Sunday, March 28, 2010

This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman

thisalienshore From

In a far-future interstellar society, star travel is monopolized by the Outspace Guild, which controls the only method of faster-than-light travel that doesn't result in horrible mutations among the star travelers. Now a deadly software virus is attacking Guild members, so the Guild's investigators, led by Dr. Masada, must learn where it came from and how to defeat it before interstellar society breaks down.

Meanwhile, a young woman, Jamisia Shido, has to flee for her life from a space habitat near Earth, where all mutations are forbidden and launched, if discovered, into Guild-controlled interstellar space. Secret illegal therapy for a disaster that killed her parents has left Jamisia with issues she doesn’t understand and may have made her the key in the fight against the virus.

I picked this book up several years ago, caught by both the blurb and (I’m shallow, I admit it) the beautiful cover. But for some reason, I never got around to reading it. It has remained on the TBR list, because, really, I did want to read it, but somehow it never graduated to “reading it now”. Every so often I would toss it out as a nomination for the monthly SF read on the Beyond Reality book group (great group by the way, I recommend it) in the hope if it got picked, I would get myself organised and actually read it. Finally, it was selected for the group’s March read and yes, I did read it.

And now, it’s taken me well over a month to get to reviewing it. Since it has been so long, I’m just going to start typing and see what appears on the screen, as I’m not sure that I can manage a “proper review”.

This is one of those books that tosses you into the deep end of the story and leave you to drown or swim. As my updates on Goodreads show, I spent almost the first half of the book in a state of confused fascination. The set up is well done – by tossing Jamisia in to the action with no idea of what’s going on Ms Friedman gives the reader a character to follow who is learning what is happening at the same time the reader does.

Slowly, Jamisia works out what has been done to her, even if the why of it remains elusive. Interspersed with Jamisia’s flight across the galaxy, we also follow the Guerans (who hold the monopoly on spaceflight due to initially unexplained mutations) who are trying to track and destroy a virus that is killing their space pilots. This section of the book slowly leads to the why of what has been done to Jamisia.

It is only at the end that all the pieces come together and you learn exactly what has been going on and how it all fits. I really enjoyed the mystery of This Alien Shore and slowly being able to work it all out. As I said above, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I thought Ms Friedman placed all the clues and important of pieces of information in plain sight right from the beginning and all the hints built on each other until I had enough to figure it out.

Some of the Beyond_Reality readers felt that the book failed because there were no characters in it that they could identify with. I certainly agree that this is a book about ideas and concepts more than anything else, but I didn’t have any problem with the characters. They too were mysteries to be explored, but unlike many books where the goal is to discover who the characters are, this time it was more a case of what and why. I am usually a character reader myself, but this time the lack of intense characterisation didn’t bother me and I loved the book all the same. I think a lot of that is because the mystery element is so strong within an SF story, so I still got lots of things I like.

The SF aspects of the book are more than just a background to the mystery though. They are the very reason for the mysteries facing the characters. The basic idea is that when mankind first left Earth for the stars, the drive system used caused massive mutations in the human genome (some of this seemed a little far fetched to me as I’m not quite sure how humans turn in octopus-like creatures etc). When the people back on Earth discovered this they immediately cut off all their colonies. Much later, those colonies (or more specifically, specific Guerans) discovered a new, safer form of space travel and went home to Earth, only to find their mutations despised by the supposedly “pure” humans. This conflict is integral to both the set-up and resolution of the book and I felt it was well developed.

So all in all, I really enjoyed This Alien Shore and I’m glad that I have finally read it. I apologise to those Beyond-Reality members who didn’t enjoy my choice, but it worked for me.

This Alien Shore
C. S. Friedman 
Read: 12-2-19 to 22-2-10

Friday, March 26, 2010

Once Upon a Time IV

out4 Each year, Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings hosts the Once Upon a Time challenge. It’s a chance to read fantasy, mythology, folklore and fairy tales. It is, of course, right up my alley. Last year was the first time I signed up. I didn’t quite manage to complete it, easily reading the books component, but not managing to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was going to take the easy way and just sign up for the books this year, but I’ve decided to take the risk. It won’t be the end of the world if I don’t manage it and it gives me something to aim for.

out4questthree So I’ve decided to aim for “Quest the Third”. The challenge is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time IV criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres AND top it off with a June reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream OR a viewing of one of the many theatrical versions of the play. I’m planning to watch the play rather than read it.

The timetable for the challenge is between Sunday, 21st March and Sunday, 20th June 2010.

My Once Upon a Time IV reading list is over here.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

L'Engle, Madeleine - Time 03 - A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1) From

Fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace Murry, whom readers first met in A Wrinkle in Time, has a little task he must accomplish. In 24 hours, a mad dictator will destroy the universe by declaring nuclear war—unless Charles Wallace can go back in time to change one of the many Might-Have-Beens in history. In an intricately layered and suspenseful journey through time, this extraordinary young man psychically enters four different people from other eras. As he perceives through their eyes "what might have been," he begins to comprehend the cosmic significance and consequences of every living creature's actions. As he witnesses first-hand the transformation of civilization from peaceful to warring times, his very existence is threatened, but the alternative is far worse.

