February 2013 Round-up

February was another lazy month in terms of reviewing, but a pretty good reading month, with a perfect balance between review books and leisure reads.

February Review

I had a bit of trouble deciding exactly what I thought of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. The worldbuilding is well done, if a tad insistent and the story is fine, but I had some issues with Brennan’s creative decisions, particularly her decision to make her fantasy world exactly like ours during the Victorian period, but with dragons added. With the Victorian setting comes all the related sexism, classism, and insistence on propriety, all of which I found irritating to various degrees. I wished the narrator, Isabella, could just have been allowed to get on with the challenges of studying dragons without having to tell us, constantly, how unladylike her aspirations are.

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui is a novel about technology used for viewing and engaging with people’s dreams, and a ‘dream detective’ who goes into people’s dreams to sort out their mental troubles. Things go awry with the latest version of the dream technology is stolen and misused, causing dreams to invade reality. The novel reminded me a lot of anime, with the way it so easily conflates fantasy and reality, its absurd villains, exaggerated emotions, and ideas about gender. Some of this works, but most of it is troubling, particularly the gender issues.

The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian is a more thoughtful dystopian novel than most, featuring a post-apocalyptic society based on utilitarian philosophy and the idea that humanity has at least been unable to outgrow its need for natural impulses. The conflict in the novel comes from this society’s mercy-killing of the primitive tribes that live in the lush forests outside the settlement’s reinforced glass walls, and the ethical questions related to those killings and the vastly different lifestyles of the two groups of humans. It wasn’t quite as great as I’d hoped, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best books that I’ve read in the genre. I was really pleased by its absence of easy answers and its ability to surprise me. Review to follow soon.

I hadn’t planned to read The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke this month, but it came in very handy when I needed a quick read to finish a reading challenge, and writing the review was a rare pleasure in that it only took about 2-3 hours. The novel offers the standard commercial YA content: a feisty kick-ass heroine, a broody mysterious guy, a fantasy world that’s not too fantastical, and a bit of adventure. Nothing special, but luckily nothing infuriating either. That might be because I didn’t care enough about the characters or the story to be upset by the fact that the plot barely moves at all, and there’s an utterly pointless dearth of useful information about the curse, the world, and our mysterious brooding assassin. I won’t be reading the sequel.

February Leisure

It’s only when I did the pictures for this post that I realised I’d managed four leisure reads this month. The first was Carrie by Stephen King. I read this years ago, and I liked it even more this time around. I can’t wait to see the new movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as Margaret White.

Farewell Waltz by Milan Kundera was another short book I read for a reading challenge, although this one took me much longer to finish than The Assassin’s Curse. It relates a bizarre story that begins when a young nurse calls a famous, married trumpeter to tell him that she’s pregnant with his child, and quickly expands to include a large cast of related characters. I like Kundera’s philosophical and political musings more than anything else, and it wasn’t a bad read.

I’ve been downloading Clarkesworld Magazine podcasts lately, and Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente is my favourite so far. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s a story about machine intelligence that brings together sci fi, fantasy and folklore in a beautiful story that’s particularly magical when read by Kate Baker. I’ve listened to it twice in its entirety already (the podcast is broken up into 3 parts) and I will no doubt listen to it many more times. I was devastated to find that I currently can’t buy the limited edition hardcover of this novella.

I’ve had a copy of UFO In Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo for a few years. It’s set in a village in rural China, where a peasant sees a UFO (or thinks she does) and saves a foreigner who has been bitten by a snake. Investigators are sent to find out what happened, and the chief uses the incident as a means of getting money to modernise her village. The story is told entirely in interview transcripts and other documents, with the pages designed to look like they’ve been photocopied and filed. It’s partly hopeful, but mostly quite sad and critical of the crass attempts at progress that benefit very few while ruining the lives of most of the villagers. a very quick read, and nothing like I’d expected.

I had hoped I could list Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson among my leisure reads for this month, but alas, I am still struggling to finish it… Here’s hoping I’ll complete it by the end of March!

