Tuesday 20 August 2013

Review: Simon Myth

Simon Myth
Simon Myth by Matt Posner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my review of the third book in this series, I complained that the series was deteriorating, and expressed the hope that it would improve again before I quit it in disgust. I'm glad to say that, although this book still has issues, I enjoyed it more than the previous one, and it does address some of the problems of the previous volume.

The editing is still patchy. There are a lot of typos, some misplaced punctuation, and the odd homonym error (some of which may themselves be typos, like sun/son, but heckling/haggling is obviously just the wrong word). I've seen a lot worse, but it's a little distracting.

There are still continuity errors. A garment of lion skins turns into a garment of bear skins in the course of a couple of pages.

There are shifts in storytelling style, and scenes or paragraphs out of chronological order for no seemingly good reason. There are unforeshadowed uses of magic that would be less jarring if they were foreshadowed. There is a very large family in which the kinship terms are badly confused. There are a lot of Yiddish and Hindi words dropped in without explanation or translation, which makes whole sections of the book hard to follow.

One of my big concerns in the previous book, though, was that Simon, the main character, was becoming a violent, heartless person with little discipline in his use of far-too-strong magic. While I wouldn't say that concern has been completely removed, this book does go some way towards addressing it and restoring Simon to a more admirable heroic character. I also wouldn't say that he's learned his lesson, exactly, but he has the potential to have learned his lesson, about violence and also about love.

Ah, love. Simon, as a teenager, believes in each book that the current object of his affections is the perfect person for him, whom he will love forever. This is, of course, not actually the case, as he must repeatedly and painfully discover. Now that I see the trend, I can take the references to the "perfection" of the annoying, unstable Ana in the previous book as the teenage exaggeration that it is.

With those two big imperfections out of the way, the small imperfections don't do as much to bring down my enjoyment of what is, in fact, a good series. The characters are interesting, the plots are compelling and the setting is engaging. I just wish that a good developmental editor and a good proofreader were involved.

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Friday 16 August 2013

Review: The New York Magician

The New York Magician
The New York Magician by Jacob Zimmerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a series of loosely connected stories rather than a novel (and it's also short). Having said that, the main character, the setting, and the events are well done, and I enjoyed it.

I picked up a very small number of minor mechanical errors in the editing, which is unusually good.

The author seems to be trying to position the protagonist as an antihero at one point, but he really isn't (something I'm happy about). He does his best, at some personal cost, to keep various supernatural entities from causing too much trouble for the magical or nonmagical community. He is one of only a few who can see them and hear them, and has collected a number of favours, contacts and magical items in the course of his activities.

This collection of devices is probably the weakest point of the book, inasmuch as it becomes a bit of an equivalent of Batman's utility belt (he even keeps it on something very like a utility belt). A lot of his gathering of the objects and connections happens off-screen, which means that there's potential for deus ex machina. To the author's credit, he mostly avoids this, and the protagonist has to be clever and courageous to overcome his obstacles.

It isn't my new favourite thing, I think because I didn't have quite enough time to become fully invested in the character or in any one plotline. I definitely liked it, though, and would read a sequel.

I picked it up because Amazon kept recommending it to me as someone who'd bought Matt Posner's School of the Ages books. It's also urban fantasy set in New York, and also pretty well-written, so I'd call that a good recommendation.

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Tuesday 13 August 2013

Review: Making Killer Google+ Profiles

Making Killer Google+ Profiles
Making Killer Google+ Profiles by Evo Terra

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first. I've internet-known Evo Terra for some years, because he runs podiobooks.com and I'm an author there. Evo was the reason that I (and most of the other Podiobooks authors) joined Google+, and by encouraging us to join en masse he also got us off to a good start of having people to connect with.

Also, he mentions me positively in this book, as someone who's doing G+ well (in his opinion), and, consequently, he gave me a free copy.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether you think any of this influenced my rating, but I will also lay out for you what the book does so you can decide if it's for you.

This is a book primarily aimed at authors who are Google+ newbies. If you are an author and haven't yet joined Google+, a) please do, and b) get this book and do everything it says. Likewise if you've only joined recently, or joined a while ago but haven't been active because you're not sure how it works or how it will benefit you to be on there.

If you're not an author, it may still help you. Some parts are author-specific, but a lot of it is good advice for anyone who's joining Google+, particularly if you have something you want to promote. (The advice includes being a human, not a spam-machine, in case you're worried about that.)

If you've been on Google+ for a while, it isn't going to tell you too much that you don't know, but you still might learn something. I did. I've made tweaks to my profile and added a couple of Chrome extensions that I think will be helpful.

It's a short, easy read, written in the friendly, cheerful style of a For Dummies book, though it manages not to talk down to the reader too much. There's nothing fake about that, either; I've known Evo long enough to know that this is his genuine personality, though he usually swears more.

