Category Archives: New To Me
Reviews of books I’ve read that may have been around for eons before I discovered them
Recommended? Only if you’re a huge zombie completest (or if you need a quick dose of zombies – this is a fast read at less than 200 pages).
Summary: It’s 2012, and two-thirds of humanity has been wiped out by ANSD – the zombie virus. In a last-ditch attempt to find some hope for humanity’s future, the UN has organized a scientific research station on an isolated island. These are the last reports from Dr. Stanley Blum, whose fate remains unknown.
Review: I wanted to like this book. It’s a fantastic idea, a story of the zombie apocalypse told through the journals of a medical researcher. The book is framed as if you are a member of the UN commission that is going to be making recommendations based on these papers, so it includes some notes from UN officials and appendices like the journals of some of the other scientists and the text of the Treaty of Atlanta which determined that zombies are officially no longer human (and may thus be experimented on without ethical qualms). I was pleased to see that more than one person in the book mentions that, Treaty of Atlanta aside, there are plenty of ethical issues going on here, but how can you be expected to care about ethics when the future of the humanity is at stake?
And that’s the point of zombies, isn’t it? You become so terrified of turning into them that you might stop being human before they get you anyway. Of course, there’s a big difference between even shady medical research and eating the brains of anyone and everyone you come across, but.
The actual book doesn’t follow through on the excellent setup, unfortunately. Written by an epidemiologist, The Zombie Autopsies tries to give a medical explanation for the stereotypical traits of George Romer0-style zombies, but it falls short. (Which is not to slight Schlozman’s medical knowledge; I just don’t think it’s possible to give a feasible explanation for how a human body in that state of decay can remain functional.) The failed attempt at hardcore realism put me off: I prefer my creatures to be either entirely believable or just plain supernatural, and this middle ground destroys my suspension of disbelief. It’s not a bad book, by any stretch of the imagination, but once that suspension of disbelief is gone, it’s not coming back, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this.
Recommended? Not in particular. If you like Victorian melodrama, this might suit you better than it did me.
Summary (graciously provided by GoodReads):
Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant’s body in a rich lady’s coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper’s grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace’s life. But Grace doesn’t know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune.
Review: I should have liked this book. It’s a story set in and around the Victorian funeral trade, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. It features the horrible treatment of “fallen” women in the Victorian age, along with characters with mental illness. There’s a certain amount of, well, melodrama in all of these aspects, but handled well I usually enjoy them.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Hooper uses an interesting device throughout the book; each chapter opens with a snippet of print, either an advertisement from a newspaper, a calling card, or something of that sort. Chosen well these could add a great deal of atmosphere to the story; in this case they were used as signposts for the plot, telegraphing plot twists so far in advance that there was only one twist I didn’t see coming as soon as the groundwork was laid. (And even that one, I threw up my hands and said, “Oh, of course!” because in a story this tidy, it couldn’t have been anything else.)
There’s a difference between tidiness and tightness in plotting. A tight plot is one where everything falls into place, not by the invisible hand of the author but because you look at the characters and their situation and can’t imagine anything else happening. A tidy plot, on the other hand, is one where everything – everything – that happens is connected and all the loose ends are tied up in a nice little bow. I hate a tidy plot; it makes the whole story seem fake. Dickens – the inevitable comparison for stories about destitute Victorian orphans – could get away with it because he wrote such huge, sprawling stories with so many characters in them, but a 200 page YA novel cannot support that kind of tidiness.
Fallen Grace could have been saved by interesting characters, but alas, Grace herself is singularly ineffectual. She spends most of the book reacting to events, and the few actions she does take are the direct result of conversations she has with someone else. I had hopes for Lily, her mentally disabled sister, but after a couple of establishing scenes from her point of view she mostly disappears from the narrative as an actor. I finished the book out of a desire to see if anything unexpected would happen, but alas, it did not. The book wasn’t painful to read, but I require more than just acceptable writing (with, admittedly, interesting historical details) in my novels.
Recommended: Oh god yes. A spectacular ending to a spectacular series. You want to read this.
Review: Once again, it cannot be avoided, there will be SPOILERS for this and previous books in this review.
