Saturday, 28 September 2013

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is the first in a new series of super-power novels. It's been billed as YA but to me it reads more like an adult book. The main character is eighteen but the other characters are older, which to me doesn't quite fit in with the YA genre. That said, I can think of no reason for teen readers not to enjoy it.
Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics... nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart—the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning—and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.
In the world of Steelheart, some people acquired super powers and became "Epics". None of them are superheroes, though; they're all supervillains. Fortunately for the ordinary people, the Epics all have a weakness that theoretically allows them to be killed. Obviously, they don't go around advertising their weaknesses, however, and they can be very obscure like "can only be killed by a thirty-seven year-old man".

The titular Steelheart is the Epic who rules over Newcago, the city formerly known as Chicago (lol). He is extremely powerful, bulletproof, able to turn any non-living matter into steel, can shoot energy balls, and no one knows his weakness. On the other hand, his dictatorial rule over Newcago has resulted in a relatively prosperous, safe and well-run city, in the context of a post-Calamity world.

David, our main character, has a vendetta against Steelheart after seeing his father die at the Epic's hand. His advantage is that he also saw his father injure Steelheart. So when he's old enough to live on his own, he sets out to join the Reckoners, a rebel group dedicated to taking out Epics. The story follows David and the Reckoners as they work towards that goal.

Steelheart was an enjoyable read. Sanderson deftly lays clues along the way that I mostly didn't make sense of until the corresponding reveals, or close to them. I like the way he gives hints but not too much information. I hate it in books when I work out the mystery the main character is trying to solve much earlier than the character themselves. It's frustrating, but happily Sanderson avoids that pitfall.

The events of the book are mostly dire and serious, but Sanderson adds a bit of levity through character quirks. For example, David is terrible at metaphors and similes, but persists in attempting to use them anyway (one of my favourites was "like a brick made of porridge" — lol!), and Cody, another member of the Reckoner team, has a strong Southern accent but insists he's Scottish. Given there isn't much else to be cheerful about in most of the book, these quirks provide much needed balance.

Steelheart is a great read and I recommend it to most fans of speculative fiction. Readers who may have been put off by the length of Sanderson's fantasy series — which are mostly BFF — will be pleased to hear that this is a much shorter read, coming in at under 400 pages (according to Goodreads). I particularly recommend it to fans of superhero fiction, especially the darker, less heroic kind. I am looking forward to reading the next volume in the series. I should also note that, although this is a book one, it tells a complete story, without major cliffhangers.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Random House Delacorte US (UK/Aus version with different cover published by Hatchett)
Series: Yes. The Reckoners, book 1 of 3, I think.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 26 September 2013

To Spin a Darker Stair by Faith Mudge and Catherynne M Valente

To Spin a Darker Stair is a chapbook published by FableCroft Publishing and edited by Tehani Wessley. It contains two short stories, one each by Australian author Faith Mudge and well-know US author Catherynne M Valente, and gorgeous illustrations by Kathleen Jennings. Both stories are fairytale retellings with a sinister twist.

The first story is "A Delicate Architecture" by Catherynne M Valente. From what I've read of Valente in the past (about half of Palimpsest and maybe a short story or two), I've found her to be on the borderline of the kind of stories I enjoy. For example, I found Palimpsest a bit too literary* for my liking. "A Delicate Architecture", on the other hand, was on the right side of the scale for me to enjoy. Valente deftly crafts a story about a girl with an unusual upbringing. It's surreal in the way that some fairytales are, but it's lovely. The ending made me happy, and I appreciated the foreshadowing leading up to it, evident only in retrospect. I was not, as I read, trying to guess which fairytale was being retold which I think augmented the reveal.

The other story is "The Oracle's Tower" by Faith Mudge. I had only read one other story by Mudge, which appeared in One Small Step, so she is a fairly new author to me (as well as fairly new generally, I gather). "The Oracle's Tower" is a different sort of fairytale. (The start put me in mind of some of Rowling's Tales of Beedle the Bard, interpret that as you will.) The choice of main character, giving voice to a character marginalised in the traditional telling, allows Mudge to put a very different spin on the tale. The original story isn't exactly cheery, so I found Mudge's darker retelling particularly haunting. I will certainly be keeping an eye on Mudge's future output.

To Spin a Darker Stair is a very thin volume that punches above its weight class. I recommend it to fans of fairytale retellings, especially those looking for a quick read. This volume is quite different to other things FableCroft have released and it will be interesting to see what other innovative projects they come up with in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, FableCroft
Series: no
Format read: Paper!
Source: Purchased from publisher.
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge (well, half of it)

* A reminder that I define literary as a story which is primarily character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

King Breaker by Rowena Cory Daniells

King Breaker by Rowena Cory Daniells is the conclusion to the King Rolen's Kin series. The first three books came out in 2010, so it was a bit of a wait until the last one. Especially since, although the third book in the series could almost be taken as a conclusion to a trilogy sort of, oh my goodness there were a lot of things left entirely unresolved! So of course, I was very eager to read this last instalment, particularly after the tantalising novella released last December, The King's Man.

