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Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle (Girl Genius Book 3)

3/5. Volume three of the novelization of the Girl Genius webcomic.

Cute! This story is almost being really clever about *gestures* historicity and the gravitational force of intelligence upon the trajectories of civilizations and stuff, but mostly it just wants to make bad puns. And I'm really down with that. I suspect the comic is better than the book, but the book really does capture a lot of frenetic energy and visual humor very well, so.
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3/5. Urban fantasy London cops sequel to the well-received London Falling.

People I follow almost entirely enjoyed the first book, and then diverge sharply on the second. I avoided all reviews, so I didn't know why. Now I do, and it's . . . awkward.

So like Neil Gaiman is a character? And not just an in-jokey walk-on, but a recurring character? With, like, a plot line and motivations?

And if I take several steps back from this, I can go yeah, okay, that's doing something. Cornell talked about the space Gaiman is filling in this story in re magical underground London and access to its spaces, and if you think about the landscape of these books – this genre niche, I mean, as it has grown over the past fifteen years or so –incorporating RPF for the author of Neverwhere makes a certain amount of sense.

But the truth is I'm not taking a few steps back from this and viewing it from that vantage. Because close up, within the pages of this book? The Neil Gaiman RPF was super fucking awkward and super fucking weird, and it made me so uncomfortable for nebulous, inarticulate reasons that it nearly ruined this otherwise entertaining book. I don't care whether he got permission (he did) or how good of friends they were (not that close, as far as I can tell). It's . . . sort of about how Cornell thinks he's doing something groundbreaking and interesting when he's, uh, really not. And sort of about a man profiting off of RPF while so many women push boundaries in much more interesting RPF as part of a maligned subculture. And sort of about how secondhand embarrassing it all came off, particularly in light of Cornell's self-confessed celebrity crush. And sort of about the role Gaiman is playing and what Cornell thinks he is saying about access to magical spaces and fannish spaces via Gaiman when I am one of that apparently rare clique of people who don't like Gaiman's stuff and don't think it represents us and our fannish experience.

And just . . . nope.
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The Goblin Emperor

4/5. Refreshingly anti-grimdark tale of the abused and neglected eighteen-year-old half-Goblin child of the Elf emperor elevated unexpectedly to the throne after his father and brothers are killed.

I have a huuuuuge loyalty kink (you guys didn't know that, didya? Didya? …You totally did). This one doubles down by combining loyalty with fealty, and hitting that sweet sweet spot of someone earning all of it.

This is a surprisingly gentle book about a boy determined to do better than he was done by; in which most people can be counted on to have redeeming qualities underneath; where providence is kind as much as cruel. I think one of the things I like best is that this is a book very much focused on forgiveness, but it doesn't short shrift anger. That is rare – stories of forgiveness like to treat anger as a brief, passing phase, something that the "good person" must put aside as quickly as possible. And I mean, I'm sure it's a total coincidence that 'turn the other cheek' is precisely the standard you hold people to if you want to ensure that abusers can always keep abusing, yep yep. This book believes in anger, and knows it lingers, and that anger and forgiveness aren't mutually exclusive, because it just isn't that simple.

A kind book, but not as simple as it pretends.

Things worth knowing: Katherine Addison is the pseud of Sarah Monette (not in any way a secret – I generally try not to publicly connect names authors don't want connected, but she clearly doesn't care). Also, there is apparently an invaluable naming conventions guide (in the back?) of the print edition which is not included with the audiobook. Why, Tantor Media, why? It actively pisses me off when production companies slice off so much metadata and front and back matter for audio, and in this instance I think it does the book very particular harm.
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Back to text links for now.

The Boy With The Painful Tattoo: Holmes & Moriarity 3

4/5. M/M, third in the mystery series featuring two writers.

I started this last night when I took the dog out for her evening constitutional, and then it kept me company through the 4 a.m. insomnia. I didn't read this for the mystery (fine, but not engaging) or the genre jokes (many and charmingly bad). I sorta read it for the relationship, which is delightful and unusual in that these are two grownups who often fight with each other about things that grownups fight about! Imagine that.

Really, I read it for the protagonist. He's forty with a bad back and a vicious streak and a career on the rocks and a commitment to misanthropy that delights me. He's got piles of baggage and he doesn't fight fair, and he's the sort of guy who will say, "You're only hearing this once," over some romantic expression. He is just so cranky and vivid, and he doesn’t like kids, and he snarks on absolutely everything. He is aging ungracefully and he's a lot of work to love, but he's still allowed to be sexy. And falling in love has nothing to do with learning to smile or love the kid: it just involves wrangling boundaries at every turn. And I dig it.

