Archives for category: 3/5

This novel is a snapshot in time recording a turning point in the life of both the author and the publishing industry she feels drawn to.

My Salinger Year

Rakoff recounts how she mystifies her practical and scientific family by taking on a job at a literary agency in New York where the pay doesn’t even really cover her basic costs of living. She also mystifies her friends by leaving her college boyfriend to start a relationship with an older wannabe writer with financial means that match his socialist views of the world.

Rakoff’s boss at the agency barely acknowledges her existence and Rakoff is forced to battle antiquated technology and practices that retain an atmosphere not unlike a museum. The new boyfriend is self absorbed and frugal to the point of being mean.

Despite these obvious issues, Rakoff is determined to continue her life as is, striving to become the interesting person she has always wanted to be — a writer.

Her denial of how unhappy her decisions make her echoes the agency’s denial of the changing world: it thinks the photocopier is a newfangled invention, refuses to buy its employees computers, and won’t sign contracts for its authors that make any mention of digital rights.

The agency’s guiding star is its most famous client, JD Salinger. The agency seems to revolve around pleasing him — he is the mosquito stuck at the centre of its amber time warp. His influence also becomes a defining lens for Joanna to view her life through and ultimately provides the impetus she needs to decide what she really wants.

There’s a certain lyricism to some of the scenes in this book, but mainly the thing I enjoyed about it were the questions it raised about love, life and writing. Yet no answers are forthcoming on any of these issues. The reader has to make up their own mind.

I’m going to give it a 3/5.

This book inspired equal parts envy, admiration and disdain.

wild

Envy because taking months out of my everyday life to go and hike a long distance trail like Strayed did is the sort of thing I dream of but am not ready to do. The implications in terms of lost revenue and career damage are too significant.

Admiration because walking over 1,000 miles carrying your food and accommodation on your back is a massive feat.

I’ll explain the disdain part in a moment.

Strayed was not Cheryl’s original last name. It was one she chose after divorcing a man she still loved. Her marriage had disintegrated in the years following her mother’s death from cancer — a shock that sent Strayed’s life into a tail-spin involving sex and drugs.

After aborting an unintended pregnancy, Strayed hits a turning point. A chance sighting of a guidebook in a store decides her to walk a large section of the Pacific Crest Trail — a hard-core hike across California, Oregon and Washington.

We travel with Strayed on this journey as she gradually overcomes the hardships of the walk and re-centres herself mentally.

Strayed’s writing is entertaining and engaging. The fact that no hindsight leaks into the story is admirable. We see what she saw at that stage of her life. We feel what she felt. We experience the wilderness through eyes that look on its stark openness for the first time. She doesn’t labour the changes that are happening to her mental state throughout her journey. The alterations are gradual and believable — unencumbered by armchair-psychiatry-style dissections of how the journey brought her back from the brink of ruin.

I could understand how easy it was for her life to go off the rails at the start of the book. Looking back at my life, I can see that mine could have gone the same way had I not made certain pivotal choices before it was too late. Other things she did, however, I found very difficult to read.

She plans ahead and purchases the necessary items for the trail — pack, boots, camping stove etc — and sets up packages to be mailed to herself at the trail checkpoints. But in other ways she is woefully unprepared.

For someone who is about to walk 1,000 miles in the middle of nowhere, not putting on new boots for a trial-run before setting out seems foolhardy. Not packing your bag or trying it on until just before you leave is stupid too. Especially if it turns out you can barely lift the bag, let alone walk with it.

Despite these problems, Strayed departs and is soon facing the wilderness in all its dangerous glory. Walking the trail alone, she is terrified of the potentially life-threatening and also definitely not life-threatening wildlife. Yet the critters do not cause her largest problems. The conditions — desert heat and mountain snow — do that admirably. Strayed’s inadequate preparation shines through each of her crises.

My intense pragmatism was shocked by her decision to walk down a trail with only just enough water to reach a water source that had been known to be unreliable. Ditto for her belief that she could cross mountains that may be covered in snow without beforehand learning how to use a snow-axe. Or her decision to hike along an at times poorly marked path by herself without understanding the principles of using a compass to navigate.

