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.
I gave up on this book after about 70 pages. It wasn't the jargon that tried my patience, as with some negative reviewers -- a well-plotted novel can make the most esoteric jargon feel like wallpaper, something you make a note of and glide past as you get where the author is going.
No, what finally made me give up was the realization that Stross was mistaking world-building for plot. The narrator grumbles about how hard his job is. This is supposed to be cute because he does it with lots of jargon and pop culture references. See, you're smart, just like the narrator. He goes home and grumbles about how hard it is to live with roommates who are in his line of work. He goes into the office, and grumbles about how hard it is to do his job when his supervisors are such job's-worth jerks. Finally, around page 50, Our Hero is sent out into the field, and I thought we were getting to a PLOT -- but no. The assignment goes pear-shaped, Narrator returns to base in ignominy and ... we're back to the grumbling, the jargon, the cute pop references, and I'm outta here.
Awful, simply awful. After a couple of chapters (in which the author mistakes short, choppy chapters for building tension ...), I skipped to the end, just to find out what the "twist" was. What a load of codswallop.
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.
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.
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.)
Once again, a report from the In-House Mystery & Thriller Expert: we both read a couple of Carol O'Connell Mallory novels back in the 90s, and lost patience with the super-human Mallory (brilliant, beautiful psychopath who is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Just as brilliant, beautiful psychopaths always are ...) I recently picked this up at the library for the IHM&TE, thinking that the author's name sounded familiar. He dutifully plowed through it, but he says that, in this the 12th Mallory novel, she has, if anything, become even more smug, annoying and ... psychopathic ...
The story of how one lost little boy has his soul saved by his quest through the tropes of a dark, dismal fairyland landscape. A reworking of some of the most famous fairytales, deeper, darker versions that sweep away the prettified, Disneyfications that we think we know so well, and restore the danger, power (and violence) of the originals. Like the wonderful Broadway musical and movie "In the Woods," the power of the tales are enhanced by the mash-up of characters (Rumpelstiltskin, meet Sleeping Beauty!), and a return to their violent roots (this Sleeping Beauty has sharp teeth ...)
This grew on me as I read on: I found the opening chapters, in which David loses his mother and has to adapt as his father remarries and presents him with an unwanted half-brother, a bit resistible. David seems like a very young twelve-year-old. (The ghost of myself at 12 -- who considered herself quite a grown up woman of the world -- bitterly resents babyish depictions.) Some elements of his grief at his mother's death feel like the way a pious adult would think a child should feel.
It got much better SPOILER when David passed over to the blighted fairyland, set to work saving himself, solving the mystery of the blight that had befallen the kingdom, and finding his way home. There was some humor, some lightness of touch, SOME recognition of the absurdity of it all. The ending was genuinely touching and, like all the best fairytales, the "happily ever after" was relieved by a good dose of reality.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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 ...)
Sad, but very interesting account, of a great tragedy in the family history of the author: in 1919, Busby's great-grandmother drowned her twin newborn daughters while in the grip of what was probably postpartum psychosis. Busby uses the story of Beth Wood and her family's tragedy as the launching point for a memoir/family history/social history which examines pressures in the lives of mothers from the mid-19th century to today.
This is a flawed book, but it's very worthwhile, and on the whole very readable. (I feel almost as if it's unfair to overemphasize negative feedback, as the author herself died in 2012 -- and she's in no position to respond!) The narrative suffers from poor organization, skipping around too much in time -- moving almost at random from Beth Wood, to her grandparents and parents, to the subsequent effect that the tragedy had on Woods' son Reg (a teenager, on the brink of adulthood when his two baby sisters died), and even to Busby's own experience of a difficult childbirth. I used the clumsy label "memoir/family history/social history" deliberately, as I felt that she might have been trying to accomplish too much, and occasionally lost sight of what a reader might find important and interesting in her great-grandmother's sad story.(I think the truly talented memoirist/historian learns what to leave out ...)
However, the material is fascinating, and the research that Busby did-- both personal history, family history, and social, historical research -- was intensive: by sharing the sad story of her great-grandmother, Busby brings alive an account of pressures on women, and women who become mothers.
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 ...?)
OK, how embarrassed am I to admit I've just read this? ... Not at all actually. I've tended to steer away from military SF (damaged by Starship Troopers at a tender age) but the premise of this intrigued me: the hero of a legendary "last stand" is discovered alive, floating in space, in stasis, and discovers that he must simultaneously live up to his heroic reputation while saving his new comrades (who could be his great-grandchildren) from the stupid macho heroics that are the twisted legacy of his legend. Imagine George Armstrong Custer were to be discovered alive -- and turned out to be a nice guy, with a conscience.
It helps that this is well-written -- while the secondary characters are a leetle cardboard, the psychology of Black Jack himself -- awakened to find that everyone he knew and loved is dead, and he is the focus of a personality cult -- is not bad at all. Now can the next five books int he series live up to this good read?
Excellent: Larson does for the Lusitania and its tragic end what Walter Lord did in the 1950s for Titanic: provide detail and context. Larson has the additional advantage that, while the doom of the Titanic and its passengers was more cock-up that conspiracy, the Lusitania was almost certainly the victim of the machinations of British politicians like Winston Churchill to get the neutral and isolationist USA into World War I. If, like me, you feel that the history we were taught in school bears little resemblance to the complications and nuances of how it actually might have happened -- this is the book for you.
My one complaint (and I read this on my kindle, so this may only apply to that edition): where are the pictures? Larson's descriptions of doomed and saved passengers and crew are very vivid, but I would have liked to see for myself.