It is fifteen years since the end of the world. The Emperor Otah Machi has been fighting for the survival of his people, and negotiations with Galt are finally going smoothly. With luck, marriages between Galtic women and Khaiate men will be commencing, initiated by the marriage of the Emperor’s son Danat to Ana, the daughter of one of the Galtic High Council. But Otah’s daughter Eiah can’t support his plan — she thinks he’s throwing away a whole generation of women just because they can’t bear children. She’s turned to her Uncle Maati, who is convinced that with female students, he can rewrite the grammar and bind a new andat, one who can restore the world to the way it used to be.
He’s wrong. Nothing will ever be the way it used to be.
They say that good versus evil is a fine basis for a plot, but if you really want to wrench people’s hearts, try good versus good. This book isn’t quite to that level, but it’s close. The Price of Spring alternates between Otah’s and Maati’s points of view, giving the reader plenty of opportunity to compare their diametrically opposed and equally stupid plans. Otah thinks he can just move on without healing any of the wounds caused by the war; Maati thinks he can make the war never have happened. You can see the end from here, and it doesn’t look pretty.
That problem I was having with the earlier books in the series where I’d put it down and forget about it for a week? Not happening here. The pace in this one is perfect, steady and almost doom-laden. Every note I wrote in Goodreads as I updated (and several more that I didn’t bother to type in) was some variation on “Really, Maati, you didn’t see that coming?” And while Otah’s plan for the future is clearly more than a little short-sighted, Maati’s has all the fascination of a train wreck. It’s skillfully executed; you can tell that Abraham has been improving throughout this series, which is always good to see.
There are still two things that bother me about this series, which unfortunately wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so well-written. First of all, this is a wonderfully-realized, complex world, with several cultures, plenty of variation within those cultures, and all kinds of people within them. And every one of them is straight. Oh, there is finally a mention in this book of someone who might possibly have been less than straight at one point in the past, but that’s it. With such a detailed world, the omission starts to seem glaring.
The other problem I have is with the female characters. They’re great characters, don’t get me wrong – I love Eiah, and the mad poet Vanjit is a fascinating character. The problem I have is more with the overall shape of the story: with one possible exception, there are no female characters who succeed at anything. Anything other than marriage, that is. Idaan tried to take over the throne in A Betrayal in Winter, but was caught and cast out; now she is happily married to Cehmai. Kiyan does a fine job of managing the city in An Autumn War, but that was something she did out of necessity, not a goal of her own. Despite her business success, Liat is portrayed as incredibly unhappy. And then, of course, Vanjit becomes the first female poet and goes mad. It’s a slightly depressing pattern. I do often complain that fantasy is annoyingly unrealistic in its treatment of women, usually preferring to pretend to equality rather than dealing with any issues with the lack of gender equality, but I don’t think the alternative is to leave women with nowhere to go.
Despite these small complaints, I found The Price of Spring a wonderful, satisfying conclusion to an incredible series. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy with strong, interesting characters and well-rounded worldbuilding. If you’d like to see someone else’s take on the series, check out Jo Walton’s reviews at Tor.com.
Series: The Long Price Quartet
Where I got it and why: I needed some good storytelling, and when I want just plain storytelling I always turn to YA. I pulled a couple of books from The List to request from the library, and this was one of them. (I’m sure I heard of it originally from a book blog, but I just can’t remember which one…)
Recommended? Yes, particularly if you like true crime (which this book has much more in common with than a murder mystery, although it is a novel)
Review: Six years ago, ten year old Jennifer Jones killed her best friend. Now Alice Tully is trying to build a new life for herself. She’s got a job at a coffee shop, a boyfriend, and a good shot at normality, but will she get to keep any of it?
This book has the least convoluted plot but the most interesting structure of anything I’ve read recently. The story itself is straightforward, an excruciatingly sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who had killed someone when she was only a child, and how she attempts to deal with that and the normal problems of adolescence. We’re introduced to Alice Tully first, and as her past slowly begins to creep up on her, we flash back in more and more extensive detail to her childhood and the terrible event that defines her life.
Within the first couple of chapters I realized that this book is actually a fictionalization of the famous case of Mary Bell, which I read about earlier this year in Gitta Sereny’s incomparable Cries Unheard. Cassidy changed some details for her YA novel, which I was originally a little annoyed by, since I do think some of them are substantial to the meaning of the case – the victim being much younger versus roughly the same age, the degree of abuse the girl suffered in her home life – but then I realized that what Cassidy did was tone it down to the point where it was actually readable. I know I found Cries Unheard to be extremely tough going, and on reflection I can’t imagine some of those things being included in any novel, never mind a YA novel.