It's well-edited by a mutual Google+ acquaintance. I did spot a few simple typos (usually short words like "to" that are missing) and passed them on to Evo to correct, but you won't be yanked up short on every page by some egregious grammatical error.

Definitely worthwhile for authors who are about to try Google+, and might well help other people too.

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Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading the odd genre classic from time to time in between more contemporary books. This one was enjoyable, though it definitely had its issues.

I got the edition I read from Amazon; it's part of a bundle of all Verne's books called The Collected Works of Jules Verne. It's been created by scanning a print edition, and has the usual issues that result when someone does that and doesn't give it a really thorough proofread. Usually it was clear enough what it should have said, but once or twice the distortion was bad enough that a sentence made no sense.

The text itself was surprisingly amusing. The narrator, Axel, is the nephew of a professor of geology who discovers a reference in a sixteenth-century manuscript to a passage to the centre of the earth which starts in an Icelandic volcano. The professor holds to a minority view of the earth's structure which doesn't include a high-temperature core, so he equips an expedition and drags his reluctant nephew along on it.

The characters are well-drawn: the obsessive, impatient, inadequately risk-averse professor; the anxious, excessively risk-averse Axel; the completely imperturbable and laconic Hans, an Icelandic hunter who accompanies the other two. Their interactions are enjoyable and believable.

The science, sadly, is not, and is inaccurate even for the time (as the translator takes pleasure in pointing out in footnotes). Verne plays extremely fast and loose with scientific fact, despite his Professor's declaration: "Science, my lad, has been built on many errors, but they are errors which it was good to fall into, for they led to the truth". He even (according to the translator) gets things like distances between places wrong, and exaggerates other key numbers. This would be more forgiveable if there were fewer long passages of sciencebabble breaking up the action.

There are also what I can only call continuity errors, like the 10th of July apparently occurring before the 6th and 7th. At one point the longest rope is, if I remember rightly, 200 feet long, and later they have a rope that's 200 fathoms (a fathom being six feet).

The logistics are also dubious. Three men manage to carry an incredible amount of gear, including more than four months' supply of food.

Finally, the narrator is not really a protagonist. He's carried along in his uncle's wake, pining for his fiancee (his uncle's ward, whose role is mainly to be pined for, though she is described as intelligent at least), and never really makes a decision for himself and carries it through. The final rescue that returns them to the surface occurs through a thoroughly unlikely sequence of events and entirely out of good luck, despite rather than because of anything the characters do.

I should also mention a nasty piece of racism, not in Verne's text but in one of the translator's notes, in which he explains a passing reference to measuring the angles of a skull and states that the facial angles of black people "and the lowest savages" show that their intelligence is less than that of whites.

So, plenty of issues. Still mostly an enjoyable read, for what it is: a nineteenth-century genre work which isn't among the best even of its author's.

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Friday 9 August 2013

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beloved classic, and deservedly so. The movie is remarkably true to it (though the ruby slippers were originally silver, Oz was "the Great and Terrible", and some secondary incidents were left out of the film). Even the opening of the movie in black and white reflects the description of the colourless Kansas landscape which Baum begins with.

I can only assume, given the large number of deaths attributable to the heroes, that the author was being ironic in his introduction when he talked about how this wasn't a dark fairy tale full of violence like the traditional ones.

The message of the story is very much "the power is in you", which has become a cliched story trope and also a cliched self-development bromide. He does a better job of it than many of his imitators, though.

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Review: Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots

Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots
Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do love a good superhero novel. I follow the blog Superhero Novels so I can find books like this, and that is where I found it.

What I, personally, mean when I say "good superhero novel" is: well-written, character-driven, plays intelligently with the tropes, succeeds in balancing the crazy absurdities of superheroism with how things work in the real world while making both believable, makes implicit assumptions of the genre explicit and questions them, and doesn't go too dark while doing so. Velveteen ticks every one of those boxes with a big thick pen.

I especially loved the fact that the true evil villains were not the wild-eyed death-ray guys but the Marketing Division of the Super Patriots superhero franchise.

The sequel is due out this month, and I will be on it like spandex.

The one thing that could have been improved slightly was the editing. It's small-press, and not badly done (I suspect Seanan McGuire writes a pretty clean manuscript to start with), but near the beginning there are a lot of compound words that have an excess space in the middle, including a few instances of a superhero name ("Supermodel" written as "Super model"). Also, I noticed at least two instances of "discrete" used to mean "discreet".

Otherwise, my only disappointments were that I wanted it to be longer, and I wanted the sequels immediately. Good stuff.

