Sunday, 30 December 2012

Review: Cold Days

Cold Days
Cold Days by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd heard nothing but good things about this latest Jim Butcher, and it didn't disappoint. It's classic Dresden Files. Harry begins battered, without resources and in trouble, and finishes up battered, having reconnected with his major allies, been through major danger and hard fights against impossible odds, and in trouble, even if not currently active trouble. Bad things happen, aspects of previous books resurface, and we get a glimpse into a world of even larger problems to be dealt with in the future.

It comes out punching and just keeps on going. A worthy entry in the series.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Review: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this isn't a top-class LMB book, an average book for her is better than most people can write on their best day.

She sets herself some challenges upfront. Unlike most other books in the Vorkosigan series, this one isn't told from Miles' point of view, which instantly drops the frenetic, mad pace that only Miles can bring. He does get a brief cameo, and looms over the action in his absence. It's not the book with which to start reading the series, by the way, since it's full of unexplained references back to the events of the other books, some of which I missed myself because it has been a while since I read them all through.

It's told from Ivan's third-person limited POV (and that of a new character), and Ivan, while not actually an idiot, is dedicated to the principle that if you keep your head down and wait things out and insist that the mad events are not your fault, things will go much better. He's also resolutely unambitious, since he has a tenuous claim to be Emperor which he has never remotely wanted to assert. All this makes him an unpromising protagonist.

Because LMB is such a good (and well-practiced) writer, she manages to make him a protagonist anyway, by giving him something he cares enough about to fight for. He shows competence, courage and even, by Ivan standards, cunning. And, of course, in her trademark style, the author throws at the characters exactly what they least want to happen, which ramps up the stakes and the tension and drives them to show their essential qualities.

The other viewpoint character (the two switch more-or-less scene by scene) is a Jacksonian Baronette, the daughter of a House Major. She calls Ivan by his first and middle names, Ivan Xav, and I think this is mainly so that we can tell whose point of view we're following at the time. Their voices are not otherwise particularly distinct, so a device like that is needed. She's apparently led a very sheltered life, considering that her parents are basically a cross between gang kingpins, bandit chieftains and warlords; at one point she refers to one of her father's old mercenary mates, apparently unironically, as "a very bad man". She comes across as rather naive for a 25-year-old, in fact, and that didn't completely work for me. In fact, she has a weakness shared by many romance heroines (this isn't solely a romance, but there's a very strong romance plot): it's hard to see in her the positive qualities which are captivating the hero so much. I would have liked to see her with some skill or character strength that makes a clear difference to the resolution of the other parts of the plot, makes her stand out to Ivan from his other girlfriends, and clearly explains the different relationship that he develops with her.

My overall verdict: good, but not great.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Review: A Hidden Fire

A Hidden Fire
A Hidden Fire by Elizabeth Hunter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up, not really knowing what it was, because I noticed that the sequels were doing well on Amazon's indie page. It turned out to be a paranormal romance, which isn't my usual genre. (I read urban fantasy, which is not quite the same thing.)

It was a distinctly better-than-average one, though, mainly because of the main characters. The female lead actually was a strong, intelligent, independent and likable young woman. We weren't just told that she was, we were shown that she was. The male lead, likewise, was believable as someone who would attract such a woman. And the relationship between them was one of mutual respect, enforced by her strong sense of boundaries:

"See this? It's soup. Soup is food. See me? I'm me, and I'm not food. Any questions?"

This is not your usual dysfunctional paranormal romance heroine.

Although it's indie published, you wouldn't know it from the editing, which is up to the standard of a Big Six New York publisher (other than HarperCollins, who sometimes publish very poorly edited books). I suspect, though, that the editor didn't have to work too hard to achieve this, because the author has an English literature degree and the writing itself is fluent and capable.

There were a few moments that were unclear. The author sometimes doesn't tag the dialog enough, so it's hard to work out who's speaking, and I never was quite sure whether the main characters got physical or not towards the end, though it seemed like not. One character is described as "the older man" even after we know that's not true. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise well-written book.

As I say, it's not really my favourite genre, and I'm therefore not rushing to get the next one, but if it's your favourite genre I strongly recommend it.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Review: Pilgrim of the Sky

Pilgrim of the Sky
Pilgrim of the Sky by Natania Barron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book by a woman, about a woman, and apparently for women.

