Review – The Splendour Falls

Cover of The Splendour Falls by Susanna KearsleyThe Splendour Falls, Susanna Kearsley

Looking at the reviews for this book, I had to laugh at how many people compared Kearsley’s work to Mary Stewart’s. Including myself, I’m afraid, which leaves me wondering if Kearsley embraces that or is rather sick of it by now. But truly, some of the plot things here are right up Stewart’s street, too: the moment where the villain kisses the heroine, that charged moment between them. Except that there’s something more subtle here: the villain isn’t purely villainous, but motivated by love as well. There seems something genuine in his attraction to the heroine, his interest in her.

And Kearsley is much harder on my heart. As with Season of Storms, I found myself falling for a character who didn’t make it to the end of the book. Kearsley did a great job with character, much more so than Stewart: I can believe in what happens between the protagonists, I adore a lot of the characters, and all of them have an inner life. There is something dreamlike about the whole book, with these moments of clarity where you really get to know characters and see what makes them tick, even less significant ones.

The plot itself is a bit convoluted, and I could perhaps have done without the drama of Hans and Isabelle’s story, the convenient way everything comes back together at just the right time… but then, it was exactly what I expected from the genre, and worked out with sympathetic characters and a sense of place, it doesn’t come off too badly.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Glamour in Glass

Cover of Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette KowalGlamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal

When I read Shades of Milk and Honey, I wasn’t that impressed — even when I reread it. But I quite liked Glamour in Glass. Probably partly out of sheer bloodymindedness; I looked at some reviews and oh how they whined about Jane’s attitude to pregnancy in this book. And I thought, wait: that’s actually interesting. Yes, let’s address how dangerous pregnancy could be at that time. Let’s address how “confinement” literally imprisoned women. Yes! Let’s discuss the aftermath of the Austen and Heyer novels and their neat marriages: the babies, the risks to the women, how those women were limited.

Someone called it anti-pregnancy, and I don’t think it’s that. It just turns to something that went unspoken in that period, and scrutinises it a little, and articulates a fear and dread of the constraints pregnancy placed upon women (shown even more clearly in this world because a woman can’t work any glamour while pregnant). It’s still a fairly light read, despite that theme; I read it in an hour and a half, so if you’re a fan of the first book, don’t think that it’s suddenly changed entirely in style and subject.

This is less frothy than the first book, seriously examining the relationship between Vincent and Jane, their equality and finding a balance between them. I anticipated the political plot ahead of time (perhaps because I’m fresh from Voyage of the Basilisk); it feels a bit rushed, honestly, particularly toward the end, but I appreciated seeing Jane and Vincent facing down these issues, and his growing regard for and trust in her.

Rating: 4/5

Stacking the Shelves

I’ve really behaved myself this week, aside from one trip to the library — and that to pick up hard copies of books I mostly have somewhere as ebooks anyway. (Normally I am super pro-ereader, but for some reason I really can’t focus on reading on mine at the moment.) The Detection Club books are the only ones I didn’t already have somewhere — I had The Supernatural Enhancements as an ARC.

Borrowed

Cover of Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor Cover of Fire by Kristin Cashore Cover of The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Cover of Ask A Policeman by the Detective Club Cover of The Anatomy of Murder by the Detective Club Cover of The Favourite by Mathew Lyons

I didn’t even seem to have any comics this week! I’m quite impressed with my ability not to wildly one-click everything, considering my mother and my GP separately told me they think I’m going to have to have a charming operation, sigh. Trust me to have gallstones even without a gallbladder.

What’s everyone else been up to? Any joyful trips to the library for you?

Review – The Door into Fire

Cover of The Door into Fire by Diane DuaneThe Door into Fire, Diane Duane
Review from July 27th, 2013

I can’t believe how long this has been lingering on my to read pile. I’ve had Diane Duane recced to me so many times, and I have a ton of her books. I guess I was partly saving it so I had something awesome to look forward to, part afraid it wouldn’t be awesome.

Well, it didn’t bowl me over. I do love the characters, that they have their flaws and get things wrong and love and struggle and share. I love the fact that they’re openly pansexual and polyamorous as a society, and that’s done realistically too — they still have those moments where someone will go with another person to hurt their main partner, someone will be overly possessive… I loved that relationships like that between Herewiss and Lorn weren’t romanticised, that they could and did hurt one another — and then made up.

There were things that felt less than original, a bit derivative: the whole pseudo-medieval setting, of course, and the Mother-Maiden-Crone thing. I come across that a lot in Arthuriana, and while I appreciate the power and rightness of the imagery, I’m not usually fond of it. But then on the other hand there’s this world’s creation myth, and the place of love within that creation, which somewhat redeems that to my mind.

