Review – Ludo and the Star Horse

Cover of Ludo and the Star Horse by Mary StewartLudo and the Star Horse, Mary Stewart

Took me a while to get hold of this, as I don’t think it’s currently in print. I wasn’t expecting much of it, since I knew it’s a children’s story, but I do love Mary Stewart’s work, and this morning I was feeling moderately dreadful, so something comforting sounded like the perfect plan. And this was just right: a little bit like Seaward, but with more the maturity level of The Dark is Rising; a little bit Narnia, but sans Christian allegory.

It’s a quest story, relatively simply: it goes through the zodiac, to catch up with the sun, to allow Ludo’s old horse Renti to join the horses of the sun now that he’s old and lame and beyond working any more. Ludo isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, in the sense that… well, to borrow the imagery from the book itself: he’s still an unshaped piece of wood, a little rough, not the best quality. But inside that, there’s a shape just waiting to be carved out, one full of life. He’s a plain sort of boy, with no special talent, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy, or that he won’t grow up into someone perfectly capable, maybe even very gifted.

Since it’s a Mary Stewart book, I wasn’t surprised at all by the very firm sense of place in the opening chapters in Bavaria. I liked that she didn’t just pick a kid from the English countryside, and that he really was just a plain ordinary boy with some potential, the same potential as anyone else.

It’s not deep, but it is charming; a fairy tale quest through the zodiac and, perhaps, home again.

Rating: 4/5

Stacking the Shelves

Hey everyone! I’ve been very good this week, and have nothing really new to report — just an ARC, and some titles from my pull list. I’m impressed by how long I’m keeping up my resolutions this year! How’s everyone else doing?

Review copy

Cover of The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland Cover of The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

I found the last book a little too predictable in theme, plot and character, so I’m hoping this breaks the mould a little. I have loved Maitland’s books, but I fear she may be stuck in a rut… One more chance, and then I’ll give her books a rest for a while. Still, excited to get the ARC!

Pull list

Cover of Spider-Gwen #1 Thor

Working on a post to go up soon about my pull list, and how people lie when they say there’s no cool female superheroes… (Not, Marvel, that I’m saying there’s enough. Did you seriously put back the date of your Captain Marvel movie for Spider-man? Really? I’ve seen Spider-man. I need you to have the guts to give us a female superhero front and center. Black Widow would work too.)

And just to finish up, here’s a photo of the bunny in total relaxation, since I’m currently staying with her and my partner!

Review – Whispers Under Ground

Cover of Whispers Under Ground by Ben AaronovitchWhispers Under Ground, Ben Aaronovitch
Review from July 18th, 2013

My previous hangups haven’t really been dispersed yet, but I am starting to think that Peter Grant is several cuts above Harry Dresden on the misogyny-sorry-I-mean-chivalry front. It’s starting to feel like he’s a genuinely nice guy who is sometimes a bit of an ass in the way he expresses himself, as people do.

Anyway, these books are definitely easy reads, and I like a lot of the background — the Folly, Molly, Nightingale’s long career — and the accumulated emotional stuff from previous books (i.e. Lesley and her mask — which I seem to have been under the impression was spelt “Leslie” in previous books, I’m not sure why). I really liked that Lesley’s still considered sexually attractive by various characters, and that she’s definitely a strong character in her own right, not a love interest or tragic past mistake.

I’m not sure how coherent I found this, though. I found so many places where the spelling was off, or the grammar just didn’t make sense (i.e. wasn’t something anyone would say, let alone write), but now when I sit back I’m not so sure about the plot, either. It felt like there was a fair amount of packaging.

I can understand why people like this series so much — and it is growing on me, too.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Authority

Cover of Authority by Jeff VanderMeerAuthority, Jeff VanderMeer

Coming after Annihilation, this book seems to make so much more sense, to be begin with. There are still aspects of mystery, confusion, and not just around Area X — there’s missing time, people who haven’t even been to Area X seeming contaminated by it, etc, etc. But the horror is muffled, the adventure is muffled, and instead it becomes more of a spy story, a sci-fi story. Still a mystery story, but a different kind of drive to the narrative.