Ugh, I really needed good satisfying M/M with actual human beings in it. Josh Lanyon is here for me.
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Playing with posting formats.



2/5. M/M of the married with kids with law enforcement entanglements variety. Points for boring me, rather than actively pissing me off. I mean, these guys appear to have one kind of sex in the physical sense (always penetrative, same guy always tops) and about 1.5 kinds of sex emotionally (quote claiming end quote) but the kids are actually a realistic amount of work and disruption so whatever, fine, be that way.
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Parting Shot (A Matter of Time, #7)Parting Shot by Mary Calmes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


It's the first grudge read of 2015! …That didn't take long.

Grudge read, btw, meaning a book you desperately want to throw across the room less than halfway through, but you continue on to the bitter end just for the satisfaction of knowing for sure that it really is that terrible. And also so you can slam it in full knowledge.

So yeah. M/M of the cop and billionaire variety. This book is an unholy mess – disorganized, confused about who its unlikeable protagonists are, full of random BDSM content with no accuracy or emotional context or, uh, sexiness.

But whatever. A bad book is a bad book. Here's what's offensively bad about this one.

So both our heroes were closeted, right, very purposefully and to the detriment of previous relationships. Until – you can see this one coming – they meet each other and that all changes. Here's what our narrator, the cop, has to say about it: "It made me almost sick that I had waited so long to be brave and stand up. That was crazy, but I felt like I owed someone an apology."

That's right, kids. A queer person staying in the closet is failing to be brave and stand up. Coming out being, you see, entirely a function of the queer person's courage (and also whether he is in real love) rather than, say, oh just some random options – physical safety, job security, maintaining familial stability, I could go on.

Staying in the closet isn't a failure of courage. It is often a carefully calculated decision, and an essential or very smart one. This book and it's repeated refrain of how coming out was so much easier than expected – the executive board doesn't care! The police captain doesn't care! – isn't just erasing homophobia, it's placing responsibility for the consequences of homophobia on queer people. Queer people aren't in the closet as a random cultural artifact! The closet exists because of a vast and terrifying history of oppression and violence which is still alive and well today!

But, well, if only those queer people would be braver. Problem solved.




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The Three-Body Problem (Three Body, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A scientist is drawn into a conspiracy involving a computer game and an old research station and extra-terrestrial life.

Translated from the original Chinese. I have to admit I read this book mostly because the way it's being talked about made me really uncomfortable. There's the contingent who want to treat it as some sort of referendum on the Chinese science fiction landscape, or Chinese literature in general, as it was a wildly successful bestseller there. Yeah, okay, tell you what – go take a look at this week's NY Times bestseller list and pick out the book we should translate into other languages for readers to judge as a referendum on all of American writing of that genre. I'll wait. And then there's the way the translator responded to criticism by making a lot of sweeping statements about Chinese writing that I have very little doubt, even in the absence of any personal expertise, are dubious at best. This book is occupying some weird space in reviewerland, is what I'm saying.

So I read it, and. Um. It's not very good. Flat characters, some shall we say eyebrow raising decisions regarding women, a lot of but humans don’t human that way, etc. Which kind of figures, since if notions of best seller can be translated, then this book is Chinese Tom Clancy. So . . . there you go.

It did intrigue me on behalf of other Chinese science fiction, though. The cultural context of this story – the asides about how communism impacted intellectual thought, for example – interested me more than anything else.

I generally have a pretty good nose for these things, though, and I smell movie deal, for what that's worth.



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Burning ParadiseBurning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Alternate history scifi about a subtle alien organism surrounding the earth and nudging the course of history towards peace for its own ends.

Bafflement. Robert Charles Wilson, what happened to you? How did the guy who wrote Spin phone in something so shallow and pointless? This is a fertile concept – humans confronting the idea that prosperity and peace are artificially imposed from without, and having to decide what to do about it. You could really go places with that. This book utterly fails to. It flails around a bit with some stilted interpersonal nonsense, drops a few obvious twists and sets up more plot holes than most Stargate episodes, and then limps to a vague conclusion type thing. There isn't even enough there here for me to get my teeth in for some real complaining. I can't, because there's not enough substance.

Seriously, his back catalog is kind of shaky, but this was recently published and we know what he can do. What the hell happened to RCW?




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Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories (Abhorsen)Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Collection. Hrm. Turns out Nix is one of those authors who I like more at greater length. The Abhorsen novella that starts this collection was the highlight for me: it had all the creepiness and mounting pressure and young people being brave with difficulty that I like from him. The rest of the collection was hit or miss, and it really seemed like the shorter the piece, the more scattered or unclever (or, in one case, quite sexist) I found it.

I'm only writing it up at all to ask whether I should be reading this days of the week series of his? It looks a bit younger than the Abhorsen books -- yay or nay?



