09 December 2013

A fresh look at old tropes

Books | Matt Stephens | The Jake Colbert Testimony

This is a book that is full of old SF tropes, both from books and movies. As page one tells you, “I have told this story twice, and one of the skeptics has made the point of saying that there are several clich├ęs in the narrative. If you think that too, then just remember, these things are apparently commonplace in these testimonials for a reason.”

So, while it's as tropey as a summer movie for teens, it's fun to read, and fresh. The book is written as a report, pulling heavily on Jake's journal written during the actual events. This helps maintain a lot of suspense, as the 'live' reports get a lot of editorial help from hindsight.

Jake Colbert, teen protagonist, is getting a new girlfriend in his life, the school president Jess Connolly, someone he adores from what he thinks is a distance. She has a possessive boyfriend already, Pierce Tanner, son of the sheriff, making this opening situation a typical teen life problem. There is also the black best friend, a self-proclaimed coward, who wrily remarks in the opening chapter, when told to investigate noises in the cornfield: "I've seen this movie a thousand times." Zack said with certainty. "It starts with a kid looking through a telescope, then a bunch of high school kids start talking about scary monsters in the cornfield, and then the black dude wanders off and gets eaten by something." Zack's girlfriend, Marie, used to be Jake's girlfriend, and is very worried for his love-life. As you can see, author Matthew Stephens dives right into it, and you have the eerie noises in an overgrown cornfield right there in chapter one.

Aliens appear not too far into the story. The adults seem to be either oblivious, controlled, or complicit. In many ways, it's a typical teen movie plot: the only ones who know the truth are teens, and the truth is so full of tropes, that it is dismissed. Stephens carries this off quite well. At the same time, these are teens, after all, so worries about school, the upcoming festival, the issues with the new girlfriend, the relationship of Pierce with his father, the worry Jake has for his kid brother, all these combine to reinforce the dissonance of the aliens juxtaposed against normality (ok, normality for American teens). As the 'normal' bits play out, the aliens get bolder, and the teens are left fighting with fewer and fewer resources.

The best parts about the book are the growth of the characters, and the slow exposure of their true natures, full of heroism and cowardice, betrayal and redemption. Like any teen book, the adults are NPCs (non-playing characters) in the main, more like extras who populate the scene, essential for economic stability, but usually not fundamental to the teens' decisions. This is as a teen story should be. If I was a teen, I wouldn't have it any other way. Even as someone with teenaged kids, it's still as I want the story to be.

The pace keeps picking up, as fast as the reader can keep up. There are climactic scenes of battling the aliens, full of sound, explosions, zombiefied crowds milling around and creating further obstacles for our heroes.

And the end is surprising and satisfying and not at all tropey.

Go ahead. Read and enjoy!

Full disclosure: I got an advance copy (before all the typos were all fixed) in return for an honest review. So here you have it.

24 April 2013

Special effects get better as the Dragon hatches a cunning plot

Books | Neal Asher | The Technician

This is the second book by Neal Asher that I have read, and I am now a Fan. This book is somewhat spaced out in the series (I do hate missing intermediate books), and Dragon, the entity made up of four linked spheres each a kilometer across, has, somewhere in those missing books, managed to divide and fool. One of those spheres has crashlanded on the planet of action, and Dragon's creations, the dracomen, have set up home on the planet.

The Polity is likely to declare the planet previously occupied by a sentient species, so the humans there are understandably miffed and willing to create mayhem, separatism, and the like. Especially as they have only just come aboveground after being an Underground (as well as literally underground) opposed to the ruling theocracy. Which has been obliterated almost to a man. There is one man left of them, who has had his head eaten off (and spat back) by a giant creature known as The Technician. The Technician is an artist, who makes incomprehensible sculptures out of the bones of the gabbleducks, huge pyramidal animals that gabble nonsense that almost makes sense (but never does), and chase unwary humans. There is an amphidapt man (a frog man for us normal movie-watching humans) who hides from everyone, including, he hopes, the AIs in orbit, and whose life's mission is collecting every one of the Technician's sculptures, in order to make sense of them. When we are a few chapters in, we understand that if the Technician is really old, then humans have to clear out.

