Tag Archives: reviews

The Raven Tower

images.jpegThings to keep in mind:

1. I’m a total Leckie fangirl

2. Like, seriously.

3. This is nothing like the Ancillary books at all.

4. Not even genre, let alone anything else.

I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now WHICH IS EXCELLENT NEWS FOR EVERYONE LET THERE BE REJOICING.

I’ll admit that when I heard Ann Leckie was doing a fantasy novel I was… discombobulated. I do like fantasy but I’ve read a lot less of it recently for various reasons, and when I thought of how the author of the Ancillary books might translate to fantasy I started thinking of lush epic fantasy which is fine but not what I’m enjoying at the moment.

HOW WRONG I WAS. I mean, seriously. What was I thinking.

For starters: this is a standalone book. That’s right folks, you can read this book and not have to wait for a sequel. Which is great.

Ok, look, I actually read this without reading the blurb or knowing anything about it, just going on trust. And I really truly believe that this was the best option – having now read the blurb, it kinda gives you an idea of what’s going on but as so often happens, I think it sets up the wrong ideas in the reader’s mind. So if you trust me, and you trust Ann Leckie, just go find this and read it without reading anything else about it.

But if not, you can keep reading.

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Tides of the Titans

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the author, at no cost. As were the previous books, Crossroads of Canopy and Echoes of UnderstoreyBecause I am very lucky indeed.

This trilogy isn’t quite your standard trilogy because it doesn’t follow the same main characters throughout. Although the focal character is in the next two, she moves to the background; and the same happens between the second and third books. I really like this as a tactic because it means Dyer gets to explore the world of Titan’s Forest in much more complexity than might otherwise be possible – the three characters have such different roles in the Forest societies, and different motivations and personalities and so on. They interact with other characters in utterly different ways. But I also like that the three characters are all connected to each other, so we get to see family dynamics at play, and understand people from multiple perspectives.

I also like that none of the three main characters are particularly likeable; certainly not all the time. Don’t get me wrong – they’re compelling characters, and I generally understand why they think they have to do what they’re doing. But I frequently got exasperated with them for being selfish, or narrow-minded, or blinded by anger, or… other reasons. And this is a good thing, because it really is a fine line to walk to make me have a reaction like that but still be enjoying the character and the story overall. Dyer walks that line beautifully.

If you haven’t read the series yet, stop right here and go and do so: you really want to if you like complex societies and gods who aren’t that great really and live among humans, and quandongs and Australian trees getting even bigger than we let them get here, quests and revenge and family drama. Spoilers ahead for the first two books!

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Altered Carbon

images.jpegI first read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon not long after it was published. I’ve read a few of his other books, too, and I really like his style. For reasons of “I have too many other books on my pile”, I haven’t got around to reading the rest in the series… although having been reminded of the book by the Netflix series, I’m going to remedy that this year. I’ve just re-read Altered Carbon itself.

Because my memory was fuzzy, I went into the show with only a vague memory of characters and plot. Which was good, actually, because it meant that I got to be surprised by plot twists and be immersed in the world-building.

I loved both the book and the show. This post contains spoilers for both, because I want to compare them.

I had heard some people complaining that the tv show was more simplistic than the books – which didn’t surprise me, although I couldn’t recall if I agreed. Having now re-read the book (and watched the show, um, twice), I disagree. Yes, the show has reduced some of the complexities, but in other ways it introduces more, and different, complexity. The two are actually quite different. It made me think of a film or tv show and its reboot: there are characters in common, and similar or identical plot beats, but with definite differences – perhaps to account for when it’s made, or directors’ stylistic differences, or whatever.

So the show is, I think, more racially diverse. (See this article for some good points on that topic and also some good points about the violence against women, which would be a whole other post for me and is covered here pretty well. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.) It changes Kristin Ortega to be of Mexican(ish?) descent – in the book she’s described as having cheekbones courtesy of a Native American ancestor, which is weird and maybe racist? I’m Australian, I’m not sure of the nuance there – but otherwise doesn’t mention her appearance. (More on Ortega later.) The show makes Elliot and his family black – which is interesting but also changes the plot somewhat, since the whole point of why Bancroft wanted to have sex with Elizabeth Elliot is a physical similarity to his wife (who is white and blonde in both). Quellcrist’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned in the book, as far as I noticed, nor the race of other Envoys, so having at least some of them be not-white was positive.

