Tag Archives: elizabeth bear

Books in May ’14

May is gone, and I’m late with this post due to a family thing yesterday and my computer refusing to work after it was over. So let’s not draw this out – here be the books!

 

Mary Robinette Kowal: Without A Summer

 

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane and David Vincent. In Without A Summer, the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing – not even the domestic sphere – is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside, and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects – and mood – will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and the increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

(Back cover of the Tor paperback)

Some of you may remember that Shades of Milk and Honey was my WOW book of last year. I loved it, and I loved Glamour in Glass – and Without A Summer continues that line. I think it better than it’s predecessor, vastly intriguing and oh so pleasant to read! Kowal’s period detail is wonderful and reading her you may trust you are in good hands. I very warmly recommend this series! It is magic mixed with history and, although light in style, takes on many important issues of the family circle and doesn’t shy even from the most difficult of topics. Janeites will also recognise the copious parallels to Emma!

This is one of my favourite series, and this book is excellent. I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on the next instalment, Valour and Vanity!

Published: 2013

Pages: 349

 

Den Patrick: The Boy with the Porcelain Blade

 

Lucien di Fontein has grown up an outsider; one of the Orfano, the deformed of the Kingdom of Landfall. He is lonely, tormented by his difference and a pawn in a political game. The reclusive king and his majordomo rule Landfall from the vast castle of Demesne, but the walls are no barrier to darkness from without. Or within.

Landfall is a harsh world of secrets and rivalries, where whispers are as lethal as blades, where control is fragile and the peace waits to be broken. Lucien will have to rely on more than just his blade to protect the ones he loves.

Den Patrick’s richly imagined high fantasy introduces a memorable new hero. His is a story that will delight those who love Locke Lamora and Titus Groan alike.

(Back cover of Gollancz trade paperback 2014)

Yes, even I sometimes manage to read something the same year it comes out. What did you expect? Locke Lamora has been mentioned, political intrigue promised, and a fantastic title presented.

As a whole, I find this book rather average. Well, perhaps a little above average. There are some things that bothered me, but also a lot to admire. I shall break this review into bullet points, because I feel that is the clearest way to explain both my qualms and approvals.

Pros:

  • Despite being numerous, fight scenes do not get boring; very alive, very well described
  • The worldbuilding works well, although it took me a while to catch on. This is likely more me than the book, as I tend to skip scenery.
  • When the dialogue is witty, it really is witty! And it’s good in general.

 

Cons:

  • Some unnecessary repetition of details; they get underlined but aren’t all that significant.
  • I’m not too happy with the female characters. This gets a bit better towards the end, but the inaction and the very traditional roles they’re cast in grates.
  • Lucien spends a lot of time sleeping or unconscious; surely there are other wise of transitioning from one scene to another?
  • So. Many. Fires.

 

In general, I think it’s a nice, enjoyable book. I also think that Patrick has a lot of potential, which he will reach through more experience; this reads very much like a first novel. I will also mention that this edition could have used another round of proofreading, as there was a lot of punctuation missing and a few typos. The latter didn’t bother me as much as the former.

I will definitely read the next one as well, because I think there’s something here. It just needs some improvement to really snare me.

Published: 2014

Pages: 321

 

Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves

 

I will leave out the blurb and, indeed, a review. This was my third reading and it was conducted mostly to take notes and to see if there was anything I missed earlier.

Published: 2013

Pages: 598

 

M. C. Beaton: The Taming of Annabelle

 

From the moment the honey-tressed young Annabelle meets her sister Minerva’s intended, Lord Sylvester, she develops a secret passion for him that obsesses her. Now she is determined to take him away from Minerva – no matter what.

But Annabelle hadn’t reckoned on Lord Sylvester’s best friend, Peter, who falls in love with her and decides to tame her growing passions for the wrong man.

(Back cover of Constable & Robinson paperback)

This is the second book in The Six Sisters series. I hadn’t read Beaton before, but decided to get it from the library when it happened to sit there on the shelf.

Thing is, I’m too old for this book. This would work wonders for a teen reader; it’s quite fun and introduces the Regency period very well, with several rather entertaining explanatory paragraphs here and there. The plot is a bit childish, but so is the main character, and at times Annabelle annoyed me to no end. Peter hardly behaves any less childishly despite being 35 (I think) and that does not quite sit with me.