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All Kinds of Tied DownAll Kinds of Tied Down by Mary Calmes

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I generally like Calmes's contemporary romances more than her fantasies (which in my experience are epically batshit). This one, about two federal marshals, is a decent bit of vaguely power dynamic-y porn wrapped around some boring action/adventure nonsense, sprinkled with, like, every character from other books of hers she could awkwardly shove in. This book is almost interrogating the usual Calmesian tropes – she takes a vague stab at mixing up which of her usual types tops, and for her that's, like, serious subversion because she's one of those authors who is deeply, deeply concerned with who penetrates and who gets penetrated, that being, like, an intrinsically and vitally important aspect of everyone's personality or whatever. Not that this genre is fucked up or anything….

Anyway, whatever, it's fine, a little incompetent around the edges, nothing exciting.




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More Than ThisMore Than This by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The book opens with our teenaged protagonist drowning. And then he wakes up a continent away, apparently alone in an abandoned British town.

Ugh, you guys, this book is so good -- Patrick Ness is such a crazy beautiful motherfucker – I can't cope. I also can't say much about this, because you've just got to go on the journey, but here are some things.

This is a young adult book about nihilism, and it is so smart; this book scared me so badly at one point that I actually eeped; this is a little bit slipstream and a little bit metafictional and a lot about that moment when you look up from the bottom of a very deep well of pain and you're, you know, still a baby yourself so you don't know how to survive; this book played with me and jerked me around and mindfucked me at least twice, and I said please and thank you.

Oof, so good. And frustrating. And inconclusive – but necessarily so. And just – some of my Goodreads friends are totally wright about young adult, it really is doing things that adult fiction just can't touch.




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The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Through a freak set of circumstances, an astronaut is abandoned on Mars when the rest of his NASA crew departs. Now he has to survive.

Ahaha, okay.

Things this book doesn't care about: Doing the omniscient POV well; doing epistolary well; giving characters anything more complex than the most obvious, primary-colored emotions; the actual psychological experience of being left alone on Mars to die.

Things this book cares about: How to extract hydrogen and create your own water molecules from scratch OMG.

This was a lot of fun, and compulsively readable in places. But let's get real here: I can see exactly why this book was self-published for lack of an agent, and simultaneously why Crown later acquired it (though I am baffled as to why, during the editing process, they didn't sit Weir down and have a long, firm talk with him about how jaw-droppingly terrible the last few paragraphs of the book are. Seriously, they're seventh-grade essay about the nature of mankind bad. It's like telling someone their fly is unzipped – it's embarrassing, but someone has to do it). Anyway, this is a cool space survival piece with loving (and fascinating!) descriptions of growing potatoes on Mars and orbital mechanics calculations sprinkled with occasional quips, and really disinterested or just incompetent everything else.

Basically, I really dug this. But I actually bet myself halfway through that this was going to be made into a movie, and yep, I was right. Starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, which, uh-huh. And I just . . . look. Being able to spot a book that a major studio is going to snap up for adaptation? That isn't actually a compliment. That usually means the book is a good adrenaline vehicle with only cut-outs of human beings in it, where the emotional arc – such as it is – can go comfortably down in one small swallow and be immediately forgotten. And . . . yeah.




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Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Further adventures of the angry former spaceship and assorted imperial doings.

This was . . . unchallenging is the word a friend used, and it is exactly the right one. Like, this book kept presenting the most digestible, high-contrast depictions of inequity, and I kept waiting for the onion layers to peel back on it and . . . no . . . apparently the arc of justice bends towards the completely freaking obvious. Like, okay, slave labor by another name is, indeed, unjust. But positing that is not interesting to me as a reader and, more importantly, did not challenge any of the characters as they revolved neatly through this little social justice playlet. Which is part of what makes the book go, actually – there's something awful about how cartoonishly blatant the evil is here, and yet how many characters still can't see it and can't be taught to see it. But we spent so long talking at length about the obvious injustice of captive labor that we didn't seem to have time to delve into the more complex and insidious ways the power structure reinforces itself. The stuff that really gets people where they're rooted, because it's what they're rooted in.

Anyway. I'm selling this book short, to be honest. It has long, charming stretches of angry former spaceship who is baffled by these monkeys, and there are two contrasting subplots about identity that are extensions of how the first book dealt with the expanded self on multiple levels from the personal to the societal, and other stuff that I liked. But there was just something so primary color crayon about most of the sociological plot, and . . . eh.




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Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant, #5)Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


So when the summary of this book came out – Peter goes to the countryside – I assumed it would be a monster-of-the-week book. And it is, though clearly also a lot of setup. Which is actually the salient feature of this book – it convinced me that Aaronovitch hasn't even put all his pieces on the board yet, let alone started moving them.

