Sunday, 30 September 2012

Growing Up Humming by Mike Spinak

Mike Spinak, who I know on Google+, asked me to review his PDF ebook Growing Up Humming, and gave me free access to a copy in order to do so. He made it clear that he wasn't asking for a favourable review and that I shouldn't pull any punches, but call it as I see it.

Since, as he's surely aware if he's read many of my reviews, that's exactly what I do, I considered his request showed chutzpah. But is it still chutzpah if the book is genuinely really good?

Growing Up Humming is brilliant. Mike is a nature photographer, and a very fine one, as I already knew from seeing his photos posted on G+. He captures the maturation of two hummingbird chicks beautifully, so beautifully that I kept wondering, "How does he get these shots?"

But it's not just the photography that's good. His accompanying text is aimed at a young audience, but I, as an adult, found it both entertaining and educational. Not only did it teach me a lot about Anna's hummingbirds, but it has a subtext about growing up, being taken care of by a parent, learning from her, and then becoming self-sufficient, that while plentifully clear wasn't at all heavy-handed. It arose naturally from the description of what was going on with the hummingbird family, and made the book more than just a recitation of hummingbird facts (interesting though those were).

What's more - and this is something I bang on about a lot, as you know if you follow my reviews - the editing is flawless. It's a brief text, but I didn't spot a single error of grammar, punctuation or spelling. That should be something we can take for granted, but it very much is not (even in books produced by large corporate publishers, these days), and I appreciate it on the increasingly-rare occasions when I find it.

I have no hesitation in recommending Growing Up Humming to anyone with an interest in nature or photography, or anyone who just wants a really entertaining short book of very cool photos with a well-written text. I'm going to show it to my wife and suggest that we buy a copy for her little goddaughter, in fact. It's $3 (USD) from Mike's Naturography site.

Review: Quick Silver

Quick Silver
Quick Silver by Derek Mathias

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I generally enjoyed this fantasy-thriller, except for a couple of problems.

Firstly, the protagonist's wife is not a character. She's the McGuffin, the reason that he runs around doing what he does. She's a plot point. That left her, to my mind, badly underdeveloped and was a significant flaw.

Secondly, while I generally appreciated the unpredictability of the plot twists, towards the end there are a couple of examples of pulling a twist out of thin air. For example, there's nothing in the protagonist's background that suggests, to me, that he would know exactly how to make his own 9mm ammunition when silver bullets are called for. He does it competently, quickly and apparently without looking anything up, so it's as if he's done it before. When? Did I miss something?

Secondly, part of the big resolution is that he's suddenly able to do something that he couldn't do mere seconds before. Again, I felt like I'd missed something, and maybe I had.

The setup for the return of the secondary protagonist was beautifully done, though. One of those "I didn't see that coming but it completely makes sense in retrospect" moments.

I listened to the audio version, and some of the whispery voices were a little annoying (and hard to hear in my car). But generally, apart from the above issues, this is a solid, enjoyable story.

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Friday, 28 September 2012

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People kept telling me to read Mistborn, and I kept resisting. I'm glad I finally gave in to the chorus of voices.

I resisted for two main reasons. First, I'm not a huge fan of epic fantasy any more. It's so often done badly, and ends up as what I call "elf opera" or a "fantasy phonebook" (thick, boring and full of names). And most epic fantasy seems to have one of only three plots, all of which I'm sick of.

One of those three plots is "low-status person in a cruel empire discovers hidden magical talents and becomes a Person of Importance in great events", and that's the basic plot of Mistborn. And the second reason I resisted picking it up is that word "cruel". I don't enjoy books about cruelty.

Here's the thing, though. If we think about urban fantasy for a minute, there are different ways of dealing with sex. The urban fantasy books I enjoy most acknowledge that sex exists, that it drives human behaviour sometimes, that to some people it's extremely important, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry and so forth. They mention that it happens when it's important to the plot, but the metaphorical camera doesn't linger lovingly on every moment of a, you should excuse the expression, blow-by-blow description. Rather, it does a discreet fade and picks up again the following morning. Other urban fantasy books do the loving lingering and make it all about the sex all the time - and I don't read those ones.