At times it was too navel-gazing on Herewiss’ part, at times it was a bit info dumpy — but I read it all in one go, and had a horrible lump in my throat at the end of the story, so I don’t think I could give it less than four stars. Now to make sure I get round to the other two books…

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Hemlock Cup

Cover of The Hemlock Cup by Bettany HughesThe Hemlock Cup, Bettany Hughes

I got Bettany Hughes’ books because when I graduated from my BA, she was awarded an honorary fellowship by my university. So naturally, after her speech, I was curious about her work. My problem with her book on Helen of Troy was mostly the organisation, and I had that problem again too; she begins at the end of Socrates’ life, jumps forward and back with foreshadowing, tells you about people’s deaths and then mentions them again a few pages later…

I can also imagine that a lot of people would find it a dry read. I found Socrates fascinating, learning about his character; I was sometimes doubtful about how Hughes could really have pieced together certain details about him. There’s plenty of references and so on in the back of the book, but then there’s also careless mistakes like referring to Elektra and Ismene’s brothers. (It’s Antigone, not Elektra. Wrong tragedy, wrong tragedian.) That makes me a little unsure of how to take it all — and of course, Socrates didn’t write down his philosophy in the way that Plato or Aristotle did, so everything we have is second or third hand anyway.

An interesting book, at any rate, but not as fascinating as the one on Helen. I actually read it while reading Jo Walton’s The Just City, to which it makes an interesting non-fictional companion!

Rating: 3/5

Review – Blackout

Cover of Blackout by Connie WillisBlackout, Connie Willis

I know I said I was going to try Connie Willis’ work again. I know I was even going to try To Say Nothing Of the Dog. And I know that I did quite like Doomsday Book, and definitely liked some of her short stories. But I just keep bouncing off, and okay, maybe it’s a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, but that doesn’t mean I need to keep hitting my head against it, right?

See, the historical content is interesting. If you accept the fact that communication is difficult because her future Oxford has no cell phones, it’s still frustrating to a modern audience, but it makes sense. The details are all fine. The characters aren’t bad, either: they all have their own motivations and interests, and it’s rare for something to just conveniently work out.

But… in the end, you just want to shake the characters. Don’t be so stupid! Don’t run around aimlessly! Communicate! Act! And it’s the same problem I had back when I read Doomsday Book, for much the same reasons. It doesn’t feel like there’s any development from that — if anything, I liked Doomsday Book more.

So yeah, that was my last attempt at Connie Willis, I’m afraid.

Rating: 2/5

Review – The Buried Life

Cover of The Buried Life by Carrie PatelThe Buried Life, Carrie Patel
Received to review via Netgalley

Full disclosure, I also voted for Angry Robot to publish Carrie (you can read about my day at their HQ here), and she’s swung by The Bibliophibian on her blog tour for this book. I’ve owed this review for ages; I’m sorry!

I had really high hopes for this based on the first chapters I read way back, and as with most Angry Robot books, I found the ideas really fascinating. The whole set-up of the world, the mystery behind the way it’s got there (because it’s quickly obvious it’s a post-catastrophe version of our world), combined with the two main characters. They’re both women, and they’re both awesome in very different ways: Liesl Malone is a tough as nails cop, and Jane Lin is a laundress in a highly stratified society which doesn’t necessarily see the value of her quick wits and constantly underestimates her.

I think the set-up for this story is great, and the characters too — although I predicted the plot whenever it involved Roman Arnault, particularly! — although I found it a little weaker in the middle. It starts out strongly, but the mystery doesn’t really stand out, and details come out a bit too slowly. Liesl (in particular) is awesome, and the whole issue of the sheer volume of knowledge being kept from the populace gives it an interesting background, but some parts just didn’t feel as sharp as they could be.

I’m looking forward to reading Cities and Thrones, the sequel, which will hopefully expand on all the stuff I’m interested in. The positions the characters are left in at the end of the book intrigue me particularly; everything’s changing for them.

Rating: 3/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, so I’m going to borrow an idea that came to me via Guy Gavriel Kay:

“My youngest brother had a wonderful schtick from some time in high school, through to graduating medicine. He had a card in his wallet that read, ‘If I am found with amnesia, please give me the following books to read …’ And it listed half a dozen books where he longed to recapture that first glorious sense of needing to find out ‘what happens next’ … the feeling that keeps you up half the night. The feeling that comes before the plot’s been learned.”

So here’s my ten… Consider this an order if I am ever found with amnesia!