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January 2013 Round-Up

I can’t believe January’s already over. At first it seemed to crawl and every time I looked at the calendar I felt liked I had loads of time to finish the reading I’d scheduled for this month. And then suddenly it was 1 February and I’d only read 5 books.

Revenge by Yoko IgawaLuckily I started off with an excellent read – Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novel made up of interlinked short stories that are deceptively calm and hypnotic with scatterings of shock horror. The writing is exquisite; Ogawa is exceptionally talented when it comes to the finer details of fiction. I’m also giving away two copies of Revenge, so if you haven’t entered, go and do so now!

January 2013

Next up was A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan, a somewhat self-reflective hardboiled crime novel. The protagonist, Dan Champion, is trying hard to live up to his name and come to terms with the times he failed to do so. A decent story with plenty of action is unfortunately spoiled by utterly dismal female characters – lacklustre, weak and whiny. Can a man only be a hero when the women around him are damsels in distress? Perhaps Klavan is being satirical, but either way I wasn’t impressed.

The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher is a fantasy-horror-western about a primordial monster  slumbering within an abandoned silver mine out in the Nevada desert in the 1800s. Of course, something begins to wake the monster, and it’s up to the citizens of the town of Golgotha to save themselves, not to mention the entire universe. An average read, but with a few issues I want to discuss. Review to follow this week.

I’m still processing my thoughts on The Best of All Possible Worlds  by Karen Lord. On the one hand, it’s an elegant, skillfully written piece of literary science fiction with exceptionally well-rounded characters. On the other hand, it’s very much a love story, and although the love story takes a long time to develop, it dominates the ending with what I find to be far too much cheesiness. So while the novel is undoubtedly far above average, I have my reservations.

Expecting Someone Taller by Tom HoltMy leisure read for January was Expecting Someone Taller, Tom Holt’s debut novel. I’ve read several of his comic fantasies (and one or two sf ones), and although they’re enjoyable I find that they can get a tad chaotic with their very large casts of characters. Expecting Someone Taller, which draws on Norse mythology, had a lot of people to keep track of, but in general it was simpler. Perhaps my favourite of his novels that I’ve read so far.

I’ve embarked on the very daunting task of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, but although I started on 15 January, I’ve only made it through about 20% of the novel. If you’ve seen a copy of the book though, you’ll know that 20% of it is already the length of your average novel. to add to that, it’s a pretty dense read with loads of rather technical infodumps. But Stephenson can write infodumps like no one else, and I’m really enjoying the book so far. I just hope I can find time to finish it within the next month!

December Round-Up

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great holiday season, and are continuing to enjoy it if you’re lucky 🙂

Without a festive season to enjoy (I really hope I’m not stuck in Addis for December again next year) I managed to get a fair bit of reading done.

December 1

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was a reading challenge book I read with a friend. It was recommended to us as a particularly scary horror novel. I didn’t find it all that scary, but Joe Hill has clearly inherited some storytelling genes from his father Stephen King and I thought it was a good read overall. 7/10.

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches on the other hand, had very little in terms of story and rather a lot (often too much) of random meandering and weird sex. I think this is the kind of book you’re likely to enjoy only if you feel some kind of kinship with the narrator, a sixty-something bitter writer who drinks women’s blood and functions as a fictionalised (well, I assume) version of the author. While I admired a few things about this novel, it was mostly pretty boring.

Kraken by China Miéville was, to my unhappy surprise, a total disappointment. It is officially my least favourite of Miéville’s novels, and I’ve read all of them except Iron Council. I expected to finish it within a week, but I ended up taking more than two to slog through it. I was bored, easily distracted and, worst of all, I was at a loss to explain why I didn’t like it. It had all the kinds of things I usually love about Miéville’s novel, but this time it just didn’t work for me. Since I didn’t really have anything interesting to say, I decided not to review it for now. I’ll give it another chance some day, but for now it’s a 4/10.

December 2

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) was a much more enjoyable metafictional mash-up of all sorts of entertaining genres – crime and mystery, steampunk, sci fi, and horror. It’s set in Victorian London, where the titular Affliction causes victims to change sex – a catastrophe for such a prim and prudish society. With lots of gender play and outlandish plot, it’s a really fun read. Review to follow soon.

Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo is an upcoming publication from Night Shade Books. Vampires are re-imagined as eco-warriors (for example, they sleep in the ground because the Earth nourishes and heals their bodies). They lament the damage that humanity has done to the Earth, and although the blurb gives the impression that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s set in the present day. Devious corporate plots that threaten the vampires make up the story, and it’s got loads of action, but I found it forgettably average.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen was my last read for 2012, and it was a good book to end the year, despite being a rather tragic one. In a disturbing global phenomenon, young children start killing their parents. The narrator, Hesketh [?] is investigating a series of workers around the world who sabotaged the companies they loved. Hesketh is very good at his job, partly because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, gifting him with an incredible talent for spotting patterns. He sees the connection between the saboteurs and the child murderers, but although this makes for a good story in itself, it’s Hesketh himself who really made this a great book for me. Jensen goes into the details of Hesketh’s psychology and daily life as someone with Asperger’s, and for me he became one of the most likeable and memorable characters I’ve come across this year. I recommend the book for that alone, but I’ll tell you what else I liked about it in my review.

The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeBefore The Uninvited I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis for a reading challenge. I don’t think I’ve read this since childhood, when I fell in love with it and wished very hard that my cupboard could also be a portal to another world. In my childish innocence I didn’t even notice the Christian allegory, which was so grotesquely obvious this time around. But although I dropped my rating from four stars to three, I still like this, and it still made me long for Turkish Delight. It might just be nostalgia working its magic, because I don’t really like such childish books anymore. 

January has gotten off to a slow start. I’m trying to catch up with my reviews of The Constantine Affliction, Earth Thirst and The Uninvited, so I haven’t finished any books yet. But I will have to get cracking – I’ve set myself a reading goal of 85 books for the year, and I’m planning to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, which means I’ve got some dauntingly long books ahead of me.

November Round-Up

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November was a great reading month, although a little slack in terms of reviews.

My first three review books for the month took me beyond mainstream cultural settings. Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the second book in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, set on the planet Umayma, where two vastly different Islamic nations have been fighting a religious war for two centuries. Continue reading

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September Round-up

I’m on holiday in South Africa again (yay!), which is my excuse for why I was rather quiet last week, and why I’ll remain quiet over the next two weeks, although I’ll try my best to keep reading.

I had a whopping nine eARCs of books that were published in September, but I only managed to read five of them and review four. On the bright side, I managed to finish an 800-page whopper that’s been on my tbr list since it was published in 2010. It wasn’t very good, but that’s life. At least I can say I read it.

But on with the round-up. Please forgive me for using multiple thumbnail images instead of the usual collage – I’m working on my netbook without a mouse, and it’s just too much of a schlep to work with the images. Anyway, I finally posted my review of The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, a literary horror novel set in a mental institution in Queens, New York.

I reviewed the two debut novels from new YA published Strange Chemistry. They were ok, but not exactly memorable. Shift by Kim Curran is a sci fi novel about teenagers with the power to undo their decisions. There was plenty of action and wish fulfilment for teenage boys, but too many holes in the worldbuilding for me to ignore.

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond was a better novel. It’s a mystery/romance based on a North American legend known as the Lost Colony. The relationship at the heart of the novel is sweet if a little implausble. There’s plenty of adventure, but the mystery and fantasy aspects of the plot were a let-down.

It’s been a while since I reviewed an indie novel, so I took on Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie. It’s a mystery/thriller about a man obsessed with finding a mathematical theory hidden in the details of an obscure Spanish Baroque painting. I liked the premise, and the author writes good conversations, but after a certain point the novel unravels and is ultimately unsatisfying.

The best novel I read in September – not to mention one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read – was the delicious John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. It’s a lovely mix of food, history, mythology, romance, conflict and tragedy. Highly recommended, especially for foodies.

