Thursday, 31 January 2013

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi is a book I've been wanting to read for a long time. The premise sounded interesting and the style of the opening intrigued me. Also, the new US covers are really pretty. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to my expectations.
No one knows why Juliette's touch is fatal, but The Reestablishment has plans for her. Plans to use her as a weapon. But Juliette has plans of her own. After a lifetime without freedom, she's finally discovering a strength to fight back for the very first time—and to find a future with the one boy she thought she'd lost forever.
The story opens with Juliette living in appallingly poor conditions in a mental hospital/prison where she's been thrown thanks to her superpower of being able to hurt and kill people with the touch of her bare skin. Then the dystopian government (or one specific leader there of) decides to use her as a weapon. Adam, a childhood sort-of-friend of Juliette's, works his way into the army so that he can be close to her with the hope of breaking her out. Also so that he can be the love interest right from the get go.

Distopia is as dystopia does.

Shatter Me suffered from a touch of nonsensical-dystopian-worldbuilding-itis. The US has become a military dictatorship for no clear reason (climate change was mentioned but didn't seem to be a severe contributing factor). As is usual in these situations, the rest of the world almost doesn't seem to exist (other countries are mentioned in passing eventually, though not so we'd know what was happening there). And, of course, the people in power, especially the leader Juliette interacts directly with, seem to be evil. How original. Sorry, but I'm a bit sick of this sort of world building. It started more promisingly when Juliette was still locked in her cell.

What is more promising is the style in which the story is told. It's in first person and Juliette constantly speaks in hyperbolic metaphors. She also second guesses herself a lot, particularly at the start, so that she says what she really thinks says what she thinks she should think. With the strike-through. Your mileage will vary as to how much you like the writing style. At times the poetic way in which she speaks came off as eye-rollingly wanky, but at other times I found the hyperbole endearing. She also has a habit of counting things a bit obsessively but I didn't feel this impinged on the story in a negative way once I got past seeing the numbers written in digits when she's doing this.

Juliette's attitude of disgust towards herself and her abilities was perfectly understandable. She never meant to hurt anyone and the fact that she can accidentally would be difficult to come to terms with. What did bother me a little bit was the instant feelings she had towards Adam when he showed up, but this was mitigated by the fact that she did in fact remember him from her childhood.

Warner, the local leader of the dystopian government, was a pretty good villain. He was appropriately power-hungry and creepily obsessed with Juliette. And good at hurting Juliette both intentionally and as a side-effect of being a power-hungry maniac.

Right up until the end I wasn't sure if I would bother reading the sequel. I didn't hate the reading experience overall, but neither did I love the story. However, it ended on a promising note, which is currently swaying me towards wanting to know more (when it comes out in paperback... if they keep the same pretty covers), pending friends' reviews, perhaps. All in all, I've definitely read worse YA dystopian books. I think Mafi uses both the twist of Juliette's abilities and the hyperbolic narrator's voice well to distinguish her book from others in the genre.

I recommend Shatter Me to fans of YA dystopias. Particularly to those who might be looking for something a bit more interesting in terms of stylistic choices. I am interested to see where the series goes — apart from the obvious bringing down the government, I'm not entirely sure. Not a terrible read, but not one of my favourites.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, Harper Collins US (Allen & Unwin in Australia)
Series: The Juliette Chronicles, book 1 of 3
Format read: paperback, US edition (as pictured above — the Australian covers are pretty terrible, especially in comparison)
Source: Christmas present (requested)

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

New(ish) Booksies

Ish because I've kind of already read them all, but it doesn't seem fair to not include them in a New Booksies post. I have a couple of achievement unlocked book purchases which I haven't spent yet... but I've been so slammed at work, I'm not even sure what I want to read tonight, let alone which books to move from my want list to my TBR.

But anyway, on to the books I acquired since my last new booksies post!

I got a review copy of Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski from the author. You can read my review here. It's a YA werewolf story in a traditional fantasy setting. And, bonus, it's a standalone. I think it would make a good transition book between YA and "grown-up" fantasy.

From Penguin Australia via NetGalley, I received review copies of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead. You can read my review of The Fault in Our Stars here — a heartbreaking story about teenagers with cancer — but you're going to have to wait until closer to the release date to read my review of The Indigo Spell. It's out on February 12th (world wide, I believe). Both are worth a read.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a book about teenagers with cancer. Hopefully that gives you an indication that it's not the cheeriest of books and, perhaps, you should have some tissues at hand when you read it.

The main character, Hazel, is sixteen and terminal. She almost died when she was fourteen, but then an experimental treatment worked and has been keeping the tumours in her lungs from growing ever since. She's still terminal, but she doesn't have a time frame. And because, as she says, her lungs suck at being lungs, she has to wheel a little cylinder of oxygen around with her everywhere she goes and can't really do anything physically exerting.

At a cancer kids support group (which her parents make her attend under sufferance) she meets Augustus, a friend of her only support group friend, who quickly becomes her love interest.

I really enjoyed reading the interactions between Hazel and Augustus. They talk and joke to each other a bit pretentiously, like smart kids sometimes do, and it was refreshing. They talk about books, death and quote poetry at each other. And Hazel tries not to get too entangled with Augustus because she knows she's terminal and doesn't want to put him through losing her as a girlfriend. This is a pretty good summary of Hazel's character as she also spends a lot of time worrying about what will happen to her parents after she's gone, especially her mother, whose life currently revolves around looking after her sick daughter.

The bulk of the novel is about Hazel and Augustus's growing relationship, its consequences and, of course, cancer and death.

The remainder of this review contains a minor spoilers as there are more aspects I wish to discuss, but can't otherwise. If you're concerned, I suggest skipping to the last paragraph before my star rating.

Hazel shares her favourite book with Augustus — about a teenage girl with cancer, which ends suddenly as though the main character died before she could finish writing it. And the book becomes a central fixture of their relationship. Hazel desperately wants to know what happened to the other characters in the book, particularly the main character's mother, school friends and hamster. When Augustus tracks down the reclusive author, his somewhat bleak correspondences bring the couple closer together.

