Maura (maura853) - , - Reviews

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All the Birds in the Sky
All the Birds in the Sky
Author: Charlie Jane Anders
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 4/6/2017


I wanted to like this. I really did. I am familiar with CJA's work for io9 -- her columns on movies, fiction and the State of SF brightened many a morning. And, with the opening chapters of this book, I thought I was on to a winner -- a book like Lev Grossman's "The Magicians" which took the "child magician" phenomenon, looked at it coolly, and in the context of other pop culture phenomenons, did something interesting. I even liked the absurdities -- the unnaturally abusive parents, the "Dotheboys Hall" schools, the unrelenting attentions of the mean kids -- not fun, but very appropriate for a fairy tale, and who said fiction was always supposed to be fun, anyway?

But once Delphine (the apprentice magician who will save the world) and Laurence (the apprentice nerd who will save the world) have grown up, I found their further adventures dreary and very difficult to care about.


Almost True Confessions: Closet Sleuth Spills All
Almost True Confessions: Closet Sleuth Spills All
Author: Jane O'connor
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2.5/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 1/24/2017


Very disappointing follow up to "Dangerous Admissions," which showed a lot of potential.


Birdcage Walk
Birdcage Walk
Author: Helen Dunmore
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 5/7/2017


Out of the unpromising material of a headstone inscription and a few lines from a scrap of a letter, Helen Dunmore has created a beautifully written and constructed novel that tells the story of the most dramatic and heartbreaking months of a young woman's life. While the "great events" of the early days of the French Revolution unfold three hundred miles away, Lizzie Fawkes endures loss and makes discoveries that could destroy her. This novel is a fascinating reminder that each and every life is a drama: every one of us has a story to tell, that the "great" personalities and events of history have no monopoly on drama, terror and grief.

Like Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," Dunmore's sense of period and tone is impeccable: she hits exactly the right balance between characters who feel very real and relatable, while at the same time are obviously products of a different time. (For example, Lizzie's placid acceptance of her husband's controlling abuse: when she married him, she became his property, and she accepts that it's her obligation to adapt to his demands, whatever they are.)

Dunmore's Afterword provides a fascinating glimpse into her methods, and her theme: the way that fiction can save forgotten lives from being lost in the background noise of history.


Birthday Boys
Birthday Boys
Author: Beryl Bainbridge
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 3/20/2017


If you are new to the story of Robert Falcon Scott, and his four companions, who were beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and died in their attempt to get back to home base, then this novel isn't the place to start. (One place to start: "The Worst Journey in the World," by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of Scott's final expedition.) This novel consists of five first person stream of consciousness "reflections," which depend on some knowledge of the legend of the tragedy, and its key characters: the "noble" leader Scott; scientist Wilson; plucky, gung-ho team player "Birdie" Bowers; taciturn, self-sacrificing Oates; and the "gentle giant" (and only representative of the non-officer class) Petty Officer Evans.

Without knowing the cliches that these five men were turned into, in the "Boy's Own" fairytale that their disastrous mission became in the 100+ years since their death, I don't think it would be obvious just how cleverly Bainbridge puts flesh on bones that hero-worship had stripped of most of their humanity. While revisionist histories put the blame squarely on Scott, as a poor leader who made very bad choices, Bainbridge does a remarkable job of channeling the voices of the five, demonstrating how the weaknesses of each one (and even their strengths) contributed to the tragedy. And at the same time, she gives credit to the power of the legend, leaving the reader with a sense of profound sadness that such good intentions and --yes, let's be old fashioned for a moment -- nobility should have ended so badly. I'm greatly looking forward to Bainbridge's take on the Titanic ("Every Man for Himself") -- another tragedy that might have ended very differently if only one person in a position of authority had thought for a moment and said, "Hey, wait ...."

So if you're familiar with the story of Robert Falcon Scott, I highly recommend this novel for its canny insights into the characters involved, and how an expedition that was supposed to demonstrate an Empire's strength of technology and character went so badly wrong. And if you are new to the story of Robert Falcon Scott ... it's a great story. And this wonderful novel will be waiting for you.


