Thursday 23 December 2021

Review: A Damsel in Distress

A Damsel in Distress A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading quite a few early Wodehouse books this year, and this 1919 novel is one of the ones I've enjoyed the most. Given the title, that wasn't the outcome I was expecting; but it has an appealing hero, a heroine who at least has some personality, enjoyable secondary characters, and several twists I didn't see coming. (There was one twist I did see coming: (view spoiler)). It leans a lot less heavily on coincidence than many of the other books from this period to progress its plot, and the hero at least does something to be proactive, even if (reasonably believable) chance helps him along.

Modern readers will probably notice that it's occasionally offensive towards fat people, and there's a passage about men standing up to women that goes in a direction that an author would rightly hesitate to go these days. Otherwise, for a century-old book it stands up reasonably well.

The earl is reminiscent of the Earl of Emsworth (though his obsession is roses, rather than pigs); the butler has similarities to Jeeves, and the page boy to any of a number of repellent youths elsewhere in the oeuvre; there's a termagant aunt, and one of Wodehouse's interchangeable idiots as a secondary character and foil, but even great writers do tend to cast, as it were, the same actors in many different parts over the course of their work. On the whole, if you like Wodehouse you will probably enjoy this; it's not up with his greatest work, of course, but the key elements are visible, and for me it succeeded as a story.

View all my reviews

Monday 20 December 2021

Review: Longshadow

Longshadow Longshadow by Olivia Atwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series continues to be charming, with a strong mystery/problem-solving plot balanced against a strong romance plot. There's enough darkness to the fantasy to provide tension, but it never takes over; I was never in any doubt that the main character was going to, eventually, resolve the plot question with perseverance, intelligence and courage, though it wasn't obvious to me exactly how she would do that until she did it. The secondary characters are well drawn, including the overprivileged girl and her mother, and the artificial, class-conscious atmosphere of 19th-century Britain is well evoked, without jarring anachronisms. There are twists and turns along the way to the resolution, and overall it was thoroughly enjoyable.

I noted on the two previous books that the author had a couple of bad punctuation habits: hyphenating where she shouldn't, and inserting excess coordinate commas between non-coordinate adjectives. She's either overcome the first one or found a new copy editor who has dealt with it, but there are still a few examples of the second issue. There are a few obvious Americanisms, and one vocabulary error ("loathe" for "loath," an easy error to make, and quite common), but given the lack of other issues it makes it to the "well-edited" shelf.

It has a good heart, and a sound head on its shoulders, and I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Thursday 16 December 2021

Review: Love Among the Chickens

Love Among the Chickens Love Among the Chickens by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While it's not at the level of his later books, this first adult novel from P.G. Wodehouse, written when he was 25, holds the germs of what was to become his signature style. The scheming is less convoluted than that of Jeeves and Wooster, but there is scheming, and it's somewhat convoluted, and it leads first to disaster and then to triumph. The character of Ukridge was later developed in what are effectively prequel short stories, and he became even more of a confidence trickster and sponger (and added a catchphrase, "Upon my Sam!", which doesn't appear in this novel). But already here, he's given to ordering things on credit with no real intention of paying for them, and his money-making schemes are wildly optimistic and impractical. When confronted with his bad behaviour, even indirectly, he somehow makes himself out to be the victim, with his other catchphrases: "It's hard, old horse!" He's married, to a young woman with minimal personality; Wodehouse eventually learned to write women with personalities, but it took him a little while.

Like most of Wodehouse's early work - before he hit on the brainy scheme of writing anti-romances, where the hero must extract himself from an engagement and so is available to go through similar shenanigans in the next book or story - this has a strong romance subplot. The narrator, who's more honest about his failings and less of an outright idiot than most Wodehouse characters, sets out to win a young woman (with minimal personality) who lives in the area, while helping out his hopeless friend Ukridge with his ill-considered scheme to make a fortune chicken farming. There's a small golfing subplot as well. The narrator is a young writer, and Wodehouse hints strongly that he's based on himself (as is usually the case with young writers).

It's an enjoyable ride, with the emotional and social stakes that Wodehouse later became such a master of, providing some ups and downs and tension and resolution. There are well-written comic moments, and more than a hint of the zany hijinks to come in future Wodehouse stories.

The Project Gutenberg edition is copyedited well.

View all my reviews

Monday 13 December 2021

Books Not Taken: Ember's Quest

I've decided to start an occasional series of posts about why I decide not to pick up certain books for review. There's nowhere on Netgalley (where I get most of my books) to give this kind of feedback - you can only give feedback on books you do choose to read - and it might be instructive for some authors, maybe even the ones whose books I don't choose. The Division: Ember's Quest, by Kevin M. Penelerick. "One man stands between the elemental forces seeking to destroy the world of The Division, but he lays sick and dying." First sentence of the blurb, and already the author has used "between" with only one object (it requires two), and "lays" when he means "lies". My experience is that a blurb with errors typically signals a book with multiple issues, not just of copy editing, but of storytelling, characterization, plot and other basics. I could be wrong, but when I've gone against these instincts in the past I've always regretted it. Oh, and when I check on Goodreads there's a comma splice in the author's bio.

Review: The Part About the Dragon was (Mostly) True

The Part About the Dragon was (Mostly) True The Part About the Dragon was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A step up - not a big step, but a step - from the usual attempts at "funny" fantasy. Most of these books rely on bad puns, silly names, the highlighting of tired genre tropes, toilet humour, the characters being too stupid to live, and anachronistic references to our world - and all of those things are here, for sure. But what a lot of attempts at fantasy humour fail to deliver is a story that works by itself apart from the comedy, even if the comedy falls flat, and this book does manage to give us that. The characters start out an inch deep and end up maybe two or three inches deep, and the premise - the gap between the PR put out by a bard about an adventuring party's campaign and the reality - goes some way to pull the whole thing together and make it something other than a series of pratfalls and stupid insults.

Oh, the insults. One of the things that didn't work so well for me was one particular form of joke that was used a lot: One character insults another by comparing them to something in their world. The narrator then goes into an often rambling, self-interrupting parenthesis with, typically, one or two additional embedded parentheses, explaining what that thing is and why it's insulting to be compared to one.

It's a pretty widely understood principle of humour that if you have to explain the joke, it's not funny. I think this joke pattern may have been inspired by the Guide entries in the Hitchhiker's Guide books (there's a digression on a very small unit of currency that reminded me of Flainian pobble beads), but the author is no Douglas Adams, and the explanations lack the self-contained charm, clever worldbuilding, and ridiculous humour of the Guide. They're repetitive and not especially imaginative, and, like the bard narrator's self-praise, wear thin, becoming irritating rather than amusing.

I was amused, though, often enough that I debated between three and a low four stars. I'm starting to mark more harshly, though, and really it's a three-star book (most similar books being, for me, two stars). Enjoyable enough as a distraction, and a good palate-cleanser after a very serious epic fantasy, but it stretched its material out too much, repeated the same not-funny joke too often, and (despite the author's BA in English) included several homonym errors - one of them being horde/hoard, which is particularly bad when you're talking about a dragon.

View all my reviews

Review: The Griffin Mage Trilogy

The Griffin Mage Trilogy The Griffin Mage Trilogy by Rachel Neumeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Told in orotund epic-fantasy periods, with sentences that include not only semicolons, but colons, quite frequently at their centres (especially early on). Very serious, too, without much in the way of humour or lightheartedness - which is fine, but I note it because I enjoy some of that in a book. The griffins' names are multisyllabic, multivoweled, utterly unpronounceable and impossible to remember. All of this (plus the excessively repetitive making of the point that the griffins are not like humans, and the slow pace) put me off the first book when I attempted it in 2012, and I decided not to persevere with it based on the sample. I must have become more accepting of some of these elements in the nine years since, because this time I bought and finished the trilogy.