This book, and I assume the others in the series, could work well as easy introductions to Regency romance. The Taming of Annabelle is fun, but for older readers it may be too shallow. I would say a 13–15-year-old would be more in the target readership, and I would not hesitate to recommend this to someone of that age with an interest in romance.

Published: 1983

Pages: 250

 

Elizabeth Bear: Shoggoths in Bloom

 

Shoggoths in Bloom: A compilation of short science fiction and fantasy from Elizabeth Bear – tales of myth and mythic resonance, fantasies both subtle and epic in tone; hard science fiction and speculations about an unknowable universe. This collection, showcasing Bear’s unique imagination and singular voice, includes her Hugo- and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning story “Tideline” and Hugo-winning novelette “Shoggoth in Bloom”, as well as an original, never-published story. Recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, a World Fantasy, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick nominee, Bear is one of speculative fiction’s most acclaimed, respected, and prolific authors.

(Back cover of the Prime paperback)

Now, understand that I’m very bad at reading collections of short stories. Very bad. I manage one a year, if I try hard, and it can be slow going without a plot to pull me.

I didn’t have my usual troubles with Shoggoths.

Bear is amazingly versatile in her writing, and I promise you a swoon over how much research has gone into every single story in this collection. I am both enamoured and awed. If you read short story collection this year, read this one.

I cried at the end of the first one. Several made me uncomfortable, in the way good SF should. Two hit me really hard in my current situation in life, and I draw strength from them. And oh, I think I’ve found my favourite short story. Well, a new one for the small list of the ones I love: “The Cold Blacksmith” took me and chewed at my heart and now, days later, I’m still not over it.

Published: 2011

Pages: 329 (20 short stories)

 

Julia Quinn: Just Like Heaven

Honoria Smythe-Smith, the youngest daughter of the eldest son of the Earl of Winstead, plays the violin in the annual musicale performed by the Smythe-Smith quartet. She’s well aware that they are dreadful but she’s the sort who figures that nothing good will come of being mortified, so she puts on a good show and laughs about it.

Marcus Holroyd is the best friend of Honoria’s brother Daniel, who lives in exile. Marcus has promised to watch out for Honoria, but he faces a challenge when she sets off for Cambridge determined to marry by the end of the season. She’s got her eye on the only unmarried Bridgerton, who’s a bit wet behind the ears. When her advances are spurned, can Marcus swoop in and steal her heart in time for the musicale?

(Back cover of Piatkus 2011 paperback)

I don’t find the blurb terribly accurate. Just wanted to say that. I also want to say that my primary motive for reading this book is the rather hilarious dedication – “And also for Paul, even though when I went to him for medical advice to save my ailing hero, he replied, ‘He has to die.’”

I’m not particularly fond of this sort of “We have known each other since we were children and I am starting to realise I actually love you” romance. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy it, but at least at this instance I was not in the mood for it. I also found this book rather flat and it failed to raise any particular feelings. It served its purpose of something light and quick to read, but apart from that, hardly memorable.

Published: 2011

Pages: 374

 

Mary Balogh: The Proposal

 

Lady Gwendoline Muir has experienced her fair share of tragedies in her short life: she lost her husband to a freak accident, and developed a limp after falling from horseback. Still young, Gwen is sure that she’s done with love, and that she will never be married again.

Gwen tries to be content with her life as it is, and to live through the marriages of her brother and her cousin and best friend, Viscountess Ravensburg. She’s happy for them, and for years that is enough for her… until she meets Lord Trentham – a man who returned from the Peninsular War a hero, but is unable to escape the bite of his survivor’s guilt. For he might just be the man who can convince her to believe in second chances.

(Back cover of Piatkus 2012 paperback)

Now we’re talking. I have been eager to start the Survivors’ Club series, of which this one is the first. Balogh writes very believable and mature characters and does it with such certainty that it is hard not to fall in with them – and indeed, why would you even want to avoid that? Some of you know of my penchant for wounded heroes, and that is exactly what this book, along with the rest of the series, provides. Trentham is particularly interesting for his utter bluntness; I don’t think I’ve read a Regency romance where sex is so explicitly discussed (never crudely, though – Balogh is never crude).