As you have probably concluded by now, Looking for JJ is one of those YA novels people have been complaining about lately, one of those things saturated with darkness. But it’s saturated with something else, too – empathy. This is a story about someone who has done something horrible and knows it, about coming to terms with that and learning how to move on even though she can never forget or atone. It’s also a story about learning how and why she could have done such a thing, and doing her best to make sure she would never do something like that again, even though that means making impossibly hard choices. It’s incredibly grown-up stuff, but as the fact that it’s based on a true story makes obvious, it’s not stuff that only grown-ups have to deal with.
I found this not only a good read, but an important book, the kind of book that librarians ought to keep on the YA shelves because there might be a kid out there who needs it. Looking for JJ is not trying to prove anything, it has no secret agenda or ultimately uplifting message, but it’s a book full of compassion for damaged people. It is an example of the best of what dark YA can do.
Where I got it and why: From the library, since there isn’t a bookstore in town with a copy and I needed it NOW. Third in Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.
Recommended?: Oh yes. But this is definitely a series you read in order — get the first two first, and look forward to this one.
Review: There is something about these books that causes me to get stuck about halfway through, leave it be for a few days, and then pick it up and drive straight on to the end. I’m not sure if it’s a lull in the action or what, but this is the third time it’s happened. I am so glad I did pick it back up, though, because this book is easily the best in the series so far.
And a warning: we have reached the point where it is inevitable, there will be SPOILERS for the earlier books in the rest of this review.
Some fifteen years have passed since the events of A Betrayal in Winter. Otah is now Khai Machi, responsible for an entire city. He has, scandalously, only one wife, and his only son Danat is sickly. His daughter Eiah, being a teenager, is starting to act out, despite the careful guidance of her beloved Uncle Maati. Into this relatively blissful domestic scene comes Liat, the former lover of both Maati and Otah, with her grown son, who had been raised by Maati when he was small but who is now so visibly Otah’s son that his presence is likely to cause even more scandal. Not as much, though, as the news Liat brings with her: the Galts are going to attempt an invasion.
For centuries the andat, the incredibly powerful beings held by the poets of the great cities, have protected them from the technologically advanced, militaristic Galts, but Galtic General Balatar Gice has dedicated his whole life to destroying the andat. No one, he thinks, should be allowed to have that much power – control over a being who could pull down whole cities with a thought, or destroy the crops of an entire country, or cause ravaging floods and devastation. He has gone into the desert that used to be the old Empire, he has found a poet of his own, and he is going to first destroy the andat and then any possibility that they will ever return, even if that means destroying every one of the great cities on his way.
All of the cover blurbs on this book talk about the amazing ending, which usually puts me off because most of the time, knowing the twist is going to come, I can predict it well in advance. Not so much in this case. The climax of this story hits that perfect combination of exquisite foreshadowing and total surprise – Once you get there you realize there is no way it could have gone any differently, but it was so completely not what you were expecting that it feels like a punch in the gut. In a good way, of course.
Abraham’s characters are exquisite, and as the world becomes more familiar the deeper you get into the series, the characters take their places as the highlight of the book. Otah, Maati, and Liat have all changed so much since A Shadow in Summer, grown both in wisdom and in their flaws, but they’re still deeply recognizable as themselves. It’s the characters who make that ending what it is, because it’s the characters, their drives and disappointments, the whole history of their lives, that make it so inevitable. It’s a wonderful study in how good people can do horrible things in pursuit of good causes, and there is no one, from the Galtic general to the treacherous mercenary, who you can really blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the options they have, they’re just terrible options. It is, in fact, very like a Greek tragedy; if they were different people it would have gone differently, but they aren’t, so how could it?
In any other series, this would be the end. This book ends with an earthshattering change, but there are possibilities for growth and rebirth still visible. Most writers would have left it there, but there is another book in this series, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Series: The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)
Where I got it and why: as a free audiobook from podiobooks.com. You can get it too! My dad has been recommending this series to me for a while, so when I finally got sick of listening to the radio on my half-hour daily commute, I loaded this onto my mp3 player. I’m glad I did.
Recommended? Sure, especially if you like character-driven narratives.
Review: Sometimes you just need a book where the fate of the world isn’t at stake, where people are not exceptional superheroes, where you can just kick back and hang out with some fun characters. This is that book.