Black Dog
Black Dog
Author: Stephen Booth
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 2/12/2017


Very readable, well-written, and the locale is very evocative of the wonderful setting of the Peak District in Derbyshire. But I'm hoping for better as this series gets into its stride.

Other reviewers have (quite rightly, I think) commented on how the author tries too hard to make the female half of the detecting pair "complicated" -- I don't mind unlikable, but DC Diane Fry's moodiness and sullen assumption of the worst in everyone says more "psychotic cow" than "complicated" ... The fact is, we eventually learn that the woman has very good reason to be defensive and depressed, and the authors "cute" drip-feed of her backstory belittles that. While, dare I say it, her reluctant partner, DC Ben Cooper's personal problems and personality quirks just make him seem more real and likable.

Another thing I found very worrying -- Possible SPOILER (but I think this becomes obvious from an early stage in the novel) -- is what I would describe as "victim blaming." The victim and her family are not nice people, and that's ok. But there's a relatively superficial attitude to the murder, and her family's grief that rings very false.

This review started at 4 stars, and I've talked myself down to 3. I think I'd better stop ...

(Just an additional aside: Diane Fry is NOT Ben Cooper's "sidekick"!! I think it's to the author's credit that he really is trying to depict a partnership of equals -- two detectives whose personalities and talents balance each other out, and even causes friction.)


Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death
Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death
Author: Brenna Hassett
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 2/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 5/3/2017


I love archaeology. And I don't mind non-fiction books in which the author's opinions and personality are given a place in the narrative. Done properly, treating the research as the author's journey can lighten up the dry facts and science. However ... Did I say "done properly"?

I had to give up about half-way through when I realized that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that Dr. Hassett won't footnote. Jokey asides about pop culture? Shout outs to friends, colleagues, rivals? Paleographic in-jokes (usually of the not-very-funny "you had to be there" kind)? What she ate, what she wore, how she slept on any number of digs she has participated in? Yes, yes, yes and YES.

Or should I say, no, no, no and NO! The lady is obviously very knowledgeable, but a misunderstanding about how much we want to know about her subject, and how much we what to know about her, constantly get in the way. What could have been an interesting study of the impact of our distant ancestors' somewhat questionable decision to take up agriculture and cluster together in villages and cities became an impossible read.


Burn
Burn
Author: James Patrick Kelly
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 3/17/2017


I discovered James Patrick Kelly when I read his amazing novella "Mr. Boy." In "Burn" (which I think I would describe as novelette), Kelly demonstrates all of his usual flair in worldbuilding -- creating a future, an alien planet, and a social system that is both familiar and satisfyingly strange. The world of Morobe's Pea, the Transcendent State, the character of Spur and his fellow strivers for "simplicity," the sort-of alien L'ung, and their leader, the High Gregory, are absolutely fascinating. Where I felt that "Burn" was less than satisfying was the plot: in spite of a lot happening (forest fires, terrorism, treachery and the tantalizing possibility of romance with what seemed like a sexy spider lady!), it felt thin, and the big "reveal," (trying to avoid spoilers here) could be seen coming AND (more important, in my opinion), left more interesting questions unanswered. But I think leaving you wanting more is deserving of 4 stars ...


Chasing the Dead
Chasing the Dead
Author: Tim Weaver
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2.7/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 12/29/2016


My in-house expert on thrillers and murder mysteries tells me that this is very poor -- starts well, but the plot becomes very implausible; writing and dialogue is very wooden.


The Crimson Petal and the White
The Crimson Petal and the White
Author: Michel Faber
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 344
Review Date: 11/8/2016


There are many, many reviews of this novel, so I won't try to go over the same territory covered by those who love it or hate it. I will just try to explain why I have mixed feelings -- obviously, I didn't "hate" it, because I kept reading right to the bitter end, and I found it a real page-turner. and a quite impressive piece of work.

But ...