This isn’t a proper review. I’m not talking much about the plot, or deeper meanings or the paradoxes involved in time travel. I’m really just gushing, because I totally loved reading this book.

While I was supposed to be rereading it for Kailana’s book challenge this month, I kept putting off starting it. This was because I remember this book with such fondness and I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my memory. I was disappointed in my reread of A Wind in the Door and I was so scared the same thing would happen again.

I needn't have worried. I loved this book all over again. It simply works for me in all ways. One the sidebar of my blog, I attempt to give some kind of explanations for my book ratings. I list 10/10 as: “I loved this; it hit all my buttons both in the writing and the emotional impact”. That describes my reactions exactly. Everything just worked together for me and I loved the book.

Which is kind of funny when I think about it, as the main characters of the previous books, especially Meg and Charles Wallace who have always been my favourites, are actually pushed into the background by all the vignettes of Madoc and Gwydyr and their descendants and the futures they might bring. It doesn't matter in the least. I found myself caught up in all their stories, and especially Mom O'Keefe's, and kept reading steadily whenever I had a chance so that I read the book in a day that included lots of after school activities.

While Meg isn’t in the action a lot, the device of her kything with Charles Wallace to follow him on his journey is brilliant. It pulls the reader in and lets him/her be part of the story with her. She also adds a sense of solidity to the fantastic of Charles Wallace and Gaudior’s quest. Her reactions to what happens match mine and we’re in this whole adventure together.

L'Engle's use of theology is much quieter here, which also helps. It's fundamental to the story in its own way (partly about the balance of the universe and partly as the tale of Cain and Abel plays out again and again) but it fits the story so much more smoothly. Yes, it is Christian theology, but it isn't shoved in your face and I think this book would be much more accessible to a non-Christian reader than the previous book. For me, it was a beautiful backdrop to the story that fitted it perfectly.

The whole story fit for me. It's beautiful and ultimately a successful ending, but it remains bittersweet throughout, which adds more power to the story. Meg’s discovery of the depths in her mother-in-law, almost too late, is a perfect example, and the story is stronger for it.

There are also some gorgeous moments of writing and phrasing. The dog’s name is beautiful and a perfect fit to the power and bittersweet tone of the story. Charles Wallace calls her Ananda, which he explains means -

That joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.

Wow. As Mrs Murray says, it’s a mighty name for one dog to carry, but it is so beautiful and amazing.

I love the book’s title too. There’s something round, and evocative and just plain cool about it. A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Go on, say it again. It describes the story exactly (and is specifically used when Charles Wallace is Within Chuck) and sounds lovely. In fact, all three of the original books have wonderful titles: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Unfortunately, after that they become much more plain and less magical. Although Many Waters comes from the most beautiful verse (which may be Biblical but I can’t remember), An Acceptable Time does sound kind of boring. I’ll be interested to see if there’s a hidden meaning in that one too. I don’t remember, but I’ll find out come May.

So in conclusion, I really loved this book all over again and I'm so glad I did get up the courage to reread it. Now I know how powerful it remains for an adult reader, I'm sure I'll be doing it again. This may be a book for children, but it is also a book for adults and there is certainly nothing childish about it.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Madeleine L’Engle
Time Quintet, Book 3
Read: 25-3-10 to 26-3-10

Time Quintet

  1. A Wrinkle in Time
  2. A Wind in the Door
  3. A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  4. Many Waters (Goodreads link)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Goodreads link)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Yay, I have my book.

My darling, tech-savvy husband saw my blog post earlier in the day about not being able to buy Rebels and Lovers. After checking the situation out with me when he got home, he made a suggestion.

In the end, we had to use his home computer, to allow him to connect remotely to his work computer, which allowed him to connect remotely to a server he has a share in, based in Texas.

We loaded up the ebook retailer website and it let me buy my book without a murmur, happily taking my money in the process.

When I came up to my own computer, it was still telling me I shouldn’t be able to download without providing a US or Canadian credit card number. I know that one’s fallible. All I have to do is access my bookshelf directly through Stanza on my iPhone and it downloads to that device like a charm.

Then, going back to my laptop again, the file is now perfectly happy for me to download it to my own hard drive as a backup in case something happens to the version on the phone or I want to read it on my laptop for some reason.

So, HA! We did it. And we paid for it. In such a way that all the right people get paid as they should be paid.

But le sigh, it was extremely complicated and stressful (both things I don’t need) and common sense says that surely it shouldn’t have been those things.

I’ve said it here before, but I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hate Geographic restrictions on ebooks.

Adventures in (Not) Book Buying

Sinclair, Linnea - Dock Five 04 - Rebels and Lovers I wanted to buy a book today. I thought it was going to be simple. But oh how very wrong I was.

The book is Rebels and Lovers by Linnea Sinclair and it is being released on 23rd March 2010 in mass market paperback with a retail price of US$7.99.

Due to my CFS, I find reading mass market paperbacks to be hard work. I read lying down a lot and it is awkward to hold the pages open and they are still pretty heavy. Also, they tend be squeeze more (and smaller) text onto the page and my brain tends to scream “information overload” and struggle to read it. My preferred reading method these days is in ebook format on my iPhone which is light, easy and I can choose how much text is on each screen “page”. (There are few or no ereaders available for purchase directly in New Zealand, not even the Kindle Amazon now proclaims is international.)

