Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.

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Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #11

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

 

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This week’s topic: BOOKS YOU WANT TO FINALLY READ IN 2017

These are those books you meant to read in 2016 or 2015 or 2014 and never got around to. Those books that have been sitting on your TBR for a while, and you really want to get to. These aren’t upcoming 2017 releases; these are older books that need your love too!

If my TBR pile had a life of its own, and physical form, it would be scowling at me all the time… So here we go:

 

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Daniel Abraham: The King’s Blood (The Dagger and the Coin #2)

Daniel Abraham has shown time and again to be very versatile, both as a co-author of the highly acclaimed SF series The Expanse, and as a Fantasy writer: his Long Price Quartet was one of the most enjoyable and innovative series I read, and the first book of The Dagger and the Coin, though apparently more “classic” in feel, was an engrossing read that left me wanting for more. The second volume already beckons from my reading queue…

 

Iain M. Banks: Matter (Culture #8) or Against a Dark Background

Though I discovered this amazing SF author a little late, I’m steadily working my way through his production, mostly centered around the universe of the Culture, a post-scarcity future society where humans (or rather, post-humans) and alien civilizations co-exist together with artificial intelligences and ship Minds, who are the latter’s next evolutionary step.  I’m still trying to decide on either the next Culture book, Matter, or a non-Culture book set however in the same universe, Against a Dark Background, that on the surface looks like an adventure story but, knowing this author, might very well be something else entirely.

 

Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

The Arthurian legend is a fascinating, and timeless, one: I’ve been meaning to read this first book of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga for ages but always kept postponing it in favor of other titles. Now I’ve decided I am not waiting any longer: the siren song of this myth is calling to me loud and clear, and this time I don’t intend to ignore it. I believe that the unique blend of history, myth and fantasy that must be at the core of this story will make for a very gripping read.

 

Rachel Bach: Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1)

I have to confess I did start this book some time ago but it must not have been the right time – or maybe I was not in the right mood to appreciate it: the fact that I just put it in the virtual back shelf and not moved it off my reader means that I knew, even then, that there was something in it that had piqued my interest.  All I needed was to put myself in the right frame of mind, and I guess now might be that time: much of the enthusiastic reviews I’ve read from fellow bloggers whose tastes I trust have encouraged me to give it a second chance, and in the meantime – as it happens often when I procrastinate – the Paradox series has been completed.  Which means I will be able to enjoy it without waiting too long.

 

Juliet Marlier: Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn and Grim #2)

I totally loved the first book in this saga, Dreamer’s Pool, and promised myself I would not wait too long to get to the second volume, but as usual good intentions doubled up as paving stones on the proverbial road to Hell…  This is another of those fortunate cases, though, when my lagging behind means I now have two wonderful books to look forward to in the Blackthorn and Grim series and I can’t wait to re-acquaint myself with rough-edged but well-meaning Blackthorn and with the silent and meaning presence of her companion Grim, and to learn more about the bonds of affection and respect that tie them together and create the powerful core of their story.

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #10

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This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.  This week’s theme is:

INACCURATE COVERS

Those books that have nothing to do with the story, or the cover model doesn’t look anything like the actual main character, or it’s a really cheesy cover for a great read!

To say the truth, none of the covers of the books I’ve read in the past few years were really misleading: when I went to check on my GoodReads library, I could not find any that would fit this week’s theme.  So I decided to do a little search for the covers of pulp magazines from a few decades back and there I found exactly what I was looking for.

In those times, garish covers were the accepted norm: monsters from outer space, outlandish aliens and extra-terrestrial landscapes, spaceships of every size and shape – you name it, they had it.

