Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Dark Divide by Jennifer Fallon

The Dark Divide by Jennifer Fallon is the second book of the Rift Runners (trilogy, I think). The first book was The Undivided.

This is very much the sort of series where you can’t read book two without having read book one before it. The Dark Divide picks up more or less right where The Undivided left off. I don’t think I can say anything too specific about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

The story mainly follows Ren and Darragh, the Undivided twins, Trasa the half-banshee and Pete the cop who is on the case of the shenanigans the other characters committed in the first book.

I liked The Dark Divide more than The Undivided. When I read the first book, I enjoyed it but I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t as full of twisty intrigue as I have come to expect from Fallon’s books (not that disappointed since I still have it 4.5 stars when I read it). The second book more than makes up for it. Where the first book had to introduce a lot of world-building concepts (faeries, rifts between realities, the magic of the twins’ existence), the second book was much more free to dig deeper into everyone’s motivations. There were a lot of ah-ha! moments and a lot of dawning comprehension as pieces of the puzzle came together.

One of the things I particularly liked was the juxtaposition between fantasy-world values and our world values. As in, often times killing someone for the cause in a fantasy book (in general) is seen as necessary. However, move the act (and the fantasy book character) into our world and a host of problems arise.

Another aspect which I thought was well done was the inclusion of a certain real-world recent-historical event. It was something that could easily have felt tacky but worked because the ordinary consequences were given as much (if not slightly more) weight as the plot-related consequences. Also, history wasn’t rewritten to accommodate the plot; from the characters’ point of view, it was a coincidence that affected them but that they had nothing directly to do with.

This is a very good series and I encourage all lovers of fantasy to give it a go. Since I didn’t talk about anything very specific above, I am also going to include the blurb for The Undivided, to give an idea of where the series is coming from.
The Undivided are divided. The psychic twins, Ronan and Darragh, have been separated by the traitor Druid, Amergin, who has kidnapped Ronan and thrown him through a rift into another reality. Now time is running out for Darragh. If Ronan isn’t found soon, they will both die. But his twin brother is lost in a reality where Druids are legend, and there is no magic. Somehow, before the Autumn Equinox, they must find one young man in a world of six billion people…

Meanwhile, Ren Kavanagh has no notion of where he comes from. He is plagued by strange injuries that appear from nowhere and everyone is convinced he is deliberately harming himself for attention. Then he meets the enticing and mysterious Trasa, and before he can figure out how it happened, he is in serious trouble - arrested for arson and possibly murder.

Rescue will come from a completely unexpected direction. Ren is about to discover more about his origins than he bargained for, meet the twin brother he never knew he had, and discover nobody is what they seem, especially his new friend, the half-faerie, half-human Trasa… Amergin’s daughter.

I also like how the covers match thematically. I look forward to putting them on the same shelf.

And if that wasn’t enough, The Dark Divide also has ninja leprechauns. Seriously. How can anyone resist reading about ninja freaking leprechauns with shuriken?

5 / 5 stars

Friday, 27 April 2012

Ethnic cleansing, he was certain, was not a game played by little girls.

Jennifer Fallon, The Dark Divide

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Black Glass by Meg Mundell

Black Glass, debut novel by Meg Mundell, caught my eye because it was shortlisted for Aurealis Awards in both the SF and YA categories. (And being written by a woman, hence counting towards my SF Aussie Women Writers Challenge also helped.)

The narrative style and presentation of the story and characters is exactly the sort I usually dislike. The scenes, as well as presenting the two most central characters in a reasonably conventional narrative, alternate scenic mood scenes (sometimes with a temporary character as a focus), often (always?) in present tense, and dialogue without any framing.

I’ve stopped reading books written like this in the past because they annoyed me. But you know what? Mundell pulls it off really well. I was captivated from the start, never bored and the ending packed an unexpected punch.

The setting is Melbourne, a depressing near future. A dystopia but a plausible one, scarily close to our world now. Just a little bit more technology, regulation and surveillance than today. Unlike certain other YA dystopias I could mention like The Hunger Games, Uglies or Divergent, there is no bizarre disconnect between our world and the world of Black Glass. (Infinitely so when you compare with Divergent — good book, but I found the back story mind-bogglingly implausible. You’re unsatisfied with the world so you sort yourselves into factions resembling Hogwarts houses? REALLY?) Also, it’s set in Australia, so it gets bonus setting points for not being doomed-US.

The most science fictiony element, and my second favourite part of the world building (my favourite being that it was set in Melbourne and I enjoy visiting home vicariously), was the side story of Milk the mood engineer. He uses scents and subtle changes in lighting to evoke moods and emotions in whoever is in range of his devices. His mission is to artistically make the spaces he works with more harmonious and the people in them happier. I thought it was a fascinating concept and explored with surprising depth in the relatively short novel.

The central-most characters, Tally 13 and Grace 16, are sisters who, up until the first chapter or so, have spent their lives following their deadbeat father around small Australian towns, often leaving town at a moment’s notice. The story starts when an accident kills their father and separates the sisters. They had been planning to run away to the city (Melbourne) “soon” but now they are forced to make their way there separately.

We follow the girls, the city and a few miscellaneous characters, sometimes obliquely, as they make ends meet, get by and wonder where their lives are going. By the time I was reading the climax, I was sceptical of a satisfactory ending but by golly, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, without spoilers, I can understand other people not feeling the same way.

I’m not sure I’d call Black Glass YA. The other characters are mostly adults and a lot of the concepts explored are things you don’t necessarily want kids to have to worry about. Of course, the reality is that many kids today do worry about similar things to Tally and Grace. I wouldn’t stop a twelve year old from reading it, but I would also encourage them to wait a few years. I could see it as the sort of book that might be studied in year 11 or 12, though.