The charm of this book is mainly in the characters. When it comes to plot, it’s rather straightforward and un-dramatic, which I feel speaks of Balogh’s skill as a writer: the lack of drama does not diminish the experience or slow the reading, quite the opposite. There was a little too much retelling of moments from another point of view, but I hope that is only a lapse in this book and won’t occur in the rest of the series, the next of which I have waiting.

Published: 2012

Pages: 309

 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Idiot

 Returning to Russia from a sanitarium in Switzerland, the Christ-like epileptic Prince Myshkin finds himself enmeshed in a tangle of love, torn between two women—the notorious kept woman Nastasya and the pure Aglaia—both involved, in turn, with the corrupt, money-hungry Ganya. In the end, Myshkin’s honesty, goodness, and integrity are shown to be unequal to the moral emptiness of those around him.

(Goodreads)

Not too fond of this one. It is obvious that Dostoyevsky was in need of money while writing this, and the serialisation is so obvious it was at times painfully dull going – there is a confession latter that lasts for three chapters (some 40 pages) and it largely unrelated to the plot. However, some of the characters – particularly Nastasja Filippovna and Rogozin (I’m using the Finnish version of the names) – were very interesting, and the last few chapters are excellent in their dramatic flair, although I wouldn’t say they are worth reading the whole thing. However, I’m glad I’ve read it and can now move the next Dostoyevsky to my more immediate list.

Published: 1868

Translation: Olli Kuukasjärvi

Pages: 829

 

Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin

 

Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in imperial Russia during the 1820s, Pushkin’s novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men – Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself – and the fates and affections of three women – Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin’s own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from romantic poet into realistic novelist.

(Goodreads)

Now this was very much my thing! I started reading a bit sceptically, although I’ve long wanted to read this, and my, it was an absolute pleasure! Pushkin is much more fun than I’d expected, I wasn’t bored by his nature descriptions at all, he is very intertextual, and there is some damn good drama, although some of the motivations elude me. Nonetheless, very very good!

Published: 1823–31

Translation: Lauri Kemiläinen 1935

Pages: 242

 

Currently reading:
Andrei Belyi: Peterburg

That’s it for May!

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Books in April ’14

Hello, friends! It is time for book things again! This month was alright, although I had hoped to read one book more – but no matter. Spring is usually a time of reading slumps for me, so considering, this is pretty well. And look, not a single romance novel! What on earth is going on?

 

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

 

It is the summer of 1956. Stevens, an ageing butler, has embarked on a rare holiday – a six-day motoring trip through the West Country. But his travels are disturbed by the memories of a lifetime in service to the late Lord Darlington, and most of all by the increasingly painful recollection of his friendship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. For the first time in his life, Stevens is forced to wonder if all his actions were for the best after all…

The Remains of the Day is a sad and humorous love story, a moving and witty meditation on the democratic responsibilities of the ordinary man, and a poignant tale of thwarted idealism. Characterized by the grace and subtlety for which Kazuo Ishiguro’s work has been acclaimed, it is his finest novel so far.

(Back cover of Faber & Faber 1989 hardcover)

A friend has recommended Ishiguro to me, and therefore I was delighted to see him on our reading list – nothing forces you to finally pick up an author than requirement! And I must say, I am by no means displeased.

Ishiguro’s style is amazingly beautiful and graceful, and his command of language is superb. There is very little action in this novel, but it is still very compelling and grabs you. Dignity is a big issue, and I found it fascinating to watch it discussed by the first-person narrator Stevens, who seems to have lost himself in his strive to be dignified and as good a butler as possible. And I disagree with the back cover’s description when it comes to “humorous love story”; to me, it seemed simply tragic. Perhaps the task of writing an essay on the book affects me in this, but I saw the relationship to Miss Kenton as a strong example of how out of touch Stevens is with his own emotions and normal interaction on a personal level.

I recommend this book, although I will have to read more Ishiguro to determine how much I actually like him. The Remains of the Day is, however, without a doubt excellent.

