Thursday, 13 February 2020

Review: Moontangled

Moontangled Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was just what I was looking for: a well-written, well-edited, fun book (but not pure fluff and nonsense, either). Having struggled recently with a run of books that did not meet the criteria just mentioned, I enjoyed it very much.

It's part of a series, and I haven't read the earlier books; there's enough backstory given that I wasn't confused, but clearly I need to go back and read those books. If they're anything like this one, I'll enjoy them quite a bit.

Magic users, romance, challenging of traditional gender roles, a bit of tension and danger, people working out their problems by actually talking to each other (when forced to do so, admittedly) - it's all good stuff.

A novella, which meant there wasn't a lot to it and I was left wanting more, but if the other books are novels, I am definitely in.

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Monday, 10 February 2020

Review: The Wild Swans

The Wild Swans The Wild Swans by Peg Kerr
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I got far enough through this that I'll write a review, even though I didn't finish. I won't give a rating, though.

It's a very serious book. I found it a bit of a slog, more for reasons of taste than the author's ability. There are two storylines in different times (and genres; fairytale retelling versus realism with slight hints of magical realism starting to creep in). When I gave up at 61% the two stories, which alternate chapters, were finally starting to develop tenuous connections to one another that were not just thematic resonance or echoes of imagery, but I still wasn't really loving either one of them. They're beautifully, even lyrically told at times, but they're so very earnest and tragic and unrelieved by any lightness whatsoever that I couldn't stick it out to the end.

I guess I'm just not the audience for this one.

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Review: Paris Adrift

Paris Adrift Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had two main problems with this book, one a matter of taste and one a matter of philosophy. As a story, it was fine; not amazing, not outstanding, but perfectly fine.

Taste first. I have very little interest in characters such as these ones, young drifters who drink too much, smoke, and work all night in the kind of bar you couldn't get me into without a gun to my head, who are mostly aimless, who have parent issues, sibling issues, and limited ability to form successful relationships. That I didn't hate the book despite this tells you that the author was doing something right, at least.

It's one of the rash of change-the-timeline-for-the-better books that have sprung up since 2016 for some reason, and as such books go, it's not unusual. This is where my philosophical problem comes in. The hope presented to stave off a future in which the spiritual descendants of Marie Le Pen are in fascist control of France, "disappearing" people who don't conform, is twofold. Firstly, to even have that future replace one of global nuclear war, the main character must prevent the marriage of an ancestor of the demagogue who incited it (by getting her her cello back when she's being rescued from the Nazis during the occupation of Paris; she's Jewish, and for some reason it's known that if she had the cello, she would never marry). The main character must also prevent the construction of the church on the steps of which the demagogue stood to give his speech. It's replaced with a green windmill, which becomes a symbol of resistance in several different times. Because... churches are bad, I suppose, and no hateful demagogue would choose to give a speech in front of a windmill?

Then, to prevent the victory of the Front National, the main character must prevent the assassination of a charismatic leftist politician who preaches a "new bohemia" (from in front of the windmill) because without her, everything falls apart.

Not only is this the widely criticised Great Man(/Woman) theory of history, the kind that assumes that without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand we wouldn't still have got World War I, but it seems to be suggesting that the only counter to populist demagogues is... other populist demagogues with different values. What about changing how people think so that they can't be taken in by populist demagogues, or so that they'll reject tyrants out of hand from a profound sense of shared humanity with their fellows? There's a gesture in this direction in the "new bohemia" gospel, but there's also a strong sense that the mass of people are too stupid to really follow that at any deep level; they need a charismatic savior figure who will tell them what to do and think. I have a philosophical problem with that as a solution; I think it's dangerous and naive. But it does make it a lot easier to tell a time travel story with just a few travelers who don't have much in the way of resources. They can change a few small things and rescue everyone (for certain values of "rescue" and "everyone").

