Monday, 21 December 2015

Review: Steal the Sky

Steal the Sky Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Megan O'Keefe's story in last year's Writers of the Future Volume 30, and I enjoyed this, a better-than-average steampunk novel. It wasn't without some issues that are common in steampunk, but it was well told, the plot made sense and was well constructed, the characters weren't idiots, and it worked well as a story.

One huge problem with the steampunk genre is that very few people writing it stay within their vocabulary - they often use words that are either not quite the right words, or else are definitely the wrong words, for what they mean. I read an ARC of this book via NetGalley (in exchange for an honest review), so I don't know which of the numerous examples of this problem will be corrected by the copy editor; hopefully most of them, and all of the comma splices. (As a former editor myself, though, I know that no editor catches everything, and it's better if the writer doesn't commit the errors in the first place.)

Another feature of steampunk which could be seen as a flaw is thin worldbuilding. Often, this hinges on one, essentially magical, substance, frequently something to do with flight, which can also function as a McGuffin to drive the plot and a deus ex machina any time the plot threatens to go off the rails. In Steal the Sky, this role is taken by selium, or sel, a lighter-than-air substance (kind of a fluid, kind of a gas) which can be detected and manipulated by "sel-sensitives" with what amount to psychic powers. The idea is interestingly explored, though, and I didn't feel that the author pushed it too far or used it to paper over the cracks too often.

Something that a lot of steampunk books fail to do, and which this one succeeds at, is capturing the fight against social injustice that was so much a feature of the real, historical 19th century. All too often, the main characters are privileged, and the story becomes a clone of an imperialist Boys' Own Paper or Girls' Own Paper adventure, with the fight being against villains who want to disturb the status quo. Here, while one of the characters is a down-on-his-luck nobleman from the oldest colonial family on the conquered continent, he is fighting on the side of the oppressed, and the book's sympathies are clearly with the underdog and against the powerful.

The plot moves along well, with plenty of tension and action, but leaves time and space for some character development. Things are grim, but not grimdark or despairing. Overall, a good effort, and if the author can overcome her tendency to use incorrect homonyms and to comma splice, I think she has a bright future in the field.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Review: The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated)

The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated) The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated) by M.M. Stauffer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that not only needs, but deserves, better copy editing, since it's engaging, well told and has some freshness about it. It's not just the same old stupid Chosen One plot recycled for the Nth time. It's dark, without being grimdark. It has a genuinely strong female protagonist, who thinks and solves problems and takes brave, decisive action and doesn't make stupid decisions that require that she be rescued by a man. (Her male sidekicks do help, but she is definitely the protagonist.)

Overall, I enjoyed it, and that's what kept me reading, despite the many editing issues (all the usual ones, plus a homonym error that's new to me: "codec" where it should be "codex"). However, because those issues occurred frequently and were a constant distraction, it didn't sell me on getting the sequel.

View all my reviews

Monday, 7 December 2015

Review: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've long admired Ursula Le Guin's writing, which manages to be simultaneously literary-not-pretentious and genre-not-cliched. So as part of my project of reading books on writing craft to improve my own writing, I picked up this little volume.

I'll admit that I have a bad habit of not doing the exercises, so I didn't get as much out of it as I perhaps could have. I applaud the general approach, though, of looking at the basic elements of writing (definitely including getting grammar and punctuation correct), isolating them, and working through exercises to see what the effect is. Only by understanding our tools and the effects they produce do we become capable craftspeople.

I also appreciated the acknowledgement that plot is not the only way to get a story, and conflict is not the only way to get a plot. Here's Ms Le Guin:

"I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.
"I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.
"Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.
"But most serious modern fictions can't be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words."

Did I learn a great deal from this book, as an intermediate writer trying to reach the next level? No. But I'm glad I read it, because it helped me think through (again) some important ideas about writing, and I would definitely recommend it.

View all my reviews

Monday, 23 November 2015

Review: A Fairy Promise

A Fairy Promise A Fairy Promise by C.J. Brightley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a copy from the author for purposes of review.

I enjoy C.J. Brightley's characters. They're kind and wise, and we could do with more people like that to model ourselves on, or just to remind ourselves that such people do exist.

Her worlds are not without cruelty and tragedy, but those are always things to fight against, and not celebrate. I like that too.

I read an early version of the previous book in the series (before it reached its full length), and there's obviously a good bit I missed by not reading the whole thing, so I'll be doing so.

A good tale, well told.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Review: I Never Arkansas It Coming

I Never Arkansas It Coming I Never Arkansas It Coming by Jenni Wiltz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a copy from the author for review.

I don't normally read anything that isn't fantasy, unless it's science fiction, so if I read a book in which a feisty former librarian in the witness protection program deals with mob hitmen, it usually has at least some sort of shapeshifter in it, or at least a cyborg. This one doesn't, but is none the worse for that.

It's funny, with some beautifully crafted lines. "The panic button was as hard to turn off as Hugh Hefner on Viagra." "His hair looked floppier than it had before, more acoustic than electric." I enjoyed the overall snarky humour, though I did feel it got overly cynical at times. There were moments that were hard to believe, too, particularly the most cynical ones.

Nevertheless, this is well-written, well-edited, and thoroughly entertaining. All three of its flavours (thriller, comedy and romance) are done well and enjoyable in themselves, and they blend harmoniously. Thoroughly recommended.

View all my reviews

Review: Grave Peril

Grave Peril Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reread (via audiobook) continues, but I think it may stop here. I don't know if I'm the only person in the Dresden fandom who doesn't like James Marsters as a narrator, but his mispronunciations are really starting to annoy me. "Sidhe" as "Sheath". "Runes" as "ruins". Even "wretched" pronounced to rhyme with "fetched". It's never a good sign when you find yourself yelling at the MP3 player in the car when your narrator mispronounces yet another word.

As Jim Butcher's brief intro to the audiobook says, many fans feel that the series got properly going from this book. Certainly, it sows a lot of the seeds that sprouted in much later books, especially Changes and, of course, Ghost Story, which revisits the world of ghosts, as this does.

It introduces us, too, to the Knights of the Cross, who play such an important role later in the series. Here Butcher does an interesting thing. He has a very devout Christian character (actually, several, but one main one) who is open about the importance of his faith; his main, viewpoint character respects that faith, but doesn't share it, and finds his (somewhat stereotypical) preachiness annoying - even while not denying any of the supernatural aspects of it, or suggesting alternative explanations for them. Christianity is factual in the Dresdenverse (though later on there are also pagan gods), but Harry doesn't feel he can live in the way Michael, the holy knight, wants him to.

Some of these aspects were played down a little more in the later books, probably because of strong fan reaction, but some remain, and I've always respected Butcher for including a sympathetic portrayal of people of faith.

The story is a dark and scary thriller, once again, with bad people happening to good things. Knowing some of the things that were coming, and knowing the ultimate upshot further on in the series, increased the tension for me, but also meant that I didn't want to keep listening.

I did finish it, though. I'm going to check whether Marsters is the narrator for the next book (I know there was one he wasn't available for), and if not I will probably listen to it.

View all my reviews

Review: The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of people have been talking about this book, so while it was on sale I picked it up.

The main complaint I'd heard was that it was boring, but I'd also heard that it was excellently written, and sometimes books with a lot of depth get dismissed as "boring" by people who are used to shallow action. What I found was that it was dull sometimes, but I still wanted to keep reading.