Therefore I was planning to buy myself the ebook of Rebels and Lovers. I have several of Ms Sinclair’s books as ebooks and planned to buy this one the same way.

Each Tuesday (which is Monday in the US) I look up the new book releases on my main ebook retailer’s site. Sure enough, there today was Rebels and Lovers. But hang on, the price is US$10.99. That’s three dollars more than the paperback and I’m not sure I want to pay that much. Due to new release discounts etc, it comes back down to about the same as the paperback price. While I object on principle, after thinking about it for a while, I decide to go ahead and buy.

All right, at this point I have to make a confession. Due to my extreme frustration with ebook geographic restrictions, I do work around this by using a friend’s US mailing address on my online account for this site. It’s always worked before (so long as I don’t pay by credit card which shows up my NZ address) and I don’t feel particularly bad about it as I pay for the book and everyone gets their share of my money, including the retailer, the publishing house and especially the author. In fact, it worked fine yesterday when I bought a different book. I’m not sure on the actual legalities of it, but parallel importing is legal in New Zealand, so I’ve always felt I should be able to buy the books anyway. I’m allowed to import the paper versions into the country, but for some reason not the electronic ones. Bizarre. (Of course, a huge amount of publishing seems bizarre these days.)

But overnight something has been upgraded (I rather suspect they’re checking my IP address now, although I’m not tech-savvy enough to know). Now I get a failure message instead because my “purchase location does not match the address on your account”. Well, that’s bloody annoying. But it may be legal, I admit, but it’s still bloody annoying.

I could buy myself the paperback. But in all honesty, I didn’t want a paperback for the reasons given above. Plus the fact that I have very little bookshelf space these days and I tend to hoard it for my Keeper book. While I really enjoy Ms Sinclair’s books, she qualifies as an ebook keeper for me, not a paper book keeper.

But if I can’t have the ebook, what are some of my other options?

I can buy it locally, through a specialty shop that does parallel importing. That’ll cost me $NZ24.90, which works out at about US$17.80. And with my CFS, I can’t just pop out to shop, so I’ll have to wait until a weekend when Dave can take me or pay a courier charge to have it shipped.

I can buy it from Amazon for US$7.99, but then they’ll charge me US$4.99 for shipping (and if I bought more that one book it would be another US$4.99 for each one so bulk buying doesn’t help), making the total US$12.99 and they tell me it’ll take 14 to 30 business days.

I can buy it from The Book Depository for US$7.73. At the moment they have free worldwide shipping (which I expect will end for people in places like me before too long because I don’t believe it can be sustainable). So price-wise, this is currently my best of my options as I’ll only be paying the US price for the book. They offer a shipping time of around 2 weeks which is better than Amazon.

But remember, I didn’t want a paperback copy in the first place and I can’t decide if I want to read the book enough to buy one.

So right now, I’m trying to decide it I can be bothered dealing with all this just to buy a book. The more I think about it, I suspect the less likely I am to decide to go ahead. That means everyone loses. I don’t get to read the book, Ms Sinclair doesn’t get her royalty and the people who do the hard work at the publishing house have their jobs made riskier because there’s another lost sale.

The whole business is crazy and I’m just getting to tired to deal with it all.

And yes, I’m very annoyed. Because at bottom, all I want to do is read what I expect to be a good book. And I can’t.

Monday, March 22, 2010

February 2010 Reading

I had really hoped I might get caught up with reviews before posting my February reading, but it’s almost the end of March now, and it just isn’t going to happen. As always, I started the year with great hope that I’d keep up. It’s nice to be able to share my thoughts on the books I read. But I haven’t been feeling well and I can’t manage it at the moment. I will try to get a bit further caught up, but I’m going to post this before I have two full months worth of reading waiting in my drafts instead of just one.

  1. The Ask and the Answer – Patrick Ness (519pp)
    Chaos Walking, Book 2; YA SF; 8/10
  2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley (304pp)
    Flavia de Luce, Book 1; Mystery; Library Book; 7/10
  3. Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale – Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook (512 pp)
    Non-Fiction; Media; Library Book; 9/10
  4. Doubleblind – Ann Aguirre (320pp)
    Sirantha Jax, Book 3; SF; eBook; 8/10
  5. Magic Under Glass – Jaclyn Dolamore (240pp)
    Fantasy; YA'; Library Book; 7/10
  6. A Wind in the Door – Madeleine L’Engle (203pp)
    Time Quintet, Book 2; Children; SF; Reread; 7/10
  7. This Alien Shore – C. S. Friedman (576pp)
    SF; 9/10
  8. Life As We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer (352pp)
    Moon Crash, Book 1; SF; YA; Library Book; 9/10
  9. Ace of Cakes – Duff Goldman (256pp)
    Non-Fiction; Library Book; 7/10

Best book of the month = This Alien Shore
Biggest disappointment of the month = The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

February Reading:
Books read this month = 9
Short Stories read this month = 0
Total reads this month = 9

10/10 reads this month = 0
DNFs this month = 0
New reads this month = 8
Rereads this month = 1
paper books : eBooks = 7 : 2 = 78 % : 22 %

Pages read this month = 519 + 304 + 512 + 320 + 240 +203 + 576 + 352 + 256 = 3282

February Challenges Progress:
Flashback Reading Challenge = 1
Big Book Challenge = 3
Sci Fi Experience = 6

February List Progress:
eBooks read = 1
SFF books read = 5
Library Books read = 5
Audiobooks listened to = 0

Monday, March 15, 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

My mother just sent me this. It’s Marcus (in the middle) with my cousin’s two sons. They were playing at Lollipops in Palmerston North at a birthday party for the other boys’ cousin (ie my other cousin’s daughter). The relationships are all a little bit complicated as you can see, so to simplify things we just call all the kids cousins.