The time travel itself is reasonably interesting. There are people who are somehow mysteriously attuned to a specific location (different locations for each person) where, at certain times defined by the ebb and flow of some kind of power, they are able to travel in time to a date they aim for (with some minor degree of inaccuracy that never really ends up mattering). This removes the need for any inventor of a time machine; there's no machine, it's a natural phenomenon. I believe Annalee Newitz has done something similar in her recent book. The main character is one such attuned person, and (for reasons the other time travelers conceal from her until very late, because she must be kept in the dark and manipulated rather than honestly recruited, for reasons), only she, out of all of them, can rescue the timeline. Something, by the way, that the other time travelers generally try not to do, because of the risk, though they're willing to make an exception for human-species-ending events. After all, how much worse could the outcome be?

The prose does its best to be lyrical, and does OK at it. The background characters are mostly background; only the central character seems to have much dimension to her, and that's mostly her issues with her mother. The plot does plot things. I've read a lot of worse books (believe me), but I'm going with three stars because... well, because I'm a curmudgeonly middle-aged reviewer who doesn't have much patience with naive youth, when you get right down to it. Lots of people will enjoy this, and some may even think it's great.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Echoes of Another: A Novel of the Near Future

Echoes of Another: A Novel of the Near Future Echoes of Another: A Novel of the Near Future by Chandra Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neuromancer, though not set in Canada, was written there, so it makes sense of a sort to have what is a fairly traditional cyberpunk book (if that's a phrase that makes any sense) set in a nearish-future Toronto.

At least, I thought at first that it was a fairly traditional cyberpunk/nearish future book. There's implanted tech. There's a corporation. There are a bunch of disaffected, alienated characters, all single, all with a number of friends between zero and one.

Only it manages to avoid the usual tropes, in at least some ways. The corporation isn't evil. The arc of the characters - all the characters - is towards connection, including with each other, though there are too many of them. Haroon, in particular, added very little to the main plot and wasn't much affected by it, and his background is similar enough to Ray's that I found myself having to concentrate to remember which was which. He feels like he's being set up for a sequel more than like he's a part of this story.

After a slowish start, setting up that excessive number of characters, their stories start to connect up at almost the halfway point, after which it becomes gripping. Short, brisk chapters have a lot to do with this.

The characters are not as aimless as near-future SF characters often are; they want things and strive for things. At the end, though, they don't so much achieve resolutions by protagonism as get them handed to them as rewards for suffering.

The premise didn't completely work for me. There's a big glaring plot hole right at the centre: The application Kel thinks of is incredibly obvious, and if it could be done with common, standard tech (which apparently it can), someone would have thought of it probably even before it could be done, and certainly immediately afterwards. Nor do they need Kel's design, specifically; if she could invent it, so could someone else, especially since she's a research scientist rather than a technician. So the main plot driver failed to get me to suspend my disbelief.

Also, the US is kind of falling apart; that's mentioned in passing, as something that's neither surprising nor interesting. But among the many immigrants to Canada, there appear to be no US refugees.

So: very promising, well written on the whole, but has too many characters, takes too long to get going, and doesn't completely hang together or resolve completely organically. I'd probably read a sequel, though, since the strengths outweighed the weaknesses for me.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Review: The Journals of Incabad Reyl

The Journals of Incabad Reyl The Journals of Incabad Reyl by Gregory Tasoulas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book successfully distracted me from worrying while I was waiting for my wife to have surgery, so kudos for that.

It's a bit slow to get going, and wordy and discursive in places. But it tells a fresh and unusual story, set in an interesting universe, with characters who show integrity and courage.