Sadly, the next book I finished was one of the worst I’ve ever read – Cry to Heaven  by Anne Rice. I read it for a reading challenge where each participant lists five novels they would take with them if trapped on a deserted island. You have to read one novel from each person’s list. Cry to Heaven was a dreadful choice. If I was stuck with it on a deserted island I’d use it for kindling or toilet paper. It’s a total soap opera about a bunch of boring assholes. Most of it is predictable and it’s filled with boring, angsty whining. Rice’s prose is a hideous shade of purple, and the many sex scenes are written with ridiculous euphemisms. I only finished the novel for the sake of the reading challenge and because I’d committed to a buddy read.

Then I finally finished The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, which I’ve been reading slowly over the past few months. It’s described as “A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language”, and it’s utterly delightful. It’s funny and odd, full of the weirdest trivia about words. If my boyfriend was ever in the same room with me while I read this, I’d constantly interrupt him with “Hey, did you know….”

Up next was The Passage by Justin Cronin, a post-apocalyptic horror novel featuring vampires. This is the novel that I’ve had on my tbr since it came out. It was very disappointing – a mostly boring, frustrating read that should have been cut down to 400 pages. Instead I had to slog through 800, and none of it was scary. I’ll post my review later this week.

My last review book for the month was Breed by Chase Novak, another item in my search for a horror novel that can actually scare me. I’d heard great things about Breed, a story of a couple who go to extreme measures to have children. Bits of it were unsettling, but it didn’t achieve the desired level of creepiness that I’m looking for. Nevertheless, it was a fairly good book. Review to follow.

I ended the month on a light note with Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. Not one of his best, but charming as always, and I do love the witches.

And now, to continue working on that reading/reviewing backlog… First up for October is the YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel Pure by Julianna Baggot.

 

July/August Round-up

You may have noticed that there was no round-up last month – I was away and just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) maintain my blogging routine, so I’m way behind on pretty much everything related to Violin in a Void. In an attempt to catch up a little, I’m doing a double round-up of recent reads and reviews.

I posted my review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, a very good fusion of sci fi and Islamic mythology, with some wonderfully written characters. Unfortunately, I think I under-appreciated this novel, as some of the sf aspects were lost on me.

My first read for July was Waiting for Godalming by Robert Rankin, which I read for a reading challenge where I needed a book with a teacup on the cover. Luckily for me it was a short book because it was also a fairly shit, and the blurb was quite possibly the most misleading blurb I’ve ever read. I didn’t even bother putting the cover in my roundup picture, although admittedly that was because the file was really small and awkward to work with.

The next novel, God Save the Queen by Kate Locke, was much better but by no means great. It’s set in 2012, but in a version of England where a plague turned the British aristocracy into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 175 years, and Britain is a still a colonial power. It’s a decent action novel with a bit of mystery and romance, but the major downfall is that these things take precedence over worldbuilding, so it’s sloppy. Also, “lieutenant” is intentionally misspelled as “leftenant” presumably because the book is meant to cater to American audiences.

Advent by James Treadwell is an elegant, complex YA fantasy novel about magic, couched in mythology. It has some flaws in terms of plot, but one of the things I loved about it is that it’s a wonderful piece of rich, old-fashioned storytelling with the kind of fictional spaces you just want to disappear into. I had some issues with the magic system in the novel, so I posed my questions to the author on the Conversation page of his website. Scroll down to ‘Good Questions’ for my question and his thought-provoking answer. Advent might not be the easiest book to read, but I’m very pleased that minds like this are writing YA. I look forward to the sequel.

Sadly, I went from good YA to crap YA when I read Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas (pen name for Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies) about a group of teenagers who are trapped in their school when it’s quarantined following an inexplicable bio catastrophe. The teenagers get infected with some weird virus that makes them all lethal to children an adults. It’s rushed, implausible, and the worldbuilding is so lazy.

Next, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I was intrigued by this when it came out, but I was eventually dissuaded with talk of romance and the fact that it became so popular. I do not have a good record with romance or popular fiction – it tends to be too conventional for me, and the hype leaves me disappointed. This time I am happy to say I was completely wrong. The Night Circus is utterly enchanting, and I even liked the romance. I considered reviewing it, but then decided I just wanted to relax and savour it. Recommended.

