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Book Review: The Preying Mantis by Andreas Louw

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

MS Paint drawing of a bloody praying mantis.Summary:
FBI agent Betty Roy has been pursuing one serial killer for years.  He murders one young female teacher who plays a musical instrument per season.  Suddenly, though, he contacts Betty herself and starts ratcheting up the rate of the killings. He seems to have some sort of personal interest in her.

Review:
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale for two reasons.  The plot sounded intriguing, and honestly the cover amused me.  What I found inside was a plot that was mostly strong (although it fell apart at the end) that was unfortunately supported by some truly bad writing.

Let’s start with the good. The plot is genuinely creepy.  Although the Preying Mantis (as he calls himself) is fairly typical for a serial killer thriller, he’s got enough unique qualities that the reader is left intrigued and guessing.  The murder scenes are brutal and frightening.  I was engaged enough that I kept reading in spite of the bad writing quality, purely because I wanted to know what happened at the end.

Unfortunately, the plot at the end takes a bit of a nonsensical nose-dive.  I have an incredibly difficult time believing that the FBI would let an agent recently removed from a serial killer case who they know is currently being pursued by him run off into the middle of the woods without backup. Or some sort of catch the criminal plan she is in on.  Similarly, I have major issues believing this same FBI agent would be stupid enough to go to the woods at this point in time, let alone go there without her big guard dog that she instead leaves at a friend’s house. It’s a lot of characters acting stupid just to get them to where the author needs them to be.  Thankfully, that only shows up at the end.

As for the writing itself, there are three separate issues at hand.

First up, we have an omniscient third person narrator telling a story that takes place almost entirely in New York City with American characters, and yet the narrator repeatedly speaks British English. This is bizarre, confusing, and jolts the reader out of the story. I actually had to check a couple of times and make sure the story was indeed happening in NYC.  Here are a few examples:

She had met the old man before and knew his heart was a bit dodgy. (location 1095)

He thought it best not to point out at this stage that if he had been shagging Wells’ wife, he might not have been gay. (location 2306)

Betty came out of the shower, refreshed, and took out a pack of crisps and a soft drink. (location 3553)

In case it’s unclear, Americans don’t say dodgy, shagging, or crisps. We say sketchy, banging, and chips.  I suppose it’s possible that Louw could want the narrator of this event taking place in America to be British, but if so, it should be for a reason. For instance, it would make sense if the story was being told by a British person researching the killer at a later date.  That is not the case, though. As previously pointed out, this is an omniscient third person narrator telling a story set in America. They should speak American English.  The British English also drifts into the American characters’ dialogue, but there are far larger problems with the dialogue, so I won’t bother citing those.  Suffice to say though that if it’s a problem for the narrator to speak British English it’s an even larger one for the American characters to do so.

Speaking of dialogue (see what I did there), let’s get to that.  The main problem with the dialogue is that it doesn’t sound realistic.  At all.  Also every single character sounds exactly the same.  The Latino-American cop sounds exactly like the white American FBI Agent who sounds exactly like the serial killer who sounds exactly like the head of the FBI’s investigation.  And none of them sound realistic.  Rather than try to explain it, let me show you.

I shall go mad if I don’t have anything to do for the next two weeks. (location 310)

Would you like to order out? I am quite hungry and can do with some sustenance. (location 1213)

After about fifteen minutes he emerged form his office and said, “Let us go.” (location 2868)

How come you being here all by yourself in the middle of nowhere, dear? (location 3617)

The only way dialogue like this would work would be if, say, one character was OCD about never saying a contraction or had Asperger’s Syndrome or something.  But none of the characters are like that and also they all speak exactly the same way.  It’s a real problem for dialogue to sound so incredibly unrealistic. It drags the reader out of the story, plus it’s bad characterization. Each character should have an individual sound.

Finally, there are the general grammar/spelling issues.  The most annoying being the author’s tendency to switch back and forth between present and past tense, frequently within the same sentence.  For example:

She had been hunting him for the last two years and it reached the point where he has invaded every aspect of her life. (location 123)

Lemke had played this kind of game before and he is definitely not going to let someone like Newmark get under his skin. (location 669)

Shudders up and down my spine, y’all. And not the kind you’re supposed to get from reading about a serial killer.