Speaking of, this is a book four in a four book fantasy series. The series is excellent, but I expect that someone picking up King Breaker without having read the earlier books will be a bit lost (and would not have the same investment in the characters, of course). Start with book one, The King's Bastard. On the other hand, someone picking this book up three years after having read the previous one — as I did — should have no trouble getting back into the story. Maybe it's that the earlier books burned into my brain through sheer excellence, but I think the deft way in which Daniells included reminders about past events definitely contributed.

Although this book picks up shortly after book three, The Usurper, left off, it also follows Gazrik, the main character of The King's Man novella, alongside the three children of old King Rolen and Florin the Mountain girl of the earlier books. I would suggest that Gazrik's storyline is a completion of the arc begun in The King's Man and those not reading the novella first would be missing out. It's not strictly necessary, unlike the earlier books, but I would recommend it. If you disagree, you could always read it afterwards to fill in his back-story. (And another reason to read it is because it's good. If you enjoy Daniells' work, why wouldn't you?)

Daniells is particularly good at writing characters that behave in irritating, yet entirely plausible ways. The group of point of view characters and their friends are all intelligent and well-educated (which makes sense since most of them are royalty) but their minor antagonists (as opposed to Cobalt the usurper) tend to be frustratingly short-sighted, ignorant or just horrible people. The utterly believable way in which Daniells wrote them had me heckling the page on several occasions and cheering when they were defeated — and a satisfying number of annoying characters got punched in the face, so that was also quite gratifying. I have said many times before that a mark of a good writer is the level of emotional investment they can get the reader to place in their characters, and Daniells has proved herself, once again, to be more than adept at doing so.

Readers worried about being left in the lurch again, as with the ending of The Usurper, need not worry. Although Daniells leaves the world open for a possible revisiting, the ending is quite settled. I won't reveal any spoilers, but I will say that it was ultimately satisfying, and some characters even got happy endings. (gasp!)

The King Rolen's Kin series is an excellent read. I highly recommend it to all fans of Big Fat Fantasy, especially the grittier kind. It's probably fair to say that Daniells' books generally are not for the faint of heart (there is violence and rape). But they are excellent. To readers who have read the earlier three books and didn't hate them, I can think of no reason not to go on to read King Breaker.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Solaris
Series: Yes. Book 4 of 4, King Rolen's Kin
Format read: ebook
Source: Review copy from author and publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond

The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond is the author's second published book. The first was Blackwood, which I rather enjoyed. Unfortunately, although I quite liked the idea behind The Woken Gods, it did not come off as well. Blurb (which does not contain all the spoilers, well done Strange Chemistry):
The more things change…

Five years ago, the gods of ancient mythology awoke all around the world.

The more things stay the same…

This morning, Kyra Locke is late for school because of an argument with her father.

Seventeen-year-old Kyra lives in a transformed Washington, D.C., dominated by the embassies of divine pantheons and watched over by the mysterious Society of the Sun that governs mankind’s relations with the gods. But when rebellious Kyra encounters two trickster gods on her way home, one offering a threat and the other a warning, it turns out her life isn't what it seems. She escapes with the aid of Osborne "Oz" Spencer, a young Society field operative, only to discover that her scholar father has disappeared with a dangerous Egyptian relic. The Society needs the item back, and they aren’t interested in her protests that she knows nothing about it or her father's secrets.

Now Kyra must depend on her wits and the suspect help of scary Sumerian gods, her estranged oracle mother, and, of course, Oz--whose first allegiance is to the Society. She has no choice if she’s going to recover the missing relic and save her father. And if she doesn't? Well, that may just mean the end of the world as she knows it.
The strong points of The Woken Gods are the characters. Kyra is believable with her issues stemming from parental semi-abandonment and the way she relates to her friends (and sometimes has difficulty relating). Her absentee mother and her father who is always working and pays little attention to her fit in well with the doubts Kyra feels throughout the story. Her friends, Bree and Tam are positive characters. The former depicting a positive female friendship, and the latter a post-breakup friendship. All good stuff.

Where I thought The Woken Gods really fell down was in the delivery of the worldbuilding. Not the worldbuilding itself, that was pretty good. I could tell the author had thought through past events and worked out how the world now worked, but it took much longer than I wanted for me to understand what was going on. For the first third or so I didn't have a very good mental picture of the world and how it worked. Bond did win me over with the depiction of Enki's realm, which happened about a third of the way in, I think. What I didn't work out until about half way is that the world of The Woken Gods is the result of an apocalypse gone un-stopped. (Well, actually the details are slightly more complicated, but spoilers. And they weren't necessary for understanding the context of the world.) The fact that this wasn't obvious from the start — only the presence of gods was obvious, not so much the apocalypse of them returning — felt sloppy. I can tell you now, having finished the book, about the back-story involving a secret society of Indiana Jones-like relic hunters and their inability (sort of — spoilers) to prevent the god-awakening apocalypse. But I didn't get that until about half way. For half the book I had little idea what was going on beyond the characters' actions and the events immediately happening to them.