I liked what Green did by including the book with no ending. I briefly worried that he was setting the reader up to be less disappointed by his own planned non-ending (since The Fault in Our Stars is written in first person), but as the story progressed I realised it was an implicit promise to the reader not to do the same thing. Although the book ends before Hazel dies we have been assured as to the fate of her parents, unlike the mother in Hazel's favourite book. Her concert for the fictional mother highlights again Hazel's general worries for the people left behind. Once she comes to terms with the fact that her very existence is not the worst thing to happen to her parents (although her cancer probably is), she also stops needing to know the fate of the fictional character. One of the ultimate messages of The Fault in Our Stars is that loss does not negate the value of what came before it. Sick children can die, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be loved nor that those who love them wish they didn't. Another important theme, which I think many people broadly can empathise with, is that just because one is sick or dying or frequently in pain, doesn't make one less human nor ones thoughts less important.

The Fault in Our Stars is an excellent and heartbreaking read. I recommend it to all readers, although I suspect adults with children might find it more affecting than, well, healthy teenagers. This book has caused quite a stir in the YA blogosphere and I've had it on my goodreads want shelf for a little while. I'm glad I got the chance to read it sooner rather than later.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2012, Penguin Australia
Series: Hah, no.
Format read: e-review copy. (Actually this is the first time I've read a PDF on my Kobo. I was expecting a worse experience although it wasn't awesome.)
Source: Publisher via NetGalley (I believe it's a promotion for the one year book-o-versary)

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson

Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson is a fun YA space adventure novella. I've read a few of the author's many published short stories before, but this is her first longer work.
Sixteen-year-old Rae Stroder lives in a hollow asteroid, a defunct refuelling station, with a brain-damaged adult, Gris, to keep her company. Low on supplies, they’ve been eking out an existence for years. Everything changes when Alwin Anton, ultra-clean, smart and handsome AllEarth Corp company auditor, arrives to find disarray. Full of suspicion, he interrogates Rae, threatening her with prosecution for theft. He uncovers the fact that she is not Rae Stroder at all, when space pirates attack.
Rayessa and the Space Pirates was a fun read. Rayessa is gutsy but woefully undereducated through no fault of her own. She makes do on her sucky asteroid and, as one would expect, dreams of a better life. Although this novella was published by an imprint of Harlequin, it's not really a romance story. There is a romantic element, but to no greater extent than you would expect from a non-romance genre SFF story. And that was fine by me. I am much more a fan of space adventure than of Romance with a capital R.

The setting doesn't take itself too seriously — pirates! aliens! abandoned asteroids! — but which doesn't (erroneously) oversimplify the science too much. Although, I will say the passing mention to it being set in the 2050s was a bit confusing and, based on the technology etc, off by at least a hundred years, probably more. It would take more than 37 years just to build an asteroid base like Rayessa was living on, let alone the giant Saturnian space station that shows up. Anyway, it's a minor point that's easily dismissed and there wasn't anything glaringly silly in the rest of the sciencey stuff.

The style of the story reminded me strongly of Simon Haynes's Hal Spacejock books. Actually, perhaps somewhere in between Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior (and not just because YA falls between adult and younger readers/"middle grade"). Rayessa is no incompetent pilot with an inflated sense of her own abilities, but she's not just a kid getting into elaborate trouble either. In any case, if you enjoyed any of the Hal books, I strongly urge you to give Rayessa and the Space Pirates a try. I hope Hanson writes more stories set in the same universe, particularly about Rayessa.

I enjoyed Rayessa and the Space Pirates and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a quick and/or light-hearted space adventure romp. With pirates.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2013, Escape Publishing (digital only imprint of Harlequin AU)
Series: nope
Format read: ebook on my Kobo
Source: purchased on iBooks (link to publisher's page with purchasing info) (DRM-free which is how it got on my Kobo. Isn't lack of DRM nice?)
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge, Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski

Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski is a standalone YA werewolf novel. Or I could just as easily call it a straight fantasy novel that happens to have werewolves in it. The fantasy world is loosely based on dark-ages Europe — after the Romans left — with the mythology a remix of a few Celtic and Gaulish ideas, including faeries.

The main character, Etienne, is sent out to be fostered with one of his father's allies when he's in his teens — later than usual because as an only son he was needed at home. While serving with Lord Geraint, Etienne learns that Geraint is what Etienne himself has long feared: a werewolf born. However, Geraint is a good and fair master and quickly earns Etienne's loyalty.

There are two types of werewolves in the Wolfborn universe, however: born werewolves, called bisclavret, who are descendant from creatures created by one of the gods, and the other kind, who made a deal with the Dark One to gain the power of shape-changing. Needless to say, the latter tend to be more evil.

For a short book, there several different aspects of mythology packed in — werewolves, faeries, gods — but not, I think, too many. It's hard to judge since I am relatively familiar with Celtic mythology, but I thought the different ideas were sufficiently fleshed out and tied in well to the story.

I found it interesting that Etienne's journey was not a heroic quest or some other common fantasy trope. Instead, it was about him going from fearing werewolves to accepting them (well, the bisclavret ones, anyway) as a normal part of his world's nature. Oh, also, the blurb suggests it's a romantic story but it's not really. It's based on a romantic story (wriiten by Marie de France in the twelfth century, as the afterword tells me), but the focus is shifted in this retelling.

The book reads like Etienne is telling the story well after the fact, when he's older. There are some moments when he comments retrospectively on the events taking place. This reminded me a little bit of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice where Fitz is more or less recounting his life story. There was some similarity in setting and themes too, although Etienne is a page, not an assassin, and Wolfborn is much, much shorter. I enjoyed that aspect, but to me it didn't feel quite like a YA book for that reason. Although it's the length of a YA book, however, and the main character is in the correct age bracket, I think it would work well as a bridging step between other YA fantasy books and "grown up" fantasy books like Hobb's or the multitude of others, some of which I've reviewed. Mind you, I was reading Robin Hobb while I was in my teens (before, ahem, YA was it's own category), so i don't see why teenagers wouldn't enjoy Wolfborn.