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Tuesday 6 August 2013

Review: James Potter and the Curse of the Gate Keeper

James Potter and the Curse of the Gate Keeper
James Potter and the Curse of the Gate Keeper by G. Norman Lippert

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Samuel Johnson (the dictionary man) once famously said to a young author whose book he'd been asked to review that there were parts of it that were good, and parts of it that were original. But the good parts were not original, and the original parts were not good.

This book is largely the opposite. The original characters (including those that might as well be original characters, because J.K. Rowling has done little more than write their names on a genealogical chart) worked well for me, but the characters from original canon were a huge miss. Cedric Diggory, for example, returns as a ghost, and struck me as completely unlike the canon Cedric Diggory in every possible way.

Again, the setting elements that are original, like the hiding place for Merlin's cache, are well-described and interesting. The elements taken from canon are often subtly or unsubtly wrong, or are left vaguely described because, of course, all the readers will know what they look like.

There's also a magic item swiped straight out of Terry Pratchett's [b:Making Money|116296|Making Money (Discworld, #36)|Terry Pratchett|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347591666s/116296.jpg|144656], which I found jarring, and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is a seemingly more competent Gilderoy Lockhart.

The first book suffered from a thin and unlikely plot in which James was not much of a protagonist, and at 30% (the point where I stopped) I didn't see anything to indicate that this volume would be any different.

The author's command of the language also hasn't improved: he refers to "yokes for horses" on the front of a carriage, says "belied" where he clearly means "betrayed", repeatedly uses "disinterested" to mean "uninterested", says "forge mighty rivers" instead of "ford", uses the expression "time's have changed" with the misplaced apostrophe, misspells "burrs", doesn't know what "decimated" means, can't spell "Ignatius", uses "ballyhooed" to mean "whooped", has a British character use the word "anyplace", and (again, as in volume 1) writes "who's" when he means "whose".

I decided it wasn't worth carrying on for the good bits when I was so frequently being jarred by the bits that weren't good. It's a pity.

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Monday 5 August 2013

Review: James Potter and the Hall of Elders' Crossing

James Potter and the Hall of Elders' Crossing
James Potter and the Hall of Elders' Crossing by G. Norman Lippert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Harry Potter fanfic, in which Harry's eldest son James goes to Hogwarts for his first year and ends up learning how he's like his father and how he's not.

I'm giving this three stars partly to give myself somewhere to go when the series improves (which I believe it will; I'm reading the second one now), and partly because the best single-word description I can think of for it is "patchy". Or perhaps "inconsistent".

The very best parts approach (though from a long distance) the quality of J.K. Rowling's Original Series (hereinafter JKROS). The very worst parts, and they're not all that infrequent, reveal this book's status as amateur fanfiction.

In particular, the editing is spotty. There are long passages that are without any errors, but there are errors, and a few of them are significant ones. It seems to get worse towards the end.

Apostrophes are the worst offenders, in all of the usual ways that people get apostrophes wrong, including inconsistency about whether the hall of the title is "of Elders' Crossing" or "of Elder's Crossing". Given that there are multiple elders, the first one is correct.

There are homonym errors: grizzly/grisly (I think, since the goblin doesn't appear to be grizzling), might/mite, effecting/affecting, assistance/assistant, whose/who's, purposely/purposefully, peaked/piqued and born/borne all come up. One character says "foresworn" when he means "sworn".

There are excess commas: "grown to gothic, cathedral proportions", "no, unwanted ears", "from long, distant encounters" (when the author clearly means "long-distant").

And then there are the mechanical errors: extra spaces, extra paragraph breaks, missing letters, missing words. Not many of them, but enough to be annoying.

There are other inconsistencies, too. In JKROS, the spells are usually one or two Latinate words. Here we have a spell that's a rhyming couplet in English. Bill and Fleur's daughter Victoire has her mother's French accent, though there's no mention of her growing up in France rather than the UK like everyone else. The apparently compulsory poem-of-prophecy doesn't properly rhyme, scan or make much sense.

The names are often silly, though that's consistent with JKROS (it's one of the things I like least about Harry Potter). There are a couple of shout-outs to Terry Pratchett: one wizard has the first name Mustrum, and another has the surname Ridcully. I dislike that sort of fourth-wall breaking, personally. The author also misspells both "Maximilian" and "Wilhelmina" in the same sentence.

I'm slowly working my way towards the really annoying parts, via the small irritations that bounced me out of the story occasionally. Firstly, this book tries to explain the whimsical magic of JKROS and make it scientific, which I think is seriously missing the point. I say this despite my great love of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, another HP fanfic which does the same thing but much more entertainingly and in a way that's important to the story it's telling. Here, the explanations don't really make much difference to the plot.

Having made an attempt at a scientific gloss over the magic, the author rather fails at technology. I realise that the timeline of JKROS means that this story is set slightly in our future, but how an electronic device working inside Hogwarts (which it probably shouldn't do in the first place) is able to make a wireless connection when there presumably isn't a wireless router for miles is never satisfactorily explained.

