Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Wild Wood by Charles de Lint

The Wild WoodThe Wild Wood by Charles de Lint
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in my 2014 TBR Challenge. One would think I wouldn't need motivation to read anything by Charles de Lint, much such a short book. And yet, this has been languishing, unread, for ages on my shelves.

Eithnie is a painter who lives in the Canadian wilderness. Her paintings lately have been missing something; they're too remote and unconnected, though creative. She has a vision of seeing a woman in the forest holding a book, and, ever since, seems able to only paint fairies into her landscapes and scenery. It turns out the local faeries need her for something, something she needs just as badly, herself.

A lot of the book takes place with Eithnie in solitude, and it crosses a period of several months and spans the very different landscapes of Arizona and Canada forest. This leads to something of a sense of detachment from the book and its conflict. I felt like Eithnie wasn't as well-developed as other characters de Lint has written. Her inner struggle felt real enough, but it didn't feel genuine for it to have come to a crisis point only then. And her jump into intimacy when she was afraid to touch the leg of the guy she likes, before, seems abrupt.

Despite my complaints, I still found this a worthwhile read. It has its moments of beauty and fascinating otherworldly creatures drawn from mythology. It has a woman solving her problems by helping those in faerie. It has most of the elements I've come to expect in a Charles de Lint novel.

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Review: A Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells

A Night of Blacker DarknessA Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy the books Dan Wells writes. He tends to stick with urban fantasy, though, and fairly serious topics, at that. I wasn't sure what to expect from a comic historical fiction.

A Night of Blacker Darkness takes place in January 1817. Frederick Whithers needs to get out of prison to collect a fortune he forged papers to inherit. He fakes his own death, and, in emerging from his coffin, is mistaken for a vampire. Not just any vampire, though; a group of five vampires decides he's their leader, the Great One. When he escapes the graveyard, he winds up in a London-bound carriage with John Keats. Soon, John believes he's the Great One, too, and Frederick is running all over England escaping vampires, vampire hunters, mobs with torches, and anyone who might bring his whole scheme crashing down.

The humor is often of the absurdist variety, but it works for this story. If you can set aside the ridiculousness of the notion that Mary Shelley might've tried to build her own stitched-together monster to write a book about it, you'll enjoy it a lot more. The book also posits that gothic literature came about because vampires are too weak to overpower people, so they made themselves sound sexy so young maidens would seek them out. Jane Austen also makes a short but memorable appearance, and is probably the most believable of all of the historical literati.

In the end, this is an amusing tale that pokes fun at a lot of tropes of gothic horror, and, by extension, modern concepts of vampires. It can be forgiven some two-dimensional characters and a thin plot for its pure amusement value.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Sean Barrett. I thought the narration added a lot to the humor of the book, especially in its humor delivery. Barrett has an excellent sense of comic timing, and just the right dry delivery to capture Frederick's voice. If you do pick this up, I recommend the audio edition.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Arcadia's Gift (Arcadia #1) by Jesi Lea Ryan

Arcadia's Gift (Arcadia #1)Arcadia's Gift by Jesi Lea Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of the audiobook of Arcadia's Gift from the author. I was in no other way compensated for my review, though I have been following her on Twitter for years. I was glad for the chance to listen to this book, and relieved I liked it so well.

Arcadia's Gift is about half of a pair of twins, Arcadia (Cady) Day, and what happens to her when her sister Avalon (Lonnie) is taken from her in a terrible accident. She experiences Lonnie's death with her, which puts her into deep shock. Then, as she's getting her life back together, bonding with a boy who's helping her through her grief, she learns something has happened to her to complicate her recovery.

One might think a book about grief would drag, but this book isn't entirely about grief. It does handle the subject well. The book is about hope, and love, and what happens next.

Cady is drawn very believably. She's a teenage girl, flaws and all, and the text never excuses her mistakes. Everyone around her wants to go easy on her because of her grief, but she holds herself to a higher standard. She also experiences her grief in very real ways. She wants to stop hurting, but she fears leaving her sister behind. She wants to move on with her life, but then she feels guilty for feeling happy or carefree. She sympathizes with the classmates who miss her sister, but she grows infuriated by the stark reminder of her loss in the memorial left at her sister's locker. The push-and-pull of emotions is relatable to anyone who's ever lost someone close.

Her relationship with Bryan Sullivan, too, develops in a very real way. At first, he reaches out because he knows what she's going through, and he wants to give her the support he needed when he went through something similar. There was already some attraction there, but his kindness and compassion make him easy to like. He, meanwhile, sees her strength and caring firsthand. Their feelings develop realistically, over a period of time.

There is definitely a place for this book on YA shelves. I know a lot of people who bemoan the lack of heroines whose strength lies in their compassion, whose conflicts aren't resolved by beating someone up (or getting their boyfriends to do it). The story never lacks for tension, but the conflict depends on Cady's inner strength. I had expected the climax to kick off from someone trying to hurt her, but I was pleasantly surprised.

