Friday, 29 August 2014

Review: The Adventures of Sally

The Adventures of Sally
The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An early Wodehouse, with several differences from the successful formula he later established.

Firstly, the main character is an American woman, rather than a British man. There is a British man who's an important character, and he's much the kind of not-too-bright but fundamentally decent Brit Wodehouse made a career of writing about, but the eponymous Sally is definitely the focus of the story.

Secondly, there's more seriousness and less comedy than in the books he's best remembered for. People are affected by financial difficulties and have to take soul-destroying jobs to recover. There are mentions of the Spanish flu, though nobody dies of it on stage. I don't regard this necessarily as a fault; it's done well, and the later Wodehouse books are notorious for the degree to which nothing in them really matters except to the characters involved.

What he hadn't quite perfected here, and what he did perfect later on, was making essentially incompetent characters enjoyable to read about. One way he achieved that effect was by making the incompetents very proactive. They would always be trying things to get out of their difficulties, even though they never worked. Ginger, the male lead, doesn't do this. Not only is he not very bright, he's passive and has to be chivvied (one would almost say nagged) into doing anything by Sally. Sally herself is not highly competent or unusually proactive either. She's clearly brighter than any of the men, yet she chooses to hand over her money to her brother to invest, knowing he's lost all of his own, rather than cutting out the middleman and investing directly.

The romantic direction of the book was always obvious, but I was never fully convinced by it, partly because I agreed with Ginger that he was "not much of a chap". On the whole, though, I enjoyed the book and saw in it frequent glimpses of the charm that Wodehouse later turned into his consistent style.

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Review: Aurealis #72

Aurealis #72
Aurealis #72 by Michael Pryor (Editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I've submitted to Aurealis in the past, unsuccessfully. I don't think that has unduly influenced my review, but it was the reason that I took up their half-year free subscription offer to see what they were buying.

This is the first issue of the magazine I've read, and so far I'm unimpressed. The copy editing is very poor, with missing apostrophes, missing words, and homonym errors abounding. The two stories themselves weren't to my taste, sordid, pessimistic tales, but others may disagree with me there.

This issue opens with an editorial talking about what the magazine wants to publish. It's the usual stuff: well written, original, startling. I didn't find either of the stories, or the non-fiction article or the reviews, particularly well-written, original or startling, myself.

The first story has two four-hundred-year-old immortals who remember Shakespeare. They're jaded and alienated, and have either become atheists since Shakespeare's time or were, unusually for the time, atheists all along (this is never explored). They appear to have gained no wisdom in 400 years, speak very much in contemporary slang, and when there's a flashback to Shakespeare's day the period language isn't convincing or competent (Shakespeare makes a basic grammatical error).

The second story involves uplifted animal/human hybrids, and is basically a noir detective story.

The main article is an extremely basic, and not very up-to-date, piece on the importance of reviews for indie authors.

I have another four issues left in my subscription, so hopefully this is an anomaly, but I'm no longer expecting great things.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: Dragonhunters

Dragonhunters by Sabrina Chase

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a year and a half since I read the first in the series (The Last Mage Guardian), and since then I've read at least 150 other books, so I would have appreciated a few more brief reminders of who all the characters were and what happened in the first book. Apart from that, this was a well-written and enjoyable story, and excellently edited.

Sabrina Chase's steampunk-adjacent alternate world has different names for familiar countries (close enough that you can tell which real-world countries they're meant to be, but different enough that you're reminded that it's not our world), an appealing cast of brave characters, and a well-choreographed climactic fight. I wish more steampunk was like this; it's well-executed and lives up to the promise of its premise, something I rarely say about other books in the genre. I could stand for it to be a little more over-the-top, even, with more play made of the magical devices.

Definitely an author I'm keeping on my watch list.

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Review: Unexpected Stories

Unexpected Stories
Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she's fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her Xenogenesis novels years ago, and have to admit that I haven't read anything else by her since (up until this volume), because I found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally.