Now, as a man, I read a lot of books by women. If you check my reviews, you'll see approximately half are for books by women. That's not because I consciously choose to read equal numbers by men and women, but just a thing that happens naturally. I'm happy to read books that are usually considered "for women", too. And I love a good, strong, active, feisty, intelligent female protagonist.

So I ascribe the fact that this book didn't do much for me to the fact that, at least as far as I read, which was about the first 30%, the main character of this book is not like that. She's passive, a little whiny, to her credit not outstandingly stupid, but not especially intelligent either, and didn't have a single positive trait that I found likable.

She also has one - though only one - mark of being a Mary Sue: everyone wants to sleep with her. And a mark of a Mary Sue with issues: she lets them. Out of eight other named characters (depending how you count) at the 30% mark, four had had a sexual relationship with her, and it was looking inevitable that a fifth was going to.

I say "depending how you count", because the element of the fantastic in the book is that there are alternate worlds, in which some people have "twains", versions of themselves. I thought at first that these were the same person in an alternate timeline, but the worlds are more different than that, and so are the people. They sometimes, but not always, have the same or a similar name, and they usually look alike and are about the same age, but at the point where I stopped the main character had just met a twain of herself who was a different ethnicity, a different age, and shared only the initial letter of her name. It was starting to sound like reincarnation, only across alternate worlds instead of time.

Which would be a good premise, if it was explored with a character I liked.

There was also some goddess-mysticism being signalled. Again, I don't mind the odd bit of goddess-mysticism, but it needs to be reasonably convincing, and I wasn't convinced by the Marian Church. Perhaps it's addressed later in the book, but I didn't buy that the worship of Mary would have somehow displaced the worship of Christ when Mary's claim to prominence was exactly because she was the mother of Christ.

I just used the word "somehow". One thing I noticed in the writing was that it's occasionally vague, using phrases like "she didn't know if it was because of A or B or for some other reason". It gives the impression of a main character lacking in self-insight. If she achieves self-insight later in the book, it's too late for me; my interest was already lost.

The book is edited well, but not perfectly. Like so many writers, the author has a slightly smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does, and makes mistakes like writing "maligned" when she means "harmed" or "temerity" when she means "timorousness" (those two words are opposites, by the way), or using the nonexistent word "allayment" when she means "alleviation". There's the odd awkward phrase, too, like "a few too many times than would be considered acceptable". In general, though, it read smoothly and well.

Rather than slog through a not-especially-exciting book with a character I disliked more and more, though, I stopped reading. It may improve later on. But I wasn't going to continue just on the off-chance.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Review: Legion

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Brandon Sanderson's stories, because he's so inventive. Who else would come up with this scenario? Rather than having multiple personalities which he switches between, the main character of Legion hallucinates multiple personalities as external people with their own psychological issues - and their own areas of extreme competence, which makes him desirable as a consultant by people who have unusual problems. He knows he's hallucinating, too, and claims to be sane.

The particular unusual problem is also an interesting one. A devout scientist has invented a way of taking photographs through time. He's stolen the prototype from the company that's funded it and flown to Jerusalem. The other scientists, of course, assume that photographs he takes of, for example, the tomb of Jesus will inevitably disprove faith, but is that in fact inevitable?

I'd love to read more about this unusual superhero. Not only his primary personality, but his secondary ones are engaging and fun to read about, and Sanderson is a good enough writer that even a man who is good at basically everything doesn't become simply a Gary Stu who never faces significant obstacles.

View all my reviews

Review: The Box

The Box
The Box by Ben Guilfoy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I stopped reading The Box two-thirds of the way through. It wasn't engaging me enough, and I had other things to read that I thought I would enjoy more. I wasn't quite sure why it didn't engage me until I read a post on the author's blog.

In that post, Guilfoy talks about modeling his stories on TV episodes, and that is exactly what The Box is. It reads like a straight description of an episode in a (fairly average) TV show.

The problem with that is that when I sit down to read, I'm looking for more than I will get from a TV show. I don't just want to know the characters' actions and reactions to what they see and hear. I want to know what's going on inside the head of at least one of them. What are their pasts, their hopes and dreams and desires, their thoughts and feelings? What do the events mean to them? I want to see them change and grow and develop as characters, too. I haven't gone back and checked thoroughly, but my memory is that we get little, if any, of that in The Box. It's all action and dialogue.

I'm also looking for writing that is more than simply functional, that is flowing and competent, that has commas in all the right places and chooses exactly the right word. I didn't get that either.

