Number 6 (newnumber6) wrote,
Number 6

November Book Foo 1/2

Bit in a rush, so no other comments, still alive, that's about all that matters.

On to Book Foo... had to divide it into two posts, sorry, blame LJ:

Finished: Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen

Disclaimer: I received this book free through a giveaway (although, not through Goodreads itself). I don't think it affects my review.

A secret agent, code-named Kangaroo, has the apparently unique ability to open a portal to an empty universe and store stuff there. This makes him extremely valuable and makes up for the other areas where he may lack some of the qualities ideal in a secret agent. But when he's on vacation, none of that should matter. Except on his vacation cruise between Earth and Mars he stumbles upon a plot that could lead to interplanetary war.

I find I don't really have a lot to say about this book. It's fun, but it doesn't blow me away. I did find exploring the various uses of the main character's "super power" was pretty neat, and interested me more than the plot itself. It does kind of strike me a bit like the author had nurtured an idea for a cool super power he'd like to have (and come on, don't we all at least have a couple?), and then wrote it into a novel so he could have it vicariously. I don't think that's a positive or a negative (good books have origins in all sorts of places), it's just a feeling I got.

I think on the face of it, a spy adventure novel, even one set in space with high tech implants, is not completely in my wheelhouse as a reader. It's not completely out of it, either, but it's the kind of thing that I'll likely read and not get too attached to unless it really does something cool. This book... I read and enjoyed, I can't point to any particular flaws, but I didn't get too attached to. I suspect it's intended to be the first part of a series, and though if I magically had a copy of the next book I would read it and probably enjoy it again, I don't see myself going to any effort to seek it out. But again, that's more about the subgenre than the specifics of this book. People who are more into spy tales may well find this the start to a fun new series.

Finished: The Future is Japanese (short stories)

What I thought this book was: A book of science fiction stories mostly by Japanese authors, many of which translated into English for the first time.
What this book actually was: A book of mostly science fiction stories, about half written by Japanese authors (and may well have been translated for the first time), the other half written by Western authors (many of whom have a particular connection to Japan) in English but set in Japan or using Japanese characters.

The difference between what I thought this book was and what it actually was, was a big disappointment. It's not that I've got anything against the Western authors, just... I don't know, the reason I was excited about the book wasn't because I wanted to read stories set in Japan, or using Japanese mythology, although that's a nice bonus, it's to discover authors I may never have encountered if they hadn't been translated, to experience different points of view from wholly different upbringings.

Instead I got a bunch of stories from authors I already knew (even many of the Japanese authors were ones who I've read novels translated into English already), and many of whom felt like, even if the stories were often very well done, were participating in a writing prompt game where the challenge was "include Japanese culture in some way!" And of course, the usual annoyance that at least one of the stories had no science fiction content whatsoever, but was instead a simple fantasy/ghost story.

That's not to say the collection's bad, but collections are always a mixed bag, where some stories connect and others don't, and a little thing like feeling misled about the theme (even if not deliberate... a close reading of the description reveals they were fairly open about it) can sour your experience some.

The stories I most enjoyed, regardless of origin of the author: "Mono no aware" by Ken Liu, "Autogenic Dreaming" by TOBI Hirotaka, "Golden Bread" by Issui Ogawa

For rating? I don't know. I think on quality of stories, compared to other short stories collection, it rates a low 3. But my disappointment really makes me want to rate it 2 stars, "it was okay." I think I'll resist my disappointment and score it as a 3.

Finished: The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

After the ship her father is traveling on is lost at sea, twelve-year-old Alice goes to lie with an uncle she never knew she had, who has a mysterious and impossible Library. There she soon comes to discover that she is a Reader, with abilities that include traveling through magic books and controlling creatures imprisoned within. And there may be much more to her father's disappearance that she needs to uncover.

Disclaimer: I won the first three books in this series through a giveaway. I don't think it affected my review.

Obviously, this is a book intended for an audience much younger than me... the back of the book reads ages ten and up. But it doesn't specify a maximum age either, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying something targeted young. And although I might not have purchased it for myself, if I got it free, why not?

There's a totally unfair thing that often happens in reviews, especially in kids books, where the reviewer feels the need to compare it to some blockbuster in the category. But let's do it anyway, and compare it to the Harry Potter. Obviously, it's only fair to compare the first books, in terms of setting up an interesting world and characters.

