And the prize for idiocy goes to…

Me.

I’ve had an Audible subscription for several years, and always struggled to find enough audiobooks to buy. This is because, historically, I’ve been a purely print (ebook) reader. I like to see the words – otherwise they don’t seem quite real. Definitely a visual learner!

So I’ve steered away from audiobooks I didn’t already own in print – I’ve mostly been using my Audible subscription to buy books so that I can ‘re-read’ old favourites while doing household chores. The first time I bought an audiobook I hadn’t already read in print was one in a long-running series, so I already knew all the characters. And that didn’t go too badly. I followed the story quite nicely. ūüôā

And I’ve just recently (as in today) realised that… well, I can do that again! Those books that I’m waiting for the Kindle prices to drop so I can justify buying them? Well, I can get the¬†audio versions with my mostly-still-unused subscription!

Wow. Who knew?

Now I’m off to go and listen to some books…

Review: Charming

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Charming
Charming by Elliott James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was looking for something to fill in the wasteland before the next Jim Butcher book, and although Elliott James has a way to go before he reaches Butcher’s standard, I congratulate myself on having made a good decision when I picked this one up.

Characters
John Charming, sort-of-werewolf and definite bartender, is the main character. He’s on the run from the Knights, whose job it is to enforce the Pax Arcana, which is a spell enforced policy of leaving supernatural wotsits alone as long as they keep their heads down. Anyone sticking their head up gets it shot off. Being a werewolf is a career-ending state, and the knights would like it to be a life-ending state.

I liked John. He has a nice, self-deprecating sense of humour, and is tough without being an eye-rolling cliche. James puts him in quite a few situations, ranging from the embarrassing to the dangerous, and I enjoyed the way John reacted. Especially to the embarrassing ones. The man actually thinks with his brain rather than his… other parts. In some ways, that’s a pretty courageous decision on the part of the author; it means James actually has to put actual plot in place instead of just have the MC commit hormone-fuelled stupidity to move things along.

Sig, female, is the secondary character. I really liked Sig. If it’s rare to have a male MC who doesn’t commit testosterone-fulled stupidity, it’s even rarer to have a female character who manages to keep her brain operating all the way through the book and doesn’t fall over backwards as soon as a hot guy shows up. There was a lot to like about Sig: she’s intelligent, tough, and a leader.

There are other characters – Molly the episcopalian priest, Choo the exterminator and Man With Van, plus others – who all have their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. I seriously hope that James is building a team for keeps here, because I want to hear more about these people. It’s also noteworthy that the MC doesn’t immediately take over and start being better than every other character at what they do. The dynamics between all the characters felt reasonably realistic as a team.

The Plot
Was not terribly complicated. This is where James has a way to go before he reaches Jim Butcher’s standards. Still, it kept moving, and it kept me interested. The pacing suffered somewhat from a lot of exposition in the early stages, but picked up after that. I would recommend, if you’re a bit ambivalent about the first bits, that you carry on reading at least a third of the way through.

The World
James has some interesting ideas, and doesn’t just follow the usual urban fantasy tropes. It’s not as dark as The Dresden Files, but it’s not rainbows and unicorns either.

The Bad Bits
There honestly weren’t many. I could definitely have done without the heavy slugs of exposition, but hey, it’s the first book in the series, and I survived. Hopefully, he won’t see the need in future books.

And on the very, very last page, he did an irritating thing that actually appears on a couple of ‘reader pet peeve’ lists I’ve seen. But it was only one page and though it scraped across my mind like fingers across a blackboard, I survived that too.

The Verdict
This book didn’t exactly knock my socks off (four out of five stars, but only just), but it’s joined my list of good urban fantasy that I’m going to carry on with. Given the style of the book as a whole, I’m expecting that further books will improve as there is less need for exposition, and more room for plot.

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Review: The Death of the Necromancer

The Death of the Necromancer
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago – maybe when it first came out. It’s one that’s stuck with me, and when I saw the Kindle version on sale, I snapped it up.

I’m glad I did.

Some books, when you read them a second time, years later, have lost their lustre. This is not one of those books; I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time round.

So, what did I enjoy?

