Thursday 18 May 2023

Review: The Meratis Trilogy

The Meratis Trilogy The Meratis Trilogy by Krista Walsh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I could tell from the sample of this book that the prose was going to range from slightly clunky to serviceable, but bought it anyway because I was short of books, and it seemed mostly decently edited. The commas and, with one exception, apostrophes were in the right places, at least, which is more than I've seen from most books I've got through Bookbub in the last couple of years.

As I continued through, though, I found a number of places where the phrasing of sentences was off and didn't correctly convey what the author obviously meant. Some of these had missing words, some had dangling modifiers, some were mangled idioms. There were also examples of the common issues of missing past perfect tense and "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration, and even a couple of misspelled words that should have been caught by a spellcheck. Overall, I marked 45 issues in the first book (the only one I read), which is almost twice what I expect on average. On the upside, none of them were comma errors, and comma usage is one of the harder mechanical skills, judging by how many authors are bad at it.

The story was OK, a combination of portal fantasy and metafiction, in which an author is sucked into the world of his book. The fictional author is clearly a hack; his fantasy world is painfully generic, his characters have names such as you'd encounter in a contemporary setting, like Corey, Jayden, Magdalen and Brady, and it soon becomes clear that he has only the most superficial knowledge and understanding of both the setting and the characters. The trouble is, when this kind of thing occurs, I always wonder if the actual author is also a hack, if the generic setting and unconsidered names are a reflection of her ability and not just a satire on less capable authors, and I can't tell what the answer is.

The character development is at least above the level of the fictional author, and is probably the book's greatest strength, though the characters still don't go much beyond their archetype + story role. The plot involves the fictional author being ineffectual a lot of the time, which is ironic considering that he theoretically controls everything. He also displays a lot of plot armour, which unfortunately doesn't extend beyond him to his characters (there's a very high, grim, and gruesome body count, which is not to my taste at all), and keeps making obviously stupid decisions. He's rescued from the last of these by an unconvincing heel-face turn on the part of a character, and writes an ending to the story that strained my credulity.

I start books out at four stars and move them up or down from there. The grim and gruesome loses it the fourth star, as a matter of my personal taste, because I didn't enjoy it and felt it was unnecessary. The poor sentence-level prose loses it part of the third star, and the weak protagonist and difficult-to-swallow resolution lose it the rest of that star and bring it down to two.

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Monday 15 May 2023

Review: Spring Fever

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

I have this in paperback and have read it a number of times, but not all that recently, so in a temporary lack-of-new-books emergency I dug it out of the basement. It's classic Wodehouse, probably underrated because it's a standalone rather than being in any of the series, but if you like the Blandings Castle books you will most probably enjoy this.

Published after World War II, but showing little sign of it apart from the impecuniousness of the Earl thanks to various taxes, it's still very much in the peak Wodehouse style. The Earl of Shortlands, like the Earl of Emsworth, isn't particularly bright, but there the resemblance ends; he looks remarkably like a butler, while his butler, Spink, looks like an earl (and is not a faithful old retainer like Blandings' Beach; he's a bit of a snake). The butler and the earl are rivals in love, both wanting to marry the castle cook, but she will only marry someone who has two hundred pounds to set her up with a pub, and neither of them has this sum - the earl because he's financially dependent on his eldest daughter, who married money and is one of those managing Wodehouse women who stands no nonsense (very like the Earl of Emsworth's sister Lady Constance Keeble); Spink because he has a weakness for horse racing and is a poor judge of form.

Just like a Blandings story, we soon get someone who comes to the castle pretending, for several excellent reasons, to be someone else, and then the person they're impersonating comes to the castle impersonating a third person, all because of complicated circumstances involving two young couples hindered from uniting by the disapproval of a parent in one instance and the hesitation of the woman in the other. Her hesitation is for a sensible reason: She thinks her wooer is too good-looking, and has been burned before by a good-looking man who was inclined to spread his affections around rather freely. Her suitor, Mike Cardinal, is Psmith without the affectation, a bit of a mastermind who's not at all modest about it (though he doesn't agree with his love interest that he's unusually good-looking). He drives much of the plot through his schemes and manipulations. There's even a reformed criminal, a spiritual cousin of "Chimp" Twist, whose safecracking abilities are key to the plot; the scene in which he gets riotously drunk and messes up the whole operation is one of Wodehouse's best.

There's that old Wodehouse flaw, the coincidental existence of far too many ties between the various characters, accompanied by at least one coincidental meeting between two of them, but it's in the service of complicating the plot, not simplifying it, so it passes the Pixar test. The prose sparkles, the plot twists (many times), the characters, while types, are enjoyable and beautifully portrayed types, and in general it's a solid piece of entertainment, recommended for anyone who wishes there were more stories along the lines of the Blandings ones.