Anyway, I thought it was just too cute not to share.


A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

 L'Engle, Madeleine - Time 02 - A Wind in the Door (1) From Goodreads:

There are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden," announces six-year-old Charles Wallace Murry in the opening sentence of The Wind in the Door. His older sister, Meg, doubts it. She figures he's seen something strange, but dragons—a "dollop of dragons," a "drove of dragons," even a "drive of dragons"—seem highly unlikely. As it turns out, Charles Wallace is right about the dragons—though the sea of eyes (merry eyes, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing) and wings (in constant motion) is actually a benevolent cherubim (of a singularly plural sort) named Proginoskes who has come to help save Charles Wbllace from a serious illness.

Here we go, the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet and the second book for Kailana’s challenge. I’ve always felt that A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet are the most well know of L’Engle’s books about Meg Murry, but I look back at this one with great fondness.

There are two reasons for that: Proginoskes the cherubim and mitochondria (and farandolae). All these years later, I found that while not all of the book stood up to an adult reread, those two aspects of it did.

I don’t remember when I first read this book, but it would have been back in my teens. I know that I would have still been in high school, already leaning towards a university degree in science (even without ever having studied biology). I had never come across the word mitochondria before, but already being a scientist at heart, I went straight off to try to find out more. This was not such as easy a task as it would be now, in those long ago, pre-internet days, but I was delighted to discover that mitochondria were indeed real (although I admit to being equally disappointed to find out that farandolae were not).

I also loved Proginoskes – I thought he was described beautifully - and I always particularly liked my cover (shown above) for its attempt to illustrate him, which I always thought did a pretty good of it. Rather like mitochondria, a cherubim (singular, of course) was something I didn’t know much about, but was encouraged to explore further. Many, many years later, I read Faith Hunter’s Bloodring and sequels that features a cherubim, and whatever Hunter’s vision of it, my mental picture was shaped by Progo.

Sure, those are both kind of sentimental reasons for liking a book, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Surely good books should provoke an emotional and even sentimental response?

Meg remained a favourite character, but Charles Wallace was underused in this book – no surprise as he was ill for most of it, but I still noticed the lack. It was great to have Calvin there, but in all honesty, he didn’t do all that much. It was Mr Jenkins who was a surprising star, as a man who had been portrayed as shallow and mean showed that there was more to him than anyone, even himself, would ever have expected.

However, I did feel that A Wind in the Door had dated much more obviously that A Wrinkle in Time had done. There was more pseudo-science in this one, and in the time between 1973 and now, even the general concepts of many of the ideas used by L’Engle have been invalidated by the progress of modern science. We don’t use sound to look at very small things, we use electrons, and we know so much now about the structure of the mitochondrion that L’Engle’s vision, while interesting, is also kind of silly.

The underlying theology was also a lot more prominent this time. In itself, that doesn’t really bother me, as like I’ve said, much of my own is pretty similar. But it was much more to the fore this time to the point that I noticed it, and I suspect other readers may feel the same way. In A Wrinkle in Time I felt she blended the science and theology nicely, but they didn’t mesh quite as well this time.

All the same, I enjoyed my reread, and found that one of my favourite lines of all time came from this book. I’d always known it was in one of the Time Quintet books, but I’d imagined it was A Swiftly Tilting Planet not A Wind in the Door.

Calvin’s eyes met her for a long moment and held her gaze, not speaking, not kything, simply being.

That last phrase, “not speaking, not kything, simply being” is something that I’ve often remembered and wished I could achieve more often in my own life. We get so caught up in all the things we have to do, remember, keep up with, that we forget to simply be. This line has always reminded me of that. I need to try to simply be more often.

One last small love from this book – the comment tossed away in passing that Sandy and Denys will be Teachers one day. I like that. That even the “normal” ones are special too.

So all in all, a pleasant reread, but it didn’t stand the test of time the way A Wrinkle in Time did. It’ll be interest to see my reaction to A Swiftly Tilting Planet which I remember with even more affection than I did this one.

A Wind in the Door
Madeleine L’Engle
Time Quintet, Book 2
Read: 12-2-10 to 16-2-10

Time Quintet

  1. A Wrinkle in Time
  2. A Wind in the Door
  3. A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Goodreads link)
  4. Many Waters (Goodreads link)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Goodreads link)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

Dolamore, Jaclyn - Magic Under Glass (2) From

Nimira is a foreign music-hall girl forced to dance for mere pennies. When wealthy sorcerer Hollin Parry hires her to sing with a piano-playing automaton, Nimira believes it is the start of a new and better life. In Parry's world, however, buried secrets are beginning to stir. Unsettling below-stairs rumors swirl about ghosts, a madwoman roaming the halls, and Parry's involvement with a league of sorcerers who torture fairies for sport. Then Nimira discovers the spirit of a fairy gentleman named Erris is trapped inside the clockwork automaton, waiting for someone to break his curse. The two fall into a love that seems hopeless, and breaking the curse becomes a race against time, as not just their love, but the fate of the entire magical world may be in peril.