Overall, the book has a relatively unique plot that is overshadowed by a first draft quality level of writing.  I encourage Louw to get either a co-author or an editor for future endeavors, as well as a wider variety of beta readers.  Sound editing and checks by beta readers could have cleared up many of these issues.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 23, 2012 5 comments

Woman holding parasol in front of city skyline.Summary:
Alexia Tarabotti isn’t just suffering from being half-Italian in Victorian England, she also is soulless.  Unlike vampires, werewolves, and other supernaturals who successfully changed thanks to an excess of soul, or even having just enough soul like day dwellers, she simply has none. Plus as a preternatural she turns the supernaturals human when she touches them.  Obviously they aren’t a fan of that.  Except for one particularly persnickety werewolf, Lord Maccon, who is Scottish to boot.  And to top it all off a mysterious wax-faced man suddenly seems very interested in kidnapping her.  None of this seems particularly civilized.

Review:
The Parasol Protectorate series was all the rage when this book made it onto my tbr pile back in 2010.  That was kind of the beginning of the steampunk craze, before you could find gears on everything in the costume shop.  I can see why this series is popular, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

The world building is wonderful and is what kept me reading.  A good steampunk blends history, science, and fashion to make for a semi-familiar but deliciously unique world that’s delightful for history and science geeks alike to play around in.  Carriger pulls this off beautifully.  The fashion is Victorian with a steampunk edge.  The politics are recognizable but with the supernatural and steampowered sciences taking a role.  A great example of how well this world works is that in England the supernatural came out and became part of society, whereas America was the result of the Puritans condemning the acceptance of the supernatural who they believe sold their souls to the devil.  This is a great blend of reality and alternate history.

The plot wasn’t a huge mystery, which is kind of sad given the complexity of the world building.  What really bothered me though was the romantic plot, which suffered badly from a case of instalove.  Although we hear of delightful prior encounters between Alexia and Lord Maccon, we didn’t see them.  We mostly see him going from hating her to loving her and demanding her hand in marriage. It just felt lazy compared to the other elements of the book.  I get it that Carriger could be poking fun at Victorian era romances, but I think that would have worked better if it didn’t have such a Victorian ending.  Plus, I didn’t pick up this book to read a romance. I wanted a steampunk mystery with a strong female lead.  I didn’t like how quickly the romance took over the whole plot.

Potential readers should take a glance at the first chapter and see if Carriger’s humor works for them.  I can see how if I was laughing through the whole book I’d have enjoyed it more, but the…decidedly British humor just did not work for me.  It didn’t bother me; I just didn’t find it funny.  I mostly sat there going, “Oh, she thinks she’s being funny…..”  Humor is highly personal, so I’m not saying it’s bad. It just isn’t my style. It might be yours.

Overall this is a creatively complex steampunk world with an unfortunately average plot overtaken by instaromance and seeped in dry, British humor.  It is recommended to steampunk fans who find that style of humor amusing and don’t mind some instalove all up in their story.  That does not describe this reader, so I won’t be continuing on with the series.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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On Open Access (OA) and Institutional Repositories (IRs)

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently went to a town meeting on Open Access (OA) and our Institutional Repository (IR).  (Universities and colleges have our own town meetings, because we’re basically our own mini-towns).  This meeting spurred me on to do a bit of a blog post on OA and IRs.  I’ll first give a brief explanation of OA and IRs, including links to some resources for more information, and wrap up with my own thoughts.

OA is the concept and movement within academia that access to academic literature should be free online and free of most copyright restrictions.  The idea is that for knowledge to flourish the exchange of ideas should be as free and fluid as possible.  Because this is a concept and movement this means that not everyone agrees with this idea.  Agreement and support of OA also varies drastically by area of specialty.  The sciences are the most supportive of OA, particularly Physics.  This is evident by the existence of the website arXiv.org, which provides “open access to 792,606 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics.” The humanities are less so.  This has to do with the culture of the different disciplines. The sciences are more focused on teamwork and sharing new knowledge as quickly as possible, whereas the humanities tend to be more concerned with ruminating on ideas.  The pace is simply faster in the sciences than in the humanities, and OA is more useful in that environment.

