Monday, 19 February 2018

Review: The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets The Book of Secrets by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thought process when I saw this book while browsing Netgalley went something like:

Hmm, set in a bookstore, that's a good start.

Hmm, sweet-but-competent-looking young woman on the cover, also good.

It's by Melissa McShane? Sold!

My experience so far with Melissa McShane is that she writes smooth prose with very few errors, and indeed this was the case. I'm starting to think of her as the other Lindsay Buroker, the one who, instead of ensemble casts with amusing banter, writes determined, sensible, capable young female protagonists dealing with whatever gets thrown at them (supernatural and otherwise).

I did feel with this one, though, that it was somehow lacking in intensity. It shouldn't have been: we have Lovecraftian invaders from another dimension threatening the world, after all, plus a complete n00b dealing with magical politics in the wake of the man who had just employed her hours earlier being murdered, leaving her to deal with suspicious police and a magical bookstore for which the manual has gone mysteriously missing. (Having more than once been in the position of taking on a challenging new job with no documentation, I identified with that part.) By taking over, she's stepped on the toes of another young woman who saw herself as the designated successor, and isn't being mature about it. And there's a hot, dangerous monster hunter who turns up regularly to save the heroine (though she then immediately does something sensible and effective to underline for us that this is not a damsel-in-distress scenario; I appreciated that).

The thing is, the invaders have been threatening the world for centuries, and they're not threatening it any more than usual; they're dangerous, they kill someone in front of the heroine and pursue her and attack her, but I never found them ice-in-my-veins terrifying, somehow. The magical politics is conducted relatively politely by people who are mostly nice and helpful. The hot monster hunter doesn't offer much encouragement to the heroine to suggest that he's attracted to her in turn and things could become steamy between them. The murderer is notable for absence from the plot most of the time; the urgency of solving the murder seems low, amid everything else that's going on. And a couple of sudden shifts of what had seemed like intractable positions in the rivalry subplot kind of defuse that situation.

I certainly didn't dislike it. The characters are appealing, the setting is well thought out, the infodumps are competently incorporated in educate-the-n00b conversations. I'd happily read a sequel. I just thought it could do with more urgency.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Sisters Mederos

The Sisters Mederos The Sisters Mederos by Patrice Sarath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this somewhat hesitantly; "wealthy merchant house has a great fall, daughters seek revenge" isn't, to me, the most instantly promising premise.

In the event, I liked it. The daughters are skilled and determined; they take a lot of risks, but that's a thing that real young people do, and they carry it off. They're willing to brave a lot in order to unwind the mystery and gain their vengeance, though, in the event, the specific ways in which they invest most of their effort (gaining money from their former peers both by winning money at gambling and by robbing them at the point of never-adequately-accounted-for guns) don't turn out to be important to the plot's resolution. When the resolution does come, it comes somewhat abruptly and thoroughly.

The question of who can be trusted and who is on their side is prominent throughout, and the answers change a lot, sometimes suddenly and without much preparation, at other times with some foreshadowing. Although the sisters do keep some secrets from each other, at least for a while, the plot doesn't rely on this to create conflict, and they mostly confide in each other and work together.

On the whole, I felt the plot and characterization were competent and well handled, and the tension was maintained well. It isn't my new favorite, but it's a decent effort.

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Friday, 9 February 2018

Review: Into the Moonless Night

Into the Moonless Night Into the Moonless Night by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third of this trilogy (though the final line leaves the door open for a fourth in the series) adds a new genre. So far we've seen fairy-tale comedy of manners/horror and steampunk mad science mystery; now we get shifter dystopian with a prophecy/Chosen One. I don't usually read dystopian, so I'm not familiar with the tropes, but this isn't a very tropey author in any case.

The extremely slow burn of the romance subplot continues, but is not resolved. In fact, the potential couple are in different places for much of the book.

There's plenty going on here: high stakes, characters new and old struggling for their own varied agendas, multiple clashing factions, and a race-supremacist villain (there's a nice bit about how, being mediocre, he has to slant the playing field in order to make himself superior). As with the earlier two books, I couldn't figure out in advance how all these threads would eventually come together into a satisfactory ending, but in this case I felt that they didn't completely come together. The ending felt abrupt, and a bit of a cheat; part of it was handed to the characters by someone they couldn't control or predict, rather than being earned by them directly.