Oh, my goodness, though, the copy editing. The author has English as a second language, and it really shows. Not just in the very-seldom-correct comma placement (I've seen plenty of native English speakers who have no idea where to put a comma, including more than one journalist), but in the very frequently incorrect choice of prepositions, the mangled idioms, and the extremely basic and extremely common vocabulary errors. It seems to be a rule that if your book contains airships (which this does), 95% of the time you will have a vocabulary that's much smaller than you think it is, but I've seldom read one this bad. A few of many, many examples: alit/alight, conferring/conveyting, all together/altogether, glimpsed/glanced, haggle/peddle, ruble/rubble (yes, and repeatedly), led/lead (the metal), wield/yield, tales/tails, degrade/denigrate, dose/doze, perspective/respective, galley/gallery, recourses/resources, crushing/crashing, scale/travel, except/expect, doted/dotted, errant/errand, stroke/struck, bunker/bunk, extinguished/distinguished, exonerated/extolled, expending/expecting, extrapolate/elaborate, sipping/seeping, conserving/preserving, seized/ceased, limps/limbs, chanced/changed, technics/techniques, as well as a number of more common confusions (like principal/principle and sojourning/journeying).

The small encyclopedic section at the back has a couple of dubious entries about the "breeds" (or races) of the setting. The black people's distinctive quality is their strength and muscularity; the people of the Empire of Jade have yellow skin and the ability to make very precise movements. (There are people with red, blue, and green skin too, which... maybe makes this not quite so terrible? No, still pretty terrible.) I wasn't going to drop it a whole star for the copy editing, even though it's awful, but I decided to drop the rest of that star for the stereotyping.

A good story, combining academic investigation of ancient artefacts with politics and adventure, but I've seen that same combination done much better in, for example, Marie Brennan's Turning Darkness Into Light , and there would need to be a truly heroic amount of copy editing before this one was ready for its close-up.

I received a review copy via Netgalley, so there may be copy editing before publication that isn't reflected in what I saw. Even if there is, though, the sheer scale of the problem means it is still going to have a lot of errors left.

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Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Review: On the Isle of Sound and Wonder

On the Isle of Sound and Wonder On the Isle of Sound and Wonder by Alyson Grauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a rewrite of Shakespeare's The Tempest as a fantasy with some steampunk trappings (airships and an automaton) as well as the usual spirits and magic, set in an alternate 1873. It takes the setup of the original and goes in quite a different direction with it. For me, it largely, but not entirely, succeeded.

On the way through, I noticed that the names (of people, and even more of countries) were subtly distorted from the originals, but in a way that sometimes didn't quite work linguistically, given their origins. I felt much the same way about the change to the central character, Mira - based on Shakespeare's Miranda, but almost entirely different. Mira, rather than a naive and passive damsel, is a tough, decisive protagonist with a wide knowledge, both from reading her father's (non-magical) books and from exploring the island. To me, she went a little too far in the knowledgable direction; she seemed to understand things from the wider world that I felt she would have lacked the context for, having only read about them, and only in the kind of books that would be available when they left for the island in the late 1850s, at that.

The denouement is also just slightly too perfect a wish-fulfilment fantasy in 21st-century liberal terms. (view spoiler)

The island itself, while presumably somewhere near the route from Tunis to Naples (since that's where the king's airship is going), is somehow tropical, and reminded me of an old edition of The Swiss Family Robinson I had as a child: it seems to have flora and fauna from multiple continents, though the tiger is eventually explained.

All in all, it's a little too perfectly a 21st-century morality play, taking place in an island that is just slightly too obviously a stage set, with a protagonist who is a touch too exactly a modern, powerful woman. Don't get me wrong, I think powerful women are great, and love to read about them, but this one was a bit too flawless for her own good.

Other than that, this is a strong piece of writing, mostly well edited, and I enjoyed it. I won't be including it in my Best of the Year, because it's a bit too perfect in the wrong places, but I'm sure it will do well.

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Monday, 30 December 2019

Top Books for 2019

This is my sixth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 19 books for 2018my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them.

Last year, I abandoned the attempt to make the number of top books equal the last two digits of the year, which was an arbitrary limitation, and just put as many books on the list as I thought belonged there. Following the same practice again, there are 20 books on this year's list. Five-star books automatically go on the Best-Of list, and it also includes a selection of four-star books that I think are worthy of mention.