Ishmael Wang’s life has been turned upside-down: his mother has just been killed in an accident, and since she was a company employee on a company planet, he now has thirty days to either become a company employee or vacate his company apartment. There are no company jobs available, so good luck! At a loss for what else to do, he heads down to the union hall and signs on for a quarter-share berth on one of the big solar freighters, and his new life begins.
Quarter Share is the story of Ishmael getting settled in to his new life on the Lois McKendrick, a solar clipper moving goods from one planetary system to another. He’s assigned a berth in the galley, and quickly makes friends with Cookie the chef and Pip Carstairs, the other quarter-share in the galley. (Berths are rated by the share of the profits they take: the lowest rank is quarter-share, up through half-share to full-share and then into officer country.)
This is an incredibly laid-back entry into the Hornblower In Space genre. Really, it’s not very like Hornblower at all – although it’s clearly derived from that kind of series, these are traders and merchants, not battleships. The plot revolves around the development of Ishmael and Pip’s trading ventures, and the most external conflict you get is a mugging and a bar fight, neither on screen.
It’s not boring, though. Ishmael, Pip, and Cookie are fun (if somewhat unbelievably good-natured: no one ever gets cross or impatient with one another), and there’s a fine cast of secondary characters that grows throughout the book. As a narrative, the book has some of the flaws of the serial format it was released in, with people being properly introduced much later than you might expect them to be and a fairly clumsy handling of foreshadowing, but it’s not too bad.
While Quarter Share and the sequel Half Share are now being released in print, I think I’d still prefer them as audiobooks. The author reads it himself, and he has a wonderful reading voice, very soothing and well-matched to the style of the narrative. Cookie’s accent changes dramatically about halfway through, which is a little disconcerting, but overall he does a great job with the variety of characters.
Overall I really enjoyed this slice-of-life story of life on board a solar clipper, full of appealing characters and actually very accessible discussions of profits and trading. There are six books in the series, and I already have Half Share loaded up and ready to go. If you’re interested in checking them out, the author has a website for the series, with all the books available for free download, at SolarClipper.com.
(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)
Where I got it and why: From the local library, one of the books on The List
Recommended? Only if you’re a big fan of JFK assassination conspiracy theories.
Review: I can no longer remember just where I heard about this book or why I decided that I wanted to read it, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with a discussion on my favorite blog, Making Light. I also suspect it has something to do with the way I always think I’ll like conspiracy novels more than I actually do.
Libra is a fictionalized biography, both of Lee Harvey Oswald and of the JFK assassination. In addition to following Oswald through his befuddling shifts of loyalty, it also jumps around to a variety of fictional ex-CIA agents, FBI agents, Cuban sympathizers, Oswald’s mother, a historian of the assassination, and of course Jack Ruby. The plot is both as simple and as complex as all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard: everybody wants to kill the President. The question is, how do they get there?
The thing I usually dislike about conspiracy theories is they tend to whittle down the importance of individual people. For all it does feature a CIA plot to assassinate JFK, Libra avoids this. Sure, the conspiracy convinces both Oswald to shoot Kennedy and Ruby to shoot Oswald, but you get the impression that neither of them needed much convincing. You get the impression that things might not have been any different if there hadn’t been a conspiracy. (This tension with history is almost certainly one of the things DeLillo was aiming at, and he deserves credit for it. It works.)
That said, I didn’t really like it all that much. One of those books you read and think, This was excellently done, just not for me. I think it’s the literary-fiction style of the dialogue: very choppy with few attributions, and tending toward stilted. For a book that was all about people and how they think, I found the dialogue horribly unconvincing. But the whole thing seemed a little – I don’t know, removed, as though you’re watching the characters through a pane of security glass. I like a little more immediacy in my characterization.
All together, I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I liked it very much and I have no particular desire to seek out more of DeLillo’s work. Still, that’s one more book checked off The List.
(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)
Where I got it and why: I bought this from my local Borders; I loved A Shadow in Summer so much that I wanted to support the author (plus I didn’t want to wait for the library to dig up their copy and send it to me)
Recommended? Yes, particularly if you’re a fan of second-world fantasy plus politics – and of course if you liked the first one.
Review: This second book in Abraham’s Long Price Quartet takes us to the Winter Cities, about as far from the setting of the first book as possible. Machi spends half the year frozen, and tunnels under the city offer an opportunity for social life even when it’s too bitter to go outside. (I love the attention to setting in these books; I live in a climate with very volatile weather, so I miss it when the seasons never get a mention.)