I was excited to hear, though, that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and would be published under the title Unexpected Stories, so when I saw this volume on Netgalley I asked for a review copy.

They're very fine stories. If Goodreads permitted half stars, I'd give them four and a half. They're beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves - particularly in the first story - are out of the ordinary way. The editing is clean, much to my relief, since I just read a book from the same publisher that was packed with errors; I suspect that not having been scanned from an old printed book worked to their advantage, as did the author's ability to write a clean manuscript in the first instance. I don't love them so much as to give them five stars, but that last half-star is nothing to do with the quality, only my own taste.

To say that Butler wrote about race would be like saying that Jane Austen wrote about the role of women in society: true, but inadequate. In both cases, the theme is everywhere in their work, but because it's so pervasive it isn't always what the story is directly or ostensibly about. In the Xenogenesis novels, for example, humanity's genes have been co-opted by aliens, a development which, while it arises directly out of Butler's concerns, thoughts and feelings about race and race relations, isn't directly "about" that. The same is true of the novella "A Necessary Being," the first of these two stories. The people in it are literally people of colour. They're able to change their skin colour to a degree, in order to camouflage themselves, and it also changes to signal emotion, but their base or resting skin colour determines their place or role in society. The rare blue people (the Hao) are the leaders, greener people are judges and hunters, and the most yellow people are artisans or farmers. People mostly marry within their caste, presumably reinforcing whatever genetic process produces the colours, though Hao can be born of judges sometimes as well as from other Hao. Hao are so valuable that the main character's father was captured and crippled to prevent him from leaving the tribe, even though one of the great things about Hao is that they're better fighters than anyone else.

That was a little surprising to me. It's fairly clear from the narrative that Hao actually are, objectively, better fighters, that having blue skin isn't just something that makes other people expect you to be a good leader and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this was a simple parable of racial expectations, I would have anticipated the self-fulfilling-prophecy angle. But Butler isn't just working in simple, obvious parables here. It's a story of expectations, betrayal, and finding ways to get around the unjust ways in which your society works, despite the constraints that fence you in, and that is the way in which it's a story about race.

The second and shorter story, "Childfinder," has a much more direct relevance to race. In it, and the author's note which follows it, we see a pessimistic view of race relations, in which racially-based conflict inevitably destroys the possibility of utopia. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it was written for Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology (there was no introduction to the volume in the Netgalley version I have for review; I'm going to suggest one to the publisher, since I think the background of the stories is important). While I don't share the author's pessimism, I understand it.

Butler's early death robbed science fiction of a powerful and unique voice, and these newly rediscovered stories are both a reminder of that and also something to treasure in themselves. They've encouraged me to revisit the Xenogenesis novels and look into the author's other books.

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Friday, 22 August 2014

Review: Sargasso of Space

Sargasso of Space
Sargasso of Space by Andre Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andre Norton was one of the first, if not the first, SF authors I read, at the age of ten or eleven. Our school library had several of her books, including this one and its sequels, and I read them multiple times and loved them. When I saw that it was cheap on Amazon, I picked it up, wondering how well it would stand up to an adult re-reading.

As a story, it stood up surprisingly well. I went in expecting exactly what I got: a pulpish space opera boys' adventure. I use the term "boys' adventure" advisedly; from the evidence of this book, you would conclude that only the male gender existed in the galaxy. Even the ship's cat is male. And the author felt compelled to call herself "Andrew North" in order to write it. It was 1955; it would be about another decade before very many people said, "Wait a minute, SF can be by, for, and about women, too," though C.L. Moore had been pioneering that movement since the 1930s. Setting this aside, though, it's a story with suspense, excitement, and an underdog protagonist - though Dane doesn't, in this first volume, solve very many of the problems that the crew encounters. It's very much a team effort.

The crew is, at least, racially diverse, though there are stereotypical moments: the "negro" character says, at one point, "Oh, Lawdy!" and the crewman of Japanese descent, though many generations removed from Japan, is short, practices martial arts, and speaks in a formal cadence. But they are full characters, not just stereotypes, and take effective action to forward the plot.

