Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave was pitched to me as a fantasy novel set in Canberra. It's the author's first novel, aside from the fact that I wouldn't categorise it as a novel; length-wise it's more of a novella. Content-wise there are a lot of issues with it. If you can't be bothered reading the rest of this review, I'll save you having to scroll down to my summary paragraph and say this: I read this book so that you don't have to. You're welcome.

Most children inherit tangible gain when a parent passes. Property, memorabilia, money. The legacy of a loved one is more often than not, ancestral currency in some shape or form. This, wasn’t the case in Katie’s situation! Not that pawning the presence of a parent for cash was an aspiration, but Katie would have preferred inheriting anything other than what she actually did. In the space of a week, a mouldy old stamp collection, or indeed nothing at all, didn’t look too bad in comparison to what mental illness had bequeathed her. ​

In the wake of her father’s suicide, Katie inherited a responsibility. Her father’s sudden abdication from life bore consequences far greater than what she could have ever anticipated.

The deliberate absence of her older sister post family tragedy, meant that by default, Gargoyle Guardianship of the Australian Capital Territory fell straight into Katie’s lap. As the eldest child from the relevant family, who still resided in Canberra, Katie was the official beneficiary to a title that bore the burden of the Nation’s Capital!

Meet your new Gargoyle Guardian!

There were so many issues with this book that it's hard to know where to start. The only positives were the general premise of gargoyles guarding humanity from other supernatural beings — it wasn't well-executed, but it wasn't a bad idea — the setting, and the extra sleep the book helped me get on my recent international flight.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book was mostly confined to the opening. As the blurb suggests, the main character's father commits suicide, leaving her the hereditary family responsibility of supernatural guardianship. Then comes the confusing ableism. Katie and her siblings spend some time raging against the inadequate mental health system (fair) but then they'll turn around and say something ableist about a mentally ill person or someone who is perceived to be unusual. Violent criminals are "crazed" and the word "insanity" is thrown around in thrown around in a mental illness context, which, um, no? Especially given the press release I was sent stating "[the author] hopes to use this book to bring awareness to the failings of the current health system and how it has affected her own family in the most tragic way." Flippant ableism aside, said failings of the mental health system aren't explored in any depth in the book, so that seems like an odd goal.

The second most annoying aspect of the book, and the most persistent, was the poor writing. It's frightfully overwritten and under-edited, peppered with nonsensical sentences that were at least a source of baffled amusement. The author bludgeons the reader with every minor fact, entirely lacking in subtlety. The prologue is a boring infodump of history that could have easily been integrated into the story (although I'm not sure all the details were even necessary), which was full of "as you know, Bob"-isms as it was. We were witness to several key conversations between the protagonist and people she's known her whole life that one would expect to have happened earlier in their lives.

On the topic of the protagonist, she struck me as somewhat incompetent, even as she ultimately solved the problems put before her. It's true that in the context of the story she wasn't expecting to inherent her role. However, she seemed too ignorant of the supernatural world beyond just that. It was implied that her father used to share aspects of his work with her and her siblings, so why then does she not know much about the world she lives in? At one point her brother looks up supernatural stuff on Wikipedia! (Normal, human Wikipedia!) Katie's confidence at the end of the book that she is fully able to do her job seemed delusional, given how much she had put herself and her friends and family at risk throughout. Yes, they ultimately prevailed but there were some close calls and you'd think she'd at least want to improve on that.

Speaking of the danger she put her family and friends into, there was rather a lot of sexual assault and harassment of the teenage younger brother, which was played for laughs when it was women doing it and only sinister when it was an older man. Sigh.

Finally, a criticism of the plot: the mysterious cause of some attacks the protagonist had to investigate was blindingly obvious once she was given the first proper clue (in the form of a riddle, because of course). And yet, none of the characters worked it out despite actually living in a supernatural world, being Australian and having spoken with Australians multiple times in their lives. It was frustrating to wait way (too long) for the characters to be told the obvious cause.

