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Absent
Absent
Author: Katie Williams
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.4/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 2/26/2019


Pitch-perfect YA novella which, for once seemed to manage to be suitable for a mature teen, while offering something worthwhile for an adult reader. (Me, that would be me.)

Williams has done a clever, artful, beautifully written job of depicting the Hell that is high school -- well, as this is a YA book, and we have to watch our language, perhaps not the H-word, but definitely Purgatory or Limbo -- 17-year old Paige, the protagonist, is dead, the victim of a recent stupid, pointless accidental fall from the school roof. She joins two other former students who came to sticky ends on school grounds, in addition to the very confused ghosts of every frog that has ever been done to death in the school's biology classes. (A wonderful, hilarious touch, which Williams plays to great effect.)

Williams' has carefully thought through her concept: there are rules, and the three dead teens (and the frogs) must abide by them. As spelled out in the blurb on the cover, Paige discovers a work-around that allows her to communicate, sort of, with the living-- but it takes thought, and some frustration to achieve. In Williams' version of the Afterlife, like Life itself (and, come to think of it, high school) you have to know the rules if you're going to try to break them.

Williams' tone is flawless -- the voice of a smart, snarky teen, who is having to come to terms with her heartbreakingly abbreviated life, the mistakes she made, and all the things she's never going to get a chance to do. Watching friends -- and frenemies -- get on with their very living lives. It made me laugh out loud. And it moved me to tears.

And just at a point when you might start thinking, well, this is nice, but is it going to go anywhere -- it starts to go somewhere, very neatly and economically. And at the end, mysteries are solved, truths are faced ... to say anymore would be spoiling something that is relatively slight, but definitively worth reading.

Sorry, I'm not going to part with this one -- I'm saving it for my granddaughter, and I look forward to the day when I can share it with her.


After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Author: Nancy Kress
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 8
Review Date: 6/2/2018


Ultimately disappointing novella (novelette?), in which the huge questions and issues that Kress tries to tackle crushes the slight format. Questions are left unanswered, and characters are left undeveloped, which is fair enough for a slim volume of under 200 pages -- but as the title (possibly the best thing about it) suggests, Kress could have gone for so much more.


Alas, Babylon
Alas, Babylon
Author: Pat Frank
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 110
Review Date: 1/1/2018


There are two ways to review Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon." The first, as literature, would result in perhaps a 3-star rating: readable, but little in the way of verbal finesse or sophisticated character development. At least half-a-star of that would be for its accurate depiction of the attitudes (political, racial, gender) of a late 1950s small town in Florida.

The second way to approach "Alas, Babylon," and the one that results in my 5-star rating is as a faux-documentary, expertly designed to scare the Living Bejaysus out of you. Frank wasn't aiming for clever writing, or poetic imagery, or complicated narrative -- you could say that the text itself is a metaphor for his thesis, that in the aftermath of nuclear devastation of the kind he describes, the clever sophistications of life will mean nothing. Survival will depend, to a great extent, on luck -- the luck of your location, the luck of the community that surrounds you, and the luck of each individuals willingness to adapt, and let go of comfortable assumptions.

Supposedly, in the past year or so, the question has been asked, "If we have nuclear weapons why can't we use them?" I wish the person who asked that question would read this book, He won't, of course. Which is why Pat Frank's tightly written, almost journalistic vision of the aftermath resonates -- and should terrify us all -- as much as it did when he first wrote it.


All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries, Bk 1)
All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries, Bk 1)
Author: Martha Wells
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 25
Review Date: 8/6/2018


The Security Unit assigned to the planetary surveying mission should obey orders without question. Its primary directives should be to serve its clients without question, say only good things about the Corporation that has leased it (at vast expense) to the clients, and sit quietly in its recharging module when it is not required, waiting patiently for an opportunity to serve.

But this SecUnit has hacked its governor. Worryingly, it has renamed itself Murderbot, and it daydreams about Hot Robot Mass Murder. Fortunately for the clueless clients, at the moment, it's too busy watching "Sanctuary Moon," its favorite soap opera. It's downloaded all 700+ episodes, and it is very good at multitasking. But Murderbot's dreams -- whether of murder, or a quiet life -- are shattered when someone actually does start murdering the other survey teams on the planet.

Enjoyable and very entertaining novella. The mystery at the heart of the threat to life and limb for the plucky Murderbot and its team of planetary survey clients is a little thin. But the real pleasure here is Murderbot's snarky voice, and its interactions with the team, which become increasing complicated emotionally, as it realises that it has become invested in their survival.