This book stands well on its own, though it leaves plenty of unanswered questions for a second book. I know I care about the characters enough to want to keep reading.

Arcadia's Gift is self-published, but it doesn't read like a self-published book. It's far more polished than I've come to expect from nontraditional publications. There are places where the wording seems a little clumsy or overdone, and Cady sometimes slips into a more adult voice. I would've liked to have seen more done with her two closest friends, who vanish for the last few chapters. Overall, though, it could've passed for any traditionally published YA, if I hadn't known ahead of time it was self-published.

The audio edition, too, is very professionally done. I couldn't have distinguished it from any other Audible production. The sound quality is clean, and Ashlyn Selich was an excellent choice of narrator. She captures Cady's vulnerability and confusion, and she sounds the part of a teenage girl. There wasn't a lot of variety of accents, but she was able to modulate her tone so that I could follow who was speaking without difficulty.

If all authors put this much work into presenting their finished products outside traditional publication, I would read a lot more self-published books.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: Half-Off Ragnarok (InCryptid #3) by Seanan McGuire

Half-Off Ragnarok (InCryptid, #3)Half-Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Can we just clone Seanan McGuire? Please? Because I want more InCryptid. I also want more October Daye. And sequels to Indexing. And more Mira Grant tales of science gone wrong. And short stories she keeps posting on her website. And I want her to be able to sleep and go to the Disney parks, because really, anyone who brings so much joy into the urban fantasy world deserves nice things. I'm not totally greedy.

It's not like she slacks off. Half-Off Ragnarok, which I was lucky enough to get as an ARC and will be buying in paperback when it comes out, is released on March 4. Sparrow Hill Road, which is in the InCryptid universe but addresses another aspect entirely, is due May 6. The Winter Long, Toby Daye's eighth book, is out in September. Symbiont is scheduled for a November release. I can't imagine the kind of productivity that lends itself to that release schedule.

But about Half-Off Ragnarok. This is the third InCryptid book, and the first to be narrated by Alexander Price, the oldest of the Price siblings and the only son. He's come to Ohio to mate a pair of basilisks, and, for his day job, works with reptiles at the zoo. He's dating Dr. Shelby Tanner, an Australian biologist who works with the big cats. He lives with his grandparents, on the Baker side of the family. He helps take care of his cousin, Sarah Zellaby, who's recovering from the events of Midnight Blue-Light Special.

Alex's busy life doesn't lend itself to much socialization. Or sleep, for that matter. Shelby is put off by his dozens of excuses about why he can't spend time with her, and seems on the verge of ending things. Then Alex finds the partially petrified corpse of one of his employees. He has to investigate which creature did it before the Covenant of St. George hears about it, without neglecting Shelby, pissing off the local gorgon population, or getting turned to stone, himself.

I did miss Verity, who makes a short cameo in a phone call, but Alex proves himself worthy of carrying this book on his own. The shift in perspective allows Alex to tell us things about the family Verity didn't find important or that didn't come up. We meet another colony of Aeslin mice, who are just as adorable as Verity's. We learn that, though they regard Alex as a deity (the God of Scales and Silence), he gets no additional perks from the position. He has to bribe the mice for privacy and participate in rituals just as Verity does.

We also see more aspects of the InCryptid world. Alex's focus is on non-sapient cryptids, so he can't reason with or threaten critters running amok. He has to trust his judgment on which ones are beyond redemption, and live with the consequences, whatever his decision. His focus is more on the biology than anthropology aspect.

Despite the shift in perspective, the tone of the series remains consistent. There's still lots of humor and levity, and I suspect the author had way too much fun writing Sarah's cryptic dialogue. It's not overdone, but it sure is random. The snark is perfectly intact, with plenty of snicker-worthy lines. Sarcasm appears to be genetic in the InCryptid universe.

I enjoyed this installment quite a lot, and will be eagerly awaiting the next. On the one hand, it's a whole year. On the other, it's only a year. There will be plenty of other books to read in the meantime.

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Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for my SF book club. It's not the sort of book I would've normally picked up, and it took me forever to slog through, but it wasn't a total waste of time. Its lack of an ending is frustrating, though.

Hyperion echoes Canterbury Tales, in that it's a collection of stories told by different people on a pilgrimage. Having never read the latter, I can't say how they compare, beyond that. I only recognized the superficial similarities.

The literary allusions don't stop with Chaucer. Nineteenth century poetry plays a role in the story, and Keats comes up continuously. The six stories told within the narrative cross genres, echoing tropes of military SF, pulp mystery, and classic exploration SF, among others.