In any case, it’s an excellent piece of writing. I highly recommend Back Glass to not only science fiction fans but everyone. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, science fictional element in Black Glass is so minor you’ll barely notice.

4.5 / 5 stars

Monday, 23 April 2012

When he was telling the truth, Colmán was painfully conscious of his role as the chief bard charged with memorising the history of the Undivided, and being a traditionalist, he went to great pains to speak in rhyme. When he was lying, Darragh had told her with a laugh, the Vate was so busy concentrating on the lie, he forgot all about rhyme.

The Dark Divide, Jennifer Fallon

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Burnt Ice by Steve Wheeler

Burnt Ice, the first in the A Fury of Aces series, is Steve Wheeler’s debut novel. I was really excited to read a new ANZ science fiction novel since there are so few of them being published, especially by large publishers (this one is from Harper Voyager, if you’re wondering). And it has such a lovely cover, too (so much SF coming out of the US has unappealing covers with artwork ruined, in my opinion, by unpleasant typography).

When I picked up Burnt Ice, I was expecting something like a Sean Williams and/or Shane Dix novel, but that wasn’t what I got.

Burnt Ice follows the adventures and misadventures of a military engineering crew in a distant future where wars are called “conflicts” and are sanctioned by the ever-watching Games Board. Of course, only part of the story revolves around the Games Board. The novel is actually structured as four almost self-contained stories with different but related missions at their centre. The over-arching plot holds everything together, even if at times it’s not obvious how the current conflict connects.

The plot was solid and fast-paced without a dull moment. New dangers kept arising and the crew’s missions took them to interesting places. The world building was also fairly strong, especially the planet at the start, which I enjoyed reading about. I also liked that there were aliens they didn’t know much about that popped up to cause trouble every now and then.

The writing was heavy on the technobabble, which I didn’t mind, although at times every new procedure was described in a bit too much technical detail. It didn’t bother me at first, but it got a bit much towards the end. On the other hand, the science and pseudoscience didn’t make me angry with it’s lack of credibility (as in, it was mostly correct and at least semi-viable), so that’s always a plus.

There were some things that did bother me, however. The characters were not very well developed and, especially in the first half or so when the focus was on the core crew, it wasn’t that easy to distinguish between them. The characters that stood out were basically Marko, the mainest character, Fritz, The Oddball Genius, and Jan, The (Mysterious) Girl. The other two crew members didn’t read terribly differently to Marko. Very little time was spent developing the personalities and relationships between them to the point where, for example, we’re told when there’s a romantic connection but no reason is really given for it and I was left wondering why those two would even want to hook up. The characters that came along later on were more distinct and interesting, but they weren’t further developed either. It would have been a stronger novel if some of the technobabble were exchanged for some character development.

Easily my favourite character was the sentient ACE (Artificially Created Entity) soft-of-pet Marko built for himself in the latter half of the book. Basically an animal cyborg, it’s quirky lack of understanding of human idioms gave me a couple of laughs. It wouldn’t really have meshed with the plot earlier on, but I do wish it had come along sooner.

The other thing that bothered me was the unnecessary (and I assume unconscious) use of gendered slurs. For example “arrogant woman/bitch” was used two too many times. In an ostensibly gender-equal world, it felt like everyone who screwed up and more than half the dodgy people (as in bad guys, but there were shades of grey and mystery to some of them) were female or AIs. I was particularly offended when someone called the suddenly rogue AI a f*cking bitch (the swearing I don’t object to because the AI was trying to kill them). Even though the AIs were loosely gendered, you can’t get much more asexual than a computer so you’d think notions of gender would have been redefined by that distant future point. As I said, I very much doubt it was intentional sexism, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t bother me.

The ending was very much an ending to part one in a series. There were a lot of unanswered questions, including some mysterious new characters who showed up towards the end and promised (the reader, not so much the other characters, which isn’t a bad thing) some answers as well as more interesting questions. If the characterisation hadn’t bothered me so much I would be interested in reading what happens next. As is, I’m not sure that I will be picking up the next in the (possibly ten book long) series.

3 / 5 stars

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Spellbound by Rachel Hawkins

Spellbound by Rachel Hawkins is the concluding volume in the Hex Hall trilogy. You can read my reviews for Hex Hall and Demonglass (US) / Raising Demons (UK/Aus) at those links. I bought the UK/Aus ebook edition of Spellbound but because I have the first two books in US paperback editions, I have also included the US cover below. Well, actually, I included it because for the first time I prefer US covers for a series. But anyway. (I can’t help but wonder why all the US covers feature a cat. There are no cats in the series whatsoever! Is it just supposed to be a generic “oh look witch” indicator? Inquiring minds need to know.

Being the third and final volume in the series, this review is going to be vaguer than usual thanks to avoiding spoilers.

Spellbound picks up exactly where Demonglass/Raising Demons left off. There is a lot more action spread throughout the book (compare with book 2 where most of the excitement was towards the end). There’s still piles of sarcasm from Sophie, the main character, but in contrast with the early books, in which she just enjoyed being snarky, now she’s sarcastic out of fear and nervousness. There were still some funny lines that made me laugh out loud, but overall the plot, subject matter and stakes were more serious.

In my review of Demonglass, I said that there were higher stakes and more serious business than in Hex Hall. This trend continues with Spellbound raising the stakes as far as possible (because what can out, er, stake an apocalyptic war?) and throwing the characters further into the deep end.

In some ways, the good guys’ plans seemed a little simplistic, but on the other hand, considering that Sophie, a teenager, was a key player, that’s probably realistic. I appreciated that when they decided “ok, we’ll try and do blah and hopefully that will save the day”, it might have looked like it would be too easy, but it never was.