Finally, the excellent God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I’ve raved about this in a few posts already, so I won’t say much more. The only thing that bugged about reviewing this was that, for some reason, Night Shade Books didn’t provide a Kindle option, so I had to read a time-limited pdf on my pc and write notes and quotes in longhand. I loved the writing, so I took down a lot of quotes.

August! The last winter month, thank god. I love boots, coats, thick socks and snuggling up, but now I miss the sun and not having to wear five layers of clothing. I read another five books, for this (hopefully) last month of freezing my ass off.

First, Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth (pseudonym for Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden). Disappointing South African middle-grade/YA novel about time travel. At least it was very short.

Then, because I was on holiday and feeling very lazy and distracted, I read a YA paranormal romance. I figured it would be quick and easy to read, which it was. It was also mildly entertaining, and that is the end of the good things I have to say about Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn was a birthday present from a friend. I wanted it after reading Gone Girl by the same author. Sharp Objects isn’t as good, but it’s even more messed up. Gillian Flynn has some crazy stuff going on in that head of hers. I like it.

I posted my review of Railsea by China Miéville yesterday. Definitely one of his most entertaining, charming novels.

And if I’m not too lazy, then next week I will post my review of literary horror novel The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. ‘Literary horror’ seems to mean, in part, that it’s not actually scary, at least not in the ways you expect horror to be scary. However, it is a novel about fear. You’ll see what I mean later.

In the meantime, happy reading!

June 2012 Round-Up

Several days late with this one, and I haven’t blogged in over a week! Bad me, I know. It’s my fault, but I have chosen to blame the Xbox. And Borderlands.

Anyway. A rather slow month, thanks to two long, tough reads – The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and Existence by David Brin. Both very good but very challenging novels. The Diamond Age I read to complete a reading challenge that ended on 19 June. I had to read the longest of the first 5 books on my Goodreads tbr list.

Existence was a review book from NetGalley, apparently a comeback for David Brin. This was actually my first Brin novel, but what an impressive read! Some truly epic, high-concept, genre-defining sf. It demands a lot from the reader, but rewards it at the end. Read my review here.

Luckily the challenging reads were tempered by easy ones. I started the month off with Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris, a murder mystery set in Saudi Arabia. The setting of the novel is it’s drawcard – it’s very interesting to see the ways in which the extreme modesty policies of this Islamic state affect crime, police work and personal lives.

Next up was Niceville by Carsten Stroud. I tore through this genre mash-up of ghost story and crime fiction, but by the end I felt that the two genres weren’t combined well enough and the ghost story (the more interesting of the two) was neglected.

I re-read the wonderful Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge in order to write my review. I first read it about two months ago, a bit too far from the release date, but I was quite happy to read it again since it’s only 96 pages long and is absolutely brilliant. In this collection you’ll find deliciously dark fairy tales with modern twists, all written in the form of poems. Koertge brings out the violence and eroticism of these stories, so that even though it’s marketed as YA, I think it’d be much better appreciated by adults.

Another quick easy YA read was Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Even at 430 pages I zipped through it. This was for a reading challenge in which you have to read the favourite novels of the other participants. Before I Fall was on Lu’s list. It’s about a girl who keeps reliving the day on which she dies until she figures out how to change something on that day that will set her free from this loop. She’s a popular girl in an American high school, the kind of person who joins her best friends in tormenting other students for the sake of status and entertainment. By reliving her final day she comes to realise what a bitch she is, how much she hurts other people and fails to appreciate those who care about her. For the most part it was a really good book, up until the last day/chapter, which I thought was a total cop-out.

The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler was the last in my line of short, easy reads. It’s about an illegal Ethiopian immigrant named Dawit living in Paris in 1978.  Dawit’s beautiful young face catches the attention of M., a bestselling literary author now in her sixties. She invites Dawit to stay with her in her luxurious apartment, thus beginning a strange, complex relationship characterised by inequality and unfulfilled desire.

My last read for the month was Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, an unusual combination of Islamic mythology and science fiction. I had intended to post the review last week, but then I was hit with a bout of laziness, unexpectedly having to host a birthday party (long story) and Xbox/Borderlands addiction. I’ll post it for you tomorrow, I swear.

Happy reading everyone!