Monday, 30 April 2018

Review: The Rosetta Man

The Rosetta Man The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's not often, these days, that I ding a book a whole star just for poor copy editing; I either put up with it if the book is otherwise good (but note it in my review), or else stop reading if the book is otherwise nothing special.

This was good enough that I finished, but not so good as to make it to four stars, and the low standard of copy editing was a big part of the problem. There are multiple sentences where words are either dropped or added, or where the sentence was partially revised and has a ghost of its earlier self mingled with the new phrasing. There are also multiple examples of required apostrophes gone missing, or incorrect apostrophes inserted; a good few comma splices; homonym errors as basic as passed/past and too/to, and several other incorrect vocabulary choices; mispunctuated dialog; garbled idioms, which give a sense of English being the author's second language, though I don't think it is; and all the usual, common errors, like misplaced or missing commas or hyphens. I marked more than 80 errors, and there were some I skipped.

It's told in a rather old-fashioned omniscient third person, wandering among several different characters' perceptions, and while some of the characters are interesting and even likable, I didn't get a great sense of depth in any of them. They're all more or less alienated, cynical, contemporary people with no big goal or sense of a higher purpose that they're pursuing relentlessly (not even the Greenpeace activist has such a purpose). This leaves the plot rudderless and reactive, making it more a series of events than a plot as such, and leads to a soft ending with not much resolved. The book raises a couple of questions about humanity, but nothing we haven't seen in the genre many times over many decades, often with a lot more depth and sophistication.

I did like the wry and quirky title character, which saved this otherwise mediocre novel from a two-star rating.

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Thursday, 26 April 2018

Review: Spell of Catastrophe

Spell of Catastrophe Spell of Catastrophe by Mayer Alan Brenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It wasn't until I looked this up on Goodreads, partway through reading it, that I realized it had originally come out in the 1980s and had been reissued as an ebook. That made sense of the fact that there were weird glitches in some of the word spacing, while the overall copy editing (apart from the fairly common confusion of "discrete" with "discreet") was good, better than the cover would have led me to expect.

The story itself is well done, too. It's reminiscent of Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, and somewhat of Jack Vance, mainly because of the precise diction of some of the characters, though fortunately they are not the alienated, amoral bastards that Vance writes. Instead, they are "vaguely disreputable" (the sobriquet of one of them), but mostly striving to do the right thing, even if they're not always completely sure what that is. One of them spends a couple of paragraphs musing about it. Lovable rogues, in other words, or at least laudable rogues. Chaotic good, if you want to talk D&D alignments.

There are three main characters, one of them (for narrative reasons which eventually become clear) a first-person narrator, and the other two observed in omniscient third person. The first is a noir-style detective, and the other two are a doctor (among other things) and a wizard whose life goal is to understand magic enough to undermine the gods. They start out separate and eventually come together; this is a difficult approach to pull off, because it risks the reader being jerked out of one story just as they're getting invested and dumped into another story that they don't yet care about. The author, for my money, manages it well.

There are moments of wry humour, moments of high drama, and a good deal (perhaps in places a touch too much) of the magical equivalent of technobabble. Lots of things go boom and crash; there's quite a body count, though mostly in the background, and the characters register it as regrettable rather than just dismissing it as the way life is. It's capably done, and I enjoyed it.

I'd read the rest of the series, if they were priced a bit more attractively.

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Review: Basic Witch

Basic Witch Basic Witch by Harmony Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read an article entitled We Need to Start Taking Young Women's Love Stories Seriously, which gave me a lot to think about. I had that article in mind as I read this book.

Let's be clear upfront: this is not a book that intends to be taken seriously. It's fluff. It's cotton candy: bright pink, insubstantial, and not intended to satiate. It's written quickly to be read quickly, and it needs a good proofread (which I doubt it will ever get), not least to sort out the horrible mess that the author has made with missing and misplaced quotation marks. It's full of cliches, down to and including the first-person narrator checking out her reflection and getting the Power just when she needs it at a moment of crisis. Fortunate coincidences abound on every side. The heroine gets handed basically everything she wants, with little or no effort to earn it.

It is, in short, a wish-fulfilment fantasy - or perhaps we should say a witch-fulfilment fantasy.

