Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: mini-reviews of City of Stairs, Stone Mattress, Invisible Cities, and The Lady

Seems everyone has been reading and raving about this one so it was time to see what the fuss was about.  I like how this secondary world urban fantasy spy thriller, and other books like Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence and the ones by K.V. Johansen, are putting gods back in the mix, gods like the ancient Greek gods that often meddled around in human affairs.  It was also nice to see that the main character was a woman of color who isn't automatically the smartest and most competent person in the room.  The book is very well written with flashes of brilliance that certainly brings things up a notch.

Despite all the praise, I did have some reservations.  Namely, I felt that Bennett got just a little carried away with his world at the expense of the story so that there are plot and logic holes that really should have edited better.  Anyway, I'm definitely looking forward to City of Blades.

Rating: 8.5/10.

This is my first collection of short story collection by Margaret Atwood.  I was curious about her short fiction after enjoying The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.  Turns out I felt a little let down.  All of the stories in the collection are competently written, but none of the nine really grabbed me until the titular story "Stone Mattress" about a female serial killer seeking justice for a long-ago rape.  The last story, "Torching the Dusties" was also quite good, evoking the dystopian warnings of her novels.  I may try more of Atwood's short fiction in the future, but for now I'll probably stick to her novels.

Rating: 7.5/10.

Invisible Cities is one of the novels most synonymous with the name Italo Calvino so it seemed a good place to give the author a try.  Unfortunately, I found somewhat disappointing.  Given the lush, almost magical prose and storytelling this book should have appealed to me more, but something just never connected.  Perhaps it was something to do with the layers of metaphors and figurative language describing the cities because I could never really figure out what it was trying to say.  It was easier for me to connect to the interludes written by the third person omniscient narrator.  Despite being disappointing, that doesn't mean I'll give up on Calvino.  Some of his other work sounds interesting so I will probably give them a try someday.

Rating: 6.5/10.

The Lady is the second of the Marrakand duology, the first being The Leopard, which I reviewed last year.  While I enjoyed this book, I don't think I liked it quite as much as the first one.  The big reason for this may be that the duology is really one big book split into two so it really deserves to be read in its entirety.  The Lady pretty much picks up right where The Leopard left off and it was a little hard to get back into it after a separation of several months.  Someday when I re-read I'll be sure to read both back-to-back.

Rating: 7.5/10.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eye on New Releases for January 20, 2015

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella.

Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as "The Game"? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light. . . .

About the author:
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is well known in his native Finland for his fantasy and sci-fi narratives and has twice won the Kuvastaja Fantasy Prize given by Finland’s Tolkien Society and four times won the Atorox Award for Fantasy. He teaches Finnish language and literature and is the father of three sons.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Sinai Tapestry

Sinai Tapestry
by Edward Whittemore

Format: Paperback, 310 pages
Publisher: Old Earth Books
Cover Art: Julie Burris
Release Date: December 28, 2002 (reprint of 1977)
ISBN-10: 1-882968220

"In the early nineteenth century, Skanderberg Wallenstein, a fanatical Albanian monk and linguist, unearths in a monastery in Jerusalem the oldest Bible in the world and discovers that it denies every religious truth ever held by anyone. Fearful of the consequences of its dissemination, Wallenstein forges an original Bible that will justify faith and buries the real Sinai Bible in Jerusalem. His actions set into motion a bawdy, brilliant, and undeniably epic adventure that spans a century and entwines the destinies of four extraordinary men in the shifting sands of the Holy Land: Plantagenet Strongbow, an English-born adventurer who becomes a Muslim holy man and finally, on the eve of World War 1, the secret ruler of the Ottoman Empire; his son Stern, a visionary who dedicates his life to establishing an inclusive homeland in the Middle East for Jews, Muslims, and Christians; Haj Harun, a 3000-year-old warrior and antiquities dealer; and O'Sullivan Beare, an exiled Irish freedom fighter and gunrunner."

I'm going to be upfront and say that will impossible for me to be objective about this book.  This is only the second book I have read that I knew I would love from the very first page to the last, the other being The Shadow of the Wind and recommended by a dear friend.  It will also be impossible to write a review that will do this book justice, but I will try.

Sinai Tapestry is the first book in the Jerusalem Quartet, a series written over a decade in the late '70s and '80s.  The series garnered much critical acclaim, but little publishing success, which is a shame because I think this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I would like to say the same about the rest of the series, but I haven't read them yet though I definitely will.

The book covers a lot of ground in both location and time from 19th Century England to Africa, to Germany and the Balkans, to various points around the Mediterranean and Middle East, but always coming back to Jerusalem, and finally to the eve of World War II.  It is an amazing piece of speculative fiction, combining elements of fantasy, history both real and imagined, literature, and just a hint of spy thrillers to truly transcend all the genres.  Whittemore is a masterful storyteller, putting all these pieces together with eye-twinkling humor on every page, but turning to the dark and serious in the blink of an eye. 