Utilizing and supporting OA comes across in a few different ways.  There are OA journals, which are free to use, but not necessarily free to submit an article to.  To those concerned, the submission fee does not guarantee acceptance of an article.  It is simply there to help the OA journals function.  Studies on the percentage of OA journals charging a fee vary rather widely on their final numbers.  These fees are of concern to faculty members, though, because they can quickly go through grant money that could have been used in other ways just paying submission fees.  Although there originally was concern as to the quality of OA journals, OA does not negate peer-review.  There are many peer-reviewed and respected journals; the PLOS ones in particular spring to mind, but you can see a listing of all OA journals at the Directory of Open Access Journals.  Academics can support OA both by submitting to and reading OA journals, and institutions can support OA by giving articles published in OA journals equal consideration when doing tenure reviews.

OA can be pursued in traditional publishing as well, however.  Frequently faculty members do not fully understand what is happening with their copyright when they sign contracts with a publisher.  The creator owns the copyright of an item at the moment of creation. He or she does not need to register it.  This is not always clear to people because from 1923 to 1963 (in the US) you did have to register your copyright and re-register it every 28 years.  Anything published before 1923 in the US is officially in the public domain aka free of copyright.  This is why mashups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can happen.  What all this means is that the author of the paper owns copyright until they sign it over to the publisher, and they do not have to kowtow to all of the demands of the publisher.  OA advocates encourage authors to return the contract to the publisher unsigned with a SPARC Addendum attached.  This addendum gives the publisher some rights over the paper/article/book while retaining some for the author.  What this essentially means is that the author retains certain rights over his or her article that most faculty members think they have anyway.  Only now it’s legal.  For instance, this addendum gives the author permission to deposit their paper in an Institutional Repository or include it in a group of pdfs of publications on their personal website, as long as it is properly cited to the journal of first publication.

A popular way for publishers to support OA while still staying in business, beyond agreeing to SPARC Addendums, is the concept of an embargo.  An embargo means that articles are available exclusively through subscription and fees for a set period of time (usually from 6 months to 2 years), and after that point they are available through OA.  The qualm some advocates of OA have with this model is that for certain fields of study, particularly in the sciences, the embargo period is long enough that the article will be practically irrelevant by the time it is available openly, thereby defeating the whole purpose of encouraging collaboration and free flow of ideas behind OA to begin with.

If you are interested in learning more about OA, check out Peter Suber’s book Open Access.  You can also check out this this handout that explains the OA spectrum in an infographic style.

So what do Institutional Repositories (IRs) have to do with OA?  An IR is a curated collection of all academic publishing, as well as collections such as photographs taken by anthropologists, created by scholars associated with the institution.  The IR is the institution’s research portfolio.  It’s important for the institution to be able to demonstrate to interested parties the valuable work their scholars are doing.  The connection to OA is that the current restrictive copyright contracts publishers send to authors frequently make it impossible to include their works in the IR.  The SPARC Addendum addresses this, but an institution can also address this concern by making it a mandate that all scholarly work done while at their institution be deposited in the repository.  This gives the author a prior commitment that is usually already covered in the contract.  A pioneer in the world of IRs is MIT’s IR: DSpace.  Check them out to get a feel for what an IR is like.

So what do I think about all of this?  I can understand and sympathize with all three sides (universities, scholars, and publishers).  The publishers are concerned that they will go out of business if everything is available immediately in OA.  As an indie author, I can easily see how valid that concern is.  Frankly if OA does take off the way, say, literary zines have, most journals will go out of business.  Yes a few big name zines are still surviving, and most zines also sell a print version and do alright with that, but publishing as we know it must change for OA to take hold.  Of course one doesn’t want that in one’s own industry.