Despite the epic-fantasy-prose feel, the vocabulary is not especially high-flown and is used correctly, though it's sometimes repetitive, especially in the first book. The characters are reserved, and not given to angst or demonstrative feelings, and I think that leads some readers to have difficulty relating to them; it didn't bother me. There are female characters in both of the first two books who come across as neuro-atypical, who have difficulty understanding or caring about social conventions, though they're otherwise very different: an awkward rural 15-year-old and an absent-minded scholar in her (I think) 30s. The female lead in the third book is a little out of the ordinary too, but less markedly so. Unfortunately, the third book, while reintroducing the woman from book 1 as a significant character, makes almost no use of the woman from book 2; I felt this was a waste of potential.

There are a few dangling modifiers here and there, and the odd misplaced apostrophe for a plural possessive in the first book. In the second book, there are more errors, including apostrophes in a couple of words that are plural but not possessive, and that lost the whole trilogy the "well-edited" tag that I initially applied to it. The editing standard of the third book is the best of the three, with few if any issues.

In the second book, there are a couple of big convenient coincidences to help the plot along, which I consider a fault. Two people happen to be in a waiting room at the same time, and team up as a consequence. Someone needs a particular kind of assistant, and the perfect candidate just happens to present himself through an unlikely and unpredictable series of events. But the coincidences are "so the story can happen" coincidences rather than "rescue the plot from its own complications" coincidences, which is more forgivable, and the other two books don't have this reliance on coincidence.

Other reviewers have remarked on the worldbuilding and logistics, which aren't especially convincing or real-world-accurate sometimes, and the fact that the magic doesn't always make a lot of sense. I don't think it's intended to be the kind of magic that makes sense to a scientific way of thinking, though, so that part didn't bother me so much.

Overall, it's a little patchy, but at its best, I found it competently written, compelling, dramatic and enjoyable. I'll be looking out for other work from the author, who shows potential here, and has had some time and a few more books to build her abilities since these books were written.

View all my reviews

Monday 22 November 2021

Review: The Prince of Secrets

The Prince of Secrets The Prince of Secrets by A.J. Lancaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first in this series, though I found the plot sometimes predictable. This second book is better, both in general and in the sense that I spent almost the entire book wondering how the various plot issues were going to be resolved, and got that satisfying surprising-but-inevitable feeling when they were.

The romantic couple (a pragmatic, competent woman and a caring, sensitive man) were pretty much my ideal romantic couple, the adventure aspect of the plot was well-paced and suspenseful, the eccentric family was hilarious at times, there were multiple levels of challenge to face (from the minutiae of running an understaffed, underfunded ancient manor house up to deadly fae court politics), and all the parts of the plot fitted together well.

I normally avoid princes, princesses, lords and ladies in my fiction these days, but because they were so down-to-earth and facing everyday challenges as well, I don't mind these ones.

In general, a good time, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

View all my reviews

Review: Earthshine

Earthshine Earthshine by Graham Bower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost gave up on this at 25%, because the copy editing needs a lot of work, and it looked like it was going to be otherwise mediocre. I gave it a second chance, though, and it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought it might be; it successfully avoided the white-saviour and magical-native tropes, at least, and told a decent story that had some original elements with some reasonably engaging characters. Several of the characters didn't get much development, though, notably the protagonist's flatmate and the Scandinavian tech millionaire. The latter looked like he was going to be important, but in the end mostly acted as a facilitator of the plot for the other characters. The minor antagonist Instagram influencer couple were amusingly well drawn.

Cosmic/spiritual books can often come off pretentious and hokey, but this one keeps the mysticism to a plot-relevant level.

I normally don't talk in detail about the copy editing in books I get for review via Netgalley, since if they're pre-publication there's often another round of editing yet to come. This one, though, is already published, so I'll mention the fact that it contains a lot of dialog that is mispunctuated in pretty much every way it's possible to mispunctuate dialog, and seldom uses the vocative comma (the required comma before or after a term of address, such as a name), which to me is one of the marks that separates professional writers from amateurs. It also makes most of the other common mistakes, but not as often.

It's otherwise OK. It didn't make me want to read a sequel. It's a pretty solid three stars.

View all my reviews

Review: Comeuppance Served Cold

Comeuppance Served Cold Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marion Deeds is a reviewer for Fantasy Literature, which occasionally (by arrangement) republishes some of my reviews, and I've appreciated reading her thoughtful and thorough reviews, even where our tastes obviously differed. So when I saw a novel by her on Netgalley, I was immediately interested, and when I saw that it was a heist novel I was instantly sold.

It's unusually, but effectively, structured, in that the prologue (briefly) shows us the heist, and most of the rest of the book (apart from the wrap-up at the very end) is told in flashback, with headings indicating how long before the heist each scene takes place. This kind of thing is tricky to pull off, but the author makes it work, building some nice tension, introducing a number of subplots and additional characters, and performing a masterful slow reveal about the protagonist's background and abilities. All of this in competent prose with very few errors, even in the pre-publication version from Netgalley.

It's not completely without flaws. There are a few things that conveniently line up for the protagonist. (view spoiler) Even this, though, is subtly handled; it's not like the author is obviously manipulating events in the protagonist's favour at every turn. Given the setup - the mark is involved in harassing the smaller and more vulnerable members of the magical community - the fact that everyone's interests are aligned against him is plausible, and there are no sudden reveals of convenient get-out-of-jail-free cards at critical plot moments.

This is one of those heists where we, the audience, don't understand the whole plan until it's completed, and then we look back down the trail of all the events and see them fit together in a new light. It's a satisfying fiction experience to have, and the author pulls it off well.

I would very much like to read the further (or, for that matter, the fascinatingly hinted-at prior) adventures of this character, and will be keeping an eye out for them.


View all my reviews

Monday 15 November 2021

Review: The Every

The Every The Every by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A close friend of mine who works in tech recommended this to me, so I picked it up even though I thought it might not be my thing. It turns out that it wasn't, and for more than one reason, so I didn't quite get half-way through. Feel free, therefore, to dismiss what follows as not having given the book a fair chance before bailing.

Dystopian, for me, is a bit like kale. I don't enjoy it, but occasionally I consume some because I feel like I ought to.

I'm not talking here about the cookie-cutter teen dystopian fiction that was in vogue for a while there, by the way, but about genuine classics like 1984 or Brave New World.

The Every is written with a lot of skill in many aspects, though it's not in the class of those two I just mentioned. It's also a satire as well as a dystopian, and it has genuinely, if darkly, funny moments, like an entire busload of people sitting grimly on their phones searching for reasons, however tenuous, to be offended by whatever was happening, regardless of what that was.

It's a satire on big tech, which means it's a satire on Silicon Valley, which means it's a satire on Northern California and the kind of people who populate it, a weird blend of hippy sensibilities with nonsensical management fads and the cult-like corporate loyalty of a 1950s Japanese salaryman. Northern California seems particularly prone to cultishness, in fact, and that's definitely portrayed here. The people of the all-encompassing behemoth of social media, personal tech, and e-commerce that is known as the Every read as if someone set out to clone Kevin Kelly, but didn't know how to implement the Wise, Humane, Sensible, Knowledgeable and Self-Reflective features, so just left them on the development backlog and hacked in a "temporary" fix of corporate surveillance and Newspeak, figuring that would be fine.

It goes, in fact, beyond satire all the way to strawman, which is my other big problem with it. The Everyones, as they are known, are remarkably easy to manipulate, but apparently only in the direction of more dystopianism. The protagonist and her friend/roommate set out to penetrate the Every from within and sow the seeds of its destruction, but their approach - obviously flawed on the face of it - is to seed it with ideas so patently ridiculous and contrary to human values that people will revolt and reject it en masse.

