Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sevenfold Spell by Tia Nevitt

I'm a little diffident about writing this review, since the author, Tia Nevitt, is a fellow book blogger whose reviews have introduced me to lots of lovely books over the last couple of years. I almost decided to not review her book at all--but that seems like a cop-out, and particularly unfair to her since it's not like I didn't like the book.

So I'm reviewing The Sevenfold Spell, which was released this week as an ebook. Many (if not most) of my problems with the book have nothing to do with the writing--which is good--and everything to do with how it's marketed. The publisher has it listed as fantasy. It's actually a romance, which is not a genre I read very often and not one I enjoy particularly. As my sister-in-law says about my mom's habit of tossing candy in with her movie popcorn, "Ugh, think popcorn, get Junior Mint." I expected a fantasy and was disappointed. But that's not the author's fault.

The Sevenfold Spell is about Talia, a plain young woman who lives with her mother. They're spinsters--in the original meaning, that is, since they spin fiber into thread for a living. Talia knows she's plain, but she doesn't mind too much since her homely friend William has already asked her to marry him. Unfortunately, the newborn princess of the realm has been cursed by a fairy: when she reaches 16, she'll prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a hundred years of sleep. All the spinning wheels in the realm are destroyed, which ruins Talia's future. Her dowry goes to buy food now that her mother has no income, and William's father ships him off to a monastery to become a monk.

This is a fascinating opening, and I was eager to find out how the lack of spinning wheels would affect the world. In two words: it doesn't. This book (novella, rather--it's pretty short) is not a fantasy, so the fantasy world is only a vehicle for the romance between Talia and William. That's fine, if you reached into the popcorn bag expecting to get a Junior Mint. I was left hungry for worldbuilding which didn't come.

My main problem, though, was with Talia. The only time she showed any gumption was when she wanted to seduce a man, which she did a lot. (I liked her mother, who decides to build a spinning wheel in secret and sell the resulting thread as an expensive 'import.') Talia's entire existence is wrapped up in men: William, who is lost to her; the older man she seduces; the affairs she has over the years. I found her shallow, passive, and remarkably empty emotionally. I couldn't root for her because there was nothing there to root for.

I've read over what I've written so far, and I see that this review is coming off as really negative. I was afraid of that. I just can't evaluate a genre of book I don't read. Again, the writing is solid, and the plot is interesting (despite some motivational issues that felt like plot holes to me, since I'm intensely plot-driven). I liked the ending--especially what Talia's mother does, which almost had me cheering out loud.

One last gripe, though, and this one I can't blame on the genre. The author does not know anything about spinning. I've been a spinner myself for something like 15 years now, and every single time spinning came up in the story, it was handled wrong. First problem: 'modern' spinning wheels--you know, the ones without sharp spindles--were invented in something like the 12th century, although they remained in common use up to the industrial revolution. They're usually called walking wheels or great wheels and they are very big. Talia describes the wheel itself as being about two feet across, which is about half the size of a walking wheel but a common size for a modern wheel--again, the ones without sharp spindles. Second problem: Talia's mother and one other woman on their street are the only spinners in the area, and competed originally since the town wasn't really big enough for two spinners. *boggle* Before the industrial revolution, every single household had a spinning wheel. Spinning is a time-consuming, laborious process. For every hour a weaver works on a piece of cloth, spinners have put in approximately 30 hours of work making the thread the weaver uses. Third problem: If you don't have a spinning wheel of any kind, out of necessity people will go back to the older methods of spinning, which are varied but simple. All you need is a stick (not sharpened!) with a weight on one end and a notch in the other, and you can spin all day long without worrying about any princesses getting hurt. Fourth problem: Spinning wheels are not noisy. They make a soft whirring sound and can squeak a little, but it's never very loud--certainly not loud enough to be heard outside a house unless the wheel is right next to an open window and it's a very quiet day, and even then you'd have to be really close.