Dolamore, Jaclyn - Magic Under Glass (1) Before I even start this review, I want to make a comment on the cover. This book, or more accurately this book’s cover, has been causing a stir around the internet. The main character, Nimira, is foreign and dark-skinned, but the book was originally published with the top cover, featuring a white-skinned model. This practice is know as “whitewashing” and there is an excellent post about it at The Book Smugglers which I highly recommend reading.

There was so much fuss that the publisher, Bloomsbury, reprinted the book with the new cover, shown to the left. Personally, I like this one better and the model is a much better representation of Nim. However, the copy I got from the library had the original cover, which is why that one is at the top of the post.

It’s now a month since I read this book (the danger of letting reviews slide) and I’m finding it hard to know what to say about it. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the book – rather it was a very pleasant read – but I’m not finding lots of memorable things to tell you about. Instead, I’m left with a series of impressions more than a coherent review.

I really liked Nim. She had a bright, positive character that added lovely colour to the novel. There was a real sense of her background and homeland as a bright, sunny, desert kind of place that contrasted beautifully with the more English-like setting of the novel that gave me a feeling of cool and green and something much softer edged. Her situation wasn’t great at the beginning of the novel, but she fully owned that her own actions had brought her to that position and when the offer from Hollin Parry came up, she took the risk and the chance to improve things.

Her interaction with the clockwork automaton and discovery of the spirit inside was nicely done, as were her developing relationships with both Erris and Parry. The plot did grow a little complicated with the discovery of wives in attics and external politics, but it never went out of control.

I found myself a little surprised at the ending. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but that it felt more like a pause than an ending. I had assumed that the book was a standalone, but the resolution suggests there is another book coming. I don’t know for sure if that is the case, but Nim and Erris’s story isn’t finished yet and I hope we do find out what happens to them next.

So all in all, this was a very nice little story. It was a very good debut and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see what Jaclyn Dolamore produces next.

Magic Under Glass
Jaclyn Dolamore
Read: 5-2-19 to 12-2-10

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Doubleblind by Ann Aguirre

Aguirre, Ann - Sirantha Jax 03 - Doubleblind From Goodreads:

It’s not easy to tread lightly
wearing steel-toed boots.

Sirantha Jax isn’t known for diplomatic finesse. As a “Jumper” who navigates ships through grimspace, she’s used to kicking ass first and taking names later—much later. Not exactly the obvious
choice to sell the Conglomerate to the Ithtorians, a people whose opinions of humans are as hard as their exoskeletons.

And Ithiss-Tor council meetings aren’t the only place where
Ambassador Jax needs to maneuver carefully. Her lover, March,
is frozen in permanent “kill” mode, and his hair-trigger threatens to sabotage the talks—not to mention their relationship.

But Jax won’t give up on the man or the mission. With the Outskirts beleaguered by raiders, pirates, and the flesh-eating Morgut, an alliance with Ithiss-Tor may be humanity’s only hope.

Which has Jax wondering why a notorious troublemaker like her was given the job…

I’ve had this one since it was published at the end of last September, but somehow it took me until now to get to it. (Thank you, Carl, for your Sci-Fi Experience, which focussed me on getting some long-waiting science fiction read in the first months of the year.)

It was way back in October 2008 that I read Wanderlust, the previous book in the series, so it had been a long time since I’d been hanging out with Jax and friends. To be honest, I couldn’t remember all that much of the storyline. I knew they’d been running around the Clan planet and that things had gone wrong with March and he was now both dangerous and pretty much emotionless. Oh yeah, and that Jax was supposed to be going to Vel’s planet as an ambassador. But that was pretty much all.

All that meant I was a bit nervous about how easy or hard it might be to get back into the series, especially since it is written in first person present test, and it tends to take me a little bit of time to adjust to it.

I was happily surprised by how easily I slipped back into Jax’s company and her world. I actually remembered enough to get by, even if I was missing some particular details.

A lot was made, in the blurb and at the beginning of the book, of the fact that Jax isn’t the kind of person to be an ambassador. She’s loud, brash and far from diplomatic. The thing is, I didn’t feel this was fair. Sure, the Jax we met at the beginning of Grimspace was all those things. But Jax has been through a lot since then and she’s learned a lot and grown a lot. She’s much better suited for the mission than anyone might think. And those who expect her to fail are likely to be quite surprised.

Sure, this book is about the diplomatic mission and how it progresses. Jax and her companions don’t dare let on just how desperate they are for this alliance to go through, and it soon becomes clear that there are two factions on Ithiss-Tor, each of which has pretty much already made up its mind already on how they are going to vote. The result is important and the reader is never going to be fully distracted from that by the other themes of the book, but those themes are very important too.

Because even more than being about the alliance, I found this book to be about Jax, her growth and especially her relationships with her friends. She comes to Ithiss-Tor unsure about how her relationship with Vel stands here on his home planet and learns a lot about herself, and even more about him, his past and his relationship to his own species.