As far as I read (42%), this never happened; their ideas, however awful, kept getting not only adopted but extended to be even worse. I glanced at the ending, because it felt like it was heading for a tragedy but there was still some possibility of a change of direction, and confirmed that it does, in fact, have a tragic ending, so I stopped reading. As someone who has bailed out of social media exactly because it resembles what the author is satirizing, I don't find watching an unfolding disaster of people at their worst to be either entertaining or compelling. I'm also (like Kevin Kelly) a techno-optimist, and an optimist in general about human nature; not being on social media is an essential element, for me, in maintaining that optimism, and so is not finishing a book in which there are hardly any people of goodwill who recognize the problem, and they're helpless to improve matters.

Nor do I find that a particularly convincing scenario, though, of course, satires don't have to be realistic. The "if this goes on" genre, of which this is definitely a part, has always exaggerated current trends, ignoring the likelihood that they'll either self-correct or be corrected by people with a different viewpoint.

What does make the scenario slightly more believable is that, thanks to pervasive social media, in the quite-near-future setting of this book there's no more local journalism (maybe no journalism at all), and the only place that people can organize collectively is owned and controlled by what they would be organizing against, plus it possesses near-universal surveillance. Any dissent could simply be buried by the algorithm, and there are no effective competitors, US regulators having apparently failed to prevent the Every from living up to its name and absorbing any competitor or startup that comes anywhere near its space. (Something which I find unlikely in itself, by the way.) A few isolated voices are all that is speaking up, and they tend to be Luddites, like the main character's old professor, who writes to her by hand on paper. In reality, of course, there are plenty of technologists who are speaking out against exactly these trends, there are whistleblowers and former employees and people whose companies were bought who have since vested and cashed out, all of whom feel entirely free to raise criticism of the various parts of Big Tech (combined, for rhetorical purposes of this book, in the Every, even though e-commerce is very different from social media, which is very different from search, which is very different from hardware manufacturing, and all of those sectors consist of multiple players both in the US and elsewhere).

The sheeplike Everyones, while giving knee-jerk lip service to diversity, are actually participating in a huge exercise of flattening, genericisizing, and homogenizing diversity, directed by more-savvy bad actors who know how to manipulate them or are simply taking personal advantage of what, in the universe of this book, is a kind of law of gravity by which everything is set up to get worse in general while benefiting some people in particular. In parallel to that, though, is the book's flattening of the complexity of what it is parodying and satirizing, the elision of real debate within the tech sector, and the manipulation that the author has to do to drive that "inevitable" decline for purposes of (I assume) a rhetorical point.

Said more simply: I understand this is a parody, but it's parodying something dramatically oversimplified from the real world. Not only that, but it's buying into the delusion that Northern California (where the author lives) is the world, that if you can fool some of the people all of the time everyone else will just go along without protest.

As a matter of personal taste, I don't enjoy dystopian dark humour, even if it's well done (which this is). But as a matter of philosophy, if this is meant to be a polemic and not just a comedic parody, I think it's too much of a caricature and leaves out too much for me to take it seriously. I have reasons for optimism, and I don't see them here.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

View all my reviews

Monday 8 November 2021

Review: Bell, Book, and Key

Bell, Book, and Key Bell, Book, and Key by Rysa Walker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's just as well this is the last in the series, because it's started to lose me. (Don't start here, by the way. It continues straight on from the previous book without any recap or orientation for the reader. I read the previous book about a year ago, and didn't remember it well enough to avoid being disoriented at times.)

The genetic science has always been nonsense, and the different first-person narrators still all sound identical, so I frequently have to flip back to the start of the chapter to remind myself who the current "I" is. I've mentioned both of those things in reviews of earlier books. But in this one, the always-obviously-hokey manufactured religion - neither as well-organized as Scientology nor as thoroughly constructed as Mormonism - is far more successful than either, gaining what you might call market dominance in a theocratic USA. I found it implausible on multiple levels that, even with a secret Book of Prophecy capable of enriching people via stock tips and sports betting advice from a time traveler, this jumbled mishmash of bits cribbed from existing religions, vague self-help philosophy, and Ayn Rand-style Objectivist selfishness would take over so thoroughly. Not only is the secular impulse in the US extremely strong, despite the continued strength of civil religion there, but people with an existing religious tradition - Catholics, say, or Mormons - often have that as a powerful part of their identity, so it isn't just a religion but more like an ethnicity, and they'd be unlikely to give it up for something as nonsensical as the Cyrist religion. (Nor have I ever found it plausible that Cyrism could arise in the Middle Ages without being suppressed; this is something that's only ever touched on lightly, no doubt because to write the Cyrist scripture in authentic medieval language is something beyond the ability of either the fictional founder or the actual author.)

The whole thing reads to me as the work of someone who doesn't actually understand religion, or religious people, very well at all, writing for other people who don't understand religion either and using it as a bogeyman. Even when civil religion was a lot stronger than it currently is, a truly theocratic USA was never realistically on the cards; the whole structure of the government is set up to prevent it, and as we've recently seen, is surprisingly successful at preventing dictatorship and the complete dominance of any one viewpoint.

Even setting all of that aside, the way the timeline changes worked was deeply confusing and, I suspect, not entirely consistent. For example, (view spoiler). Earlier books have been complex, but I've followed them fairly easily; this one feels a lot more jumbled and confusing.

I'll close by mentioning the things that did work for me. As previously, the text is well edited, and even in the pre-publication version I had from Netgalley I only noticed a couple of small errors. (Probably because it's had a great many eyes over it, judging from the acknowledgements.) Also as in previous books, the history is well researched without beating the reader over the head with the research bat. It is pretty obvious which characters are real historical characters and which are fictional; the real characters are mostly seen at a distance, whereas the fictional ones get closeups and dialog. But there is an authentic sense of history, of the difference between historical periods, and that's a definite strength of this series and this author overall.

Disappointing, then, that there were a couple of things that didn't work so well for me, and (combined with the weaknesses I've been noting all along) dragged my rating down to three stars.

View all my reviews

Friday 29 October 2021

Review: Under Fortunate Stars

Under Fortunate Stars Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's a lot to like here. The editing, even in the pre-release version from Netgalley, was well above average. The main characters are distinct and well developed, both in backstory flashbacks and in the course of the main storyline, and they face varied challenges that test them, showing courage, determination and skill, and risking their lives for the greater good. All of that is exactly what I look for in a book.

Unfortunately, for me, all of this good stuff was countered by a huge problem: the fortunate coincidences. The title really isn't kidding.

Now, having one large fortunate coincidence that allows the plot to happen is a fault, but if everything else is good - and here, it is - I can forgive it. A large fortunate coincidence about every 10 or 15 pages, on the other hand, goes from a fault to a fatal flaw. And lampshading it by having characters talk about how lucky and miraculous it is that they have exactly the equipment, skills, knowledge, and people they need to make a highly unlikely and contingent escape from what amounts to a large sealed room in subspace - that doesn't help at all.

If the author hides a get-out-of-jail-free card up their sleeve and surreptitiously plays it at a key moment, that's cheating. But if the author openly writes out 40 or 50 new get-out-of-jail-free cards right there on the table in front of you and plays them every time the plot hits a problem... I don't even know what to call that.

I'll give an example in spoiler tags from a subsidiary part of the plot. (view spoiler)

It reads, to me, as if the plot wasn't outlined in advance but written by the seat of the pants. That's absolutely fine, and it can produce excellent stories - if the author unfolds the story organically from the initial seed of the situation, setting, and characters, rather than continually pulling things out of a location quite close to the seat of the pants in order to goose the plot back on track every time it becomes difficult. It seems like she's not even embarrassed about it, and she absolutely should be.