If this book has any failing at all it is that it may become a bit incomprehensible by the end.  Actually, that's not quite right.  The plot itself becomes more straightforward, but the reader is perhaps not quite sure of how it all hangs together.  But then again, this novel is titled a "tapestry" after all and there are still three more books to go. 

Sinai Tapestry is a seminal, superlative work of speculative fiction and one that everyone must read.  I'm giving this book the highest possible recommendation.

Rating: 9.5/10.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Review: The Bees

The Bees
by Laline Paull

Format: Hardcover, 340 pages
Publisher: CCC/HarperCollins
Cover Art: "The Bees and Bee-keeping" from The Young Landsman (Vienna, 1845)
Release Date: May 6, 2014
ISBN-13: 978-0062331151

Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are an asset. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.

But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen’s fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.

I'm always on the lookout for non-traditional stories so when I heard this was about bees I decided to give it a try.  It's very intriguing novel giving a fantastical look inside a bee hive and follows the life of honey bee Flora 717, who is just a little bit different from other bees.  The fantastical bit is key here because these bees are more than regular bees.  The closest literary comparison I can think of is Watership Down.  In the Richard Adams classic, the rabbits are more than rabbits: they can talk and think a bit beyond their normal kin.  And yet for all that they are still rabbits.  It is very similar with The Bees, though in this instance the bees are perhaps more anthropomorphized since bees are even more dissimilar to humans than rabbits are.  The writing is not quite as good as the seminal rabbit tale, but it is quite engaging and I was absorbed throughout the story.

In fact, the bees might be anthropomorphized a little too much sometimes.  Flora 717 becomes very secretive when she begins to lay eggs.  She develops very strong maternal instincts as well so she becomes a loner and possibly a danger to the hive.  I'm not sure just how likely any of this is, but I did wonder at the suspension of disbelief.  Also, there are times in the text when the author uses a word with a very strong human connotation like "cup" or "plate" that should have no meaning for a bee.  I think Paull was trying to help convey a basic idea with these words, but I do wish she could have found a more general term that could have embodied the same concept. 

The Bees is a strong and interesting piece of fiction that should appeal to those looking for something a little different.  The writing is good and provided a very unique and fantastical look inside a bee hive.

Rating: 8/10.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Eye on New Releases for January 13th, 2015

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Eye on New Releases for January 6th, 2015

 (US edition)

When two young girls go missing in rural Herefordshire, police constable and wizard-in-training Peter Grant is sent out of London to check that nothing supernatural is involved.
It’s purely routine—Nightingale, Peter’s superior, thinks he’ll be done in less than a day. But Peter’s never been one to walk away from someone in trouble, so when nothing overtly magical turns up he volunteers his services to the local police, who need all the help they can get. But because the universe likes a joke as much as the next sadistic megalomaniac, Peter soon comes to realize that dark secrets underlie the picturesque fields and villages of the countryside and there might just be work for Britain’s most junior wizard after all.
Soon Peter’s in a vicious race against time, in a world where the boundaries between reality and fairy have never been less clear....

 (Tor reprint)

The action-packed alternate fantasy returns for a new generation, featuring fiction from #1 New York Times bestselling author George R. R. Martin, Michael Cassutt, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, and more—plus two completely new stories from Kevin Andrew Murphy and bestselling author Carrie Vaughn. Forty years after the Wild Card Virus’s release, the World Health Organization decides it’s time to take a delegation of Aces, Jokers, politicians, and journalists on a fact-finding mission to learn how other countries are dealing with the virus that reshaped humanity. Leading the team is Gregg Hartmann, a senator with presidential aspirations and a dangerous ace up his sleeve. Joining him is a menagerie of some of the series’ best and most popular Wild Cards, including Dr. Tachyon, aces Peregrine and Golden Boy, and jokers Chrysalis, Troll, and Father Squid.
From the jungles of Haiti and Peru to the tumultuous political climate of Egypt, from a monastery in Japan to the streets of the most glamorous cities of Europe, the Wild Cards are in for an eye-opening trip. While some are worshiped as actual gods, those possessing the most extreme mutations are treated with a contempt that's all too familiar to the delegates from Jokertown. New alliances will be formed, new enemies will be made, and some actions will fulfill centuries-old prophecies that make ripples throughout the future of the Wild Cards universe.

(US reprint)

I thought this was just an ebook reprint, but apparently it's in paperback too.  I also thought it was being released today, but apparently it was supposedly available last November.  Oh well.  Anyway, I wanted to make note of this US re-release of one of Christopher Priest's best novels.