Now, for urban fantasy read epic fantasy, and for sex read cruelty.

Mistborn is an epic fantasy that doesn't linger lovingly on the cruelty. The cruelty is there, it's important to the plot, but it's not what the book is about, and it's always clear that the people who indulge in it are in the wrong and the people who oppose it are in the right. It's not a world of cruelty, it's a world that includes cruelty, and the distinction is important (to me, at least). I don't read Terry Goodkind (who is joint holder of my personal award for most misleading author name, along with Mary Gentle) because of the pornographic way he handles cruelty. I couldn't get beyond the prologue of George R.R. Martin's first Game of Thrones novel for the same reason. But Brandon Sanderson writes about cruelty in a way I'm OK with. Part of the main character's arc in this book, in fact, is learning that not everybody is a cruel betrayer.

Nor is he rewriting the same epic fantasy yet again. He does something different here. In fact, he plays with the epic fantasy cliches in his backstory, very cleverly. It's fresh, it's well-done, it's well-handled. As usual in an epic fantasy, The Final Empire has a large cast of characters, but I never forgot who anyone was, partly because he's good at slipping in little reminders if a character has been off-stage for a while.

The magic system is fresh, too (though a fresh magic system by itself isn't enough to make an epic fantasy interesting on its own, it's certainly enjoyable), and again, I always knew what was going on, even though it's a relatively complex system. Again, this is because he slips in little reminders in how he writes the events: "She burned tin and could see through the mists that surrounded her" (not an actual quote, but that's one of the ways he does it). He even explains the magic system twice, once when the more experienced user of it is patrolling the city using it, and once when that character explains it to the inexperienced protagonist. I was never left confused, which when you have a complex plot, multiple characters and a lot of worldbuilding is quite an achievement.

I will definitely be reading more Brandon Sanderson. He writes fast, which is great, because not only does he already have a lot of books out, but by the time I've read those he will probably have written several more. Hooray!

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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Review: Matcher Rules

Matcher Rules
Matcher Rules by Mary Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pro tip: don't do what I did and set this book aside early on because you think it's just an apologetic for polyamory. First of all, it's not that at all, and secondly, it's really good.

I listened to the (free) Podiobooks version, but as is my policy with Podiobooks I enjoy, I'll be buying the ebook in order to support the author. Her website seems to have disappeared, but the ebook is on both Smashwords and Amazon. I took a look at the first couple of pages of the Smashwords sample, and it looks competently punctuated and I didn't spot any horrible typos, which puts it ahead of a good many other books right away.

More than that, though, I found the characters' motivations always believable, and was surprised several times by plot twists I hadn't seen coming - but they always made sense. Other than the society's point of difference (an alien device that enables people to form strong groups), the worldbuilding was fairly thin - standard space-opera, only set on a planet - but the focus was, quite rightly, on that point of difference, and the story is the better for it. As the author's Amazon profile says, she's more interested in how people would live on alien worlds than in the rocket ships they arrived on.

So am I, on the whole, and I found this book thoroughly enjoyable.

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Friday, 21 September 2012

Review: Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I asked on Google+ for recommendations for a new series to try, I was given this one. Partway through, I thought I remembered it, and when I checked on Goodreads I had read it before - and given it one star (with no review).

That was a while ago, and I've read a lot of worse books since, so I've upgraded it to a slightly reluctant three stars (the reasonably good, though far from conclusive, ending just barely tipped it over from two).

So what didn't I like? Firstly, there's a lot of infodumping early on. And in fact this book has taught me a valuable lesson about one of the reasons for "show, don't tell".

Not only is showing more interesting, but when you just tell the reader something in a big infodump, what you risk is what I now dub the Kim Harrison Effect, in which the infodumped backstory hasno detectable impact on the events that unfold.

What I mean is this. In the backstory, we have an alternate world that departed from ours in the late 60s, when there was a bioplague spread by genetically engineered tomatoes. (Yes, really.) Most of the world was completely devastated, but the good old USA closed its borders (somehow) and missed the worst of it. Because so many humans died, and because supernaturals (called, for no good reason I can see, "Inderlanders") were immune, the supernaturals have come out in the open now. They're a minority, but now a substantial one. This is explained in first-person narration by the protagonist in a way that makes no sense unless you assume she's dropping backstory to someone from a very different world, i.e. us, by the way. "We never went to the moon..." Why would you say that?