I can also understand the dual view scholars hold.  Academic journals are peer-reviewed, and while OA journals can be, they aren’t necessarily.  OA can seem like a scary free-for-all with no verification of facts or quality.  Things don’t always become popular because they’re good.  But on the other hand if your audience is other scholars, aka the peer part of peer-review, then it should work itself out anyway.  Not to mention the fact that OA journals can mandate peer-review if they want to.  Similarly, I get it that scholars usually want to share their work with anyone interested and to that end want to post the pdfs on their website.  The problem is, though, if a person can get your article just by googling it and going to you instead of the publisher then we’re right back to putting the publisher who published you in the first place out of business.  But if publishing changes the way we think it will, then that would be a moot point anyway.

As far as IRs go, I truly see their value for gray literature.  Things like posters from poster sessions, dissertations and theses that are frequently not available or searchable otherwise, etc… but I also think an institution obsessively collecting a copy of everything every scholar has done is a bit redundant.  Not that the institution shouldn’t ever broaden to that level of collection and archiving, but since IRs are so new, it might be better to focus in on the gray literature for now.

Overall though the change won’t really happen until institutions start accepting OA publications in the tenure process. Until that point all scholars must publish in traditional journals in order to secure tenure.  It seems to me that the power is really in the hands of the universities.  The universities must decide: what do we want true scholarship and academic achievement look like in the 21st century?

Book Review: Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp

October 18, 2012 1 comment

An assortment of black and white and sepia toned photographs.Summary:
Something strange is happening in Spokane, and the US military has taken control of the city, closing it and its happenings to the press.  Dean sees this as the perfect opportunity to break into photography before he graduates from college and is forced into giving up on his artistic dreams to work a regular 9 to 5 job.  So he sneaks into Spokane, where he meets an intriguing young woman and her rag-tag household of survivors, and quickly starts to see the inexplicable things that are going on inside the city.

Review:
Dark fantasy is one of my favored genres, but unfortunately not a ton comes out in it in any given year.  So when I saw this title available on NetGalley, I just had to snatch it up.  I’m glad I did, because it’s a truly enjoyable read.

The basic plot uses a trope of dark fantasy–a creative outsider comes to a town where bizarre things supposedly happen then starts to document them happening.  The twist here is that the creative type is a photographer, so the art form being used is photography.  This was an incredibly refreshing way to approach the topic.  Each chapter opens with a description of a shot that Dean will get at some point in that chapter.  It’s fascinating foreshadowing, and also Gropp shows real talent in describing photographs of both the fantastical and more ordinary varieties.  The descriptions also talk about more technical aspects of photography, and these show up within the story too (such as lighting and shutter speed).  Describing instead of showing the photographs was a choice that I at first was not certain of but I ultimately appreciated.  By not reproducing the photographs, Gropp leaves quite a bit of the mystery up to the reader and doesn’t spoil whatever images the reader has already established within her own mind.  But the descriptions are also so well-done that the impact of seeing one brief moment in this surreal world is still rendered.  It’s a unique and well-done choice, and I’d recommend this read to people based on that creative storytelling aspect alone.

It’s also great to see a story centering primarily around 20-somethings.  Often literature tends to stick to YA (teens) or jump right over those of us who are in that truly young adult phase of our lives and into 30-somethings.  Although the primary focus of the story is what precisely is happening in Spokane, conflicts frequently faced by 20-somethings come up within this framework–what to do for a career, do you give up on your dreams and settle down into a cubicle or not, when and with whom should you settle down, should you settle down at all, when should you respect your parents and their experience and when should you stand up to them, etc…   Long-time followers know that one reason I enjoy genre literature is it addresses these real life issues within the context of the fantastic, and the good ones do it integrated and in a thought-provoking manner.  This book achieves that.

The main character also is bisexual, while being primarily interested in a woman.  It was so awesome to get to see a bi male main character and have it be presented as just a part of who he is and not a big deal at all.  Although there is certainly a need and a place for the coming out tales and stories where the character’s sexuality is a central issue, it is also nice to see glbtq characters where that is just one aspect of who they are and is not dwelled upon much.  It is just a part of who Dean is.