The book is quite short, coming in at less than 300 pages, and I think in parts it suffered a little for it. There were some aspects of the story which I think could have been fleshed out a little more. For example, there were a few scenes where I thought the characters could maybe have spent a bit more time talking about their predicament on the page, instead of summarising. It's not that thinks weren't thought through, but a little bit more on-the-page world building would not have gone amiss either, in my opinion. In the end, the story spanned about three years (although the last year was sort of an extended epilogue, so perhaps doesn't count) which is a lot of time to squeeze into so few pages. It wasn't hurried, though, and some "and then nothing much happened for x weeks" bits were rightfully skipped, but I still would have liked to stay with the characters longer.

I recommend Wolfborn to fans of Celtic-style settings in fantasy with a werewolf twist. I think it would be enjoyed by both readers of adult fantasy after a quick read and readers of YA fantasy. As I said, it'd make a good gateway dr— book for YA readers to transition into "grown up" fantasy books.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Woolshed Press (Random House AU)
Series: nope
Format read: paperback
Source: a review copy was provided by the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Hal Spacejock: Baker's Dough by Simon Haynes

Hal Spacejock: Baker's Dough by Simon Haynes is the fifth book in his Hal Spacejock series. I've read all the others, but it's definitely not necessary to have done so to enjoy this book. It's the kind of series that can be enjoyed just as much out of order. I have previously reviewed the second in the companion Hal Junior series for younger readers, Hal Junior: The Missing Case.
Robots have a tough life in Hal Spacejock's universe: as second-class citizens they have no rights, and most are overworked, mistreated, and recycled at the drop of a hat. When Kim Baker, a wealthy industrialist, leaves his vast fortune to an elderly robot, it's front page news. Unfortunately, the robot hasn't been seen for decades ...
Hal Spacejock is the captain of a cargo ship, haphazardly delivering cargo across the galaxy. His trusty sidekick is Clunk the robot — eminently more competent at just about everything than Hal is — and the ship itself is personified via the Navcom. In this adventure Hal and Clunk stumble into the middle of a mad rush to claim an inheritance left to a robot. The catch? Because robots are reprogrammed and have their memories wiped when they're sold to a new owner, no one is entirely sure exactly which robot is supposed to be inheriting. To make matters worse, the prospective inheritors and their owners have to go on a somewhat convoluted quest to dig up the robots' histories, all with a twenty-four hour time limit. High jinks ensue.

The Hal Spacejock books are light, fun and entertaining reads. Baker's Dough had me laughing and sniggering out loud several times. It was an easy book to pick up and during a stressful and busy week, it was the book I kept coming back to most consistently, despite being part way through two others.

Haynes doesn't skimp on the scientific plausibility (well... within reason) but he doesn't dwell on any of the science either. It was nice to read a book where the physics of weightlessness, for example, was actually mentioned as something relevant to the characters despite not being of high importance to the story. This sort of attention to detail is part of what kept me engaged at the story (as opposed to ranting at my husband/twitter/the reading device about a lazy slip of sciencefail) and contributed to making it a relaxing read. Also it had a strong ending which as I've typed this I realise I can't say much about without spoilers.

I highly recommend Baker's Dough (and all the other Hal Spacejock books) to fans of light-hearted science fiction. As I've said, the Hal Spacejock books don't need to be read in order to make sense; each is quite self-contained. I think each new book in the series has improved upon the ones before, however, so that might be an argument for starting at the beginning and working forwards.
4.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2012
Series: Hal Spacejock, book 5 (but chronology is not important)
Format read: ebook (epub on iBooks)
Source: Purchased from Smashwords
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Friday, 18 January 2013

Holiday Recap

I read some books over the recent holidays and wrote some reviews of them, but I'm aware that many people (myself included) went away or spent time with family and friends rather than with their computers. So I wanted to recap some of the reviews I posted over the break in case you missed some.

And the end of December, I read and reviewed:

Salvage by Jason Nahrung, a novella out from Twelfth Planet Press. A snippet of my review:
I found Salvage to be quite dark. I'm inclined to classify it as the horror version of magical realism. The fantastical elements didn't come to the fore until near the end and would have surprised me if I hadn't been expecting them (since Twelfth Planet Press do primarily publish speculative fiction). The publisher is categorising it as "Australian Gothic" which I think is fairly apt.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, a YA novel that technically isn't spec fic, but felt close enough. My review was also syndicated over at Visibility Fiction. An exerpt:
At its heart, Beauty Queens is an indictment of the beauty and pageant industries and the beauty standard. Through the interactions of the characters and their journeys towards self-discovery on the island, the story explores what it means to be female in a materialistic society obsessed with perfection and the limitations (and secret powers) of feminine expectations.

Transgressions by Phillip Berrie, a self-published fantasy novel written by — full disclosure — a friend. I tried to be as unbiased as possible in my review. Excerpt:
The world building was well thought out. There were lots of small world-fleshing out bits dropped in, which I enjoyed. A particular favourite was the psychic wave that rolls with the sunrise which interferes with some types of magic and jolts magic-wielders awake if they're sleeping.

The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata, an ebook release of a SF novel first published in the mid-90s. I was impressed at how the technical aspects stood up to the test of time. I am looking forward to reading more of Nagata's books in this world. Review excerpt:
There was a lot to like about The Bohr Maker. I very much enjoyed the worldbuilding; one of my favourite things was the nanotech introduced into the river running through the slum (which was downriver of the rest of the city) which changed the water from foetid to clear with edible "fluff" floating on top of it that some of the poorest residents of the city collect to eat. Obviously, it sucks to have to eat river fluff, but how neat is the technology? It would be an awesome invention to carry through to the real world.

Broken by AE Rought, a new YA book from Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot. It turned out to be a love story with horror elements (and not exactly paranormal ones either).  Excerpt:
In essence, this is a story about their slowly blooming relationship. I thought the pace at which Emma's feelings and their relationship developed — in story terms — was pleasantly slow. There was no irrational insta-love from Emma and we see lots of minor key moments in the development of their relationship, like SMSes that give Emma gooey feelings with only a few words, and uncertainly, and small nice moments. Although in actual time the book spans less than a month, I found the development of their relationship absolutely believable.