I think what people are reacting to is that there's not a lot of conflict, and what conflict there is is often over quickly, and frequently the main character wins the conflict without a lot of struggle. This is the opposite of how to write a fast-moving thriller. It wouldn't be true to say that nothing happens in the book; plenty of things happen, it's full of things happening, but most of them aren't conflicts. It's rich with worldbuilding and description, there are dozens and dozens of characters with long, confusing names (I stopped trying to keep track and just let them wash over me in the end), and even the solving of the murder mystery happens offstage. This last is inevitable, since the viewpoint stays with the title character throughout, and he is stuck in the palace while other people do things like solve murder mysteries on his behalf.

The overall feeling I got from this book was similar to the main character's situation: overwhelmed with the complexities of the court and its denizens, occasionally bored, but wanting to press forward anyway.

Someone, I suspect the editor, has wisely given it very short chapters, so at least there are frequent breaks and more of a sense of progress.

So far I've damned it with faint praise, but it is a beautifully written novel by someone with considerable command of her craft. It's heartening to me to see that something that isn't filled with conflict can get published and command an audience. The book is like an enormous tapestry, every stitch intricate and precise. It's not exciting, but I don't think it's meant to be. It's meant to be beautiful, and it is.

View all my reviews

Review: Raptor

Raptor Raptor by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A worthy addition to what's becoming an excellent series. The previous entry in the series is a novella, which I never feel give enough time to development of the situation, so it's good that this is back to novel length and fully satisfying.

It also deals with exactly what I wanted dealt with next: the experience of a character who had been through a terrible time in the previous novel and was coping with the aftermath. She copes very well, but has believable amounts of struggle in doing so.

The action and the plot are reliably enjoyable, and overall this is a good Buroker, which is to say it's entertaining and well written. I read a lot of this author's books, and it's good to see the number of editing errors diminishing (though she still confuses "breach" and "breech").

Don't start here, start with the first in the series. But if flying aces, dragons and romance appeal to you, do start reading these.

View all my reviews

Review: Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester

Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester by Alfred Bester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bester is a name I knew, and I'm sure I'd read some of his stories in multi-author collections, but I didn't have a clear mental picture of what his writing was like. I'm glad I picked up this collection, since it has some excellent stories in it.

The first few ring the changes on the idea that a lot of the stereotyped plots of the pulp magazines were adolescent wish-fulfilment, and real people would encounter a very different experience if time travel, or several other common tropes, actually came to pass. This depth, wit and vividness continues throughout the collection.

One of the supposed "rules" of strong writing is that the verb "to be" is weak and should be replaced wherever possible. But consider this:

"The man in the car was thirty-eight years old. He was tall, slender, and not strong. His cropped hair was prematurely grey. He was afflicted with an education and a sense of humor. He was inspired by a purpose. He was armed with a phone book. He was doomed."

"Weak" verbs. Tell instead of show. But it grabs you and sweeps you into the story anyway, because Bester knows how to pick the details that say, at the same time, "this is Everyman" and "this is a particular man who will be interesting to read about", and those two things together make for a great main character.

Indeed, it's the characters - simultaneously easy for the reader to relate to, and eccentric and particular - who make these stories memorable. Bester characterises them briskly, but vividly, like a caricaturist producing portraits with just a few strokes of the pen. Then he sweeps them into drastic situations and watches them dance and struggle and weep.

View all my reviews

Review: Worlds to Come: Science Fiction Adventure Classics

Worlds to Come: Science Fiction Adventure Classics Worlds to Come: Science Fiction Adventure Classics by Damon Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of classic SF from some of the great authors.

We open with "The Sentinel" by Arthur C. Clarke, the seed from which 2001 grew, and an example of Clarke's ability to make a story out of "here is this great thing I witnessed, without really affecting the outcome; isn't that amazing?"

"Moonwalk" by H. B. Fyfe is a survival story which reminded me of Andy Weir's The Martian, though of course it's much shorter and more concentrated (and the protagonist isn't a smartass). The tension is well sustained.

"Mars is Heaven" by Ray Bradbury is an example of Bradbury's trademark bizarre imagination and ability to tie science fiction and American small-town life together in a way that works.

"The Edge of the Sea" by Algis Budrys tells of a not-quite-first-contact scenario through a Hemingwayesque character who discovers a spaceship about to be washed away by the tide and is determined to keep it in case there's some kind of reward - and he has nothing better to do, anyway, so he'll risk his life and put out immense effort, giving meaning to the struggle by the fact that he engages in it.

"The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov continues a kind of working-class hero vibe that's developing in the collection, as Martian colonists bravely obtain water from one of the moons of Saturn and show up a populist Earth politician for the fool he is.

"The Big Contest" by John D. MacDonald is another blue-collar first contact story, involving a spitting contest.

"Ordeal in Space" by Robert A. Heinlein shows us a spacer with what we would now call PTSD, able to overcome his fears when he needs to help a fellow creature. I had forgotten how fond Heinlein was of cats, and this story endears him to me more than most of his others.

"That Share of Glory" by C.M. Kornbluth shows us a member of a monastic guild of translators whose mission is to spread utilitarian civilisation. He learns some lessons about life in the field on his first assignment that he wasn't taught in the Order.

Finally, "Sunken Universe" by James Blish gives us one of those "bizarre milieu" stories that affirm the human spirit in any kind of situation.

Overall, indeed, this is a collection all about the human spirit, the spirit of ordinary people (or rather ordinary men, given the time period) in extraordinary situations, mostly exploratory ones. There's some fine writing in it, and some fine thinking too.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Review: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting use of fanfiction. Starts out with an entertaining what-if (Harry's aunt married a professor instead of Mr. Dursley, and Harry grew up learning science), then uses that as a basis for exploring various rationalist ideas.

This goes on for a while, and isn't badly done, but then the author gets caught up in telling the story, and the exploration of ideas recedes a bit into the background. Essentially, it shifts from "Harry is a little know-it-all who schools everyone else in rationalism" to "Harry realises he doesn't know it all, and that emotions like loyalty, love and friendship have their own power."

I was signed up for several forms of notification that should have updated me when the story was updated, but I only learned by accident that it had been finished. I haven't got round to reading the end, and probably won't for a while, but I'm reviewing it to get it off my "Currently Reading" list.

I might well give it a re-read from the beginning at some point so I can see it as a whole. Far from flawless, but an interesting thing to even attempt.

View all my reviews

Friday, 6 November 2015

Review: Super Stories of Heroes and Villains

Super Stories of Heroes and Villains Super Stories of Heroes and Villains by Claude Lalumière
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoy superhero prose. More accurately, I enjoy some superhero prose, and a few of these stories are the kind I enjoy.

The usual unevenness of any multi-author anthology applies, both in how much I enjoyed the stories and how well they are edited, and some of the stories only fit within the theme by stretching the definition a long way (also common for anthologies). This particular anthology suffers from another issue, too: in some, there are a lot of references within the stories either to the particular story's pulp origins and the associated characters, or else to a shared universe with many other stories and characters in it, and in both cases, since I'm not familiar with the names, they're just a list of names. For me, this detracts from the story rather than adding to it.

The main problem, though, is one that means I always have to pick my superhero prose carefully: a generally dark, gritty, cynical and depressing tone, common in the genre but very much not to my taste.

A lot of the stories are well done, but I didn't often like what they were doing. The three stars reflects my personal taste, not the writing quality.

There is an odd quirk in the layout: some, but by no means all, of the opening quotation marks have a space inserted after them.

"A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows," Chris Roberson: a neo-pulp story in the traditional style, if with modern attitudes to immigration and sex. Well done, though it does have a couple of homonym errors ("principle" for "principal", "lead" for "led").