There was one common factor though: the women depicted on those covers were all scantily clad, exotic-looking and either terrorized victims of some evil-doer or being rescued by the muscled hero. And probably had nothing to do with the stories listed in the magazine.   Here are the Top Five that came out of my search:

01In the first one, we see the lady on the cover being pursued by some bad guy and/or alien (he’s bald, and back then most aliens were bald…): they must be hovering in space, and both of their heads are enclosed by a bubble helmet, but while the man is wearing a space suit, the woman sports something close to a bathing suit, with a very, very deep neckline.  In vacuum…

In the second cover, our designated victim is stalked by a spidery-looking2 alien and looking suitably frightened – but no fear! The hero is just around the corner, ready to save her!  And once again, the man is in full EVA suit, while the woman wears a golden bikini. With matching shoes.  After all, you can’t give up on fashion, even in the direst of circumstances!

Third cover – more of the same, with a slight variation: the woman is unconscious, probably terrified by the big-toothed, long-nailed (and bald!!) monster in the background.  Thankfully the hero is carrying her away to safety.  As if we could ever doubt it!

With cover nr. 4 there is a change: in this case the lady is armed and deadly –4 in the picture she seems to have just stunned or killed the “big bad alien” (he’s green AND bald, to offer some variety, no doubt).  The woman’s weapon is still smoking (do energy weapons smoke at all?) and she looks quite resolute – yes, in her space bathing suit, complete with bubble helmet and spiked epaulettes. Oh, and gloves…

5And finally, at nr. 5, another ass-kicking lady, swinging an axe against a many-tentacled monster, while the guy in the background seems to have some trouble defending himself.  The woman is wearing a full-body suit this time, but it seems painted on her, and the conical cups for the breasts look decidedly uncomfortable!

What’s worse, is that there are still some genres where covers with scantily clad people appear in absurd poses: that’s the reason why writers like John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines decided, some time ago, to poke some fun at those covers, while supporting a charitable foundation.  As a “bonus” for this week’s theme, here are both the original cover and the… portrayal by Scalzi (on the right) and Hines (on the left), but you can find more by following the links in this IO9 article. Have fun!

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Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAYS #9

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week the theme is: Favorite First Sentences, which is a problem because it’s not easy to narrow it down to only five.  I started with three times that much and then proceeded to an agonizing pruning job. No, not easy at all….

These are all the kind of beginnings that grab my attention from the very start, and never let go, from page one to the end. What I found surprising, with some hindsight, is that they are all first volumes in series I’ve enjoyed more than most, so, if it’s true that beginnings are very delicate times (to quote from “Dune”, another all-time favorite), these beginning were strong enough to keep me reading on.

And now for the quotes…

#1

I am not as I once Was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore. I must try to remember.

(N.K. Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms)

#2

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – —in this case, my brother Shaun— – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. As if we didn’’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked. This isn’’t a surprise. It hasn’’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to get technical, it wasn’’t a surprise then.

(Mira Grant – Feed)

#3

The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot. It had taken all eight days trapped in a storage locker for her to get to that point. For the first two she’d remained motionless, sure that the armored men who’d put her there had been serious. For the first hours, the ship she’d been taken aboard wasn’t under thrust, so she floated in the locker, using gentle touches to keep herself from bumping into the walls or the atmosphere suit she shared the space with. When the ship began to move, thrust giving her weight, she’d stood silently until her legs cramped, then sat down slowly into a fetal position. She’d peed in her jumpsuit, not caring about the warm itchy wetness, or the smell, worrying only that she might slip and fall in the wet spot it left on the floor. She couldn’t make noise. They’d shoot her.

(James S.A.Corey – Leviathan Wakes)

#4

I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow would be midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.

(Juliet Marillier – Dreamer’s Pool)

#5

The rulers of the Republic lived atop the great flying city of Heaven’s Spire, their magnificent palaces soaring above the world. From their great manses in the sky came the laws and decrees that kept the country in motion, and the commoners on the ground could look up every morning and see their rulers overhead. The prisoners of the Republic lived beneath the great city of Heaven’s Spire, scouring the lapiscaela whose magic kept the city aloft. For their terrible crimes, each man and woman served a life sentence, clinging to the pipes with only a mile of empty air beneath them. There was no chance of release, no hope of escape. Today, however, Loch intended to change that.