For a long time, I thought that wasn't the largest plot hole. There was something James did (or rather didn't do) that seemed highly unlikely, and the attempted explanations struck me as very thin. In the end it was justified (in the way that I hoped it might be), but by then I'd spent most of the book thinking it was an enormous, contrived plot hole for the sake of manufactured drama, and that inevitably reduced my involvement in the story.

If there's one thing J.K. Rowling can do, it's weave a complicated plot that's exciting and keeps surprising you, and here I never got any of that. I found the setup curiously uncompelling, in fact (I'm not sure why), and didn't get much of a protagonist vibe off James. The fact that he ends up owing a lot more to good luck than good management doesn't really help with this, and that was really the biggest surprise I got: that even though he screwed up significantly it didn't end up mattering much.

So why do I give it as much as three stars? Well, the best moments are inspiring. It is, despite everything I've said, far better than the average fanfic (though I realise that's not a high bar); it steers a course, usually successfully, between the Scylla of being a mere rehash of the original and the Charybdis of not being true to the spirit of the original, but just adopting some of its furniture.

And I love the world of Harry Potter as much as the author obviously does, so it's fun to get some more, even if it isn't that close to J.K. Rowling's standard at times. As I mentioned, I'm reading the second one now, and will probably read the third as well.

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Friday 2 August 2013

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another
Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love a good time travel story, and I thought this might be one. Sadly, it wasn't, and I only made it to 49% of the way through.

Other reviewers have mentioned that it needs editing. Mostly this takes the form of commas applied on the Jackson Pollock principle, only not enough of them. However, we also get "ok" in lower case, missing words in sentences, "three day's food", "the Peasant's Revolt" (he can't have got far by himself, poor chap), "discrete" for "discreet", someone's hair in a "French pleat", "diner" for "dinner", and "whose" and "who's" used for the same purpose in the same sentence, in parallel phrases ("whose" was the correct word in both cases).

I've seen far worse, but it's enough to annoy me and break my engagement with the story, which then let me notice the other issues.

The biggest issue is that the time travel hasn't really been thought through. What's established by narration is that the historians, funded by a mysterious group for reasons which, by the halfway point anyway, were inadequately explored, go back in time in "pods" which are disguised as small stone huts. The disguise is so that they'll fit in more or less anywhere. These huts don't seem to be very steerable (the main character worries about ending up inside a mountain or underwater, though it never seems to happen), and apparently they can't be relocated once they reach the past (there's a dangerous path between two of them at one point, and it seems if they could be moved they would be). Yet nobody ever seems to notice them appearing and disappearing, even landowners who would surely think, "Hang on, I didn't have an old stone hut yesterday," and they don't end up in the middle of streets, in the middle of buildings, or otherwise inconveniently located.

Then there's how History works. I'm not sure if the trope, which I've seen in at least one other time-travel novel, originated with Connie Willis, but the basic idea is that History has a kind of built-in resistance, and maybe intelligence, that ensures it doesn't get changed. In Willis's case, it prevents historians even reaching places and times where they could change history, and even uses time travelers to make history come out a certain way. In this book, it's established both by what we're told and what we're shown that History will terminate time travelers with extreme prejudice if they're going to do anything that might lead to a paradox or an alternate timeline.

Except the antagonists apparently are trying to change the timeline. And in the very next chapter after two historians nearly get a large stone block dropped on them just because one of them thinks about watching an event that might be significant, several historians are sent off to a dangerous place in World War I, where they are disguised as nurses.

Do you think that nurses might possibly influence whether people live or die, and hence the course of history?

This despite the fact that the early 20th century is nowhere near their supposed specialty periods, which (as far as I read) don't seem to count for anything. Academics, in real life, specialize narrowly. But here, someone whose specialty area is ancient civilizations (which is ridiculously broad, to start with) gets sent to World War I, 11th-century London, and (most absurdly) the Cretaceous. Paleontology is another, completely different set of specialized skills and knowledge. Because I don't have this knowledge, I can't say whether the dinosaurs were accurate, but I wouldn't bet a sandwich.

Also, there don't seem to be many surprises from this "research". In real life, there are frequently discoveries of new evidence which turn everything we thought we knew on its head, particularly in areas where evidence is weak. That doesn't seem to happen much here. The historians gather observations and recordings, they release their findings to their sponsors who somehow explain how it was obtained without mentioning time travel (I think academic peer review probably requires more traceable evidence than this), and do something with it which somehow justifies the money they're spending. It's all very thin.

The main character did have some potential. It's established early on that the stranger things get, the calmer she becomes. She's funny, in a British way, which got the book a third star it otherwise didn't deserve. She wasn't enough, though, to keep me reading through a poorly-edited book in which the setting wasn't thought through.

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