The Characters
All the characters are just a bit larger than life – the gentleman-thief, the actress, the sorcerer, the great detective, and so on – but not so much so that it disturbed the enjoyment of the story. They felt real – they lost their tempers, sniped at each other, and made mistakes.

The Plot
There’s an awful lot of running around, and a fair number of corpses. To be fair, I think the actual plot was the weakest point of the story, because there were a few holes in it, and things just got wrapped up a bit too neatly and too quickly at the end, but…

The Setting
I think this probably the main reason why Death of the Necromancer stayed with me for so many years. Wells writes the city of Ile-Rien vividly enough that I could see the dark, foggy streets in my head. It had weight and depth – it felt real.

Conclusion
Thinking on, this is the book by which I measure all other gaslight fantasy.

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Review: The Gate of Sorrows

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The Gate of Sorrows
The Gate of Sorrows by Miyuki Miyabe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is definitely Young Adult fiction – but it has a distinct lack of romance (let alone a love triangle featuring the protagonist) and a refreshingly low angst quotient. And at 600 pages or so, it’s about twice as long as your typical YA novel. I found myself wondering whether this book was unusual, or whether that’s just the way Japanese YA writers write. If the latter, Japanese Young Adults are very fortunate.

The Translation
I found the translation pretty good: there was only one instance in which an obviously wrong word was used (people don’t ‘audit’ a lecture unless they’re doing some kind of quality control, despite the fact that the root of ‘audit’ means ‘to listen’). Furthermore, the translation seemed to me to have kept the ‘Japaneseness’ of the setting and the people.

The Characters
Once again, this story is different from the general run because our hero (Kotaro) is just an ordinary 19-year-old student who gets involved in paranormal goings on. He’s not some kind of superhuman ‘chosen’, and he doesn’t have amazing powers. Nor is he the only one who can save the world. This means that the scope of the story is somewhat smaller, but it’s more realistic. Kotaro is dealing with issues that ordinary people deal with – although most people don’t get the paranormal angle.

Another interesting difference between this and many other YA books is that in this one, the adults aren’t all stupid and/or oblivious. People are people: they have their own concerns; they make decisions – good and bad; they live with the consequences. Kotaro is the main character, but he moves in a web of associations – friends, family, colleagues. It all felt refreshingly normal.

The Plot
There were at least two intertwining plot strands – the murders, and the school troubles of Kotaro’s younger sister’s friend. Both of these were very much in service to the book’s overall message: the power of words and communication, for good or for evil. There were definitely times that the author seemed to be speaking directly to the reader – which is one reason this is definitely pegged as Young Adult, in addition to the age and situation of the protagonist. That said, the author did put together an interesting plot – and I found that the pace definitely picked up in the last 25% of the book, as things start to come together. This is a long, slow read – but rewarding.

The Conclusion
Definitely a Young Adult book, rather than ‘adult’ as it’s labelled on Goodreads. However, refreshingly free from angst, and rather more thoughtful and less dramatic than most.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely – although YA isn’t a genre I enjoy as a rule. Would I read anything by this author again? Yes, if I can find an adult book translated into English.

Definitely several hours well-spent. ūüôā

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Review: A Discovery of Witches

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A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can definitely tell that this book was written by a historian – and an academic at that. Not only are there lots of bits of history in it, but the author’s love of learning, of acquiring knowledge, shines through. Not simply because Protagonist 1 (Diana) is an academic, and a historian of science at that (just like the author!), but Protagonist 2 (Matthew) is a centuries-old vampire. Interestingly, the author doesn’t chart his long life in terms of money, or power, or sex, but in terms of scholars known and books read and/or acquired. Similarly, Diana’s reaction to old manuscripts is entirely believable.

Many people don’t seem to like the amount of detail in this book – myself, I loved it. I loved the way Diana and Matthew discuss history, alchemy, genetics, the eating habits of wolves… It was a real treat to read two protagonists who are highly intelligent, very well-educated, and have an insatiable desire to learn.