It's a pity, because it was a good ride up to that point. That minor stumble isn't quite enough to drop it down to three stars, but, along with a few other small glitches and (in the pre-publication copy I got from Netgalley) an abundance of copy editing issues, the ending made this my least favourite of the three books.

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review: The Meddlers of Moonshine

The Meddlers of Moonshine The Meddlers of Moonshine by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The interesting thing about this series is that it's one continuous story, but each of the books is in a different genre. Each book is complete in itself-no cliffhangers-but you wouldn't want to jump in partway through; each one sets up the next. (I received all three books together from Netgalley for review).

This one is steampunk, and if I didn't know better I'd blame the Steampunk Curse for the many copy editing issues on display. It is possible to have a well-edited steampunk book; it's just extremely rare, and this one is jam-packed with incorrect applications of the coordinate comma rule, along with some typos (mostly words left out of sentences), several misplaced apostrophes, and a couple of homonym errors (discretely/discreetly, site/sight). It's a pity, because it's another well-told story, this time of travelers in a steampunkish city who must battle corrupt and hypocritical authorities to bring about justice and solve an intriguing mystery.

The first book was relatively simple, almost all from the viewpoint of Ascot, the central character. This introduces a couple of other viewpoints, most interestingly the zany Rags-n-Bones. I was a little worried that the characters would fail to develop and remain just a collection of a few traits and a couple of tics, but each of them gains more depth, most of them gain more backstory, and they work more as an ensemble cast and less as a hero with a bunch of sidekicks (as in the first book).

I happily progressed to the third book, which turns out to be a dystopian, with shifters.

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Review: The Falling of the Moon

The Falling of the Moon The Falling of the Moon by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book, along with the two sequels, from Netgalley for purposes of review.

A fun story which both celebrates and undermines the fairy-tale genre, with a half-human, half-do-not-say-vampire-we-don't-use-the-V-word going out from Shadowvale, where her people live, into the wider world to live her own life. Equipped with a book of fairy tales, she finds that real life is a bit more complicated-and, indeed, the plot has an impressive number of twists. In all three books, I found myself unable to imagine how everything in the plot could possibly be tied up, almost up to the point when it was.

Ascot, the main character, possesses intelligence, determination, a good heart, and some unlikely but appealing allies, and manages to use them to the best advantage. Both she and the book combine brains and heart.

I was very happy to have the second book on hand so that I could carry on reading.

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review: Good Guys

Good Guys Good Guys by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've had people enthuse to me about Steven Brust more than once, but his main series is large and sprawling and not exactly my thing, and I've never found a point of entry to his work. When I saw this on Netgalley, a new series starter in a new genre for Brust, I thought I'd give it a try and see if he was actually as good as I'd heard.

He is. Not only is this written with assurance and strong craft, not only does it have highly entertaining banter among the diverse, distinct, and non-generic characters, but it also pulls off the difficult feat of having both moral complexity and a clear moral stance. The characters are imperfect and troubled, the reality they're dealing with is imperfect and complicated, and ultimately there isn't a "side" that is unambiguously and definitely the "good guys"; and yet most of the key characters, in their different ways, are striving to be "good guys" in their own terms, and some are even succeeding. It's noblebright, not grimdark, but it's noblebright with a lot of nuance and some extensive grey areas - yet ultimately hopeful.

I found the author's choice to write first-person sections from the perspective of the antagonist, and mix them with omniscient narration about the protagonists, an interesting one. I'm not sure exactly what it does; perhaps its function is to humanise the antagonist, so that we can see how he, too, in his distorted way, thinks he's a good guy, or at least a justified one.

The plot - agents of a secret cabal of sorcerers hunt down an assassin - is well paced, with good tension. Overall, excellent, and I would definitely read a sequel.