Incidentally, the blurb (as at the date I read it) claims that it's a "modern, progressive homage to classic space opera stories". As far as I can tell, this claim is made because two minor characters are a gay couple and two viewpoint characters are bisexual, which doesn't make much difference to anything. It's set far enough into the future that human names have all changed and you can't tell ethnicity from them; I think someone might have been described as brown-skinned once, but race is basically not a thing, and you could read any given character as whatever race you like. I can think of plenty of books that have more diverse characters and don't make a specific "progressive" claim.

Anyway: If continual massive luck in place of competent plotting is not a dealbreaker for you, this is otherwise a good book. But it was a dealbreaker for me, so much so that an otherwise four-star book drops all the way down to two stars.

View all my reviews

Friday 22 October 2021

Review: Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Bear, for me, is a lot like Neil Gaiman.

That is to say, she writes extremely well; she shows deep knowledge in her worldbuilding without making the reader drink from the exposition bucket; she is what Neil himself describes as an "otter," meaning that she won't do the same trick over and over (like a dolphin) but will do a different trick each time; and a lot of her stuff is too dark for me to enjoy, despite everything else being in its favour.

This is one of the exceptions to the "too dark" issue. It's certainly tense, and there are dark deeds in it, but it's an essentially optimistic story.

It's space opera, but not the tropish cut-price space opera that kind of semi-updates Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels, Buck Rogers, or ST:TOS. It's more in the mould of Jack McDevitt or Ian M. Banks (the influence of Banks is particularly evident in the names of some of the ships). There are aliens that aren't just humans in rubber suits. There's technology by which people can perform emotional regulation and otherwise work directly with their own brains, including recording and transmitting their sensory experiences, which is a theme that's interested me considerably for the past 40 years. There's a society that isn't the usual galactic empire (seriously, why would anyone revive aristocracy as a way to regulate a technological society?), or vague clone of some poorly-grasped version of democracy and/or capitalism circa the 19th to 21st centuries, or note-for-note unreflective rendering of current US progressive thought (if "thought" is the word I mean). It's post-scarcity, and collectivist, but not Marxist; and it's definitely not libertarian, the libertarians (pirates) being the bad guys.

The book falls into several parts, each of which is good in its own way. The first part is the most reminiscent of what I would call old-style space opera, with a salvage tug and its crew encountering a mysterious deserted alien ship, leading to the first-person narrator, Hainey, gaining unexpected powers through alien biotech. The second part is a tense, extended confrontation between Hainey and one of the pirates while they're trapped together on a completely different kind of deserted alien ship, in which, with considerable skill, the author shows the confrontation of their two worldviews without it ever being a tedious talking sock puppet show. The questions that are being raised about identity, self-efficacy, self-definition, responsibility to others, the structure of society, and the modification of the mind are all deeply personal to Hainey, and she goes through a number of shocking revelations and has to cope with them as best she can in a far from ideal state.

The final part is somewhat of a return to the manner and themes of the first part, though transformed by Hainey's experiences through the middle of the book (which is how a really good novel should work). There are two more impressive, and completely different, alien encounters, a tense fight, and a resolution (partly through action) of the questions raised in the middle.

It's a bravura performance. The prose is capable, with plenty of quotable moments. The worldbuilding feels rich and deep. The story is multithreaded and expertly woven. The ideas about the mind and society are not just a layer of paint applied without thought, but are closely integrated into the story, and they're also somewhat original and thought-provoking in their own right.

Definitely one of the best books I've read in 2021 (so far, second only to Piranesi), and highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Monday 18 October 2021

Review: Scales and Sensibility

Scales and Sensibility Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and well-written Regency romance, featuring (small) dragons, initially introduced as fashionable accessories for young ladies.

The protagonist, Elinor, has strong stakes: not only her own survival after her parents lost all their money to a con artist and then died in a carriage accident, but that of her sisters, sent to different relatives in other parts of England. She has ended up with her mother's ineffectual sister and her aunt's angry, domineering husband and spoilt, cruel daughter. Very early on, she's unable to take her cousin's crap anymore, and despite being supposedly the sensible, practical sister, she walks out without a plan or anywhere to go.

This unpromising beginning leads to a laudably twisty and enjoyably farcical plot in which Elinor impersonates a woman with a lot more power and influence, and is put in the difficult position of trying to arrange for the man she loves to marry her awful cousin (he also has responsibilities to help his family, and his father lost all their money in the same scam, so Cousin Penelope's dowry seems like the only hope). Along the way, the love interest's dragon-expert friend learns something he doesn't like and didn't expect; Elinor's resolve, creativity, and ability to remain composed in a crisis are tested severely; her aunt finally finds her voice; and justice is done on a couple of different levels.

I spotted the big twist almost as soon as the relevant characters arrived (early in the book); how the whole plot would end up shaking out was eminently predictable, but I had no idea how the author was going to get there, and was more than willing to buckle in and enjoy the ride. There was a generous helping of coincidence involved in setting up the problem, but it was resolved by the determined and capable actions and the admirable character of the protagonist, so I have no complaints there.

Speaking of admirable character, I appreciated how the love interest recognised and honoured Elinor's ability to keep her composure and deal with difficult situations pragmatically and effectively (even if she didn't feel like she was doing so). That's an excellent basis on which to choose a life partner, I can personally attest, and a much more sensible one than you'll see in most romances.

The Regency setting (with the difference of the dragons) is well portrayed, and feels more authentic and better researched than a lot of "Regency" romances (many of which feel like modern people in cosplay with brief and inaccurate nods to Regency social realities). The editing, even in the pre-release version I had from Netgalley, has few and minor errors.

Overall, it's good stuff, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. I suspect that the passionate sister, Rose, will end up with Elinor's new brother-in-law, and that the dreamy academic sister, Harry, will be with the equally dreamy academic dragon expert, but I might well be surprised.

View all my reviews

Friday 15 October 2021

Review: Hollywood Heroine

Hollywood Heroine Hollywood Heroine by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although I felt that the plot sometimes struggled to keep its head above the message, I did ultimately enjoy this one - not quite enough to make it one of my top books of 2021, though, and not enough to want to continue further with the series either.

The characters in this series have capital-I Issues, which they do work on, but which are, for me, overdramatic sometimes. They also have capital-I Identities, which are often closely related to their Issues, and which define them to a high degree. I commented early on in my reading that it was ironic that in a book where there was such strong objection to the main characters being treated merely as their identities and not as individuals, the more any character was functioning as an antagonist, the more they were defined by their identity and had no other discernable characteristics. Reflecting afterwards, I'm not sure that's true. I think the actual point being made might not have been "treat us as people, not identities" but "treat our identities as equally valuable," which is a subtly different message.

This inevitably flattens the characters and limits how much they can change. At one point, arrogant characters who have wronged the protagonist apologise to her, but it comes across as very stilted, as if the author couldn't fully imagine what a genuine apology from someone with that identity might sound like. And later, they just revert to their former impervious arrogance, having learned nothing from their experience. It's certainly true that there are people like that, but when essentially the entire supporting cast is that way, I'm left wondering: is this ideologically-driven prejudice ("people like that (or even people in general) simply can't break out of their identity") or lack of ability to write minor characters/antagonists that are not clichés bordering on caricatures?