And this, in itself, tells me a lot. More of that after this brief summary.

The heroine is a self-described "basic white girl". Her backstory is: Family all deceased, series of jobs she hates, series of failed relationships, lots of student debt. She is explicitly extremely ordinary and completely undistinguished.

As the story begins, she has fortunately inherited a New Age shop from a relative she didn't know she had, but is losing customers because she's not New Agey enough for their expectations.

By another stroke of luck or fate, she stumbles through a portal into a world where she's quite possibly the Chosen One, but definitely a powerful (if completely untrained) witch. This portal opens every seven years, very few people pass through, and there's no TV on the other side, but somehow slang and fashion are right up to the minute (in other words, there's no attempt at thinking through the extremely light worldbuilding).

Everyone (with one significant exception) wants to be nice to her. Just for showing up, she's set up with a profitable business, a place to live (which she gets to redecorate), a new wardrobe, high heels that don't hurt or cause her to trip, a handbag that isn't heavy no matter what she puts in it, a makeover, and a new instant best friend (who, despite her outgoing nature, doesn't appear to have any existing friends to complicate matters), and is surrounded by a plethora of hot single men. Also, her cat can talk to her now, and will live as long as she does. I have to admit I'd like that one myself.

See what I mean about wish fulfillment?

There's one complication: when she stumbled through the portal, she fell over a dead body, and she's a suspect in the murder. But only one person seriously suspects her. Sure, he's the local cop, but everyone knows he's an idiot, and they don't take much notice of him. It does, however, mean that she wants to clear her name by finding the actual murderer, something the cop is probably not capable of doing.

I thought about flagging some of what follows with spoiler tags, but to be honest, if anything in this book surprises you you probably aren't old enough to be reading it.

Any serious attempt to solve the mystery takes a back seat for a long time to being heaped with various kinds of gifts, which the heroine "deserves" after "all she's been through". When we do at last return to the mystery-solving in earnest, the heroine comes up with a plan which, while not exactly bad, is as transparent as a well-washed window, and is intended to get her suspect (the only person who hasn't been nice to her) out of the way so that she can search for clues. "It will be as easy as pie!" she says, then, "Spoiler alert: It was not as easy as pie."

Well, actually, spoiler alert, it was. Sure, her initial attempt to search the premises was thwarted, but she then (in a strong echo of how she came through the portal in the first place) discovers by pure luck an alternative way in, which also explains how the crime was committed, and she's able to find clear evidence almost immediately. Plus the suspect, who's crazy but not a complete idiot, has seen through the well-washed window and comes back and confesses. So as far as a mystery plot goes, it's more of a gesture in the direction of one than it is actually one.

As a wish-fulfillment fantasy, though, it's remarkably comprehensive, and that's what I found interesting.

Leaving aside the magical parts, apparently the dreams of a 30-something basic white girl include being given a lot of nice stuff that make her life comfortable and enjoyable, but which she doesn't really have to work for (because she deserves it); having a fun friend to go out with and lots of attractive men to talk about with said friend; and... here's the significant bit... having a man around who she's sexually attracted to, but who will stay with her, protect her, provide emotional support for her, sleep in the same bed with his arm around her, and will not push her to have sex (because it's against his principles). This is in distinct contrast with a male wish-fulfillment fantasy I started to read a while back; it just assumed that the attractive woman would naturally have sex with the hero. That's only one of the reasons I didn't finish it.

I'm in two minds about the whole lack of effort and struggle for the main character. On the one hand, by most rules of writing, this is bad writing and boring, but then, most rules of writing are laid down by men. Is it a bug, or - given that this is, after all, a wish-fulfillment fantasy - a feature? What tips me in the direction of "feature" is the thought that many people in general, and women in particular, are experiencing life in the United States at the moment as an unavailing and never-ending struggle, so the very lack of struggle is part of the wish-fulfillment.

I'm still marking it down to three stars, mind you. It's so utterly expected, so full of cliches, so clearly dashed off quickly to serve a market that, in my mind, it doesn't earn four stars, even though it's enjoyable enough for what it is. But it doesn't need to be a great book to give a degree of insight into the concerns of its target audience, and that is what I mostly gained from it.