Another quibble is that, for me, Wells could have done a bit more to make the eight humans more distinctive and differentiated -- I actually made a list of their names to refer to (yes, I know: sad, sad, sad.) but even so, by the end, I was still unsure whether one character was male or female.

But having said that, if there were ever a kick-starter to get this adapted for TV or film, with a good cast and production values, I WOULD SELL THE FAMILY SILVER. Just sayin' -- And I really need to see "Sanctuary Moon" -- preferably all 700+ episodes, but most especially "...the one where the colony's solicitor killed the terraforming supervisor who was the secondary donor for her implanted baby." That really sounds like my kinda soap opera ....


All That Remains: A Life in Death
All That Remains: A Life in Death
Author: Sue Black
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 3/4/2020


Fascinating, heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure, and not quite what I was expecting.

If you are hoping for a CSI-style "strange murder of the week" anthology, you may be sorely disappointed, because the subtitle is the give-away here: Professor Black has structured her overview of the art and science of forensic anthropology by answering the (impertinent) question, "how did a nice girl like you get into a job like this?" We learn about her family, pre- and post-mortem, her first job in a butcher shop, her college and medical school education, and her subsequent career. For each stage of her life she finds examples of how she first confronted death, or learned to cope with it, or developed the skills and mind set that allow her to do her job with the utmost professionalism and respect for the deceased and the loved ones they leave behind.

And, for me, it worked. It probably helps that I have become very tired with the "murder as entertainment" genre: Black never avoids or denies that death can come with a hearty helping of black humor, and that those who deal with it on a daily basis can use humor to keep their sanity. But every example she uses, however strange or however useful it is to illustrate her teaching points, is built on the foundations that this is someone's tragedy, and must be considered with respect.


All the Beautiful Lies
All the Beautiful Lies
Author: Peter Swanson
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 5/22/2020


A good/bad (or bad/good) thriller. A page-turner whose faults only come into high relief at the end, when This Reader, at any rate, was left thinking, Is that it?

Swanson is not stylist: his writing is clunky and oddly formal (things don't "happen," they "transpire"); his dialogue can sound like a nervous speaker addressing a town meeting, not the way people really talk to each other. He has never met a cliche he didn't like (Channelling the thoughts of his central character, a young man born and bred in New York City, he refers to "the asphalt island of Manhattan." Oh, yeah, that's how New Yorkers think of Manhattan. All the time.)

But for a good deal of the novel, it works, and it keeps those pages turning. It helps that the affectless prose is often very suitable for his characters, who are the oddest bunch of people you might ever (not) want to meet. The clunky dialogue, and odd word choice add to the sense that these are people who once read a how-to book on "being human." They have mislaid it, but they can remember the key points, and they can usually get by, pretending that they care about about other people, and understand their feelings.

It also helps that Swanson is excellent in his pacing, and organizing his narrative. Now, some reviewers have, unkindly, complained about little things like a "glacial pace" and "nothing happens" -- I loved it. I loved the way Swanson uses chapters labelled "Now" and "Then" to layer the narrative -- with the chapters from the past of step-mother and sudden widow Alice providing texture and real menace to otherwise bland details happening in the "now." I thought that was very nicely done.

So, why just 3-stars? Well, the clunky style begins to overstay its welcome, and feel more like, yeah, it's a flaw, not a strategic choice. In the final third of the novel -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- the careful layering disappears in a plodding dump of exposition: "this is what really happened." Unlike some reviewers, I liked the moral ambiguity, but I don't think Swanson is up to going all the way with the possibilities he sets up: this is no "Lolita." And the ultimately tying up of all the loose ends feels facile and disappointing ...

BUT it's a good read. Great airport read, if we ever get the chance to go on an airplane again. Great way to pass a few lockdown hours.


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 3/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 1/24/2017


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


An American Story
An American Story
Author: Christopher Priest
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 4/6/2019


Curious novel, which I can only describe as proselytizing for the 9/11 "truther" cause.

Readable and intriguing, which is only what you would expect from an author like Christopher Priest, but I can't say that, at the end, I felt either converted or uplifted.


Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, Bk 1)
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, Bk 1)
Author: Ann Leckie
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 6/3/2020


My second reading ... and once again, I am very impressed by the author's detailed and delicate world-building, but this time (perhaps not quite so dazzled by the imaginative pyrotechnics) a little underwhelmed by the lack of a strong, clear subtext to it all. To steal shamelessly from Gertrude Stein, I didn't come away with a sense that there is any "there, there" ...