Meanwhile, in the actual story, nothing much other than the Inderlander outing appears to have changed. For example: Starbucks.

In our world, Starbucks (founded in 1971) is ubiquitous. There's a historical reason for this: the Third World, where all coffee is grown, did not become a "charnel pit" at the end of the 60s, the USA did not close its borders, and so coffee is easily available. But in Dead Witch Walking, there's a Starbucks, large as life. One on every corner, is the feeling you get. Just like our world.

Other than the presence of supernaturals, the only impact that we actually see from the supposed apocalypse, as distinct from being told about, is that humans are afraid of tomatoes now.

No, sorry, backstory fail.

Other than that, the rest of the weaknesses are the usual ones. The author has a smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does and uses words which don't mean what she thinks they mean (seriously, "pocketmarked face"?), or would mean what she thinks they mean if they were spelled differently, and the editor needs to play more Pokemon, because he or she didn't catch them all.

More seriously, as usual in urban fantasy, the sassy, and supposedly smart, female protagonist is both more skilled than she rationally ought to be (her spellcasting keeps impressing people, even though she's apparently hardly practiced), and also at the same time is too stupid to live and has to keep getting rescued when her absurd schemes go awry in what seems like every third chapter. In particular, she has to be rescued by a mysterious sexy man who she unaccountably trusts even though he won't give her a straight answer about his background. Sigh.

I don't think I'll read the rest of the series. I'm vaguely curious about the answers to some of the many questions that are left unresolved at the end, such as "why are any of the characters apart from the protagonist and maybe the pixy doing anything that they're doing"? But there are enough better books out there that I don't think I'll bother reading these ones just to find out the answers.

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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Review: The Shadow of Black Wings

The Shadow of Black Wings
The Shadow of Black Wings by James Calbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upfront disclaimer: I know the author slightly through interacting with him on Google+, which is why I bought the book. I paid full price and he hasn't given me any incentives to do a review or say nice things. I'm going to be critical in any case, not because I didn't like the book (I did), but because I think he can take it.

I'll start by saying that it's well-written, well-edited and (as far as I could tell, not being an expert on 19th-century Japan or Wales) well-researched. This already puts it ahead of 98% of indie-published books, and many traditionally-published ones.

The author is not a native English speaker, and it occasionally shows in an odd turn of phrase like "neared it to his eye". Mostly, though, the English is above average, better than most native speakers write.

This is the first book in a series, and it's not complete in itself. I don't love that, but it's a long-established fantasy-fiction tradition, and it's not as if the book just stops abruptly (I have read others that do). Given that, some of the criticisms I was going to make about setups with no punchline should probably be held back until I finish the series, which I intend to do. I'll note them here anyway so that I don't forget.

When I read the sample before buying the ebook, my first thought was that the worldbuilding was maybe a bit over-exhuberant. They're dragonriders? OK, fine, nothing new there, but it's cool. They can channel the magic of their dragons? Even cooler, and original as far as I know. Wait, they can also shapeshift into dragonlike beings? That may be just a little too cool. And in fact it never comes up again in the rest of this first volume - the first setup with no punchline (so far).

Then there are a couple of things that I would have done differently if it had been me, but there may be a reason that I haven't seen yet. There are a couple of linked reasons why I would have done these things differently: credibility and importance to the plot.

What I mean is, the history of this version of the world is very, very different. No Christianity, no fall of the Roman Empire, and quite a few other consequential changes (plus all the magic, of course). So it's highly unlikely that the same individuals, with the same names, would be born in the equivalent of the 19th century, given that very different history. (Victoria is on the throne, and Brunel is a prominent wizard.) It also, at least in this book, makes no difference to the plot, since these people, and several historical characters like Henry VII, are mentioned but don't appear on stage. Another setup with no punchline.

