27 Following


Have Coffee, Will Travel

Currently reading

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)
Hilary Mantel
250 Things You Should Know About Writing
Chuck Wendig
War for the Oaks
Emma Bull

Review: Divergent

Divergent - Veronica Roth

I have a like/hate relationship with this book and struggled with the rating. None of the good parts are quite good enough to inspire love, but there are parts that I liked. Roth writes a pretty good action set piece, and the main character undergoes a believable character arc. I also found the development of the book's central romance fairly believable. The pacing of that was good and didn't feel rushed or forced.

However, there was a lot about the book that I disliked. The core premise of the dystopian Chicago world of the story is so implausible that a friend had to talk me into finishing the book after I'd put it down with no intention of picking it up again. I had to not just stretch my willing suspension of disbelief, but lock it away in a Chinese puzzle box inside a dark cupboard inside a bank vault with an armed guard outside. I just don't buy that this society would ever come to be. People don't work the way they'd have to for this society to ever have functioned. So I basically had to shut off the part of my brain that kept saying, "Nope. Nope. Nope."

I was able to relax into the story for about the middle third [(even though the Dauntless training felt like it went on for way too long), but I started wanting to throw the book at the wall again when the book started its journey toward the climax and the anti-intellectual, anti-science themes took center stage. It pissed me off that the entire intellectual class — the class of scientists and academics and physicians — was portrayed as a group of power-hungry douchecanoes who just wanted to control everyone else (hide spoiler)]. I understand that the dystopia is about social engineering gone wrong, and I hope that Roth has some endgame in mind that turns what I've read so far on its head. I'm willing to pick up the next book on the strength of that hope that this is going somewhere, but this book on its own didn't do much to impress despite offering some moderate entertainment.


Review: The Devil's Grin by Annelie Wendeberg

The Devil's Grin (Kronberg Crimes) (Volume 1) - A Wendeberg

It's been a while since I've delved into a Holmes pastiche, so it's difficult to say whether this particular offering brings anything new to the genre. [I know a number of other writers have tackled a view of Holmes from a female point of view and have written Holmes as the romantic interest in a relationship with a woman who is his intellectual equal. In this instance, the protagonist has feelings for Holmes that are not reciprocated. She is not, in fact, the woman who cracks Holmes' icy exterior, at least not in a way that has them ending up in bed together, so that's something. 

The Devil's Grin is the story of Dr. Anton Kronberg, who really is Anna Kronberg, a woman masquerading as a man in Victorian London so that she can practice medicine. It wasn't common, but certainly not unheard of, for a woman to become a physician in England circa 1890, but Kronberg is German and the story explains that it was illegal in German for a woman to become a doctor and that Kronberg had to keep up the ruse once she left Germany for Boston and later London because once started it couldn't be stopped or she'd lose everything. As Anton Kronberg, she becomes a renowned expert in the budding sciences of epidemiology and bacteriology. She meets Holmes when the Metropolitan Police consult her about a person who may have died of cholera washes up in the Thames. There's no apparent crime, but both Kronberg and the Great Detective are intrigued by the mysterious death and end up on the case together. They ultimately track the body to a mental hospital, where they uncover that the poor are being used as subjects in unethical experiments purportedly to develop vaccines to illnesses such as tetanus and cholera, but something more sinister may actually be afoot. The book leaves the central mystery more or less unresolved — the puppets are arrested but the puppet master remains unidentified (one can only assume since we're dealing with Holmes pastiche that the villain will be revealed to be Moriarty in the second book). 

I really think this could have worked as a story that wasn't a Holmes pastiche at all. I suppose Holmes gets butts in seats as it were, but the presence of Holmes wasn't the most interesting thing about the story, and I don't know that he really added much to the story. I would have been fine if it had been simply a mystery novel featuring a female detective in Victorian England. Kronberg was an interesting enough character to have carried the book on her own. In fact, I found her struggles with gender and identity far more interesting than the actual mystery or any hint of potential romance with Holmes. The author raises interesting questions about what it means to be a man and to be a woman, and how qualities traditionally defined as "masculine" or "feminine" both help and hinder Kronberg as she attempts to navigate an oppressive world. Kronberg is precise and crisp when she's dealing with science, but also proves through her relationship with an Irish thief to embrace more human desires with no shame. 