The plot – well, there are two. The love story between Diana and Matthew, and whatever is going on with Ashmole 782. The first got rather more advancement than the second – I expect Books 2 and 3 will have more about the mysterious manuscript. If you are looking for a fast-paced plot with lots of excitement, this book is not for you. This is a slow-burn sort of book, and I expect the story will play out with a lot of finding of information, and putting together of puzzles, rather than explosions and car chases.

Urban fantasy done with academics.

I love it. ūüôā

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Review: 13 Bullets

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13 Bullets
13 Bullets by David Wellington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have not, hitherto, considered myself to be a reader of horror fiction – mostly because I’m a wimp and I don’t want to have nightmares. But I really enjoyed this one.

To be honest, it’s gory rather than scary, per se. Body count in triple figures, mostly courtesy of vampires who are actual monsters. These are not your wishy-washy sparkly vampires: these are predators. (Admittedly, I have a few minor quibbles with the way Wellington does vampires, but really, it’s his train set and he can play with it however he likes – and minor quibbles did not significantly detract from my enjoyment [during daylight hours] of the story.)

Laura Caxton, highway patrol trooper, makes an unpleasant discovery at a routine traffic stop – and gets conscripted as junior van Helsing by the United States’ best (only) vampire hunter: Special Deputy Arkeley. There must be something special about Laura, beyond the fact that she’s the only one who’s read Arkeley’s report of his last (only) vampire killing – mustn’t there?

The narrative follows the confused, scared Laura as she struggles to meet Arkeley’s expectations (if she can figure out what they are) and to work out why he wants her at all. And why the vampires seem to want her, too. I have never hunted vampires, but Laura’s reactions seemed to be pretty realistic – she goes through the gamut of this is cool/horror/fear/despair/terror/etc that a real person thrust into such a situation might do, rather than instantly becoming some kind of superpowered vampire killer. This was a nice change.

And I did like the twist at the end. Some might find it disappointing, but I thought it gave the whole book a new layer. You end up looking at the whole thing from a slightly different angle, and thinking yep, that’s life.

Thoroughly recommended.

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Writing for the in-crowd, or writing for everyone?

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Let’s say this right now: nerd culture/pop culture/geek culture leaves me cold. I read a graphic novel once (one of the Jim Butcher ones – so one of my favourite authors) and didn’t like it; I just ended up thinking “This would have been so much better as a real book.” Superheroes? Well, I saw¬†Batman¬†once. I think. Or maybe it was a trailer. There was a lot of dark and rain. I also saw one of the¬†Star Wars¬†films: there was desert. I’ve been forced to play tabletop games, when I couldn’t think of a sufficiently good excuse to avoid it.

I’ve been to sci-fi/fantasy conventions three times.¬†Never again.¬†The last one, the best day of the entire weekend was when I put my foot down and stayed in our room in the second-worst hotel I’ve ever encountered (the worst one was in Paris, on the edge of the red light district).

So, despite being a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy, my geek cred is zero.

I don’t think anybody writes urban fantasy better than Jim Butcher. And, of course, Harry Dresden‘s pop culture credentials are established pretty early on, with¬†Star Wars¬†references and then the weekly gaming sessions with the Alphas. That fits in well with Harry’s character; he isn’t just a vehicle for plot: he’s an actual person, with hobbies and a life outside the hell Butcher puts him through.

Lately, though, the pop culture references have been getting more frequent – a particular example is the Butters short story Day One, which makes a lot less sense if you don’t do roleplaying games. It’s possible to read it and more or less understand what’s going on, but it’s a bit like when I read in French: I can get the gist of the action, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the detail is going over my head, and I may be missing some important stuff.

For me,¬†Day One was the least-good story of Butcher’s that I had read up to that point, and I finished it with a dull sense of disappointment: Was that all? I also felt that a story that could have been pretty amazing – Butters the polka-playing medical examiner becomes a hero in his own right – flopped because poor Butters took a backseat to all the pop culture references in his own story.

And that, I think, is because I’m not in the target audience for it.

Day One¬†was written for people who¬†do¬†like the whole geek culture thing, who enjoy the constant gaming references. It is, essentially, a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef:¬†a book that sort of makes sense if you aren’t in the in-crowd, but in order to appreciate what the author is really doing, you have to be in the know. It’s also obvious that there are jokes and references that you (as a non-member) don’t get, so you¬†know¬†you’re in the out-crowd.