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Friday 12 May 2023

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry

The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry by Mary Roberts Rinehart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I noticed a later book in the series on Project Gutenberg, and since Gutenberg didn't have the first one, I got a copy from instead. Be warned: the version is the raw scan right out of a poor-quality OCR program, has not been edited even a little bit or even spellchecked for the most blindingly obvious scan errors, and as a result is not at all recommended and borderline unreadable - though in most (not quite all) cases I could guess what a word was supposed to be despite the many distortions.

That may well have lowered my rating from what it otherwise would have been; it's maybe a three-star book, to be absolutely fair. According to Wikipedia, this series is comedy (though the author is mainly known for her murder mysteries), and that's why I picked it up; but what it turned out to be was a murder mystery, and not a good one. It kept me reading because I wanted to know the explanation for the bizarre series of events, but in the end, the explanation was completely absurd. Maybe that's meant to be the comedy, but if so, it didn't work for me. (view spoiler)

There's a trio of unmarried women, middle-aged or older, at the centre of the story. The title character and main investigator, known as Tish, is stubborn and domineering; her friend Aggie is silly and neurotic; their friend Lizzie, who narrates most of the story before the narration switches to Tish's doctor nephew for some reason I've already forgotten, is sensible and otherwise rather characterless. None of them have much more depth than the descriptions I've just given. Possibly their characters and their interactions are meant to be the comedy, but if so, it still didn't work for me.

There's a half-hearted gesture in the direction of a romance subplot, between the doctor nephew and a nurse, but it doesn't receive any development to speak of.

Overall, it strikes me as half-baked, if that, and I couldn't find the comedy.

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Tuesday 9 May 2023

Review: Flower and Thorn

Flower and Thorn Flower and Thorn by Rati Mehrotra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first: the author and I are part of the same writers' forum, and I received a copy via Netgalley for review; the publicist emailed me offering a copy because I had previously reviewed another of the author's books, Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove .

I'll also confess upfront that it took me more than two weeks to read, and I took time out during that period to read several other books, in part because Night of the Raven had turned more tragic than I was prepared for partway through, and this one looked like doing the same. The protagonist is an initially naïve young woman from a nomadic group in medieval India who supplement their herding income by hunting for magical flowers in a salt desert, which they supply to a predatory and exploitative moneylender to service their debt. An attractive young man from outside the community offers her a chance to get her group free from the moneylender, and all she needs to do is break a solemn promise to her best friend and let him have one of the most valuable flowers, in order to save the sultanate from the Portuguese invaders. She makes the first of a series of bad decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time, and we're off.

She does get more canny in the course of the book, and is certainly principled, determined, courageous and resourceful. She is just a little bit of a Chosen One; the magical flowers speak to her and help her out as they don't with anyone else, but she still has to act, and she does so without hesitation. Her decisions (and those of others) do lead to several deaths, which are treated as the tragedies they are, but overall the story is hopeful and positive.

The magic system is relatively simple but fresh, with each type of flower having a special power, and we get to see all of them in action over the course of the book. The powers range from finding things and healing through speaking at a distance to teleporting, being victorious in battle (the mechanism of that one isn't gone into), and even controlling time. Each of them also has a drawback or cost, like all the best magic.

I did feel that the characters sometimes felt more 21st-century than medieval, but that was subtle, and could be easily overlooked. The editing was excellent, apart from the common error of using "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration, and a couple of minor vocab glitches, which will probably be fixed by publication time. All in all, it's a solid fantasy adventure with an innovative magic system, a capable female protagonist, and a strong sense of place.

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Friday 5 May 2023

Review: Out Like a Light

Out Like a Light Out Like a Light by Mark Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in the Psi-Power trilogy, featuring hapless FBI agent Ken Malone. This one makes more of the then-futuristic setting of 1974 than the first one, with various ingenious bits of technology on show besides the videophones from the previous book, and it expands on the psychic powers, introducing two new ones.

(view spoiler)

There's a dropped notebook which provides important clues (Malone really is lucky as well), and what's written on which pages of the notebook changes each time it's mentioned; these are continuity errors rather than another speculative element, but that's a minor annoyance. As with the other books in the trilogy, there's an apparently insoluble bizarre problem which Malone chips determinedly, if sometimes hopelessly, away at and eventually figures out, along the way encountering some colourful minor characters, dropping a few beautifully constructed metaphors couched in hilarious sentences, getting involved in several well-described action sequences (in this case, mostly also slapstick), and meeting a lovely woman who has more to her than meets the eye. It's in the true noir tradition, but with layers of SF and comedy, both of which, for me, worked well.

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Wednesday 3 May 2023

Review: Occasion... for Disaster

Occasion... for Disaster Occasion... for Disaster by Mark Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third in a trilogy, I discovered after I'd started it (I'd read the first, but not the second, something I am now rectifying).