Strayed was lucky. She didn’t end up a dehydrated corpse to be discovered by another hiker on the trail. Nor did she wander off the path to either die or be found by long-suffering emergency services staff.
In Australia, we are constantly hearing stories of tourists (and locals) who underestimate how inhospitable our beautiful country can be. Even experienced hikers sometimes have to call in the cavalry. Our search and rescue teams are the ones who brave dangerous conditions to find and save the under-prepared. They put their lives on the line and waste wads of public cash to save those who couldn’t be bothered to put the effort into keeping themselves safe.

I know Strayed’s book will inspire people looking for meaning in their lives to try her extreme wilderness cure. Many of them will have indescribable experiences that change the way they think and make them into better people. I just hope, for their sake and the tax payers’, that they are better prepared than she was.

These bitter thoughts tainted Strayed’s words for me. That’s why I’m going to give her book a three out of five.

This set of romance novels that started with a World War Two nurse going back in time to Jacobean Scotland has reached the point where it feels like a television series. Somewhat hilariously it has now also become one.

MOBY-cover-final-US1-220x327In Written In My Own Heart’s Blood we once again follow the adventures of Jamie and Claire who became reunited at the very end of the last book. They now live in America during the war of independence.

Unfortunately, despite the exciting times, the adventures were few and far between and over far too soon. Most of the book is taken up with scrimping to make ends meet or digging in the garden or having sex. There is a battle and a few suspenseful scenes, but mainly the book is full of domesticity where Claire muses about any number of things, from the meaning of life to whether a character might be pregnant or not.

One must say that many of these musings are very entertaining and often insightful. Yet there is a feeling that unlike its characters, who never seem to get enough to eat to have middle-aged spread, the series has become a bit bloated with indulgence. We the reader are so in love with the world Gabaldon has created that we’re willing to continue to read her soap-opera-like story with no end or point in sight.

I used to think that reading Gabaldon was like chicken soup – hearty, homey and good for the soul. Now I wonder whether I’ve simply overdosed on the stuff. Despite being a big fan, I’m not even sure whether I’ll buy the next book if one eventually appears.

I lost interest in The Wheel of Time too, I think around book five or six, while others happily chewed through all of them to the bitter end. This led me to wonder what are the signs that a series is becoming staid. Is it possible to continue a meaningful story for eight books or more?

I’m going to give the novel a 3/5.

(It has to be said though I have absolutely loved most of the books up to this one, and would recommend anyone who likes historical romance to pick up the first in the series or watch the new television production.)

Rhinegold is a saga of fate and revenge. Rhinegold

The gods Wodan, Hoenir and Loki are travelling in the world of men when they accidentally kill the son of a local lord. The family demands the gods pay the murdered man’s weight in gold or be killed. The gods do pay this wergild, but the gold they hand over is cursed and will lead the victim’s relatives to sorrow and death, generation after generation. The novel describes the painful path the family must take in order to lift the curse and stop the cycle of killing.

I first started Rhinegold because I had never taken the time to learn the story of the famous hero Siegfried (Sigifrith), which makes up a major part of the novel. Having married a German, I would have said I understand the country and its culture pretty well. Rhinegold shook that belief.

There is something irrevocably alien about a woman who is party to her own children’s death because they were not courageous enough to murder their father to avenge their grandfather. Similarly, it seems particularly fickle of a god to sire a son on a line of humans and give particular members of that family favour, only to be the instigator of their doom some years later.

In general, the choices the characters make in the novel (and I assume the original story) feel horrifying or tremendously stupid, especially since the characters are generally aware of the grievous consequences that will result from their decisions. In today’s world, most of us would come to a fork in the road, see a choice and take the easier path. We would not fight in a battle where our defeat was assured.

Yet the Rhinegold characters believe firmly there is no choice: if one path would be to abandon honour and duty to kin, then it is not a possibility. Besides this, their belief is often that whatever choice is made, the end result would be the same – fate cannot be turned aside. The important thing is how a man (or woman) faces their destiny. If with courage, Valhalla awaits.