I think this book is less immediately accessible than the first Potter book, at least for the majority of people. Though it does sweep you up into a universe of potential wonder, it's also got a few elements that might distance people... it's set in the early 19th century, for example. The setting isn't something easy to relate to like a school. And, unlike Harry Potter, there's not an instant group of friends formed where even if you don't like the main character, you can latch onto one of the others, though we do eventually meet someone near to Alice's age. For that matter, it seemed like there was less characters overall, and yet I didn't feel like I knew most of them at all by the time the book was completed. It seemed like a lot more time was needed setting up the rules of the world and introducing Alice to her abilities. I can see people enjoying the series, but I doubt it would catch on as widely.

Those abilities themselves did interest me more than the Potter books, although I do worry about power-creep in the books going forward. For now, though, they're cool and the kind of thing I find myself imagining having and far more interesting to me than simply "magic."

As for the plot, it serves well enough as an introduction, and I particularly like the sense that Readers aren't really, in general, good people and that there's some unexamined darkness behind their abilities that the main character will (hopefully) choose to find another, more noble path once she begins to question.

Although the book is targeted towards ages 10 and up, I was surprised at the level of vocabulary in them... the prose wasn't all that complex overall, but interspersed, there were a fair number of words used rather casually that I'd expect maybe even the average high schooler to have to look up. Perhaps that's intentional, though, and someone who already reads and is particularly attracted to a book about readers with magic abilities, unfamiliar words wouldn't be a barrier, but rather something new to discover.

Another thing I do with books that are targetted towards younger readers is that I try to both evaluate how I enjoyed it now, but also project my mind back and attempt to imagine what I would have thought of the book had I read it when I was of the recommended age. Right now, it's enjoyable in the same way I might enjoy a kids cartoon. I can have fun with it as a diversion, but I'm not likely to get too invested in it. But I think if it hit me at the right time, I'd have really gotten into this series since it hits on a number of themes I've always like. I probably would have preferred it to Harry Potter, even, despite what I said above (I was always a bit weird as a kid).

Rating-wise, I'll put it at three stars, while acknowledging I'd probably have given it four were I the proper age. Since I won all three currently-published books of the series, and I did enjoy it, I'll be continuing on with the others before probably passing the books on to someone who could appreciate them more.

Finished: The Mad Apprentice by Django Wexler

(description cut due to possible spoilers)

Alice is an apprentice Reader, learning magical abilities and binding supernatural creatures, that are contained in books, to her will. But she's also trying to figure out exactly what happened to her father. But her master has informed her that another apprentice has killed his Master, an Alice must join with the apprentices of other readers to capture him and bring him to justice. The dead master is one who she believes has some connection to her father's disappearance, so Alice sees it as an opportunity to do some investigation on her own. But the mission is much more dangerous than it seems at first glance, and just surviving may turn out to be the difficult part.

Disclaimer: I won the first three books in this series through a giveaway. I don't think it affected my review.

Having established the setting and the rules for how Readers operate, the book can now get onto the business of elaborating and building story and characters. And that's much what this book is about, building a supporting cast and potential friends and rivals for Alice, and characters the reader (that is, the ones reading this series) can root for or bond to. As that was one of that things missing from the first installment, I was quite pleased, and I enjoyed seeing how thy developed, as well as the clever ways Alice deals with problems, and the continuation of the ongoing thread about the fundamental cruelty underlying the abilities Alice is being trained for (at least, if she uses them in the same way the other Readers do).

So, I think I liked this book more than the first one. It's still a book that's targeted to much younger readers than I, but it was more entertaining, and I think that a young-version-of-me would also have liked it much more, so I'll give it a star beyond what I gave the first.

Finished: The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

For some mysterious reason, nobody can remember Hope Arden. After you stop interacting with her for more than about a minute, you completely and permanently forget she'd ever existed. Naturally, this makes a few things difficult. She lives as a thief, at first for survival and then for the thrill, but when somebody she's interacted with commits suicide, and it seems to be connected with a phone app that is becoming ubiquitous, she gets involve for personal reasons, and is caught up in events that might change the world... even if no one will remember her part in it.

First, a little personal info. Long ago, on an online text-based roleplaying game themed around the X-Men, I played a character with a power/curse very much like this (if you've played on any of those and you don't remember me, maybe I was just really really good). I even for a while considered writing up a novel based on the premise. I try not to come at such books with an eye towards "what I would have done," but it's probably inevitable on some level, and likewise my affection for the basic idea is clear and nostalgia may taint my reactions in the other direction. I can't honestly evaluate which, if any, of those played a role in my reaction, so I'll just be honest that the biases are there.