Ultimately, I think The Woken Gods is a very ambitious book that the author didn't quite manage to pull off. Which is unfortunate because, as I've said, there's a lot of good stuff in there. I quite liked that it was the trickster god in each pantheon that bothered liaising with people (well, more so than the others) and that they had formed the Trickster Council. It makes sense, really. And it was nice to see such a wide variety of pantheons represented in the text: Greek, Aztec, Egyptian, Haitian, Native American, Sumerian and possibly others I've forgotten.

I would recommend The Woken Gods to fans of YA and varied mythology. It feels like a book one in a series, although I haven't found anything indicating that more books are planned. I would definitely read a sequel. Despite what I've said, the second half of the novel was quite readable and I think it's a series that can only benefit from Bond's growing expertise as a writer. If there's another book coming, sign me up! Bond is a writer to watch.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2013, Strange Chemistry
Series: No? But I think it should be
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi was this year's Hugo-winning novel. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Wil Wheaton. As you can probably guess from the cover and title, Redshirts pays homage to all the extras who died in Star Trek, usually while wearing a red shirt.
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
Redshirts turned out to be less flippant and shallow than I had been led to expect. The universe Dahl and his friends live in is, more or less, perfectly sensible. And yet, the events surrounding the Intrepid and its senior officers are not sensible in any way. We are given a sense of this immediately from the prologue, which highlights the way characters are sometimes inexplicably driven to things they would not usually do. As the story develops we learn more about exactly why this is. In a way, the reader already knows why things are silly, but on the other hand, the exposition is not entirely straight forward. This is a more complex story than it seems on the surface.

My favourite thing about it — which should not surprise long-term readers of my blog — was the way Scalzi highlighted the sloppy worldbuilding and nonsensical physics of those sorts of science fiction sci-fi properties. The rules for the Box, which magically quantum computationally solves medical/biological problems in exactly the right amount of time, amused me particularly. So did the logic holes that baffled the characters themselves. Honestly, a novice writer could learn a lot by noting whether they do any of the things Scalzi brings up.

The subtitle of Redshirts is A Novel With Three Codas and I would be remiss if I did not mention them. After a story that puts disposable extras peripheral characters in the spotlight, the codas highlight the stories of characters on the fringes of Dahl's story, who are all touched significantly by the events of the novel, but whose stories don't fit into the main arc at all. The whole thing gets a bit meta.

Despite all the scathing commentary of the sci-fi genre, Scalzi brings a great deal of empathy and emotional significance to the tale. Even before we get to know any of the characters well, we feel bad for them. As we do get to know them better, the possibility of their deaths becomes heart-wrenching (and since they are still redshirts in their universe, it was difficult to predict who would survive a particular situation (except in retrospect). For a story that looks flippant on the surface, it was surprisingly heart-wrenching.

I have not watched much Star Trek (all I remember clearly are the two JJ Abrams movies) but as a geek the concept of a redshirt was in no way foreign to me. I expect that most geeks would enjoy Redshirts — and understand the concept — whether or not they are Trekkies. Highly recommended read/listen. People with little familiarity with sci-fi or science fiction probably won't get as much out of it, however.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012
Series: No
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Purchased on sale from Audible

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Interview with Ingrid Jonach

Today I have an interview with Ingrid Jonach, author of When the World was Flat (and we were in love). You can read my review of her novel, which I loved, here. As part of the blog tour promoting the book, Ingrid is also running a competition to win a signed copy and some other goodies. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom for details on how to enter!

But before we get to all that, a little bit about Ingrid:
Ingrid Jonach writes books for children and young adults, including the chapter books The Frank Frankie and Frankie goes to France published by Pan Macmillan, and When the World was Flat (and we were in love) published by Strange Chemistry.

Since graduating from university with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing (Hons) in 2005, Ingrid has worked as a journalist and in public relations, as well as for the Australian Government.

Ingrid loves to promote reading and writing, and has been a guest speaker at a number of schools and literary festivals across Australia, where she lives with her husband Craig and their pug dog Mooshi.

Despite her best efforts, neither Craig nor Mooshi read fiction.

What inspired you to use a sciencey premise rather than a fantasy/magic-based one?
I love fantasy novels. If something goes bump in the night my mind goes to a ghost instead of to a burglar, but I tend to look for scientific explanations for paranormal phenomenon and the like. For example, I am fascinated by magicians, but only because I want to work out how they do their tricks. And I love mediums like John Edwards, but only because I think that they can actually read minds.

For this reason, I wanted to create a story that felt like a fantasy, but that could be explained through science.

Of the secondary characters, I quite liked Sylv, who was a bit different to a usual friend-of-main-character. What inspired her? 

I have a theory (based on personal experience) that misfits at school tend to gravitate towards each other and the result is that you end up with friendship groups of vastly different personalities.

I wanted to capture this with the friendship circle in When the World was Flat (and we were in love). For example, Sylv (the exhibitionist) is the exact opposite of Jo (the introvert). In addition to this, Sylv reminds me of a few of my friends growing up. I was relatively shy and was constantly drawn to outgoing friends, who were able to bring me out of my shell. I loved these friends for their provocative behaviour and their ability to make me laugh with their irreverence, as well as gasp at their exploits.