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Monday, 23 April 2018

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of the time, this was well on track to be a 5-star book, but I felt it went sideways near the end in a few ways.

First, the good. There are plenty of people trying to write in a 19th-century voice these days; there are few who do it this well. I suspect if I were a scholar of early-19th-century literature I'd be able to see ways in which it isn't perfectly authentic, but given that I'm not such a scholar but only a well-read layman, it rings true to me. It doesn't, however, make the mistake of capturing the 19th-century voice so authentically that the prose becomes overly verbose and the plot slows to a crawl; the voice is mainly in the character dialog, rather than the narration. It's true that the characters' dialog is sometimes wordy, but seldom so much so that I found it tedious.

Then, the author has a laudable tendency to put the squeeze on the characters, placing them in untenable situations with a set of bad choices of which they are forced to choose the least bad, thus driving the plot forward. This is particularly marked early on, before they take hold of the plot for themselves and start driving it by their own decisions - also a textbook development which makes for good momentum.

The characters are also trapped within the expectations and prejudices of 19th-century Britain, and struggling hard to escape. Everyone around them takes it as read that an Englishman is better than anyone else in the world, including, of course, an English woman, and has the natural right to trample over anyone else in consequence. Given that the protagonists are a freed black slave and a half-Indian woman from an impoverished background, and another important character is from a country which is trying not to become part of Britain's colonial empire, this makes for some excruciating moments.

The problems, for me, came at the end. I'll be vague in order to avoid outright spoilers.

Firstly, a minor character introduced early on as a Woosteresque dandy with an overbearing aunt suddenly becomes something completely different - so different that, for me, it left the original role he and his aunt had played in events making no sense anymore.

Then Zacharias, the very serious, dutiful Sorcerer Royal, reveals that he has made a costly choice that I didn't completely believe at first, given his ambivalent attitude to the person he did it for; but I eventually accepted it, somewhat uncomfortably, as something he would do. I also didn't believe for some time that he would place Prunella, his cotagonist, in a situation she was manifestly unsuited for in multiple ways, and compound his error by completing a trope which had been hovering throughout the book, thus committing himself to a situation that I was confident would be a deeply unwise choice for both of them and would result in a great deal of misery. I primarily felt this because Prunella had convincingly revealed herself as having "no scruples whatsoever"; she had been wild, irresponsible, opportunistic, self-centred and amoral throughout, but rather than improve on these qualities she got worse, if anything. While writing this review I just now realized that she had made a difficult sacrifice for a good purpose, which directly aided Zacharias, and that does make more sense of the ending.

In short, then, my suspension of disbelief failed towards the end, and lost the book a star which it otherwise had earned.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Jenny Stirling, does an excellent job throughout.

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Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Review: Monkey: A Journey to the West

Monkey: A Journey to the West Monkey: A Journey to the West by David Kherdian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic Chinese story, like its main character, is not lacking in verve and bombast. Distances are thousands or even hundreds of thousands of miles (the distance from China to India is described as 108,000 miles); most of the characters are massively overpowered, especially Monkey, who stands off the united armies of Heaven at one point; almost everyone is a god or divine spirit or Taoist immortal or Buddhist saint. It's both an over-the-top adventure story and a spiritual allegory, with Monkey as the representative of the Monkey Mind, as well as a classic trickster and a magician.

I was surprised how much Taoism there was in a story about fetching Buddhist scriptures, but I understand that in China the two lived side by side and blended at the edges.

Naturally, the heavenly hierarchy reflects the elaborate and extensive imperial Chinese bureaucracy, full of officials with grandiose titles. Monkey himself insists on the title of the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

Given that it's an old story from a culture I'm not well acquainted with, I found it remarkably entertaining, which may be in part down to the translator's selection of incidents to include; the introduction speaks of a tradition of selecting material from the original to create versions adapted to particular audiences. It keeps up a good pace (unlike many older European works), and even has some try-fail cycles as the travelers attempt to reach India. A lot of the cultural references went right past me, and I could have done with a gloss, though it would also have been distracting. As it was, I was able to look up perhaps 40% of the references in Wikipedia on my Kindle, and just ignored the rest; not knowing what they meant didn't have a big impact on my understanding or enjoyment of the story.

