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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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