Don’t kid yourself for a moment that’s actually going to work out by giving you answers. There are some answers, but they ask questions of your own. VanderMeer carefully avoids really ever explaining what is causing what is happening; I can only hope that we get some more on that in Acceptance. It’s driving me a little nuts not to have even a working theory, because I don’t even trust the evidence.

Still, if you’ve read Annihilation, you know what you’re signing up for fairly well. It’s still really weird. It’s still intriguing. It will still make you yelp “what the hell!?” at your ereader screen/the page of the book. Or the audio, if there’s an audio version. (I’m trying to imagine the right narrator for it. The right casting could really add to the creepiness.)

With most books, I’d adjust the rating down from what I gave the previous book, but since I think the three are working together to build the atmosphere, the mystery, and it’s unlikely anything will be irrelevant, I’ll leave it at a sort of overall rating of 4/5, with just a note that I didn’t like it as much as the first book.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Cover of Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

You’d think this book would be one about sheer love of books, being set in a bookstore. Like, say, The Collected Works of A.J. Fikrywhich has a similar setting (persnickety little bookshop) but a vastly more personal plot. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookshop is much more of a paean to technology: the wonders of ereaders, ebooks, writing code, visualising stuff using simulations, and most of all, Google. You can kinda tell why people accuse this book of being a shill for Google: almost every chapter mentions it; the Google characters are so cool and quirky; Google is run in such an interesting way, is in such a cool building, etc, etc.

Then again, the characterisation of the main Google character isn’t exactly appealing. She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and when things don’t go her way, she blames the main character for it. You’re half the reason he even went through with trying to decode this massive conspiracy, girl; it’s you that decided to commit resources, you that insisted the end would be worth it. I really wasn’t impressed with her. A lot of it seemed to be trying too hard: Mr Penumbra, for example, is too much of a twinkly old man.

It’s fun enough, but I didn’t take it very seriously or get very absorbed in it. I’ve read plenty of conspiracy stories of this sort, and though in a way it doesn’t take itself too seriously on that front, I just wasn’t caught up by it. I did sort of anticipate the ultimate solution, if not how to come to that solution.

I found it particularly funny that I was reading this book on a Kobo when I got to the bit where it disses Kobos.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Kiwi’s Egg

Cover of The Kiwi's Egg by David QuammenThe Kiwi’s Egg, David Quammen

Having thoroughly enjoyed several of Quammen’s other books, I’m a bit sad that I didn’t really feel enthusiastic about this one — especially because I do have a great interest in Darwin, the early theories of evolution and the reaction to them in society. I mean, we’re still seeing that reaction now: I know people who don’t believe in evolution forming new species; I know people who are not convinced by the proofs we have; and various people somewhere in between. And this is an idea that’s in our general consciousness, unlike — for example — electron shells.

But the long descriptions of the incubation of Darwin’s idea are, well, long. And often totally speculative, alas. We have so many records of Darwin, but of course they don’t necessarily answer the questions we really want answered. All in all, this just… didn’t captivate me as I would’ve liked, despite reminding me that by all accounts I think I quite like Darwin as a person as well as a scientist.

Rating: 2/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s topic from The Broke and the Bookish is a great one: top ten heroines. Let’s see…

  1. Yeine, from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Seriously, seriously kickass lady who navigates politics, would prefer a fair fight, and becomes a goddess. Why not?
  2. Tenar, from The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin. That was always my favourite book of the bunch. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Tenar is strong in a way that has nothing to do with physical strength.
  3. Mori, from Among Others by Jo Walton. Because she’s quite a lot like me, only she really can see fairies and she has a streak of pragmatism I could really use.
  4. Harriet Vane, from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. Bit of a change of pace from the first three, being a different genre. But she’s a woman in a man’s world, pursuing both writing and academia, a strong woman who knows her own mind and sticks to her principles. But at the same time, she’s not perfect: she snarls at Peter, she’s unfair, etc, etc.
  5. Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève, from Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. If there’s anything that can hold her back, I don’t know what it is. She’s gorgeous, she’s a spy, she manipulates politics and gets involved in all kinds of stuff on behalf of her country.
  6. Katherine Talbert, from The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. Even if she doesn’t want to learn to fight at first.
  7. Ki, from Harpy’s Flight by Megan Lindholm. Practical, determined, fierce, and good to her animals, to her friends.
  8. Caitrin, from Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier. She doesn’t seem like she’s going to be a strong person at first, yet she learns to face her fears — without it ever seeming too easy.
  9. Mirasol, from Chalice by Robin McKinley. She’s thrown in at the deep end, with very little gratefulness or support from those around her, and she pushes through it to do whatever she has to do.
  10. Csethiro Celedin, from The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. She basically says that if anyone hurts Maia she’ll duel them and gut them. Like!