As far as the romantic plot line went, the love triangle annoyed me, but I think that’s mainly because I’m really over love triangles in YA. It wasn’t actually poorly executed, despite me being on the “wrong team”. and hoping the other guy would get killed. I would have appreciated a less formulaic and more surprising approach, but it certainly wasn’t something which ruined the book for me. (And for more on why I’m complaining about love triangles, I recommend this post by Shaheen.)

The ending was satisfactory with the world saved (yeah, so not a spoiler) and all the characters were nicely accounted for. Overall, I enjoyed Spellbound more than Demonglass but I had less fun reading it than I did Hex Hall. I continue to recommend this series to anyone who likes YA, paranormal adventures and snarky sarcasm.

4 / 5 stars

Friday, 20 April 2012

Gender distribution in SFFH Australian authors published in 2011

Tansy put out a request on Twitter for someone to compile states on gender breakdown of Aussie SFF novelists and for some reason I volunteered. Because apparently I was bored this morning (actually, it did take my mind off feeling sick, so yay).

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins

Demonglass (titled Raising Demons in the UK/Australia) by Rachel Hawkins is the second book in the Hex Hall trilogy. You can read my review of book 1, Hex Hall, here.

The shenanigans and sarcasm from Hex Hall return in full force in Demonglass. Sophie is off to spend summer break in the UK with her absentee father and, luckily, her best friend Jenna is allowed to come with her. Conveniently, from a plot-ish point of view, one of her love interests also goes with them.

Where Hex Hall mostly involved school yard pranks and mischief with only mysterious murders and a bit of life-threatening danger at the end, Demonglass ups the ante. There’s a lot more danger and risk with more adult-involvement (as in, less teenage mischief more serious business).

Happily, Sophie’s sarcasm continues apace.

One thing that bothered me plot-wise was the love interest/triangle. I’m a bit over love triangles and I suspect I’m rooting for the losing side (which seems to often be the case, hmm). The other thing that probably wouldn’t bother most readers that got to me were a couple of misused words (eggcorns, to use New Scientist’s term): brisk instead of brusque, shattering instead of chattering. Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it was enough to throw me out of the story.

On the other hand, it was interesting to watch Sophie’s relationship with her father develop (although I think elaboration would be spoilery). That and the fact that Jenna got some happies were two of the highlights.

The big finish was definitely big and the last few chapters crammed in a lot of sudden action and excitement and also a cliffhanger. Good thing I already have the concluding volume, Spellbound, lined up and ready to go.

Overall, a must read if you enjoyed Hex Hall. I liked it slightly less but the ending more than made up for it. Oh, and I was still definitely laughing out loud. If you haven’t started the Hex Hall series, definitely do if you like YA with magic and sarcastic, snarky main characters.

4 / 5 stars

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

In my experience, nothing pleasant slithers.

Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins

Destiny of the Light by Louise Cusack

Destiny of the Light by Louise Cusack is the sort of book that might colloquially be called a BFF: Big Fat Fantasy. I think that’s a good term, because other possible sub-genre descriptors such as “epic fantasy” or “high fantasy” come with different connotations for different people. So BFF it is. (Even though ebooks don’t really have a thickness, shh.)

After her brother’s apparent suicide ten years previously Catherine was left alone to care for her mother during her lingering death from cancer. When she starts hearing a voice in her head, she assumes she’s crazy but the voice insists its her destiny to follow her brother to another world. Crazy or not, who can fight destiny?

And so the long lost White Princess finds her way back from an exile spent in our world to the brown, faunaless world of Ennae. Except while she was gone for three years in Ennae, she lived through fifteen years in our world. And to compound things, Khatrene, the Princess, has no memories of her childhood in Ennae. Luckily, her Guardian Champion was the one who facilitated her transition between worlds and he will do anything to protect her and get her to her brother, now the king.

However, destiny and the voice in her head don’t leave her alone once she’s back in the world she belongs in.

Destiny of the Light is full of interesting characters. There are a lot of them and it took me a few chapters to get them all sorted out in my head, with the exception of the main (-est) character, Khatrene, who stands out by being from our world. While there wasn’t much moral ambiguity among who is on the side of good and who is on the side of evil, there was ambiguity in the sense of “oh, turns out that person is evil/good” as we learn more about them. A lot of what drives the action is characters making assumptions (or listening to lies) about other characters and acting accordingly while, as the reader, we are left shaking our fists at the page screaming, “No, don’t listen to that person!” And  it doesn’t tend to be stupidity or silly miscommunications which lead to problems, which is nice. (Books where everything could be solved if the characters just had a proper conversation annoy me.)

Every time I thought the plot was slowing down, something new and unexpected would happen to keep me turning the page.

The supporting characters were integral to the story. I don’t want to say too much about various enemies for spoilery reasons, but I will say the daughter of the spiritual leader and the young, brash apprentice Guardian were particularly entertaining, especially when they were in the same room. The daughter’s growth as a character between start and end was well done and definitely added depth.

The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger, but many things are left in the air (eg almost everyone’s fates). This is the sort of trilogy where one long story is divided into three parts, rather than three self-contained stories with an overarching theme.

There is a lot in this book, and I’ve found it difficult to review. Hopefully my review encourages you to give it a shot, especially if you like BFF. Here is a link to the series page on Louise Cusack’s website with links to where you can buy the trilogy.

4 / 5 stars

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

‘Single Lifers are weird! Fancy seriously considering that you are only meant to have a normal one hundred twenty years or so lifetime and then die completely, no hiving, no relifing, not being uploaded into a chassis, just seeing out your days and then dying forever! Stuff that!’