Although this ideal does make it hard to relate to the characters, there’s something very pure and gritty about it. It felt to me a little like watching a blizzard while being home and safe in bed. It is better to be living now, where we are easier on ourselves and others. The narrative also has a pleasingly circular arc such that at the end we feel we have moved back to the beginning.

I do have to admit to struggling a little – it is a rather long tome, but I am still thinking about it some weeks after finishing, so it must have been worth it. I’m going to give it a 3 out of 5.

This fantasy epic begins with a politically driven war that shifts the balance of power in an age old empire.The Garden of Stones

Corajidin heads the house of Erebus, but visions have foretold that he will rise to rule all his people. Impatient for his destiny, he commits atrocities to accelerate his ascent.

Renowned warrior-mage Indris would rather not become involved in the conflict, having turned his back on old responsibilities after losing his wife. Yet even he can not escape the momentum of events.

Mari, Corajidin’s daughter, is caught between filial duty and doing what she knows is right.

Whether or not you like this book will strongly depend on how much you enjoy complex fantasy worlds – because The Garden of Stones is all about the world. Barnes creates a multi-layered banquet for the senses and the mind with detailed descriptions of settings and culture that will scintillate a particular type of reader.

I will confess upfront that I am not one of these readers. To me, the world always has to take a back seat to the plot and the characterisation. In my opinion the extreme world-building of this book got in the way of the story.

Consider these statistics. In the first two thousand or so words of the novel we are introduced to:

  • Eight character names (we only meet four of them)
  • Six place or geographic feature names
  • Eight different groups of people (Family Names/Race names/Order names)
  • Seven fabricated words or concepts for objects or magic
  • Four rank titles

All this detail at the start of the novel slowed the action down – the opening battle scene had the pace and tension of a tea party. And Barnes continues to introduce new names, concepts and facts almost all the way through.

Having said that, the descriptions did evoke a strong sense of place (if not necessarily character), and the world Barnes has created is original. For example:

In Seethe fashion there were no exterior walls in the Hai Ardin. No doors. Crystalsingers had coaxed the growing formations into seemingly random steps, chambers and tilted columns. In some areas the high, semi-vaulted ceilings of the Hai-Ardin were open to the sky. Translucent beetle-shell hangings adorned the walls. Ilhen crystals shone like jagged candle flames frozen in time.

Another highlight of the novel was Corajidin, who is a better rounded villain than found in most series. He is not a bad man, just one with strong ambition who ultimately is driven towards immoral actions by failing health. His desperation and impatience with his mortality sings through every scene he inhabits. In retrospect, I found him more interesting than either of the other viewpoint characters. Sometimes I even wanted him to triumph.

In summary, although I personally didn’t particularly enjoy this novel and am going to give it a 3/5, I think many fantasy readers who love detailed worlds will devour it and pant for more.

Babel-17 (from 1966) is basically about the effect of language on the human mind. The main character, Rydra Wong, is a poet who used to be a cryptographer. She gets a call from the military asking her to try and decrypt a transmission that is discovered at the site of a number of attacks in an intergalactic war.

Babel-17

Rydra recognises it’s a language and gets together a spaceship crew to go to the site of what she thinks will be the next attack in an attempt to figure out the puzzle. Assassinations, space battles, betrayals and love affairs occur before she finally discovers the language’s secret.

Many people thought the book was overwritten, but I enjoyed the imagery. I also enjoyed the world building, especially the idea of the discorporate spaceship crew and the body modifications. The characters I thought were well drawn, with the possible exception of the love interest. The central premise – language’s control over our mind – was also interesting.

Unfortunately, too many scenes seemed to me to have little function. I don’t like world building for the sake of world building or characterisation for the sake of characterisation. I like these elements to be built into scenes that have a real function in the plot. Many will disagree with me, but I felt the thread of plot was thin in a lot of scenes.

For example, why did we need to go through a drawn out discussion of how Rydra knew what people were thinking but not saying? Sure it’s necessary to know she has this ability, but did we need Rydra and her mentor to analyse her ability ad nauseam? Similarly, why did the reader need to know about the long process of selecting a spaceship crew? There were some great images and character revelations, but couldn’t these have been done in a more useful scene?