Or, wait, there is also an alien AI which has refused to communicate with humans or their AIs for decades upon decades. There are two human AIs, one of which is totally insane, and the other one probably is, for it has released the black (physically as well; perhaps Asher doesn't really care for metaphors) AI. Not really. The wicked part of it is sealed away (and leaks out somewhere in the second half of the book, ha ha).

Back up a bit. The reason Dragon crashed on the planet is that it sold its augments to the religious government, found them to be somewhat resistant, and in a tremendous set of double crosses, the theocracy used a Dragon supplied superweapon and Dragon destroyed them. Largely. The rest being taken care of by the Underground.

at this point, I suggest you read the book for yourself. It is hugely complicated, there are giant wars run by AIs and fantastical future weapons. The Technician fulfils its destiny, as does the remaining theocrat, assorted Polity agents (not Ian Cormac, but good enough), dracomen, gabbleducks, and whole series of satisfyingly alien aliens. Yesss! Aliens more wacky than Larry Niven could come up with, and that is saying something.

Yes, there are truly villainous villains, and unlike, say George RR Martin stories, they do get their just desserts, and lots of people live happily ever after.

Fanlike drooling prevents me from typing further for fear of damaging my keyboard.

Finders keepers, losers weepers

Books | Belinda Bauer | Finders Keepers

Someone is kidnapping kids and leaving behind yellow sticky notes that read “You don't love him” or “You don't love her”. Most of the kids are kidnapped when they are left unattended for trivial lengths of time. Like dropped off by their school bus or told to go to the car in the parking lot while the parents amble up. Certainly a nightmare scenario for any parent. And the town is full of anxious parents. The clues are few (the reader gets more of them than the detective).

On the other hand, there is Jason Holly, a policeman who has lost his family and seems to have become somewhat unhinged, and who is therefore off duty, and off the case. Except that he cannot, or will not, keep himself away. The guilty consciences of kids and adults cause more confusion. You know how it is: relatively minor stuff gets told lies about, which ends up complicating the main investigation.

All the spoiler I will give you is that there is a happy ending. Mostly.

This is a story in which the psychology of the detective is complicated enough, and the villain's is gruesome. Which means that your hair will stand on end. At least, mine did.

17 April 2013

Should we keep faith in David Baldacci?

Books | David Baldacci | Saving Faith

Lee Adams is hired by a mysterious client to find Faith Lockhart. Faith has disappeared because she is being protected by the FBI, whom she has approached to cut a deal. In return for information about high-level misdeeds, she wants her mentor, lobbyist Danny Buchanan, and herself to be home free. Now, somebody is after her, FBI agents get killed, and she is on the run, along with Lee Adams.

Is Danny really a lobbyist with a heart of gold, or something a lot darker?

Unlike many books by Baldacci, this one describes emotions rather than letting us feel them directly, which to my mind is a drawback. Or perhaps it isn't fair to hold only Baldacci to higher standards, eh? No, by gum, it is perfectly fair.

Slower than some of his other books, some good twists and turns, but the climactic scenes are not handled that well. They're a bit like from a formulaic Hollywood movie (you know the hero can win against a zillion villains), although there is certainly one Noooooo! moment.

There are better books by David Baldacci, but this one's not bad either.

13 April 2013

Catching up with my reading

I've still got to tell you about Saving Faith by David Baldacci and Dark Visions (an anthology), yet I've read whole scads of books in the meantime. So I'll just list them here quickly, and you can expect to read about these in due course.

Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer
Exposed by Alex Kava
Illegal Action by Stella Rimington
The Technician by Neal Asher
If I Should Die by Allison Brennan
Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott
Heroes of Olympus - The Demigod Diaries by Rick Riordan et fil
Deliver Us From Evil by David Baldacci
Dreamland by Jim DeFelice and Dale Brown
iBoy by Kevin Brooks
If I Should Die by Judith Kelman (no, I'm not repeating myself, same name, different authors!)
Variant by Robinson Wells
Plugged by Eoin Colfer
Battle Born by Dale Brown
Think of a Number by John Verdon
Case of Lies by Perri O'Shaughnessy
Stolen Magic by MJ Putney
Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Fragment by Warren Fahy
The Donor by Frank M Robinson

Jeffery Devious writes another thriller

Thriller | Jeffery Deaver | XO

Jeffery Deaver is one of the most devious writers around. His books have more turns and twists than a jalebi (Westerners think the pretzel is twisted; Indians laugh at their naivete). This one is true to the tradition.