From Burnt Ice by Steve Wheeler

Monday, 16 April 2012

Shift by Em Bailey

I came across Shift by Em Bailey while browsing some ebook store (I don’t actually remember which one, probably Kobo since that’s where I bought it). It was the blurb that first intrigued me, so allow me to post it here:

Olive is not crazy – although there was that incident last year and that spell in the psych ward, but now she’s taking her meds and staying away from the toxic ‘in’ crowd. But when new girl Miranda turns up, Olive knows that there is something very dangerous about her, even if everyone else doesn’t. But who will believe her, when everyone probably thinks she’s crazy anyway? That is, everyone except her best friend, Ami, whom her mother disapproves of for some strange reason. But all is not what it seems in this page-turning thriller and there are twists and turns that you just cannot predict.

This isn’t an SFF book. At most I’d tentatively call it magical realism. It’s full of psychological drama and there is blurring of reality so you’re not always sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s also a book about mental illness about being weird and about dealing (or not) with those things.

I really loved it.

Honestly, there was only one aspect I disliked about it and it’s not the sort of thing that would bother everyone. The author is Australian (this is her first YA book, but she has written books for younger readers as Meredith Badger) and the book is indisputably set in an Australian coastal town near either Melbourne or Sydney (my theory is Melbourne, but I may be biased). It’s definitely Australia because they have high schools like we do (years 7 to 12) and wear school uniforms in state schools (I only recently learnt this is a bit of an Australian quirk) and, well it all sounded Australian. But. It also felt like the most direct mentions of Australianness had been removed or carefully not mentioned. At one point the main character goes for a run through the forest, not the bush. There’s a scene near a fig tree, which in itself isn’t that strange, but no gum trees were ever mentioned even thought they must have been ever-present. It just bothered me a bit. A setting made slightly generic but not completely. I would have enjoyed seeing more Australia in it.

Mind you, that was a very small component. The rest of the book — the characters, the plot — was top notch. Olive was great. She was a flawed narrator but that was part of the charm. We were so deeply inside her head that we could only guess things she didn’t know herself a little while before they happened. The way some events were foreshadowed, you had to be paying more attention than Olive was to notice.

The other characters were also very believable. Creepy Miranda was particularly well drawn and mysterious to just the right extent. The secondary characters of best friend, ex-best friend and love interest were also well crafted. I’m not sure that I can properly say what I liked about them without spoilers, however.

And the ending was great. A perfect mix of suspense, action and, well, spoilers.

Even though it’s not really fantasy or science fiction, I think this is still the kind of book lovers of SFF YA would enjoy. And lovers of mainstream YA too, particularly of the darker variety. I loved it. One of my top books read this year. (Oh, and isn’t the cover great? It’s particularly apt, too.)

5 / 5 stars

Saturday, 14 April 2012

‘You’re a good fighter then, are you?’ she asked, and prepared herself for some major bragging.

Ten minutes later she was still waiting for a break in the conversation to butt in.

Destiny of the Light by Louise Cusack

Friday, 13 April 2012

New Booksies

Slide by Jill Hathaway

Cat Girl's Day Off by Kimberly Pauley

Burnt Ice by Steve Wheeler

Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier

I have been hanging out all week hoping that some books flying their way to my mailbox would arrive so that I could a) read them and b) post pretty pictures of them. Alas, it was not to be. I suspect Easter is to blame. Nevertheless, I haven’t been completely bookless since my last IMM new booksies, even if my mailbox has been. I delayed my post-US book buying ban by buying Slide and I signed up to NetGalley and was lucky enough to receive some eARCs.

In the order in which they arrived in my possession:
  • Slide by Jill Hathaway (already reviewed)
  • Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley (ARC, already reviewed)
  • Burnt Ice by Steve Wheeler (ARC from HarperVoyager by debut Aussie author. I’m looking forward to getting into some new Aussie science fiction.)
  • Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier (ARC by another debut Aussie author. It’s been a while since I read a new Voyager epic fantasy novel — that is, not a sequel — so I’m really looking forward to this too. And, bonus, it will count towards AWW2012.)
Hopefully my mail books will magically appear in my mailbox soon and I can post some more pretty covers ;-p Hey, part of the fun having piles of books is looking at them, even if they only exist as pixels and bytes.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Cat Girl's Day Off by Kimberly Pauley

Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley is set in a world where people have non-secret superpowers. Chicago schoolgirl, Nat, has a very talented family. Her parents and siblings all have multiple and powerful superpowers. It runs in the family. Except Nat only has one superpower: she can talk to cats. Whoopdidoo.

The excitement starts when her best friends force her to watch a YouTube video of a celebrity blogger who’s come to town to cover the filming of a teen movie. Nat notices the blogger’s pink cat is calling out for help in the clip. Somehow, the blogger’s been replaced by a double and only her pets and Nat no about it. It’s up to Nat and her friends to work out what’s going on.

Cat Girl’s Day Off was an amusing and quirky (in a good way) book. A quick light read that made me laugh out loud a few times (mostly at the snarky cats). The celebrity angle had be a bit doubtful at first since I’m really not the kind of person who gives a crap about celebrities, but then neither does Nat, so that was OK. Her friends were a bit over the top at first, but by the end they had developed into non-clichéd characters. A couple of times Nat’s inner monologue got a bit repetitive, but mostly it was entertaining. And her strictly PG swearing made me smile. (Oh, poodle farts!)

Ultimately, this was partly a coming-of-age story. In the end (not a spoiler) Nat comes to accept her powers as not completely useless and grows up a bit. The other part, the mystery and celebrity impersonation part, was taken a little bit lightly at times. Yes, it was inescapably amusing when the cats helped the humans catch the bad guy, but not quite enough weight was given to all the bad things that were going on.

Cat Girl’s Day Off was a light, fun read. Don’t read it if you’re in the mood for something serious and, as should be obvious by now, don’t read it if you hate cats. I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, but I believe it is generally available from today.