So anyway. Yes, this book suffers from a tragic deficit of Nightingale. And also a tragic deficit of London, a character in her own right. And yes, the ending is abrupt as hell. (And speaking of, apparently only the Waterstones edition has the short story epilogue? I can only assume to boost special edition sales. What is this dead tree bullshit, I ask you?)

But, Peter is still Peter. And there actually is enough architecture in the country for him to geek over. And the occasionally slow march of this book's rather obvious plot was interrupted, every fifty pages or so, by Peter wham breaking my heart out of nowhere. So yeah. Still worth it.

P.s. This book does present an obvious theory about the Faceless Man's identity/origins, which is so obvious I can only assume it's not true? We'll see.



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In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.




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The Witch With No Name (The Hollows, #13)The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Welp. I stuck it out to the end. What do I win? Is the prize that I get back however many hours of my life I spent reading this series?

I kid! Mostly. This book qua book is kind of a disaster. It's indistinguishable from the last half dozen books, except that it has a "twenty five years later" epilogue to let you know that we're done. And it suffers from that worst of afflictions that a fantasy novel can contract: metaphysics. You know, the thing where the magic has become so high order that it all occurs within the mind or on a higher plane or whatever, and the writing about it becomes laughably bad.

But. This actually was a seminal text in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre (no, it really was). And I feel a grim accomplishment for having stuck with it. Because if nothing else, this series and it's perpetual sameness was an annual measuring stick for me. I came to consciousness as a reviewer – which for me, is almost synonymous with coming to consciousness as a reader – over the run of this series. So would I like those hours back? Would I happily scrub my brain of the enumerable "I shouted" and "I sobbed" dialogue tags (seriously, Rachel shouts and she sobs, she never . . . y'know . . . talks). Yes I would. But I also wouldn't, because this series didn't really get smaller, I got bigger. So now I know.




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Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels, #7)Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I read this at the very end of pregnancy, which was just a few weeks ago but might as well be another country. But I remember enough to know I was deeply bored by this: battle, running, battle, shipping, battle, battle. The thing is, this series has a refreshing brutality. That's actually a compliment – the shit that happens to the heroine is genuinely frightening (without going instantly to rape!) and it's treated with the proper respect and gravity, with this cool understanding that you keep moving, even with your trauma. Except the problem is? The romance is cast as, like, a refuge from all that. The whole port in a storm, your back against mine sort of thing. Which is great! Right up my alley!

…Too bad the dude in question is obnoxious, clichéd, and boring. Ugh, with the very worst of the possessive animal behaviors thing. And I know, I know I keep harking on this, but werelion, guys.




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Abhorsen (Abhorsen, #3)Abhorsen by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Talking about Lirael and Abhorsen together as they are in reality one book cut in half, probably to keep the length down for young adult readers (remember when we did that?). Two young people – an introverted and depressed magical librarian, and a prince trapped in familial expectations – find each other in order to battle an ancient evil.

These books reminded me of Fullmetal Alchemist (can't quite put my finger on it, but a similar sense of eerie morbidity around young people exercising power) and more strongly of Diana Wynne Jones (an unflinching, genuinely frightening story leavened with talking animal humor). Needless to say, I liked these books. They have a richness to them, which is a funny thing to say when I point out that they are incredibly economical with worldbuilding. Characters frequently pass back and forth over an ancient wall – staffed by military forces – which divides a magical kingdom from a nonmagical country (well, except when the north wind blows strongly). The book leans heavily on the wall and the divide, thematically, and the history of the wall is intimately tied up with the ultimate climax. But do we learn more than a few scraps about its construction? Nope. Nix has mastered that trick of creating magic and mystery in the blank spaces.

But mostly, I wanted to say that I will be thinking about the role of death in these books for a while. It's one of those universes where the true horror of death is not dying, but that you might come back. That changes the entire shape of the thing in complicated ways. Some of them remove drama from the story – at a certain point, various protagonists' miraculous survival or resurrection becomes expected – but it also adds a bit of strange mystery, a sense of the truly alien in the fantastic.




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Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)Sabriel by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Young woman leaves boarding school to enter the mysterious kingdom of her birth in search of her missing necromancer (sort of) father.

So I'm, like, years late on this one, but a decade later, I would like to assure you all that you were totally right, this is a great series! This first book is a bit wandery in places – you can sort of see him figuring out what he's doing – but it has something. I think it's that this series makes a lot of the usual moves – talking cat, death of a trusted adult, etc. – but it does them with this . . . eeriness, I guess. Some books have a sense for the numinous; this book has a sense for that dart of cold that shoots down your spine.




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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.




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