What I think is the most stark difference between the two is the emphasis on family. In the book, we learn that Takashi had a difficult home life, but very little detail. We see that Laurens and Miriam Bancroft have a fairly distant relationship, and that Elliot loves his family, but they get little interaction on the page. In the show, though – what a difference. I adore the fact that Ortega’s family gets so much time (although I am a bit cranky about her being made so much shorter than Riker/ Tak, since in the book they’re almost of a height; I did enjoy the actor in the role, though). The familial argument about whether it’s a good idea to re-sleeve Grandma for a family celebration puts the whole issue of Catholics’ opposition to stacks etc into great relief. I also just love how MUCH Ortega we get in the show, even though she is clearly obsessed with getting her boyfriend back and clearing his name (which I do understand). In the book, she really is just there as suspicious support for Tak. Even her mum gets a bit of character development! That’s so cool!

Tak’s family also gets a great deal more depth – and maybe that’s coming from the other books, I’ll find out soon. But seeing his relationship with his sister, and then making Reileen be that sister grown up, is deeply intriguing. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her motivations in the show, although towards the end it started making a bit more sense… but it’s still a really interesting difference. It’s not like the Reileen in the book has much more character depth, so it’s a change not a loss.

The Elliots are far more present in the show than in the book – Vernon Elliot has zero to do with Tak and his mission in the book, unlike the show where he becomes an unwilling and not very helpful assistant. And we never meet Lizzie in the book; she’s just mentioned as waiting to be re-sleeved. So I love that she gets to have a hand in her own vengeance (much as I disapprove of violent vengeance in the real world…). The book has Ava Elliot be re-sleeved in a white body, but still female, while in the show she’s given a white man’s body. Part of the point of Tak’s training is that re-sleeving happens so often it’s meant to be straightforward, but that’s not the case for most humans – especially when they haven’t chosen it. What I was impressed by in the show is that although Vernon Elliot is initially bewildered and maybe horrified by the body his wife has been shoved into, he does come to grips with it and they do share intimate moments. And to my eyes, it’s not shown to be homophobia or transphobia, but more about that very specific experience of an unexpected body for his wife. (Trans folk etc should feel free to point out where I’ve missed stereotypes and so on, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.)

Even the Bancrofts, dirty Meths that they are, get more family exploration in the show. We don’t ever meet a Bancroft child in the novel, but two of them feature in the show and the son is a significant bit-part.

Perhaps the most intriguing change with Tak is his relationship with Quellcrist Falconer – and again, maybe this is coming from the later books, but it’s definitely not in this first one. It humanises him in a way that I think is really fascinating, since he commits such dreadfully violent acts and is himself subjected to terrible violence. Visually, to have a contrast with his time with Quell I found quite affecting. I think I have more sympathy for TV-Tak than I do with book-Tak, because there’s more emotional depth to hook into.

A curious change that I’m still trying to think through is the change from having the hotel be the Hendrix to one themed around Edgar Allan Poe. The Hedrix’s avatar is rarely a Jimi Hendrix lookalike (not until near the end, in fact), so I don’t think this is a case of erasing a black character. Perhaps the creators of the show thought that the AI of a Poe-hotel would be more likely to get into the spirit of an investigation? I have no idea. Also, the show creates the AI poker scenes and arguments from whole cloth, which I think is deeply interesting… and perhaps fits into the notion of family being a connecting theme across the episodes…

Finally, the book doesn’t have the Hello Unicorn! backpack, which is clearly a problem. (I found this article while looking for a picture.)In-The-Time-of-Battle-Unicorn-Backpack-Is-There-v3.png

Spots the Space Marine

Unknown.jpegWith apologies to the author and editor and publisher, but this title was incredibly off-putting. I think I got this as part of a bundle of women writing SF; there is no way I would ever have bought it, thanks purely to the title – I figured it was going to be something about a dog?

Anyway. The title is accurate to the story when you get reading, but I don’t think that’s a defence. So let me assure you: this is not a story about a dog trying to be a soldier. In fact, the spots refer to a cat (which I found very odd, but whatever).

The other thing you should know going on is that this is not written like a regular novel. It’s more like a play script: it’s almost entirely dialogue, with a note for who’s speaking but rarely any information about how they’re speaking. There are italicised comments about the actions happening around some of the dialogue, but it’s very sparse compared to most narratives. There’s even some bits that are described as montages, hammering the film-like nature home. If this is not going to be your thing, definitely don’t go here.