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Review: School for Psychics

School for Psychics School for Psychics by K.C. Archer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The main character here, Teddy, is trying hard to overcome her tendency to make poor life choices, but frankly, she sucks at it; she still does things like drinking heavily the night before a vital exam. That's a long way from being my favourite kind of character, which lost the book some points - not quite enough to take it down to three stars, though.

The premise of a school to train people with psychic powers to work with the military and law enforcement was an interesting one, and well handled. The Outcasts vs Alphas division of the students struck me as a bit YA, but it didn't descend into total cliche, and there was at least one alliance formed across those lines.

The plot was competently laid out, and the characters hit their marks in it and showed some progression beyond being stereotypes. Overall, a decent job, but not the kind of main character I want to follow into a sequel.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Empyrean Gate

The Empyrean Gate The Empyrean Gate by Z. Rockward
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, opening with an explicit masturbation scene: I did not expect that from anything in the blurb.

I also didn't pick up from "Part I" in the title that this is a serial, and this part is not anything like being a complete story. Nothing is resolved at the end.

Also: a polluted Earth has taken to launching junk into space first (headed for the sun), and sorting through it for valuables afterwards (rather than recycling it on Earth)? And those valuables include manuscripts and artworks? I roll to disbelieve, and score a natural 20. No; the junk satellite makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and is simply a thin excuse to get the main character involved in the wider story.

The main character herself is what I call a "spoiled protagonist," who's treated as if she has standing and should be allowed to be involved in everything, including top-secret stuff, even though this also makes absolutely no sense. The love interest even says that it doesn't make sense, repeatedly and at length, and he's right.

There may be some startling future revelation of why this character is so special, but I won't be reading any further. I nearly gave up partway through as it was, and had it not been so short that I was already more than 80% of the way through, I probably would just have stopped.

Not helped by the fact that my least favorite piece of corporate jargon, "moving forward," is used four or five times, meaning "in future" or "from now on" (or occasionally not meaning very much at all).

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Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I still had 10% of this book left to read, I heard that Ursula Le Guin had died, which made the rest of my read an opportunity to mourn our loss of a wise, deep thinker and excellent writer. Though she had little patience for literary vs genre divisions, she was often counted among "literary" writers, and the primary reason is, I think, that her work combines close observation of the ordinary with a deep interiority. Her work would be hard to film, just because most of the interesting stuff is happening slowly, and inside the characters.

It's not, I'll be honest, a style that I'm always in the mood for, and it took me a while to finish reading this book, too, for the same reason. It's made up of blog posts, but because this is Le Guin, they're blog posts that rise to the level of essays. And, also because this is Le Guin, a lot of them are more observation or memoir than argument, though there are certainly some that take a point of view and argue it.

As Karen Joy Fowler's introduction says, "Le Guin is not the kind of sage who demands agreement and obeisance", so I will include here a minor criticism.

Nobody is wise all the time, as Le Guin demonstrated over the Amazon/Hachette kerfuffle. At the time, I felt that she had committed the inverse error of libertarianism: some libertarians assume that all corporations are good, while she seemed to assume, just as blindly, that all corporations, and all their works, are always and inevitably evil. In one of the pieces here, she claims that Hugh Howey called her a liar in the context of that controversy.

Now, Hugh isn't always wise either, by any means, but that didn't sound like him; I spent a few minutes on Google and concluded that this was almost certainly based on a misattribution of another person's words to him in a poorly-written Salon article, which conflates two quotes from a piece in the New York Times. Le Guin, understandably though erroneously nettled, goes on to sarcastically misrepresent Howey's position. (What he'd actually said was that trad-pub authors who were defending Hachette had been lied to, a situation that the Salon article perpetuated.) In another chapter - speaking, no doubt, from personal experience - she wisely remarks that "Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous," a lesson that may be applicable here.

For me, she's at her best when observing phenomena, and at her - not worst, perhaps, but certainly least good - when evaluating them, though with her trenchant observations, it's often a fine line between the two. She has a wonderful turn of phrase: speaking of feminism in the 70s, she remarks that "Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were," and on literary receptions: "If piano is the opposite of forte, graceful chitchat with strangers is definitely my piano."

