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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sunday 22 August 2021

Review: Uneasy Money

Uneasy Money Uneasy Money by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading a few of the Wodehouse books from his early New York period (roughly 100 years ago), and if they have a fault it's that, in a city of four million people, the same half-dozen keep bumping into one another by pure chance, at times, and in ways, that transparently serve the progression of the plot.

This particular book has that fault to an especially high degree, but it doesn't have many others.

Detailed plot summary follows in the spoiler tags:

(view spoiler)

Apart from the over-reliance on coincidence, it's a pleasant, sweet romance, with the right degree and number of trials, two appealing people as the couple, a truly nasty alternative love interest in the mercenary Claire, and sound work on the minor characters. This is from the period where Wodehouse was doing relatively straightforward plots and drawing his characters a bit less from stock, where the language and the humour were already enjoyable, but not as foregrounded as they would be later on, and where there were real economic and emotional stakes for the characters and some serious emotional beats and genuine conflicts.

The Project Gutenberg text is in good shape, and all in all it encourages me to continue reading these early Wodehouse works. None of them have quite risen onto my Best of the Year list, but a couple have been close, and this is one.

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Sunday 15 August 2021

Review: Of Gilded Flesh

Of Gilded Flesh Of Gilded Flesh by Gordon Gravley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"People with Issues who sleep with other people even though they know it's a bad idea, because Issues" is a long way from the centre of what I enjoy, which is part of why this gets three stars from me. However, the pre-release review version I had from Netgalley also needed quite a bit of work. Like many authors (especially, but not solely, those based in the US), this author confuses nobility and royalty, and doesn't get terms of address for nobles - or, I think, churchmen - correct. The 18th-century Austro-Hungarian nobles in this book also seem to be able to commit crimes up to and including attempted murder against commoners with nobody even considering for a moment that they might possibly be held to account for it, and to be able to detain and execute them arbitrarily without process of law, which I have to say I found a bit difficult to believe. And the text has quite a few errors of vocabulary, fumbled idioms, and missing words in sentences.

The narration is, for no obvious reason, in present tense, except for one scene which drops, again for no obvious reason, into past before the present tense resumes.

And the deus ex machina (or possibly machina ex deus) near the end wasn't adequately foreshadowed, in terms of the level of magic displayed; up until then we'd just had clockwork that was ahead of anything possible today (let alone in the 18th century), but I was willing to accept that as the speculative element. The addition of another and much more powerful bit of outright magic didn't work for me, espeically since it was introduced more or less stealthily and without immediate explanation.

The ending, I felt, took a dark, brooding narrative in which several people with significant issues were creating their own tragedy and tied it up in a nice, neat happy ending with everything suddenly resolved. I'm not saying I wanted a tragic ending - I didn't - but it was a jarring change of direction nonetheless, and too abrupt.

What was good, though, was that there was some representation of disability - the clockmaker at the centre of the story crafts prostheses for several people, including himself, and there is at least some examination of what it's like to be disabled and make your way through life dealing with that every day.

It shows promise, but it doesn't show polish, and I felt some aspects of it hadn't been thought through enough or didn't ring true.

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Review: The Tenets in the Tattoos

The Tenets in the Tattoos The Tenets in the Tattoos by Becky James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was a bit dubious when I encountered a word (not a made-up name, but an English word) with two apostrophes in it while reading the sample, but the rest of the copy editing didn't seem terrible, so I took a chance. "OK," I thought, "here's an arrogant guy who is clearly going to be taken down a peg; he'll have to deal with getting to know and appreciate the other half of his soul, that could be played quite well as a metaphor for getting to know your shadow side or whatever, and like a romance only different; it's set in Generic Fantasyland, but the idea of the soul companion is interesting. I'll give it a try."

Things started to go sideways, though, when the protagonist reverse-portaled into our world and instantly became an unbelievable naive idiot. He saw a bicycle, correctly identified it as a "device," then shortly afterwards referred to it as a "creature," for example. Then the plot, which had been stumbling along happily enough as a character-driven story, took a very abrupt turn for the political/dystopic/tragic, and at that point I was out. The worldbuilding wasn't working for me, the book didn't seem to know what it wanted to be, and I just wasn't confident that the author had the chops to pull off an enjoyable and well-constructed novel.

I'm giving it three stars on the principle of "benefit of the doubt".

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Thursday 12 August 2021

Review: Sirena

Sirena Sirena by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on my positive review of Kitra , the previous book in the series (and, happily, it does look like becoming a series), the author contacted me to alert me to the fact that this one was going on Netgalley. He told me that, if anything, it was a better book.