I also like that Wendeberg gets into the muck of Victorian society, quite literally. The story opens at a sewage plant and features the aforementioned mental institution and an overcrowded slum as its other main set pieces. Kronberg chooses to live in an impoverished neighborhood rather than someplace more middle-class, and I appreciate that Wendeberg didn't sanitize Victorian London in the way some other novels might have. The stinking chamber pots are in plain sight here. (hide spoiler)]

The novel had some flaws. Some of the scenes felt like sketches where the picture hadn't been fully inked in, and Holmes didn't feel quite right as a character. He was a little too vulnerable, a little too tender at points. 

Overall, though, I liked it enough to read the next book.


National Book Award novel finalist The Flamethrowers currently is available for $1.99 on Kindle as one of the monthly deals.

[REBLOG] - [Masterpost] Customizing BookLikes

Reblogged from Bun's Books:

Reblogging this mostly so I'll have it in a handy spot should I need it. Credit to Denise, whoever she may be.


Denise's text begins here:


There are quite a few tutorials on how to change the layout of your BookLikes blog. I figured it's good to have them all in one post, and I'd like to thank all who put a lot of work into making them so others can enjoy BookLikes. 


Let's start with the customization blogs posted by BookLikes: 




Tutorials made by BookLikers for BookLikers: 




Note: All links open in a new window and take you to the original posts and their creators. Leave comments, likes and reblog the hell out of them so others can see it too :) 


The Silver Linings Playbook - Matthew Quick I was up until nearly 3 am finishing this. It's now going on 8. Review will be written when I'm not a zombie.
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill If you read this, be prepared to have the Nirvana song stuck in your head for days.

Also, be warned that this book contains violence involving dogs before you read it.

This was a decent ghost story that felt like Stephen King-light. I kept trying not to compare Hill to his famous father, but comparisons were pretty much unavoidable since Hill chose to play in the same kind of horror story playground. The concept was intriguing — rock star buys a ghost over the internet on a lark, but turns out to be the victim of a supernatural revenge plot — but nothing groundbreaking. This was a solid enough effort with a few interesting twists and turns that kept me reading even though I found Jude, the rock star, mostly unlikable as a character. I did, however, like Georgia/Marybeth and give Hill props for writing what could have been the clichéd girlfriend character as a complex and interesting woman, and that even when she’s in harm’s way it never feels like he’s putting her in a refrigerator. Georgia really carried the book for me.

As far as the plot, I kept wondering how Hill would stretch what initially felt like a short story concept into an entire novel, but whenever I’d think he HAD to be running out of steam he’d add some new piece of information that added a layer and turned the plot in a new direction. He shows enough skill here that I’m definitely curious to read some of his more recent work to see how he’s evolved as a writer.
A Study in Scarlet -  Arthur Conan Doyle I was a mystery buff back in high school and read a number of Sherlock Holmes stories while simultaneously watching THE Holmes, Jeremy Brett, periodically solve crimes on PBS. No disrespect to Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I love, or even to Robert Downey Jr., but Jeremy Brett was my Holmes the way that Tom Baker was my Doctor, and you always love your first the best. Somehow, I never managed to read “A Study in Scarlet” until now, *mumble**mumble* years later. I’d probably characterize it as a novella rather than a novel. It serves as a nice introduction to Holmes and Watson, and immediately the two characters click on the page. It’s perhaps more fun to watch Watson try to solve the mystery of Holmes than it is to watch Holmes try to solve the mystery of the two murders that are the center of “A Study in Scarlet.” Holmes himself is prickly, but intriguing, although it's interesting to see that many of his brilliant deductions here in fact rely quite a bit on guesswork and assumptions.

The central mystery isn’t terribly engaging until the backstory is presented in the form of an almost entirely separate side story that takes the reader to mid-19th century Utah, the founding of Salt Lake City by Mormons, a tragic love story, and lifelong quest for revenge. It’s an odd narrative structure to shift the action entirely to another continent for about a third of the book, and different than the usual 19th century convention of having another character tell the embedded story, thereby embedding points of view within points of view. Conan Doyle’s method is perhaps cleaner in that sense, but if I hadn’t known that section was coming I would have found it jarring. Otherwise, this section is packed full of tension, drama and danger and was a pretty ripping yarn, if rather condescending (and probably downright offensive) toward the LDS Church.