The other reason I’m not a big fan of this book is that I didn’t like central concepts being thrust piecemeal into discussions between two characters or into paragraphs of analysis inside the main character’s head. It feels too much like I’m being lectured.

That’s why I’m only going to give this book a 3/5. Before all you die-hard fans bring out the knives, I do have to admit that I’m not really a Science Fiction Masterwork kind of gal. So sue me.

 

This is Twilight as historical fiction by an author who can actually write.

A taste of blood wine by Freda Warrington

World War Two has only recently ended. Life in England goes on.

Charlotte is a painfully shy girl. She finds it hard to even be frank with her family. It doesn’t help that her sisters appear to be the type of society belle who only ever think of themselves. They have already decided Charlotte is a hopeless wallflower.

Certainly, Charlotte would rather be at home with her scientist father than fishing for a husband in London during the height of the season. She’s looking forward to coming home when her sister meets Karl von Wultondorf. As he’s a vampire he is, of course, literally deathly handsome.

Charlotte feels uneasy around him. Which shows good sense, as he lives off other peoples’ blood. Her sister Maddy is so besotted, however, that she orchestrates a meeting between Karl and her father. Karl is interested in her father’s science; He wants to investigate the scientific impossibility of his existence.

The introduction leads to a working relationship, throwing him into Charlotte’s life and leading unsurprisingly to the start of a love story.

The nice thing about this book is that it doesn’t try to make vampirism attractive – unlike Twilight there is no drinking of animal blood. It’s kill humans or starve. It also doesn’t try and make families accept their blood-sucking relatives. It doesn’t try and prove that the hero has perfect self control. He lusts for Charlotte’s blood like any other human’s. The book feels more realistic this way and also makes less forced the endless self examination endemic to this type of novel.

Where I think it goes wrong is there is absolutely no reason really why Karl should have chosen Charlotte. She is just as affected by his glamour as everyone else. He could have her any time he wanted, as he could numerous other women. We are told there is “something” special about her. I couldn’t see it. She seemed deathly boring to me.

I don’t think I’ll read any more in this series – I didn’t like either of the main characters enough. Both of them agonise about themselves too much, and although they are intrinsically evil because of their propensity to drink blood, they are otherwise goody two shoes.

Looking back, the thing I enjoyed the most was Warrington’s language. She has a wonderful flair for describing scenes in a way that (at least for me) escapes the usual clichés. Here are a few examples:

“She could see the wind, and it was solid: a hill of liquid glass that turned slowly over on itself like a wave.”

“Now she found the truth that lay at the heart of everything: all the fears, veiled warnings, knowing smiles, restrictions; the blood-red stamen at the centre of society’s tightly folded flower. The paradox of an ecstasy that was fretted with danger.”

If I’m going to give it a 3/5.

Thirst is a competent thriller that ticks all the boxes but is somehow lacking in that page-turning vibe that keeps you shackled to its story.

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The story is made interesting because it’s an environmental thriller, so deals with current, very relevant issues. The ending also gets my marks for being original.

Its narrative stays mainly in Antarctica, where a group of scientists stumble on a set of Chinese aggressors who plan to mine a glacier for water. The scientists are in the way of the plan and are murdered. Or at least the aggressors think so. Glaciologist Luke Searle and research station head Maddy escape the fire meant to kill them. They set out across the ice into deadly and freezing conditions — they must find shelter or die.

Their attackers are still on their trail and capture Maddy, who learns that mining the glacier for ice is only the start of the Chinese plans. What is ultimately intended could destroy the world’s climate irreparably. Luke must rescue Maddy and save the world, before the terrible plan can be put into action, which will result in sea level increases high enough to drown cities.

I loved the descriptions in this book of the ice and the abandoned stations the protagonists slept in. I also really enjoyed the hero, Luke, who was the kind of tall, strong, male character I love. But I almost received no vibe from Maddy, much preferring how Larkin presented a peripheral character back in Sydney.

There were also points in the novel where I felt the characters’ motivations for their actions were dubious. For example, the villain’s reasons for keeping Maddy alive are not believable. There’s one point where she overhears the whole extent the dastardly plan and the villain thinks “it was time to get rid of her”, yet he doesn’t. If he’d really made that decision, he should and would in my opinion have done it immediately.

