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Book Review: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

June 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A red figure hangs like a puppet from red wires on a black background.Summary:
Ever since his birthday party when a fortune cookie exploded in his face, professional blogger of all things San Francisco, Ted Hall, has been passing out, sleeping 12 hours, and waking up exhausted.  It’s disconcerting, especially since there’s a serial killer on the loose.

The circus is in town, and the highwire workers are frustrated with the star of the act, who never rehearses and periodically disappears.  And no one understands why the manager isn’t reporting their missing highwire wire to the authorities, especially since the serial killer is stringing up his victims with a strong, thin wire that sounds an awful lot like a highwire wire.

Bob the beach-living, ballroom-dancing attraction, used to be the god Kanaloa, but the immortals have abandoned humans to their own devices, and he’s not supposed to interfere.  But he just may be the key to all the mysteries occurring in San Francisco.

Review:
I picked this up because it sounded like an urban fantasy serial killer mystery, which is just my speed.  Unfortunately, I found a book with a discombobulated world and plot that builds confusion rather than tension.

If my summary above seems disjointed and confusing that’s because that’s precisely what this book is.  Multiple different extremely odd plots are going on that ultimately do have some relation to each other, but the relation takes far too long to establish or understand.  The book starts with a flashback to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and introduces us to Bob/Kanaloa.  It then jumps forward to the completely dull Ted and the exploding fortune cookie.  It then jumps backward in time again to an entirely different character, who is tied to the circus, eventually.  It takes quite a while to find out what his relation is.  These three disparate storylines that seems to have no relation to each other continue throughout the book.  Bob/Kanaloa’s journey from immortal god to just immortal beach bum would be an interesting book.  But his plot keeps getting abandoned for the other two plots, so all tension and interest is lost.  Similarly, the evil circus organizer would be interesting, but only if his plot was handled with more detail and finesse.  As it is, what he is doing and why he is evil is just confusing, not interesting.  Ted’s plot would not be interesting, even on its own with more detail, because Ted is a two-dimensional, boring character.

Beyond the three disjointed, confusing plots, nothing in this story is ever fully fleshed-out.  There’s the vague idea that immortals were once on Earth and involved but now have left, but the details of the hows, whys, and how this has affected Bob/Kanaloa is left out.  We’re told the organizer of the circus is evil, but we never see his fall from grace.  We see him as a poor pioneer then later as an evil circus worker.  The interesting part of how he got sucked into this evil is left out.  Similarly, two people ultimately become human hosts for gods, but this is basically just announced and moved on from.  The intricacies of how this feels for the human and for the god, why it might be effective or not, etc… is all left out.  This is a bare-bones, confusing plot with little development, which ruins all possible tension.

Just as the plot is created in broad, sloppy strokes, so are the characters.  The closest any come to being three-dimensional is Bob/Kanaloa, which at least made the story readable.  But the rest are quickly laid out with broad character traits, and the story moves on.  There is, for instance, no depth to Ted’s relationship with his girlfriend.  We’re told she’s his girlfriend and he loves her, but we never truly see them together and functioning as a couple.  We get no flashbacks to times prior to the supernatural craziness to see them in a non-stressful situation.  Ted’s girlfriend is there as a plot device, nothing more.

I understand that this is an advanced copy and there will be another editing pass, etc…, however this is the most errors I have ever seen in an ARC.  It was rife with typos, use of the wrong word, and format issues.  Most egregious to me is the Britishisms used by American characters, such as “prawns” for “shrimp.”  ARCs should have already had at least one editing pass.  A reasonable amount of errors could slip through, but not this many.  There were errors on approximately every other page.  Hopefully the final version received a heavy final edit.  Check reviews of the final version to be certain.

This book reads like an extremely rough first draft that badly needs an editor to come through and fix, not just minor typos and grammar, but also plot and characters problems.  It could be an interesting story if it was more fleshed-out, with some storylines dropped in favor of a more solid main one, and with at least a couple of three-dimensional characters the reader can really relate to and root for.  As it stands, there are certain scenes that are well-written and engaging, but together they do not make an engaging, readable mystery.  I normally love books published by Angry Robot, so I found this particularly disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek

August 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Red book cover witha  fly on it and the title "Instruction Manual for Swallowing" written in pink, and the author's name "Adam Marek" written in black.Summary:
A collection of fourteen short stories taking one ordinary experience and inserting an extraordinary fantastical, scifi, or bizarro instance into the situation, seeing how the main character reacts.