4 / 5 stars

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is dystopian YA set in a future USA where everyone gets plastic surgery at 16 to make them look a) pretty and b) all very similar. Pre-op teens are called uglies because their, y’know, normal-looking faces and bodies are considered ugly by the very precise beauty standards of the society. Post-ops are known as pretties (with additional qualifiers for age later on). And, of course, uglies and pretties don’t mix. Once children reach age 12, they leave their (pretty) parents’ homes and movie into an dorm with other uglies.

Honestly, when I was reading I couldn’t help picturing pretties as those horrific over-plastic surgeried people. You know, the ones that look alarmingly plastic? So I couldn’t quite see the personal appeal of becoming a pretty, but it was quite plausible that the characters in the book were desperate for it. All the brainwashing at school (“It’s biology! We’re programmed to like pretty people.”) would have helped too. Basically, the society Westerfeld created was plausible and, while I wouldn’t say “only in America” it did seem the sort of thing much more likely to eventuate in the US than, say, Europe or Australia. Just saying.

The main character, Tally, is left alone on the ugly side of the river after her best friend is turned pretty three months before her (since he is three months older). She is desperate to join him. But then she meets Shay, who doesn’t want to become a pretty and who thinks that maybe staying ugly wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Shay knows of a special city/village called the Smoke, where uglies can live happily away from the watching eyes of the city and never have to turn pretty. After they become friends, Shay runs away to the Smoke not long before she’s due to turn pretty. Tally is again left alone but, after an encounter with the scary-looking specials, Tally is forced to follow.

The middle half-ish of Uglies was a bit predictable plot-wise. It wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t in any way surprising for a dystopian YA novel. On the other hand, the writing was good and the characters and world building were good, which made up for it. The real pay off, however, was the ending which took the story in an interesting new direction and set up the next book in the series. (I don’t know if you can see clearly enough in that cover photo, but the book titles go Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras.)

The one thing that bothered me was that it wasn’t as anti-beauty standard as I was hoping. The pretties were creepy and similar-looking and had way more surgery than would be considered healthy in our society (although it’s set in the future and medical science has advanced so that surprisingly complicated surgeries don’t take very long and have very little recovery time associated with them). And yes, the book does carry the message that you can be beautiful just the way you are (as you would hope it would!). However, I thought this was undermined a bit when it was revealed that the society was creepier and more controlling than it appeared on the surface. I know this is de rigueur for dystopias, but it still felt like it detracted from the “you don’t need plastic surgery to look normal” message.

I definitely want to read the rest of the series, but it may be some time before I get to it, thanks to a self-imposed book-buying ban. I recommend Uglies to anyone who likes YA, dystopias or science fiction.

4 / 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

This review was originally posted here on the Legend Awards website. I received a review copy of this book from the folks at the David Gemmell Legend Awards because it was nominated for a Morningstar Award (debut novel). Sadly, it didn’t make the shortlist, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.

Fire and Thorns is about Elisa, a sixteen year old second princess who was chosen by God for a higher purpose and who, at the very start of the novel, is married off to a neighbouring king. This is very much a coming of age story in which we watch Elisa grow from a fat and useless princess — in her own eyes — to queen.

When she was a baby, God sent Elisa a Godstone, a gem which is lodged in her bellybutton and which marks her as chosen to perform a divine service. But she has no idea what that service might be, or how she can possibly achieve it.

I liked the setting Carson chose to write. It’s a blend of Middle Eastern location — deserts, adobe houses, dark-skinned people — and Spanish linguistics. At first I was a little geographically confused when Elisa first left her father’s kingdom (I wished the book included a map) but this was resolved as the story wore on and she travelled more. Likewise, I found the Spanish-inspired names a bit confusing in what my brain associated with an Arabic setting, but culturally, I think it worked, especially as we learnt more about the religion and the Godstones.

At the start of the novel, Elisa is has a bit of an inferiority complex. However, she’s been well trained by her tutors and when she arrives in her new kingdom, she discovers that her skills — particularly what she knows of war and strategy — can be put to good use. She is also overweight and, although she never defines herself entirely by her weight, part of her low self-esteem is tied to her thinking everyone sees her as “fat and useless”. When she faces trials throughout the book, it’s really nice to watch her confidence and self-worth grow as she overcomes them. By the end, I found it quite plausible that she could go on to be a great queen.

The main criticism I have, and the only thing that made this feel like a first novel, is that the setting was a little bit under-described. Despite being told in first person, I thought a little bit more setting description beyond the character’s immediate surroundings would have been nice. For example, some explanation of the nature of the jungle separating her father’s and husband’s desert kingdoms. Since Elisa is well-educated, I think this could have easily worked. In the same vein, some of the secondary characters could have been fleshed out a little more. Also, the role of women in their societies was never explicitly discussed. I got the feeling that there were few prejudices stopping women from being in power (there were no issues with her sister inheriting her father’s throne, for example), but then why was she married off without consultation? Maybe because she was a princess, but we don’t get a chance to find out how similar arrangements are made among commoners of her father’s kingdom (though there are vague hints about how it works in her husband’s kingdom).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Fire and Thorns. According to Carson’s website, it’s the first book in a trilogy, but it is quite self-contained and absolutely stands alone. From the ending, I can see where the sequels might take the story, but there is certainly no cliff-hanger and no niggling loose ends. I’ll probably take a look at the next book when it comes out, but it’s not quite at the top of my to read list.

I recommend Fire and Thorns to lovers of fantasy and YA fantasy, especially those who’ve had enough of medieval-style settings.

4 / 5 stars

Monday, 9 April 2012

The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit.

Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavoured cat food for a while, to get the pinks right.