Nothing about this book was satisfying aside from making notes for my impending review. If it weren't for the book being so short (and my having already watched my fill of movies on the plane) I would not have finished it. As it was, it was tempting to stop and write a DNF (did not finish) review. But that review would have been shorter and less precise since some of the above points did not come up until the latter parts of the book.

I do not recommend this book. The premise is sound, but it is not worth the effort, thanks to the subpar execution. It could've been refined down to a nice novella with a stronger editorial hand, but it wasn't.

2 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, self-published
Series: Let's hope not. (There do seem to be some picture books set in the same world, I think? I couldn't find them on goodreads, though.)
Format read: eARC
Source: publicist
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Masquerade by Laura Lam

Masquerade by Laura Lam is the third and final book in the Micah Grey trilogy. It's been rather a while since I read the first two books, thanks mostly to the roller coaster that is the publishing industry. In any case, the final book in the trilogy is now out, so it's the perfect time to pick up these books if you have an aversion to incomplete series. If you haven't already, I suggest having a look at my reviews of the first two books, Pantomime and Shadowplay.

The gifted hide their talents, but dare they step into the light?

Micah's Chimaera powers are growing, until his dark visions overwhelm him. Drystan is forced to take him to Dr Pozzi, to save his life. But can they really trust the doctor, especially when a close friend is revealed to be his spy?

Meanwhile, violent unrest is sweeping the country, as anti-royalist factions fight to be heard. Then three chimaera are attacked, after revealing their existence with the monarchy's blessing - and the struggle becomes personal. A small sect decimated the chimaera in ancient times and nearly destroyed the world. Now they've re-emerged to spread terror once more. Micah will discover a royal secret, which draws him into the heart of the conflict. And he and his friends must risk everything to finally bring peace to their land.

Masquerade continues to follow Micah as he tries to keep living his life. Of course, being the protagonist of a fantasy book, things are never quite so simple. Micah's powers grow, unrest grows in their city and new mysteries appear. Can Micah and friends work out what's going on and why and who is involved? (Well yes; it's a book.)

I enjoyed the first two Micah Grey books a lot and was disappointed that I had to wait so long to read the last book in the series. Unfortunately, waiting so long also meant that some aspects of the story had faded from my mind by the time I picked up Masquerade. It took me a little while to get reacquainted with the world and characters and, consequently, a little while to get into the story. It's hard to say how much of my reaction to the first part of the book was as a result of this and how much is more from the book itself. Either way, I found the opening a little slow and the pacing a little off in the first part of the book. Later on, as the story approached the climax and tensions were high, this was not an issue.

Overall I enjoyed Masquerade but I can't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it in closer proximity with the first two books. I definitely recommend this series to anyone to whom an intersex and/or bisexual main character appeals. If you enjoyed the first two books, this concluding volume ties up pretty much all the loose ends (that I can remember). If you hated the first two books, I'm not sure why you bothered reading to the end of this review.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2017, Tor
Series: Yes, Micah Grey book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased on Google Play

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow by Kate Leth and Brittney L Williams

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow written by Kate Leth and illustrated by Brittney L Williams is the direct sequel to Vol 1: Hooked on a Feline, which I reviewed last year. Volume 1 ended part-way through a story arc and Volume 2 picked up where that story left off.

In another world they might be gal pals who help each other through hard times. But when Patsy Walker and Jessica Jones meet at last in the Marvel Universe, could it be they'll end up frenemies?! Not everyone can get along all the time, which is why the world's heroes are about to be rocked by a second Civil War! But when the fallout from the battlefield hits close to home, Patsy is forced to take stock of her life and face what it really costs to be A.K.A. Hellcat! Plus, fallouts with former friends don't get any worse than Patsy and Hedy. Now Ms. Wolfe is about to torment her rival more than ever, with a little help from Patsy's evil exboyfriends! Will Hellcat get burned by her old flames?

As well as picking up mid-way through a story arc, Hellcat Volume 2 also ends part-way through a story arc, which was kind of annoying. Especially since it felt a lot more unfinished, being an incomplete villain face-off. Having a "to be continued" when it seems like only one more issue would finish off the story was very frustrating.