This is a military SF novel: you also don’t want to read it if you don’t like Stormship Troopers-level killing rate of the alien enemy. There is a LOT of killing. Mostly the deaths are robot-esque, mindless bug-ish aliens, but still – it got pretty overwhelming. So again, may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The titular Spots has just been transferred to a new outfit to help out with an ongoing war against these alien bugs. She’s not really physically ready for it, and only just ready mentally. The outfit she’s joined is desperately low on numbers, and is facing increasing problems from the alien threat that no one had really expected in this area. So there’s friction with her joining them; there’s friction from lack of sleep and overwhelming stress; there’s friction because there’s an alien ally on base that not everyone trusts. There’s a lot of angry people going around.

One thing I found interesting was that I often lost track of who was male or female, with the exception of Spots, who is a mother. The characters go by call-signs that have nothing to do with their own names, so every now and then there’s some comment about she or he and I was surprised by who it referred to. Also, from passing comments, it’s clear that the soldiers are from a mixture of races, although I’m not sure there was a mixture of nationalities – exactly who was sponsoring this military was unclear.

I enjoyed this more than I had expected; I started reading it because I wanted to either read it or just clear it off my to-be-read ebook pile. While I didn’t love the high body-count, I was intrigued by the dynamics between many of the characters, and amused by the **** for the profanity.

The Hours

Well. That was… a thing.

Unknown-1.jpegMy mum loaned me Michael Cunningham’s book several years ago. I’ve been putting off reading it becuase I knew it was going to require thinking, and possibly be quite depressing. I had seen the film when it came out, so I had a vague memory of the sorts of things that happen – and more particularly, the themes.

This year I’m aiming to read a bunch of the things I own but haven’t read. And so, I read this.

First things first: the prologue is Virginia Woolf’s suicide. So if that’s something you’re not in the place for, this is definitely not for you.

The book follows three women in different times and places. There’s Woolf, two decades before her death, as she starts to write Mrs Dalloway. There’s Laura, in 1949, starting to read Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, sometime in the 90s I think, whose nickname is Mrs Dalloway.

Yes, this is a conscious parallel of Mrs Dalloway. Or … something. Aspects of the women’s lives match the novel, and the themes certainly do. The novel interrogates and sympathises and reverses and maybe celebrates? The earlier one. If you haven’t read Woolf’s novel, though, you will still be able to read this – it’s still a fascinating way of thinking about three days in three lives. But there is certainly more depth with knowledge of Mrs D; I had the enjoyment of my mother’s notes in the margins, too.

A dismissive reader would say nothing of substance happens. And the section on Woolf addresses this, reflecting how the “proper” subject of literature has ever been men and their doings like war… but perhaps a novel of a woman’s life can equally be a valid subject. And so, Mrs Dalloway.

Woolf writes, and is visited by her sister. Laura bakes a cake and reads a book. Clarissa buys flowers and organises a party. Yes, these seem banal. But Cunningham shows that within these everyday occurrences there is beauty, and tragedy, and intimations of death, and joy, and depression, and really everything that is Life. Because of course there’s more to their days than these actions: each woman’s interior life is explored, and that’s where the greatest tragedy and celebrations of life occur. Woolf is struggling desperately with mental illness and how that affects her writing. Laura is desperately unhappy in her role as suburban housewife and mother, although she’s not really consciously aware of that – she focuses on her failure to be perfect in those roles. And Clarissa worries about the party for her dying poet friend, sometimes feeling guilty for being so alive and enjoying life and even being a bit ordinary.

This is not an easy or fast book to read. It’s short, but like Mrs Dalloway it’s intense and dense. There’s a huge amount of description that brings to light the characters’ attitudes and illuminates the incredible beauty and fragility of The Ordinary. Each character’s passions and pains are presented sympathetically but without pathos; there were times when I had to stop after a chapter and just… sit … with the terror of not being able to write, or of not being the perfect housewife.

There’s a lot more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the issue of sexuality, which is hugely important although not made an especially big deal of. I was surprised Woolf’s bisexuality wasn’t made more of, to be honest; her sexuality is probably the least prominent; Laura shares sort-of kiss with a woman; Clarissa is lesbian, has had a sexual relationship with a man in the past, and I think is the most comfortable of all three with who show is, in this and everything else.

I’m not sure I love this book. But I’m pretty sure I’ll read it again.

Merry Happy Valkyrie

42741994.jpgI wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Scrooge, although others might; I don’t put up Christmas decorations, I don’t wear baubles for earrings, I don’t watch Christmas movies (ok, Alisa made me watch Christmas Chronicles, but IT STARS KURT RUSSELL so it doesn’t count).