An even stronger indication of how much Jax has changed is shown in her determination not to give up on Marsh. Traumatised by what he felt he had to do in the last book, he’s seriously psychologically damaged and has withdrawn inside himself. The old Jax would most likely have considered him too much work and cut him loose. The Jax we know now is willing and able to acknowledge that she loves him and isn’t prepared to let him go. She has no idea how to heal him, but she’s determined to try. And I thought Aguirre’s solution to the problem was brilliant. There was no way Jax was going to be able to repeat what Mair had originally done for March, and instead she comes to her own, wild and unexpected answer.

I had been a little concerned that the ending of the book might become sort of squashed as both the emotional and dramatic stories came to their conclusions, but I shouldn’t have worried. Aguirre wrapped things up nicely and effectively, with events flowing from plot point to plot point and I particularly liked the final rescue and resolution.

Then, on the last page, it all went to hell. Of course. All ready for the next book.

Happily, Ann Aguirre has announced that her publisher has bought the next (and last) two Jax books, meaning she will be able to finish up the story as she planned. Personally, I’d rather have a story with a beginning, middle and end, whether that is over one book or several, so I’m delighted with this news as the story will reach an organic end, rather than just rambling on and on.

And to finish, look at the beautiful cover for the fourth book, Killbox, which will be published this September.

Aguirre, Ann - Sirantha Jax 04 - Killbox

Ann Aguirre 
Sirantha Jax, Book 3
Read: 2-2-10 to 11-2-10

Sirantha Jax

  1. Grimspace (Goodreads link)
  2. Wanderlust
  3. Doubleblind
  4. Killbox (Goodreads link: Due September 2010) 
  5. Aftermath (forthcoming)
  6. Endgame (forthcoming)

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook

Davies, Russell T. and Cook, Benjamin - Doctor Who The Writer's Tale From

A fascinating look at the creative life of the hit BBC series, Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale is executive producer Russell T. Davies' personal tour of the Doctor's universe. A unique collection of correspondence between Russell and writer Benjamin Cook, the book explores in detail Russell's work on Doctor Who Series 4, revealing how he plans the series and works with the show's writers. Fully illustrated with script pages, personal notes, and never-before-seen photos and artwork, The Writer's Tale is a love letter to television, and a fitting tribute to one of the most popular family dramas of all time.

This is another book I discovered thanks to the internet (there seem to be a lot of those, which is probably why my TBR pile is so out of control). This time it was discussed on one of the Doctor Who podcasts I listen to. I don’t 100% remember which one, but I think it was the DWO WhoCast. I listened, thought the podcasters’ comments were interesting and didn’t think much more about it. A few weeks later, we were in the library and my husband saw it on the new books stand and pointed it out to me. What the heck? I thought, grabbed it and brought it home with me.

When we got home, I opened it to have a look at what it was like and just kept on going until I was finished, some time the next day. I was surprised at how fascinated I found myself by the whole thing and I happily read my way though to the end and then found myself wanting to start watching season four of the new Doctor Who all over again.

This book is mostly the emails between Russell T. Davies (showrunner for the first four seasons of the modern Doctor Who) and writer Benjamin Cook. As I understand it, Cook suggested that Davies might like to email him about the writing of season 4 and what started off a little nervously soon became a no-holds barred look at the mind and personality of Davies as he worked.

While I have happily enjoyed watching Doctor Who over the last five years, I haven’t always been happy with some of the episodes Davies has written. I can easily enjoy them on a first watching, but when I think back on them, the story can be seriously lacking. After feeling exactly this way about David Tennant’s swan song, The End of Time, I finally figured out with the help of a friend that Davies is an emotional writer. It’s all about the emotion with him and how to pack the biggest emotional wallop into the story. So when you stop and think about it, the story can have next to no plot at all, or have a totally stupid plot, but it sure has the emotional moments. As someone who likes both, not all of Davies’ stories work for me. (Indeed, this is why I’m looking forward to seeing what Steven Moffat does with the show, as he seems to be much more plot based than Davies.)

Reading The Writer’s Tale only confirmed this for me. Davies seems to live his entire life by his emotions (and very exhausting it seems to be too). He seems to spend a lot of his time despairing that he will never write anything, or that what he has written is rubbish. He pushes every deadline to the limit and yet constantly pulls it off at the last moment. I certainly wouldn’t want to live with him (but that’s okay, because I’m sure he wouldn’t want to live with me either) but it certainly makes for interesting reading at a distance.

It was fascinating to see his ideas progress from the places each one began to the final product we eventually saw on screen. It was particularly fascinating to see him slowly creating a new character to be the companion in season 4, only have have Catherine Tate return to reprise her role as Donna and see the changes that made in the developing scripts.

I enjoyed reading this – it’s a great balance of information about the show and Davies himself, pretty photos from the show (I like pretty photos), large sections of scripts in progress and even cute cartoons penned by Davies. It also contained some interesting words of wisdom that I wanted to share.

On writing and creativity (p.77):

It is not a democracy. Creating something is not a democracy. The people have no say. The artist does. It doesn’t matter what the people witter on about; they and their response come after. They’re not there for the creations.