Okay, sorry, I'm done preaching about my hobby. If you like romance at all, definitely give this one a try. It's a charming little story with an interesting setting. I definitely hope Tia Nevitt writes a fantasy with romantic elements (instead of the other way around) next, because I'd love to see what she does with it.

link to publisher Carina Press

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers by Harry Harrison

I read a lot of Harry Harrison's books when I was younger, but I hadn't read one in years when I heard about Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. I bought it without having the least idea what it was about.

Here's the first sentence, and if you don't wring your hands and grin with glee, you've either never read Harry Harrison or you've never read any of the bad SF books he's parodying: "'Come on, Jerry,' Chuck called out cheerfully from inside the rude shed that the two chums had fixed up as a simple laboratory."

Harry Harrison is a very funny writer, and he's dead-on with his imitation of bad SF. The story follows Jerry and Chuck, their friend Sally, and the mysterious John as they accidentally invent an ultra-powerful substance they call cheddite (because it's made from cheddar cheese) and use it to travel the galaxy. The story is hilariously illogical and full of long paragraphs of beautifully written balonium. By the end of the book, every time I saw the word 'ravening,' I had to giggle uncontrollably.

My main problem with the book is its length. By about halfway through, the whole parody thing started to feel old. I wonder if Harrison might have felt the same way, because about the time I caught myself getting bored with the joke, the story began to feel like less of a parody and more like a real Harry Harrison book: witty, inventive, fast-paced, and unexpected.

This book was first published in 1973. Some of the slang is outdated, but in a weird way that just adds an extra layer of funniness to the parody.

B&N link

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer

This book is a fast read--two and a bit hours for me, and that was with me checking Twitter compulsively every couple of minutes. I think this may be the first time I've posted two book reviews in one day.

I've been a fan of Caroline Stevermer for years (her postapocalyptic YA River Rats is a truly brilliant book), and I love the books she's written with Patricia Wrede. I had no idea she'd written another book set in the same world as Sorcery & Cecilia until I noticed it on someone else's blog (I can't remember whose, but probably Book Aunt).

Magic Below Stairs tells the story of Frederick Lincoln, an orphan who's hired as a footboy in Thomas Schofield's household. If you've read Sorcery & Cecilia you don't need to be told that Lord Schofield is a wizard. Frederick has a bit of magic too, though, something he's not even aware of: the brownie Billy Bly has taken a liking to him. Where Frederick goes, Billy Bly goes--even if Frederick's new employer doesn't want him around. Brownies are trouble, and Thomas Schofield's wife is pregnant and mustn't be disturbed. But Billy Bly discovers an old curse lingering on the house, and no one but Frederick believes him.

The story is simple and lively, and Frederick's a likable guy. His loneliness when Billy Bly is sent away is moving; the way he helps track down the curse is a lot of fun. Frederick is eleven, so the book is meant for younger kids, but it certainly held my attention.

B&N link

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

The cover of Redemption in Indigo is absolutely beautiful, and I love the title. While I was reading it, I felt terribly intelligent--it's the sort of cover and title that tell everyone, "I am reading a weighty work of literature." But the joke was on all those hypothetical people, because while Redemption in Indigo is a work of literature, it's not weighty at all. It's a charming, deceptively simple, fun work of literature.

It's based on a Senegalese folk tale, and it's meant to imitate the spoken word--which works so well that even the author asides became part of the full story. The writing is beautifully clear, the characters fully realized and sympathetic.

The story revolves around Paama, who leaves her buffoonish glutton of a husband to return to her family in the village where she grew up. Her husband follows her and she wearily extricates him from several fixes his greed gets him into. At the same time, the djombi--immortal spirits who interact with humans in different ways--have taken notice of Paama. They decide she's the right person to wield the Chaos Stick, which they've taken away from a djombi who had neglected and abused his power. But the Chaos Stick's former owner is determined to get the stick back.

There is no way to do justice to the story with a simple plot summary. The book's strength is its warmth. Even the bad guys have understandable motivations--and in the end, no one's really bad. Paama learns some bitter lessons during her adventures, but throughout everything she remains a strong, kind, dutiful woman.