For the second time, I'm awarding a Most Disappointing Book of the Year anti-prize, for a book by an author who, based on their previous history, should have written a much better book. This anti-award went to Andy Weir's Artemis in 2017, and in 2019 it goes to William Gibson's Agency (links are to my reviews). Apart from the massive plot hole right at the end, Artemis might have been an OK book 30 years earlier, when most male authors had no idea of how to write a female viewpoint character; Agency, though, would be tedious in any decade, chooses the viewpoint characters poorly, and gives them, ironically, no agency.

Overall Statistics

I only read 65 books in total in 2019, which is a big drop from previous years, and I'm not sure why that is. I didn't listen to many audiobooks this year, spending my commuting time listening to podcasts instead, which probably contributed. I also started and abandoned a number of books that aren't reflected in the total, but that's nothing new. Maybe I'm just not reading as long at night.

Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal
2019113617165
201857215294
2017105619085
2016115312177
20151168192101
2014970232104

Despite the lower overall number, I read as many 5-star books this year as in any of the previous five years. Either I'm becoming more generous (probably true) or I'm getting better at choosing books (also probably true). I only got suckered into one two-star book this year, but there were about the usual number of three-star books, 17 (versus 15 last year). A three-star book, for me, is one that I didn't hate, but it had definite flaws. Essentially, I start out at a nominal four stars, and boost it up one if the book is especially good or drop it down one if there's something that hindered my enjoyment. Two stars indicates that, while not lacking any redeeming qualities at all, for me the book was a failure.

Discovery

Where did I get these books? This year, 34 came from Netgalley: six of the 11 five-star books, 15 of the 36 four-star books (including two that made it to the Best Of), and 13 of the 17 three-star books - so a higher proportion of three-star books than other methods of discovery. Ten came from BookBub: one five-star, five four-star including one Best Of, three three-stars and the sole two-star. Four of the BookBub titles went on my Needs Editing shelf, one on my Seriously Needs Editing shelf, and two on my Well-Edited shelf.

One book (a Best Of) came directly from the author, because I'd reviewed the previous book in the series last year. Three came from the library, and the remainder were either found browsing Amazon, came from Amazon's recommendations, or were continuations of series I'd read previously.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in ascending order. Your taste may well vary, and on a different day, my rankings might vary too.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

Before I start the list proper, I will mention one that missed the list, even though all the previous books in the series made it on there. Sands of Memory (Company of Strangers, book 5) by Melissa McShane felt a bit by-the-numbers, though it was still good. Melissa McShane is a fixture on my best-of lists, with one book on the list in each of 2016, 2017 (when she also got an honorable mention), and 2018; this year, she has an impressive five books out of the 20, including three five-star entries.

Here are the books that didn't quite make it to five stars, but were strong four-star books:

20. Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman. I listened to the audiobook while driving, which made it easier to leave it running than stop it; if I'd been reading the text, I might have found the slow pace harder to cope with. Still, some thoughtful moments, and a gradual but powerful build to a revelation that puts the rest of the book into a different perspective.

19. Royal Rescue, A. Alex Logan. Provides insight into the experience of being asexual, with mostly authentic-feeling characters who are determined to do the right thing.

18. The Dragon's Banker, Scott Warren. Pulls off the difficult feat of making merchant banking interesting, and again features a protagonist who wants to do what's right.

17. Company of Strangers, Melissa McShane. The first of an excellent D&D-ish series, not as tense as some of the later ones, but very sound writing. The almost flawless editing definitely helps to boost this author's rankings for me.

16. Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar, Lawrence Watt-Evans. Wizards, a protagonist who wants to do the right thing, mystery, twue wuv - I was always going to like this one.

15. The Masked City, Genevieve Cogman. A strong continuation to the Invisible Library series, with plenty of action and a level-headed, capable protagonist.