Review:
A mixed collection, containing both 2 star and 5 star stories, although most stick right around the 3 star mark.  The stories veer between scifi and fantasy, although both have some bizarro element in them.

Where Marek excels is when he takes a little talked-about male experience and utilizes the unique qualities of genre fiction to explore it.  The only 5 star story in the collection, “Boiling the Toad” explores a male victim of domestic violence.  It does this in a powerful way without demonizing all women.  The story starts as “my life is so bizarre” but eventually becomes all too real.  It’s interesting to note that this is also the opposite of many stories in the collection.  Many start ordinary and turn bizarre.  Starting bizarre and turning ordinary worked much better.  Similarly, “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” explores male feelings about a cancer that is only possible to get if you have testicles.  Marek fairly eloquently presents the main character as attempting to defend his perceived manhood by trying to protect his girlfriend from a Godzilla-like monster attacking the city.  These stories are interesting, and I enjoyed exploring them.

Where the collection fails and flounders, though, is when the main character is self-centered and perceives of women as objects or only existing for his pleasure.  It’s incredibly difficult to feel any empathy for a character who wants to cheat on his wife but ends up failing because of a mysterious puking illness he gets at the sushi restaurant (Sushi Plate Epiphany) or to care about a man who calls his pregnant wife a monster and tries to cheat on her while she’s still carrying his children (Belly Full of Rain).  A lot of these stories incited an eye-roll and “boohoo it’s so horrible to be a man” sarcastic response from me, which I seriously doubt was what the author was going for.

Then there are the stories that simple don’t seem to have any point or make any sense.  They seem to just be getting going when Marek stops them abruptly.  Or they do seem to be at their end but there is just no point.  Both “the Forty-Litre Monkey” and “Jumping Jennifer” have a great set-up of a mystery but that mystery is never addressed.  They stop too soon.  “Instruction Manual for Swallowing” and “The Thorn” are highly fantastical yet the conflict isn’t set up enough so as to be interesting.

Marek’s writing style varies widely between the perfect tone for bizarro genre fiction and being overly pretentious for his genre.  For instance he writes sentences like this:

Being in the room felt like being suffocated in an armpit. (location 55)

But also pretentiously calls a college quad a “quadrangle” (“Jumping Jennifer”).

Overall then this is a widely varied collection of bizarro short fiction.  Some of the stories offer wonderful insight into male issues while others wallow annoyingly in the minds of terrible men who only think they have a problem, while still others set up a fantastic world but are ultimately boring due to lack of conflict.  If you are intrigued by any of the stories mentioned, I would advise getting a copy from the library since they will be quickly read, and you can return it when done.  Definitely feel free to skip around in this collection.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Man standing in what appears to be fog.Summary:
When the aliens landed, they ignored humanity. Stopping briefly on their way somewhere else. Leaving behind mysterious random detritus, much like the remains left behind a roadside picnic.  Redrick happened to live in one of the towns visited, and as a result has become a stalker.  He sneaks into the Zone to gather alien artifacts to sell on the black market.  Soon his whole life–and those of everyone in the town–becomes dominated by the Zone.

Review:
When I saw that this was Russian scifi from the Soviet era, I knew that I needed to pick it up, if for no other reason than that I’d never seen any before.  This new print has been returned to the authors’ original vision, with the heavy edits (really, censorship) removed.  It also starts with an introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin.  I want to highlight one thing she says about scifi that I think truly illuminates its power.

Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind. (location 22)

Scifi provides an opportunity for writers and readers to remove the shackles of whatever society they are currently living in and imagine the other.  I think that’s a very powerful tool, and I commend the Strugatsky brothers for utilizing it in such a way from behind the Iron Curtain.  They had to fight for years to get some version of this book published, in spite of being well-known and respected authors.  That is a commitment to their art that is truly admirable.  Now, on to the review of the actual book.