Another thing that was frustrating was the tangential impact of the latest comic event on Patsy's story. In this case Civil War II takes out one of Patsy's regular friends (I suppose I'll refrain from spoiling who or how) and everyone has to spend a little while reacting to that, which wasn't otherwise necessary to Patsy's story.

Negativity aside, I enjoyed this volume and I continue to enjoy reading about Hellcat. Patsy has interesting friends and interactions with them. I especially like her housemate, who gets a bit more story progression in this volume than in the previous one. There's also a section involving Jessica Jones, which was pretty great. Less interesting was the part where Patsy was revisited by ex-boyfriends/husbands, but that was at least resolved pretty satisfactorily.

The villain that appears towards the end (and doesn't get resolved in the included issues) is Black Cat, as you may have guessed from the cover art. I particularly liked how Black Cat recruited what amounts to a girl gang to do her henching and I hope we see more of them after the storyline is resolved.

Overall, if you liked the previous volume of Hellcat, I definitely recommend picking up this next instalment. Unnecessary cliffhangers aside, I'm definitely planning to pick up the next volume, although I'll probably wait until I've cleared out a bit more of my current comics backlog (I'm pretty sure the next volume is already available, if that matters to you). If you haven't read any Hellcat before, I'd recommend starting with the first volume, which properly introduces all the supporting characters as well as Patsy herself. In general, I also recommend this series to fans of female superheroes, because duh.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2017, Marvel
Series: Hellcat, ongoing series, trade volume 2 of 3 so far, containing issues #7–12
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Final Girls by Mira Grant

Final Girls by Mira Grant is a science fiction horror novella from the Seanan McGuire pseudonym that brought us the Newsflesh and Parasitology series. It's not set in either of those universes, however, and in my opinion is a bit more firmly rooted in the horror genre than either.

What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

Dr. Jennifer Webb has invented proprietary virtual reality technology that purports to heal psychological wounds by running clients through scenarios straight out of horror movies and nightmares. In a carefully controlled environment, with a medical cocktail running through their veins, sisters might develop a bond they’ve been missing their whole lives—while running from the bogeyman through a simulated forest. But…can real change come so easily?

Esther Hoffman doubts it. Esther has spent her entire journalism career debunking pseudoscience, after phony regression therapy ruined her father’s life. She’s determined to unearth the truth about Dr. Webb’s budding company. Dr. Webb’s willing to let her, of course, for reasons of her own. What better advertisement could she get than that of a convinced skeptic? But Esther’s not the only one curious about how this technology works. Enter real-world threats just as frightening as those created in the lab. Dr. Webb and Esther are at odds, but they may also be each other’s only hope of survival.

As described in the blurb, the story of Final Girls follows Esther, a reporter who is covering a radical new psychological (/psychiatric since there are drugs involved?) therapy using an advanced form of virtual reality — so advanced, it incidentally includes the ability for outsiders to look at people's dreams while they're in the system. Esther has been chosen for the job because of a past that makes her especially sceptical of the lofty claims made by Dr Webb's organisation. Dr Webb, meanwhile, just wants to convince her of the efficacy of the system, using whatever means necessary. Things fall into horror when outside forces throw carefully laid plans awry.

This isn't a lengthy read but it is a very tense and interesting one. Midway through the book I was honestly unsure whether our protagonists would survive the ordeal and was wondering how the story would end. The fact that the reader is given more information than some of the characters — who have no way of knowing what's happening outside of the virtual reality — significantly adds to the tension. About half the story takes place in a virtual world and those scenes are easily differentiated from the real world scenes through the use of a different font, making the delineations quite clear.

Final Girls was an excellent read and I recommend it to fans of science fiction and horror. Being a novella it's also a quick read but one that will not leave you disappointed. I look forward to reading more of Mira Grant's work in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: late April 2017, Subterranean Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings is the first collected volume of Gwenpool comics. It collects issues #0–4 and is more or less an origin story for the character. I previously read and reviewed the Gwenpool holiday special, a small portion of which was reprinted in this collected edition.