Anyway, that's what I didn't like, and why I won't persevere further with the series. The story itself, when you could see it through the message, is entertaining enough, with action, mystery (though the protagonist takes a good long while to figure out what is going on, even when it's pretty obvious), and the odd twist (which, again, are mostly predictable). There are strong subplots around relationships and working on the above-mentioned Issues, which in this case centre around the protagonist feeling like she needs to perfectly fix everything by herself and not having much capacity to handle change in other people. I commented on the previous book in the series to the effect that the personal stuff was almost more central than the outward plot, and that's the case again.

For its audience, this will resonate strongly and be something they love wholeheartedly. It happens that I'm not that audience, though, and so for me it fell a bit short.

View all my reviews

Monday 4 October 2021

Review: A Rose by Any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name A Rose by Any Other Name by Jamie Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book by Jamie Lackey that I recently picked up from Netgalley because the premise sounded intriguing: Romeo and Juliet, only there's magic, and they swap bodies.

Unfortunately, like the other book ( Andromeda Snow, Superhero ), the execution didn't quite deliver on the promise of the blurb. The author seems mostly to write short fiction, and I often find novellas are novels that didn't get enough development; the plots are linear and the characters lack depth. That's the case here as well.

While the characters have the names of Shakespeare's characters, they are not those characters. Romeo and Juliet, for example, are young adults, not teens. Some of the redevelopment makes the characters more interesting - Tybalt is not just an angry thug, but loves cats and starts a relationship with Benvolio, for example; but because this is a PG retelling, the nurse and Mercutio both lose their bawdiness, the latter being transformed from a fan of sexual wordplay to an asexual, and the former becoming a bit of a background character. Part of the PG nature of the story is that the two young people in each other's bodies don't do any exploration of the body of the opposite gender that they suddenly find themselves in.

The retelling also turns the tragedy into comedy (in the sense that lovers are united), and this requires the implacable hatreds of the original to become quite easily placated after a bit of tension.

There are a few anachronisms; Juliet's bedroom contains stuffed animals, and she regrets not having a proper wedding dress or flowers for her wedding, both of which didn't come into common use until the mid-nineteenth century. A very good copy editor is going to need to go over it carefully to find all the missing words in sentences and the several homonym errors before it's published.

Overall, while it was entertaining enough in a light way, there's not much to it, and it doesn't do justice either to the source material or to the premise.

View all my reviews

Review: Andromeda Snow, Superhero

Andromeda Snow, Superhero Andromeda Snow, Superhero by Jamie Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, supers books are not that great. This one was better than average for the genre, but that's a low bar to clear.

Part of the trouble, I think, was that it's a novella, and really needed to be a novel so that the plot could be less linear and the characters more developed. It features a team of six supers, but only three of them get any depth at all.

The protagonist, a woman who has just woken up from a two-year coma to discover that she's quadriplegic but also telekinetic (so she can move her body, she just can't feel anything), has a backstory, but it's pretty generic, and I didn't feel like I really got to know what her past life was like. She deals remarkably well with the considerable emotional challenges she's presented with, which is good. She's completely incurious about what happened while she was in the coma that resulted in people suddenly gaining superpowers, and we never find out, which means the author doesn't have to come up with an explanation.

Her love interest, the team leader, a former sports star and movie actor, has some unexpected aspects to him that change how we see him in the course of the book. That's also good, but I did feel like he still needed more development to take him all the way into three dimensions.

The third team member who spends significant time onscreen has a minimal backstory, and is mainly there to be someone for the protagonist to talk to.

And then there's the villain, who has a cliched motivation and a plan taken straight out of the movie Zootopia.

I had a review copy of this book from Netgalley, so I won't comment on the copy editing except to say that it needs someone with a keen eye to spot missed-out words in sentences and a couple of homonym errors - hopefully that will happen before publication.

Overall, it had some potential, but that potential needed quite a bit more work in order to be realized.

View all my reviews

Saturday 2 October 2021

Review: Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie Stargazy Pie by Victoria Goddard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This just makes it onto my Best of the Year list despite a blatant piece of lucky chance (the most blatant of several) used to get the not-very-effectual main character where he needed to be for the plot to work. The author tries to hang a lampshade on it and attribute it to serendipity being more common where magic is being employed, but she knows and I know that it's just shoddy plotting, a workaround for the fact that her protagonist is a bit wet even when he isn't falling into the river, and not bright enough to figure out how to get to where she needs him by himself, or to pull off the job of getting there.

The main character is supposed to be part of what seems set up to be a detective duo, but his employer, the redoubtable bookstore owner, who is not one of the duo, is the one who actually solves most of the mystery and drives much of the plot. She would have been a much better main character than him, but he's a young man and she's a middle-aged woman, so the weight of tradition is on his side.

The setting is unusual; it's connected to the setting the author has used for other books that are more epic fantasy, and epic fantasy has definitely occurred, elsewhere and some years previously and to the main character's father, but this is not epic fantasy. It's happening in what is explicitly the least dramatic part of the entire setting, a sleepy country town. It's technically post-apocalyptic, but the apocalypse hasn't actually had much impact here - just making magic unreliable and difficult to do, mostly.

So there's plenty that's unpromising. An ineffectual, rather pathetic, and not particularly clever main character (though with both courage and tragedy in his backstory); a setting that is out-and-out stated to be the least interesting place in the known world; a mystery (the pie of the title) that seems stunningly inconsequential. But we do eventually get cultists, magic, organized crime, high magic, midnight adventures, and a decadent dinner party, and it's told in an appealing style. Mr Greenwing, the MC (I hesitate to call him a protagonist because he's driven by events rather than vice versa), may not be up to much in many ways, but he bears many trials with some dignity and acts with unhesitating courage when called upon. He's a bit like a sickly Watson to his employer's blend of Holmes and Mrs Hudson. His friend Mr Dart is... necessary to the plot, but at this point hardly worthy of his series title billing.

The editing isn't too bad, just a few typos and a couple of homonym errors. (My notes are on the box set I got it in here, starting at 52%.)

Despite its flaws, I did enjoy the book and looked forward to my sessions of reading it, and I would like to read the sequels - though they're a bit overpriced for the quality of the first one by my standards, and I will wait for them to be on sale.

View all my reviews

Monday 27 September 2021

Review: Piranesi

Piranesi Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd been wanting to read this for a long time, but once I bought it I put off starting it. Mainly because I wasn't sure it would live up to the hype, and I really didn't want to be disappointed.

I needn't have worried. It was amazing.

I remained concerned for a while, though. The early part of the book is the first-person protagonist writing in his journal, in a precise and capital-heavy style that suggests mild neurodivergence, about the building he inhabits and his routine in living in and exploring it. In the lower levels, it has the ocean, in the mid-levels there are statues, and in the upper levels there are clouds. It seems like it's one of those magical houses that I, for one, love, but is there going to be a story? And why is it that he seems to know about or recognize so many things from our world - Christmas cake, the smell of petrol, Prince of Wales check - that he wouldn't have encountered in his world? Why does the Other say "OK," and why does the narrator use the horrible jargon phrase "going forward," when the prose initially sounds so old-fashioned? Are these errors? This author wouldn't make that kind of error, would she?

They are not errors. There's a story. It's not the one I expected.

It was gripping, and beautifully told.

I can't say too much about it without spoiling it, but nothing is quite as it initially seems, and there are some terrific characters who are fully believable as real people (view spoiler), and a lot of things that initially seemed to be just decorative turned out to be highly functional. There's a plot, and it's a heck of a plot, too, and it's neither just the typical literary arc from helplessness to hopelessness nor the typical fantasy arc from weakness to unmixed and oversimplified triumph. There are twists and turns and revelations and surprises.

I wished it was longer, not because it needed, from a story perspective, to be longer (it was exactly the length it needed to be), but because I wanted the experience of reading it to last longer. It had beauty, it had depth, and it didn't sacrifice telling a good story in order to have those things. It was the very definition of a five-star book for me, and unless I'm very fortunate indeed it will easily get the number one spot in my Best of the Year list for this year.