I don’t deliberately go and read Christmas stories. But this is a Tansy story, and I’d heard it played with some jokes about Tasmania and weather, so I figured I’d give it a go.

(I guess I should say that both Tansy and the publisher are friends of mine… but if I didn’t like it, I just wouldn’t say anything….)

Lief is a weather reporter, and lives in Hobart, but her hometown is Matilda – where it always snows at Christmas. Now, for the non-Australians, this is hilarious. Australian weather is always a bit unpredictable, especially in Tasmania, but the idea of guaranteed snow in December is outrageous. It has been known to snow in the hills near Melbourne, for instance, on Christmas Day… but the next year it was in the mid-30s C. Tasmania is more ridiculous (from 38C to snow in 5 days in January, and that’s just what I – as a visitor – have experienced)… but the idea of confidently predicting snow, in December? Uh, no.

Anyway, this is understandably intriguing, but less understandably hasn’t been closely reported on. Until now, when Lief is forced to go home for Christmas with a far-too-bubbly camerawoman in tow. Matilda doesn’t like visitors: there are far too many secrets that need to be kept. And when there’s not one but a whole truckload of strangers, and then weird things start happening – like earthquakes – clearly things are going to get real.

This is a very fun, and very enjoyable, and very intriguing, novella. It’s written in that Tansy style that means there’s a lot of banter and snark, some surprising description that really works, and at a brisk pace that means there’s no time for dawdling HURRY UP. Thoroughly enjoyable, and not just a Christmastime read.

Miranda in Milan

image.pngThis novel (novella?) was sent to me to review by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be out on 26 March, 2019.

Aside from King Lear, which I loathe, I probably dislike The Tempest more than any other Shakespeare play. I don’t know why; there’s nothing particular I can pinpoint. But I really, really dislike it.

It turns out, though, that stories of Miranda after the play are stories I can really get behind. So maybe this is part of the problem: in the play, I think Miranda is just a bit nothing. But For Meadows’ Coral Bones made me swoon for joy, and now Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan similarly plays with the aftermath of Miranda’s return from the island – in a very different way from Meadows, but equally dealing with some of the issues that a young woman with such an upbringing might need to confront.

Here, Miranda is returned to Milan, and basically confined to the room – she’s only allowed out when wearing a veil, which she loathes. Her father is off reestablishing himself as duke, Ferdinand is in Naples, and she has no friends. Until suddenly she does develop a friendship, and she begins to discover some of what’s gone on in Milan that led to Prospero’s banishment – and, by extension, her own.

Nicola Griffith’s blurb is (unsurprisingly) apt: “Love and lust, mothers and monsters, magicians and masked balls…”. That’s about it. What is love and how do you know it, what makes a monster, and can magicians be trusted… Duckett writes about these things, and does it quite beautifully.

Sorry you have to wait til March to read it.

The Fated Sky

Unknown.jpegDon’t be like me: if you think you might like to read The Calculating Stars, just buy this at the same time. Because otherwise you’ll get to the end of the first and you’ll be forced to cry NOOOO and shake your first at the sky because you can’t go immediately on to this.

Trust me on this. (Also I can’t believe I didn’t review Stars when I read it. Oops.)

Elma York is a scientist and a pilot. There’s a dreadful catastrophe on Earth in 1952, and from that point history is different from our history, because humanity’s attempts to get to space happen much, much faster, from necessity rather than hubris or curiosity.

York is female, and Jewish. It’s the female bit that leads to most of her personal difficulties; it seems to me that Kowal pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the sexism of the 1950s and 60s. I often found it distressing to read about. And it’s not only that which is distressing. There’s also the racism: York herself, while not actively racist, is complicit in the systemic racism of her time because so often she simply isn’t aware of the experiences of the not-white folks around her. And her attempts to ‘help’ are often blundering. I do like that Kowal shows York learning from her mistakes – sometimes because she is actively shown what she has done, or what society has done; sometimes she thinks her way there personally. She’s certainly never perfect, though – she’s a product of her times.

And then, in terms of things that can be hard to read about, York also suffers from anxiety. Although I do not myself suffer from it, it was reading about this that perhaps affected me most. The way it physically affects her, and the way those around her react, and the reasons for it existing or being exacerbated. Kowal writes about it exquisitely (said the person for whom it is largely unfamiliar, so take that into account).

I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.