Right on, Russell! Say it again. I would always far rather a writer be true to their vision than be swayed by the fans. Fans don’t have a clue what they want and too many cooks are sure to spoil the broth. I can choose not to like the artist’s choices, but I’d rather they stuck to the truth of their creativity.

Oh dear. I had a couple of other quotes I wanted to share, but I can’t track down where I wrote the relevant page numbers. I’ve tried flipping through the book, but I still can’t find them, so I’m just going to stop the review here.

If you like Doctor Who, this is a very fascinating read. (If you’ve never seen the new Doctor Who, don’t even consider this one as you’ll be totally lost.) I enjoyed it far more than I expected to when I started and I’ve got my name on the hold list for the follow up volume that looks at writing the 2009 television specials.

And roll on Easter and the new season and new Doctor. I can’t wait.

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale
Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook
Read: 4-2-10 to 5-2-10

Follow up to The Ask and the Answer review

After struggling to write my review of The Ask and the Answer, I have just found some notes on it stored on my phone. Rather than trying to redo anything, I think I’ll just post them here.

I've been struggling with this and unable to figure out why. Now at about 2/3 through, I think I'm finally figuring it out.

Things hadn't been too bad all around up to this point. Disturbing, yes. Worrying, yes. But still borderline okay. In many other books, this might be the point where rescue arrives, saving us from all the moral and practical dilemmas to come.

But Ness isn't doing it this way.

The underlying sense of doom that made the early parts slow but with an inevitable portent of growing disaster may be what made reading the book so difficult.

The Mayor is a master manipulator who can twist and spin everything to make it come out sounding the way he wants it too. He's been especially doing it to Todd and Viola until they both find themselves where they have very few choices but to make the decisions others want them to make. He's creepy and freaky and a very, very nasty villain who makes me want to shudder.

Now, at 2/3 through, the boot has fallen and the worst is beginning to happen. The sense of doom has been proved to be correct. In a way, this has made reading it easier as we can just get on with it now.

The Mayor has done that evil thing where he's turned life into a fascist dictatorship but step-by-step convincing the populace these measures are for the better, when it is clear to the reader at least that this is far from true. And he's doing really awful things in the background.

The Ask is clearly very much based on the Inquisition and it is very easy to see parallels to Nazi Germany. I'm not a history buff and generally only know about things as they appear in popular knowledge, but the old Mayor Ledger also seems to have a very Chamberlain-esque feel about him.

Todd is trapped in this. He's been manipulated emotionally (and occasionally physically) into the place the Mayor wants him to be and he's going along with things out of a sense there's no escape. He's not pleased by what the Mayor's doing but sees no solution. He's turning himself off in order to cope. His triumph will be to turn on again and make Todd's decisions rather than the Mayor's decisions when the time comes.

As for Viola, she's also been tossed into a position where her choice has largely been made for her. She can see the evil that is being fought but she is still clear-eyed enough to see that the issue isn't simple and the possibility clearly remains that stopping the Mayor may have to be followed by stopping Mistress Coyle.

At this point Viola seems to be more on the side of good - although not really through any action of her own - but I rather suspect there's still some plot twists to come.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Bradley, Alan - Flavia de Luce 01 - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie From Goodreads:

A delightfully dark English mystery, featuring precocious young sleuth Flavia de Luce and her eccentric family.

The summer of 1950 hasn't offered up anything out of the ordinary for eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce: bicycle explorations around the village, keeping tabs on her neighbours, relentless battles with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and brewing up poisonous concoctions while plotting revenge in their home's abandoned Victorian chemistry lab, which Flavia has claimed for her own.

But then a series of mysterious events gets Flavia's attention: A dead bird is found on the doormat, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. A mysterious late-night visitor argues with her aloof father, Colonel de Luce, behind closed doors. And in the early morning Flavia finds a red-headed stranger lying in the cucumber patch and watches him take his dying breath. For Flavia, the summer begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw: "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Did the stranger die of poisoning? There "was" a piece missing from Mrs. Mullet's custard pie, and none of the de Luces would have dared to eat the awful thing. Or could he have been killed by the family's loyal handyman, Dogger... or by the Colonel himself! At that moment, Flavia commits herself to solving the crime -- even if it means keeping information from the village police, in order to protect her family. But then her father confesses to the crime, for the same reason, and it's up to Flavia to free him of suspicion. Only she has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim's identity, and a conspiracy that reaches back into the de Luces' murky past.

This is a book I saw reviewed very positively on several blogs. It sounded like it should be quite delightful. Eccentric English families, strange murders, a Victorian laboratory and its resident eleven year old chemist. What could be better? So I reserved it from the library and started it pretty much right away.

Unfortunately, I think I was expecting too much. While I enjoyed the story, I found it lacking a certain deftness in execution that I had been expecting from other readers’ reviews. Instead, the writing seemed a little stodgy, rather like a sadly undercooked pie crust.

I kept on reading, interested to find out just what was going on, and I’m not in the least sorry that I read the book, but there was still that something missing from the experience. I think, if that delicate, quirky touch had been there, this would have been a brilliant book, filled with strange and delightful characters and happenings.