"Trickster," Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due: this is the first of several stories in the collection which stretches the definition of "superhero". I usually enjoy trickster tales, but this particular one wasn't as tricksterish as some, and was more of a postapocalyptic tragedy (something I don't enjoy). A couple of apostrophe issues detract from the general competence of the writing.

"They Fight Crime!," Leah Bobet: A bit of a tendency to tell, and a tone of detached tragedy, so again, not my favourite thing.

"The Rememberer," J. Robert Lennon: Also in a mode of detached telling, which is an interesting choice for the story of someone who remembers everything and experiences the emotions powerfully, eventually helping others to do the same. Rather lovely, despite the tragedy, and despite again stretching the "superhero" definition a bit.

"The Nuckelavee: A Hellboy Story," Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola: What Hellboy gets right is the compelling noir feel of an outsider trying to do good and fight his own cynicism, placed in a setting of richly imagined myth. This story has all those elements, so it worked for me. Very much the shape of a 1930s Weird Tale, too, in which someone horribly gets what they deserve. Is Hellboy a superhero? Again, if you push the definition. Unfortunately, features a comma splice.

"Faces of Gemini," A. M. Dellamonica: More definitely a superhero this time, part of a super team. The story is mainly about the family dynamic between two sisters, with the supers stuff almost background, dire though it is. Homonym: "hoard" for "horde".

"Origin Story," Kelly Link: Link is known for a type of story I have very little time for, in which alienated people get battered by gritty tragedy for a while, unable or unwilling to do anything effective about it, until the story stops. This is one of those. She is a talented writer, but I don't enjoy her work.

"Burning Sky," Rachel Pollack: What Amazons might really be like. Not safe, not nice, is the short version. There are two stories intercut here, a first-person one about a BDSM sexual awakening, and a third-person one about a photographer who discovers an Amazon conspiracy, and they remain separate throughout - presumably throwing thematic light on each other. Overly literary for my taste, and thin on the superhero theme.

"The Night Chicago Died," James Lowder: Very dark noir with a horrifying ending which totally matches the tone up to that point.

"Novaheads," Ernest Hogan: Cyberpunk. Drug-addled, alienated, and cynical, all the things I like least in cyberpunk. Several minor editing glitches.

"Clash of Titans (A New York Romance)," Kurt Busiek: Maximally cynical, narrated in the voice of a New York advertising man who is completely unconcerned about the number of his fellow citizens being horribly killed in superhero fights, except insofar as this affects his chances of getting an apartment in the city so he doesn't have to commute.

"The Super Man and the Bugout," Cory Doctorow: If Superman had been raised, as one of his creators was, by a Canadian Jewish mother, and had to deal with Canadian bureaucracy. A little more hopeful and positive than average for the collection. "Proscribed" for "prescribed".

You know what? I'm not going to review every story after all. There are too many, and very few I like. I'll mention a couple of others.

"Sex Devil," Jack Pendarvis: A pitch-perfect pitch, supposedly by a teenage boy, for a new superhero who is transparently the boy's adolescent revenge/sex fantasy. Only someone who can write very well could pull off this beautiful imitation of someone who writes badly.

"Man Oh Man--It's Manna Man," George Singleton: A superhero with psychic powers makes televangelists urge their congregations to donate to actual worthy causes, instead of to them.

"The Jackdaw's Last Case," Paul Di Filippo: Franz Kafka immigrates to America and becomes a masked vigilante. A happier ending than you might expect.

"The Biggest," James Patrick Kelly: I normally like Kelly's beautifully crafted stories, but the sad pointlessness of the main character's life and death in this one are too much.

"Just Cause," Carrie Vaughn: I'm a big fan of Vaughn, and this was one of the more successful stories in the book for me. Very much about how hard it is to be a superhero, even one who retains some idealism.

"The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children," Will Clarke: Yes, of course the Pentecostal lady, though good-hearted, is ineffective in raising most of the children to even be civilised, let alone good people. There is, at least, one exception. What there isn't is a definite ending. "Bows" for "boughs" and "Cane" for "Cain".

"The Detective of Dreams," Gene Wolfe: Finally, a Gene Wolfe story I actually understand, and more or less like, though I know most people will dislike it because, unusually, it lets Wolfe's Catholicism out into the open. Done in a flawless 19th-century style.

So, to summarise the collection: not my thing, but certainly someone's, and done with skill, though far from flawlessly.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Review: An Heir to Thorns and Steel

An Heir to Thorns and Steel An Heir to Thorns and Steel by M.C.A. Hogarth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gave this up at 65%, because I just wasn't up for the cruelty.

I'll be honest: one reason I bought it was because of a review on Amazon by someone who really disliked how the main character had to deal with his chronic illness day after day after day. Well, that's how chronic illness works. It's hard, every day. And if that had been the only, or even the main, source of suffering in the book, I think I would have enjoyed the story. It's a fresh world; the editing is good (just one homonym error: "dowsing" for "dousing"); I liked the characters. There's not enough representation of disability in fiction, and I cheer on anyone who attempts it.

Unfortunately, there's another enormous source of suffering: the cruelty of the elves. Now, I can cope with books that have cruel antagonists, as long as the author doesn't linger over descriptions of the cruelty. A quick sketch will do to establish that they're cruel and that my sympathies will be against them. I don't need the details.

This author lingers over the cruelty, and so I bailed out. It's a pity, because everything else was working for me.

View all my reviews

Friday, 23 October 2015

Review: Harry Takes Off

Harry Takes Off Harry Takes Off by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy from the author, who I know on social media, for purposes of review.

Reading a book that positions itself as steampunk is the triumph of hope over experience for me. This is because, almost without exception, the execution fails to measure up to the ideas. Fails by a wide margin. The average steampunk book is poorly written, both in terms of story and in terms of basic competence with the elements of prose.

This book is that rare exception.

Firstly, Turnbull doesn't flood us with absurd gadgetry. His sole technological difference is a form of antigravity, which I think is a wise approach. We don't have steam this and brass that and clockwork the other thing, with none of them making any kind of technological or sociological sense. We have steam-powered heavier-than-air flight, and airships that can carry much greater payloads. Otherwise, it's a straight historical adventure.

Secondly, he knows how to write a pulp story. It's exciting, it occasionally stretches belief, but I forgive it because it reminds me of the thrilling adventure stories of my childhood. There aren't the problems with pacing, massive plot holes, and excessive description that so often plague the genre.

Thirdly, his characters aren't idiots. Because this is a fast-moving, action-packed, plot-driven pulp story, they don't achieve tremendous depth, perhaps, but they're sensible, pragmatic, capable, and don't get themselves into trouble by doing things that are obviously thickheaded. Nor do they need to be rescued by men, like so many steampunk heroines. Instead, they bravely escape from the Germans by themselves and take a warning to the British government, which is, of course, ignored because they are only teenage girls (and one is African). Then they bravely escape again (I did find the fact that the Sultan of Zanzibar lets the engineer sister fix, indeed improve, their aircraft while holding them captive suspiciously plot-convenient).

Fourth, he only uses vocabulary that he actually understands. This is one of the worst things about steampunk for me: the authors try to write "Victorian" and end up making a horrible hash of it, misusing words left and right and revealing their ignorance of history, language and culture. Turnbull dodges this bullet, or rather artillery shell.

I give this book my rare "well-edited" tag, which I don't think has ever been earned by a steampunk book before (several of them have got the "seriously-needs-editing" tag, though). In part, this is, of course, because Turnbull doesn't make a lot of mistakes to begin with. Quality begins with the author, and if the author makes hundreds of errors, there will be tens of errors even after a very good editor has gone over it.

