Category: Reviews


Review – Signal to Noise

Posted 18 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Signal to Noise, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKeanSignal to Noise, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean

I got Signal to Noise from Netgalley, presumably for whatever release is current or about to happen. It’s not great, reading it on screen: the resolution wasn’t great, and I think it probably looks better as a bunch of two-page spreads.

Nonetheless, it tells a powerful story, and it’s a very thoughtful one: this isn’t a graphic novel in the sense of comics with superheroes and over-powered fight scenes, bulging muscles, etc. This is a meditation on art and death, and consequently life. I’m not the greatest fan of Dave McKean’s art here, but it worked for this particular story.

Not super-exciting, but more made for slow reflection.

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Review – Little Brother

Posted 16 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Little Brother, by Cory DoctorowLittle Brother, Cory Doctorow

I’ve been meaning to read Little Brother for a long time, so when it came up for the SF/F course on Coursera, it seemed like it was finally time. Maybe it got built up a bit too much over time, because I found it fairly disappointing. There’s something very immature about it — in some ways, that’s part of its charm, because it’s enthusiastic and straightforward and the characters/plot are earnest.

But. While I enjoy Cory Doctorow’s non-fiction writing (he writes very clearly about copyright, piracy, etc), I haven’t enjoyed his fiction nearly as much. He seems to write still partly in a non-fiction mode: we get lectured about the world he’s setting up, rather than seeing it in action. It’s like a thought experiment, a way of playing out his concerns. There’s a place for that, of course, but it’s a lot easier to swallow when it’s wrapped up in prose like that of Ursula Le Guin. This probably is a fairly direct comparison to books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland: it’s a story born of convictions more than of the urge to tell a story, I think.

For a reader who is used to Cory Doctorow’s work and already interested in this kind of thing, the narrator’s explanations are unnecessary, and even for those who are not, it’s a bit heavy-handed. Doctorow’s writing is clear, and he gets his points across… but for me, that was a trade off against flow and interest.

I don’t really see why people found this so fascinating and absorbing, I’m afraid.

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Review – Flash Fiction Online #3

Posted 15 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

One of my Christmas presents: a subscription to Flash Fiction Online. I was really interested in this, because flash fiction is something I’m good at and something I really enjoy: you have to be clever, and choose every word just right. You have to know just what to leave out. It’s not a form I’ve seen people pay much attention to, but it’s a form I love to play with, and to read when it’s done well.

Unfortunately, there was nothing really special in this month’s issue. The second story, Mercedes M. Yardley’s ‘Milk and Moonshine’ was probably the best, though it required a bit more editing (even a single typo will stand out in a piece of flash fiction). It is nice, however, that there seems to be a willingness to play mix and match with genres, and accept anything that’s interesting. I might end up submitting to this publication myself; it’ll be interesting to see it develop.

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Review – Year of Wonders

Posted 15 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Year of Wonders, by Geraldine BrooksYear of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

I read this for Bruce Holsinger’s historical fiction course on Coursera. It’s based on the true story of the village of Eyam, during the 1665 epidemic of plague in Britain, though Geraldine Brooks doesn’t stick too closely to the names and details of exactly what happened there, but rather tries to recreate the sense of it. For her own comfort, I think, even where she’s based her characters on real people, she’s taken them a step or so away from them so that William Mompesson becomes Michael Mompellion, allowing her to take greater liberties.

At times, it seems pretty melodramatic, to me. The whole situation between Michael and Elinor, for example, seemed completely unnecessary (and barely even seemed to make sense to me); sometimes it just seemed to pile too much into the story that on its own would’ve seemed to make sense. The ending was worse; it felt like a complete flight of fantasy beside the historically grounded, patiently explored situation in the village.

So… overall, parts of this are a very powerful exploration of the tensions and also the support in Eyam at the time, and of the faith and fear and superstition of the time. But other parts of it work against the simple, touching aspect that those things give the story. I know it’s fiction and flights of fantasy are all a part of it, but it didn’t feel right to me.

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Review – A Red Herring Without Mustard

Posted 14 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan BradleyA Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley

I’m somewhat torn on the subject of Flavia de Luce. I find the books fun to read, but the hail-fellow-well-met Englishness (as portrayed by a Canadian writer who never went to England prior to starting on the first book). It’s just a total fantasy, and I can never tell how seriously people are taking it.

As for the mystery in this particular installment, I figured it out relatively quickly, but it’s still fun to follow along, and I love that the main character is a young girl who is fascinated with science. It all has rather a Famous Five feel, ultimately, with Flavia de Luce playing all five (well, maybe the four humans — her bike, Gladys, or maybe her family’s servant, Dogger, could be Timmy): how a kid solved the mysteries the police couldn’t solve, with the police coming in at the end to wrap things up. I can even see Flavia’s father as Uncle Quentin…

One thing that is bothering me is Flavia’s relationship with her sisters. It’s played lightly, yet it’s frankly abusive. She’s constantly being told that no one loves her, no one would want to spend time with her, that she’s frankly unworthy of love… and I can’t tell how seriously people (including Alan Bradley) are taking that.

There’s more than a touch of Dahl’s Matilda in Flavia, but it never seems to get any deeper than that. At this point, I’m starting to want to know why Flavia’s sisters treat her that way, what effect this is really having on Flavia, whether this is just meant to build up a picture of a “quirky” family (ugh), or whether it’s meant to be leading somewhere. Playing pranks is one thing, even fighting, but psychological warfare? It’s really starting to get on my nerves.