I also love Sylv because she has all of the confidence that is lacking in the main character Lillie and her best friend Jo. She makes no apologies for her personality, despite the disapproval of others. Again, my own personal experience has been that the teenage years are the most judgemental. It was liberating to create a character who could not give two hoots what others think.

Why set the book in small town USA?

The book was originally set in one of the small country towns I lived in while growing up in Australia. Kurri Kurri was a dry and dusty town on the edge of the world-renowned wine region of the Hunter Valley, which became the Open Valley in When the World was Flat (and we were in love).

The first draft was full of slang like 'knock your block off' and 'bloody hell' and ‘sucked in’, which made it extremely colloquial. But, when I introduced the science fiction elements into the story, I knew I was no longer writing a story about small town Australia. It was global and could have been set anywhere in the world.

I chose the US because, in my opinion, it is the most accessible setting internationally. My research showed that there was a cultural barrier between Australia and the rest of the world, which limited the readership of books set in Australia. I also found that international publishers were quite open about not considering books set in Australia (particularly publishers in the US). Many Australian authors seem to get around this by simply referring to a town as The Town or to a city as The City, without naming the location. I had to be specific about my location though, because I wanted it to be completely clear that the town was a part of our world (and not a futuristic world or another planet).

It was not a snap decision to set it in the US, but the result of a lot of research. But I was lucky that, aside from having grown up on a diet of US television and literature, I also have a strong connection to the US, as my father and sister are both American citizens, as well as Austrian citizens (we are a mixed bunch!). I chose Nebraska because I felt the climate was similar to that in Australia, but I did create a fictional town called Green Grove, which, in my mind, is located near Chadron. 

You're Australian but the book is written in US English and you mention in the acknowledgements the need to "translate" it. At what point did you have to do that? Was it before you started submitting it, or was it at the request of your publishers? (And, is being set in the US the main reason it needed translating?)

I started the translation process before I started submitting to agents. I avoided slang as much as possible throughout the novel, because the aim was to create a universal story, rather than an American story. 

Even so, the translation was an ongoing process and I worked very closely throughout with my sister, who is born and bred in America, and my agent, who hails from New York.

I would send my sister a long list of words that I thought were too Australian and she would send me back the alternatives, e.g. bomb cars became crappy cars; mollycoddled became babied; bush became forest, etc.

It was not just the language though. It was the spelling, e.g. realize instead of realise; neighbor instead of neighbour, color instead of colour. Thankfully that is mostly picked up by Microsoft Word. The punctuation was the most difficult, I admit. I got the shock of my life when I realized that there was a difference in punctuation, e.g. punctuation is always inside the quotation marks in US English.

Tell us a bit about what books you're currently working on and what we can look forward to reading next. Will you be revisiting the same world or taking your readers somewhere new?

I am currently finalising a manuscript that is loosely connected to the concepts in When the World was Flat (and we were in love). It actually explores other scientific theories, but it is unfortunately too early to go into them at this stage. There is a love story and, dare I say it, a love triangle, but not in the sense that you would think. 

I think it will definitely appeal to anyone who enjoyed When the World was Flat (and we were in love), but is also quite different as it also includes a touch of horror! 


Thanks Ingrid for taking the time to answer my questions! For more information, you can visit Goodreads, Ingrid's website or the publisher's page for the book. Next up is the promised giveaway!

Enter below for your chance to win one of two awesome prize packages as part of the Around the World in 80 Days Blog Tour for When the World was Flat (and we were in love) by Ingrid Jonach.  

There will be two winners worldwide. Each prize package includes: 

  • a signed copy of When the World was Flat (and we were in love)
  •  a pair of silver plated key-shaped earrings in a When the World was Flat (and we were in love) gift box
  • a When the World was Flat (and we were in love) bookmark.
The competition will run until 21 October 2013 and the winners will be announced on

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, 15 September 2013

New Booksies

I have a pile of new books to revel in today's post. Huzzah!

I will start with the review copies.
  • From the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program, I got Single Witch's Survival Guide by Mindy Klasky, which I have already reviewed.
  • From Harlequin Aus, I received The Iron Traitor by Julie Kagawa. See my review for book one here
  • From Strange Chemistry, I received Cracked by Eliza Crewe. Début author.
  • From Disney-Hyperion, I received These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, the former being an Aussie author (and début I'm pretty sure).

And now on to presents and purchases!
  • By Simon Haynes, Hal Spacejock: Safe Art and Hal Junior: The Gyris Mission, both already read and reviewed.
  • By Patty Jansen, The Shattered World Within, a novella which I've already reviewed.
  • By Andrea K Höst, Stained Glass Monsters, which I have yet to read.
  • By Alma Alexander, Worldweavers: Gift of the Unmage, the first in her YA series.
  • By Tara Moss, The Skeleton Key, third Pandora English book. I've previously reviewed the first two books.
  • By Jill Hathaway, Imposter, the sequel to Slide.
  • By Sean Williams and Shane Dix, Geodesica Ascent. Science fiction, Australian.
  • By John Scalzi, Redshirts in audiobook form, because it was super cheap on Audible (and I am all for anything which ends with Amazon getting less money).