View all my reviews

Review: Voices from the Radium Age

Voices from the Radium Age Voices from the Radium Age by Joshua Glenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of stories from the early 20th century - before the so-called "Golden Age" of SF, the pulp era - mostly by people who are better known for other things than writing speculative fiction; though most of them are known for writing fiction, and a couple of them were well-known SFF writers of the time who are now less familiar.

Unsurprisingly, most of these century-plus-old stories don't match contemporary taste too closely, and at least one is, by today's standards, highly offensive. That the editor included it anyway - despite acknowledging its extreme racism in the introduction - is a signal that this is, primarily, an academic publication, concerned with what actually existed in the time period rather than what the editor thinks ought (or ought not) to have existed. But the same introduction states that the collection's secondary purpose is to provide some entertainment to fans of the genre.

I have to say I didn't personally enjoy most of the stories that much, mainly because deep thinkers' views of the future in the early 20th century were pretty uniformly bleak (not without good cause) and most of the stories are at least one of apocalyptic, dystopian, or horror, three genres I usually avoid. But even while mostly not enjoying the experience of reading them, I'm able to appreciate the quality of the writing and the historical importance, and that's what I based my four-star rating on.

I'd read a couple of them before: Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights" and William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night". Both of them prefigure the cosmic horror later published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales by Lovecraft and others. There were fewer and fewer unknown parts of the world by this time, but, as unknown places always have been for humanity, they were populated by imagination with terrible monsters. Hope Hodgson's remote area is the Pacific Ocean; Conan Doyle's, more imaginatively, the high atmosphere, where aeroplanes were only just becoming able to reach.

Two of the stories are by people better known as activists than fiction writers. Early feminist and education-for-women proponent Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's story "Sultana's Dream" portrays a feminist utopia similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilmour's later Herland, though seen through a specifically Bengali Muslim lens; the men are kept shut up in purdah while the women conduct business and run the country. Like many (not all) early feminist utopias, it assumes that women would do a much better job, and that crime and warfare would largely disappear if you got rid of or at least restrained the men.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous early-20th-century black thinker who co-founded the NAACP, is represented here by "The Comet," included in one of his books; it's a well-crafted tale that gives strong voice to the black experience of being treated as less than fully human, in the context of an apocalyptic event in which it appears that only a black man and a white woman have survived. Forced by circumstances to see him as a man, and not just a black man, the white woman comes to an epiphany, but the ending brings matters back to the status quo.

In contrast to these forward-thinking stories is "The Red One" by Jack London, which is the stunningly racist (and, almost incidentally, sexist) story I referred to above. The white naturalist/explorer protagonist falls into the hands of "savages" inhabiting Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and discovers a crashed alien spaceship, but is unable to get out with the knowledge that the "savages" don't appreciate and that could bring great benefits to civilization. I have a suspicion amounting to certainty that if he had brought the alien science out, it would have been used in war within a very short time period, but that's by the by.

I had heard of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," which has been widely influential on other writers, but I'd never read it before. It's a vision of a dystopian utopia in which humanity, homogenized and pampered by the Machine, has lost its courage and imagination; people live isolated from one another in small underground apartments, connected in an inadequate fashion by the Machine, a vision that has strange resonance in 2021. Forster, as a member of the educated elite, imagines something like social media, except it's more like live vlogging of short pseudo-academic lectures that people broadcast to each other. It's shallow, but not nearly so shallow (or toxic) as actual social media. And then... the story's title tells you what happens. Forster was an excellent writer, and most of it gripped me strongly and conveyed the sense of dystopian and apocalyptic terror powerfully, but he couldn't resist a bit of soapboxing at the end.

The closing story in the book is by Neil R. Jones, a prolific writer of the time who's largely forgotten today (more so than Hope Hodgson, who I'd heard of and read before). A scientist who has had his body shot into orbit around the earth after his death is picked up by aliens millions of years later, when Earth is a dead world. The aliens, whose civilization has long replaced their biological bodies with mechanical ones, does the same for him and brings him back to life, and he has to come to terms with the loss of everything he remembered and decide whether to accompany them on their exploration of the universe. There's not a whole lot of story, but there is some exploration of how such events would impact on a person, which wasn't always a strength of the pulp era that followed.

This is a varied and wide-ranging collection, despite having only a few stories in it, and it shows just how diverse the early-20th-century landscape of speculative fiction was. "Literary" writers were writing speculative fiction (as they always have and still are) to explore intellectual and emotional territory that was harder to access in other ways; activists were using the form as a way of getting people to think about a different world; and popular writers were prefiguring the pulp adventures that would dominate the mid-century.

Although most of the stories weren't particularly to my personal taste, I'm still glad I read them, because they're an important part of our history as humans and as spec-fic fans. Part of the reason that we aren't more aware of the SFF of this period is that it didn't yet have its own dedicated magazines, but often appeared in "mainstream" venues like Blue Book (Hope Hodgson), The Strand Magazine (Conan Doyle) and The Oxford and Cambridge Review (Forster). It's good that people like the editor of this collection are taking the time and effort to unearth these stories, especially the less-known ones, and make them available again.

View all my reviews

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Review: The Book of Never

The Book of Never The Book of Never by Ashley Capes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

DNF, but got far enough through that I'm rating it.

It's just sloppy overall. I marked 95 issues in the roughly 80% of it that I read, which is a lot (see my Kindle notes in the collection of eight fantasy novels where I read it - starts at 30% and ends at 42%). I didn't even mark all of the places where semicolons should have been commas; almost all of the semicolons should have been commas, and a good few of the commas should have been semicolons, or should have been omitted (before main verbs, for example), or should have been inserted in places that they were missing (before terms of address, for example). There are homonym errors like wretched/retched and knocked/nocked.

Worse, the names of two rivers get switched partway through; they are rowing (apparently facing the bow, which is not how you row) down river A on the way to river B, but by the time they reach the confluence they've been rowing down river B on the way to river A.

But I've enjoyed books with editing this bad before if the story rises above it. This didn't.

The main problem is that the main character, Never, is a classic Spoiled Protagonist. Everyone he meets trusts, likes, and wants to help him, except the bad people, which is how you can tell they're bad people. He has Special Blood (literally - his blood is magical - but also figuratively, in that he's apparently descended from ancient godlike rulers who have somehow been largely forgotten, except by people who need to know about them so that they have a bit more of a reason to help him than just liking him on sight). And he keeps stumbling over things that are useful and solving the minimal challenges he's presented with, without a lot of effort on his part, and sometimes by convenient coincidence, Convenient Eavesdrop or Cavalry Rescue. We're told that there's a lot of peril and he's having a rough time, but it never seems to result in any real likelihood that he might fail, and his plot armour extends to his associates.

I was reminded often of the YouTube comedian Ryan George's Pitch Meeting videos:
"I bet it'll be difficult for the heroes to get out of that!"
"Actually, it'll be super easy, barely an inconvenience."

It shows some potential, but the author would need to work hard with a good copy editor and a good development editor to realize it. When I figured out that it wasn't going to rise above mediocrity (and read a couple of reviews that let me know that the ending wasn't worth persevering for), I stopped reading.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 21 September 2021

Review: World's Edge: The Tethered Citadel Book 2

World's Edge: The Tethered Citadel Book 2 World's Edge: The Tethered Citadel Book 2 by David Hair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I may just have been in the wrong mood for this, or it may just not be my kind of book. I'm not sure.