The germ of the idea is truly brilliant and is immediately clear.  This idea of an alien race stopping by for a picnic, essentially, and ignoring humanity like so many ants.  It’s so different from the more egotistical interpretation of alien visitations that we usually see.  The book was worth the read for that alone.  The early scenes are vivid and clearly establish this post-visitation situation where the Zone the aliens landed in is uninhabitable, and the government and scientists are trying to study it while stalkers sneak in (at great risk to their lives) to extract artifacts for the black market.  Similarly, the artifacts that the stalkers (and government) find and bring out of the Zone are wonderfully imagined.  It is easy to see that the authors probably knew exactly what the aliens used the items for whereas the characters in the book are clueless. Trying to find any use they can for them.

The book though is truly about Redrick.  It uses the scifi setting to explore this man who really just wants to escape the rat race and have a comfortable life with his family.  He chooses to attempt to be his own boss by being a stalker in the Zone and is repeatedly thrown in prison for it.  We never really see him as a whole man, since we only saw him after the Zone.  It is as if the presence of the Zone gave him hope, and the repeated failures slowly rob him of his life energy.

My whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling, me, through shit, through jails, through bars…Enough!  (location 2295)

In spite of this excellent set-up and interesting character arc, the book didn’t fully satisfy me.  I found Redrick difficult to sympathize with.  He thinks he is a slave to the system, but really he is choosing to be a slave to money.  He could have left the town and the Zone behind multiple times to go live a life with his family, but he doesn’t.  I understand others might interpret his freedom of movement differently from me, but that is how I saw his situation.  It seems most of his problems come from a love of not just money but a love of wealth.  So although I periodically sympathized with what he was saying, I didn’t ultimately sympathize with him.

What I truly found disappointing though was the ending.  Without giving too much away, suffice to say that while the rest of the book was realistic scifi, couched in darkness and despair, the ending was surprisingly positive in a deus ex machina manner.  It felt like a real cop-out, particularly compared to the rest of the book.  Whereas most everything else was innovative, this was generic, ho-hum, and disappointing.  While I was still glad to have experienced Redrick’s world, the ending kept the book from truly grasping me or blowing my mind.

Overall, then, this book is an important piece of both Russian and scifi literature.  It has enough uniqueness of setting to it to keep the well-versed reader of both genres interested but beware that the main character might not be entirely sympathetic, and the ending is a bit disappointing.  Recommended to fans of Russian or scifi literature.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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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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Book Review: Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson (Series, #1)

July 9, 2012 2 comments

Man in tricorn hat standing over body of dead girl.Summary:
After spending over a decade serving hard labor in the Caribbean for mutiny and conjuring, Ethan has finally made it back to Boston.  He now makes his living as a thieftaker, essentially a private investigator who hunts down stolen items, using his conjuring where necessary to help him out.  But the year is 1767 and trouble is starting to brew in Boston. The Stamp Tax has been enacted, and the people don’t like it.  There are even riots in the street.  Against this back-drop, Ethan is asked to find a brooch that was stolen–from the body of a dead girl.  He doesn’t usually take on cases involving murder, but this one is different.

Review:
It’s probably hard to tell from this blog, because they’re hard to find, but I am a real sucker for a good Boston during the American Revolution story.   So when this title showed up I snapped it up.  I’m glad I did because it’s an interesting take on the Stamp Act Riots.

This is an interesting piece of historic fiction, because it’s more like urban fantasy historic fiction. Is that a genre? Can it be? What on earth would we call it? In any case, I was in heaven, because I love BOTH urban fantasy and history so having both in one book was heaven. I mean first it’s breeches and three corner hats then it’s look at this illusion of a creepy little girl. Brilliant.

I struggled a bit with Ethan, which in retrospect wasn’t a bad thing.  That shows he’s a realistic, well-rounded character.  But let’s be honest. I’m more of a Sam Adams revolutionary type. Ethan served in the British Navy and is all “oh these hooligans.” This bothered me a lot! Especially when I got suspicious that the book as a whole would lean Tory. But! This all ends up being part of the character development, which in the end is what makes the book stronger. Ethan isn’t sure about protesting and fighting the aristocracy at first. But he changes his mind with time. This makes for a great plot-line. I like it. I do hope in the sequel we will get less of this hemming and hawing about owing things to the crown and yadda yadda. DOWN WITH THE KING. Ahem.