What really let the book down for me was the editing. Firstly, the editing of the original; Norton is the mistress of the comma splice, and doesn't have much idea of how to use a comma in general. (She also says "chaffing" when she means "chafing".) What really degraded my reading experience, though, and lost the book the fourth star, is the editing - or complete lack of editing - of the scanned version published by Open Road.

When a book is scanned - particularly an old, cheaply printed book - there are often errors of character recognition. It takes a good going-over from an experienced copy editor to get it into publishable shape. Open Road appears to have skipped this step, even the abbreviated version of it where you throw the text into MS Word and run a spell-check, since there are a number of instances of misread words which aren't in any dictionary.

I marked over 80 errors in this relatively short book, and I wasn't even counting most of the comma issues, or the instances where a word that was broken across two lines in the printed book has come out with a hyphen and a space in the middle of it. Taking those in as well, there are probably more than a hundred places where my attention was distracted from the story by an easily avoidable error.

The CEO of Open Road was formerly the CEO of HarperCollins, the large publisher which, more than any other, features in my Goodreads "seriously-needs-editing" shelf (and has produced the worst-edited books on that shelf that come from a major publisher). It appears that the same lack of editorial excellence - in fact, lack of basic editorial competence - is in place at her new venture as well. Accordingly, I won't be buying any more of the several Norton books which Open Road has available for sale, and I'm somewhat dreading my next read, another from the same publisher.

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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Review: Fearsome Magics

Fearsome Magics
Fearsome Magics by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After I finished (or mostly finished) reading this anthology, I realised what I didn't like about it: many, in fact most, of the stories are arguably horror, and I don't enjoy horror as a genre. I went in hoping for a book that was entirely fantasy, though the "Fearsome" part of the title probably should have warned me.

I did have my hesitations, because having read the same editor's Best of the Year picks, I knew that his taste and mine were very different. I decided, though, based on the names of the authors (particularly K.J. Parker and Garth Nix), that there would probably be some stories I liked, and indeed there were. They were in the minority, though, or close to it; the stories I liked even somewhat only account for half of the total, hence the three-star rating.

The collection starts out well, with "The Dun Letter" by Christopher Rowe. Like several other stories in the volume, it takes the idea of the changeling or the lost elf princess and plays with it. I particularly appreciated how the protagonist wasn't depicted as perfect; she isn't a good student or unusually diligent, and yet she takes care of her grandmother in a matter-of-fact way that suggests she thinks that's just what you do.

What tipped me over into requesting the book from Netgalley (who provided a copy for purposes of review) was seeing that there was a new Garth Nix story of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz ("Home is the Haunter"). Unfortunately, I was disappointed by it. I've read the previous three stories with these characters, and reading this one brought me to the realisation that each one is basically the same story with new furniture. Sir Hereward is generally the viewpoint character, and because of his background, his sense of honour and his commitments, he has very little in the way of protagonism; he makes choices, but you know what they're going to be ahead of time. His companion, the self-willed puppet Mister Fitz, is indeed self-willed, more so than Sir Hereward. In this uncorrected proof, there were also several basic editing errors in this story, more than in the others in the collection, and that probably reduced my enjoyment. I did enjoy it - Mister Fitz is a wonderful character, and it's an interesting world - but I felt I was reading a story I'd already read.

Isobelle Carmody's "Grigori's Solution" I didn't enjoy. It's told in a stiff, distant style, and starts out with a long justification of why it's a story about magic, despite how it appears, which I thought should have been unnecessary. It persistently refers to an equation as a "sum". It describes the solution of the equation as somehow (in a way which didn't succeed in suspending my disbelief) causing the end of the universe or at least the world; I'm fairly sure there's a classic story somewhere that's already done this. I know there's a classic story that does what the rest of the story does, describes people's reaction to the end, and does it much better although coming to many of the same conclusions (it's by Bradbury or Silverberg or one of those guys, and I think it was published in the 70s). In other words, nothing new, not enjoyably told, the central conceit is weak, and the author also misses an opportunity to reference climate change skepticism. In fact, because climate change skepticism exists, I found the idea that the population at large would believe that the end was coming to be unconvincing.