Overall, “A Study in Scarlet” was a fun read and I plan to continue through the rest of the Holmes canon at some point in the near future.
The Scarlet Plague (Science Fiction Collection) - Jack London This is a strange little future dystopian novella by an author better known for his rugged portrayals of people and dogs surviving the Alaskan wilderness. I’m going through a phase of fascination with authors associated with capital “L” Literature who also wrote speculative fiction, e.g., E.M. Forster and his novella “The Machine Stops,” published in 1909 that is eerily evocative of the loneliness of life in the Internet age. Likewise, “The Scarlet Plague” was published in 1912, but envisions a post-apocalyptic 2073 in which a global pandemic has wiped out most of humanity and civilization along with it. The epidemiological disaster itself happens in 2013 and is recounted by an elderly man to his three grandchildren, who have never known anything but a wild, violent world full of predators and hard-scrabble living.

London’s vision of a century hence (now our present) is in some ways prescient in that he foresees the inevitable evolution of capitalism toward a system in which the gap between the haves and have-nots has become an insurmountable chasm, and corporations quite literally rule the world through the Board of Magnates. I wondered as I read this whether this novella served as inspiration for the Canadian TV series Continuum and its vision of a future world ruled by a Corporate Congress, which seems especially timely now in the United States given that it appears political interests have become beholden to corporate interests, and there is a demonstrably growing gap between the wealthy and the middle- and lower-classes.

In “The Scarlet Plague,” the corporate-dominated class system (which also has some room, if not at the top at least in the upper middle, for the intellectual elite, of which the narrator was a member as a university professor) falls apart when the plague ravages the population in a matter of days. The primary symptom is redness of the face and extremities, followed by a cold, numbing paralysis that spreads over the course of about an hour from the extremities to the heart, thereby killing the patient. It reads like Movie Medicine ™ rather than the way any disease works in the real world, but I’m willing to handwave the medical science since ultimately that's just a MacGuffin.

People die so fast that society falls apart. Most of the living flee the cities, which fall prey not only to the plague but to riots, looters and large-scale fires.

But it takes a while to get to that. The first third or so of the narration feels like a precursor to McCarthy’s The Road, with the grandfather and one of his grandchildren hunting for food along the ruins of a railroad. The child is painted as nearly feral. Apparently, in the course of three generations, language has been all but lost, and the child is described as speaking a sort of broken pidgin and the grandfather (once an English professor) is mocked for his “nonsensical” speech, or what we’d know as proper English.

The initial part of the story is about the grandfather’s sense of isolation. The world has changed and left him behind, nostalgic for the world that was, for the taste of food from a restaurant or for the books he once loved. He also seems nostalgic for the highly stratified class system (which I suppose makes sense because he was a beneficiary), even though he tells the three boys after linking up with the other two on a beach that the ready availability of food led to the enslavement of much of the population by the corporations. In the new world order, it isn’t money or birth or education that defines who rises to the top – it’s literal survival of the fittest, the strongest, the most brutal.

The most dramatic and interesting part of the narrative comes when the grandfather tells the tale of the plague striking San Francisco, attempting to ride it out in a university building, and escaping from the city when that plan fails.

I suppose the real point of the story is the grandfather’s mourning of the loss of knowledge. In just 60 years, so much of human knowledge has been lost that his grandchildren don’t even know how to count higher beyond 10 – they can’t count any number for which they can’t use their fingers. He tries to teach them, but they reject his attempts as frivolous. The only skills that matter to the boys are the ones needed to procure food – which is much harder to come by than in the grandfather’s youth. While easy access to food enslaved people to the corporations, it also allowed them to engage in more academic and artistic pursuits, or at least for the members of the grandfather’s class. For the lower classes, I don’t know that much changes from one society to another. Life is hard either way. It does raise some interesting questions similar to those tackled by Continuum, namely how much liberty is worth trading for comfort and security, especially when security is an illusion and something as simple as a nasty little microbe could bring it all down?
The Iron Wyrm Affair - Lilith Saintcrow I wanted to love this book. Really. I’ve had a fascination with Victorian London since childhood (if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I’m pretty sure I lived there in a past life), and with magic and fantasy and more recently with steampunk, and I follow the author on Twitter and read her blog and think she’s a cool, fascinating person I’d love to hang out with over coffee if ever given the chance. So I was primed to love this book. Alas, I didn’t.

The story follows Emma Bannon, one of this alternative Britain’s most powerful sorcerers, and Archibald Clare, a mentath, aka genius logician and Sherlock Holmes analogue. The two meet when mentaths are being murdered and Bannon takes Clare under her protection (while also evaluating whether he might be a suspect). The two uncover a thorny plot to control and/or overthrow Queen Victrix, the embodiment of Brittania, the ruling spirit of the realm. The problem is that it’s a three-pronged conspiracy that really never meshes. One prong involves a one-time lover of Bannon’s, who is presumed dead early in the story, trying to raise a dragon, which will literally destroy the isle of Brittania, and the other involves using a giant robot spider to either kidnap or kill Victrix. It’s never really clear. That plot is being run by a presumed-dead mentath whom we never actually meet in the story. So there really are two different plots going on, and I wish that Saintcrow had tackled them one at a time in separate books, because the result here is kind of a mess.