Published: 1989

Pages: 245

 

Peter Ackroyd: Chatterton

 

In this remarkable detective novel Peter Ackroyd investigates the death of Thomas Chatterton, the eighteenth-century poet-forger and genius, whose life ended under mysterious circumstances. Fusing themes of illusion and imagination, delusion and dreams, he weaves back and forth between three centuries, introducing a blazing cast of Dickensian eccentrics and rogues, from the outrageous, gin-sipping Harriet Scrope, an elderly female novelist, to the tragic young poet, Charles Wychwood, seeker of Chatterton’s secret… They find more riddles than answers from their search.

This entertaining comedy is at once hilarious, and a thoughtful exploration of the deepest issues of both life and art.

(Goodreads)

Let’s get this straight at once: I think that blurb rather misleading. I would not call Chatterton a detective novel: rather than following any conventions of that genre, it offers layers and layers of lies, misconceptions, delusions, forgery, fakes and pretention, and ties the whole lot together with a bit of the supernatural in a nice tribute to the Romantics. I also would not agree that it is an “entertaining comedy”; I certainly didn’t read it as such. I was left feeling rather uncomfortable and grim, although also found myself nodding sombrely by the end of the novel.

Ackroyd explores the whats and whys of forgery and plagiarism in a rather nice way, offering points of view. Unfortunately, I didn’t take to the supernatural aspect of this novel quite like I took to it in The Fall of Troy by the same author; in Chatterton, I felt it overused and a little too guiding.

If you pick this up and your copy doesn’t have a colour picture of Henry Wallis’s painting, Chatterton (1856), look it up. It not only features rather prominently in the story but is also actually a very nice painting. It is also in the painting, I think, that the layers of fakeness lie the heaviest.

Published: 1987

Pages: 234

 

Toni Morrison: A Mercy

 

In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class division, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were carefully planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a smallholding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in ‘flesh’, he takes a small slave girl, in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, ‘with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady’, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Florens is hungry for love, at first from the older servant woman at her new master’s house; but later, when she’s sixteen, from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives…

And all of them have stories: Lina, the native American servant, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress Rebekka, herself a victim of religious fervour back in England; young Sorrow, daughter of a sea captain, who’s spent too many years at sea to be quite… normal; and, finally, there’s Florens’s own mother back home in Maryland.

This is their blight – men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness. A Mercy reveals what lies under the surface of slavery, and the opening chapter of the story of sugar, that great maw which was to eat up millions of lives. But at its heart, like Beloved, this is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter in a violent ad-hoc world – a world where acts of mercy, like everything else, have unforeseen consequences.

(Dust jacket of Chatto and Windus 2008 hardcover)

I don’t really get Morrison. She’s an alright author and I recognise that she discusses important issues, but somehow the books always elude me. I have read The Bluest Eye and Beloved before, and especially the latter completely escaped me. I don’t know why; perhaps the ideas run so deep I can’t see them.

But boy, do I appreciate the way A Mercy is put together. I went in expecting to read from the point of view of maybe two characters – easy mistake to make, I’d say, when there is first a focalised third person narrator and then a stylistically very distinct first person narrator – but turns out there are many focalisers. It’s always delightful when all characters are accounted for! The central character is Florens, whose story we follow from her on perspective throughout the novel, with the other characters getting their space around her chapters. I haven’t quite pieced together what this does, and perhaps I will reread the book at some point (you know, when I’m a little older and hopefully wiser) and see if it makes more sense.

Generally speaking, I like A Mercy much better than I liked Beloved, although I believe the latter is more hyped. I think A Mercy is more feminist, about women and their interactions and worldviews and changes, and that at the moment appeals to me.

Published: 2008

Pages: 165

 

Elizabeth Bear: Undertow

 

A frontier world on the back end of nowhere is the sort of place people go to get lost. And some of those people have secrets worth hiding, secrets that can change the future – assuming there is one…

André Deschênes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher who will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s André’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks, and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance…

(Back cover of Bantam Spectra 2007 paperback)

Let’s see. Political intrigue? Check. Assassin? Check. Awesome ladies? Check. Slightly confused? Check. So basically Undertow has a lot of things I really really like. Yes, even the confusion is nice. Being confused means you need to think a bit. I took this book with me to the country for a holiday and therefore didn’t push myself as much as I should have, and I’m disappointed in myself because of that, but we’ll let that be and call it a perfect excuse to reread the book.