I don’t want to spoil either book, so I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but of course humanity’s efforts to reach space and work there are more successful in the books than in real life; otherwise there wouldn’t be two books (AND, so excite, at least two more planned!!) about it. But it’s fair to say that there is no plain sailing – which is as you would expect from Kowal, frankly, and indeed from any early-space-reaching novel attempting verisimilitude.

I love these books with a great passion. They tore at my heart, and made me angry for the way people are stupid for stupid reasons; they made me happy for the fact that there are good people, too, striving to do what is right and sometimes failing but also keeping on going, often in the face of terrible opposition. I love Kowal’s writing and I love the pacing of these stories and I cannot, cannot wait to read more set in this world.

Summer in Orcus

Unknown.jpegWhen I was looking through my ebooks and came across this one, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I acquired it. Looking at the cover I thought it might be connected to Kathleen Jennings, but turns out it’s not her art – just similar. Then eventually I realised that it came in the Hugo packet, and I had run out of time to read it before voting was complete.

T. Kingfisher is, I discovered, a nomme de plume of Ursula Vernon. I’ve read some of Vernon’s short stories, but not enough to really have a sense of what her work is like. So I had no idea what I was getting myself in for with this story.

The answer is: whimsy, and delight.

Firstly, Summer is the main character, and that’s delightful. Secondly, she has a painful childhood, because her mother is needy and overly protective. I find this quite fascinating as a way of thinking about a parent in a fairytale-is story. Not absent, not careless, not hardhearted; but the sort of parent who makes their child feel bad for wanting independence, who needs constant reassurance, and who peculiarly demand their child to be more like the adult, offering comfort. So that’s an intriguing aspect that’s introduced immediately. Which is also something I like – this is aimed, I guess, at what Americans call ‘middle grade’ readers; Summer is 12 – and so there is little beating about the bush. The story proceeds at what would be well called a brisk pace. Indeed, and thirdly, Summer has met Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house within three pages and is off on her adventure in Orcus in chapter 3, to find her heart’s desire. Summer’s not quite sure what her heart’s desire is, but assumes she’ll know it when she finds it.

Also, she has a talking weasel to accompany her.

I told you there was whimsy.

So there are talking animals and dryads and a land that’s kind of falling apart, dandy-ish birds and terrifying fortune-telling cheeses. People who are actively trying to destroy things and a wolf that’s not just a wolf, and Summer reflecting on whether her experience in Orcus will be like an experience in Narnia. And an antelope woman.

I loved it. A lot. Kingfisher’s prose is delightful, the characters are varied and only Reginald, the dandy bird, is faintly ridiculous. While it initially seems like it might be a relatively standard portal fantasy (which would have been fine), it reminded me more of Catherynne M Valente’s Fairyland books in their self-awareness than anything else. It’s also not completely standard in the way that Summer’s quest pans out, but no way am I spoiling that. Suffice to say it left me musing.

I really enjoyed the character interactions, and the places Summer visits. I liked that Summer wasn’t always sure what to do but that she was a resourceful and sensible girl – and sometimes that meant being quite scared, as was appropriate in some of the circumstances she found herself in. She deserves to have lots of people read about her adventures.

Beauty, by Robin McKinley

Unknown-1.jpegI have never read a Robin McKinley book before. I gather, from looking around, that this might be a slightly scandalous announcement? At any rate, that’s the case. I have a feeling that I got this, and The Hero and the Crown, from a Humble Bundle or similar. It’s not something I would have bought off my own bat.

This is fairly straightforward retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It goes into a substantial amount of background for Beauty’s family, which I really enjoyed – the discussion of the family, and their changing circumstances, was a perfectly delightful story all by itself. Because here’s the thing: even though it’s a standard retelling of the fairytale, insofar as that bit goes (and I recently read Angela Carter’s version, which WHOA), what makes this stand out is McKinley’s fabulous prose. Reading her work is utterly effortless, and a joy. I love her descriptions and I enjoy her dialogue and the characters are delightful. Beauty has two older sisters – and they’re distinct from one another, and although they’re not the centre of the story I still know them and care about them. Her father is a bit more distant, which makes sense as it’s Beauty’s perspective we get. And Beauty herself is wonderful: not entirely content with herself and her life, for various reasons, but also devoted to her family and doing what is necessary, generally happily. Her conflict in staying with the Beast is presented clearly, with duty meeting fear and so on…

This is not a fractured fairy tale nor a complete reimagining. It’s a story that takes a well known story and makes it more rounded, and presents it wrapped in lovely words.