I don't know if I think it's better (we are probably using different criteria), but it's certainly good. It's firmly in the tradition of the grand old early-Heinlein and Andre Norton space opera "juveniles," but updated; women exist (if you think I'm joking, read Norton's Sargasso of Space ), they have equal agency, and apparently all the crew apart from the alien are bisexual - though romance and sex are given passing mention and serve as an emotional complication during the action, rather than being a focus at all.

It walks a mostly successful tightrope between not allowing the tropes of the genre to pop up anything too egregiously against known science and not falling into the complexities of hard SF, which keeps the action moving. There were a couple of moments when I questioned the likelihood of a dramatic event that seemed to rely on engineers failing to think about safety measures to any degree whatsoever, or wondered why there were space princesses; I'm not generally a fan of princesses (literal or figurative) in fiction, and I find the idea of a revival, in a space-opera setting, of the long-superseded political organization that was aristocracy unlikely at best. It's a popular trope, though, and I ended up ignoring it, since it didn't affect the plot materially, and just enjoying the story.

There are tense moments, rescues, escapes, all the good action stuff, but with a cast that isn't made up of action heroes, so they have to work hard at it and there's always the sense they could fail. The plot does rely on one coincidence (arriving at the right place at the right time to make a difference, by complete chance), but again I'll let it go, because overall, this is a well-paced, varied, exciting, well-executed YA space opera featuring principled, courageous and capable protagonists.


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Monday 9 August 2021

Review: Time Out!: An Adventure in Time Travel

Time Out!: An Adventure in Time Travel Time Out!: An Adventure in Time Travel by Kevin Creager
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Neither as bad as I had feared nor as good as I had hoped, but in the end mediocre.

There's a sub-subgenre of time travel that's about a young man going back to his earlier life to correct his mistakes, specifically to take his older self's knowledge and confidence into his earlier romantic failures (or failures to initiate romance), and this book is in that camp. Most of us, I think, have had the "if I'd known then what I know now" thoughts; it's not a highly original premise, but it's relatable. This version, at least, doesn't set out to change the timeline, and takes the protagonist to a different (later) point in his crush's life, when she's at college and his younger self is at college somewhere else. He also ends up doing something a bit more significant with the time travel than just finding love, which is good.

I do go with some trepidation into a plot that is about a young man who's a bit of a loser setting out to find love, because he's inevitably going to do so even though he realistically shouldn't. While this particular hero does show some degree of development as a person and is more or less and on the whole a decent guy, I still didn't think he rated quite so much attention from two attractive women.

What really dragged the book's rating down, though, was the ultimate lack of explanation of the time travel and who or what was behind it all. Even the supposed communications from the protagonist to himself ended up as sourceless and unexplained (the author hung a lampshade on it, but that doesn't excuse it). In the end, the time travel is a plot device which probably didn't even need to be there; I can imagine a version of this book that had essentially the same main plot, or the most important parts of it, at least, without requiring time travel at all.

I had a pre-release version from Netgalley for review, which needed quite a bit of work from a good copy editor; I hope it gets that work before publication.

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Friday 6 August 2021

Review: The Pursuit of the Houseboat

The Pursuit of the Houseboat The Pursuit of the Houseboat by John Kendrick Bangs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This second volume of Bangs' Hades stories has more plot than the first; the female immortals (notably Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Ophelia, Portia, Mrs Noah, Calpurnia the wife of Julius Caesar, and Xanthippe the wife of Socrates), having invaded the men's floating clubhouse, find it's being pirated by Captain Kidd. The men, led by Sherlock Holmes (who is a huge bluffer and sometimes fabricates his clues), attempt to track them down and get them back; Captain Kidd, who only wanted the boat and not the women, tries to figure out how to ditch them, and settles on tempting them with Paris fashions; and the women, though significantly distracted by fashion magazines, set out to rescue themselves, with some success.

Despite the fact that these are some of the greatest people who ever lived, much of the humour comes from them all being more or less incompetent. The author is wildly inconsistent on the question of whether the shades can be harmed or not, and if so by what, changing the answer depending on the demands of the plot and its humour. He's also inconsistent in that, in the first book, the shades talked about popping back to the mortal world as if it was extremely quick and easy, but here they have to take an extended sea voyage. While the first volume stuck mostly to real people, even if some of them had become fictionalized (such as Prince Hamlet), here we have several out-and-out fictional characters included in the cast: Holmes, several other fictional detectives better known at the time of writing than they are now, Portia, and Shylock, for example.

It's a short, light read, and amusing enough.

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Review: A Houseboat on the Styx: Being Some Account of the Diverse Doings of the Associated Shades

A Houseboat on the Styx: Being Some Account of the Diverse Doings of the Associated Shades A Houseboat on the Styx: Being Some Account of the Diverse Doings of the Associated Shades by John Kendrick Bangs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Bangsian fantasy" is fantasy about famous people in the afterlife, and this book and its sequel are why it gets that title - though, especially in the second book, there are famous fictional characters by other authors involved too, so it's also an indirect predecessor of metafiction.