Now, overall, I quite liked both the novel and how the author treated the premise, as well as the character herself. It can be hard to give a character life when they can't repeatably interact with people... at least, if you don't want them to be perpertually mopey about their condition. But I think the author succeeds admirably, imbuing the character with a sort of resigned acceptance, a good amount of self-deception, and a few peculiar quirks. I should speak on those, because, as the novel's written in first person, sometimes those quirks get a little annoying. The text has a tendency to break into random factoids or dictionary definitions based on something the character encountered. I can totally get behind the reasoning behind this (that, without a social life, she's not only become fairly weird, but also filled in a lot of quiet hours with memorizing facts), but it still does get annoying and, at times, seem to unnecessarily pad out the story.

Speaking of quirks, there are also a few stylistic quirks that people who've read other Claire North novels would be familiar with. There's the occasional "relating conversations without using quotation marks" quirk (although, it seemed less of an annoyance here), and the "wow this book jumps back and forth in time a lot" quirk. You may like them, you may not, I lean a little towards not, but not enough that it seriously affects my reading enjoyment.

There's also a fair bit of repetitiveness, which you'd have to expect... the character sometimes has to introduce themselves and explain why they're there to the same person several times, because they've forgotten her already.

The overall plot is also pretty good... when I heard the story would involve a phone app that had a nefarious agenda, I was actually pretty worried that it was a somewhat goofy element that would detract from the coolness of the main character's curse. For the most part, though, I thought it integrated quite well and was, with a bit of stretching of the suspension of disbelief, surprisingly believable. It helped the book raise a number of interesting issues for contemplation, a few more than the character's ability would have alone, and I think overall made it a richer work.

The book kept me reading, excited about where it was going, and more than a few "oh man," moments where I realized something was happening and had been for a while. I do think that the ending faltered somewhat, the book seemed to stumble to a close without feeling like there was much of a conclusion. Maybe the author means this to be part of a series where there's potentially more of a payoff down the line... if so, I'd certainly read more, but as a stand-alone book, it left me a little unsatisfied at the end, even if I greatly enjoyed the journey.

A few of the nitty-gritty details of the character's "curse" also did occasionally annoy. Either cases where it seemed like somebody would clearly have looked away long enough to forget (or taken a bathroom break!) and didn't because the plot required a continued conversation, and it wasn't entirely clear what did and didn't get forgotten in some of the edge cases. Did voices on the phone get forgotten? I think so, but why would that be? It's a bit weird especially since a fair bit on the book deals with specifics about how the brain works that the power is essentially a fantasy element. And I don't mind that, but I would have preferred a more rigorous fantasy element with rules that could be explained. For example, if you could imagine her ability as being a telepath who automatically wiped everyone's memory of her after she left, then a phone conversation or a photograph could be remembered... until she met them again, and wiped their mind again.

And, there was one big omission... although the Internet plays a big role, there doesn't seem to be an thought given to Hope having friends through the Internet. The specifics of her ability don't seem like they'd preclude that at all (although they'd preclude a face-to-face meeting), but it's notable by the absence. As someone who doesn't have a lot of social interaction that is not through the Internet, it seems like a big hole in the premise. Online friendships might not be as satisfying as having real life friends that you can go and hang out with, but sometimes, it's the best you can do, and it's better than the complete isolation Hope seems to suffer from. It feels like one of those things where the only reason it isn't a factor in Hope's life is because the author didn't want her to have any social support, and that's not a good enough reason for me, so it does count as something that detracts from the quality of the work.

Still, the book's overall quality and enjoyment is high enough that it's not a big hit, and it probably doesn't even affect the star-rating, which I comfortably put at a 4.

So far Claire North's books under this pseudonym have been extremely enjoyable and I look forward to what comes next.

Finished: The Palace of Glass by Django Wexler
(plot synopsis behind cut because of potential spoilers for previous books)
Alice is planning revenge on her master Geryon, but has to bide her time because he's far more powerful than she. But when he goes on an unexpected long trip, she has a chance to act. Her ally ending knows of a magical book in another world under Geryon's domain, a world Alice can reach if she's quick, and with that book, she can trap even a master Reader. But the way is dangerous, and she may need to find some allies.

Obviously this continues the Forbidden Library series, and I won all three of the currently published books in a giveaway (so, usual disclaimer, I don't think it affected my review but keep it in mind).

This one, I think I liked less than the second, but a little bit more than the first, and although most of the actual adventure in the novel didn't particularly wow me (it wasn't bad, either, it was just just felt a little on the 'filler' side), I really liked how it ended with things poised to take an interesting shift for the next set of books.

Which leads to an interesting problem. The main reason I read these books was because I got it free. I figured I'd read them once and pass them along to someone who might appreciate them more. I still plan to do that. But, do I stop my own personal journey here, or do I consider continuing with the next books, just to see how it ends.