As a Bostonian, can I just say, I haven’t seen a book so intent on giving actual street names and buildings before, but it worked. They are totally accurate. I could completely visualize not just the streets but the entire routes Ethan was walking along. Granted, it was as if through a looking glass, since when I walk them they’re a bit different than in 1767, but still. It was very cool. I also really appreciated the depiction of the South Enders, since I spend quite a bit of time in Southie. Seeing the historical versions was really fun.

The magic portion of the book was also unique. Ethan has to cut himself to get blood to work the more powerful spells. The less powerful ones he can work with surrounding grasses, plants, etc… This makes the interesting problem that people struggle in fist-fighting him because if he bleeds he just uses it to work spells. It’s a nice touch.

So with all this glowing, why not five stars?  Well, honestly, Ethan bugged me so much for the first 2/3 of the book that I kept almost stopping in spite of all the good things. He’s just such a…a…Tory. For most of the book. Instead of being angry at the man for putting him in prison for conjuring, he blames himself.  Instead of being angry that the rich just keep getting richer while he struggles to pay his rent, he blames himself. You get the picture. Being irritated almost constantly by Ethan kind of pulled me out of the world and the story, which I wish hadn’t happened, because it really is such a cool world.  I get what Jackson was trying to do, character development wise, but the payoff in the end was almost missed because I kept stopping reading due to being irritated with Ethan.  Perhaps if his change of heart had started to show up a bit sooner it would have worked better for me.

Overall, though, this is well-researched and thought out version of Boston during the Stamp Act Riots.  Fans of historic fiction and urban fantasy will get a kick out of seeing the latter glamoring up the former.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Beyond the Misty Shore by Vicki Hinze (Series, #1)

June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Red headed woman near a house on the seashore.Summary:
Maggie Wright comes to the cozy Maine bed and breakfast, Seascape, not for a vacation, but to investigate the mysterious death of her cousin, Carolyn.  Carolyn’s artist fiancee, TJ MacGregor, just so happens to be staying at Seascape, but a mysterious force is preventing him from leaving.  Despite the tragedy standing between them, they start to fall for each other.

Review:
This is obviously a romance with a dash of mystery and a touch of ghosts.  Maine is a wonderful setting, particularly for a paranormal romance.  This one just didn’t work for me, although I can clearly see how it will be able to find an audience.

I found the writing, particularly the romance, to ring a bit….old-fashioned and conservative.  The characters all seem to speak in the same speaking style as the elderly woman who manages the inn.  That works for her, and she is definitely my favorite character in the book, but it doesn’t work so well for TJ and Maggie who are both young and from New Orleans.  I’m sure some readers would find the clean, conservative manner in which they talk a bit of fresh air, but to me it was dull and felt like a book my grandma gave me to get started out in romances when I was in middle school.

Similarly, the way the entire town is willing to appease the local pastor when it comes to things like alcohol and condoms kind of enraged me.  For instance, the convenience store will only sell condoms to married couples upon the request of the pastor. I mean WHAT?! That is just not even LEGAL.  But.  As a book reviewer, I can definitely see that a more conservative crowd would appreciate the idea of a town where that sort of understanding could exist.

So, ignoring the fact that this book is far too conservative for me, there is one other issue that bothered me.  I found the mystery of Carolyn’s death entirely confusing.  At first I thought that Maggie came to Seascape to investigate the death because Carolyn died up there, but toward the end of the book, it sounds like she died in New Orleans.  Which was it?  And if she did die in New Orleans, then why did Maggie go to Seascape in the first place?  Also, people think the car crash was mysterious because the painting she had with her was undamaged, but then toward the end of the book they say no the undamaged painting wasn’t found at the car, it’s just that it had disappeared and reappeared.  Or something.  I’m still very confused about everything about Carolyn, which is problematic given that this is the central conflict keeping our romantic couple apart.  The mystery should be mysterious but not illogical.

Overall, this is a romance novel that was not for me, but will appeal to more conservative romance readers.  People looking for an old-timey style romance with a touch of ghosts will appreciate it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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