Category: Reviews


Review – Over Sea, Under Stone

Posted 21 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan CooperOver Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper

It’ll surprise no one who knows me that I’m rereading this set of books at this time of year: Over Sea, Under Stone is more of a summer book, I suppose, but the one most rooted in a particular time of year is The Dark is Rising, the second book, in winter. (The runner-up would be The Grey King, set in the autumn around Samhain.) So I imagine that a few more reviews of these books will be added to my total before the end of the year…

I read Over Sea, Under Stone in one go, this time. There are still a couple of things that bother me, aside from the Enid Blyton-esque tone of the boys-own-adventure stuff. Like, why would Merriman leave them alone up on top of the hill? Why wouldn’t he ask more questions about who is attacking them? Why —

But it’s probably best not to ask those questions of this book, the earliest and least subtle. There are many subtle touches which I love later in the sequence, but this book is decidedly less mature. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have some very powerful sections: the last two chapters have an unbearable build up of tension that gets to me even at twenty-four years old. Mostly, I love that the characters feel real, squabble and support each other and have fears and weaknesses like real kids, real siblings. Simon’s such a superior brat, but he’s the more real for it. Jane’s a little bit stereotyped, I think: she’s more easily frightened than the other two, carries around “practical” things like a roll of cotton (but no mention of a sewing kit of any kind?), isn’t interested in male pursuits like fishing and sailing, etc. But even that isn’t so bad — she’s not Blyton’s Anne or George, but something closer to a rounded individual.

(Has anyone written an essay where each member of the Famous Five reflects a facet of a single psyche, or something? Because I just came up with that idea on the spot, and I’m too lazy to explore it myself.)

And, finally? Barney’s “cleversticks” is still the best pseudo-insult ever.

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Review – Irregular Creatures

Posted 19 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Irregular Creature by Chuck Wendig, coverIrregular Creatures, Chuck Wendig

Irregular Creatures is a collection of Chuck Wendig’s short stories. Someone recently compared his work to Stephen King’s, and I can see where they’re coming from: there’s something robustly readable about all of it, and the fantasy/horror aspects are all handled in a matter of fact sort of way. I can’t remember how King handles narrators, at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find similarities there.

I think someone also mentioned a sort of cheerful vulgarity, and there’s that, too. Sometimes I find that uncomfortable, e.g. in ‘Mister Mhu’s Pussy Show’; it’s really not my kind of thing.

Mostly, the stories are fun, very readable, sometimes completely fascinating in their bizarreness. Chuck Wendig is an author I follow because I know he writes solidly and prolifically, and always has ideas I want to see played out.

Must get round to reading more of his Miriam Black books…

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Review – The Postman Always Rings Twice

Posted 19 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. CainThe Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

I’d often heard of this pretty classic crime novel, but I’d never read it. However, it was on my ereader, and I was settled in for a looong car journey, so I randomly picked it up and got going. It’s a very easy read: the language is simple, to the point, which helps to define the narrative voice. More flowery language wouldn’t work with the character.

Once it gets to a certain point, parts of the plot are obvious, but the trick pulled in court is amazing. It’s a simple story, in one sense — guy meets married woman, they want to get rid of her husband — but the tangle of passion and brutality stands out more against the relatively simple plot (except for the bit in court, which is less simple).

Definitely worth reading if you enjoy crime fiction and have missed out on James M. Cain thus far. Where now?

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 19 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
I read quite a bit today, Chuck Wendig’s Irregular Creatures and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Reviews for both of those are coming up on the blog (though you can see them on Goodreads/Librarything already, in the unlikely event that you’re desperate). Before that it was Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Signal to Noise, from Netgalley.

What are you currently reading?
Actively, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley and The Man from Primrose Lane, by James Renner. Oh, and Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which is reminding me very much of Firefly right now. On the backlog, many books from this list and books mentioned here before that didn’t make it onto that list because I’m a scatterbrain. The Alan Bradley book seems to be serendipitously being read at exactly the right time of year — it’s Christmas in Bishop’s Lacey and Flavia de Luce has a plan to catch Santa — and The Man from Primrose Lane got my attention when going through library books I should return, last night…

(I should talk someday about my problem with library books. Suffice it to say, I went to Ikea, bought and assembled a whole bookcase almost solely for library books, although one shelf does hold my games.)

What do you think you’ll read next?
I’m probably going to break off from the aforementioned backlog to read The Dark is Rising, since it’s exactly the right time of year for it and there’s a readathon going on via Twitter to celebrate the 40th anniversary. I might even start that this evening. Other than that, I want to read more of Alan Bradley’s books (they are on the list), and I’m hoping to finish Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, Rosie Best’s Skulk and Julianna Scott’s The Holders in relatively short order.

Books acquired:
It’s Christmas, so I have duly been acquiring. Well, that and the Kindle Daily Deal… I forget exactly what I’ve got there altogether, but basically some fantasy/SF stuff that looked interesting. For Christmas so far, I got Jaine Fenn’s Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven from my friend Lo, and from my Librarything Secret Santa I got Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God, which seem likely to prove very good picks.

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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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