The Khai Machi is dying, and his sons must start killing each other – only the sole survivor can be his heir. The Khai has three official sons, but there is also the fourth – Otah Machi, who was sent to the poets’ school as a child, but who, uniquely, neither became a poet nor rejected his claim to his father’s throne. As soon as people become aware that he is still alive, he becomes known as The Upstart, a frightening, half-legitimate figure in the shadows.
And so, to be sure that chaos does not ensue, the Dai-Kvo, head of the poets’ organization, sends the disgraced poet Maati to the city to find Otah, determine if he has been illegitimately murdering his brothers, and stop him if he can. The problem is, Maati still loves and respects Otah, and is sure he is not the one behind it.
He’s right. This is no spoiler; rather than being structured as a mystery, the book lets you follow both the criminals and the investigators at the same time. The murderer is Idaan, the Khai’s daughter. Frustrated at her position in life – destined to be married off for political power – she has developed a plan to make her fiancé the new Khai, by killing all of her brothers and pushing his family to the top of the political structure. It would be the honorable thing to do if she were a man; since she is a woman, it is a terrible crime.
I found this one a little harder going than A Shadow in Summer. Possibly this was because I didn’t connect with as many of the characters. I still liked Otah’s reluctance to get involved and his eventual realization that not getting involved was going to be disastrous, but Maati seemed to exhibit a lot of learned helplessness in this book, and the Machi poet Cehmai just didn’t do much. I wanted to like Idaan, but about halfway through I thought to myself, I wish this wasn’t yet another story about a woman being slapped down hard for stepping out of her place. If Abraham wanted to explore the awful ways the tradition of succession damages people (a genuinely interesting subject), he could have at least done it with a male character.
All of which makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, and I continue to love the worldbuilding and the andat and the way he explores the long-term consequences of peoples’ decisions. I will absolutely be reading An Autumn War as soon as I can get my hands on it (unfortunately there isn’t a bookstore in town that has a copy for sale). But this is a dark book, slow-paced and melancholy, and with the blush of new love fading from the series, I found it a little more work to get through.
(I’ve decided to start classifying my reviews a little more finely: New To Me is my category for books I’ve only just read that have been out for a while, whether “a while” means “a year or two” or “several decades/centuries.”)
Where I got it and why: the local library, as the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey series
Recommended? Yes, to all fans of mystery and romance both.
Review: “It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story,” Sayers says in the dedication. “But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story.” And that is exactly what happens here.
Lord Peter and the new Lady Peter, previously Miss Harriet Vane, have gone off to the country on their honeymoon. Peter has purchased an old Tudor manor-house for Harriet as a wedding present, and they move in in the middle of the night, having narrowly escaped floods of newspaper reporters. The house has not been aired, food has not been brought in, the chimneys have not been swept, but they topple into bed to deal with it in the morning. And in the morning, they discover a body in the basement – but not before having the housekeeper and the chimneysweep in, neatly destroying most of the potential clues.
I admit, I was a little worried at about a third of the way through the book. Large portions of it are from Harriet’s point of view, and she was having a difficult time juggling the demands of honeymoon and of a detecting husband all at the same time. I was afraid she was going to go all feminine and wifely. But she recognizes the impulse and throws it away, in one of the most wonderful scenes I have ever read. (And Lord Peter, being the wonderful person that he is, recognizes her achievement and is suitably humbled.)
This is very much a book about a romance. Just because the characters are already together doesn’t mean there’s no tension — the tension they’re dealing with is how to remain true to themselves while being married and madly in love, rather than the will they/won’t they tension of most romance stories. Of course they will; they are. (There’s a hilarious scene of double entendre toward the beginning with one of the new neighbors.) The question is, though, once you’ve fallen madly in love with someone, do you continue to treat them like a person or do you start to treat them like a fragile and precious object? And what happens to you if you do?
My favorite part about this book, though, was the ending. Once the murderer has been caught, there’s still the trial and execution to deal with. We’ve seen in earlier books that Peter doesn’t deal with that part well; he likes the investigation but he hates the fact that he, personally, is responsible for people being hanged. This is just the first time that we see his reactions in detail, and it’s heartbreaking and wonderful. Wonderful, of course, because now he has Harriet for support. I know there are more books in this series, finished from Sayers’ notes by Jill Paton Walsh, but this was such a perfect end to the series I don’t know that I’ll read them.