Kayleigh Towne, a brilliant and beautiful singer, is being stalked. Fortunately, she is close friends with Kathryn Dance, my favourite fictional kinesics expert. Dance helps Kayleigh to escape the stalker. Or is the stalker the real villain? People get killed. The truth is finally got at some half a page or so before the end. A true jalebi of a story, typical Jeffery Devious. Read, read.

Perri, the mason of legal thrillers.

Legal thriller | Perri O'Shaughnessy | Unfit to Practice

Nina Reilly, the legal eagle who is almost too good to be true, is working on her relationship with Paul, her investigator, when, one tired night, she leaves her client files in her car (actually, her truck; Americans call those monster machines cars for some reason that the rest of humanity cannot fathom). Sure enough, in the morning, her car has been stolen, with the files. The car finds its way back, thanks to police who really don't like a defense lawyer, and don't believe they were there to start with, particularly as our lawyer refuses to release any information on what the files looked like or contained.

Except now her clients are getting into messes. Lethal ones. And suddenly, there is a pack of cases against her to get her disbarred as she is unfit to practice. But wait, there is a lawyer who specialises in defending such as her, and Paul introduces her ... to her ex-husband. Convolutions in the relationship, and shenanigans in the hearings.

You do know she'll come off smelling of roses, but you wonder at the same time, who is it who is out to ruin her (and if any clients need to be blooded at the altar of her ruin, so be it). Neat.

Somehow, I do like the Perri (Pamela + Mary, sisters) O'Shaughnessy books I've read (there's another one in the queue for writing about), but it's almost always picked up as a second choice. Something safe and not likely to overly horrify or to shake my thinking. Lazy Sunday reads. Really lazy.

Othello, Othello, wherefore art thou, Othello?

Detective | Peter Robinson | All the Colours of Darkness

Inspector Banks (now, of course, promoted), is recalled from his holiday when some kids find a man hanging from a tree, quite dead. He is a set and costume designer in a local theatre, and as the theatre is about to get a large windfall and he is about to be propelled into name, fame and money, why on earth should he kill himself? I'm not going to do any spoilers, so all I'll say is, if the real police can unearth such hidden motives and find the right proofs, the world will be a safer place. Or at least a more just one. One of the best books in this series, imho.

My Brother's Finder

Thriller | Joseph Finder | Vanished

Joseph Finder has written a book about someone who has Vanished. That's irony.

The book is fun, though, and I predict Nick Heller will soon be a best-selling series book hero. His sister-in-law is walking back with her husband after dinner, when they are attacked. Roger screams “Why her?” Why indeedy? Surely, Roger is not what he seems, and sure enough, that's what we soon find out. Who can decipher this Gordian knot? Enter Nick Heller, the only one who can get to the root of this tale. Also featuring a sharp and interesting teen, this book has some breathtaking action scenes and crisp dialog. I particularly liked the one in which the teen asks the uncle if he uses a gun to 'get' his targets. Nope, says the uncle. He uses his hands. You kill people with your hands? gasps the teen in awe. No, says the uncle witheringly, I search for them on the computer...

09 April 2013

Lucky Luke takes on Ma Dalton, and does not lose.

Graphic Novel | Morris and Goscinny |  Ma Dalton

Lucky Luke, our hero, who can shoot faster than his own shadow, takes on Ma Dalton and the Dalton brothers (a set of clones in different sizes, with the shortest of them being the smartest, and the tallest, the stupidest, but all of them equally funny). The Dalton brothers are in jail, which they break out of, going home to ma. Lucky Luke is sent after them, with the help of the wonder dog, Rin Tin Can (I know, right?). The wonder is if he is ever awake.