Instead, I found it all a bit over the top. Flavia was fun, but she was terribly precocious for an eleven year old, and you’ve got to get the characterisation just right for that to work. Sure, I’ve never been to England in the 1950s, but I can’t quite believe the other characters all told Flavia all the secrets they did, or let her traipse around the countryside the way she did. She was never at home and no-one seemed to care. And she just kept on getting in the way. If I had been the policeman in charge, I’d have wanted to lock her in her bedroom and throw away the key.

All her chemical investigations and musings were also a lot of fun, but I do query an eleven year old, even such a precocious one as Flavia, holding quite that much knowledge in her head. (Of course, it didn’t help that this adult who was once a chemist couldn’t really remember any of it, so maybe I was just jealous.)

From the blurbs and reviews I’d read, I had been expecting there to be a lot more solidarity between the sisters than there was which was something I was looking forward to reading, so finding that the girls really didn’t seem to care all that much about each other was rather disappointing.

Please, don’t think this is a bad book, because it wasn’t. But for me, it was an average book and I’d been expecting something spectacular. This was very much a case of having expectations that were way too high and that’s one of the few downsides of reading lots of book blogs. Sometimes, something that works well for others, just doesn’t work as well for me.

All the same, I have the sequel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (aren’t the titles just so cool?), on reserve from the library. I won’t be going into it with such high expectations, which I hope will make the reading experience more enjoyable.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Alan Bradley 
Flavia de Luce, Book 1
Read: 2-2-10 to 4-2-10

Flavia de Luce

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Goodreads link: Due for release 10-3-10)

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer From

We were in the square, in the square where I'd run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive, stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her - But there weren't no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men...

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor's new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode...

"The Ask and the Answer" is a tense, shocking and deeply moving novel of resistance under the most extreme pressure. This is the second title in the "Chaos Walking" trilogy.

I finished this book way back at the beginning of February, and it is only now, at the beginning of March, that I am finally starting to write about it. And that is largely because I haven’t been able to nail down what I want to say about it.

There has been all sorts of enthusiasm about this book, and the one before it, The Knife of Never Letting Go. I read The Knife of Never Letting Go in two days and was very impressed by it. I then rushed out and bought a copy of this one because I didn’t want to wait for as long as it might take me to get to the top of the library hold queue. I started reading it eagerly, and then I started to struggle. In contrast to the first book in the series, it took me twelve days to read this one and I could never decide if I liked it or not.

The thing is, this is a good book. The people who have said so are right. But I didn’t find it a nice book. Nice may not be the right word, as that seems to suggest something sweet and light, which this most definitely is not, but I can’t think of what the word I want actually is.

This is a good book. It raises important issues and tells a complicated story. But I didn’t enjoy reading it. And now, a month later, I’m still not sure if I liked it or not.

The pace is a lot slower than The Knife of Never Letting Go, which gives Ness the time to explore the issues he’s raising in the book. And boy oh boy, they are serious issues. He’s introducing things like fascism and terrorism and the rights and wrongs of both. There’s torture and terror and moral pitfalls everywhere. And as well written as it was, I didn’t enjoy reading about those things.

And then there was the Mayor. Really, I think he’s the crux of my issue with the book. I absolutely hated the Mayor. I detested him and I despised him. And I don’t mean that I hated the character because he was badly written; rather he was so well created and depicted that I hated the person in the pages as if he was a real person.

He had an absolutely clear insight into the hearts of all the other characters and he used that to manipulate them to the end of the world and back. It was just horrible. He separated Todd and Viola and then made them do exactly what he wanted – not through force or even fear (although there was a lot of fear) but by manipulating their very best characteristics to twist them into following his agenda without knowing they were doing it. It was heartbreaking to watch them trying so very hard to look out for each other and do the right thing and constantly have it turn back on them. By the cliffhanger at the end of the book (yes, there’s a cliffhanger but I’m not going to give away any of the details), the Mayor has achieved the result he has been working for all along (I totally don’t understand why that’s what he wants, but maybe it will become clear in the last book) and Todd and Viola are left in the same position they were in at the end of the last book. Or perhaps a worse position, as this time they’ve been vital in his achieving his ends, all while trying to oppose him.

It’s just awful and I was left aching for them both.

And it’s not just the psyches of Todd and Viola that he understands. It turns out he’s manipulated pretty much the entire population of the planet to do what he wants and I hated reading it. But I still had to keep on going.

I really, really, really want the Mayor to come to a very nasty and very sticky end.

So here I am, left not knowing what I thought of this book. It was good. It was very good. But I don’t know if I liked it. And I find myself eager to read the last book (thank goodness for library suggestions-to-buy) but not sure why about that either. Except that I want something awful to happen to the Mayor, and given the punches Ness has refused to pull so far, I find myself very afraid that may not happen. But I really hope it does.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if you want to read this. I really find myself unable to make a judgement call either way. Like I said, it’s good, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I guess you have to decide what your reasons are for choosing to read any particular book. If it’s to have fun along the way, this probably isn’t the right book. But if you want to be drawn into a fascinating world and challenged every step of the way, then maybe it is.

The Ask and the Answer
Patrick Ness
Chaos Walking, Book 2
Read: 21-1-10 to 2-2-10

Chaos Walking

  1. The Knife of Never Letting Go
  2. The Ask and the Answer
  3. Monsters of Men (Goodreads link: Due for release 3-5-10)