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, the action, pseudo-SF YA book that was the inspiration for the movie of the same title. I enjoyed the movie more. Review excerpt:
I'm not a fan of science fiction without any accurate science at all, so that didn't help. But the action isn't too bad and I didn't find the book actively offensive. The writing is distinctly pedestrian with stilted dialogue and bursts of summarised conversation which were less fun to read through than the proper dialogue (eg "I told her blah and she said that blah and I agreed").


I Am Number Four was the last book I read in 2012 (though due to a backlog it didn't appear on the blog until January. The next reviews are the first few books I read in 2013.

After the Darkness by Honey Brown is a contemporary novel with horror/thriller elements. Absolutely nothing supernatural or unbelievable happens, but Brown managed to capture an excellent sense of creeping dread and darkness. It's an excellent read. Review excerpt:
Although the book is called After the Darkness, it's really about how hard it is to leave the darkness behind. It's also about how darkness is often contagious, touching on the way in which abuse victims often go on to re-enact their trauma as a way of coming to terms with it. And the hopelessness that comes with fearing for your life. And having to relate to people in a life you have to pretend is normal.

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren is a collection of three short stories and one novella, all horror. I really loved the short stories which felt like perfect creepy camp-fire tales. Review excerpt:
I didn't enjoy "Sky" as much as the short stories. Not because it was bad, but because it made me uncomfortable in a less enjoyable way. If anything, it reminded me most strongly of Warren's Slights, but less horribly disturbing. Whereas the short stories are almost the kind of creepy tales you might tell around a camp fire at night.

I enjoyed
Through Splintered Walls very much, despite reading the three short stories in the middle of the night during a bout of insomnia (I'm not sure why this seemed like a good idea at the time, but I suppose it could have been worse).

I wrote a couple of non-review posts over the holidays, too. Going back a bit in December, I set myself some reading challenges for 2013, and at the start of January I posted some reflections of 2012 (including pie charts!) and made some resolutions for 2013.

And that's what you missed here if you were away from the internets over the break.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

New Booksies

Time for another post filled with exciting new books. Have I mentioned I like books? I bet you couldn't tell from this blog ;-p

From NetGalley I got:
  • Hysteria by Megan Miranda thanks to Bloomsbury UK/ANZ
  • The Holders by Julianna Scott thanks to Strange Chemistry

Because it was (temporarily, I think) free on iTunes, I downloaded Stray by Andrea K Höst, whose And All The Stars I loved last year. Stray is book one of her Touchstone trilogy, which is SF-y.

And then I spent my achievement unlocked books on a few pre-orders (which I'll mention when they actually arrive) and two SF novellas by Aussies (if you're curious, in my book buying system, two novellas = one novel/collection/anthology). Both will be counting towards by Aussie SF reading challenge and I'm rather looking forward to reading them.
  • Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson
  • Flight 404 by Simon Petrie

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Griffin's Flight by KJ Taylor

The Griffin's Flight by KJ Taylor is the second book in the Fallen Moon series. You can read my review of the first book, The Dark Griffin, here. I can't discuss what The Griffin's Flight is about without mentioning spoilers for book one. So be warned, while this review doesn't contain spoilers for The Griffin's Flight, it does contain major spoilers for The Dark Griffin. Seriously, don't read on if you don't want key events at the end of book one spoiled.

At the end of book one, our main character, Arren, dies and is magically revived with a caveat: he talks, he breathes, he heals, but his heart does not beat. It's an interesting choice for a main character since, generally speaking, bringing the dead back to life is seen as evil. He's kind of a thinking zombie and while the few people who are aware of the situation agree that whatever necromancy brought him back is evil, I like that Taylor didn't use it as an excuse for more people to hate him. (Not that lots of people don't have other reasons to hate him.)

The other major character is Erian, the bastard son of Rannagon, who Arren killed in book one. In another novel, Erian might have been the hero and Arren the villain. Instead, Erian is annoying and a bit of an idiot with an overbearing, ambitious and controlling griffin dictating to him. The reader is very much set up to sympathise with Arren. Although Erian seeks revenge for his father, much like Arren sought revenge earlier, I didn't feel very much sympathy for him at all. Mostly, I thought he got a bit more page-time than entirely necessary. However, I'm quite into the idea of swapping the roles of hero and villain as Taylor has done. I've always been a big fan of moral shades of grey.

A new character, Skade, is introduced. I didn't hate her, but I suspect her potential wasn't entirely realised in this book and will hopefully come to fruition in the concluding volume. I was also a bit disappointed that Arren's friends from book one didn't feature very much. Bran and Flell feature only in the opening and the ending, however I'm confident they will play a bigger part in The Griffin's War, so I'm looking forward to that.

The Griffin's Flight moves away from the exploration of racism that was The Dark Griffin; it's still there, but it's much less the main theme. In fact, thematically there isn't a single overarching theme tying everything together in The Griffin's Flight, which partly makes it feel a little middle-book-syndrome-y. Which isn't to say I found it boring or pointless, just that it was linking two disparate parts of the story: Arren's life as it falls apart in the first book, and the coming titular war of book three (The Griffin's War).

I very much enjoyed the continuation of Arren's story in The Griffin's Flight. I recommend the series to all fans of "big fat fantasy" books. I don't recommend reading book two without having read book one, however. It's definitely the kind of story that should be enjoyed sequentially.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Harper Voyager AU
Series: The Fallen Moon, book two of three
Format read: paperback
Source: a real-life Australian book shop
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Dark Griffin by KJ Taylor

The Dark Griffin by KJ Taylor is an excellent fantasy book, which came out a few years ago and which I can't believe I've only just read. A slightly pedantic note about the cover before I get on with my review. The cover image available just about everywhere online, including on Harper Collins' website, is slightly different to the actual published cover, with a different border and the series text in a different spot. The only proper cover images I could find were too small, so I took a photo of my own book. Which is why it's a bit crooked — sorry about that but I hate having the wrong cover.