When I finished the book, I set it down smiling. Then I burst into tears. I don't think I've ever reacted to a book quite like that before. I'm now passing my copy around to everyone I know, saying, "Read this. You'll be a better person afterwards."

B&N link

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Snake Agent by Liz Williams

Snake Agent is a marvelous blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a very different book with an intricate, solid plot. I don't know why someone didn't tell me about Liz Williams before now.

Actually, I've had this book for over a year, languishing in my To Be Read pile because of its thickness (I'm not fond of very long books) and the unattractive cover. I picked it up mostly because I'd been looking for a meaty urban fantasy but couldn't find one. This was far better than anything I had expected.

Detective Inspector Chen is an investigator of the supernatural as part of his job in the Singapore Three police department. When a woman asks for help finding the soul of her murdered daughter, who should have arrived in heaven but instead ended up in hell, Chen starts an investigation that uncovers a conspiracy between corrupt humans and one of hell's most powerful ministries. At the same time, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, a demon in hell's Ministry of Vice, is sent to investigate the appearance in hell of innocent souls--young women who were supposed to go to heaven but ended up in the brothels of hell without the proper paperwork.

This would be only slightly interesting to me if the heaven and hell were those from the Judeo-Christian mythos. Instead, the setting is a mixture of Chinese legend and science fiction/fantasy invention. It's fresh and exciting, endlessly fascinating. There's much more to the book than the main plot, too. Chen's wife has an important role--so much so that I'm afraid to say anything about it for fear of spoiling something.

Liz Williams handles viewpoint shifts with a masterful touch--ordinarily I really hate books with multiple points of view (which is such a bugbear with me that I actually try not to let it influence my reviews), but it worked so well in this book that I barely noticed.

The writing is descriptive and lovely, the characterization deft. Williams is able to define a fully realized character with one perfect line of dialogue. And the worldbuilding is astounding. In fact, in terms of characterization and worldbuilding, I'd rank Williams right up with Sarah Monette and Scott Lynch. Like both those authors, her writing is layered and nuanced without becoming unwieldy. I have no idea why she isn't more popular--or maybe she is and I'm just the last person on earth to read her.

B&N link

Saturday, September 11, 2010

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

In 100 Cupboards, twelve-year-old Henry visits his aunt and uncle for the summer--and maybe for longer, since his parents have been abducted in South America and may or may not return. But don't worry your head about the parents. Their fate or lack thereof is only incidental and doesn't have anything to do with the plot.

So anyway, Henry goes to live with his aunt and uncle, as well as his three girl cousins, the oldest of which has no personality and almost the same amount of role in the plot as Henry's parents. Henry is given the little attic room and soon discovers 99 little cupboard doors hidden under crumbling plaster on the wall. One of the cupboards opens onto a green, windy world that Henry can smell and hear but can't see; one of the cupboards is a mailbox--and Henry has mail.

With his cousin Henrietta's "help," Henry reluctantly explores the mysteries of the cupboards and discovers long-hidden secrets about himself and his family. I say "help" because Henrietta is as forceful as Henry is wimpy, and she keeps doing stupid things in order to forward the plot. Her younger sister Anastasia is even worse. Anastasia is nine, but she acts much younger. Both the girls are brats that screw stuff up in order to move the plot along. Henry has to react, react, react to their actions.

The book is beautifully written and sets up the magic and the mystery skillfully. I really enjoyed the first third of the book. It reminds me a lot of The Magician's Nephew; it's wonderfully atmospheric. I also loved the relationship between Henry and his Uncle Frank, which was so much better than the rest of the story that I wished it had been the only part of the story.

Unfortunately, as you can guess from what I've written already, I was not happy with the latter part of the book. Solving the mystery of the cupboards requires a lot of exposition from adults, either in the form of Henry reading a journal written by the cousins' grandfather or from lectures by various of Henry's other relations. The climax got confusing and a little disjointed; we see the same scenes from different characters' points of view, get more exposition, and four new characters are introduced in the last few chapters.

The ending left me furious. Turns out this isn't a book, it's a 150-page prologue for the sequel. Every single thing that happens in this book is just set-up for the sequel--seriously, everything. I can't explain why without dropping spoilers, but I can say that nothing is resolved. That's a good way to lose me as a reader for life.