On the other hand, I would find it a lot more credible for many countries to retain similar names to the ones that they had in reality, and it would also have made it easier to figure out which countries were actually being talked about. I have a pretty good grasp of history and geography, so I could mostly follow the differences (and there's a map), but I did struggle, and I think a lot of people would have no idea. Even a few familiar names would have helped a lot.

About halfway through, the viewpoint character drops completely out of sight for several chapters and we meet several new people we haven't seen before. One has red hair, which is variously described as "amber" (which sounds dark blonde), "copper", "auburn" and "strawberry blonde". Those are very different hair colours, so I was left without a clear idea of what she actually looked like.

This shift in viewpoint, I think, contributed to the fact that I put the book down for a while and read other things. A clearer through-line focussed on telling just one story about just one person or group of people would have held my attention better.

Having said all that, this is a rich setting, the characters are appealing if so far not all that heroic, the writing is excellent and I will definitely be getting the next in the series, because I want to know what happens next (and also have been enjoying the ride).

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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Review: Worldsoul

Worldsoul by Liz Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember reading a book by Liz Williams before, though I'm not sure of the title. I think it was [b:The Poison Master|317443|The Poison Master|Liz Williams||308259]. As I recall, I was a little disappointed that, with such wonderful materials to work with (Dr Dee!), she had crafted a less-than-amazing book.

She's improved since then, clearly. I enjoyed Worldsoul, especially the second half (the first half I found a little slow-moving). The setting, a magical city more-or-less powered by story, is wonderful, and she doesn't waste too much time on setting-exploration for its own sake, but at the same time conveyed a wonderful sense of a fascinating place.

What I did find less than wonderful was the constant cutting back and forth between multiple viewpoint characters. It's a technique that takes careful handling, and for me it was a little overdone. Each of the characters was interesting and distinctive, but it made the already-complex plot harder to follow.

There were also one or two moments that disturbed my immersion a little by seeming to mix technological levels. At one point, one of the viewpoint characters goes to another room and checks with someone in another part of the city on the bona fides of another character. We're not shown or told what mechanism she uses to do this, whether there are telephones that are never explicitly mentioned anywhere and that hardly anyone else uses, or if there was a magical means of communication, or what. I would rather have had some other means of checking used, like a veracity spell or something, that didn't break my conception of the world.

Apart from those quibbles, Worldsoul was very much to my taste, and I'm glad to see that it's the start of a trilogy.

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Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword

Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword
Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here's an exercise.

Go and read a Damon Runyon short story. Something by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler will probably do as well, but I know Runyon, so I say Runyon.

Now take a look at the preview of this book.

See the difference in the writing?

If you don't see the difference, you may enjoy this one.

Of course, it's a little unfair to compare anyone to those masters, but if someone is writing a hard-boiled detective story, even mashed up with an epic fantasy character, I'd like to think that they'd adopt some of the style. Swift, action-packed, vivid prose, with not a word wasted, and metaphors that leap off the page. Not dense, slow, overwritten, vague, and determined to drive every minor point thoroughly into the ground.

A little over halfway through, I couldn't take the style any more and stopped reading. The story wasn't anything out of the ordinary (given "fantasy dwarf as hardboiled detective", anyway), and was moving so slowly through the dense thickets of unremarkable imagery that I lost interest.

Plus the flappers were all curvy, and had long hair. Has the author ever looked at a picture of a flapper?

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Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this largely because of Patrick Rothfuss's recommendation, which says, in part, that he can't think of another book that ever made him laugh this much. Around or at the same time, Rothfuss also recommended [b:Ready Player One|9969571|Ready Player One|Ernest Cline||14863741].

What I have learned from this is that even though Rothfuss is one of my favourite writers, his taste in reading and mine are very different.

I hated Ready Player One by page six, and stopped, so I haven't reviewed it (it doesn't seem fair to review something based on so little reading). I read all of Redshirts, though. It wasn't bad. I just less than less than three it.

Scalzi has done something quite clever here, in a way. You see, if someone points, as I'm about to, to the flaws in the book, he has a ready-made excuse: It's meant to be bad writing. That's the point.