I think, as an author, it’s important to realise what you’re doing. Making fun references is one thing – Easter Eggs (see, I do know some of the terminology) for the in-crowd to find, to give them a little extra. However, the more numerous and plot-central these Easter Eggs are, the more likely they are to push the novel into¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef¬†territory, when the novel stops working for people who are¬†not¬†in the in-crowd.

If you want to write a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef, then go ahead. If you want to exclude a large part of your potential audience, that’s up to you – maybe the¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef¬†is the book of your heart, and you really don’t care that it will leave the out-crowd bemused (and probably less likely to read any more of your work). After all, you can’t please everyone, and it’s best not to try.

But know that that’s what you’re doing, and do it intentionally. If you’re going to write a¬†roman¬†√†¬†clef,¬†then write the best one you possibly can, and be damned to anyone else.

However, if it’s¬†not¬†your intention to exclude people who are outside your circle, then sprinkle your Easter Eggs with a light touch. After all, too much chocolate is bad for you!

 

Book Review: Oracle, by Susan Boulton

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Star rating:¬†‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Sometimes, you know you’re going to enjoy a book within the first page. This was one of those books; Boulton hooked me almost immediately. Her characters are likeable and well-drawn – she avoids the pitfall of making her villains too villainous to believe – and the plot is just what I like: politics and manoeuvring, rather than a lot of screaming and rushing around. (OK, I also like violence, but even then I like it to come with actual plot.)

Boulton’s world has a lot in common with late 19th-century England, just as the industrial revolution is really starting to kick in with the accompanying riots, but with some extra twists – a species of villeinage (“bond-servants”) seems to have survived (or been resurrected), but the monarchy has not, although the country is ruled by a hereditary aristocracy.

This was a solid four star read – at times, I thought it might even make five stars (which I don’t often give). There were only two things which let it down: firstly, the resolution seemed to come a little too easily to the characters. At a cost, yes, but still… And secondly, there was a definite feel that this would have done best as Book 1 of a series, or at least a duology. There is sufficient world-building for an excellent series, and also enough plot is left unresolved for certainly a second book. So much so that I do wonder whether that was Boulton’s original intention. If so, it’s a pity that she never wrote a follow-up.

A sense of place in fantasy

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Every book is set somewhere, whether that’s a quasi-medieval world or a space station or a modern city – or even in someone’s mind. An interesting question, though, is how much influence the setting has on the story being told. Lindsey Davis, who writes the Marcus Didius Falco and Flavia Albia historical detective series set in ancient Rome, particular dislikes “books set in Birmingham but you can’t tell that it’s Birmingham.” (Along with some other things – I went to a reading by Lindsey Davis (in Birmingham!) a year or two ago, and she was brilliantly funny.)

Jim Butcher was initially intending to set Harry Dresden in¬†Kansas City (Butcher’s hometown) but his writing teacher persuaded him not to, because it was too similar to Laurell K. Hamilton’s¬†Anita Blake¬†books set in St. Louis. He didn’t want to pick Washington DC because it would mean incorporating politics into the books and didn’t want New York because that’s where all the book editors live; he picked Chicago pretty much at random, and the rest is history… or fantasy. I remember reading that when Butcher started writing the¬†Dresden Files, he hadn’t even been to Chicago or really done any research on the city (the research came later). I don’t know how well Butcher portrays Chicago in general, but an important part of the¬†Dresden Files¬†books is ‘Undertown’ – supposedly the result of the original streets sinking into the swamp and then being built over. Butcher seems to have taken some creative licence there; Chicago does indeed have tunnels – the Pedway – but the first tunnel was built in 1951, as an underground pedestrian route between two underground railway lines. It just sort of expanded from there, without any real plan. A little different from Butcher’s version, although possibly nearly as mysterious! If Butcher had picked some other American town – Miami, maybe, or Philadelphia – would it have made any real difference to how the stories played out?

Right at the other end of the scale, you’ve got the urban fantasy classic¬†Neverwhere, where the nature of London permeates every page and London locations are vital to the story. If you set¬†Neverwhere¬†in, say, New York (or Chicago, or Miami), you’d end up with an entirely different story. Not only would the details have to change, but the feel of the story would have to change too. London has nearly two thousand years of history behind its mysteries, but New York is very much a new city.

Likewise, York (the original one) is only about thirty years younger than London, but the cities are now very different, so urban fantasy set in York would be different to London – and different again if set in Birmingham. Birmingham is a relatively new city – the first documentary evidence of its existence (as a manor worth 20 shillings) being in 1086, although a settlement is thought to have existed earlier. But although Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city, it’s only a seventh the size of London. It has a different feel to it – newer, less steeped in history, less sure of itself. Birmingham is still a provincial city, without the effortless superiority of the capital. It’s also a manufacturing town in an area hard-hit by the decline of heavy industry, not a political and financial centre. Brummies have made knives and guns and chocolate and jewellery, not financial crises and political scandals.

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy in Birmingham? Less politics, less glamour. People say a lot of things about Birmingham, but none of those things are, “if you want glamour, go to Birmingham.” You’d have to think,¬†why Birmingham? Because the house prices are cheaper? Do vampires care about that? Because it’s in the centre of the UK – that would work, but only if your characters had a reason to need to be somewhere in the middle of the country. What makes Birmingham special, and how can you bring that out as part of the story?

What would you get if you set an urban fantasy series in your town?

Book Review: Half-Made Girls, by Sam Witt

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Half-Made Girls

Star Rating:¬†‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Characters
Joe Hark is definitely a flawed hero, maybe even an anti-hero. He’s a violent alcoholic who shoots first and doesn’t bother to ask questions because he thinks he already knows the answers. Or he doesn’t care. But according to his lights, he’s doing the best he can to keep the darkness out of Pitchfork County – the job his father died doing.

Stevie Hark is as complex a character as Joe; her dark heritage is almost as big a barrier between herself and her husband as the curse her mother laid.

Interestingly, Joe and Stevie’s children – thirteen-year-old Alasdair and eight-year-old Elsa aren’t just the ciphers or cute comic relief that children often are in books. They have their own darkness and their own power, and take an active part in the story as something other than hostages to fortune.

I’m looking forward to reading more about these characters – especially Stevie. Sam Witt seems to be an author who writes women well – like Jim Butcher, he treats his male and female characters the same. Both get the same level of thought and development put into them, and there’s the same sense that they have history that the reader doesn’t know about yet.

Setting
I loved Pitchfork County. I wouldn’t want to live there, mind you. I wouldn’t even want to visit. But as a setting for a dark urban fantasy/horror novel, it works <i>really well</i>. It’s a place of grinding poverty, drug addiction, despair, and black magic, and it suits the storyline perfectly.

I’m British, so the setting of Pitchfork County is pretty alien for me: the nearest we have is probably run-down council estates, or pit villages where the closing of the pit left poverty and despair. Come to think of it, Pitchfork County is similar – just bigger. And with more black magic. Probably (but you never know). However, Pitchfork County is definitely quintessentially¬†American.

Plot
To be honest, this was the weakest aspect of the story – Joe does a lot of driving around shooting people, but not a great deal of thinking. This means that the plot isn’t as complex as it might be. However, the setting and characters are more than solid enough to make this a minor quibble rather than a dealbreaker.

I could have done with a bit more explanation – the girls are half-made, but what would they have been if they had been fully-made? Why does it make a difference? I suppose the problem is that Joe isn’t really the introspective type. Maybe future books will have more Stevie in them – she seems to be quite a bit brighter than her husband. ūüôā

Summary
The Pitchfork County¬†series has been compared with the Dresden Files¬†and while it’s closer to Dresden than some other series, if you’re expecting humour and pop-culture references, go elsewhere. This is dark, gritty, and violent in a way that the Dresden Files¬†books just aren’t. It’s closer to Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter books¬†(which aren’t available on Kindle in the UK, dammit).

This was a very solid four-star book for me – it didn’t quite have the zing that would have made it five stars, but I’ll definitely be reading more of Sam Witt’s work.