As for the central plot–what is happening in Spokane–I admit that I hoped for slightly more answers than we ultimately get.  Readers looking for nicely tied up endings or even a hint at an answer will be left wanting.  I enjoy an ambiguous ending, but I also felt that perhaps the plot could have been a bit clearer.  In particular, without giving anything away, I felt that the scenes revolving around the hospital while powerful left me feeling a bit like perhaps even the author doesn’t really know what’s going on in Spokane.  Perhaps that is the point, but it did leave me feeling that the plot was not as up to par as the world building and characterization.

Overall, this is a wonderful addition to the dark fantasy genre.  Gropp gives us a unique main character and also utilizes writing about photography in a creative manner.  I highly recommend it to fans of dark fantasy, particularly 20-somethings and those with an interest in photography.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Friday Fun! (Blogger and Writer News, Ahoy!)

October 12, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

Just a couple of quick blogger and writer related updates for you all this week.

First off in very exciting blogger news, you all may remember me telling you about the new initiative called Bookstore Book Blogger Connection, which is all about connecting online reviewers and reviews with brick and mortar bookstores.  Welp. I popped on over there to check in on how things are going and lo and behold there were some photos from a bookstore showing off their new displays with book blogger quotes, and my recommendation for Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner was one of the two shown off!

Pile of books with a recommendation placard.

Not that this isn’t cool enough already, but what moved it up a level in the squee factor is that this is from a bookstore in the Netherlands! The American Book Center to be exact.  And they look pretty damn cool.  There’s something that’s just extra-exciting about being part of a bookstore that isn’t even in my country.  So thanks, guys, for sending the shots to the Bookstore Book Blogger Connection website. You gave this blogger warm glowy feelings, and I do hope the display helped introduce more readers to the awesomeness that is John Brunner’s writing.

In writerly news, I got to participate in Ang’s blogoversary over on Eastern Sunset Reads.  She gave Waiting For Daybreak her top rating of four paws (out of a possible four), saying, “I was expecting Waiting for Daybreak to be a book mostly about zombies and fighting them, but what I found was more a journey into a survivor’s psyche. I don’t know what was scarier, the zombies or being in Frieda’s mind.”

I also was able to contribute a guest post to her blogoversary where I talked about her theme for the month on where a love of reading came from for me.  My guest post is quite personal, and I really enjoyed writing it.  Big thanks to Ang for inviting me to be part of her special month!

Although my blog tour is not still going on, book bloggers are always welcome to request review copies of both my novel and my novella.  I appreciate any and all signal boosts. :-)

That’s it for the news for this week!  I hope you all have completely awesome weekends. *waves*

Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (Audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton)

October 11, 2012 2 comments

Man standing next to an alien creature.Summary:
Jack Halloway–disbarred lawyer now contracted prospector on the planet Zarathustra–just wants to collect his massive amount of money from discovering a large sunstone vein.  He seems to be doing fairly well at finagling ZaraCorp into giving him the sizable portion of the profits that he totally deserves, but one day some local creatures that he dubs Fuzzies invite themselves into his home.  Small and cat-like, only with hands, the Fuzzy family quickly endear themselves to him.  When he shows them to his ex-girlfriend, a biologist, she starts to suspect that they are sentient. And sentience would mean a cessation of all mining on the planet.  What’s a morally ambiguous guy to do?

Review:
I picked this up for three reasons.  1) It was on sale at Audible. 2) I read John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream and found it hilarious. 3) It’s narrated by Wil Wheaton.  It is certainly an entertaining read, but I must admit it was not quite up to the level that I was expecting from a Scalzi/Wheaton collaboration.

This book is interestingly a reimagining of a YA series written in the 1960s (starting with Little Fuzzy).  I have not read the original but I can tell you that this is not a YA book.  It is definitely your more general adult scifi.  Scalzi explains this as a tradition in scifi movies and tv shows that he thinks should also be carried out in books.