Tony Ballantyne's "Dream London Hospital" is distinctly horror, and there's not much in the way of magic except in its surrealism. Not a favourite.

As I expected, I enjoyed the K.J. Parker story, "Safe House". It's told in the humourous, world-weary style that Parker does so well, it's a clever idea well worked out, and this was enough for me not to mind the dark and tragic aspects to it.

I also enjoyed Ellen Klages' "Hey, Presto!", an adventure story (a schoolgirl adventure story, no less, though set in the holidays) with no actual magic and not much fearsomeness, but a strong young female protagonist.

James Bradley's "The Changeling" is one of those stories that walks a fine line, so you're never sure whether the magical explanation is the true one, or if the "changeling" is just what we would these days call autistic. It's well done, but darker than I personally prefer.

Karin Tidbeck's "Migration", like other Tidbeck stories I've read, never resolves into anything that makes straightforward sense; it's strange and surreal throughout. I don't have a problem with that, though, and she does it well. However, it didn't give me much to hold onto.

Justina Robson's "On Skybolt Mountain" gave me the feeling that the author was pantsing her way through without knowing what came next, and changed her mind several times about what kind of story it was and what was happening. The names at the beginning, and a few other details, give a nineteenth-century American frontier feel, but then we're in some kind of a sword-and-sorcery setting, and at the very end the witch becomes something else entirely with no foreshadowing that I could see.

I usually enjoy Nina Kiriki Hoffman's lyrical fantastica, and "Where Our Edges Lie" is no exception. It's similar, in many ways, to "The Dun Letter" earlier in the collection, and plays again with the "changeling" idea. Both stories make a similar point about holding onto relationships being the most important thing.

The same point is present in Frances Hardinge's "Devil's Bridge", an original idea well executed, again with a strong young female protagonist (I like those).

Kaaron Warren's "The Nursery Corner" is one of several stories by Australian authors in the volume (the editor is also Australian), but the only one with an Australian setting. I'd call it light horror. Well done, but not really to my personal taste.

I didn't read all of the last two stories in the volume, since they took a horror or dark direction so early on and it seemed clear that they wouldn't be ones I'd enjoy. They are "Aberration" by Genevieve Valentine and "Ice in the Bedroom" by Robert Shearman.

So, out of the 14 stories in this volume, there were five that I straightforwardly enjoyed. There was one that I somewhat enjoyed but felt wasn't taking a fresh direction with the characters (the Nix), one that I quite liked but didn't love because the surrealism didn't give me enough to identify with (the Tidbeck), three that I considered well done but that were darker than I like, two that I thought weren't very well done, and two that lost my interest or willingness to follow along relatively early.

This collection confirms for me what I thought about the earlier Strahan anthology I reviewed: it's by an editor whose taste doesn't have a lot of overlap with mine, and I probably shouldn't pick up other anthologies which he edits. I'll miss out on a few good stories that way, but too few to make it worth wading through the others.

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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Review: Blood Charged

Blood Charged
Blood Charged by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first and second entries in what I'm glad to see is now officially a series. This one has less romance and more action (despite the handsome cover model). It worked for me just as well as the first two, if not better.

I did roll my eyes a little when, about 70% of the way through, we started getting hints that this is yet another Buroker series where the magic is tied up somehow with aliens. I don't have a problem with this idea in and of itself, but this is now at least the third time she's used it in different fantasy settings (I haven't read one of her series, so it may be the fourth, for all I know). Still, she does change it up a little each time.

The secret of her success seems to be to keep some elements similar between books (the humour, the technology-magic mix, the aliens, the diverse team-ups, the light romance, the penetration of fortresses in the rule-breaking service of the Right Side), make enough changes that it isn't simply the same book rewritten, and write them really quickly. It continues to be a winning formula for me so far.

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