The ebook appears to have been generated using optical character recognition from a print version, judging by the occasional odd typo, but it's not bad as such things go. There are one or two homonym errors and spelling mistakes, which I assume are in the print version, but it's generally clean.

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Monday, 16 April 2018

Review: Footprints in the Future

Footprints in the Future Footprints in the Future by TG Winkfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unfortunately, I found this book lacking two important features.

The first was lively, fully-rounded characters. I never did get the three men on the Committee straight; they were so lacking in definition that they blended together in my mind. By the end of the book, some of the characters were beginning to approach definition, but none of them really seemed to be passionate about anything. Even though they were British, they should at least have wanted something strongly and pursued it, if they were to be proper protagonists.

The second issue was the plot, or relative lack thereof, which was a consequence of the unmotivated protagonists. It wandered here and there, with things happening, but there wasn't a clearly defined beginning, middle, or end - or rather, there was a beginning and a middle, but the middle extended to the back of the book; there was no real resolution of anything, because nobody had really been striving for anything in particular.

There are local exceptions to the above generalizations; some of the characters did appear to be motivated in particular directions, and even experienced change, but because this was an ensemble cast, and the group as a whole spent most of the book stumbling from one reaction to another, it wasn't enough to give me a strong sense of structure or character growth.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review: Crosstalk

Crosstalk Crosstalk by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a couple of things about Connie Willis's comedies. The first is that they're full of unreasonable people who often don't listen very well, and the second is that these people, who we're meant to laugh at, are strongly recognisable types.

That's very much the case in this book. I enjoyed it, but most of the characters don't rise above their types: the sister with terrible taste in men, the sister who's the ultimate helicopter parent, the ambitious executive who values symbols of success above anything real, the office gossip, the anxious older worker, the uptight librarian... I could go on.

None of them listen to each other or to the main character; and none of them appear to do any work to speak of, including the main character, even though a lot of the scenes are at her workplace.

Partly because of these... let's say strongly typed characters, there were things I didn't believe. For example, I didn't believe the main character's love for her boyfriend any more than I believed his for her; he's obviously such a complete tool that he could take a second job as a Swiss army knife, and we see so little of their interaction early on that to me he was a faceless store mannequin. Consequently, I also didn't believe her (rather cursory) reaction to finding out what his game actually was, some time after I'd worked it out from ample clues.

Independently of the characterization, I didn't believe the speculative element (telepathy, with a very specific component to it that was unlikely in the extreme if you thought it through at all).

I didn't believe the 9-year-old hacker, either.

I also thought, relatively early on, that if a particular relationship ended up where it looked like it would end up, I would be very disappointed. It did end up there, but by then I wasn't disappointed; the author had managed to justify it to me in the meantime.

The plot was full of twistyness and complexity, especially at the end, which is another Connie Willis thing. I have to admit she lost me there at last; I just had to accept that everything was going to be OK for reasons.

So I didn't unmixedly love this, and there was a lot I didn't believe, but I did enjoy it. It won't be one of my top books this year, but it was entertaining.

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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook of this, rather than reading it in text form, and something I noticed, in part because of the format, was that there's often a lot of reflection (mostly backstory, or thinking through the implications of newly obtained information or recent events) in the midst of action. This doesn't do wonders for the pacing.

Accents are hard, and unfortunately neither of the voice actors did a great job with the Italian accents; they all sounded Russian to me. Otherwise, though, they did well.

The other major problem here was that the two points of view (first-person Mercy and third-person Adam) were deliberately not told in chronological order with each other. I assume this was done to increase tension, but what it actually increased for me was confusion. Likewise, the first Adam section starts at one time, flashes back to a slightly earlier time, and then flashes back again to a still earlier (but also recent) time, which was confusing without apparent purpose.

What saved this story for me, despite these minor issues, was that here we have a protagonist who has been established in the previous books in the series as such an awesome badass that we know that when she's dropped down in a strange place naked and with no resources, it's everyone else who is in trouble. I was reminded of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's stories in which exactly this happens to Miles Vorkosigan.

It was a fun ride, and I'll happily keep following the series.

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