I appreciate what Saintcrow tried to do here by melding tropes from fantasy and science fiction in a lush Victorian setting, it just didn’t quite work for me. The two plot threads – magic and dragons, logic and machinery – never merged in a way that seemed organic. The magic plot was better written and ultimately more interesting, which left me wondering in the end why the giant logic-powered robots were there at all.

I don’t think it helped that while Bannon was a complex and interesting character, Clare was never expanded beyond his existence as a two-dimensional Sherlock Holmes facsimile. We’re told that Bannon is a powerful sorceress and that Clare is a deductive genius, and we’re shown Bannon’s power, but never really see what it is that makes Clare so brilliant. Mikal, a supporting character, is better drawn than Clare, for all that Mikal remains a mystery at the end of the book. But Mikal is a mystery I want to solve – perhaps enough to pick up the second book, time will tell – while Clare just left me wanting to revisit the original source material and re-read Conan Doyle to get the real thing.

The densely packed prose was another barrier to my enjoyment of this book. Again, I appreciate that Saintcrow was aiming for a Victorian feel to the prose, but it’s so overwrought and top-heavy on adjectives and description at points that it just felt like word soup. Incidentally, Conan Doyle’s prose is actually quite clear, straightforward and readable. One moves through the original Holmes stories with relative ease, while I often felt like I was slogging through The Iron Wyrm Affair and re-reading sentences because the construction just didn’t make sense.

I also had some issues with the world-building. A lot of it was short-handed by crafting slightly different spellings of place names and such, which really started to annoy me because there was no logic to it -- "Yton" instead of "Eton" or "Whitchapel" instead of "Whitechapel." Saintcrow also plunges the reader headfirst into the world without offering much explanation. A little well-placed exposition would have gone a long way, but the lack contributed to me feeling that reading this was like wading through thick mud.

So, what did Saintcrow do well? Bannon is a pretty fascinating character, and we get just enough of her relationship with Mikal – and Bannon’s own stubborn refusal to recognize what’s right in front of her – to make it interesting without overwhelming the story or turning it into a romance. As a reader who likes romance to be an element rather than the entire plot, this appealed to me.

Saintcrow also writes a hell of an action set piece, especially the scenes in which Bannon is using her significant powers of sorcery. A scene in which Bannon opens herself up to the dark nature of her powers and conjures a magical ride toward the climax is breathtaking.

I also have to give Saintcrow credit for making sure the heroes feel the physical consequences when they plunge into action and danger. There are injuries aplenty – most of them Bannon’s, but then she’s doing most of the heavy lifting in the plot.

Overall, there were some enjoyable bits in this novel, but mostly it felt like a slog and I was thankful when I reached the end and could move on to something else.
2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love - Rachel Aaron This petite gem of a book is packed with common sense advice about the writing process. It might just be the best book on process that I've read, and I definitely plan to try out some of the techniques that have worked to improve Aaron's process and productivity, in particular her method for editing.
Beautiful Creatures - Margaret Stohl, Kami Garcia This interview with the authors on io9 has made me curious. That and the gazillion trailers I've seen for the movie, which strikes me as probably heavy on special effects and light on original plot or characterization. And yet...
Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov A newspaper writer who really wants to write fiction and a pet penguin named Misha? Of course I'm going to read this. Someday.
The Machine Stops - E.M. Forster I have a deep and abiding love for Forster's novels about Edwardian societal mores and class struggles, and also having a deep and abiding love for science fiction I just about wet myself when I went looking for public domain ebook versions of [b:A Room with a View|3087|A Room with a View|E.M. Forster|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348347485s/3087.jpg|4574872] and [b:Howards End|3102|Howards End|E.M. Forster|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328865265s/3102.jpg|1902726] a few weeks ago and discovered Forster had written a science fiction novella (I'm not sure at 40 pages this quite qualifies even as a novella, but it was offered as a standalone work so it seems odd to describe it as a short story).

The Machine Stops is a tale of a far future Earth in which humanity has retreated underground to live in The Machine, which provides every comfort and has eliminated class. No one works. No one struggles. The Machine provides everything and people are free to "have ideas." They read books. They listen to music. They listen to lectures. They live in isolation. They never touch, or even inhabit the same space. All communication is through The Machine. But what happens to a humanity dependent on The Machine when The Machine breaks down?