A very good editor (whom I know) has gone over this, and there are very few issues left, all minor. The copy that I read came bundled with another book of Turnbull's, edited by a different person, which revealed that he has a habit of comma-splicing. There was no sign of this issue in Harry Takes Off.

Overall, a fine piece of adventure fiction, which didn't distract me from the plot by dropping constant clangers like so much steampunk does.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Review: Under the Ice Blades

Under the Ice Blades Under the Ice Blades by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another reliably entertaining Lindsay Buroker book. She keeps writing them and I keep buying them.

One thing I do notice about this series in particular is that all of the couples seem to have the same dynamic: they're confident on the outside, and on the inside they're always wondering insecurely how they're coming across, and not knowing, because the other person is also not letting on. Maybe a new schtick would be good for a change?

The last scene also seemed a bit out of character for one of the participants, given several specific statements made earlier in the book.

Overall, though, a good mixture of adventure with a bit of romance, and it adds a couple of complications to the series in progress. I have the next book on preorder.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my, I don't know, third or fourth re-read, at least, and I still couldn't remember the ins and outs of the plot. Perhaps this is because the author thought it would be cool to come up with as many kinds of werewolves as possible, and then put all of them in the book, so for a long time it's extremely unclear which of them are responsible for the crimes.

I suppose that's similar to the Agatha Christie school of mystery writing, where everyone could have done the murder. It's confusing, though. Maybe even more so than it's meant to be.

There's also a lot more graphic violence and horrible death than I usually go for, so I'm trying to remember why it was that I stuck with this series back when I had a lower tolerance for that than I do now (and it's still pretty low).

I think it's the characters. Harry is so committed to doing the right thing, even when badly and repeatedly beaten up and facing highly probable death, that you can't help being on his side.

I agree with those who say that this isn't nearly as good as the series became later on. The minor characters are more developed, later, and the plots consist of more than "Harry blunders about getting beaten on in the noir tradition, until eventually the mystery shakes loose more through his persistence than his skill." Still, I did enjoy the ride, for the most part (could have done with less grisly death).

The audio this time is better than the first book. The gasps, sighs and sniffs have been edited out this time, and only the reader's occasional word blunders remain to annoy.

I'm enjoying going back through the series and reminding myself of how the secondary characters (and even Harry) started out. The Alphas, the late-teenage werewolves, are so young and earnest here, though they seem to have lost their environmental activism after this book. I think this may also have been the last book that had potions in it, which is probably a good decision, on the whole. They're a bit like Q's devices in James Bond: you know they'll turn out to be exactly what the hero needs at some critical juncture, and then they'll never be mentioned again.

Plenty of flaws, but also plenty going for it, and so I press on through the audio reread.

View all my reviews

Monday, 21 September 2015

Review: Herland

Herland Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first thing to understand about Herland is that it's what's sometimes called a "milieu story". In other words, exploration of the setting takes priority over plot or characterisation. This isn't to say that there is no plot and no characterisation, or that they're badly done, just that the plot is basic and stretched over a lot of material, and the characterisation is also basic and doesn't involve a lot of character development. This is normal for a utopian novel, and as utopian novels go, this one has more plot and characterisation than most.

With that caveat out of the way, this is not only a classic feminist utopia, but a competently written one. It's told almost as if it's a pulp adventure of the "lost world" type, by a male narrator. The narrator is one of three men who find an all-woman society on an isolated plateau which is implied to be somewhere near the headwaters of the Amazon (partly, I'm sure, for symbolic reasons, the Amazons being a classical, legendary all-female society). At least two of the three are types, and risk being straw men, but in my opinion are accurate and recognisable enough types to escape that pitfall.

Terry is a "man's man," the classic two-fisted pulp adventurer, who recognises two types of women: attractive and to be used for his sexual satisfaction, and unattractive and therefore to be ignored. When he meets with the independent, intelligent women of Herland, who have no time for his crap, he reacts with anger, and ultimately violence.

Jeff is the kind of man who puts women on a pedestal. He fits happily into Herland, and adapts himself to it.

Van, the narrator, claims to be somewhere between the two, though he's a lot closer to Jeff. His main fault is that, like the other men, he can't bring himself to be completely honest about the defects of their society in the face of the well-ordered society of Herland, which the women have been consciously improving for a thousand years.

The women are not arrogant about their society, but are open to learn, and even to re-adopt "bisexual reproduction" (by a miracle which they attribute to their Mother Goddess, they give birth by parthenogenesis, all of their men having been killed in a series of unfortunate events many centuries before). It's pretty clear, though, that they have a lot less to learn from the rest of the world's cultures than vice versa.

This kind of book easily becomes preachy and filled with infodumps. In my view, the author manages to avoid both of these traps (perhaps narrowly on occasion); exposition is mostly in dialogue, and the superiority of the women's society emerges as a reluctant conclusion reached by the narrator, rather than in speeches from the women themselves.

There are some excellent observations about society, culture, the nature of humanity, and, of course, gender scattered throughout, and I recommend it for anyone who doesn't automatically run from the words "feminist utopia".

View all my reviews

Friday, 18 September 2015

Review: Beginnings, Middles & Ends

Beginnings, Middles & Ends Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent, not least because it's very well laid out, with a clear flow from point to point and chapter to chapter. (As you would hope from a book on beginnings, middles and ends.)

All too many craft books, I'm finding, don't have much to teach anyone who isn't a beginner. This is an exception. Even though some of the ground it covers is inevitably ground I've seen covered before, it does it so clearly and thoroughly that it provides fresh insight.

For example, the section on endings gave me an "aha!" moment about one of my own stories. The editor I'd submitted to liked it apart from the ending, and requested a rewrite. I realised, reading Nancy Kress's explanation, why the rewritten ending had worked where the original had not: it directly addressed the conflict which started in the first paragraph and was developed through the middle of the story.

This was the main point I gained from the book: the beginning, middle and end form a unity. However, there's also useful material on characterisation, motivation, promises, climaxes, and a structured approach to revision.

The author helpfully points out some differences between short stories and novels along the way. She also makes clear something that had been vague to me: how non-plotted or "literary" stories are supposed to work, and how to signal that you're writing one of those, and not a plotted story. I believe I'll now approach the non-plotted stories I read with more appreciation for what the author is doing.

This is the second book I've read in the Elements of Fiction Writing series (the first being the highly useful Scene and Structure ), but I'll be searching out the others, given the excellent quality of both the ones I've read so far.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Review: The Martian

The Martian The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing could be more old-school, as far as writing a science fiction novel is concerned, than taking "clever engineer solves problems" as your premise. It wasn't new when Hugo Gernsback did it (very boringly) with Ralph 124C41+ in 1911, and it remained a staple well into the 1960s and beyond.

And if you're going to go old-school, you need to do it really well.

The Martian is a "clever engineer solves problems" story, and it's done really well.

I didn't just have to take other people's word that this would be the case. Thanks to David Morgan-Mar and his Irregular Webcomic, I knew about Andy Weir and his Casey and Andy webcomic, so I knew he was funny. I'd also read the webcomic he did after that one, so I knew that he could tell a story as well as pull off a gag. I therefore went in thinking, "He might just be able to pull 'clever engineer' off and still make it a good story with plenty of humour."

At one point, it put me in mind of Arthur C. Clark's A Fall of Moondust , which (judging by the back matter) the author has almost certainly read. Both involve people trapped off Earth after an accident, having to contend with the physics (etc.) of an unfamiliar environment in order to survive and be rescued. Both stories manage to make it at least as much about the people as about the science, which for me, and for most people, is important in a hard-SF story. I don't just want a tour of the clever engineering science museum.