It's not terrible. I've read much worse. But for me, it was lacking in a lot of what I look for when I read a story.

View all my reviews

Review: Reggiecide

Reggiecide by Chris Dolley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I buy a Kindle book, I usually read the whole sample. Then, if I'm in any doubt, I go to the Kindle Store, remind myself of the price, and maybe read some reviews. I very rarely use the "Buy this book now" option before I've finished the sample.

For this book, I made an exception, because of this sentence:

"Reeves had done it again! The man must bathe in fish oil. His brain was positively turbot-charged."

If you're the right audience for this book, I don't have to explain that.

As with the previous book, Dolley's Wodehouse voice is almost (but not quite) pitch-perfect. His problem is that his model, Bertie Wooster, never does anything remotely important in the greater scheme of things, whereas his character Reggie Worcester is exactly the same kind of idiot but is trying to prevent a reanimated Guy Fawkes from blowing up Parliament. Inevitably, there must be scenes for which he has no model, and they sound very slightly off.

Both as Wodehouse pastiche and as steampunk adventure, it still works. The ending perhaps worked less well than the beginning. Again, Reggie is an idiot and Reeves is a genius, and there's the inevitable temptation to have Reeves do all the work of resolving the situation, partly offstage - a temptation to which Dolley yields. The problem with that is that Reggie is the viewpoint character, so he needs to be the protagonist, not just an observer of Reeves, if the story is to be fully satisfying.

Like most short books, this one could also stand to be longer. I enjoyed it, though, and I'm looking forward to more.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: Take Back Tomorrow

Take Back Tomorrow
Take Back Tomorrow by Richard Levesque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a pleasure to read an indie-published book that is not only well-edited, but also well and intricately plotted.

Time-travel books inevitably get complex, and I enjoyed the author's skill in bringing the whole story together and tucking up all the loose ends. No Chekhov's gun remained unfired.

I liked the protagonists, too. Eddie is a decent guy, and we could do with more of them. Roxanne is a genuinely strong woman, who doesn't feel the need to shout about it or to reject Eddie's help because of it. The supporting characters were well-drawn and distinctive.

I did feel that Eddie and Roxanne's relationship progressed implausibly fast, but the plot more or less required that. I also found the initial setup - that Eddie didn't want his editor to find out that he was plagiarizing Shakespeare - a little weak. I was never convinced that the editor would care that much as long as the stories were selling, it was hardly illegal, and (as Eddie himself pointed out) it's not as if Shakespeare didn't take other people's stories himself. Perhaps the author, as a teaching academic, has stronger-than-average feelings about plagiarism.

The other disappointment to me was the final chapter. I felt that there was a lot of telling rather than showing so that the book could be wrapped up in a bit of a rush. Even in the second-to-last chapter I still felt like there were too many remaining plot threads for the book to be complete without a sequel. Surely, I thought, he can't wrap all that up in one chapter. Well, he could, but only by fast-forwarding.

It's a pity the end wasn't more satisfying (which it could easily have been if it had been stretched out just a little - even another chapter might have done it, and two certainly would have). The rest of the book I thoroughly enjoyed.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering how bad some of the books are that HarperCollins publishes, publishing this one is an act of bare-faced chutzpah. I'm not saying, though, that it isn't a good idea.

Although the book isn't consistent in whether it is giving good advice (how to avoid writing an unpublishable novel) or tongue-in-cheek bad advice (how to write a novel that nobody will publish), if you keep your wits about you the advice is well worthwhile. Of course, if your wits are about you to that degree, you probably don't need this book. It then becomes more an extended in-joke shared with other superior intellects about those idiots who write all the bad books. (There's a Chekhov's Gun joke early on in which the phrase Chekhov's Gun, and in fact the name Chekhov, is never mentioned. You have to have studied writing theory, and be at least passingly familiar with Russian literature, to get it.)

The book is full of jokes, actually, and at its best is probably almost as witty as the authors think it is. Many of them are pseudoexamples, made-up bits of bad manuscript that demonstrate the point being made. I think my favourite is this one: '“Call my patent attorney!” cried Thomas Edison. “I have invented the telephone!”'

The advice itself is direct, vivid and also amusing. "Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess."