Peter Sinclair, a 29-year-old Londoner, is reeling after losing his father, his girlfriend, his job and his flat. Taking refuge in a friend's rural cottage, he tries to make sense of things and figure out where his life began to go wrong by writing an autobiography. But it is possible that none of this is true ...
Peter Sinclair is a 31-year-old native of the city of Jethra in Faiandland who has just won the grand prize in a lottery: a trip to the Dream Archipelago, a neverending series of idyllic islands, where he will undergo a medical procedure that gives him immortality. Because the process also results in total amnesia, Peter must first set down all the details of his life in a manuscript in order to recover the memories afterwards. But it is also possible that none of this is true ...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: two mini-reviews of Land of Love and Drowning and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Land of Love and Drowning follows several decades of the lives to two women in an impoverished family in the Virgin Islands.  It's a decent book, probably more interesting than good.  Writing is quite good and has several interesting elements such as storytelling, Virgin Island history, and magical realism.  However, nothing is really done with any of it so the whole is less than the sum of it's parts.  It might have worked better as straight-up historical fiction with local stories scattered throughout the text.  Still, I always give points for what a book tries to achieve because other people might enjoy it more than I did.

Rating: 7/10.

Book is of a cantankerous bookstore owner and widower slowly drinking himself to death who one day finds a surprising package in his bookstore.  The package, along with a heart-warming book rep, results in a remarkable change in to his life.  The story is not half bad; kind of a love story/life story about booklovers. It won't be anything you haven't read before, but it has a love of books and of bookstores all throughout the story.

Rating: 7/10. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Most Anticipated Books of 2015

There are a lot of books coming out in 2015 that I'm looking forward to, but the following are my most anticipated.

(Date Unknown)
Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
As some readers may know, Leigh Bardugo is the author of the Grisha Trilogy and now she has a new series coming out set in the same world.  Some characters may be Grisha, but it's not going to be about that like the first series.  From what I've heard, it's going to be like the Grisha crossed with The Italian Job or The Lies of Locke Lamora.  Basically, thieves. 

Savages, K.J. Parker 
I believe this is supposed to be a limited edition book from Subterranean Press.  They often don't post any information on it until they have a pre-order system ready.  It doesn't matter as I'll automatically read anything by Parker.

Parker also has a new epic fantasy series coming out from Orbit called The Invincible Sun, but since Orbit usually has information by now, it probably won't come out until 2016.  I'll keep my eye out for anything about it.


Half the World, Joe Abercrombie
 Some people didn't like this very much because it seemed too much like Abercrombie-lite compared to his other work, but I enjoyed it immensely so I'm really looking forward to this one.  This is the second book in the Shattered Seas world.  It's set some years after Half a King and features two new protagonists, though Yarvi does feature in the story somewhat.  


Old Venus, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
GRRM and Gardner Dozois did another anthology called Old Mars, of stories based on the idea of Mars around the turn of the 20th century.  I'm talking about the Mars of canals and long dead civilizations like in Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  This new anthology is the same thing, but of Venus: lush jungles and strange creatures.  


The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
I'm a huge fan of Ken Liu's short fiction so I'm eagerly awaiting his debut novel nominally styled silkpunk.  

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
 I've been a fan of Bacigalupi ever since his story collection, Pump Six.  After two young adult novels and a middle school book, The Water Knife is his return to adult fiction.  One of things I like about Bacigalupi is how he makes a story out of current political ideas and this time it looks to be about the struggle over water rights in the American West, 


Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey
I've really enjoyed all the Expanse books to date.  Looks like this one is going to be another roaring good time!

The Dark Forest, Cixin Liu
I was extremely impressed with Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem that I reviewed back in November.  This is the second book in China's biggest-selling hard SF series and I'm looking forward to it.

Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente
I believe this is a novel that was expanded from a short story about a steampunk-era movie director investigating a mystery on old-style Venus.  It's been a while since I saw any info on this, but I'm still really looking forward to Valente's latest.


The Dinosaur Lords, Victor Milan
This has been described as A Song of Ice and Fire with dinosaurs.  For me, more description isn't necessary.  It also helps that it has a kick-ass cover. 

House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard
I snagged this description by the author via Kate Elliot: "It’s post-Apocalyptic Paris with Fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons.”  So far it's only going to be released in the UK with no US publisher yet.  Looks like I'll be getting from Book Depository.

The Wolf in the Attic, Paul Kearney
Readers of this blog are probably already aware that I'm a huge Paul Kearney fan, having read everything of his except one or two tie-in novels.  This is his latest book.

The novel is set in very early 1930′s Oxford, features Tolkien and Lewis as characters, and is told from the point of view of a lonely 11 year old girl. She’s Greek, a refugee from the sack of Smyrna, and one day discovers a Romany boy in her attic. The boy is a shape-shifter, and becomes her friend. The two begin to explore the world around Oxford, discovering things they never imagined existed. The girl, Anna, is obsessed by the Odyssey, and likens the Romany boy, Luca, to Odysseus.

The Empire Ascendant, Kameron Hurley
Despite some clunky prose and some political background that could have been better explained, I quite loved the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga, The Mirror Empire.  But then I'm a big fan of Kameron Hurley.  Octorber can't get here fast enough.