I’m gonna have to look at loads of posts on this one, because stories with good heroines are definitely of interest to me!

Review – Annihilation

Cover of Annilation by Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

This review could easily just be: what the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck?

As I was just saying to my partner, who is reading these books at the same time as me, the concept isn’t that strange in many ways. You can explain it as a straightforward SF or horror story. It’s just the way VanderMeer writes it: it’s so insidious, so sideways; it creeps up on you. The depersonalisation of the nameless characters helps with that, and the half-said things. The contradictions and confusions and the way that you can never be sure anything has happened. In most SF stories, at least you get a solid answer: this character is controlled by aliens. This character is an alien. This character is turning into an alien. This character is going to have an alien burst out of their chest.

But VanderMeer makes you consider all possibilities at once. They could all be true. Or none. Or something else even weirder. It’s that thing that effective horror/suspense can do, where it’s more scary because you can’t define exactly what the discomfort is.

I’ve said all that and not even touched on the characters, which are normally the most important thing for me. But when it comes to a lot of New Weird type stories, I’ve found that the places in which the action occurs are often characters in themselves, in some weird way. Sometimes more vivid and alive than the characters themselves. There’s definitely a sense of the characters here being more roles, archetypes, cyphers, than real people. And yet there are things you can hold onto: the biologist, her husband… to an extent, the surveyor: I wanted to know what she was thinking, how she was coping.

If you don’t like mysteries and you don’t like weird, this is absolutely not your kind of book. But it is very intriguing, in a slow building kind of way. I want to know.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Remnant Population

Cover of Remnant Population by Elizabeth MoonRemnant Population, Elizabeth Moon

Remnant Population is a quiet sort of SF book. It’s more along the lines of, say, Ursula Le Guin than Lois McMaster Bujold or David Weber: at least, there’s very little by the way of epic space fights, and much more about people. Mostly just one person, alone. I loved that the protagonist is an old woman; the ending, with the recruitment of old ladies, seemed like a bit of a joke even so, but I liked that this is very much a defence of the worth and importance of the elderly, and particularly elderly women.

I liked that the aliens really are weird and nothing like us — that all our exo-scientists’ assumptions were just way out. I think if we do find other life out there, it might be like this: we might not even know what we’re looking at. They might learn in radically different ways (sorry, Pinker, Chomsky); they might mature at different speeds. We base our assumptions on carbon based mammals…

Perhaps the unrealistic thing is how easily it’s settled. You require a set up like Le Guin’s Ekumen for that, and this seemed more like a society run primarily by corporations. It didn’t seem like cooperation would be so easy… But even then, there’s a hint at how that can be done; the People join in the commercial enterprises of the rest of the universe.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one; it’s not going to be a new favourite, but it was a good read.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Cover of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. SayersThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers

It’s fortunate for me that these books are so familiar to me by now, because I got distracted by other books in the middle of this. It’s not my favourite of the bunch, which helps to explain why; I do like the conflicts between Parker and Peter that’re brought out by the nature of the story, the awkwardness between them as Peter has to suspect one of his own friends. That’s perhaps the best part of this: the characterisations of those two as they try to balance friendship and duty; Peter’s struggle with himself and his own honesty.

The ending is one of those awfully convenient, gentlemanly ones where Peter could bring the person to trial, etc, etc, and then warns them and offers them suicide instead. I can never quite decide what I think about those endings: they give Peter a kind of out, so that he doesn’t have to do the ungentlemanly thing. Which is a bit unfair, really.

Rating: 3/5