This compact tale for me evoked themes from Brave New World, The Matrix and some of Ballard's science fiction short stories, about the downsides of becoming dependent on technology, of becoming too much creatures of leisure, of allowing technology to fragment and disconnect us from one another. But Forster was writing all of this in 1909. 1909. That simple fact kind of blows my mind, because there's so much in this story that can stand as allegory for life a century later. The man had vision.
Luther: The Calling: A Novel - Neil Cross Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a Goodreads giveaway.

When viewers of the British crime drama Luther first meet DCI John Luther, he’s literally on a precipice wrestling with a questionable decision. This novel tells the story of how Luther came to that moment, how his personal ethics became more and more grey as his life crumbled and a difficult murder-kidnapping case took its toll. As a reader, I was left wondering, “If I had seen the things Luther has seen, would I have done anything differently?” I’m not sure I would have.

I’ve become interested lately in pop culture anti-heroes, mostly through marathoning episodes of the AMC series The Walking Dead and thinking that a lot of the decisions made by the guy being portrayed as the “bad guy” in the first two seasons really weren’t all that wrong in the post-apocalyptic world in which he lived. Is there still a place for ethics in a world in which survival is of paramount importance? I like to think there is, that I’d fall on the side of those saying that clinging to our humanity in the face of overwhelming horror matters for something, but I’m not so sure.

Mild plot spoilers for Luther: The Calling:

Even though Luther is living in the real world we recognize, where people still have TVs and cell phones and everything works and there are no zombies lurking in the woods, in many ways his personal world is one in which survival trumps all – not his personal survival, but the survival of the people he can save. In this novel, the one person he can save becomes more important than the rules and more important than his wife’s last-ditch efforts to save their failing marriage – which is failing because Luther in essence is married to the job, leaving his wife in the position of jealous lover. Saving that one person – an 11-year-old girl – becomes so important because of the people he can’t save. Her parents. Her brother. Another couple murdered before them. Their infant daughter, ripped from her mother’s womb.

This case is a journey into the dark side for Luther, and as a reader I was left covered with a film of discomfort, horror and brutality. But that’s the point, I think. Luther is living with that same film, but he can’t be rid of it by closing a book. It’s become part of him because of the work he does, but that’s the sacrifice. That’s the calling. Some jobs are so important that they ask everything of us, and even when we’ve given our all, they ask a little more, and who’s to say that when we’ve hit that point of giving everything and still losing – because people still are dying – that we wouldn’t trade some of our own humanity to save just one? Because then maybe all of that sacrifice would be worth it.

I think it’s a fascinating question for crime fiction to ask: Can Luther still be the “good guy” if he takes off the white hat? What does it mean to be the “good guy” to begin with?

Neil Cross explores his ideas and characters with a stark, immediate prose that vividly places the reader in the scene and in the action. I’d recommend this for any fan of the television series, or fans of police procedurals in general.

Not, however, recommended for dog lovers. Trust me on that one.

Boneshaker - Cherie Priest This was mostly a fun read. I enjoyed Priest's vision for an alternate steampunk version of 19th century Seattle, although the zombies felt kind of extraneous to the plot. She could have taken them out and still written the same story about a mad scientist and the fallout from his experiment, particularly for the wife and child he left behind. The zombies just weren't integral to the story in the way they were in Mira Grant's Feed, for example. In some ways it felt like Priest brainstormed a list of cool stuff, threw it into a blender, and this was the result -- but somehow most of it works and it's a pretty tasty milkshake, even though I'm picking out a few stray chunks that seem odd.

The female characters were pretty great -- strong, but believably so and without being written as men with breasts. It was Briar who got me through the story. I was always a much happier reader when in her point-of-view than in Zeke's, who mostly came off as a whiny, annoying brat who kept doing things that were so stupid I wanted to shake him until his head fell off. One of those weird chunks I chewed on as a reader is that there was something off about the chronology between Briar's POV and Zeke's that kept pulling me out of the story because it didn't quite add up.

But there were flying machines captained by not-quite-pirates, and clockwork prosthetics, and a mad scientist with a mysterious identity, and such wonderfully strong women, so overall I'm a pretty happy reader.
Sweet Venom - Tera Lynn Childs Free e-book today Sept. 25. I'm a little hesitant about paranormal YA (does no one write for adults anymore?) but willing to test the waters with a free book.