She concludes the book, suddenly and unexpectedly, with a question that no doubt arises from her long study of Taoism: What is entity? It seems her life and work were, in part, an attempt to answer that question - an attempt that can inspire the rest of us to continue to pursue a deeper understanding and a greater connection with the world. Certainly, she's inspired me to imagine other worlds than these where the differences are not, or not only, technological or magical, but sociological and anthropological as well, and to really sink in to what such worlds might be like, in a way that perhaps can bring back insights for real, contemporary life.

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale

Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book I've read by this author, and, unusually, I read them one after another. (The two Ruses books were the first two.) That argues that I enjoy her writing, and indeed I do.

It also makes me aware of patterns, though. The fact that all the characters hum when they're ambivalent about something. The habit of putting in an unnecessary comma after "Then" when it's the first word in a sentence. The occasional incorrect choice of vocabulary words. And two much larger flaws: passive main characters, and arrogant, annoying love interests.

It's a sound rule of thumb in writing that the viewpoint character should be the one who has the most at stake, the one who's most motivated and driven to solve the story problem, the one who's working hardest and sacrificing most, and often the one who's most competent to bring about a resolution. In all three of these books, though, the viewpoint character is not these things. They're resistant to taking action, not just at first, but almost throughout; they often have to be bullied into action by the arrogant, annoying love interest - and also, in the case of this book, by the talking animal sidekick, who is smarter and more capable than the theoretical hero, and for most of the book has more at stake.

The arrogant, annoying love interest is a trope of the romance genre, and one I've never liked. It's hard to identify with a character who's attracted to someone who I, in real life, would find extremely irritating and not especially attractive. It's also harder to identify with a character who's passive and not the one who takes decisive, effective action at key moments in the story.

I don't mind books that are written to a formula if it's a formula I like. If the formula has elements I don't like, it's usually a problem.

And yet I do enjoy these books. What would usually be fatal flaws are still drawbacks, to be sure, but not dealbreakers. I think this is because the books mostly read smoothly; the main characters, while often passive, are genuinely good-hearted; and there's a good amount of tension that ebbs and flows as it should.

I don't know that I'll read any more of these for a while. But this is an author I probably will come back to when I'm in the right mood.

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Review: Tournament of Ruses

Tournament of Ruses Tournament of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this still makes it to four stars for being entertaining and enjoyable, it didn't impress me as much as the first in the series. (I bought the second as soon as I finished the first, which is not something I do all the time.)

First, the stakes in this book didn't seem nearly as high. In the first book, the kingdom's fate hung in the balance, but here it's mostly social stakes and some dangerous, but fairly easily defeated, attackers. Now, social stakes can feel just as urgent, in the right hands, but here I found myself thinking about the peasants who were being taxed so that all these flighty aristocrats could have extravagant parties, and thinking they were being ripped off.

Secondly, the main character wasn't nearly as strong. Viola, in the first book, is competent, sensible, determined, independent-minded, and willing to sacrifice herself in the right cause. Flora, in this book, while intelligent and sensible, is several times accused (with some justification) of being a bit spineless and just going along with things, and never actually commits that strongly to her duties; she always wants to give up and go back to her quiet country existence, even right near the end.

And third, the copy editing, which was decent with a few issues in the first book, is much shakier in this one. Lots of homonym errors and other vocabulary problems, plus a good many typos. The author can't make up her mind whether the street where the lords live is "Lords' Row" (which it should be) or "Lord's Row," and at one point has both on the same page. I've reported these to Amazon, and hopefully they'll be fixed soon.

All in all, though, enjoyable, and I've bought a third book by the same author, which is an important measure, for me, of how well a book has worked for me.

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Review: Kingdom of Ruses

Kingdom of Ruses Kingdom of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining, light fantasy romance, with the romance as a strong B plot rather than the main event.

Suffers a little from a common drawback of romance (the male lead is actually arrogant and annoying, which makes it harder to believe that the pragmatic, capable heroine falls for him), and the heroine has to be rescued, but apart from that it holds together well. The fate of the kingdom is at stake, an extraordinarily long con is potentially about to be exposed, and in general a challenging time is had by all. I liked and admired most of the characters (apart from the villains, of course), and the central characters, in particular, ended up having some depth to them.

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