14. The Immortal Conquistador, Carrie Vaughn. Another protagonist determined to do the right thing even though, in this case, he's a vampire (turned against his will). Makes me want to return to the main series of which it's a self-contained side story.

13. Sidekicks, Arthur Mayor. Supers done right, with a strong conflict between doing the right thing and doing the sensible thing that looks for a long time like it could go either way.

12. Mortal Rites (Company of Strangers, Book 3), Melissa McShane. The undead done well, a group of protagonists with a strong bond and a good ability to work together, and the usual sound writing.

Now, the five-star books:

11. The Philosopher's War, Tom Miller. Sequel to my #1 book of 2017; its lower ranking mainly reflects my lack of enthusiasm for reading a book set in World War I. Protagonist sacrifices in order to do the right thing.

10. Magic for Liars, Sarah Gailey. Urban fantasy noir, richly psychological, and with a compelling mystery; magic school will never be quite the same after this.

9. Chasing Solace, Karl Drinkwater. Sequel to the #16 book on the 2018 list; the trappings of horror, but it still worked for me, a resolute non-horror reader.

8. This is How You Lose the Time War, Amar El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The characters are not admirable, but their relationship is beautifully and skillfully depicted, with great imagination.

7. The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie. Hamlet, but very much not as we know it, with a twist that seriously messed with my head.

6. The View from Castle Always, Melissa McShane. I love a magical-castle (or magical-house) story, and this is a good one, with a fine romance woven through the mystery.

5. Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik. Determined, capable protagonists set out to bring about good outcomes for everyone in what seems like an impossible situation, and their courage and creativity are up to the challenge.

4. Shifting Loyalties (Company of Strangers, Book 4), Melissa McShane. Raises the tension, piling on complications for the characters, which produces a cracking story.

3. Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This author made #11 in 2017 with The Beautiful Ones, and this book pulls off the same difficult feat of a truly glorious ending.

2. The Smoke-Scented Girl, Melissa McShane. If every romance/adventure was like this, I'd read little else. Wonderful protagonist, excellently characterized.

1. Turning Darkness Into Light, Marie Brennan. A lovely piece of writing, integrating scholarship, political maneuverings, and the best handling I've ever seen of the complicated feelings left over after a failed relationship.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures last year for author gender (based on what's stated on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've tended to find myself reading about 50/50 male and female authors overall, though I think that's slowly changing; by my count, I read 41 female authors across 65 books in 2019 (two of whom had male co-authors). The numbers in my top lists skew female most years, though, including this one.

I believe A. Alex Logan is nonbinary, so I've added a column this year. One book had a male and a female author, so the total is 21 for the 20 books; I've counted Melissa McShane each of the five times that she appears on the list.

MFNTotal
2019614121
201871219
20178917
20166915
201510515
201441014
Total42591102

Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). There are 15 female protagonists (Spinning Silver has three and This is How You Lose the Time War has two), and seven male protagonists; for spoilerific reasons, I'm not counting the (trans male) main character of The Raven Tower as a protagonist, and the viewpoint character in that book is non-gendered. Most of the books with male protagonists also have prominent female characters with arcs and importance to the plot; The Immortal Conquistador is the book of which this is least true, and it's a side-story to a series with a female main character. 

What Makes These Books the Best?

As I read through my list, I was struck by how strongly I'm gravitating at the moment towards admirable protagonists who struggle against the odds to do the right thing for the benefit of others (otherwise known as "noblebright"). At least 16 of the 20 can be described this way. They're not, generally, the blacksmith's apprentice who is secretly the prince, either; most of them are ordinary people (possibly with extraordinary talents) who have to step up to meet a challenge. The most prominent exceptions to this type of admirable protagonist are the pair in This is How You Lose the Time War, which managed to win me over despite, rather than because of, what kind of people they were.

It's been a good year for books, and even though I've read less, I seem to have read just as many really good books (and just as many just-OK books, unfortunately). Join me again next year.