Friday, 13 September 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is the first book I've read of the author's. I picked it up because I'd heard so many good things about Code Name Verity, another novel set in World War II also about a female pilot.
While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?
I have a tendency not to read blurbs in the gap between deciding to read a book and then (often months later) actually reading it. So I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when Rose disappeared and ended up in Ravensbrück. For some reason I had been expecting this to be more of a war story and less of a concentration camp story. Which is to say, I thought it would be a cheerier read when I picked it up. It wasn't.

The story is told through the medium of Rose's diary, begun while she was a civilian pilot, ferrying planes and people around the UK (mostly). When Rose accidentally leaves her diary behind on a run to France and then is captured by the Luftwaffe when she gets lost going home, there is a long gap with some letters about her, and then she resumes writing after she's free and safe. It is done to great effect. That we know Rose survives because she's there telling us about it does nothing to alleviate the horrors she has to endure in Ravensbrück.

Rose Under Fire is marketed as a YA book, presumably because Rose is 18 when it begins. That definitely doesn't mean it pulls any punches when dealing with events at Ravensbrück. I suspect teens learning about some of these events for the first time through this novel would benefit from having an adult to discuss some aspects with. That said, it is of course important that everyone is aware of the sorts of things that happened during World War II and that society does not forget. Indeed one of the central themes of the book is that the world must know what happened; a lot of brain energy among the prisoners we see is devoted to memorising the list of names of the Polish girls used in medical experiments at Ravensbrück.

I have to admit, I think this might be the first book I've read which has dealt with the immediate aftermath of the war (as opposed to jumping forward to many years later). The Nazi trials in Nuremberg and elsewhere feature in the denouement, taking place while Rose is still very much on her long journey of recovery. Of course I knew about the trials in the abstract sense, but hadn't thought of them from the perspective of survivors having to give testimony. Wein certainly changed that.

Rose Under Fire was an excellent read. Some parts were quite confronting (even though none of the events were particularly new to me). Wein's writing is incredibly compelling and this book kept me up two nights in a row. I had difficulty putting it down, and then difficulty not thinking about it, to the point where I had to read something else to send me to sleep. I highly recommend it to all readers.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013 (US edition September from Disney-Hyperion and Canadian edition from Doubleday (with the prettiest cover, in my opinion), UK/ANZ edition June from Egmont)
Series: Sort of. A stand-alone companion novel to Code Name Verity
Format read: eARC, US edition
Source: Disney-Hyperion via NetGalley

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Shattered World Within by Patty Jansen

The Shattered World Within by Patty Jansen is a novella set in the same universe as Trader's Honour (and others). That said, it's very much a stand-alone story and definitely doesn't require any previous reading to enjoy.
Like three space stations before it, Zhiminda Station has fallen silent. Zhyara and his crew travel to the very edge of settled space to investigate. Will they find the station dead, its corridors exposed to the vacuum of space? Will they find bodies? Will they run into the unknown killers? Or is the reason much more sinister than that?
The Shattered World Within brings us a very different society, governed by the delicate interplay of instincts and networks of trust. Except for when it isn't. Zhyara is the leader of an expedition to investigate a mining station that has failed to report in. When they arrive there, most of the populace is missing and things are very strange among those that remain. Through Zhyara's point of view we learn about the social order and ranking system that operates in his culture. It is as fascinating as it is unfamiliar. For all that the people in this story are humanoid, their behaviour sets them apart as truly alien to us.

This is also highlighted by Zhyara's family. Zhyara comes from a poor family and a undistinguished clan that lives on the outer edge of the city. He expends a lot of energy trying to help his younger brother make something of his life even though, since he became successful, Zhyara suddenly stopped being his mother's favourite. Through Zhyara's burgeoning understanding of what is going on with his brother, the reader is introduced to more conflicts within his society. I really have to applaud Jansen for the complex and other world she has created.

The other great aspect of this novella is the physical worldbuilding. Jansen sticks to science, as I've come to expect from her writing, and creates a believable universe. Without spoiling the ending, she also includes a more unusual but plausible planet, which I hope we will one day get to read more about.

A great read for fans of hard and sociological science fiction alike. Highly recommended.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Giganotosaurus (my edition from SmashWords)
Series: Sort of. Earth-Gamra universe, but entirely standalone.
Format read: ePub on iPad
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Disclaimer: Although Patty is a friends, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review.
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge, Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 9 September 2013

Shadowhunters and Downworlders edited by Cassandra Clare

Shadowhunters and Downworlders is a collection of essays edited by Cassandra Clare, about her Mortal Instruments universe and characters. I have to admit, this is the first collection of essays about fiction that I've read and I'm not entirely sure it was my thing. I actually started reading it a long time ago, but kept put it down for long stretches twice. I think these sorts of essays are the sort of thing I, personally, prefer to consume in internet (blog, etc) form, rather than book form. Nevertheless, I was inspired by the City of Bones movie to come back to it and I'm glad I did because some of the essays were pretty entertaining.