I didn't LOVE it ... I wasn't bothered by the length. As other reviewers have said, the length, the level of everyday detail and the leisurely development of character and situation, makes this novel an immersive experience. Nor was I overly bothered by the graphic sexual content that some readers complain about. (Look, if you pick up a book about Victorian prostitutes, um, what do you expect?) Yes, perhaps, "yuck" -- but isn't that the point? We only have to read about it, Sugar and women like her had to live through it or starve.

I think my mixed feelings arise from a sense that Faber was just showing off: "I'm doing this (900 pages, intrusive narrative voice, very graphic sex scenes) just because I can ..." By the end, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to take away from it -- about Victorian prostitutes, the ambitions of women in a repressive society, about the importance of storytelling -- except that Michel Faber is very, very clever.


Crown of Blood
Crown of Blood
Author: Nicola Tallis
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 5/19/2017


Fascinating topic, well-researched, but the author has been poorly served by her editor/publisher: frequent use of awkward phrasing and misused words, assuming (I suppose) that it sounds "posh." (Things don't "happen," they "transpire." On almost every ...single ...page ...)


Dangerous Admissions: Secrets of a Closet Sleuth (Miranda Bookman, Bk 1)
Review Date: 1/24/2017


I enjoyed this: I thought it got the Upper West Side Manhattan "vibe" just right. The central character was sassy, and at least recognized when she was being dumb, putting herself in harm's way. The mystery at the heart of it was thin, but pleasing enough to put her though her paces, and put her in the way of a handsome NYC cop. (How can you hate any novel that features a handsome NYC cop ...?)


Death Wears a Mask (The Amory Ames Mysteries)
Death Wears a Mask (The Amory Ames Mysteries)
Author: Ashley Weaver
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 3/26/2017


Slight, but enjoyable as a quick read. The author has clearly done her homework on the lifestyle of a fashionable 1930s London couple.


Decay Inevitable
Decay Inevitable
Author: Conrad A Williams
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 1.5/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 11/27/2016


I second Lionel G.'s review -- I read a lot of SF, fantasy and horror, and I have a pretty strong stomach (I lasted to Season 4 of "the Walking Dead"), but this was just gratuitously nasty.


The Devil's Playground
The Devil's Playground
Author: Stav Sherez
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 3/16/2017


My in-house reader of thriller and detective fiction, who never gives up on anything, gave up on this 1/3 of the way through. He cited a plot that piles implausibility upon implausibility, and poor writing (with pretensions to artiness).


Himself: A Novel
Himself: A Novel
Author: Jess Kidd
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 3/14/2017


I loved this novel. Full disclosure: I love novels with ghosts, handsome Irishmen, Irish wit and whimsy, J.M. Synge's play "The Playboy of the Western World," and, well, Ireland. (Not necessarily in that order.) Kidd balances the wit and whimsy with enough darkness, and awareness of Ireland's demons (I like that too) to stop this modern-day fairy tale becoming too precious, or trivializing a painful subject.

I happened to be reading this just as news broke in Ireland that the remains of 800-odd babies and infants had been discovered in a cess-pit beneath a former home for unwed mothers in Galway. Take whatever comfort you can from the thought that "Himself" suggests what might have happened if one of those babies had survived, and returned to the village of his birth, to avenge the appalling treatment of his teenage mother.

Right so.


How to Survive the Titanic, Or, the Sinking of J
How to Survive the Titanic, Or, the Sinking of J
Author: Frances Wilson
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 2/12/2017


A disappointing account of an interesting subject. For anyone who will read anything Titanic-related, there might be enough here to keep you happy (perhaps, periodically throwing the book across the room in disgust. There are some pretty blatant factual errors, some claims that don't make sense, as well as some astonishingly poor writing and proofreading.)