I should, first and foremost, say that I loved this, and I'm looking forward to reading the sequels. And, perhaps, having done the heavy lifting of world-building and situation-setting, just perhaps future volumes will free Leckie to do more with the world she has built, and the situation she has set up. Leckie is to be complimented for giving this novel a satisfying, self-contained plot, and not resorting to that cheapest of cheap tricks, the "who didn't see that coming?" cliffhanger.

Perhaps future volumes will be able to do more with Why should we care?, and Why does this matter?, having so vividly established the world and the challenging social hierarchy that face the former ancillary Breq and the aristocrat-fallen-on-hard-times Seivarden. Both are, in their different ways, very satisfyingly fish out of water characters: Breq is the drone zombie-soldier (an ancillary) who has reluctantly, painfully been cut adrift as an isolated, independent individual when its primary personality, the massive troop carrier Justice of Toren, is destroyed in a fiendish plot to take over the Radch Empire. Seivarden is an arrogant young officer who once served on Justice of Toren, who has been in stasis for a thousand years, lost in deepest space when her subsequent command was destroyed and her escape pod went missing. She has been revived in a universe where her wealth and family connections have all vanished, and everything in the Radch Empire has changed out of all recognition. (She can't even understand the accents in the new Radchaai world she has woken up into.) Breq, who has made it her life's work to get revenge for the destruction of her Justice of Toren "self," its ancillaries and crew, and in particular one young officer who was her favorite, finds Seivarden when she has almost succeeded in getting herself killed through a combination of heavy drugs and poor life choices. Breq saves her, for reasons that Breq herself doesn't really understand (constantly reminding herself, "she had never been one of my favorite officers ..."), and together, this odd couple makes its way toward a face-off with the Lord of the Radch who is (and isn't, it's complicated ...) responsible for all this.

I really loved this, and trying to sum up the plot in less than a billion words, and without serious spoilers, has just reminded me just what fun it was, and how wonderfully Leckie has created a world of horrors and wonders, big McGuffins and small intriguing details. This is the Roman Empire, meets Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, meets the Padishah Emperors of "Dune," with an interesting bit of Ursula LeGuin's gender politics thrown in for good measure. This is Space Opera for the 21st Century, and it is rather wonderful.

BUT: I am holding fast with my 4-stars, because I still feel that Leckie isn't entirely in control of that (to me) all important question: what is it for? For Banks, it was the possibilities of true socialism in a post-scarcity culture, and the troubling ethics of doing bad things to achieve noble, admirable results. For Herbert, it was the environment, and the way that a back to basics, sustainable society might triumph over a high-tech, exploitative empire. For Leckie ... I'm not sure. But there are lots of great possibilities there, so I'll just have to see.


Anne Boleyn: The Final 24 hours
Anne Boleyn: The Final 24 hours
Author: Marcella Mayfair
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 2/6/2018


I was fully onboard with this interesting approach to popular history -- until the scene in which Anne apologies to her niece. That seemed like an abrupt shift from actions & dialogue supported by the evidence to a Tudor episode of Dr. Phil ...


The Anomaly
The Anomaly
Author: Michael Rutger
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 2/4/2019


A great read for the beach, or a long plane journey, or a day when you are snowed in. (Not on a holiday that involves caving, perhaps ...) There are flaws -- some that other readers might find deal-breakers -- but I found the writing sparky and intelligent, the characters are fun, and the situation is intriguing enough to keep those pages turning.

I was drawn to order this from the Library by the Grand Canyon setting, and the promise that nasty things would be revealed, hidden in the Canyon's Deep Time nooks and crannies, that lives would be endangered, life choices would be regretted, and all in all there would be lot of satisfying thrills and chills.

I started to doubt my choice when i saw the blurbs on the cover -- three out of four were from authors whose work I have tried recently, and deeply disliked. Uh-oh. And then there was the "For Fans of Dan Brown." I am NOT a fan of Dan Brown. And then there was the breathless idiocy of the summary, and strap lines (NOT ALL SECRETS ARE MEANT TO BE FOUND hoo boy.) Ten pages, I told myself. Ten pages, and then it can go back to the Library.

No one was more surprised than myself when I hit Page 10, and just kept going. Michael Rutger has a genuine talent for constructing charming characters, who are speaking funny, natural dialogue that sounds like the things that real, reasonably intelligent people with a history together would say. There are some genuinely thrilling moments. I have just suffered (partway) through two books that were well-reviewed, and had almost unreadably bad characterization, dialogue and pacing. Rutger knows how to write a sentence, and what the sentence is there for -- I worry that that is becoming almost a lost art.