The book is a riot of laughs. Like when the brothers read a letter together, and conclude that one of the letters is a 'g'. Later, you find out what the letter is when the tallest Dalton rushes to his mother, calling, 'It's me, Ma, your gagy!' I laughed out loud. The horse gets his laughs, too. The whole thing is as convoluted as a prime time sitcom, and twice as funny.

I guess there were cigarettes in the Wild West. Lucky Luke has plenty of them. Today, the story would have had a statutory warning that tobacco is dangerous, or maybe Lucky Luke would not have been a smoker at all. Only smokin' fast with his gun.

Her dresses are worth more than her strength

Fantasy | Elizabeth Haydon | Destiny 

As someone mentioned online, no wonder people prefer writing fantasy to hard science fiction. A few horses, some random magic, a demon to vanquish, and dresses like a millionaire's wedding confection. That's all you need to generate terrific sales. No wondering if the planet you posit would develop with the atmosphere you need for the critters you invented for the story to move. Ha.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the contorted pose of the heroine on the cover. Bent head, bust stuck out, butt stuck out, and no feet. She is also holding—delicately--a long and heavy sword, at one end, cantilevered out ridiculously. Try standing like that in real life, and you may find the ground is closer than you thought, as well as a lot harder and sooner than you expected, and the sword, while dropping, would take off a knuckle or two. The only people who can hold huge swords in two fingers are the video game characters in Final Fantasy. Oh, wait, this is a fantasy, too.

This book is part of a series, the last in the row. Rhapsody, a Namer, has tied up with Achmed, an assassin who is now a king, and the Sergeant (who gets only a few bit parts in this book). She is also in love with Ashe, or is his name Gwydion? The evil F'dor is finally bested by our heroes in this book. Assorted magic weilders suddenly and for no good reason decide they want Rhapsody as their Queen, so she gets a lot of gowns that take several pages to describe. Characters with exotic and relentless power succumb to her charm, or her Naming, or something else. Anyway, the reader who identifies with Rhapsody will be much reassured to be told, several times in the book, that she is way powerful, and the most beautiful woman in the world. Powerful men love her to bits.

Damn. That's all I remember. There were some nice fantasy scenes in between, but this is what sticks. Why do I read these books? Because they don't mind if I switch off my brain before I start? Not good enough reason, my dear...

Living in olden times

Historical detective | Michael Jecks | The Sticklepath Strangler 

Many books that purport to be placed in the past get the past all wrong. If you were a king, you would be relatively well off, albeit without a decent doctor or dentist, but for the majority of people, life was nasty, brutish and short. Ordinary people had little or no rights. As Lois McMaster Bujold's Capt Cordelia Naismith once drily remarked, democrats have no problem with an aristocracy as long as they get to be the aristocrats. Aren't most of us fantasy readers expected to identify with benevolent kings rather than the downtrodden serfs? Yeah, you read my previous review, right? It would indeed be difficult in the extreme for us to identify with the serfs of bygone ages, so Michael Jecks wisely gives us the viewpoint of Baldwin Furnshill (Sir, no less) so that we aren't faced with the viewpoints of the ordinary villagers of Sticklepath (steep path) -- which would drive us quickly insane.

Did you know that villages were fined if a murder occurred in them? Heavily? Now that's a motive for not reporting it, if there ever was one. However, a blabbermouth traveller happens to be around when some young girls discover an old body in a wall, and the King's men, Sir Baldwin and his friend the bailiff Simon, turn up to investigate.

The mystery is an old-fashioned detective story (ha! In more ways than one) in which you get clues, and you have to deduce the facts logically from what people state. No forensics, no photographs, not even written records. More than one murder is unearthed (cough, cough, no pun intended, I'm sure), and more than one murderer is unmasked, with more than one motive for murder. To Jecks' credit, he manages to explain the surreal motives of people in ye olde times understandable, with good doses of prior exposition neatly woven into the story so that you get your aha moment from the mystery's solution(s).