If you are a Titanic-obsessive (like me), you will know that J. Bruce Ismay was the President of the White Star Line, the company that owned Titanic. Ismay would have been instrumental in pushing through major construction and equipment decisions, such as the shortage of lifeboats. (Ismay is on record as ordering the minimum allowed by law, as a full complement of lifeboats would have "cluttered up" the boat decks, spoiling the promenade space ...) A passenger on the ill-fated maiden voyage, Ismay had to live with accusations of cowardice for the rest of his life, after he secured for himself a place on a lifeboat while there were still over 1000 men, women and children left on the vessel, facing a horrible death. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, evidence suggests that he instructed the Captain to run Titanic at full speed, in spite of the ice warnings that had been received, and otherwise distracted and bullied the professionals.

Where Wilson really succeeds, in my opinion, is in convincing me that it's worth considering the facts of the disaster -- from construction of the vessel to the frustratingly weak investigations that followed its sinking -- from the perspective of Ismay's life, his family (he inherited the White Star business from his demanding and unsympathetic father), and his personality. This perspective not only adds an interesting dimension to information that has been well-know and discussed since Walter Lord's groundbreaking book, "A Night To Remember," but also brings out some details that have been lost in the background noise (for example, I knew Ismay had the final word about the number of lifeboats, but the added detail that he didn't want them cluttering up the decks raises it to a whole new level of stupid.) However, the book's authority is undermined by factual errors, of the sort that the most basic research (Wikipedia?) could have corrected. (For example, the iceberg did =not=, as the author claims, slice open a 300 foot gash in Titanic. Current wisdom is that the side-on impact with the 'berg, combined with a fire raging in the ship's coal bunkers, caused rivets to pop along the length of the ship. Did I mention that I'm a Titanic obsessive?)

My theory is that the author wasn't really interested in Titanic. I don't think she was really that interested in Bruce Ismay. As you read on, you discover that this is actually a book about Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel "Lord Jim." For Wilson, Ismay is the real-life embodiment of the ill-fated title character, a mariner who has to live with loss of honor and status, and a crushing awareness of his own failings as a human being, because of the poor choice he makes to abandon a sinking ship (and its 800 helpless passengers).

It's an interesting enough angle: Conrad's disgraced character, and the circumstances that lead to his disgrace, have enough parallels with Ismay for a nice, "spooky" convergence with reality. And Conrad's insights into the way that the threat of death can strip us of our noble, heroic assumptions about ourselves are well-worth considering. But Wilson hammers away at it, using the "Lord Jim" coincidence far more than it really can bear, and using it in place of real analysis. (Why did Ismay jump on a lifeboat? Why, because he was just like Jim, of course. How did he try to explain himself in the aftermath? Well, Jim said ... How did he live with the disgrace? Well, the way Jim handled it ...) Instead of being an interesting "grace note" in Wilson's analysis, she uses it in place of real analysis.

Bruce Ismay was, I think, many things: deeply pathetic. A victim of his own poor upbringing, lack of imagination, and inflated assumptions about his place in the world. Whether any of us would have behaved better than he did, we can never know: not unless we have stood on the deck of a rapidly sinking ship, filled with frightened people, and watched a lifeboat with one empty space being lowered in front of us. So whatever his sins, Bruce Ismay at least deserves to be understood, rather than judged. And I'm afraid this book is a limited step toward that understanding.


In Milton Lumky Territory
In Milton Lumky Territory
Author: Philip K. Dick
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 7/1/2015


I picked this up from a remaindered book table because of the magical name "PKD." And as I am having a big clearout of my books, I decided to "read and release" when I realized that it was one of Dick's lesser known output -- a mainstream novel, and one that was unpublished during his lifetime. Knowing something of Dick's life and career, I know that he yearned, all of this life, to be taken seriously as a writer, and not-so-secretly considered his SF work to be an obstacle to that serious recognition. So I started this novel fearing the worst (just think of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was ashamed of the wonderful comic operas he wrote with Gilbert, and placed all of his hopes for eternal fame on the tedious, justly forgotten serious operas he wrote ...) --

But I was pleasantly surprised. This might not appeal to anyone who isn't a fan of PKD's SF work (Unless you are fascinated by late 1950s Idaho, and the plight of commercial reps, your reaction might be "huh"?) but "Milton Lumky" had enough of the offbeat Dick style, characterization and attitude that I know and love. As a period piece (again, 1950s Idaho) it's interesting and well done, and the plight of the three main characters, who yearn to find their American Dream, but just keep undermining themselves, is actually quite touching.