The plot is about as silly as can be, but it didn't lose a point because of that: that comes with the territory. You don't read a book blurbed "For Fans of Dan Brown," expecting a documentary from the History Channel. No, I had to be honest, and firm with myself, and admit that pacing is a problem. We reach page 150 before anything starts to happen. I happen to enjoy a "slow burn," and I enjoyed the pages getting to the Grand Canyon, down into the Grand Canyon, and floating along the Colorado River. But I would understand -- and forgive -- anyone who reached page 150, screaming "just get on with it!!!"

And, as delightful as the snarky, peppy dialogue is, as things finally, begin to get a bit rough (Ha!) for our intrepid band, there are times when the wisecracking begins to wear thin, and I began to think that Mr. Rutger was just showing off. Bottom line: I think the novel could have easily been about 100 pages shorter -- yes, it would be sad, and there would have been some hard choices to be made -- but it would have been better, and stronger for that.

BUT -- this is highly recommended, with caveats, and Michael Rutger is an author I will be watching out for. Just to add -- one blurb (inside front cover) is spot on. From the Blessed R.L. Stine: "The suspense mounts slowly... slowly... Then the horror lingers for a long, long time."

Nailed it.


Another Fine Mess
Another Fine Mess
Author: Tim Moore
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 1/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 11/22/2019


Awful. Unengaging, unenlightening and unendearing ...

Possibly, in the hands of a different author, the idea-- driving across America in a Model-T Ford, following a route that visits counties that voted overwhelming for Donald Trump-- might have had potential. But this doesn't work, on any level.

Tim Moore, as our tour guide and intrepid traveller, is just annoying. A lot of the "hilarity" depends on his technical uselessness, and complete ignorance of the operation and maintenance of the Model T. When things go wrong, as they immediately do -- the car stalls, floods, proves difficult to manage, drinks oil and petrol like water, (and he can't figure out how to top up the water ...), this is all supposed to be "hilarious." What larks. He has prepared for his journey by watching a couple of YouTube videos, having a couple of 20-minute test drives, and keeping the guy who sold him the car on speed dial ...

This approach is not only insulting to the good-hearted people who repeatedly come to his aid, but it's an insult to the demographic that Moore is supposed to represent, the "wise-ass Limey liberal"-- who, as embodied by Moore, can't be bothered to do his homework, to dirty his hands, to show some self-reliance. As a wise-ass honorary limey liberal, I am insulted by this lazy excuse for an idea, and for a book.


The Art of Deception (Boldt / Matthews, Bk 8)
The Art of Deception (Boldt / Matthews, Bk 8)
Author: Ridley Pearson
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 79
Review Date: 10/3/2018


For my In House Thriller reader, this was the novel that made him finally lose patience with Pearson. Too much of the plot depends on characters doing stupid, unprofessional things. A great shame, because it was a series that started well ...


Ash & Bone: A Frank Elder Mystery
Ash & Bone: A Frank Elder Mystery
Author: John Harvey
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 12
Review Date: 3/14/2018


Excellent police procedural which handles its dark themes with great skill.


The Atrocity Archives (The Laundry Files)
The Atrocity Archives (The Laundry Files)
Author: Charles Stross
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2.5/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 9/7/2017


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.


Awakening
Awakening
Author: S. J. Bolton
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 21
Review Date: 11/7/2018


Another page-turner from Bolton. The lady seems to excel in mildly gothic plots, that are genuinely creepy; good local color and a satisfying ending.


Beast In View
Beast In View
Author: Margaret Millar
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 11/12/2018


Interesting example of 1950s psychological thriller. If you enjoy Hitchcock movies such as Vertigo, Marnie, or Spellbound, you might enjoy this.

Sadly, I've never warmed to Vertigo, and I had the same problem with this: its psychology seemed wild-eyed and over-heated, but at the same time, somehow, very innocent; its thrills were rendered obvious by 60+ years of similar "big twists."

As an unsettling glance back at life in mid-1950s America, it is the literary equivalent of a rather nasty fly caught in amber -- be prepared for casual racism, sexism, homophobia ... But it's clear that Millar was a talented writer, and captured the world just as it was.


Before the Poison
Before the Poison
Author: Peter Robinson
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 2/6/2019


My husband, the In-House Thriller Expert, enjoyed this well enough, although he warned me that this stand-alone novel (not one of Robinson's Inspector Banks series) seemed a little, shall we say, aimless and self-indulgent. I didn't like it, and abandoned it about about 100 pages, convinced that it doesn't get any better. My main problem with Robinson (something I have noticed in the Banks books, too) is padding: TMI. If I have to read one more pointless description of what he ate, where he stayed, where he parked ...

Splitting the difference between his 3-stars and my 1 star ...


Behind Her Eyes
Behind Her Eyes
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 2/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 6/15/2017
Helpful Score: 1


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.


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