I did occasionally find the science a touch dull, but the voice of Mark Watney, the wisecracking, indomitable narrator of most of the book, rescues it with laugh-out-loud moments. There's also genuine tension and suspense; it's an emotional journey, which I'm sure is the key to the book's popularity.

It misses out on my rare "well-edited" accolade for one reason: the author's habit of combining a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of the same sentence. Other than that, few and minor errors meant a smooth, enjoyable reading experience.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review: Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Hot Lead, Cold Iron Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A while ago now, I read (or tried to read) a book that shall remain nameless, which had the premise of a fantasy being acting as a detective in a this-world noir setting. I abandoned it because it lacked the wonderfully punchy language that, to me, is one of the best things about noir. (In fact, I was so frustrated that, in reaction, I wrote a short story set in a sword-and-sorcery city, but told in the style of Damon Runyon.)

Lacking in noir-ness is happily not a fault of this excellent book, in which a member of the Aes Sidhe, working as a private eye in 1930s Chicago, struggles against mobsters, technology, the politics of his own people, and inimical Italian witchcraft.

He struggles well, determinedly, and in a good cause, which is how I like my heroes. The prose, besides being suitably noirish, is competent, fluent and well-edited. There's plenty in place for a rousing sequel, while this story is wrapped up satisfyingly.

Recommended, and I will be buying more in this series.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Review: Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original

Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original Some of the Best from 2014: A Tor.Com Original by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had this on my Kindle for a while, having picked it up when it was free. I've delayed reading it, because I often don't like the stories published at impression, from reading the occasional one, is that they're darker than I prefer, and rely too often on standing back and pelting the characters with adversity to get an emotional reaction from the audience. Since it's probably the highest-paying market in SF, though, I wanted to get a better idea of what they publish.

Possibly related to the fact that they pay 25c/word, I tended to feel that the pieces were often slightly over-written, with a high proportion of words to story. On the other hand, this leaves plenty of room to show the events affecting the characters.

**** "As Good as New," Charlie Jane Anders: I' d read this before, and while I liked it, I didn't feel like rereading it. The old genie-wishes trope, but freshened up cleverly.

"The End of the End of Everything," Dale Bailey: Skipped this, because I don't enjoy post-apocalyptic.

*** "Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch," Kelly Barnhill: A magic-realist piece without a great deal of story to it, but the atmosphere it created was enjoyable.

** "Sleep Walking Now and Then," Richard Bowles: Didn't much like this dreary tale of a theatre production; filled with telling, and lacked a basic facility with commas.

**** "Brisk Money," Adam Christopher: I was wary going into this one, having given up on the author's novel Empire State when it became way too violent way too early. This time, however, he held the violence until after I was already hooked, instead of before. It's a well-written noir detective story with a self-aware robot in the gumshoe role. Issues, though:
1. I saw the ending coming a mile away.
2. The action the antagonist takes at the end seems incompatible with her goal of continuing to get away with what she's doing, because it would result in her exposure.
3. This is what I think of as a "retro story," one which could have been written in the 1960s (when it's set). Even though it's well done, I generally prefer my spec-fic to work forward from today, not 50 years ago.

***** "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade," John Chu: A well-written, tense piece, which uses a wonderfully weird setting involving literalised metaphors as a background to a brilliant young man's struggles with his father's high expectations.

**** "The Color of Paradox," A.M. Dellamonica: Felt like a part of a much larger story, in which brave Time Agents struggle against the effects of the Time Press and their own moral qualms to delay the destruction of the world.

**** "The Litany of Earth," Ruthanna Emrys: Though it's based in the world of the Chthulhu Mythos, this avoids the overwrought language, and even the creeping horror, which is usually found in that subgenre and tells a story of a survivor of government persecution, explicitly parallel to the internment of the Japanese in World War II. She must make difficult and painful decisions in a situation with no good choices. Powerful.

***** "A Kiss With Teeth," Max Gladstone: Writing at his best (as in his first novel), Max Gladstone is amazing, and fortunately that's what we get here. (I didn't care for his second novel nearly as much.) Genuine suspense as a monster struggles to become something more for the sake of the people he has come to love.

*** "A Short History of the Twentieth Century, Or, When You Wish Upon a Star," Kathleen Ann Goonan: Signals early on that it's going to entwine several 20th-century phenomena: the Nazi rocket scientists taken from Peenemunde to form the basis of the US space program; Walt Disney; the 1960s counterculture; the change in the status of women during the latter part of the century. While it does entwine them competently, the resulting story didn't speak to me as much as I might have wished, perhaps because I wasn't immersed enough in the main character's viewpoint.

**** "Cold Wind," Nicola Griffith: An ancient hunt plays out in a contemporary city. Well-written and atmospheric.

**** "The Tallest Doll in New York City," Maria Dahvana Headley: Told in a style similar to Damon Runyon's (with past events referred to in the present tense), a style I have a personal fondness for, and which is harder than it looks. A lovely piece of magic realism, in which buildings and other objects come alive in New York City on a Valentine's Day in the 1930s.

** "Where the Trains Turn," Pasi Ilmari Jaskääläinen: I gave up partway through this one, which I felt was far too long and wordy for the amount of story I was getting (or how much I cared about the characters). The English is fluent, but not always idiomatic.

*** "Combustion Hour," Yoon Ha Lee: Would, I'm sure, have worked a lot better for me if I was familiar with the conventions of Asian shadow puppets. As it was, I found it difficult to follow.

***** "Reborn," Ken Liu: Liu specialises in stories which place people in difficult situations where their loyalties are divided because of personal connection, and this is one such, though, happily, lacking his trademark infodumping. The particular combination of loyalties and difficulties could only be achieved in SF.

**** "Midway Relics and Dying Breeds," Seanan McGuire: A somewhat cynical story set in a postcapitalist utopia which, as the narrator notes, couldn't actually be a utopia because people. I found it hard to consider the world-weary young protagonist as less selfish or less dangerous than the antagonist. It earns its fourth star because it's well done, though I didn't love it.

**** "Anyway: Angie," Daniel José Older: Creepy and effective, with hints of postapocalyptic. Even though I don't especially enjoy damaged protagonists in gritty settings, it was compelling enough for four stars.

**** "The Mothers of Voorhisville," Mary Rickert: A little too long and with a few too many characters to keep track of, but a haunting exploration of the many things that motherhood can mean. I'd call it magic realism, because the inexplicable thing that happens never is explained, it just triggers events.

*** "Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome," John Scalzi: I read this on when it first came out, and my review is here: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. Like the other Scalzi pieces I've read, it runs the gamut from average all the way to competent; every character sounds the same, and nothing is described.

"Among the Thorns," Veronica Schanoes: Starts straight into the torture in the first sentence, and keeps it up for... I'm not sure how long, since I bailed after a page and a half.

*** "The Insects of Love," Genevieve Valentine: One of those extended-metaphor stories that Connie Willis does, where there's a lot of information about some obscure area of knowledge, and somehow that relates to the story and the characters. Not my favourite style, but the author does it well. What she doesn't ever do is resolve the mystery of why the narrator keeps experiencing nonlinear alternate pasts.

*** "Sleeper," Jo Walton: I felt this one needed more development, unlike most of the pieces in the book, which are, if anything, overwritten. It's a good concept (in a corporate-dominated future, a simulation of a man from the 20th century who may have been a Communist sleeper agent is convinced by his biographer to influence people towards revolution), but it gets to the end of the exposition and stops.

**** "The Devil in America," Kai Ashante Wilson: Had me well drawn in by the time it got tragic, so I stayed. It got very tragic, as a tale of how blacks have been treated by whites in the American South is inevitably going to do. There's a postmodern thing where there are interpolations from (or supposedly from) the author's father, some of which comment on its status as a story and how the author is telling the story. For me, these detracted a lot more than they added. I'd file this under "well done, important, but harrowing".