Scalzi’s writing is humorous, although, with the exception of the first couple of chapters, not to the laugh out loud level found in The Android’s Dream.  I particularly enjoy how good he is at giving personality to non-human characters, such as the Fuzzies and Jack’s dog.  The first half of the book is hilarious and well-plotted, complete with adorable aliens, a dog who can trigger explosives, and velociraptor-like native creatures to add to the danger factor.  The second half of the book, though, falls into this void of courtroom proceedings.  I know some people enjoy reading that, but it felt so stark and lacking in life compared to the much more fun first half that included things like the Fuzzies making sandwiches from Jack’s limited Earth supplies.  I’m not really a courtroom procedural reader myself, and frankly the two halves of the book almost felt like two separate books entirely.  I’m not sure what else could be done, though, since the basic plot is proving the sentience of the Fuzzies, which given the parameters of the world that this takes place in, can basically only happen in the courtroom.

As an animal rights advocate, I appreciated the basic storyline that just because you can’t hear creatures communicating doesn’t mean they don’t have relationships and caring amongst themselves.  I wasn’t a fan of the way that sentience was determined with such a human bias or that killing a Fuzzy is only considered truly heinous if it is established that they are sentient.  I would have preferred an ultimate conclusion rejecting speciesism, rather than the quite conservative focus on proving the human-like qualities of the Fuzzies.

Wil Wheaton’s narration was great for the first half of the book.  It’s Wil Wheaton. If you’re not sure if his acting style is for you, just look up his scenes in The Big Bang Theory.  I found his narration very similar to his appearances there.  My one complaint is a bit of a spoiler, so consider yourself warned.  His voice for Papa Fuzzy really grated on my nerves.  It was just so….blech. And not adorable Fuzzy-like.  Otherwise though, he’s a good match for Scalzi’s work.

I don’t often comment on the cover, but I must say that I don’t think that this cover does the book justice.  I particularly dislike it when a cover tries to draw out an alien creature that frankly comes across as much more adorable within the book.  Also, even the background of the planet itself doesn’t look right.

Overall, this is a witty piece of scifi with adorable alien creatures that call to mind websites like Cute Overload.  I recommend it to fans of scifi who also enjoy some courtroom proceedings in their reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Friday Fun! (Welcome, Fall!)

October 5, 2012 2 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  It is finally fall in lovely New England. If I was forced to pick, I’d choose fall as my favorite season, although winter would come in a very close second.  I might not feel this way in other areas of the US where there is no leaf changing or crisp autumnal weather or orchard season.  But here all of these awesome things exist, so yayyyy!

Things I love about Fall, in no particular order:

  • Cooler weather, which means I don’t immediately look like I ran a 5k when I step out my door
  • Fall fashion, particularly knee high socks! And denim jackets! And getting to wear my hair down periodically!
  • Also my hair no longer looks like I stuck my finger in a light socket.
  • Pumpkins!
  • Pumpkin. Spice. Latte. (with soy)
  • Pie
  • Fall leaves
  • Kicking fall leaves
  • Hiking in the woods
  • Hot chocolate
  • Spiked hot chocolate
  • Giant pots of tea
  • The perfect weather for snorgling
  • Gourds
  • Pie
  • Did I mention pie?
  • Squash dishes
  • Slow cooker season!
  • Long hot baths
  • Halloween!
  • Related: horror everywhere. Oh how I love horror.
  • Cinnamon and nutmeg in everything
  • CIDER for the love of fsm, I almost forgot cider.

I had a long weekend this weekend, which was partially a reward to myself for making it through what I have been told are the toughest two months in medical academic libraries’ calendar year and also partially to spend some time with my bf who just got back from a two week trip abroad.  :-)  Many things on this list were covered, including pumpkin spice latte and pie.  We made an apple pie together with apples we got from the orchard ourselves, and it was amazingly delicious.  Special thanks to my daddy for sharing his pie crust secrets.

As for the blog, you may have noticed that my most recent read was actually four books in one, and you really should check it out particularly if you are a scifi or 1950s American culture fan.  That slowed the reviews down a bit, but I have this new rule where I won’t kick myself over my book numbers being lower because I read a long book (or two. or three!).  Big books shouldn’t be left on the sidelines purely for being big. ;-)

Happy weekends and happy fall, all!

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