Anyway, The Dark Griffin is a story about a griffin and a human. The griffin has an unfortunately difficult life, fighting to survive from the time it's born. I was a bit surprised when I started reading, actually, that the first two chapters are told entirely from the point of view of griffins with humans barely featuring on the periphery. Taylor pulled it off, however. In a section that had the potential to feel like a drawn-out prologue, I was captivated the entire time.

In Taylor's world, griffins are as intelligent as humans, have varying magical powers and can talk. The humans that ride them are called griffiners and learn to speak the language of the griffins. Arren is a griffiner, despite being of Northern descent. His people were, until recently, slaves in his city and he looks a bit different to the Southerners he lives among. The only reason he's allowed to be a griffiner is because his griffin bonded to him when they were both and there was nothing to be done about it.

Arren's story is very much one of racism and ostracism. Once Arren's position in society becomes slightly less assured, he quickly finds out how thin the veneer protecting him was. A lot of bad things happen to Arren and almost all of them are thanks to racism against his people. After a comfortable life as a respected citizen with some status, denying his heritage out of shame, it all comes as a bit of a shock to him when he loses (ostensibly only some of) that status. Suddenly people no longer respect him and constantly use dismissive language against him ("Oh, but he's only a member of the slave-race"). (Possibly not a book to read if you're particularly sensitive of/triggered by racism and oppression generally.) In the end, Arren's actions, taken out of a desperation the reader can entirely understand, appear to be increasingly erratic to the people around him, giving them more ammunition to use against him. There were some gut-wrenchingly tragic moments.

I also liked how the racism was not based on skin colour. The small world Taylor created was based loosely on Britain and so there wasn't room, geographically, for wildly different ethnic characteristics. It's nice to be reminded that an ethnic group doesn't have to look completely different to be oppressed. And of course, the themes of racism/oppression explored in the novel are widely relevant to modern culture.

The Dark Griffin is a compelling novel. Both the griffin and Arren suffer due to unfair circumstances they cannot be blamed for, and their parallel stories intertwine to powerful effect. Another brilliant fantasy read by a brilliant Australian author. I have read few run-of-the-mill fantasy novels (particularly BFF — big fat fantasy) by Australians, and The Dark Griffin certainly doesn't buck that trend.

I highly recommend The Dark Griffin to all fantasy fans. In particular fans of any or some of Jennifer Fallon, Glenda Larke, Rowena Cory Daniells or Naomi Novik's Temeraire books will probably probably enjoy this book. Having foreseen a burning desire to read the whole series, I already have the rest of the trilogy on my TBR shelf and intend to pick up book two straight away.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2009, Harper Voyager AU
Series: The Fallen Moon, book one of three
Format read: paperback
Source: a real-life Australian book shop
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren is the sixth of the Twelve Planets series of collections out from Twelfth Planet Press. You can read my reviews of the other collections at this link.

Through Splintered Walls contains three short stories followed by one novella. They're titled "Mountain", "Creek", "Road" and "Sky", which I think is a great set of names for within a collection. To me, the collection can easily be split into two parts, the short stories on the one hand, and the novella on the other.

The Short Stories

"Mountain" is about a ghost-haunted mountain and a woman who often drives over it on the way to the coast. The mountain and its ghosts hold many secrets, which they don't always share with passers by. But the main character has seen some of them and the reader learns a few more.

"Creek" is about quaking women who drowned in creeks. They claw their way through Australia's shallow creekbeds and call out, demanding to know what happened to their loved-ones. Olivia, our protagonist, first encountered them when she was young and has been haunted by them ever since. I loved the ending of this one, but I shan't elaborate because spoilers.

"Road" is a tale about an older couple who live at a black spot on the road (as in, a place where there are many accidents). They're quite used to injured people running up to their house and asking to use their phone (it's a mobile phone black spot too), and they always lay out a wreath for the accident victims. But is that all there is to it? You'll have to read the story to find out.

The Novella

"Sky", unlike the short stories, is a somewhat less literal title. The story is named after the weird small country town, somewhere north of Sydney, in which much of the action takes place. The protagonist, Zed, is not very likeable at all (he is, in fact, a rapist — you've been warned). From when we first meet him as a child, seen through his school-teacher's eyes, to the main action when he finds himself in Sky, I didn't relate to Zed at all, but kept reading because I wanted to know what happened next. (Whereas with the short stories, I cared about the characters.)

Sky is a horror town in a classically dystopic way; everyone is employed because to get a job or to advance, they have to challenge the person currently holding that job and fight to the death. But Zed keeps being drawn there, for various reasons. I suspect his being a terrible person heightens the feelings of disgust the reader has towards Sky, since even he finds the place disgusting. The story is told in seemingly random parts which eventually come together in a coherent string of cause and effect.

I didn't enjoy "Sky" as much as the short stories. Not because it was bad, but because it made me uncomfortable in a less enjoyable way. If anything, it reminded me most strongly of Warren's Slights, but less horribly disturbing. Whereas the short stories are almost the kind of creepy tales you might tell around a camp fire at night.

I enjoyed Through Splintered Walls very much, despite reading the three short stories in the middle of the night during a bout of insomnia (I'm not sure why this seemed like a good idea at the time, but I suppose it could have been worse). I recommend the collection to fans of horror and creepy stories. There are a few dismembered body parts floating around in "Sky" but nothing overly gory on the page. Er, except for the bit with the cat food factory grinder. The collection is definitely in my top three of the Twelve Planets (along with Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Twelve Planets number 6 (but there's no reason to read them in any particular order)
Format read: ebook
Source: Twelve Planets ebook subscription
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

After the Darkness by Honey Brown

I picked up After the Darkness by Honey Brown for a few reasons. First, I'd heard very good things about her debut novel Red Queen (which I still want to read but have yet to get my hands on), second, it was only $3 on iBooks, third, it sounded like something I could count towards my new Aussie Horror Reading Challenge and finally, I read the sample and had to keep reading. This review contains vague, non-essential spoilers.