"In the Sight of Akresa," Ray Wood: Another one that starts straight into the cruelty before establishing anything else, so I again bailed out immediately.

**** "A Cup of Salt Tears," Isabel Yap: A quiet, reflective piece about love and loss and saving what you love.

So now that I've read the collection, how has my view of stories changed? Yes, they're filled with powerful, dark emotion, loss, terror, and all the rest, which is not what I primarily look for in fiction; I prefer something lighter. At the same time, they're often (not always) extremely well written, and the powerful emotion is often (not always) a genuine effect arising out of the premise, rather than a gimmick to draw attention. They range widely, from clear SF to magic realism via urban fantasy, but if there's one thing they usually avoid, it's tired genre tropes. They often take us to cultures and experiences that aren't those of white men, which I appreciate (despite being a white man; I read SFF because it takes me to other conceptual spaces, after all).

I probably won't read another collection of them, as a matter of personal taste, but I appreciate them as well done.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Review: Sorcerers!

Sorcerers! Sorcerers! by Jack Dann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a scan of an anthology from 1986, and not all of the character recognition errors have been caught (so we get "1" for "I" a couple of times, "modem" for "modern" and the like). One or two of them should have been caught by spellcheck.

Setting that aside, like most anthologies, this is a mixed bag, but mainly successful.

"The Bleak Shore", a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story from Fritz Lieber, opens the collection well, with an atmospheric and suspenseful tale of a struggle against what, at first, seems to be Death himself.

"O Ugly Bird!" by Manly Wade Wellman makes the most of its Appalachian setting, and translates the "powerful man dominates small community" reality into a magical mode.

"The Power of the Press" by Richard Kearns is a lovely piece of fantastica, using the old trope of the wizards' duel in a fresh way.

"The Finger" by Naomi Mitchison takes us to Africa, where sorcery is still practiced and children are still sacrificed to create "magical" ingredients. It has a happier ending than many real-life cases.

"The Word of Unbinding" by Ursula K. Le Guin has all of the lyricism and gravitas that I associate with that author, and a brave wizard at the centre of it.

"His Coat So Gay" by Sterling E. Lanier is another "small community dominated by the powerful" story, though this time it's a powerful family. Although it's set in the US, it has the feel of urban fantasy set in England by the likes of Charles de Lint, partly because of the desperate struggle by the outsider to bring down ancient evil.

"Narrow Valley" by R. A. Lafferty I'd read before, like the Lieber and the Le Guin, but I enjoyed reading it again. Lafferty's mad style and odd characters are amusing, if lacking in much depth.

"Sleep Well of Nights" by Avram Davidson I disliked. The main character is an antihero, and the female characters are more furniture than people, and exist only in relation to the men.

"Armaja Das" by Joe Haldeman is a dark story of a Romany curse that brings down the whole of civilization.

"My Boat" by Joanna Russ is theoretically Cthulhu Mythos, but it lacks the overwrought prose that I associate with that subgenre. It's a rather lovely story of outsiders and the boy who didn't quite dare to join them and still regrets it years later.

The Hag Séleen by Theodore Sturgeon I wasn't expecting to enjoy--I'm not generally a Sturgeon fan--but I did. The courage of a father and the cleverness of his daughter defeat a witch. It could be seen as racially problematic, these days, though.

"The Last Wizard" by Avram Davidson is a short gag story that works well for what it is.

We close with "The Overworld" by Jack Vance. I dislike Vance's overelaborate style, and find it distances me from caring about the stiff, formal characters, who generally aren't particularly admirable either. Unfortunately, this story is no exception to any of that.

In general, a good collection, and not all of the best stories were ones I'd read before.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to write a good Book 2, especially of a trilogy, and very especially when your first one has won basically all the awards. Ann Leckie, for my money, pulls it off.

I did consider dropping this one to four stars. It's a touch unfocussed, and most of the best stuff (the setting, the multiple POVs from one first-person narrator, the gender thing) isn't new any more, because it was in the first book. That's another problem when you have to follow an amazing, innovative Book 1: Book 2 either has to be just as innovative in a new way (and risk losing people who loved the first book), or keep on in the same vein (and risk not having the same impact the second time around). I went for five stars, though, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, like Book 1, it's almost completely error-free. I noticed two missing quotation marks, and one place that I personally would have put in another comma. That level of quality is vanishingly rare, even in trad-pub, because most authors--no matter how good they are at story-telling--make more errors than their editors catch. Leckie appears to be one of those rare authors who just don't get it wrong in the first place. The writing is smooth, confident, and at a high level of competence, meaning I can relax into it and focus on the story without being distracted by language glitches.

Secondly, there's some depth to the story, which is one of my criteria for awarding five stars (along with being excellently done). The author has clearly thought a lot about power dynamics, protest, access to authority for remedies, the human ability to fool ourselves, human nature in general... it's a mature, sophisticated book with some important ideas in it. Breq is a wonderful character, and while she has a pragmatic reason for bringing what justice she can (so that disaffected populations can't be used to cause disruption), she clearly has a degree of moral idealism as well. She's also taking zero deliveries of any crap from anyone, something I enjoy and applaud in a main character.

The main improvement I thought could have been made is that the story question could be clearer. Is Breq:

1. Attempting to stabilise the system in order to prevent it becoming the site of conflict in the potential civil war?
2. Attempting to atone for her earlier actions by bringing justice to the oppressed?
3. Trying to help her former lieutenant's sister, again in order to atone?
4. Trying to regain the sense of multiple-self that she had when she was a ship?
5. Trying to help her "baby lieutenant" through a crisis into which she has unique insight?

All of these are things she works on, and succeeds at to one degree or another, but it's not as clear as it could be which ones are most important to her or what she's striving to achieve, and this takes a certain amount of tension out of the story which would have been relatively easy to put in.

Aside from that, this was excellent, and I look forward eagerly to Book 3.

View all my reviews

Friday, 14 August 2015

Review: Orconomics: A Satire

Orconomics: A Satire Orconomics: A Satire by J. Zachary Pike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was unusual in several ways.

Firstly, it was based pretty obviously not just on the sword-and-sorcery genre, but on Dungeons and Dragons--even down to the party arguing about shopping and adding up points and levels. That's not unusual. What's unusual is how well it's done, in general; that it's not only witty, but also deeply serious and in places outright tragic; and that it's a satire on our world's financial institutions and their corruption, as well as a tale of sword-and-sorcery adventure.

It's generally well edited, though there are slips; occasional misplaced apostrophes, a dangling modifier, and "the sleight that the wizard had inferred" when the author means "the slight that the wizard had implied". I suspect an author that made a lot of mistakes and an editor that didn't quite catch all of them (because editors, too, are human).

Still, the story is strong, the characters manage to rise above being cliches, the satire hits pretty hard on its target, and I'm seriously considering getting the sequel.

View all my reviews

Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: Penric's Demon

Penric's Demon Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Bujold, who writes smoothly and fluently and gives us wonderful characters. I enjoy some of her books more than others, and this was one of the others, but even Bujold not at her best is still good.

My main issues were pacing and length. There were a lot of skimmable passages of description, and, as this is a novella, it is a bit linear, and only has so much complexity. It would make a great first third of a novel; as a novella, it leaves me underfed.

Two of my favourite Bujolds, The Curse of Chalion and the wonderful Paladin of Souls, are in this setting. One of my least favourite, The Hallowed Hunt, is in another part of it. For me, Penric's Demon falls somewhere in the middle, but towards the good end. I would love to see it expanded into a full novel, though.