It's easy to understand the jaquerie after reading a book like this and finding out what a horrible life most people had before the industrial revolution and modern medicine. I'm grateful to live now, and not a few centuries ago, and especially not in rural England.

Recommended for a good mystery as well as insight into ye olde times.

01 January 2013

With the Goddess on my side, I conquer all

Fantasy | PC Cast | Elphame's Choice

This is part of the Goddess of Partholon series, which, per the publisher's blurb, is exceedingly popular. I found it difficult to imagine that the heroine and hero would actually face any difficulty in waltzing their way to a happy ending. After all, the Goddess is on the heroine's side, all the way from ensuring that she is born in satyr form to a human mother and centaur father, and is announced as the incarnation of the Goddess herself, right in chapter one.

On the other hand, I've never quite understood why such a stated-as-benevolent goddess would require such bloodthirsty sacrifices for good ends to result. It's not as if there are any real choices along the way, title notwithstanding.

Neither have I got my head around a rose-tinted view of a society in which there are tenth sons, who stand to inherit nothing, so they are super thrilled to have Elphame rebuild the ruined castle, rumoured (correctly, as it turns out) to be haunted. By benevolent ghosts.

Who show us what horrid creatures the ancient winged enemy were. But their descendants, equally winged, are human and stubbornly and relentlessly resist the call of their demon blood for several decades. Benevolently.

Aargh. Anyway, the second half of the book is somewhat better than the first, and the brother-sister dialogues are quite snappy and have a true sibling feel. Loving and benevolent though they are....

But I'm getting less tolerant of books with prophecies. Sigh. The older I get, the fussier I get.

Nope, not checking out more PC Cast books myself, but if you liked Twilight, this may well be up your alley, 170 year old hero, teen heroine, and all.

Werewolf jokes

Fantasy (Werewolf and Sorceress) | MaryJanice Davidson | Derik's Bane

Derik is a werewolf. Based on a prophecy that the reincarnation of Morgan le Fay is shortly going to be involved in the end of the world, he sets off to California to put paid to her. But the ditzy Dr Sara Dunn is too lucky to be true.

Lots of side-splitting dialogue and sitcom, with lots of romantic tropes mixed in. (A few very steamy scenes, so not really suitable for under-18s).

Sample this:
'You have to save the world.'Derik fought to keep his jaw from dropping. 'Me?''Yes, brain-drain, you. In fact, could you get started on that right away?'Moira clapped her hands. 'A quest! Just what you needed, oh, it's perfect, perfect!''A quest? Do I look like a Hobbit to you? I have to save the world? From what?'Antonia smirked. 'From who, actually.''From whom, actually,' Moira corrected.
It's totally funny. I laughed out loud so many times, the next person took the book away from me and started reading it himself--laughing from page to page while at it. Ha.

The end is a bit of an over-neat wrap-up, but you will forgive it for being a bit of a let's-finish-this-before-the-interval speed-solution since it could have well been dragged out beyond 198 pages, and become a drag itself. As it is, frothy and light, silly and funny.

Recommended for the laughs, and I for one am going to keep an eye out for more MJ Davidson books.

It's been a long time

It's been a long time since I last posted, but I haven't stopped reading!

Nope, I've just been postponing writing about what I've been reading. So I guess I'm a reader at heart, and not a writer. Ooh, who would have guessed? :D

So, here are the books I've read in the past couple of months, in no particular order. I'm dead sure there was one more, but try as I might, I can't remember its name or author. Sigh.

Saving Faith by David Baldacci
Derik's Bane by MaryJanice Davidson
Vanished by Joseph Finder (ha, now that's an ironic title if there ever was one, given the author's name!)
The Sticklepath Strangler by Michael Jecks
All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson
Unfit to Practice by Perri O'Shaughnessy
XO by Jeffery Deaver
Elphame's Choice by PC Cast
Destiny by Elizabeth Haydon
Dark Visions (a short story collection of Horror stories)
Ma Dalton by Morris and Goscinny (a graphic novel aka comic)

So, I'll get my nose to the grindstone and tell you about these in a bit. If you have preferences as to the order I go through these, don't feel shy, let me know.