B&N link

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Triumff by Dan Abnett

I expected Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero to be a swashbuckling adventure, which it is. I had no idea it was also hysterically funny.

I got a strong Pratchett-esque vibe off the book, although it's more clockpunk historical fantasy than anything else. It's set in a rich and brilliant version of our world where the Renaissance ushered in a new understanding of magic, which brought practical and scientific discoveries to a halt. --Except in Australia, which has just been discovered by Sir Rupert Triumff.

Triumff is back in London, trying to avoid telling Queen Elizabeth XXX and her court about his discoveries. He's also being used as a scapegoat for a band of conspirators who want to destroy the queen and the Union, the Church, and basically everything else.

The story is well-written, fun, and engaging. It's also very funny. The humor does not depend on people having misunderstandings or screaming at each other, thank goodness, and I liked the main characters. If the plot is a little bit predictable, I didn't mind. I was laughing too hard.

B&N link

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, imho, is the science fiction master of big-and-little, and a master of vivid world-building. His characters are mostly interesting, sometimes fascinating, and his plots are wonderful--'Riding...superstrings to the edge of the Universe!' Cities less than a centimeter tall, in the heart of burned-out suns! Life on Titan!

I'm used to grabbing everything he writes (and he writes quickly, good juicy long books that often turn into a series), so when he came out with Stone Spring, Book 1 of 3 about England's Mesolithic Period (~10,000 B.C.), I immediately ordered it from England, since it's not yet available in the U.S.

I should have saved myself the trouble.

The premise of Stone Spring is simple: global warming is melting the northern ice, which results in tsunamis inundating England's old coastlines. A former slave from Jericho (where, according to the Bible, there was a battle that brought Jericho's walls down), who knows how to build bricks, builds a big wall to keep out floodwaters.

End of story. Big deal

I got to page 200 and quit. The plot was snoringly easy to figure out, and I had 300 pages to go. I didn't like any of the characters, who mostly grunted, stank of fish, and raped or got raped. Let them all drown, I thought. Who cares?

I'm not going to buy Books two and three unless the reviews say that Baxter drops aliens out of the sky or sends a giant comet full of viruses down onto his little group of boring savages. Maybe I'll just find another Killer B in the science fiction section...(so far, I include Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Baxter and David Brin...)

Or I'll leap to the C's.

Powell's link

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reviewed by Sin - "Piercing"

by Ryu Murakami (English translation)

Gore: Done with visceral finesse

Sex: Dirty in all the right places

Angst: Like an ice pick to the gut

I read this book in one night, and the next night I went out and bought "Almost Transparent Blue" (also by Ryu Murakami). I read that one last night, went online and bought "In the Miso Soup." As soon as I get another coupon from BORDERS, I'll go buy "69." Though I am pounding these novels like fast food cheeseburgers, rest assured this is not literary fast food. "Piercing" is a fantastic, complex tale about the steps some people take to keep their lives together.

The story centers around a young man named Kawashima, and a very simple premise: he is afraid that he is going to stab his newborn daughter with an ice pick. For ten nights in a row he looms over the crib, ice pick in hand, and tells himself it would never happen. Except he knows that it might, and that would be bad. He had a good job, a wonderful wife, and a bright future. Why throw that away, when he can be proactive about finding a solution?

The story starts out quiet and contemplative, during which we get to know Kawashima extremely well. He is a complicated person, who I found easy to sympathize with. Others may disagree. As his story progresses, Kawashima's well laid plans unwind slowly then unravel, as present events intertwine with old memories and deep psychological wounds. The second half of the novel is as brutal, and has a rare treat: a ending I truly didn't see coming.

Of course, one always worries with novels translated from other languages. I didn't see any red flags while I was reading, and my gut tells me "Piercing" was translated with extreme care. I recommend this to anyone who is into psychological horror, and anyone who thinks Japan can be summed up by anime and Hello Kitty. Every country bleeds. All you need is someone to show you where.