View all my reviews

Review: The Alloy of Law

The Alloy of Law The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was delightful. I've read and enjoyed the first two Mistborn books, which are more or less supers against the background of a wonderfully twisted reimagining of the old Dark Lord/Chosen One epic fantasy schtick. This picks up centuries later, when the events of those books are legends, and gives us supers in a 19th-century-technology-level secondary fantasy world. (I wouldn't quite call it steampunk, despite trains and goggles, but it's close.)

Not only that, but we have literal tinfoil hats which actually protect people from having their thoughts manipulated (and that's just a throwaway mention in passing). We have a very nearly literal deus ex machina, which is a piece of bare-faced chutzpah that I have to applaud. We have an intelligent, capable young woman, sadly missing from the cover despite her major character status. We have banter. We have heists. We have a rogue on the side of good, despite his continuing kleptomaniac tendencies. We have tropes subverted. We have non-tedious reflections on the nature of law and authority, and on whether it's right to serve the law when the law primarily serves the wealthy.

And we have plenty of action. Varied, exciting, and clever. Cinematic and suspension-of-disbelief-challenging, sometimes, but I forgive it when it's this good.

I listened to the audio version, and the voice actor does a fine job--particularly difficult, in this case, since one of the characters is himself a bit of a voice actor, and changes his accent to pass himself off as other people.

Highly entertaining, but not without its philosophical side. I enjoyed it hugely, and looked forward to my commute so I could listen to more of it.

View all my reviews

Review: Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction by Michael A. Arnzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a certain kind of blog that, for SEO purposes, hosts frequent guest posts around whatever its theme is. Those guest posts are often poorly-executed statements of the blindingly obvious, there only to fill up space and increase keyword density.

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the contributions to this book fell into the same trap. There are sixty chapters in all, none of them very long, which means that they're also not in much depth. If there were one or two good points in each chapter, that would be OK, though not really what I was looking for--I want something that goes into depth on intermediate to advanced topics in writing craft, not another restatement of the basics. However, a few of the contributions don't even have much to say that would be helpful to a beginner, and some of them also make headdesk-worthy simple writing errors (mostly homonyms). These are graduates of the Seton Hill MFA in Popular Fiction, which doesn't fill me with confidence in the value of the course. (Of course, it isn't setting out to teach "how to write valuable, insightful nonfiction". The graduates may write perfectly fine popular fiction, and homonym errors are hardly rare even among award-winning authors. Still, such skills do matter.)

Did not finish.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Review: Surfacing

Surfacing Surfacing by Walter Jon Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Walter Jon Williams is the only writer who regularly gives me the feeling that I'm not actually all that bright. I say this because I've more than once read something of his and known I was missing something, known it would make sense if only I thought at his level.

This novella was one of those. Not until the end, though (I didn't understand how the thing that seemed to be the resolution actually solved the problem the characters faced), and the ride was a good one, even if the characters were, let's say, less emotionally healthy than those I usually prefer to spend my time with.

It's rare to find a really good depiction of alienness in SF, but this novella provides several, at different levels: the whales the main characters have learned to talk to reasonably well, the Deep Dwellers in the ocean of another planet, whose language is less comprehensible to the human mind, and the n-dimensional being who periodically (by arrangement) possesses humans for the sake of the experience. Not to mention the protagonist's insane father, of course, who had his own kind of alienness.

Beautifully written and excellently done, even if I didn't completely understand it.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review: Ithaka Rising

Ithaka Rising Ithaka Rising by L.J. Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosures: I received a copy via Netgalley for independent review. I know the author on social media, and she has beta-read for me in the past.

I very much enjoyed the first Halcyone Space novel, Derelict, and looked forward to this one with slight trepidation that it might not measure up. Although I didn't love it quite as much as the first, it's still a fine second book in the series, and a hopeful sign of good things to come.

I mentioned that I enjoyed it slightly less than the previous one, and the main reason is that I felt the plot of the first progressed reliably and logically from point to point, while this book's plot relied on a helpful coincidence (and on a character jumping to a correct conclusion on, I felt, too little evidence.)

(view spoiler)

Apart from that, the plot was sound, the character relationships and their development were well handled and satisfying, and the prose shows clear improvement over previous books (which were already above average). The challenges the characters face are political and interpersonal, without the action-based challenges of the first book, but they're none the worse for that. And I did appreciate the realistic depiction of long-term consequences from physical injury. (Since the author used to work as a physical therapist, and is married to a doctor, this is a great example of "write what you know".)

I was surprised to see, when I went to post my review, that the book is 400 pages long. It didn't feel long, which is an excellent sign.

I look forward to future entries in this space opera with a brain and a heart.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Review: Wolf

Wolf Wolf by Alma Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from the author, since I'd reviewed the previous book in the series.

The viewpoint character in this book is the brother of the previous book's viewpoint character, and spends the entire first part of the book going over the backstory from his perspective. In a sense, then, you don't need to read the previous book in order to orient yourself, but I really suggest that you do read it, because it was one of the best books I read last year.

I'm not certain whether the version I received was the final version. It felt to me as if it needed another round of revision, mainly because of the periodic appearance of 80, 100, even 120-word sentences that rambled from topic to topic, interrupting themselves several times along the way. I'm not sure if this was deliberate characterisation, the mind style of the character; it seemed to disappear later in the book, when the young man gained more sense of purpose and direction. If it was deliberate, it didn't work that well for me.

Something else that annoyed me slightly (and added to the sense that the book was just going on and on) is the lack of chapter breaks. I several times stopped reading partway through a scene in order to go to bed or get back to work after my lunch break, since I didn't know when the next stopping point was going to be.

So much for the flaws. I thought I might have found a third, in that the viewpoint character doesn't himself take most of the actions which progress and resolve the plot, relying on his friends to do so instead. On reflection, though, this isn't really a flaw. There are multiple kinds of main characters, just as there are multiple kinds of leader, and this character is the kind who inspires others around him by his devotion to a cause, by his willingness to risk everything for what's important to him, and by the fact that what's important to him is helping someone else. Even if it's important because of his guilt over past actions, it's still inspiring--not only to his fellow characters, but also to me. I found myself moved by his devotion to his sister and by the loyalty that inspired in the other characters.

Overall, then, while it wasn't, to me, as good as the previous book, and tended to wander and ramble at the beginning, I did find this book enjoyable, and the end both emotionally moving and satisfying.

View all my reviews

Review: Falcon

Falcon Falcon by Emma Bull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the upside, Emma Bull writes beautifully and competently. On the downside, she has a tendency to be on the downside--to write beautifully about tragedy and despair and things going terribly, horribly wrong.

Which is why, when I was a bit down emotionally because of some pain issues, I stopped reading this at about 92%, since the last thing I need in that mood is tragedy. It turns out that I stopped just before the most tragic part--but it also turned out that, immediately after that tragic part, the story takes a previously unsignalled turn for the positive, via what amounts to a deus ex machina (because it, too, struck me as completely unsignalled, and also unlikely).

Apart from that, it's wonderfully done, though it's not my favourite kind of thing.

View all my reviews

Monday, 27 July 2015

Review: Mabel the Mafioso Dwarf

Mabel the Mafioso Dwarf Mabel the Mafioso Dwarf by Sherry Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I also read and reviewed the previous book in this series (via Netgalley, as with this one), and found it enjoyable enough that I picked up the second as well. While I thought it had some flaws, they're not fatal, and would be relatively simple to correct.