After the Darkness is the story of married couple with three kids, Trudy and Bruce, told from Trudy's point of view. On the way home from a holiday away from the kids down the Great Ocean Road, the couple stop at a small art gallery on a whim. The art is creepy and Trudy has a bad feeling the entire time they're there. A feeling that's entirely vindicated when the owner-artist drugs and assaults them. They escape and the bulk of the narrative is about them dealing with the repercussions of what happened in the gallery.

There is a lot of interesting psychology in this book. Bruce was victimised (and fair warning: tortured and sexually assaulted, mostly off the page) to a greater extent than Trudy and had a harder time coping with it after the fact. Which isn't to say that Trudy didn't have post-traumatic stress flashbacks. Initially, though, Trudy was the one that had to hold everything together. A nice change from the woman being the greater victim. In that respect, it's also a story about how the patriarchy society makes it harder for men to express their feelings and talk about their vulnerability. I strongly feel that if their victim-roles had been reversed, the story of their respective coping would have played out very differently.

Although the book is called After the Darkness, it's really about how hard it is to leave the darkness behind. This paragraph, just as they're making their escape, highlights the early struggles they face:
The terror actually heightened as we left. The open garage gaped behind us. My body grew rigid. It was difficult to steer or accelerate. I think a part of me knew even then that we weren't leaving, not really. Some things you don't escape from.
It's also about how darkness is often contagious, touching on the way in which abuse victims often go on to re-enact their trauma as a way of coming to terms with it. And the hopelessness that comes with fearing for your life. And having to relate to people in a life you have to pretend is normal. This line illustrates that sentiment nicely, when Trudy is trying to relate to her friends again:
Brutality somehow managed to make a mockery of everything that was not brutal.
The prose in After the Darkness was lovely. From the beginning, before anything bad happens, when I knew Brown was sprinkling in a bit of mundane normality for later comparison, I was immediately engaged. Trudy and Bruce started off as a happy couple, which deteriorated into a traumatised couple later on. However, I liked that their experience didn't drive a wedge between them. They hadn't suffered in the same way, but they didn't drift apart in their suffering. Indeed, the fact that the other was the only one who could come close to understanding what happened, kept them close.

It's debatable how much of a horror book this is and how much psychological drama or thriller. But there's a lot of the feeling of creeping dread (which I think is my new favourite term for describing horror), and many horrific elements, coming both from within and without, so I would definitely class it as horror. Which isn't to say readers of crime or contemporary books won't enjoy it and count it within their genres.

I highly recommend After the Darkness to anyone after a creepy read. I read it quite quickly and found it difficult to put down. I think it will appeal broadly to readers of several genres, particularly those that enjoy their creepiness and psychological drama in a contemporary Australian setting.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2012, Penguin Australia
Format read: ebook
Source: iBookstore (link)
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Sunday, 6 January 2013

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

I picked up I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore as part of Penguin's "Thriller Trilogy", partly because the movie wasn't bad and piqued my interest. Let me open by saying the movie was better. I posit that even the science was slightly less violated in the movie, and this is Hollywood we're talking about. It was also the last book I read in 2012.

In I Am Number Four, Lorien, a planet which is smaller than Earth but for some reason hosted aliens similar to humans and had similar gravity, is attacked and obliterated by evil aliens from another planet. The Loriens fail to defend themselves, somehow, despite having spaceships and magic powers and despite the fact that the battle is fought on the surface, pretty much had to had but with bonus hellbeasts. Also, the flashbacks to the apocalyptic war are exceedingly trite and shallow. Somehow we're supposed to believe that Four gains a whole lot of understanding and compassion just from watching a battle? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When the planet was lost, the Loriens managed to smuggle out nine children and their (non-magical) protectors to Earth. Before they left, a plothole spell was cast so that the nine children couldn't be killed except in a specific order. The story opens ten years later with child number three being killed and Four's guardian makes them move to a new town with new identities. As soon as Four walks into his new school, he gets a crush on a girl and targeted by the school bully-jock. It's also the day his magic powers start to awaken and the day he (and to a lesser extent, his guardian) start making poor decisions that lead to a confrontation with evil aliens by the end of the book.

I would definitely call it science fantasy of maybe superhero fiction, but I've seen a few superhero movies that gave a more significant nod to physics than I Am Number Four did (including its own movie which left out some of the WTFier bits). I'm not a fan of science fiction without any accurate science at all, so that didn't help. But the action isn't too bad and I didn't find the book actively offensive. The writing is distinctly pedestrian with stilted dialogue and bursts of summarised conversation which were less fun to read through than the proper dialogue (eg "I told her blah and she said that blah and I agreed").

I wanted to like I Am Number Four, but I didn't by the end. The beginning drew me in, but it went downhill from the first Lorien flashback and didn't manage to climb out again. It didn't make me all that angry, though, which is a bit surprising given that it did drive me to skimming pages of battle. In the end it was entertaining enough to earn it an extra half-star.

I think I Am Number Four would be enjoyed by readers who like action and don't like to think too hard about what they're reading. Or younger teens who are less judgemental of quality. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more when I was 12 or 13.

3 / 5 stars

First published: 2010, Penguin
Series: The Lorien Legacies, book 1 of 3
Format read: ebook
Source: Penguin Thriller Trilogy (not actually a trilogy, but a pack of three books), purchased from iBooks on impulse

Friday, 4 January 2013

Reflections and Resolutions 2012/2013

I generally like to do a reflection post with resolutions for the coming year. Since this is my main blog at the moment, I figured I might as well do it here.


First up, I had three short stories come out in minor markets. Which is a record for me within one year.

Next up, reading progress. I like pie charts and statistics. I've been keeping track of all the books I've read, made easier by having reviewed all of them here. In 2012 I read a nice round 120 books, not counting 4 which I didn't finish. One of those was a collection from which I read the one story I bought it for then moved on and forgot about it. I might get back to it later. The other three were novels I got about half way through before putting them down in frustration. I want to get back to one of them (...eventually), but I can't see myself bothering with the other two.

For my statistical calculations, I included the books I didn't finish, since I did spend a significant amount of time reading them.