Opening lines of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (review)

Skye Object 3270a by Linda Nagata

I received Skye Object 3270a by Linda Nagata from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program a little while ago. It was great and I’m a little annoyed at myself for putting off reading it for so long.

It’s a book that can be classified as middle grade or YA — personally I’d call it YA because a) it’s about teenagers and b) I don’t really understand where the boundaries for middle grade are supposed to be anyway. On the other hand, the main character is 14, a little younger than standard for YA and the romantic story line isn’t super serious as in many YA books.

Skye Object 3270a is set on and above a distant planet in the far distant future. It’s about Skye, who was found in an escape capsule when she was a baby. No one knows where she came from or how long she was in hibernation in the capsule before being discovered. She is named after the astronomical designation for her capsule before they realised it was a capsule (which I thought was a bit mean of the civilisation, but at least no one teases her for it).

Skye and her friends are ados, adolescents in a world where people live for several centuries (perhaps indefinitely, but the planet they live above (up a space elevator) hasn’t been settled for that long and the oldest people were just under 300 I think). People are considered ados and aren’t taken seriously until they’re 100 and become Real people. Interestingly, this sees 14 year olds lumped into the same demographic as 99 year old and they’re all treated more or less the same. Which is to say, sort of taken seriously but also dismissed as a bit silly and reckless.

And reckless is a pretty good description of Skye and her friends. From bungee jumping down the space elevator shaft the maximum allowed distance (4.3 km) to breaking many rules for a variety of reasons, there are lots of entertaining shenanigans in this book. There’s also a more serious underlying mission to find out where Skye really came from.

What really struck me about Skye Object 3270a is the depth of the world building. From the space elevator to the freefall scenes to the nanobots and biological oddities, Nataga’s world was not only physically plausible but rich and detailed. An exemplary example of SF worldbuilding. Apparently, Skye Object 3270a is set in the same world (but different characters) as Nagata’s Deception Well (which is indeed the name of the planet in Skye Object 3270a) and a few other stand alone novels. I bought the Locus Award-winning The Bohr Maker (also in that universe but set earlier in time) a while ago and it has just jumped up a few places in my virtual TBR pile.

I highly recommend Skye Object 3270a to lovers of quality science fiction and adventure. Although it is written for younger readers, I think it can be enjoyed by all (even if older readers, like myself, shake their heads at the dangerous stunts the characters pull).

5 / 5 stars

Sunday, 8 April 2012

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde is the sixth book in his apparently ongoing Thursday Next saga. This review doesn’t contain spoilers for previous books.

The Thursday Next books are based around the premise that BookWorld, the reality in which all fiction (and non-fiction, come to that) comes to life, is a real place. Thursday Next, in earlier books, has adventures travelling in an out of BookWorld with evil corporation and miscellaneous bad guys doing, er, bad things both in RealWorld and BookWorld. It’s an enjoyable series. The first book is The Eyre Affair, involving shenanigans in Jane Eyre. If you’re a book geek (and especially if you’ve read some of the classics, although I haven’t and was still able to enjoy the books) I recommend them. The first few books should be mandated book geek reading. ;-p

On the other hand, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is not a place to start reading this series. It depends a little too heavily on having a knowledge of earlier books. It’s set mostly in BookWorld just as BookWorld undergoes a restructuring. That part isn’t problematic as new BookWorld is new for all readers. But later RealWorld comes up and Thursday’s RealWorld bears only a passing similarity to ours. I’d actually forgotten about that until it came up but at least I’d read the earlier books and had those memories to fall back on. I think a new reader would have found that section quite confusing.

The set up for One of Our Thursdays is Missing is that RealWorld Thursday has (surprise!) gone missing. BookWorld Thursday, the one playing Thursday in the novelisations of Thursday’s adventures (which aren’t quite identical to the earlier books in the series but are closely related… it’s all very meta) has to work out what happened. And why Real Thursday is missing. And so forth. Also there are peace talks that Real Thursday was supposed to attend which may or may not have something to do with her disappearance but by golly it’s all a bit of a problem.

I didn’t hate the book. I quite enjoyed the first third or so of it. (Whether or not this was because I was suffering delusions due to prolonged lack of sleep is debatable.) But I felt it lagged from them onwards. It was amusing — the humour wasn’t the problem — but it just left me a little cold. I read three other books while still in the middle of this one, which doesn’t say much for it’s ability to keep my attention.

Overall, I’d recommend it to fans of Fforde’s other work who have read the previous books. (Actually, having read all previous books isn’t strictly necessary. The plot is self-contained, it’s just the world-building that isn’t. However, as I remember enjoying the rest of the Thursday Next books, I do recommend reading them before getting to this one, lest One of Our Thursdays is Missing put you off the others.)

3.5 / 5 stars

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Slide by Jill Hathaway

Slide by Jill Hathaway was a book I almost bought at Heathrow during my stupidly long layover. I was able to talk myself out of it at the time because a) I’d just bought a pile of books in the US and and b) I opened it to a random page in the middle and it seemed a little bit shallow. Then later c) I bought a Kobo.

But now I seem to be on some sort of YA binge and ran out of pre-purchased YA so I downloaded the sample/preview of Slide and one thing led to another, I bought it and kept flipping those iPhone pages until I got to the end. Needless to say, I enjoyed it.

Slide is about Vee, a teenage girl (I think aged 17), who has a magical form of narcolepsy. When she passes out, she slides into someone else’s head for a few minutes. She can’t read their mind, but does see and experience life from their point of view. The choice of who she slides into is determined by what she was touching at the time; if she touches something which had some sort of emotional significance to another person, she’ll probably slide into their heads. Because she can’t read minds, she often doesn’t know who she’s slid into unless there’s a clue in the new environment or unless she knows what object brought on the episode.