This first volume has no plot as such; it's just the exploration of a premise, which is that some of the famous (and therefore immortal) "shades" in Hades have a club, based in a houseboat on the River Styx, where they hang out and have discussions.

The dialogs are amusing and clever, and although some knowledge of the people concerned is definitely helpful, you don't need much - it seems to have been written with common knowledge (for the time) in mind. There's a good deal of joking about with the idea that other people wrote Shakespeare's plays, a question on which Shakespeare himself is sensitive and obfuscatory. Dr Johnson contributes caustic wit, and in general it's a fun time.

At the end, leading into the sequel, while all the men (it's a men-only club) are at a prize-fight between Samson and Goliath, the women invade the unattended houseboat, and then Captain Kidd (not knowing the women are there) pirates it and sails off.

Well done and enjoyable, though light and plotless.

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Review: Sky Tribe

Sky Tribe Sky Tribe by Sabrina Chase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A long-awaited third installment in the series. I looked back at my review for the previous book, which said that I'd struggled to remember the first book while reading the second, so I re-read from the beginning of the series. I was glad I did; this one does have a bit more "previously-on", but it was worth refreshing my memory of the characters.

Having said that, this third book sidelines the central characters of the first two books, doesn't give much more development to the rising secondary characters from the second book (Marcus and Fraulein von Kitren), and focuses on a couple of minor characters from Book 2 along with a new main character we haven't seen before, the intrepid young woman shown on the cover. She's a housemaid, but her background is that she's been trained in acrobatics by the Zigane (Roma) troupe that her mother joined when she was a small child. She's blonde in the book, if I remember correctly, but dark-haired on the cover.

The first two books featured very low-key romances as subsidiary plots, and I thought this one might as well, but the incipient romance remains so incipient I thought it wasn't intended to be one at all right until the end. A character in the epilogue declares it a romance (that the participants weren't even aware of yet) more or less by fiat. A couple of early references suggest that the female lead is attractive, but the male lead's viewpoint doesn't ever seem to acknowledge this. So that was a bit of a fizzle.

There's plenty of adventure, as in the previous books, but the stakes felt lower. I think this is because, while the viewpoint characters' actions do have the potential to affect the peace and security of the whole of alternate-world Europe, they're mostly unaware of this. They have personal stakes of survival and being able to fulfil obligations, but that doesn't drive as desperate a plot as in the previous two books in the series. They're also not powerful mages, like the female lead of books 1 and 2, so the set-pieces are not as over-the-top dramatic.

Besides the non-event romance and the lower stakes, the other thing that disappointed me was that the copy editing was at a lower standard than the previous books, with quite a few minor errors, at least three of which should have been caught by spellcheck.

I still enjoyed it, it still retains four stars, and I'd still read more books in the series, but for me, this didn't come up to the standard of the previous two. It does still make it to my Best of the Year list, though.

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Review: Ukridge

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

Ukridge, disdaining work, seeks to live by his wits. Unfortunately, his own estimation of his wits (and of the potential of his many ethically or legally dubious schemes) is wildly optimistic. Still, he can usually get by through touching one of his old school friends for a "loan", despite his early departure from the school in question when he deliberately broke a major rule and wasn't competent enough to avoid getting caught.

One of those old school friends is the narrator, "Corky" Corcoran, a struggling freelance writer who keeps getting reluctantly drawn into Ukridge's schemes (and "lending" him money, socks, shirts, and his dress suit, which Ukridge doesn't always bother to ask his permission to borrow before doing so). Ukridge's various adventures are amusing and farcical, there is the inevitable dire aunt, and a gem of a recurring character in the form of Battling Bilson, the overly emotion-driven prizefighter.

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Thursday 5 August 2021

Review: The Prince and Betty

The Prince and Betty The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Would stand up fairly well as a modern adventure-romance plot, except that there are a number of instances in which characters (including the hero) use offensive ethnic epithets.

Unlike Wodehouse's better-known work, this has tension and stakes beyond social embarrassment; there are New York gangsters (including the cat-loving and sympathetic leader of the East Side gang), investigative journalism exposing a slumlord, and (as in Jill the Reckless) a heroine from a wealthy background forced by circumstances to earn a precarious living in New York.

In this case, "circumstances" are her own principles; both the hero and heroine are highly principled, which makes their fairly lightly-sketched attraction much more believable to me than is the case in many other romance books.

It's funny, but it's also suspenseful, and engages with issues of the day and with the realities of poverty to at least a small degree, rather than living in a privileged, politically unaware fantasyland like so many Wodehouse novels. I'm enjoying these early works of his more than I expected to.

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