My favourite essays were the most educational ones. I particularly felt I learnt something from  "Simon Lewis: Jewish, Vampire, Hero" by Michelle Hodkin, "(Not) For Illustration Purposes Only" by Rachel Caine and "Brotherly Love" by Kendare Blake. These essays also made me think about their various topics outside of just the Shadowhunter world.

I also enjoyed reading the two most light-hearted essays, which also happen to be the last two of the bunch: the conversation between Holly Black and Kelly Link on the nature of immortality, and Sarah Rees Brennan's, er, rant about desire, mostly.

I'm not sure I'll be picking up another essay collection any time soon, but if you are the sort of person that enjoys reading analyses of your favourite books, then by all means, there's much to like about Shadowhunters and Downworlders. And now for a bit about each essay.


"Unhomely Places" by Kate Milford

A love letter to New York. Reminded me how starkly I'm not American and have never been to New York. Not American particularly because they (or at least this essay) seem to have a somewhat different definition of city to me. Melbourne is my city, made up mostly of sprawling suburbia. But in America, the suburbs aren't the city. In Australia, our cities are made of suburbs (ignoring the colloquialism of calling the CBD "the city").

"The Art of War" by Sarah Cross

About how Clary isn't a traditional hero. She isn't the special chosen one who can fight better than anyone else. Instead she uses her art to first escape her troubles in a mundane way and then to fight back directly. Author makes an interesting point that while Clary fights back in any way she can, Valentine doesn't recognise what she's doing as fighting back. Ultimately it's this underestimation of his that leads to his downfall.

"Sharper Than a Seraph Blade" by Diana Peterfreund

About Jace using humour as a weapon. Peterfreund pointed out the dichotomy of jokey / mopey Jace corresponding to unpossessed and possessed Jace the first time around and how this confuses Clary in Heavenly Fire. That actually helped me see the situation from Clary's point of view. Initially, I read her in Heavenly Fire as making many poor decisions. But in this light I can better see where she was coming from.

"When Laws Are Meant to Be Broken" by Robin Wasserman

About the strict rules of the clave, rebellion and lack thereof on the parts of the teenage protagonists, and choices. Points out that a lot of rules are merely social contracts rather than immutable laws and how, for the most part, the rebellious behaviour we witness (outside of the climaxes) is very minor in the scheme if things.
"Simon Lewis: Jewish, Vampire, Hero" by Michelle Hodkin

My favourite essay so far. Hodkin talks about the origins of vampirism (as a myth in our culture) and about Judaism. It was both educational and fascinating. She discusses Simon's identities as the everyman mundane human in the shadowhunter's world, as a Jew, as a vampire. In each role he is the "other" but for different reasons. It also goes into how his Jewishness informs his character, even after he becomes a vampire and can't even utter holy words. A most enjoyable essay.

"Why the Best Friend Never Gets the Girl" by Kami Garcia

Like the title says, this essay outlines the trope of the guy never getting the girl if the girl happens to be his best friend. Amusing examples from 80s movies provided.

"Brotherly Love" by Kendare Blake

An interesting essay about the incest taboo and Clary and Jace's relationship. I liked that she brought in issues of science, explaining  genetics and sexual attraction, as well as talking about the cultural taboo of incest. Quite an interesting read.

"Asking for a Friend" by Gwenda Bond

Talks about the importance of friendship in the series. Not just Clary's and Simon's, but all the friendships that exist or form in the course of the series between all the teen characters.
Relationships are power in the Mortal Instruments, and friendship has a place of pride, treated as carefully and with the same respect as familial bonds and true love. This is a series about a family chosen, not just born.

"(Not) For Illustration Purposes Only" by Rachel Caine

A very informative essay about tattoos and Shadowhunter runes. Caine briefly recaps the history of tattooing, drawing parallels between various cultural traditions and Shadowhunter runes. I was quite interested to learn about the different ways tattoos have been perceived throughout the ages and across cultures. Another of my favourite essays.

"The Importance of Being Malec" by Sara Ryan

Talks about the importance of two different kinds of reading experiences: books that provide a mirror to our lives and books that provide a window into the lives of characters different from our own. She goes on to discuss how minorities (and the focus is obviously on the queer community given the context) don't have many mirror books to choose from. That, then, is the importance of including Magnus and Alec in the Mortal Instruments series. She also dissects their relationship a bit.

"Villains, Valentine and Virtue" by Scott Tracey

A discussion of the author's love of villains and why Valentine makes a particularly good one. Most interesting to me was the discussion of the human condition and the competing aspects of compassion and destruction. The following quote both amused me and sums up Tracey's opinion well.
This is part of why I love Valentine so much as a villain. Take away the supernatural elements, the behavioral disorders, and his “unique” views on parenting, and he’s the kind of villain we see every day.