The first volume's big faults were worldbuilding lifted largely from real-world cultures (though with some alterations), and helping the plot along with several big coincidences at the end. I gave it a pass, and even four stars and a place in my Best of the Year list (though barely), because it was adventurous and exciting and everyone gets to make one or two mistakes. I noted, too, that the copy editing even in the pre-release copy I had from Netgalley was quite clean.

This one hasn't been as thoroughly copy edited prior to being sent out for review (I assume it will be before publication, though), revealing the author to be a sloppy typist with a habit of omitting or transposing words. Maybe that wore away at my enjoyment enough that I wasn't as gripped by the plot or charmed by the characters, who don't seem to get a lot more development than they'd had at the end of the previous book. To be fair, they were reasonably well developed at that point; I just felt that this was so much a plot-driven story that character development wasn't as much of a strength as in the first book.

There are certainly plenty of things going on, with multiple factions on each side of an armed stand-off, lots of treachery, and interludes that remind us that there's another worse threat on its way. War and treachery are not themes I generally seek out in my fiction, and that is probably another element of why I didn't like it much (which is about my personal taste, not the book's quality). There's also some gruesome torture, multiple graphic fights, and several threats of rape.

What pushed me over the edge into deciding that I wouldn't continue with the series, though, is another big coincidence near the end. Vaguely enough to avoid spoilers: there's something that's been going on for centuries, and it stops (by complete chance) in the same minute that some of the characters enter the scene. Great for cinematic drama; terrible for suspension of disbelief.

Also bad for my suspension of disbelief was the character armour/badass quotient of the main characters. Again, it's cinematic (though probably with an R rating for graphic violence).

So maybe part of the problem was that the tone was inconsistent. Sometimes grittily realistic (which I didn't personally enjoy), sometimes cinematic (which I found challenged credibility), sometimes a more standard epic fantasy feel lying between the two. The combination meant I could never really settle into the story, and overall I just didn't quite love it.

View all my reviews

Monday 13 September 2021

Review: Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Vague spoilers follow, mostly for things that are fairly predictable if you know the author/genre.)

Published during, but set presumably before, World War I, this book is one of the best of the early Wodehouse novels I've read lately. It still has the besetting fault of overuse of coincidence, so that both London and New York feel like villages because key characters keep meeting each other by chance when the plot requires them to, but it's not quite as strained as in some of the others.

Also, the couple (most of these early Wodehouse novels are, or at least prominently include, romances) are more appealing than some of the others I've read. The woman in The Girl on the Boat is silly and flighty, the woman in The Intrusion of Jimmy a blank screen onto which the hero projects his desires without actually knowing her, but this heroine, Ann, is both more developed than the latter and more appealing than the former. She's more like the heroines of Jill the Reckless , The Adventures of Sally or Uneasy Money in that regard.

We meet Ann first, and get our first impressions of the title character through her memories of him acting in a thoughtless and cruel way towards her five years previously; it seems he's a typical young Wodehouse waster, except that he's not amiable. I was braced for a bad time, in which he won Ann's hand somehow despite continuing to be a toad, because most of Wodehouse's characters change very little. However, he did manage a heel-face turn, motivated by someone he cared about (not Ann), relatively early on, and stuck to it.

Along the way, we get some of the complicated, farcical scheming and multiple intersecting plots that Wodehouse was later known for; Jimmy ends up impersonating himself, his father impersonates a butler, aunts and uncles abound, there are criminal and technically-criminal-but-well-intentioned schemes afoot (with a couple more impersonations and some ordinary posing), worms turn, a repellant child (also featured in the earlier book The Little Nugget ) gets his comeuppance, and an exciting time is had by all.

Apparently there were movie versions made in 1919, 1936, and 2004. I haven't seen any of them, but it seems the 1936 movie changed the plot considerably, while the 2004 version was all over the map in terms of the time it was apparently set in and the tone, and lost what is, to me, the saving grace of the novel, Jim's reformation, while also making him a womanizer.

The Project Gutenberg version, which I read, has taken the odd editorial decision to follow the original US edition (rather than the UK edition) in not capitalizing "aunt" and "uncle" when they form part of a name (so, "aunt Nesta" rather than "Aunt Nesta"). This is now considered incorrect usage on both sides of the Atlantic, and it annoyed me mildly throughout. Otherwise, the copy editing was mostly not bad.

View all my reviews

Monday 6 September 2021

Review: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set]

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set] The Enchanted Forest Chronicles [Boxed Set] by Patricia C. Wrede
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads records, I had read all of these previously in 2012 - nearly 10 years ago, so I had largely forgotten them. I enjoyed the re-read.

They are firmly in the genre of fairy-tale retelling in which practically the whole of society apparently consists of royalty, with the odd knight, the very occasional steward or other upper servant, and maybe a farmer when the plot requires one, plus witches, wizards, sorceresses, non-human talking creatures of various kinds, and a very vaguely implied merchant class who never actually enter into the story. You needn't bother to think about the economic basis of all of this, where the food is coming from or who is paying the taxes that provide the king's income or even who makes the swords and jewellery. That's not what the story is about. It also consciously plays with tropes and characters out of fairy tales, with a bit of a spin, and also adds in a few original touches that fit into the world well enough.

The four books, while complete in themselves for the most part, do have an overall arc, and some characters recur across several books.

Cimorene, the protagonist of the first book, is exactly the kind of pragmatic, sensible, capable young woman I enjoy as a protagonist. She can't see the sense in conforming to what's expected if there's no actual good reason to do so, and so she volunteers to be a dragon's princess and then firmly sends away the knights and princes who try to rescue her. That, by itself, wouldn't be a plot, though; she discovers that the wizards are up to no good, and, by being courageous and level-headed and making good use of allies and resources, brings about a satisfactory conclusion.

The second book centres on the King of the Enchanted Forest, who joins forces with Cimorene to thwart the wizards' next gambit. Compared with Cimorene, he's not as vividly drawn, but he's courageous and determined and, importantly, open to considering Cimorene as an equal partner.

The third book's protagonist is Morwen, a witch who has nine cats (none of them black; she doesn't care for convention any more than Cimorene does). The author has given the cats distinct personalities, and conveyed them so successfully that I could remember clearly which was which and what they were like, which is something that a lot of authors can't manage with human characters. One thing I didn't particularly enjoy in this book; the magician character is given to explaining magic in somewhat complicated terms, and Cimorene, who has shown herself previously to be intelligent and well-read and capable with magic, has to keep asking Morwen for a plain-language translation. I suppose someone had to, as a reader proxy, but really the explanations aren't that complicated in their vocabulary for the most part, and it seemed out of character for Cimorene to be the one who didn't follow them.

The fourth book was actually the first to be written, as a standalone, though when you read them all together the first three books are very necessary backstory for it. Cimorene's son Daystar must go on a deliberately ill-defined quest, and he does so by meeting a series of obstacles and overcoming them largely through politeness (Cimorene has trained him to be almost comically polite) and firm perseverance, plus the help of people he meets along the way. He mostly doesn't solve difficult problems by intelligence, though he sometimes comes to correct conclusions when he needs to. I didn't feel that he had a lot of development as a character, nor was the plot as satisfying as in the other books. Daystar is too sensible to succumb to the usual temptations to leave the path that fairy-tale heroes are often faced with, and it means his quest is mostly linear.

This one-volume edition is worth having for the author's introductions, which talk about how and why she wrote the books.

Overall, recommended.

View all my reviews

Monday 30 August 2021

Review: The Intrusion of Jimmy

The Intrusion of Jimmy The Intrusion of Jimmy by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really, really wish that early Wodehouse had used some other tool for progressing his plots apart from blatant coincidence (which, in narration, he justifies as "fate" favouring the hero). Protagonist agency, for example, would be an excellent choice.

But that isn't the main reason this gets three stars from me. That would be the love interest.