Things aren’t exactly going well for Vee with mild injuries brought on by the narcolepsy interspersed and night-time insomnia to top it all off. But then she slides into the head of a murderer just after they’ve committed the crime. A cheerleader is dead and because the killer made it look like suicide, Vee is the only one who knows it’s murder.

And so, between boys being confusing, girls being bitchy and her sister (friends with the dead girl) falling apart, Vee realises it’s up to her to work out who the killer is. She can’t tell anyone else about it, because they’ll just think she’s crazy.

This book had be guessing at whodunit until the end. I was wondering “oh, could it be that person? Surely not, but that does look very suspicious” right along with Vee and I couldn’t stop reading until I got to the end. Far from being shallow, as per my first impression, the book works much better in context. It’s written in a fairly straight-forward style but from the (first person) point of view of a teenager, this is quite appropriate.

There were some parallels between Vee and Veronica Mars. Both outcasts, both have male BFFs and pasts that aren’t all sunshine and roses. Vee is slightly less awesome (and less immediately proactive at trying to solve all the mysteries) but that’s not an entirely fair comparison since Veronica Mars is my favourite teenage girl character ever. What I did enjoy about Vee was watching her take control of her life by deciding to find the killer. Throughout the book she gains agency and becomes less of a victim of her condition. Which was nice to read about.

In short, this was an enjoyable read. If you’re after some YA mystery and murder, this is a good place to start.

4 / 5 stars

Friday, 6 April 2012

Mercy by Rebecca Lim

Mercy by Rebecca Lim, is a YA book about Mercy, an angel (or something like that, it’s not entirely articulated, despite what the blurb says). She is forcibly thrust into random girls bodies and forced to take over their lives. She never knows where she’ll wake up, who she’ll have to be or why. This time, she wakes up as Carmen, a star soprano singer in a high school choir. The choir is visiting the town of Paradise for a concert and preparations and Mercy/Carmen finds herself billeted with the family of a girl who disappeared two years previously.

Although everyone else assumes the missing girl is dead, her twin brother believes she is alive and hasn’t given up searching for her. Mercy realised that he’s probably right and joins him in his search and attempts to work out who the culprit is.

Although this is a YA book, it reminded me a bit of serial killer books I’ve read in the past (Michael Marshal [Smith] springs to mind), but that’s possibly more a reflection of the dearth of crime novels I’ve read. Nevertheless, I found something appealing about Mercy’s attempts to work out who did it and try to get inside the criminal’s mind. That aspect of the novel was dark in a different way to, for example, YA dystopias. It was about the darkness inside one person than the darkness of an oppressive society or a war.

Lim has a more poetic writing style than most other YA books I can think of. Also, written in first person, Mercy spends more time philosophising than other YA characters that spring to mind (possibly because she’s not really a teenage girl). She also spends time wondering who and why she really is, who the mysterious probably-angels that she dreams about are and so forth. I didn’t find those parts as exciting as the who kidnapped the girl parts and at times they got a bit tedious.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the parts where she didn’t care what the bitchy girls thought of her/Carmen and didn’t respond as insecurely as Carmen would have. There was pleasure to be derived from watching the bitchy popular girl squirm. Oh, and Mercy isn’t a terribly kind person, which, if anything, added to her character, in my opinion.

Overall, Mercy is a well-written book. I’ll be picking up the sequel although my impression is that almost all the supporting characters will have changed. Hopefully Mercy’s character will be enough to carry off the dramatic change (according to the blurb and Shaheen’s review).

4 / 5 stars

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Short Stories

I bought a Kobo Touch ereader on my way home from a distant trip. Partly because it’s hard to have an 8 hour layover without buyingsomethingother than necessary food (I also bought a giant box of Jelly Belly jelly beans at half the price of duty free, whoo), and partly because carrying paper books to read on long-haul flights is tedious. For one thing, they weigh more and take up more room and, for another, being shoved in my bag leads to more damaged covers (sacrilege!) than leaving them at home. Also, I have a terrible tendency to choose the wrong sort of books to take on flights, but I’m not blaming that on the dead trees.

Usually I read ebooks on my iPhone or iPad (on the go vs at home when hubby isn’t using it) and that’s not going to change. I have absolutely no problem reading on backlit screens and, hey, my iPhone still has more pixels than the Kobo making it smoother on the eyes. So why did I buy a Kobo? Battery life. It takes 24+ hours to fly from Europe to Australia and neither iThing can survive that many hours of near constant use (even in airplane aeroplane mode) and still have juice for emergencies upon arrival. Sure, I could bet on not reading the whole way — perhaps trying to sleep or availing myself of inflight entertainment — but sleep doesn’t always happen and not all flights have TVs in seats, especially overnight flights (and out of 24+ hourssome of that has to be overnight). So I bought a Kobo, which I just spent too many words justifying.

I wanted to test out my new Kobo but didn’t want to commit to reading an entire novel on it. After loading all my books on it (well, most of them; I discovered I don’t have the best ebook backup/filing system) I thought why not read some short stories that I’ve downloaded or bought and not got around to? The covers above are the stories I’ve read in the past couple of days.

“Grandeur” by Jo Anderton

This is a prequel teaser for Debris(see my review here). It gives a bit of a taste of the world and the characters, particularly the main character, Tanyana. Of course it contains no information crucial to the story in Debris, but I found it an interesting backstory. You can download it free as a PDF from the author’s website.

“Marine Biology” by Gail Carriger

This is a great story with adorable characters. Alec, the main character, is an in-the-closet werewolf who really doesn’t fit in with his pack. There are also merpeople and selkies. It’s similar in sensibilities to Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books, but set in the modern world and with marine supernaturals included. (Side note: the cover works particularly well on the black and white Kobo e-ink screen.) You can buy it for 99 US cents on Smashwords.