The premise is that lots of organizations - the US government, but also business, unions and even organized crime - are suddenly having issues with people making mistakes, resigning, getting arrested, or even falling ill or dying, and the whole system is collapsing as a result. Nor is it confined to the US; it's worldwide. The protagonist, an FBI officer, has his focus on the US, though, and finally tracks down the unlikely culprits and their surprising motivation. It reminded me of the OSS sabotage handbook that recommended lots of small acts of inefficiency as a way to bring a system to its knees (a lesson for us all).

It's not quite as comedic as the first book, but still has some beautifully phrased imagery and a decent mystery for the protagonist to solve, one which baffled him (and also me) until almost to the end. His power of premonition is used as a little bit of a shortcut sometimes, but mostly he works for his conclusions, and the clues are right out where the reader can see them but conveyed in a way that, for me, didn't tip me off.

While the main female character never gets any depth to speak of, and is not on stage very much, the protagonist does end up respecting her and not just regarding her as a piece of meat. That's significant; one half of the pseudonym Mark Phillips was Randall Garrett, notorious in his day (his Wikipedia entry says) for behaving badly to women at conventions (to the point that, these days, even the more conservative cons would ban him). I had my hesitations about reading a book co-authored by someone like that, but given that he's dead and even his estate won't get any money from me because I picked it up free on Project Gutenberg, and if I refused to read books by authors who behaved in ways I don't approve of I wouldn't have much left to read, I went ahead and read it anyway.

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Monday 1 May 2023

Review: The Stainless Steel Rat

The Stainless Steel Rat The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was a huge Harry Harrison fan as a teenager, which was 20+ years after this book came out, but in an era when the computer technology didn't yet seem quaint. I went so far as to learn Esperanto under his influence, and my first novel was very much in his vein, except without the humour. That novel is firmly trunked, not because it was written by a teenager and is therefore bad, but because it was heavily influenced by Harrison and also Heinlein, and is therefore... not representative of my more mature self.

He does, at least, spare us facile atheist sermonizing in this book, unlike some of his others.

As a teenager, I thought he had a distinctive voice, but now I realize that the breathless momentum of his prose is largely the result of the author not knowing how to punctuate, and his editors not correcting him. There are very few commas separating grammatical units, a number of missing vocative commas (around terms of address - the very basic "let's eat Grandma" error), and a profusion of commas used to splice together what should be separate sentences.

The main character makes some sexist assumptions about his female antagonist-slash-love-interest, but I wasn't sure if that was the author being a man of his time or if it was supposed to be the character being an idiot, as a satire on action heroes like James Bond. I decided in the end to extend the benefit of the doubt.

The former-criminal-undercover-rogue-agent story is serviceable without being excellent. Other books in the series are funnier, if I remember rightly, or at least more absurd (I'm thinking of the aliens who find the protagonist more attractive the uglier his disguise becomes). All in all, it doesn't stand up well to a re-read for me.

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Review: The Clicking of Cuthbert

The Clicking of Cuthbert The Clicking of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Golf stories. My interest in golf - especially as played by amateurs a century ago - is very close to nil, if not actually negative, but I still enjoyed it because of the comedy and the storytelling.

These are short stories, narrated by the Eldest Member, a raconteur similar to Mr Mulliner except that he sometimes plays an actual role in the stories he tells: adviser to the young and lovelorn, referee at an absurd golf tournament between two men vying for the affections of one woman, or even, in his remembered youth, assistant to an American millionaire whose Achilles heel is his ex-wives. The format allows for variety and a number of diverse characters and situations, while tying the whole together in a way that feels cohesive.

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Review: Silver and Shadow

Silver and Shadow Silver and Shadow by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I don't love every Melissa McShane book I've tried, I enjoy most of them, and they're always exceptionally well edited. This one is well up to her usual standard.

One of the things I like is that, rather than just rehashing someone else's premise, she always comes up with something original, including original worldbuilding. Here we have a Dark Goddess who is the good one and a Bright Goddess who's the evil one, already an intriguing trope inversion, and the Dark Goddess has paladins who are all women. There's a good reason for this: Because women are usually physically weaker than men, the fact that all of her paladins are supernaturally strong is even more of a proof of her intervention than if she started with men in the first place. They're not just D&D paladins; they're paladins, but given a fresh concept that both makes sense and sets us up for an interesting story.

One of the main characters is such a paladin, sent on a solo mission after an unfortunate incident that leaves her feeling guilty even though she knows she didn't do anything wrong. The other MC is a werewolf, from a species created by the Dark Goddess - but he's chosen not to serve her, not to be a monster. The paladin, who has spent her life fighting the Dark Goddess's monsters, has some major prejudice to overcome when they meet and, by force of circumstances, team up.

There's a mystery to solve, some fighting to be had, significant moral choices to be made, mistakes to recover from, mutual attraction to negotiate, and in general a cracking plot. This is good solid fantasy, and I wish there was more of it and less tepid, poorly written, poorly punctuated clone-army nonsense to sort through in order to find the occasional gem like this.

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