I also find it hard to believe that a Russian who helps Luke would have done so from the good of his heart. It was a mission that could have ended in his death and I just didn’t feel that the tie between Luke and the Russian was strong enough to warrant the help.

And although I know the author is fully aware of how dangerous Antarctica can be if you don’t have appropriate equipment or shelter, I don’t think she drove the point home quite far enough. We don’t really feel the cold in our own bones as they’re fighting for their life, or appreciate the characters’ fear of being a small human that doesn’t mean a thing to the cold and cruel face of nature. Perhaps this is because Luke feels at home in Antarctica. But we as the reader need to be afraid for him. I wasn’t.

Still, it was a rollicking, entertaining yarn. I’m going to give the book a 3/5.

(Credit: Jason Tesar)

Tesar is god fearing man who has, unsurprisingly, decided to use scripture as a jumping off point for his first series of books. I have to admit, however, that I didn’t really get the feeling that it was biblical, probably because I didn’t read the first three pages of the book, which looked like an encyclopedia entry. I don’t like books that start with a long winded and cryptic explanation. So I skipped the beginning and started with the first action in the book. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea as I missed the point of the story in many ways, but then I think Tesar probably could have introduced his concept better in a narrative fashion than using a dry, legal-looking list.

The (real) start of the books is set on our planet, with analysts talking about global warming and rising seawaters. We don’t know who they’re working for, but one of them has seen something strange happening in a country on the other side of the world, something which involves a lot of water appearing out of nowhere and a man escaping from some scuba divers.  The mysterious company decides to go and rescue the man.

When we see the person being rescued, it’s obvious he’s not part of our world. Then Tesar takes us back to the world that the man came from — a far flung empire still in the sword-wielding stage of technology. There we meet a new character who has a brush with mystery sailors, coming off the worse for the encounter. He dies trying to tell his story to the governor of a nearby city, Adair, who later turns out to be our mystery man rescued in the other world.

Unfortunately, we don’t meet the real main character of the story, Adair’s son Kael, until later. This to me was a fatal flaw in the books, because I’d already sided with Adair and couldn’t like Kael as much as I should. Adair disappeared mainly out of the books after the rescue situation is explained, leaving me feeling hollow.

However, once I became used to Kael as a main character I did warm to him. He is ostensibly “executed” after his father disappears (off to the alternate world), but in reality he’s whisked away to a monastery where he learns to fight with other boys.  He doesn’t feel right about the monastery’s god, for whom he’ll be fighting when the training is done. He fails a test set for him by the high priest of the order and goes his own way. Unfortunately for him, his time at the monastery comes back to haunt him as the boys start appearing while the empire comes under attack from the outside.

100,000 people have downloaded copies of Tesar’s first book, which he’s priced for free on Amazon and Smashwords. I  have to admit that somehow I managed to download the whole trilogy for free (it’s supposed to cost $4.99) , which was a bonus. The freebie did have an unforeseen drawback, however. I thought I’d only downloaded the first book. When I reached the end of the book, I thought I had two further volumes to go, but I had actually read all there was. The finale had more loose ends than in an unravelling sweater, the most important of which for me was, what happened to Adair?

After looking at Tesar’s blog, it seems that he will write another book to complete the story, but he intends to write a number of prequels first. That goes into my “how seriously to annoy your readership” category.

Still, I did enjoy the books. The fighting scenes flowed well and the characters were believable. There was also enough original content in the story for it to feel fresh. However, I really think Tesar should have rethought how he started the book. Clunky prologues are so last decade. It’s also necessary to address the central theme of your story in the story, not just in the beginning.

After all, he promises in his blog:

In book xx  of his debut series, Jason Tesar delves into the heart of an ancient legend, expanding an epic saga that will journey from earth’s mythological past to its post-apocalyptic future, blending the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, and military/political suspense.