(Patrick Weekes – The Palace Job)

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAYS #8

This GoodReads group I recently discovered proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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After a long time in which I was not able to make the deadline with some acceptable ideas, I can at last return to this fun meme. This weeks’s theme is:

Most Recent Additions to Your Wishlist

Books you are dying to get your hands on for your collection.

It wasn’t easy to restrict my list to only five, because when it comes to books I always fall prey to the dreaded Gollum Syndrome (as in “mine, my own, my preciousssss…”), so here is the list of the books that have me ranting and raving in expectation.

THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston – second volume in the Shards of Heaven series: I fell in love with the first one, Shards of Heaven, and I’m more than looking forward to seeing how the story continues. This was my first taste of historical fantasy, and I must say it’s a very, very intriguing genre.

BABYLON’S ASHES, by James S.A. Corey – sixth book in the Expanse saga: space opera at its very best, now being turned, one book at a time, into an awesome tv series by SyFy. If you have not read any of these books yet, you should wait no longer. Trust me…

WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald – second volume in the Luna series: last year, Luna, New Moon was a big revelation for me – my first book by Ian McDonald and an amazing story successfully mixing science fiction, intrigue and the darkness of the human soul.

WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, by Bradley Beaulieu – second book in the Song of Shattered Sands series: the first volume was a magical, immersive read, the kind that literally takes me away from the everyday world and makes me forget its existence. So, I’m anxiously waiting for some more magic.

THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE, by John Scalzi – the first book in a brand-new series by one of my very favorite authors: he writes them, I buy them and I’m never, ever disappointed. What more could I ask from a book?  🙂

What about you? What are the books on your Most Wanted list?

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAYS

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week’s meme is: SUMMER READS and it can include beach reads, fun reads, or any book you associate with summer for whatever reason. So let’s get started…

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Summer, or better yet, a beach vacation, means a LOT of time for reading: no distractions, no demands on my time, and the opportunity to read books that require total immersion or those that I’ve kept shifting down the queue. This is the reason I usually keep more “demanding” reads for the times when I can go on vacation, since my idea of rest is exactly this: the beach, a comfortable recliner and an absorbing book. Paradise…  🙂

This year I lined up a few books I intend to read during my long-awaited week at the beach: I hold no hope to be able to read them all, but I will carry them in my faithful reader and I’ll let inspiration decide.

Iain Banks – Excession: it’s been a while since my last Banks book, and I’ve meant to read this fifth Culture volume for some time now. From what I hear it’s a complex story, one that will require some concentration, but I can hardly wait to visit this universe again. And how could I not be intrigued by huge, sentient ships’ minds whose names are “Unacceptable Behavior”, “Yawning Angel” or “Shoot Them Later”?

Daniel Abraham – The Dragon’s Path: after enjoying Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, I’ve been curious about this huge fantasy series (The Dagger and the Coin) that saw the publication of the fifth and final book only recently. If this first volume will grab hold of my imagination, as I hope, I know I will not have to wait long years to see its conclusion, and that’s a comforting thought.

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season: most of the reviews I read about this book spoke highly of Jemisin’s new series, so I might break my self-imposed rule to finish the Inheritance Trilogy first and take a peek at this one first. Considering my previous experiences with this author, I know I will be swept away by her storytelling all the same…

Peter Hamilton – The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn #2): after finally breaking the ice with The Reality Dysfunction, I’m quite invested in this massive science fiction trilogy that spans huge distances and presents many mysteries and a terrifying new kind of invasion. This second book’s page number is even higher than the first one’s: the perfect choice for a time of leisure.

Brandon Sanderson – The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) – I must confess I’ve long been wary about Sanderson’s books because of his link with the Wheel of Time series, which I didn’t enjoy, but a couple of samples of his writing – a short story contained in an anthology, and the beautiful novella The Emperor’s Soul – changed my mind and I’m now more than ready to explore his works.

Not bad as a summer vacation plan, isn’t it?

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

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This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics

When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:

The Detainee by Peter Liney:

In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport.  Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…

Lock In by John Scalzi:

In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee:

When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors.  I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy:

In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on.  It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.