  1. The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. Well duh.
  2. The Earthsea Quartet, Ursula Le Guin. I’m curious as to how I’d feel about The Furthest Shore and Tehanu, reading them for the first time as an adult — originally I read them when I was quite young.
  3. The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay. I was torn between this and Tigana, but this was my first experience of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and I’d love to come to it fresh. Especially because it’s so influenced by prior fantasy.
  4. Whose Body, Dorothy L. Sayers. Well, all of the Peter Wimsey books really.
  5. Anything non-Arthurian by Mary Stewart. I’m not such a fan of her Arthurian books, but her other books are pure comfort to me. I might need that, if I’ve lost my memory!
  6. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. And Lord of the Rings, obviously.
  7. Among Others, Jo Walton. My first book by Walton was actually Farthing, but that’s less personal. It’d be interesting how much Among Others would resonate with me if I didn’t have the memories I do. (Mind you, neuroscience probably supports the idea that I’d still feel a sense of recognition, even without conscious memory.)
  8. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. An absolute must — I can’t go without knowing the opening and closing lines.
  9. Something by Patricia McKillip. Just don’t start me on Winter Rose unless you’re willing to take notes about my experience, compare them to my old reviews, and publish a study on unconscious memories of reading in amnesiacs.
  10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Obviously a whole course of Arthurian literature would be essential — you could start by giving me my own essays on Guinevere and Gawain — including Steinbeck’s unfinished work. But this would make a good starting point, and you could check if I retained my knowledge of Middle English too.

Now I almost want that to happen, so I can study the neuroscience of reading and memory from within! It’d also be interesting to see how I reacted to the Harry Potter books if I couldn’t remember a) reading them as a child and b) the hype surrounding them. And —

Yeah, I’ll stop. Looking forward to seeing what themes other people have gone with this week!

Review – The Just City

Cover of The Just City by Jo WaltonThe Just City, Jo Walton

Originally borrowed a review copy from Robert, then got approved for it on Netgalley, and then finally bought it, because I felt awful. It is not Jo Walton’s fault as a writer in any way; the book is fascinating, I just couldn’t sit still for it. I still don’t know why. I didn’t connect with it in the same way as I have some of Jo’s other books, but then I haven’t necessarily taken ages to read them because of that. There’s even stuff I love here: tons of classical references, as fun to spot as the books in Among Others; the awe and admiration of art; the role of the female characters and the ways they contribute to the city; loves that are not of the body but of the mind, and an understanding of different kinds of love…

The plot itself extends the thought experiment of Plato’s Republic. He came up with this thought experiment, and now the characters of the book actually try to live it; the book explores the ways they compromise on that, and the new light that sheds on the original ideas. (And Jo’s exploration is itself a thought experiment, in a way… oh, the meta.) The whole thing is, in a way, another Socratic dialogue: every character asks questions of the others, and together they try to make the Just City. Compromising the ideals leads to compromised results, and I think it’s up to the reader to figure out to what extent that is justified, to what extent the experiment is successful, to what extent a more positive result would even be possible.

It’s pretty optimistic about the human race, really. The children raised in that environment think in a way which is much more ‘just’ than if they had been raised outside it, that’s clear. I’d love to think that’s possible, and I don’t know if it is. And is it because they have been raised in an environment lacking in poverty and most injustice (negative influences), or because of the education they receive and the order of their lives (positive influences)?

If you finish this without a ton more questions, I’d be surprised. And Socrates would be very, very displeased (and so, I think, would Jo Walton).

On a character-and-plot level, I love the evolution of Apollo/Pytheas. I love his relationship with Simmea, the way that they work on agape, and the ways they fall short of that with other people around them. I’ve always thought agape a beautiful idea, and the way it’s explored here is interesting — mostly with Simmea and Pytheas, but with many other characters too. The way that they love each other and want to increase each other’s excellence, and how solidly and unshakeably they both believe that is beautiful.

There’s so much else I could say about this book, and so much else I’d like to say and can’t word. Suffice it to summarise with: it’s an interesting book, one which raises a lot of questions, which still has characters you can love and cherish as well. I recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Shades of Milk and Honey

Cover of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal

I read this one before and wasn’t enormously impressed, despite reading it one go. I think that was still pre-appreciation of Austen (sorry Mum, I can’t help it) and pre-interest in anything like romance; definitely before my interest in the likes of Georgette Heyer. So an Austenesque fantasy didn’t work for me much then. Honestly, the setting itself doesn’t quite convince me now, but that’s not because I don’t like Regency novels. It’s more that something feels off, for example when Melody says “la!” all the time. It just seems like too many period things are being sprinkled in for verisimilitude, and you don’t need all of it or so much of it.

In any case, I did appreciate this one more this time. I like the way glamour is woven into the society as a female accomplishment, like painting, which men can do professionally and women are expected just to dabble in. I liked the way things worked out between the characters; Mr Dunkirk’s reactions to Jane, and how that shapes her actions; Mr Vincent’s awkwardness about his feelings. Perhaps the romance is a little sudden, but you can see how it comes about, too.

The ending is rushed; what’s with those last few pages? I suppose it’s very like how we’re told at the end of an Austen or Heyer novel who married who and went to live where, but it jars when you’re reading a modern fantasy novel, at least for me. Ah well. At least I enjoyed the book more this time, and I’m looking forward to the sequels with hope.

Rating: 3/5