It's a classic love-at-first-sight scenario for the otherwise sensible and capable Jimmy, who spots Molly on a transatlantic liner. She's in first class and he's in second, so they can't even interact; he just stares at her, probably a little creepily, over the railing that separates them.

Then, by a series of unlikely events, he participates in a home invasion of her father's house, and meets her again, creating a misunderstanding in the process that will come back to bite him later.

And then, as by now I was expecting, out of absolutely nowhere he meets her again in a completely different country, just walks round the corner and finds that she's staying at the same English country house, by massive coincidence. And now they actually start to have conversations, though not very extensive ones; not that they really need to, from his perspective, because he already knows he's in love with this woman who he's spoken to once, briefly, and knows absolutely nothing about.

And we don't know much about her either. We're told that she's a determined, independent, capable woman, but what we're shown is her being bullied, first by her father, and then by Jimmy, into courses of action that she resists ineffectually. The first course of action is obviously a bad idea; we're supposed to think that the second is not, but I didn't think that.

So, for me, the romance side was a bit of a dud. The complications around it, though, showed hints of the intricate plots that Wodehouse would later perfect, rife with misunderstandings, agendas, people learning to stand up for themselves, twists, ironies, idiocies, and concealed identities.

A couple of historical notes that struck me. One was the way in which it was just taken as read that New York cops were hopelessly corrupt on a massive scale. The other was the use of the expression "because of reasons," which I had thought had a recent origin. ( The Girl on the Boat includes a scene in which a young New York girl is addressed as "queen," also a current usage a hundred years later.)

I'm finding these early Wodehouse books a mixed bag. I haven't yet read one that is good enough to go on my Best of the Year list, though there are some I've enjoyed more than others. This, though, despite the more intricate plotting, falls down in a couple of key areas and isn't a favourite.

View all my reviews

Review: Wish You Weren't Here

Wish You Weren't Here Wish You Weren't Here by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I requested a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review because I'd enjoyed one of the author's other books. I didn't particularly enjoy this one, though.

It falls into the "Britain is so grey and depressing, ha ha, the weather is completely crap, ha ha, and the bureaucracy and just society in general makes you want to kill yourself, isn't that hilarious?" school of British black comedy, which is not my favourite by a long way. The central family is dysfunctional; Brenda, the mother, is rude and controlling and engages in maladaptive coping using alcohol, without any real compensating virtues, and her husband is one of those people who is always smoothing things over because their partner is awful but he doesn't want a scene. Their son is moody and ineffectual, their adoptive daughter dramatic and snarky, and the only person I would want to spend any time with is the son's husband, who is, in many ways, the true hero of the group, despite having no supernatural abilities.

Rather than satisfactorily resolving the situation, the ending just leads on to the next book. It's not a cliffhanger, strictly speaking, but I certainly didn't find it satisfying and complete in itself. I won't be reading future books in the series.

There's some talent here. I was engaged enough to keep reading to the end. The humour is, though too dark for my taste, still genuinely funny at times. But it just wasn't the book for me.

View all my reviews

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Review: The Girl on the Boat

The Girl on the Boat The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came to this book after Uneasy Money , in which the hero and heroine were both instantly likeable people, so it was a disappointment to me that this book's heroine was instantly dislikeable and the hero quickly became so.

For me, real-life attraction requires that I know and like someone, and so when I read a romance I want the people involved to be people I want to cheer for. If they're not, I won't care about whether they succeed in getting together or not; I may actively hope they don't, or reflect that at least the miserable life they'll live together is well deserved. So it was with The Girl on the Boat.

When we meet the girl of the title, whose name is Billie, it's immediately established that she has a nasty, undisciplined little dog who bites people, and who she has named Pinky Boodles. This put me off her at once; her prettiness and red hair meant nothing in the face of these facts. As the book goes on, she gets engaged six times in a three-week period to three different men (she alternates between two of them for a while); her father, hearing about the first three of these occasions, accurately remarks that she shouldn't be allowed to run around loose.

Meanwhile, the apparent hero, Sam - we assume he's the hero because we largely get his viewpoint - is a man who the author openly admits is without a conscience, who practices deception and manipulation at every turn in order to gain his goals (which at least fits him well for his prospective career as a lawyer). It would be cruel and heartless to say that the two of them deserve each other, but I'm still tempted to do so.

The minor characters, to me, were much more interesting. The ugly but good-hearted law clerk Jno. Green, a kind of anti-Uriah Heep; the African hunter Jane Holloway, who wants nothing more than a gentle, fragile husband to look after; Mr Bennett, the hypochondriac American businessman with a love of natural beauty; his manservant, who reads very like Jeeves, down to his style of speaking and his offering of solutions (though he lacks Jeeves' competence in scheming); all of these, to me, had much more potential than the superficial and unpleasant main characters.

This book was originally published in 1920, by which time Wodehouse had begun to write Jeeves and Wooster stories. What he eventually realized, I think, is that when you write a romance, bringing it to a successful conclusion means having to start afresh in the next book with a new couple; but writing an anti-romance, in which the goal is to end up not engaged, is something you can keep going indefinitely with the same central character. Honestly, this romance would have been better as an anti-romance; it ends up feeling like the author is shoving the couple together despite the fact that they are a poor fit for each other or, indeed, anyone else. Not that Wodehouse would be the last author to do that; plenty of authors are still doing it today, more than a century later.

View all my reviews

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Review: The Quantum War

The  Quantum War The Quantum War by Derek Künsken
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've kept reading this series because the storytelling is so good, because I'm so captured by the dilemmas of the characters and their strivings to deal with a universe that's too big and too cruel (but rather amazing). But it's not at all the kind of thing I usually like, and with this instalment I think I'm out.

In particular, I'm turned off by the high squick factor of the Puppets, people genetically engineered to be addicted to the pheromones produced by their enslavers, which fill them with artificially generated religious awe; they are childishly naïve (even their names are often childish diminutives), fanatical to the point of becoming suicide bombers, unreliable, and utterly creepy, even to most of the other characters. I don't love this as a characterization of religious people, and the only other religious person (the AI who believes himself to be a reincarnation of St Matthew) talks about his convictions, but never appears to act on them in any detectable way, or even act in accordance with his supposed delusion very much. Meanwhile, even though Catholicism has supposedly died out years ago, Catholic-based swearing persists.

I'll also mention that, in the pre-release review copy I received via Netgalley, the number of copy editing issues was epic, seemingly (at least in part) because the pace of the typing had matched the frenetic pace of the story.

Because the story is well-paced, a relentless dark SF thriller that, even though it doesn't once slow down in order to infodump, manages to use quantum physics and other sufficiently advanced science indistinguishably from magic to pull off a complex-but-understandable plot driven by believable human (and human-adjacent) motivations. These motivations range from the absurd fanaticism of the Puppets through the paranoid, but understandable, misapprehensions of an intelligence officer to the moral disquiet and guilt of the series hero, Belisarius, who, in this third book, is trying to make up for and in some cases reverse the consequences of his decisions and actions from the first two volumes. His unique talents mean that his striving continues to have far-reaching political and personal consequences, costing a number of lives and wreaking widespread property damage, and putting entire sub-races of humanity, including his own, under increasing threat.

(view spoiler)

There's a scene partway through in which the intelligence officer is talking about how she despises her grandmother for her crimes against humanity while, at that exact moment, committing the absolutely identical crime against humanity in order to motivate a captive scientist to commit yet further crimes against humanity (which wouldn't be his first). It's utterly believable, and truly awful. And that, for me, was the problem; this book is meant to be disturbing, and it absolutely is. It does such a tremendous job of being disturbing that it's disturbed me right out of the readership for both the series and the author.

View all my reviews