"Immortality and Its Discontents" by Kelly Link and Holly Black

This one is presented as a dialogue between the two authors. The informality of this format makes it one of the more fun essays to read. Some choice quotes:
We all want what we can’t have. Magnus immerses himself in humanity to keep himself human. Talking about this helps me understand better why, in books, immortals—especially vampires—like to hang around with young adults. If your baseline condition is one of stasis, you might need regular jolts of chaos, change, extremes. Teenagers are to the immortal as cups of coffee are to the writer
...the risk of dying young, being a Shadowhunter, being mortal, gets associated with divin- ity, with the way that things should be. And on the other hand, immortality is linked to the infernal. Only Downworlders get that gift—warlocks, faeries, and vampires—so it must be a by-product of their de- mon blood. Werewolves are the only Downworlders to miss out on the immortality boat. So doesn’t that imply that immortality is tainted in some way, more burden than boon?

Although I must say, I disagree with their conclusion that most of us would choose immortality, no matter the disadvantages. One need only look to Jennifer Fallon's Tide Lord quartet to find plenty of deal-breaking disadvantages to true immortality.

"What Does That Deviant Wench Think She's Doing? Or, Shadowhunters Gone Wild" by Sarah Rees Brennan

Probably the most irreverent essay out of the bunch, and a great note to end the book on. The deviant wench of the title is, I'm pretty sure, Cassandra Clare, rather than Clary. As you may have gathered by now, this is also the essay that takes itself least seriously, making it entertaining to read. The main topic of the essay, by the way, is desire and all the different forms it can and has taken in Clare's books, and — separately — familial love and acceptance (more generally).

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2013, BenBella Books
Series: Not as such
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Single Witch's Survival Guide by Mindy Klasky

Single Witch's Survival Guide by Mindy Klasky is a sequel to the author's Jane Madison trilogy and the first in the Jane Madison Academy series. Unlike the earlier books, this one was self-published. I read the original Jane Madison trilogy several years ago and, in fact, books 2 and 3 were two of the very first ebooks I ever bought (from Fictionwise to read on Stanza, back when both of those existed). You don't have to have read the original series to pick up Single Witch's Survival Guide, but I think readers who have read the earlier books will enjoy this book more. This review (and, quite frankly, the blurb) does contain spoilers for the original series, but not really any that weren't totally predictable.
Jane Madison’s life is perfect: She’s left her unsatisfying job as a librarian, moved to the country with her boyfriend David (who just happens to be her hunky astral warder), and opened a school for witches.

Alas, Jane never counted on her students running roughshod over every school rule she creates… And she never expected a mandate from Hecate’s Council to complete a Major Working by the end of the first semester… And it never crossed her mind that she and David would fight over every little thing that goes wrong.

Before long, Jane wonders if she should ditch the Madison Academy and retreat to life in the city. But that would mean giving up on her professional dreams – and tossing her love-life in the trash. Jane desperately needs the Single Witch’s Survival Guide!
The cover sort of screams "chick-lit with magic" which is a fair description, despite the unpleasant moniker of "chick-lit". Jane has set up shop on a farm just outside of DC and is planning to start her own unconventional magical academy. Then she actually gets a couple of students and her life is thrown into disarray as she tries to work out how to a) teach them magic b) deal with them as people and c) not yield to external pressures to give up on the school and on inherited collection of magical books and paraphenalia.

The external pressure comes in the form of an unpleasant Council employee with a grudge against David, Jane's boyfriend/warder, who goes out of his way to make their lives difficult and tries to have the Academy shut down. The main action the centres around Jane's relationships with her witches and David, and her striving to jump through the hoops Hecate's Council has set up for them. I was a little disappointed that Jane's best friend did not feature as heavily as she did in the earlier books, but it mostly made sense given Jane's new living arrangements. Still I would have liked more resolution on that front in the end.

The two witches introduced certainly added to the tension by introducing new conflicts with Jane. One (attempted to) compulsively film everything around her and was bordering on being a drama queen. The other was relatively normal in her behaviours except for having an affected British accent (and, quite frankly, a slightly inconsistent one in terms of regional word-choice, but anyway). Her accent annoyed Jane disproportionately, in my opinion, and if the character had actually been British, instead of from Arizona, Jane's thoughts would have been really quite racist xenophobic. As it was, it still made me feel rather uncomfortable. (And confused, since obviously British accents are superior to American ones, yay, colonial brainwashing.) But that was my biggest problem with the book.

I also had very little opinion on the new witches' entourages of a warder and a familiar each. Although in the context of worldbuilding their existences made perfect sense, I didn't feel they added much to the plot except for the one warder who managed to distinguish himself. I also thought there was a little too much wording spent on waxing lyrical about the magic spells. Obviously some description and explanation of the magical system is good, but I found it too repetitive and skimmed through some of those pages (which at least weren't as long as they could have been).