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Review – The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted 13 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le GuinThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin

Reread this for my SF/F class on Coursera. I loved it more, this time: read it slowly, appreciated the details, just as the professor suggested. Partially because, of course, I knew it would be rewarding with Ursula Le Guin. I don’t think I was ready for this book when I read it before: the fierce joy and love in some parts of it, the devastation, the making-strange of familiar things and the making familiar of strange things.

Some parts were… maybe less subtle than I thought Le Guin would be. All the stuff about Orgoreyn seemed fairly obviously a commentary on the relations between the US and Russia; the portrayal of Karhide was more subtle, but the Voluntary Farm seems a fairly naked commentary on the gulags. I expected more subtlety, really.

I do love the world Le Guin builds. I was impatient with it last time, but having experienced more of her work, all the detail and background is part of the picture, part of the creativity, not ancillary to the plot.

Don’t read this if you’re not ready to be shaken up about gender, but really, that isn’t the important thing about it. The real importance of it is not the way Le Guin plays with and reflects on gender (Tehanu would be equally important for that, I think), but the way she thinks about dualism/wholeness, the imagery of Yin and Yang which her whole story invokes.

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Review – Alphabet of Thorn

Posted 12 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Alphabet of Thorn, by Patricia A. McKillip, art by Kinuko CraftAlphabet of Thorn, Patricia A. McKillip

Firstly, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but oh I love the cover art so much. It’s done by Kinuko Craft, who has also illustrated at least some of Juliet Marillier’s covers, so that explains why it seemed familiar.

Alphabet of Thorn is beautifully written. It’s one of those books where it’s less about making things happen, and more about watching them happen — there is some degree of “stopping things happening”, but mostly people fall in love, and do magic, and learn things about themselves, and work in the slow silent world of manuscripts and translation, and… It’s not really about the plot, I think, but more about the characters and the world; less about things happening than about people in a situation. I don’t know if I can describe it — but all the same, I hope it’s clear that I loved it.

The mythical parts of the story, the floating school of magic, all of it felt — not real, but true, to me. It all worked seamlessly as a world, as a story. It also felt in some ways like something Ursula Le Guin could write (which is a very high compliment in my world): the Floating School is a cousin to the school on Roke.

If you’re not a fan of McKillip’s style and plotting, I don’t think this one could change your mind. But I do think it’s gorgeous.

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Review – Hang Wire

Posted 10 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Hang Wire, by Adam ChristopherHang Wire, Adam Christopher

I’ve wanted to read this since I was given the summary to have a go at coming up with a blurb, back when I visited Angry Robot for a day (especially with seeing the cover art, which to me seems perfect in its relative simplicity). So I gleefully pounced on the email offering ARCs, crossed my fingers, and waited. When I got back from Belgium, I had a whole package of books from Angry Robot, including Hang Wire, which I cracked open as soon as I could.

I have Adam Christopher’s other books with Angry Robot, except The Age Atomic, but I hadn’t got round to them yet. So this was my first book by Adam Christopher, which works fine, as it’s a standalone. It’s urban fantasy, with a touch of the thriller and a bit of fake Celtic magic, and real gods of various stripes, and real people affected by them. It took me a while to get together what was happening, partially because I never pay attention to dates at the beginning of chapters even when authors are so helpful as to give them, and partially because I have a cold. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

It’s an absorbing read, even if you aren’t quite hanging on and catching all the hints and implications, and it might take you some places you aren’t expecting. The pacing is really good: there was never a point where I could put it down and not wonder what was coming up next. The writing works well for me: I could picture things clearly, but it wasn’t fussy, either. There were some bits I still haven’t quite sorted out in my mind, but the plot carried me along fairly smoothly; I’d have to reread it to tell you if that was just me being dense (having a cold) or not.

Definitely an enjoyable one, and worth picking up when it comes out — and I’m veeerryyy interested in hurrying up and getting to read Adam Christopher’s other work.

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Review – William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Posted 9 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of William Shakespeare's Star Wars, by Ian DoescherWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Ian Doescher

This is amusing as a quick read; I’m contemplating who might enjoy it as a quirky Christmas gift. It’d have to be someone who can appreciate the ridiculous literary touches (like R2D2 beeping in iambic pentameter), and who is a pretty big fan of both Star Wars and Shakespeare, I think. I’m not really enough of a fan of either to truly appreciate this.

I can also imagine that you could be too much of a fan of Shakespeare (or Star Wars) to appreciate this. It’s best taken lightly.

Definitely a gift for a geek, anyway. As someone approaching it casually, I could appreciate the ideas and the way some of the lines were rendered, but then the joke wore thin.

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Review – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Posted 8 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee BenderThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

I don’t really know about this book. I hoped to find it light but charming, but it’s not really light and only the premise is charming, and the rest of it just sort of gets too much. I mean, there’s a point where it just gets beyond magic realism and becomes absurd, for me. The idea of tasting emotions in food doesn’t seem so strange to me, but there’s a point where this story crosses the line.

Some of the writing worked okay for me, but the narration didn’t, quite: when is she narrating this? Why? To whom? The lack of speech marks and the sentence fragments didn’t bother me too much, it all seemed to be part of the voice Aimee Bender was trying to build up for her character, but… For a story that could be so rich and sensual, it ended up being “hollow in the middle”, like the flavour of sadness the protagonist tastes in her mother’s cooking and baking.

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