Much of the confusion is because of my unfamiliarity with SF and not by any means because of Bear. She writes in a way that explains without dumping lots of technical detail (something I’m always afraid of when I start an SF novel) and she engages you from the beginning. I particularly love the shifts and twists in the story: the beginning made me expect things and then it turns out nothing is what I expected it to be. And let me tell you, I love Cricket. So much. I can’t even explain how much I love her.

While not my favourite book ever, Undertow is definitely an excellent read. It keeps you on your toes and your brain active, even if you’re merely pleasure reading like I was. It doesn’t let you off easy, I can promise you that!

Published: 2007

Pages: 332

 

Hannu Rajaniemi: The Quantum Thief

 

Jean de Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy – from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to steal their thoughts, to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of the Moving Cities of Mars.

Except that Jean made one mistake.

Now he is condemned to play endless variations of a game-theoretic riddle in the vast virtual jail of the Axelrod Archons – the Dilemma Prison – against countless copies of himself.

Jean’s routine of death, defection and cooperation is upset by the arrival of Mieli and her spaceship, Perhonen. She offers him a chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self – in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed…

(Back cover of Gollancz 2010 paperback)

Finally got around to rereading Quantum Thief, and boy, am I glad I did! The first time I was tripped up by the physics and other science things; this time it was much easier to keep an eye on the details and to follow the plot and its implications. And I love it, even better than I did before. The craft is beautiful, and the ease with which Rajaniemi uses all the hard SF stuff is magnificent and lulls you into its pull whether you actually understand it or not.

Published: 2010

Pages: 330

 

Catherynne M. Valente: Silently and Very Fast

Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future.

Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great-grandmother—a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote.

But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . .

(Goodreads)

This novella gave me so much trouble. Part of this is because it’s fairly complicated in structure; part, because I consider it rather hard science fiction; and part, because I read it for class where I knew I would be expected to say something intelligent about it. (I didn’t manage that, in case you were wondering.) The narrative is not linear, there are retold fairy tales between the story of Elefsis the AI, and I just got very confused, trying to analyse it during the only reading I had time for. I recommend you read this twice; once to see what’s going on, another time to see how the parts actually play together.

But occasionally frying your brain is healthy, and I really want to try some of Valente’s novels!

Published: 2011

Pages: 82

 

Hannu Rajaniemi: The Fractal Prince

 

On the edges of physical space a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrödinger box.

He is doing the job for his patron, and owner of the ship, Mieli. In the box is his freedom. Or not.

The box is protected by codes that twist logic and sanity. And the ship is under attack.

The thief is nearly dead, the ship is being eaten alive.

Jean de Flambeur is running out of time. All of him.

And on earth, two sisters in a city of fast ones, shadow players and jinni contemplate a revolution.

There are many stories that can be told even in a thousand nights and one night, but these two will twist, and combine. And reality will spiral.

In Hannu Rajaniemi’s sparkling follow-up to the critically acclaimed, international sensation The Quantum Thief, he returns to his awe-inspiring vision of the universe and we find out what the future held for Earth.

(Back cover of Gollancz 2012 paperback)

I like Fractal Prince even more than I like Quantum Thief. It is truly a compelling story that twists and turns and I think I may need a third reading to really explain it to myself. All I can say is, read it. Read them both. I promise you, it’s amazing. Just now I said I’m not good with hard sci-fi. Well, Rajaniemi is exactly that. And I still love these books. They are written so well it doesn’t even matter if you understand everything or not; it’s a damn good ride in any case.

As an extra incentive, the last book in the trilogy is coming out this summer, so now’s a good time to pick them all up!

Published: 2012

Pages: 300

 

So that’s all for April! School has more or less ended, so I hope to get to a good reading pace soon (unless glorious online friends distract me, which they will, bless them) and hopefully this will be a bookish summer!

To finish this off, the usual things.

Books bought:
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

Currently reading:
Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (third in the Glamourist Histories series, loving it so far!)

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