“Party, With Echoes” by Patty Jansen

This is a science fictional deep-sea adventure set on Europa. It has weird alien bacterial colonies and an ice cave. Fun, quick read. You can download it free (for now?) on Smashwords.

“How Astrid Found Her Passion” by Nichole Murphy

A fantasy story about an Australian woman who gets mysteriously transported to a magical kingdom and inadvertently tangled up in a local dispute between mages and a lord. Another fun, quick read. You can also download this story free (for now?) on Smashwords.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

I admit part of the reason I picked up Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins was because of the smashing cover. This is one of the few times I’ve preferred the US cover to the Aus/UK one (see small Aus/UK cover below on the left). The other reason was — thanks to jet lag — I felt like an easy/fun YA read.

And what a fun read it was. I wasn’t expecting Hex Hall to be quite as laugh-out-loud funny as it was. From the prologue, in which we learn just why Sophie is sentenced to the supernatural reform school, to a plethora of sarcastic comments, I was sniggering or laughing every few pages.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of Sohpie, a witch who did one too many spells in front of humans. But she was raised by her human mother after her parents broke up and didn’t get to speak to her father until she came into her powers. Before arriving at school, she had never met any other supernaturals (the school has witches, shapeshifters (including werewolves), faeries and vampires) and knows very little about their society. She quickly manages to antagonise the three bitchy witches, but at least she’s room-mates with the only vampire student so they can be outcasts together.

Then things start to go wrong. A student is attacked and Sophie’s new vampire friend is the prime suspect. Sophie doesn’t believe her friend did it, but everyone else does. No one will listen when Sophie starts looking for the real culprit.

As I said at the start, this was a really fun book. Without getting overly gloomy, it touches on racial tension (faeries and shapeshifters don’t really get along, hopefully something that will be explored more in the sequels) and fear of the unknown (humans who find out about supernaturals tend to get homicidal on them). And of course, there’s the whole being an outcast element. Actually, it was nice that the vampire girl was more of an outcast than Sophie started off being. Too many books have the Chosen One also being a complete outcast. At least while Sophie has elements of Chosen One-ness, it’s mainly the bitchy coven that hates her straight away, not the whole school.

Did I mention funny? I’ve ordered the second book, Demonglass, from Book Depository and look forward to reading it.

4.5 / 5 stars

Monday, 2 April 2012

Ember and Ash by Pamela Freeman

Ember and Ash by Pamela Freeman is a set twenty years after the events at the end of the Castings Trilogy (Blood Ties, Deep Water and Full Circle). It is technically a sequel, and some of the characters from Castings do pop up again, but it very much stands alone. I think the main thing one would miss from not reading Castings, is a deeper exploration of the past colonial racism and oppression. Oh, and there are some spoilers for who survives the world almost ending in Castings, although not all the prominent Castings characters rate a mention.

A few words on comparisons with the Castings Trilogy first. Castings is a story about colonial invasion, ongoing racial oppression and revenge. It’s much more violent than Ember and Ash and found some aspects (there was a lot of — realistic — sexual violence) very haunting. In terms of social world building, parallels between the Travellers, the oppressed original inhabitants of the Domains, can be drawn to just about any displaced indigenous peoples. However, in Ember and Ash there is less overt racism and, while still relevant, race plays a less life-defining role.

Ember and Ash is more a story about places and the powers that reside in different landscapes. The Ice King, who made some background appearances in Castings, is much more prominent, ditto the Power of Fire. It’s also a story about how tenuous the status quo can be and how legal equality does not necessarily translate to social equality, especially when things start to go wrong.

This is the kind of book you can’t read too quickly lest you don’t absorb all of it. (By corollary, I probably shouldn’t have read it on long-haul flights and while travelling, but I have an unfortunate tendency to pick the wrong books to take on aeroplanes.) Freeman’s writing style is somewhat literary, dwelling on magical symbolism as much, if not more, than action. In some ways, it reminds me of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, but in style more than content. There was also a lot of lovely imagery, some of it bordering on metaphorical.

The story opens with Ember’s marriage ceremony going awry when the Power (spirit/god) of Fire makes an appearance and takes back the gift of fire until such time as Ember makes the long journey to Fire Mountain. And incidentally, he incinerates her husband. And so begins the quest. Aided by Ash, her sort-of-cousin-but-technically-nephew-and-not-by-blood-anyway, and a few other friends, relatives and guards, she sets off. Meanwhile, the people left behind — her father the Warlord, her mother the seer — are left to organise some means of surviving the not-as-distant-as-it-previously-seemed winter without any fire.

I very much liked Ember as a character. Raised to be a Warlord’s wife by her father and skilled in negotiation, her Traveller mother makes sure Ember knows other practical skills as well. Ash starts off thinking of Ember as his silly highborn cousin who cares only for a good marriage. As the story progresses and Ember is given the chance to prove herself on their journey, he comes to respect her intelligence and character. It was very well done and an interesting transition to watch.

I enjoyed Ember and Ash, but I think I liked Castings more. In the end, despite a similar style, they are structured very differently with different aspects of world-building as story foci. On the other hand, Ember and Ash was more consistently enjoyable since, unlike Castings, it didn’t have interludes of miscellaneous cameo characters between PoV character chapters. In Castings those broke up the flow a bit, despite it all coming together at the end. The romantic plot line in Ember and Ash is unconventional (I don’t think I can explain how without spoilers) but more prominent than any in Castings.

Ultimately, I think more nuance will come through in Ember and Ash if you’ve read Castings before it, but Castings is not for the faint of heart and not necessary to enjoy Ember and Ash.

4.5 / 5 stars