I didn’t get the feeling at all that he’d delved into the heart of an ancient legend. It felt more like he attempted to build a good story on a clumsy background. I’m hoping that the books yet to come bring more of the mythological flavour he’s promised into his writing. But I don’t feel like reading the prequels and probably will have forgotten about Tesar by the time I he gets to complete the story he’s already started, so I may never know if they do.

I’m going to give this series a 3/5. If it had been finished properly, it would have had the potential to be a 4/5 or higher.

Claimed, by Evangeline Anderson

(Credit: Evangeline Anderson)

Now that I look back at this series, I wonder how I ever stumbled onto it. I think I must have been hastily trawling through the “Recommended for you” section on my Kindle at Frankfurt Airport in Germany just before my husband and I took off for Sydney. I like to have a wide selection of books on a plane, because when you’re cooped up in a tube of metal thousands of feet up in the air, you need variety to keep you distracted from the fact that if there’s a problem with said metal tube you’re probably cactus.

In this case, my entertainment system wasn’t working (it’s actually surprising how often this happens to me) so I was glad I had so many novels on my Kindle. It wasn’t until I made it a couple of pages into Evangeline Anderson’s Claimed, the first in her Brides of the Kindred novels, that I realised that I’d bought an erotic novel.

Erotica isn’t normally my scene and when you’re physically browsing for books, it’s easy to discard the ones with pictures of half-naked men on the front. However, it’s not so easy to see what is on the cover of a book on the Kindle (too small and black and white); when I sped read the description of Claimed, it sounded interesting — a sci-fi romance.

This series begins on earth with Olivia, who is having breakfast with friends when bureaucrats knock at her door and tell her she’s been “drafted”. Earth has been saved from an alien race called the Scourge by another alien race called the Kindred. In return for protection, all the Kindred ask is that some female Earthlings be provided as their brides. The race is 95 per cent female, which is why they’re so desperate for women. They’ve done the same thing on three different worlds before, which has created three different types of Kindred — beast, blood and twin Kindred. Each of the types is different, although we only really hear about how they’re different when they’re having sex. It is an erotic novel after all.

These brides are lifted to the Kindred mothership, where they remain for a month without contact to the planet. Each week, the Kindred who has chosen them as a bride will subject them to sexual temptation until they break and have bonding sex with the male, at which point they’re stuck with that man for life. Resisting the sexual temptation  is made particularly hard by the Kindred’s pheromones, which are specially tailored to the female in question.

Olivia doesn’t want to leave her life on Earth, so is determined to resist the Kindred who has come for her — Baird, one of the Beast Kindred. He, meanwhile, is head over heels in love with her and, although willing to give her space, is also desperate to get her to accept him. He’s had a hard time in his life, being captured by the Scourge and tortured on their fathership. The only thing that helped him through the experience was the thought of her (he had started to dream share with her on the ship, which is the start of a courtship for the Kindred).

Of course, Olivia’s resistance gets complicated and it all very nearly ends in disaster after a Scourge attack. It turns out that Olivia’s family are involved in some sort of Scourge prophecy, so the evil race want to capture her and her loved ones.

The other three books in this series (Hunted, Sought and Found) revolve around similar stories for her friends and family, who also have Kindred  fall in love with them and are troubled by the Scourge prophecy. I read them when I was sick in bed and wanted something formula.

I have to say that even though I’m not a huge fan of this genre (and if you can’t deal with terms like cunt honey, don’t even think about reading these), each book had a plot with suspense and action which went along with the sex. And although the excuses for sex scenes were sometimes so flimsy they had me laughing in my sick bed, the whole series was an entertaining romp that I don’t regret picking up.

I’m split on what to give this series, given my lack of experience with the genre. From a female’s point of view I’d give it a 3/5. I think the reason I gave it 3 instead of 2.5 was that I really believed the characters when they acted the way they did in the books, even the male sex objects. There’s also a good dollop of humour in the books, which I really enjoyed.  From a male point of view I’d probably give the series 0.5/5.

Evangeline has said that there’ll be two more books this year and I’ll probably pick them up some time when my brain needs a break. She said her plan until then was to take a break and write some young adult books under a different pseudonym. After all, we wouldn’t want those young impressionable minds stumbling on the erotic novels…