Gwen Poole used to be a comic book reader just like you...until she woke up in a world where the characters she read about seemed to be real! But that can't be, right? This must all be fake, or a dream or something, right? And you know what that means...NO CONSEQUENCES!

Could Gwenpool truly be Marvel's least responsible and least role-modely character to date? She can if she tries!

Gwenpool is a great character. She started off as a bit of a joke — a Gwen Stacey version of Deadpool — but has grown into her own character. Although we don't get her full back story in this volume (there are hints that more information is coming) the basic idea is that Gwen is from our universe and has been transported into the comic book world. Her super power is knowing everyone's secrets because she read a lot of comic books back in our world. This also gives her a reason to break the fourth wall and allows her to make direct references to real-world pop culture that aren't possible in other comics.

Gwen is a rather devil-may-care character at first, but soon starts to realise that just because she's from the real world, doesn't mean everything is going to magically work out for her with no effort. Things get a bit dicey and Gwen realises she needs to actually try to survive the situation she's gotten herself into.

This is a hilarious comic and I recommend it to fans of humour and silliness. I think it will appeal to fans of Squirrel Girl and Spider-Gwen, although it is significantly more irreverent than both of those. I am looking forward to the next issue and I hope the writers keep up the current, fresh vibe (and that she manages to get some pants added to her costume, c'mon Ronnie).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016
Series: Gwenpool vol 1 of onging series
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All-Star Comics, Melbourne

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale is a novelisation of the awesome comic book character's early high school life and emergence as a superhero. It's a YA book and is set when Doreen Green is fourteen and has just moved to New Jersey from LA.

Fourteen-year-old Doreen Green moved from sunny California to the suburbs of New Jersey. She must start at a new school, make new friends, and continue to hide her tail. Yep, Doreen has the powers of . . . a squirrel! After failing at several attempts to find her new BFF, Doreen feels lonely and trapped, liked a caged animal. Then one day Doreen uses her extraordinary powers to stop a group of troublemakers from causing mischief in the neighborhood, and her whole life changes. Everyone at school is talking about it! Doreen contemplates becoming a full-fledged Super Hero. And thus, Squirrel Girl is born! She saves cats from trees, keeps the sidewalks clean, and dissuades vandalism. All is well until a real-life Super Villain steps out of the shadows and declares Squirrel Girl his archenemy. Can Doreen balance being a teenager and a Super Hero? Or will she go . . . NUTS?

This book was awesome! I mean, Squirrel Girl is already a pretty awesome character and if I had any apprehensions going in it was that the novel character wouldn't be quite the same as the comic character. But, although novel!Doreen is younger than comic!Doreen (who is in college), the authors managed to get her voice down exactly, giving the book a very similar feel to the comics. And there are footnotes from Doreen as she reads along with us.

On top of that, some of the chapters are from other characters' points of view, like Doreen's best human friend Ana Sofía (more on her shortly) and Doreen's best squirrel friend Tippy-Toe. Yes, there are chapters from Tippy-Toe's point of view. And they are in first person. And they are awesome. So awesome. And my favourite thing with Tippy-Toe is a bit of a spoiler...

Tippy-Toe picks up some ASL from watching Doreen and Ana Sofía sign to each other and then is able to sign to Ana Sofía in an emergency. Eeeee!

Ana Sofía, meanwhile, is the first friend Doreen makes at her new school and is instrumental in keeping her spirits up when times are tough. She also plays a part in helping Squirrel Girl save the day.

Squirrel Girl is awesome and you should read this book even if you haven't read any of the recent comics. They are completely independent of the book, despite being about the same character. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes YA and/or superheroes and also doesn't hate fun. Because Squirrel Girl is awesome.

5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2017, Marvel/Scholastic
Series: Yes? No? Squirrel Girl is an ongoing character in the Marvel comics universe, anyway.
Format read: Paperback! Gasp!
Source: Purchased at local book shop

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Barrayar - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.

Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice - almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about - which also made it even more realistic - they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first - which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do - it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech - it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>