And in the end, I was delighted to note -- you just can't keep a good SF writer down! If you read this novel, and find the ending baffling, (trying to avoid spoilers, here) just remember Dick's wonderful alternative history "The Man in the High Castle." Mainstream and "realistic" it might be, but it's still all very Dickian ....


Kill Your Darlings
Kill Your Darlings
Author: Terence Blacker
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 1/24/2017


Very dark and very, very funny story of has-been (if he ever was) literary darling Gregory Keays -- a man who puts the added "unreliable" in your unreliable narrator. The less you know, the better you will enjoy it, but it might help to say a couple of things: Gregory is an APPALLING human being. Please don't let that put you off -- keep reading, there will come a moment when ... no, I can say no more.

My only other advice: if you have ever taught a creative writing class, or have been forced to suffer through a bad creative writing class, you might want to put aside hot beverages or sharp objects as you're reading. You might do yourself an injury ...


The Last Hot Time
The Last Hot Time
Author: John M. Ford
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 9
Review Date: 2/24/2017


Learning that this novel is set in the the Terri Windling-Emma Bull-Will Shetterly-etc. "Borderland" shared-universe explained a lot: I felt that there was a fascinating world to be explored here, but the author was coasting, letting the knowledge he assumed the reader would have do the work for him. As someone who hasn't read any other Borderland stories, I found the descriptions of the world -- the magic of the areas affected by elven magic, and the hints about the dystopian world the central character is escaping from -- either ploddingly encyclopedic, or frustratingly offhand.

I finally gave up on it because, in a narrative in which a lot happens, I couldn't see anything like a plot developing. Page after page goes by in which Doc, our innocent young protagonist, is introduced to one exotic and slightly shady denizens of this magic-infested realm after another. We learn what they're wearing, what they're eating, and drinking, what they're singing. (Central to the action is a 40s-style nightclub, complete with top-hatted doorman and tuxedo'd waitresses.) Each one patiently explains his or her backstory, and "powers," someone fires a tommygun, Doc patches someone up ... and then he meets someone else. It's like the first day at a very puzzling internship, when you've been told everything about the switchboard and the coffee machine, but nothing about what the business actually does.

Perhaps they all come together, and something happens. I just didn't find it interesting enough to wait and find out.


The Lewis Man: The Lewis Trilogy
The Lewis Man: The Lewis Trilogy
Author: Peter May
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 3/14/2017


There may follow SPOILERS for the first book in this trilogy, "The Black House," but I strongly suggest that anyone wishing to read this novel should read that first.

Although there were aspects of "The Black House" that annoyed me (structure and psychology), I enjoyed it sufficiently that I couldn't wait to get my hands on this, the second volume. I won't be reading the third: in "The Lewis Man," May doubles down on what I felt were the faults in the first, and loses control of what I felt was its great strength -- its fabulous presentation of the beauty and savagery of the Isle of Lewis and those who live on that wild edge of the British Isles.

In the first novel, I think May got the balance of plot and setting just about right: scenery, language, geography, weather, wildlife. All, in their way, part of the plot -- the murder that brings police inspector Fin Macleod back to the island of his birth) and the history (personal and community) that drove him away, and makes it so hard for him to return, are all interwoven with the things that make the Hebrides unique.

In "The Lewis Man," I felt that May was once again trying for that "sweet spot," where local color is as important as character and plot, and badly missing the mark. It reads at times as if he was writing it with a "Beginners' Guide to the Hebrides" open at his elbow. There is one painful moment when our hero takes time out from his sleuthing to retell the plot of the movie "Whiskey Galore," when he passes through the village where the real-life events of the movie took place. I had the feeling that May had his character go into the local pub for a lemonade just so the girl behind the bar could say, "You know that movie ..."


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