What countries were the authors I read from? Overwhelmingly from the US and Australia, with a few British, New Zealish and misc (Canadian, South African, Norwegian) authors thrown in. I'm glad I managed to read so many Australian authors, and I don't have plans to read fewer Aussies, but I'd like to read more widely outside of the US. I think I'm starting to run up against my limit of slightly generic US YA (not that all US YA is generic, but I've definitely read some that is), so that might be a place to start.

 What format (dead-tree, ebook, audiobook) were most of my books read in? Almost two thirds of the books I read were ebooks, which isn't entirely surprising given my current geographical location (much cheaper to buy Aussie ebooks than to pay postage), impending lack of space and aquisition of eARCs. Comparing this with my 2011 formats, the second biggest change is the dearth of audiobooks. This is primarily thanks to my finally unsubscribing from Audible (it was an ordeal, let me tell you), and a little bit due to getting sick of Ben Bova who makes up the majority of my backlog.

What ratings did I assign the books I read in 2012? I'm fairly good at choosing books to read that I know I'll enjoy, so I'm not surprised that 4.5 and 4 star ratings are the most common.

What were the genres of the books I read? I surprisingly, mostly fantasy and almost a third science fiction. Not a bad ratio. In future I'd like more of those science fiction books to be, well, not YA dystopias. Variety is good.

Finally, the gender breakdown. 83% of the books I read were by women, with 40% overall being by Australian women. Not an entirely surprising result. The genre distribution of Aussie woman-authored books followed the overall genre distribution fairly closely.


One of my standard New Year's resolutions is to write more and finish whatever novel I'm currently working on. However, right now I am not in the right mental place to do that, and I'm OK with that. Writing (especially novels) requires obsession, which means a lot of brain time spent thinking about it, even while doing other things. The other things I'm doing right now include a PhD in astrophysics, which itself requires periods of obsession. And it has to come first. It's the think with progress deadlines that will lead to bad things if I ignore them. Writing isn't.

2012 ended with a very busy period for me, work-wise, which isn't over. I'm not sure when it will be over, maybe mid-year, maybe when I hand in my thesis (though hopefully there'll be a break sooner than that). In the mean time, I'm travelling a lot and having all sorts of experiences which will prove to be good story fodder later on.

I would like to write/finish/submit more short stories, though. I started a few in 2012 that I didn't finish for various reasons and there are some I'm part way through editing or rewriting. I would definitely like to do more of that. And obviously, more acceptances would be nice (can I top 3 stories out in 2012? Can I place one in my mental list of goal markets?), but that's not the kind of thing one can plan for.

I'm still going to try to work on the current novel, I just don't anticipate finishing the draft I'm currently on. But maybe? The main thing is, I'm going to try to feel less guilty about not writing when I can't.


Reading resolutions are a bit easier, since I've already set myself some challenges. To summarise: read more Australian science fiction and read more Australian horror. Continue reading books by Australian women (more a default than a challenge).

And I'd like to read more of my existent paper books because that shelf isn't getting any larger to accommodate them. I have a tendency to prefer ebooks because they're easier (less RSI*) and more suited to more situations. I should also make at least a bit of an effort to get through my backlog of audiobooks, though I admit I'm not giving that a very high priority; it's good to have a few up my sleeve for sudden long drives or perhaps glasses fails.

*Yes, I get RSI from reading. Not from typing like a normal person.

Book-buying resolutions

This year, I stuck fairly well to a read-three-buy-one scheme (inspired by Tansy). It backfired a bit, though, with all the eARCs I read, which I counted as books read but which didn't count as books bought. My TBR shelf is more overflowing now than it was at the start of the year. Whoops. So in 2013, I'm going to not count eARCs as books read towards unlocking purchases. It's going to be read-three-paper-or-purchased-ebooks-buy-one. But I'm going to allow myself to buy books when they're on sale (which I already did, but felt guilty over), within reason. That last point might need a bit of fine tuning; I can see it backfiring. I'm also going to try to save up achievement unlocked books and spend them only when I'm intending to read the bought book immediately, so as to reduce TBR clutter.


On a non-bookish note, I'd like to do something interesting with some of the copious amounts of photos I've been taking. I'm not sure what, though (other than making banners and other decorations for the blog, which I've already been doing and doesn't really count anyway).

On an academic note, my goal is to have two papers written by mid-year. Hopefully nothing goes terribly wrong and upsets that.


What resolutions have you made? Have you perhaps also conducted an analysis of your reading habits? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Broken by A E Rought

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Broken by A E Rought; it had been a few months since I'd read the blurb and, having glanced at it again just now, I'm glad I'd completely forgotten about it while reading. In short, don't read the blurb: it not only spoils the plot, it emphasises an aspect that doesn't become prominent until half way or so, potentially leading to disappointment.

Emma is a seventeen year old Michigan high school girl, whose boyfriend died in a tragic accident the past summer (and it's nearing the end of October as the book opens). Understandably, she's still sad about his death and hasn't been entirely able to let go yet.

Enter Alex, the new boy at school. He's hot, mysterious and seems to be fascinated by Emma. Emma, meanwhile, feels bad about her interest in him — it feels like cheating on her dead boyfriend's memory — and also senses something strange and wrong about him that she can't quite put her finger on.

In essence, this is a story about their slowly blooming relationship. I thought the pace at which Emma's feelings and their relationship developed — in story terms — was pleasantly slow. There was no irrational insta-love from Emma and we see lots of minor key moments in the development of their relationship, like SMSes that give Emma gooey feelings with only a few words, and uncertainly, and small nice moments. Although in actual time the book spans less than a month, I found the development of their relationship absolutely believable. If it's a little faster in actual time than is necessarily realistic, there are solid plot/spoiler reasons for that.