Obviously, Single Witch's Survival Guide is not for everyone. But readers after a relatively cheerful suburban/rural fantasy with witches and hunky guys and a gay cat-man will find it a pleasant read. Good for a non-serious diversion.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2013, Book View Cafe
Series: Jane Madison Academy book 1 (of 3, maybe?), sequel series to the Jane Madison Trilogy
Format read: eARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewer programme

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hal Junior: The Gyris Mission by Simon Haynes

Hal Junior: The Gyris Mission by Simon Haynes is the third book about Hal Junior, although it stands alone and the series doesn't have to be read in order. It is aimed at younger readers. I have previously reviewed the second book, Hal Junior: The Missing Case, and two Hal Spacejock books for adult readers, set in the same universe: Hal Spacejock: Baker's Dough and Hal Spacejock: Safe Art.
Hal Junior and Stephen 'Stinky' Binn live aboard a high-tech space station, far from the nearest planet. The rules are strict, and their lives are carefully regulated.
That's why they're so excited about the camping trip to Planet Gyris ... imagine a whole week of fishing, swimming, sleeping in tents and running wild!
Unfortunately, the boys crash land in the middle of a forest, and there's little chance of rescue. Is this the end of the camping trip ... or the start of a thrilling new adventure?
First I want to emphasise that this book absolutely stands alone in terms of the other Hal Junior books and the Hal Spacejock books. You do not have to have read any of them to enjoy The Gyris Mission. However, if you have read them, as I have, you may find yourself, like I am, desperate to know exactly how the Hal Junior books fit into the larger Hal Spacejock universe. Is Hal Junior Spacejock's son? If he is, how did Spacejock meet his mother? If not, why is he called Hal Junior and why does he idolise "Captain Spacejock"? Or is Hal Junior about Hal Spacejock's childhood? I was already curious before I read The Gyris Mission, and then Spacejock characters showed up AND NOW I MUST KNOW.

Ahem. As for the actual story. The Gyris Mission is a funny and exciting comedy of errors. Hal Junior does a lot of silly things, Stinky is forever reminding him of things they learnt in class and adult characters are absent at opportune moments. I've mentioned in my other reviews of Haynes' books that despite the honour and light-heartedness with which his books are written, he goes out of his way to include accurate physics. The Gyris Mission is no different. Stinky's reminders to Hal of relevant information they'd learnt in class felt natural and I think was a gentle way of educating the younger audience without preaching or talking down to the reader. It's certainly a book (/series) I'd encourage my kids to read. Y'know, if I had any. Haynes also does a particularly good job of describing space station life by portraying Hal and Stinky as being surprised by various aspects of being on a planet.

The Gyris Mission is a fairly short read (about par for the age group, I think) and full of action and laughs. I recommend it to younger readers with any passing interesting in science fiction or adventure stories. Or to adults who want a light read and/or are fans of Haynes' books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Bowman Press
Series: Hal Junior, book 3 of ? Standalone series
Format read: ePub on iPhone
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Hal Spacejock: Safe Art by Simon Haynes

Hal Spacejock: Safe Art by Simon Haynes is the sixth book in the ongoing Hal Spacejock series. Although there is a very small amount of chronology, the books all stand alone nicely, Safe Art being no exception. I have previously reviewed Hal Spacejock: Baker's Dough and Hal Junior: The Missing Case, the latter being part of a spin-off series for younger readers.
A wealthy patron is sponsoring a series of art exhibitions, and Hal Spacejock has been employed to transport valuable pieces from one venue to the next.

The only question is which of them will last longest ... Hal or the artworks?
For readers new to to the Spacejock universe, Safe Art is not a terrible place to start. A few characters from earlier books show up, but you don't have to have read any earlier books for the story to make sense. Even better, Safe Art doesn't contain any significant spoilers for earlier books (unless you count the status quo as a spoiler). I think the most compelling argument for reading these books in order is that they get funnier as they go along and reading in reverse order might be slightly anticlimactic for that reason.

This book made me laugh a lot, news that I'm sure won't come as much of a surprise to people familiar with the Hal Spacejock books. There were a few serious bits, but there were no long gaps between laughs. If puns and written slapstick are your thing (I have to say visual slapstick doesn't really do it for me, but the way Haynes writes definitely does), or if you enjoy a good comedy of errors, then this is a book for you.

And if that hasn't convinced you, it also has pretty good physics, especially considering the lack of seriousness in most of the story. It's like if The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy made more than a passing nod at the laws of physics. And also if Ford Prefect was a cargo pilot. (Yes, as I mentioned in my review of Baker's Dough, the ship travels faster than light and has artificial gravity, but everything else has accurate physics. There were a few instances I particularly appreciated since I can imagine another writer may not have bothered to be so careful.)

As well as enjoying Hal's and Clunk's antics as they attempt to deliver their cargo — and make snide remarks about the quality of the art they're transporting — I was also pleased to see the characters from "Framed" show up (a Hal Spacejock short story that's a fun read but not compulsory to enjoy Safe Art). And Harriet Walsh who appeared in an earlier book, although I have to admit it was a book I'd read long enough ago to not remember much about her except her name. Another reason I'm confident readers new to the series will have no trouble picking up Safe Art.

What more can I say? It's hilarious. Read it.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2013
Series: Hal Spacejock, book 6 of ? Standalone.
Format read: ePub on iThings
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge