are struggling to determine the historical state of a cathedral that is being reconstructed when an accidental animal rescue might risk the stability of history.

I was hopeful about this book. I liked, but didn’t love, Doomsday Book, and I had heard that this one was more fun. And it is lighter. In fact, it’s nearly insubstantial.

I understand that part of the point of the plot is that the time paradoxes make it so that the characters, in the end, have no real effect on what happens. This could still be a compelling story if the characters were worth it, but they aren’t.

The main character is boring and bland: the worst example of a stereotypically British person with no character traits other than “affable.” The love interest suffers from some unpleasantly gendered tropes, and her main character trait is that she’s obsessed with old mystery novels, to the point that she relates everything in her life to them. It makes her seem even dumber than she would seem otherwise. I couldn’t stand either character.

Despite all the talk about time paradox and historical incongruities, the plot had no weight, and I found little of it interesting. I spotted nearly all the "twists" miles away, and the ones I didn't see coming were boring.

1 Star - Didn’t Like It

A Closed and Common Orbit

Monday, August 5, 2019

A Closed and Common Orbit
Becky Chambers, 2016

Premise: An AI with an illegal amount of self-determination sets out to start a new life with the help of a technician with her own dark origin story. Sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

It’s been a while since I read the first book in this series, but this story manages to be the kind of sequel that doesn’t require you to remember much of what happened the first time around. Because of the events at the end of the previous book, these characters are more or less starting a new story and forging a new path.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, despite the fact that the plot is fairly small and subtle. The narrative jumps back and forth between two times. In the present, the AI “Sidra” is learning to live in a body and relate to organic life forms with the help of technician Pepper. In the past, we learn about Pepper’s childhood as a cloned slave and how she escaped that life.

We know from the beginning that Pepper made it through okay, and although the stakes in the present are high for Sidra, most of the conflict is emotional and often internal. Happily, that emotional conflict is well-handled and compelling. Both plotlines explore questions of identity and what constitutes a sense of self.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, July 29, 2019

Octavia Butler, 1979

Premise: Dana lives in California, and while her life and job aren't perfect, she's getting by. That is, until she starts unexpectedly shifting in time, visiting her ancestors in the pre-Civil War South.

This was a really good book, which is no surprise. Despite the core premise, it's a bit more grounded than the other works by Butler I've read. The time travel is never explained or justified; it's just what forces Dana to face history, both personal and political.

Dana struggles to understand the people she meets in the past at first, but once she spends more time there she struggles to maintain distance and context. As a black woman, she has to adapt in order to survive the 1800s, without letting go of her "real life" in the 1970s. Through Dana, the reader is brought closer to both the horrors and the complex realities of life under and around slavery.

Because it is complex. No character is a stereotype. Dana even discovers that one of her ancestors is a white slave owner, and his attitudes and actions are as complicated as the other characters (never romanticized at all, just realistically complicated).

It's a brutal, emotional book. Side note: Butler apparently used less graphic violence in the book than she discovered in her research into slave narratives because there was a worry (not sure whether hers or the publisher's) about keeping a wide audience.

5 Stars - An Amazing Book

The Good Knight (The Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries, Book 1)

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Good Knight (The Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries, Book 1)
Sarah Woodbury, 2011

Premise: When Gwen and her family stumble upon a murder on their way to a wedding at the Welsh king’s court, the last person she expects to run into is her old flame Gareth.

I saw this book offered as a free promotion just when I was thinking that I wanted a relatively light series to get into. The book's not bad, but I don't think I'll be reading any more in the series.

The book (and series) is set in Wales in the 1100s, and the historical setting seems sound for the most part. The characters, the story, and the style were just too bland for me.

Gwen is spunky, Gareth is good-hearted, the villain is fairly ridiculously villainous. The only character with some intriguing nuance is the Welsh king's illegitimate son, who both Gwen and Gareth work for (as an informant/observer and a knight respectively).

I finished reading the book, but I could feel myself rushing through the second half as the plot got more and more melodramatic and I just didn't care. I got the book partially because of an Amazon review that complained that the book was much more a mystery than a romance, but I could have used much more mystery than I got.

I'm just spoiled by the style and tone of the Cadfael books. This is too close in setting and aspirations for it to be satisfying.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Company of Liars

Monday, May 6, 2019

Company of Liars
Karen Maitland, 2008

Premise: Nine people travel north through England in 1348, trying to outrun the plague. Each of them hides a secret that might cost their life.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, marketed as a “reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.” It does contain travel and storytelling, but it has more in common with a mystery novel or a horror movie than that tagline would lead you to believe.

And that’s all to the good. The historical detail is complex but never oppressive or distracting, but it’s the characters that carry the story. Each character is one thing on the surface and quite another in reality. The reveals are gradual and natural. The narrative is broken up by stories the characters tell, often to throw others off the trail toward the truth.

This is historical fiction that plays out much like a psychological thriller, with a steadily rising sense of foreboding punctuated by violence and death.

It’s a compelling, solidly written piece, and it includes enough fantastical elements to have this genre fan considering classifying it as fantasy as well.

[Content Warning: This book contains extremely violent anti-Semitism and homophobia appropriate to the historical setting.]

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Assassin's Gambit

Monday, April 29, 2019

Assassin's Gambit
Amy Raby, 2013

Premise: Vitala has been sent undercover to kill the young emperor and hopefully strike a blow for her conquered homeland. Of course, politics are more complicated than she's been told, and then there's the little problem of falling in love.

This book is one from a short list of books that I bought for a dollar (or less) at some point, looked at a few months ago when I was cleaning my bookshelf, and decided to give a chance to. It's the only one of those books so far that didn't get relocated to the donate box after just a few chapters, but that doesn't mean it isn't going there now.

It's not bad. It's a fantasy romance with some interesting magic and an interesting political situation for the leads. It moves pretty quickly past the assassin-falls-for-the-target premise into more nuanced arguments about how a few people in the right positions might actually untangle a hostile territory occupation without destroying either side.

Plus both leads have trauma, and possibly PTSD, which is interesting. Vitala from the harsh training she underwent, culminating in a combination sexual assault/murder, and the emperor from fighting in a recent conflict, where he lost many people and his leg. Their attempts to work with and help heal each other were my favorite part of the book. Unfortunately, first we had to get through plenty of stereotypical-romance miscommunications and misunderstandings on the topic.

Again, it's not bad for it's genre, but neither does it fully transcend its tropes. Mostly amusing, although I started skimming through the sex scenes because they just didn't work for me, and that's never a good look for a romance.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Forever Peace

Monday, April 22, 2019

Forever Peace
Joe Haldeman, 1997

Hugo winner - 1998

Premise: Julian is a physics professor by inclination and education, but he's also been drafted part-time to run a remote soldier robot. There's more to the plot, and the blurb on the back of the book discusses it, but it doesn't happen until half the book is done.

Hmmm. This is an odd one. I had a cheap paperback copy that I picked up at some point, but I took an ebook version out of the library because I thought I'd be more likely to read it that way. I only read about a third of it by the time my three-week loan timed out.

I just could not get into this book. I kept putting off reading it. I finally found my place in the paperback copy and read some more, then left it on my nightstand, untouched, for weeks before reading more. (Considering I've often been known to read a novel in an afternoon, this is a major sign.)

At some point when I was about halfway through I finally read the blurb on the back of the book and realized that the new character and plot elements that had recently come out of left field were actually leading to the point of the book.

It's got a lot of big ideas in the second half about violence, doomsday weapons, doomsday cults, and humanity. I did pick up the pace once the end was in sight, although that was more about finishing the dang thing than caring about the story.

The first half is all world-building and setup, largely about the mind-sharing that the people "jacked" into the soldier robots experience, and the psychological effects it has. All of this is interesting stuff, but I never found the characters compelling.

Independent of said characters, there's a lot of interesting stuff here, but I just didn't find it an enjoyable or interesting enough read.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Any Old Diamonds

Monday, April 15, 2019

Any Old Diamonds
K.J. Charles, 2019

Premise: Alec and his siblings barely make ends meet after being cut off by their noble father. When he reaches a breaking point, Alec decides to try to get some of their own back by helping a pair of accomplished thieves steal his stepmother’s diamonds. Falling for one of them wasn’t part of the plan.

I read a lot of K.J. Charles’ historical romances. Like, most of them. Most of them I don’t bother to review here. This one, however, was especially delightful.

Alec is full of contradictions: he’s the son of a noble house, but happy to seek work as a freelance illustrator, while he’s also understanding of his siblings who can’t take on “normal” jobs and have any hope of regaining their social standing in Victoria’s England. He makes a choice and is tormented by it. He doesn’t know who to trust or how to solve his problems.

Jerry is a great thief, and one of his skills is the ability to read people. At first he gets close to Alec to ensure that the job will go well, but soon he’s asking probing questions, willing to give up a chance at the treasure to make sure that Alec isn’t making a decision he’ll regret.

The process of getting to the point of the burglary is detailed and lengthy, but the book always pulses with a sense of foreboding that leads inescapably toward the big caper. And then... spoilers.

I know, it’s a romance, how can there be spoilers? But that’s the genius of this book. You think it’s going one way, and then everything turns to show another facet.

It’s a ton of fun, sweet and sexy (the role-playing Jerry encourages to help Alec get back into his father’s good graces long enough to swindle him does not hurt in this regard). The plot is stellar, and it exists in the same world as several of the author's other books, with some light background connections. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Blue Sword

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Blue Sword
Robin McKinley, 1982

Premise: Angharad “Harry” Crewe lives with relatives on the edge of the kingdom after her father’s death. She is drawn to the rugged frontier land, but doesn’t think much of the tribes who live outside her civilization until she is chosen by their leader’s second sight.

It’s so funny to read this book for this first time now. I know this (and the prequel, The Hero and the Crown) were seminal fantasy reads for so many people I know. YA before YA was a genre, these books feature brave female protagonists who stand against great evil.

This one also features an abduction that turns into a romance. It’s about as well-handled as the trope can be - the guy is drawn to her because of his innate magic and she is the destined recipient of a magical artifact (the blue sword of the title). Plus they gain each other’s respect as warriors before they admit any romantic attraction. Still, it bugged me a bit.

It skews toward the fairy tale end of the fantasy spectrum with the magic, visions, and unexplained destinies, but there’s a good amount of description of practical weapons training, riding, and camping that I would have loved as a teenager.

I still liked this book, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but the experience of reading it was just good, not great. I think I missed the window.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, Book 1)

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, Book 1)
N. K. Jemisin, 2015

Hugo Winner - 2016

Premise: The world is ending. The empire which has been controlling the unstable earth has fallen. One woman reveals her forbidden power and leaves her home with only one goal: find the husband who murdered her son and rescue her daughter.

I should know better than to let months go by between finishing a book and writing a review, but sometimes life happens. Besides, what can I say about this book that hasn't been said? It's brilliant.

The triple-stranded narrative gives you multiple perspectives on the world and the society which are each fascinating, and it adds up to one heck of a story. The characters are complicated and intense. The magic and how it connects to the structure of the world is intriguing.

It's just really good.

There is a lot of tragedy in this story, but none of it felt gratuitous or exaggerated. It just felt tragic and true.

There's a reason Jemisin's work has been lauded so completely. This is a masterpiece.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Salt Magic, Skin Magic

Monday, March 25, 2019

Salt Magic, Skin Magic
Lee Welch, 2018

Premise: Lord Thornby can't leave his father's estate. It's not that he doesn't want to, but for some reason, he just can't. When John Blake arrives at the house claiming to be a magician, Thornby laughs it off at first. But only together can they rescue Thornby from madness or worse.

There was a point last winter when all I wanted to do was lie on the couch, nibble on crackers, and read fluffy romance. (Dear first trimester, I'm glad you're done.)

Of course, I have a particular definition of "fluffy", as the discussion in this review https://bluefairysbookshelf.blogspot.com/2018/07/a-gentleman-never-keeps-score.html explains. I need a certain amount of adventure and danger to make any romance worth my time.

So once I'd re-read the Magpie Lord series https://bluefairysbookshelf.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-magpie-lord-charm-of-magpies-book-1.html from start to end (seriously I should circle back and do a post about the fact that I love those books more and more the more I read them), I went looking for recommendations for other books that would scratch a similar itch.

I found this. I bought it. I read it. I went to check whether the author had released anything else in a similar vein. Then I went back to the beginning and read it again.

In short, I liked it.

I loved the world and the way the magic worked; I loved the lush descriptions; I loved the characters and their relationship. The romantic build keeps pace and interweaves with the supernatural shenanigans without either storyline feeling tagged on or shortchanged.

The magic surrounding Thornby and the estate has a good amount of darkness and menace to it, balanced with Blake's talent for the magic of pragmatic concrete things: iron and salt and such.

The central relationship is sweet and heartwarming, and super hot at the same time.

Great book all around, and an author worth keeping tabs on.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Seth Dickinson, 2015

Premise: After her island home is taken over by an empire, Baru is determined to gain enough power within the system to make a change.

I bought this book when it was cheap at some point because it got lots of acclaim when it came out. I can see why: it's very well written, the characters and the world are complex and intriguing, there are non-heteronormative cultures (and more powerful cultures that oppress LGBT and polyamorous people). The detail in the governments and economies at play is impressive.

I read it now because the sequel came out recently and reminded me that the book existed. And... I think I liked it? It's just that I am not, of late, in the mood for hard stories, stories of impossible choices and great betrayals, stories of brutality and horror.

And the ending of this book is a horror, with only the smallest embers of potential vengeance to carry light to the sequel. I felt myself consciously distancing my emotions from the characters as I felt it coming on, even as I hoped there would somehow be another way out.

So I can see that it's a masterpiece, but I'm not sure whether I want to read any more in the story. Maybe at some point.

?? - Undecided Rating.

Into the Drowning Deep

Monday, March 11, 2019

Into the Drowning Deep
Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), 2017

Premise: A ship went out, intending to film a shlocky “documentary” about mermaids. No one was seen again. The footage was discredited. Seven years later, another expedition is launching.

This book has all the complex and diverse characters, gruesome horror, and scientific plausibility that I expect from this author. It’s a horror movie on the page: introducing characters and steadily building foreshadowing, then shifting into high gear for the lengthy sequence of action scenes that lead to the climax. Said climax is perhaps a tad anticlimactic, but still great.

The cast is a complex ensemble led by Victoria, an underwater sound researcher looking for answers about her sister’s death on the earlier ship, and Olivia, a reporter for the entertainment network sponsoring the voyage. These two characters each have their trauma and their angst, but the way they find their way to hold onto each other in the face of all the death and horror is quite sweet.

Other notable characters include a trio of talented sisters with various scientific specialties, a cynical older woman whose life’s work was proving the existence of mermaids and her estranged husband who works for the network, and a pair of semi-sociopathic big game hunters who are part of the security team.

This is another winner from a reliable author. Gripping and tremendously enjoyable.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Red Waters Rising (The Devil's West, Book 3)

Monday, March 4, 2019

Red Waters Rising (The Devil's West, Book 3)
Laura Anne Gilman, 2018

Premise: Sequel to The Cold Eye. Isobel and Gabriel come at last to the banks of the Mississippi, to see the edge of the Devil's Territory and deal with problems there.

I still love this world and these characters, but I could ask for slightly more from the plot.

In this book we learn more about Gabriel and his relationship with water spirits, and more about Isobel's talents that are separate from her borrowed power as the Devil's Hand. They face the challenges of a city on the edge of the Territory, full of factions close enough to the outside world that they don't always respect the Agreement brokered between the land, the natives, and the settlers.

The writing continues to be evocative and lovely, and I like a lot of the new elements introduced in this volume. Isobel is coming into her own power, but the story isn't done by a long stretch.

So the main thing that worries me about this book is that I'm not sure whether there is more planned. The books read like a fevered dream, complete with the unsatisfying ending of trying to describe a dream after waking.

I liked the book a lot, but it doesn't bring the series to a satisfying landing in my opinion, so I hope there's more to come. (I know there's a set of short stories, but I haven't read them yet...)

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 3)

Monday, February 25, 2019

Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book 3)
Kim Stanley Robinson, 1996

Hugo winner - 1997

Premise: Sequel to Red Mars and Green Mars. The people of Mars take the next steps in trying to create a new society while not abandoning the problems of Earth. The survivors from the first settlers learn how different life becomes when you live for hundreds of years.

This book was long, and, much like its predecessors, it’s more a collection of connected stories than a novel. The book overall tells the story of the aftermath of the revolution, the creation of the new Martian government, and then the various ways people learn to live on Mars. Because each section follows a different character, you get a variety of perspectives, but that also means that some plot threads or ideas are dropped and never really picked up again.

Overall I enjoyed this one because I enjoy Nadia and Ann, and both of them were important characters. Nadia’s section is all about the creation of the new government and social structure on Mars. In 2018, it was downright soothing to read about people working hard and arguing in good faith about how to create the best society by learning from the past (particularly learning from what hasn’t worked).

Ann, long-time leader of the Red movement (those who want to prevent or delay terraforming) has largely lost any personal drive, but she comes to a kind of peace that feels genuine and reasonable. Sax, her long-time rival and champion of terraforming, continues his own physical and mental healing from the previous book. Other sections follow second-generation character Nirgal in his search for a life of meaning, and original leader Maya in her attempts to guide the politics of the next generation while struggling with aging. (I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting - did I say it was a long book?)

One section I didn’t much like follows a third-generation character, and she was just such a young careless hedonist compared to the other characters that I couldn’t really sympathize with her.

The longevity treatments that felt somewhat silly to me in the previous book are given appropriate political and personal weight here and become a much more interesting element.

Overall it’s a strong book, but I think I found it more impressive than compelling as a whole.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know and Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy

Monday, February 18, 2019

Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know
Emily Oster, 2013, 2016

Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy
Angela Garbes, 2018

So, as you can probably guess, I have a good reason for letting this blog go semi-dark. We’ll see how much content I post going forward, especially once the new little one is due in June.

In the meantime, I didn’t mean to completely stop posting, I just fell out of the habit.

I’ve (naturally) been reading up on my current state, and here are the two books I liked the most so far.

Expecting Better is a great book that risks being dated rather quickly. It’s by a journalist who took it upon herself to understand as much of the current research around getting and being pregnant as she could. Interspersed with anecdotes from her own pregnancy, she provides grounded recommendations. More than that, the book shares rational advice based on the actual science that supports (or doesn’t support) commonly held recommendations. The whole idea is to give the reader all the information so you don’t have to trust a voice of authority blindly, but instead make your own risk assessments and behavior choices based on actual statistics.

I say that this book could be dated quickly because it is so grounded in the latest research. As time marches on, that body of research will only continue to grow and change. However, there is a new update that is either coming out or out already for 2019, so maybe it will keep up for a while.

I was hoping that Like a Mother would be similar, just more current and with a slightly different focus, but it didn’t have quite as much science as I was hoping. Now, it still had plenty of science, but it also relied more on personal stories. On the other hand, it also provides support for anyone who senses they might need to be their own advocate in order to be taken seriously by medical professionals (see: studies on the dismissal of women’s pain, etc.) I did still like this book a lot. The author’s perspective on healthcare as a mother of color is extremely important, and the book provided a lot of fascinating factoids about unexamined areas for up-and-coming research.

Both books are empowering for the reader, but in different ways. Expecting Better gives you the information to make your own choices, and Like a Mother reassures you that although pregnancy is scary, it’s also powerful in ways science is only beginning to understand. (Seriously, there’s a whole closing section on microchimeric cells created during the process.)