Because I hadn't read the blurb before starting to read, I wasn't sure where the supernatural elements were going to come in. My first guess was ghosts, partly from the cover (but that's not a ghost, that's Emma in the dress she wears to the school Halloween dance), partly because of Emma dwelling on her dead boyfriend. Once the hints started appearing, I triumphantly worked out what was going on reasonably quickly, but not in an annoying way. However, since the blurb reveals what the "twist" is (OK it's not really a twist, more of a slow revelation of the premise — if you're curious look it up on goodreads or the publisher website), I think reading with that knowledge could have been frustrating. Although maybe I would have picked up on some of the horror references Rought scattered throughout the names sooner.

Once the climactic action approached, there was no denying this was a horror novel, albeit it one with a strong love story surrounding it. Eventually the shit hits the fan and Emma and Alex are running for their lives. I liked that in the course of events, Emma did some of the saving, although Alex did more of it, that can be excused by Emma's repeatedly broken hand (three times, it gets broken/re-broken three times). She definitely doesn't wait around to be saved, which is always nice to see.

I highly recommend Broken to readers who enjoy reading about relatively believable relationships in YA (plot weirdness notwithstanding) and who maybe want a bit of creepiness and horror in their fiction. Or to any readers who enjoy references to classic horror stories. I will be keeping an eye out for future YA books by Rought (she's also written three (adult) romance and paranormal romance books for adults).

4.5 / 5 stars

Published: January, 2013
Series: nope, standalone
Format read: eARC (available in paperback and all relevant ebook formats)
Source: From the publisher, Strange Chemistry (YA imprint of Angry Robot) via NetGalley

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata

Bohr Maker was Linda Nagata's debut novel and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 1996. It is about nanotechnology and about privilege and poverty.

Phousita is a slum girl in a future country/region that doesn't exist at present but which I read as being in southern Asia (I don't think anything specific was mentioned though, and it's possible I missed a reference). Her country isn't part of the Commonwealth, meaning that nanotechnology is less present and when present unregulated. The Commonwealth enjoys sticking its nose into other countries affairs and takes it upon itself to police everyone's nanotechnology. But it doesn't care about minor offences, only major ones which could threaten its way of life. So when Phousita is poisoned with nanotech that stunts her growth, or when her friend has his face disfigured no one cares. But as soon as an Important Person inadvertently infects Phousita with the potentially dangerous Bohr Maker (the general term for a nanotech system), the Commonwealth is all over it and Phousita is in different trouble to anything she could have imagined.

There was a lot to like about The Bohr Maker. I very much enjoyed the worldbuilding; one of my favourite things was the nanotech introduced into the river running through the slum (which was downriver of the rest of the city) which changed the water from foetid to clear with edible "fluff" floating on top of it that some of the poorest residents of the city collect to eat. Obviously, it sucks to have to eat river fluff, but how neat is the technology? It would be an awesome invention to carry through to the real world.

I liked the juxtaposition of the high technology belonging to rich people — including space stations, a sort of brain-to-brain communication system, and of course the nanotech — and the very low-tech world in the poorest regions on Earth. Phousita and her cohorts don't know what nanotechnology is and interpret as magic and curses. When Phousita is infected by and gains control of the very advanced Bohr Maker, she thinks she's possessed by a sorcerer and is becoming a witch. When she heals people with the technology, they see it as a spell. All of which makes perfect sense given the context.

What I didn't like about this book, was many of the characters. I liked Phousita, who was genuinely a nice person, and I didn't mind her friend Arif, who wasn't a nice person but understandably so, given his circumstances (actually, I thought he was OK until Phousita started getting more power and threatening his power in their little family). Nikko, a genetically engineered human designed to survive vacuum (a character like him features in Nagata's short story In The Tide, briefly reviewed here), was the other main protagonist and I liked him too. He finds himself in the rather intolerable position of having a fast-approaching expiration date on his genome. When his father created him, the Commonwealth forced him to put in the expiration date 30 years in the future, which he agreed to under the assumption that by then the law would have caught up and he could remove the fail-safe. It didn't. Nikko sets out to try to steal the Bohr Maker (before it's passed onto Phousita) to try to save himself. In the course of events he gets caught up with Phousita (and gets his brother caught up in the trouble as well).

The central character I really hated was Kirsten, the Chief of the Commonwealth police force. She was a horrible person and an unnecessarily large part of the narrative was told from her point of view. I say unnecessarily because while I acknowledge that she instigated a lot of plot-relevant things (she was the one trying to track down the Bohr Maker and get both Nikko and Phousita executed), there were also chunks of worldbuilding exposition filtered through her point of view. And really, it was her point of view that repulsed me. She didn't see Nikko as a person, but as an animal (despite, prior to the opening, conducting an affair with him) and had zero compassion for anyone. She righteously upholds the spirit of the law (not the letter) by any means necessary, with her convictions reinforced by a zealous religious belief that the Bohr Maker and any other unsanctioned nanotech threatened the sanctity of natural life on Earth (unless it was minor nanotech making lives harder in the slums). I simply could not stand the religious zealotry. I'm not sure if she was supposed to be a partially sympathetic character, but she wasn't and I felt I was inside her head too often. She wasn't the sort of antagonist I love to hate either. At one point I had to put the book down for the evening because I couldn't bring myself to finish the current chapter and get back to her sections. However, depending on your particular set of prejudices, your mileage may vary.

The only other thing that bothered me a little bit were a few slow points throughout the book. It wasn't a particularly long book but there were a few bits when I wished the plot would hurry up because I wanted to know what happened next. However, they weren't enough to ruin my enjoyment except for the slow bits with Kirsten.

In all, there is a lot to like about The Bohr Maker. Particularly notable is that almost ten years later, this book didn't feel at all dated. I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series (or indeed any other science fiction of Nagata's that crosses my path). I've now read her debut novel as well as her most recent novel (which I loved, and which was rather more fast-paced), and I see no reason not to fill in the blanks. I strongly recommend The Bohr Maker to fans of reasonably hard science fiction (although the technical details aren't discussed in detail) as well as fans of sociological science fiction.

4 / 5 stars

Published: 1995, Bantam Spectra
Series: The Nanotech Succession, book 1 of 3 (not counting a prequel)
Format read: ebook
Source: purchased myself (rather a while ago) from Mythic Island Press, the author's small press for reprinting her out of print books.