I got it on sale for $1.99, and at that price it's a bargain. If you're a beginning writer, it's packed with warning signs against hundreds of mistakes that beginning writers make, and if you're not, it's entertaining. It goes on perhaps a touch too long, has a smug journalistic air of being too clever by half and certainly cleverer than you, and makes a few too many in-jokes, but I think it achieves what it sets out to achieve.

One thing, though: I read the ebook version, and the formatting is a bit of a mess at the end. Attempting to page forward to the second page of "About the Author" kept taking me first to the "You've finished this book" page and then back to the first page of "About the Author" again. I managed to get past that, and hit the footnotes from several chapters back, of which I'd of course forgotten the context.

If you read only one book about writing, you're probably not reading enough books about writing. But I suggest that it's worth making this one of the ones that you read.

View all my reviews

Review: Pay Me, Bug!

Pay Me, Bug!
Pay Me, Bug! by Christopher Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this enough that I considered giving it four stars, but there were enough issues that I rounded down to three.

The good, first of all. This is a heist novel. I love heists, rogues and capers, and this was an amusing one, with action, banter, daring, unlikely plans and protagonist haplessness. The dialogue was fun, and the relationships between the characters were varied and convincing. It's also a space opera in the classic mold, and although the genre is starting to show its age I still enjoy it on its own terms.

Now, the issues. There's a list.

I'm currently reading [b:How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|2360064|How Not to Write a Novel 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|Howard Mittelmark||2366831], and one of their pieces of pithy advice is "If there is a plan, events should not go according to it." The reason is that you lose tension when the protagonists succeed all the time. This is probably the biggest, certainly the most widespread, of the issues I spotted in Pay Me, Bug. The author writes himself into a bit of a corner with it, in fact, because there's a schtick where everyone in the crew dreads the captain's Plan Bs. They're terrible, everyone says. So, for most of the book, Plan A succeeds, and therefore there's not much tension. When a Plan A finally did go wrong, I'd been conditioned to expect that it would work out OK anyway, and so there still wasn't as much tension as there could have been - and the Plan B worked perfectly fine, and had obviously been at least partly prepared in advance, even though it was described as "improvising".

There's a similar inconsistency with the captain's ability to shoot. At one point, he's escaping with some other characters and his fire is incredibly inaccurate. It's at Star Wars Stormtrooper levels of inaccuracy. Yet in another fight later, he shoots very competently and successfully. It's as if the author was setting up a flaw in the character's abilities to keep him from being a total Gary Stu, and then had to drop it later for plot reasons.

Now, the jarring moment. The significance of the title is that an alien crew member, referred to as Ktk or "bug", keeps betting against the captain with one of his colleagues, and losing. It's a kind of superstitious thing with him, like taking out insurance. (There's a nice bit of writing skill, by the way, with Ktk's dialog. Because he's kind of a Chewbacca character, who can't physically speak English but can understand it, and the rest of the crew understand his language without being able to speak it, all of his dialog is in free indirect speech rather than inside quotation marks. I enjoyed that.) At one point, Ktk manipulates events to produce a win for himself which seriously endangers the captain and delays their rather time-critical mission, indirectly leading to considerable problems, but the captain is completely unbothered, giving as his reason that he was also betting against himself. I found this jarring and unlikely.

Something else I found, not jarring exactly, but annoying. The bad guys, the Radiant Throne, are uptight Christian hypocrites. Now, I realize that in the USA at the moment, at least in certain circles, this is a shorthand way of characterizing bad guys, like having the villain kick a puppy. I'll even admit that there's some justification for the stereotype. But it is a stereotype, and as someone who's indirectly slurred by association, I find it mildly offensive. The fact that they're Christians has no other significance to the story, it's purely a quick way to cast them as unimaginative and humourless villains, and it reminds me of 1930s pulps, where making someone Jewish or dark-skinned achieved something similar. It struck me as a cheap shot. I may be misreading it completely, but that's how it seemed.

Finally, I'll mention the editing. The sentence-level writing is above the standard of most indie novels. It's vivid, fresh and vigorous. But the author doesn't know exactly when to use a comma, writes "discrete" when he means "discreet", and has a few other similar issues scattered through the text. As indie books go, it's in the top 20%, maybe 15%, but that actually isn't a very high bar, sadly.

In summary, I enjoyed it, but could have enjoyed it so much more if there'd been more tension, more consistency, less facile villainizing, and better editing. As it is, it's a toss-up whether I'll bother reading a sequel.

View all my reviews