Most of the characters are, of course, a little thin (they're walk-on, walk-off characters in a bad SF TV series, after all), though I thought the protagonist was fairly well developed by the end. The dialogue is a little stilted starting out, but I soon stopped noticing it.

One of the biggest problems I had, though, was the lack of description of anyone or anything. I have no idea what any of these people look like, except that one is "handsome" and another one has a beard. That's it. We don't know what colour their hair is, even. We don't know what colour anything is, not even the shirts (since the dream sequence in which the writer meets the redshirts is a dream sequence, and the redness of the shirts is probably metaphorical). One of the officers is called Q'eeng. Is he Asian? African? Alien? Azerbaijani? We're never told. I can't picture a single one of the characters, which in a book about a TV show is... let's be kind and say "surprising".

The other big thing, and it's huge, is the plot hole. So massive is it that it collapses into a black plot hole and is able to be used as a means of traveling not only back in time but from fiction to reality. It makes absolutely no sense, which I suppose is part of the joke, or something, but you have to simultaneously take it seriously because it's what enables the story to be resolved.

I clearly have a different sense of humour from Rothfuss, because I didn't get a single laugh out of it. Admittedly I'm a New Zealander and have a British-style sense of humour, and Scalzi and Rothfuss are both American. I'm going to assume that's the reason.

Some reviewers have complained about the three codas. Essentially, they're what happens when someone who is a competent pulp writer tries to be literary and meta and postmodern, but it almost worked a bit for me. By the end of the third one I was mildly emotionally engaged, though the first one was way too long for my taste and almost lost me partway through.

I think what I'm saying is that I was seriously underwhelmed, and very glad that I followed my instincts and got this from the library instead of paying ten bucks for the ebook (which, by the way, Tor, is about $2 more than I'm prepared to pay for any ebook, even for a book I know I'll love).

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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Review: The Spirit War

The Spirit War
The Spirit War by Rachel Aaron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to say, I enjoyed the first couple of Eli Monpress books more than the second and third, because the first two were all about the caper. Three and four have become very serious, and in many ways standard, epic fantasy, filled with the clash of kingdoms, desperate magical battles and a sinister dark threat to the world.

It's well done, but it's not really what I signed up for based on the start of Book 1.

The other annoying thing, to me, is that four out of five significant characters are alienated from their parents (the fifth, Nico, doesn't know who her parents were). One or two, fine, but four (Eli, Josef, Miranda and Slorn)? It's pushing the theme too far. And there's really no counterbalancing situation where there's someone who gets on well with his or her parents, or a couple who are in love and together (not separated by tragedy and eventual death). The whole book is full of dysfunctional people, from the goddess Benehime on down. They don't just have issues, the have ISSUES, which somehow don't quite prevent them from saving the day when the crunch comes, but very nearly (and, of course, the day only needs saving because of ISSUES).

I'll definitely read the forthcoming book, which I take by the title, Spirit's End, to be the last one. I'm invested enough in the story to want to know how it ends. But I'm liking the characters less in every book.

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Review: Mogworld

Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sir Terry Pratchett pretty much has the actually-funny funny fantasy genre locked up, but this is a good contribution to it. The protagonist (who insists he isn't a hero) reminds me of a Tom Holt protagonist: a bit of a loser, hapless, unhappy with his life. There's even a nerd girl, another staple of Tom Holt, though Holt probably would have called her Jane rather than Meryl.

Because Mogworld has a setup where nobody dies permanently, the ultraviolence and slaughter is not as horrifying as it otherwise would be, and I was able to take it as funny, which I couldn't have done if it meant more. A book told from the perspective of a walking corpse who serves an evil necromancer wouldn't normally be my thing, but Croshaw makes it work.

The story moves along at a good pace and the characters, while thin, are amusing in their eccentricity. The main thing that annoyed me was that the first-person narrator, Jim, is supposed to be the son of a pig farmer in a medieval-style fantasy setting who somehow got into magic college (it's never explained how), but a lot of his similes and metaphors are from modern urban life.

If you don't take it at all seriously it's an amusing piece of whimsy. Recommended especially for Tom Holt fans and people who play MMORGs.

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