Unfortunately, the frame story is thin. Seven pilgrims are journeying to see the Shrike, for reasons explained in each of their tales. The trip has few surprises and a lot of info dumps. None of those info dumps illuminate the reader as to what all the jargon means. Every once in a while, a term is explained, but it's often one I could've figured out in context. The pointlessness to the padding around the six stories is highlighted when the main goal isn't even reached by the end of the book. It turns out to be little more than a prequel for The Fall of Hyperion. I'm told they're improved if viewed as two parts of the same book, but I would have given up long before the middle if this had been part of one doorstopper of a novel.

I think a lot of my problem with the pacing was that I didn't particularly care about any of the narratives until the last few. The story of Sol Weintraub and his young child was the first time I felt invested in anyone's success. Brawne Lamia's story intrigued me with its use of pulpish tropes, and hooked me with its characterizations and how technology was woven into the story. It was with Brawne's story that I finally started to understand some of the terms that had been bandied about all book. Too bad it was so near the end.

Many of the stories felt padded. In particular, the poet, Martin Silenus, struck me as taking up far too much of the narrative. His section may well have been just as long as anyone else's, but it dragged. In an attempt to sound poetic, he wound up a purple prose blowhard. I was outraged at his abuse of the English language. Surely a poet has more respect for words than to stuff them all onto the page until the right one emerges.

None of the other stories particularly resonated with me, either. Colonel Kassad has an interesting space battle in the middle of his story, but it does nothing to explain why he's there. If anything, his narrative would explain why he might want to stay far, far away. Father Hoyt's story packed a punch at the very end, but its droning monotony was no way to start this book. And the Consul's story may well have explained his presence there, but his plan sounds muddled and needlessly complicated. And his eagerness to share the details of his grandparents having sex creeped me out. Personally, I would've found a way to edit that part out, if it were my grandparents.

And yet, despite all the stalling and padding, I didn't hate the book. I did have to admire the craft, the worldbuilding, and the way the narrative was tied together. As overwhelming as the numerous technologies and changes were, it did make the world feel less like set dressing and more like an immersion.

I debated at length about whether I wanted to read the second book. Do I care about Sol and Brawne that much? My book club tells me it's far more straightforward than this book, and it answers my questions. So, I will be reading The Fall of Hyperion at some point. We'll see if it redeems this book, as well.

But not anytime soon. There are a lot of books I'd rather read first.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Review: Kitty Goes to Washington (Kitty Norville #2) by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Goes to Washington (Kitty Norville, #2)Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really impressed with the first book in the Kitty Norville series. It made good use of its urban fantasy trappings, using them to comment on current events and raise awareness of issues that may be overlooked. I was hoping for more of the same in this book. I should know better by now than to go in with high hopes. This wasn't terrible, nor was it everything I hoped.

Kitty Goes to Washington starts with Kitty on the road, dealing with the repercussions of the first book. She travels to radio stations all over the country, mostly the ones in driving distance. Then she's summoned to Washington, D.C. for a Senate hearing on funding for The Study of Paranormal Biology, a department run by the evasive Dr. Flemming. She interviews him on the show she runs outside D.C., but he leaves abruptly when her questions get too probing for him.

Kitty winds up staying with Alette, the local vampire queen, who warns her away from the local were population. Naturally, this makes Kitty curious, and she discovers a whole subculture of alpha-less shapeshifters.

Within this book, Kitty sits through over a week of Senate hearing, does two radio shows, gets convinced psychics may be onto something, after all, disposes of Elijah Smith (the cult leader who's supposedly curing paranormals), goes on some dates, helps Alette deal with a traitor, uncovers a conspiracy involving paranormals, and attains national notoriety. These elements could've combined into an exciting book. Instead, the elements felt disparate and unconnected.

Part of the problem was the number of characters introduced. Kitty may well decide on first impulse who she can trust and who she can't, but I wasn't feeling her bond with any of the new people. The lengths she goes to in order to help Alette, or to dispose of Smith, seem bizarrely intense. There was no hurry in confronting Elijah Smith, so that entire section just felt unnecessarily rushed. The psychic character, who convinces Kitty he's for real with one sentence, gave me whiplash. Kitty being distraught over someone's death, when she was mistrustful and furious at that same person a few short chapters before, struck me as insincere. There were too many elements to establish, and most of them got skimped on.

That's not to say it's a terrible story. Kitty's characterization remains consistent, this book changes things as much as the first one did, instead of letting the world stagnate, and there are some satisfying moments. Kitty takes a big risk in this book, and, while it doesn't entirely pay off, she does end up in a better position for it.

I just wish it hadn't felt so rushed. I would've liked to have known the characters we were supposed to care about for at least one more book. This has the feel of a TV series cut short and the writers scrambling to get things rolling so they'll have enough time to wrap things up.

I listened to this book on audio, read by Marguerite Gavin. Her voice is very believable as a radio personality, and she captures a lot of Kitty's snark well. Though, some of her pronunciations are just weird. Not, "I've never heard that word aloud" weird, but "I've never heard anyone pronounce it that way" weird. Regardless, she's a good choice of narrator for these books.

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