Once again, we have a freshened-up sword-and-sorcery world, charmingly rendered. It's surprising how a couple of elements from the USA in the 1930s (movies and gangsters) perk up a potentially paint-by-numbers D&D-style fantasy world, making the familiar tropes into background furniture rather than subjecting us to grinding through another dull iteration of them.

Mabel is a delightful heroine, authentically brave in a quiet and determined way. There isn't much outright action, and the story starts with a lot of preliminary throat-clearing and doesn't show us any conflict to speak of for a long time (one of the flaws I mentioned), but once the conflict does start I found it kept my interest. I did feel that Mabel perhaps triumphed a little too thoroughly, given the overall situation, but otherwise her success was satisfying.

The writing had some basic (albeit common) issues. Most notable were commas before the main verb (and in other unnecessary places), and commas missing before terms of address, but to me the biggest problem was the long parade of simple declarative sentences. While the narrator was intended to be unsophisticated and naive, the writing style, to me, overdid that aspect. There were also a few other commonly-made errors: homonyms (backwards/backward, definitively/definitely, compliment/complement, reigns/reins, breech/breach), "a millennia" instead of "a millennium", "may" used where it should have been "might", and missing past perfect tense from time to time. All of these are errors that I see a lot of authors making, but there were quite a few of them, more than I felt there should have been in a book that credits an editor, from an author who has graduated from the Seton Hill MFA program and from Clarion.

One thing I thought was mostly done well was the recap, reminding readers of what had gone on in the first book. Since I read that book a while ago, and have read a lot of others since, I needed the refresher. However, there were two things missing that I noticed: firstly, we're never explicitly reminded of what exactly the problem was with Mabel's mother that caused her exile, and secondly, there are several mentions of dwarfs braiding (or not braiding) their beards before we're reminded of what that signifies in their culture: that they're looking (or not looking) for a relationship.

Mabel's own relationships with family and friends were well explored, I thought, and made sense. Character and character relationships are definite strengths of the author, and with a bit more cutting to the chase and some revision on sentence structure and other writing basics, this would be an excellent book. As it is, it's entertaining and enjoyable.

View all my reviews

Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School

Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School
Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Alexander Steele

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the pull quotes on the cover of this book (from a review by The Writer) says: "Explains all the basics of writing fiction in a simple, easy-to-understand manner." That's an excellent summary.

For a beginning writer, this will be tremendously valuable as an introduction to the important factors you need to consider when writing fiction: character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting, pacing, voice, theme, and revision. (There's a closing chapter on the business of writing, but it's a bit outdated and almost entirely about traditional publishing.)

For an intermediate writer, which is what I consider myself to be, it's a good revision text with the occasional useful bit of advice, like "give your characters contradictions" or "after you write your first draft, decide what the story is about and rewrite with that in mind". If you've spent much time learning from other sources, though, whether it be podcasts like Writing Excuses or other introductory books or writer blogs or workshops, most of the content will be thoroughly familiar, well-trodden ground.

Although genre fiction is mentioned (in a patronising kind of way) in the first chapter, and the classes at the Gotham Writers' Workshop include some on genre fiction, almost all of the examples that are used throughout the book are from literary classics of the 19th and 20th centuries. There's nothing wrong with that - they're widely acknowledged as examples of good writing, and serve to show that different authors take very different approaches to the "rules" - but if you're not that familiar with literary fiction, some of the points may pass you by.

There are exercises, which would be valuable if the skills are new to you.

Recommended, but primarily for beginners.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: Firebrand

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an "also-bought" on Amazon from the book I read immediately before it, [b:The Steerswoman|793297|The Steerswoman (The Steerswoman, #1)|Rosemary Kirstein||6398950].

I've been known to complain before about how steampunk novels typically take a great idea and execute it poorly. This one, in a refreshing change, takes a great idea (drawn from the fantasy world that Charlotte Bronte created as a child, which reflects more cultivation and knowledge of the 19th century than most steampunk authors show) and executes it fairly well, though very far from flawlessly.

The wonderful and wonder-filled world is more or less a background to the story, and, to be honest, the plot is not great and somewhat pitted with holes. The great strength is the main character and narrator, but even she has her flaws - not "character flaws" that appear in the book, but flaws considered as a literary character and potential protagonist. She's an intelligent and very witty woman, but she doesn't seem to apply that intelligence to anything, or have any useful skills or areas of knowledge - or even any useless ones. (I suppose that being quite good at sex is a useful skill, in context.) She doesn't have a really clearly articulated goal, nor does she pursue clear goals against opposition; she more or less drifts about reacting to events a lot of the time, and often reacting to them not very effectively.

The most decisive thing she does (small spoiler for an early event) is propose marriage to the sole remaining independent duke, apparently in order to escape the attentions of the emperor, but as I say, it's not clearly articulated what her plan is, or even if she has one. The duke, who has remained faithful to the memory of his late wife for years, and the main character, who has had two unsatisfactory marriages and a few unsatisfactory liaisons, then fall in instalove. This is the biggest unlikeliness in the plot, right up to the point where the big threat just kind of collapses at the end. It seems that the people of the duchy, who venerate the late duchess, become, quietly and in the background, mild converts to the cult of the new would-be duchess, for no really clear reason. But then, she's the kind of character that everyone loves (except people who are obviously nasty, like her stepdaughters), for no really clear reason.

There's some back-and-forth for the rest of the book in which it seems like possibly they might not get married for one reason or another, but I was never convinced by any of it, and it wasn't strong enough to drive a plot. Nor were the various, mostly half-hearted attempts to kidnap or assassinate her, which never seemed to result in her being assigned a military guard or taking any kind of precautions.

There's not quite one editing error per chapter, on average, which isn't a bad run rate (though they include a missing apostrophe from "children's" and "ten years' time" and a misplaced one in "gentlemen's" and "stepdaughters'" - I'm giving the correct versions here). Some of them are places where the present tense (which the book is narrated in) slips momentarily into past, or where there's a word missing from a sentence, or repeated.

So why four stars? It sounds like a bit of a mess. Well, it is, kind of, but the banter and the voice of the main character are very funny, and I always award a humour bonus to books that make me laugh. Listen to this: "There are enough potted palms to choke a camel. Somewhere a few rooms away a small orchestra are diligently at work. One of them may actually be choking a camel, though if so it's a soprano one." Or this: "I don't feel like myself, but whoever I am seems to be coping better with what's just happened than I would."

I was entertained, despite the lack of protagonism or a strong sense of plot (two things which are intertwined), and being entertained is important. I don't know if I'll read another book by this author, but I have another sample on my Kindle, so I'll give it a try and see what it's like, and if it shows signs of not having the same issues I'll buy it.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Review: Abhorsen

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The completion of my "re-read" of this classic series, via e-audio.

Though I prefer books that aren't as dark and have a lower body count, it's so well done that I went with it anyway. Nix's characters are always strongly motivated, always protagonise their backsides off, and, in doing so, overcome obstacle after obstacle while things get progressively worse for them and the tension builds accordingly. I don't know if he's read Jack Bickham's [b:Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure|19146770|Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure|Jack Bickham||25288204], but his books are perfect examples of the advice in that book put into action.

In the earlier two books of the (main) trilogy - not counting the recently-published prequel, [b:Clariel|20662728|Clariel (Abhorsen, #4)|Garth Nix||6125574] - there was a certain amount of head-hopping in the middle of the scenes. It's not so evident in this third book, but the point of view is more omniscient than tight third-person. Omniscient is considered rather an old-fashioned POV these days, and the story might have been strengthened slightly by a tighter viewpoint; still, that would have deprived us of a few key moments in the viewpoints of Mogget and the Disreputable Dog.

View all my reviews