I can't answer that yet, but I will say I am interested. More interested than I was in continuing the Harry Potter books after the first couple where largely, the only reason I kept reading them was because they were a huge cultural milestone that a lot of people, at least in geek circles, read, and I wanted to be able to know what they were talking about if the topic came up).

I don't think I'm going to be one of those people that buy the snap up the next book when it comes out... my reading list is already much too big. But, I might like to see what happens, and so if one day I happen to see the next book in a discount bin or something, I might grab it. Or a few years down the line if I'm gripped by nostalgia and a burning curiosity, maybe I'll try to find the series. Or, maybe I'll just look up summaries on Wikipedia. Too soon to say. But I was more into the series than I expected to be, which says something, at least.

Finished: The Just City by Jo Walton

The goddess Athena gathers people from all over time for a bold experiment... to recreate the "ideal society" proposed in Plato's Republic. In addition to admirers of Plato from across time, she also helps them recruit slave children to be the free citizens of the Republic, and robots to do the work. While the society is very different from ours, it seems im many ways to be working... at least until Socrates shows up and starts asking questions.

I read this because Tor's been giving away an ebook free at the beginning of every month (for a limited time, so alas this one is no longer available). I'd heard about it before, and the concept was interesting, but I wasn't sure I wanted to dive in, but if it was free, why not? Having read the first book, I think I will be buying the second and third.

I'm no expert in Plato's Republic... pretty much I just remember the basics from a philosophy class in high school. It was interesting but didn't strike me as realistic. But coming alive in fiction it really gives you an appreciation for what he was going for, even though there were obvious flaws. The book explores these, as well as issues of consent and justice, and makes for a really interesting read. In fact, I think this book might also make an excellent companion if students today were studying the Republic, since it's one thing to read translations of his proposals, another to follow characters who are trying to put it into action.

It does advance in time rather quickly which does distance from the characters a little. There's some development that you think will alter how people behave around each other, and it does, but you rejoin them months or years later. And the pacing also seems a little stop-start, rather than building to a big climax. There is a climax, but it doesn't feel so much like an ending as a way to get you to move onto the next book, a stunning development that happened because this book was out of pages. Still, since I am eager to read the next book, I guess it did its job. In any event, both the pacing and the time progression seem to be similar to other Jo Walton books I've read, so if you like those, you might well like this one. Personally, I think it's my favorite of her works (which, admittedly, I've only read two of).

Finished: Metrophage by Richard Kadrey

A young punk tries to stay alive in a near future torn between gangs and corporate-controlled governments with sinister agendas. There's also a plague.

Okay, so it's cyberpunk, that classic 80s subgenre of SF filled with street level characters, cyber-enhancement and drugs, morally grey protagonists and cynical plotlines.

It could be done well, but there was a reason it mostly burnt out, even when the plots were wildly different, there was a certain sameness to them, and with so many of them out in a short period of time, it couldn't last forever.

But out of all of the cyberpunk novels were put out while the field was burning brightly in the 80s, I can say without a doubt that this was one of them.

I struggle to think of what to say beyond that, though. I mean, there were a few interesting bits, like the plotline involving aliens living on the moon, and sometimes it made a few interesting points about society, but otherwise, it seemed fairly forgettable cyberpunk. Not bad, per se, and apparently it was a cult classic in the field, but it didn't particularly stand out to me among the rest of the Cyberpunk stories I've read. I'll probably forget it almost entirely within a few years, as there's very little sticking in my memory right now. Maybe someone less familiar with the tropes of the subgenre would get more out of it, and maybe in historical context it was published right at the perfect time to stick in the minds of the readers, but for me, it was only okay.

Finished: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (reread)

Finished: City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

A long mission has been sent to a colony on a distant planet that had been thought gone. Leading it is an environmental protection officer who isn't even entirely aware of her mission, just that it's locked away in some corner of her mind. On the planet, she finds that the colony is safe and under the protection of another alien race, seemingly far more advanced than humanity, and must strike a balance between keeping good relations and discovering all she can... a task which gets complicated with many different competing interests.

I can't really find a lot to say about this book. I liked it, but it didn't blow me away. It was interesting to see a scenario where space faring humans had to confront a race with superior power and, although potentially a threat, not evil... with their own morality which is more strict in many ways. Because of this, the book does sometimes veer into the preachy territory, since I did get the impression the aliens were used to point out certain values we should be embracing more.

While there are a number of characters in the book, it really seems like only 2 or 3 get a super amount of depth (although a few of the side characters have interesting quirks and I wanted to explore them more). And 2 of the main characters... well, you can sort of see where it's going right from the beginning, it's just a matter of watching it develop.

Part of the problem is that this is the first book in a series, and as such it doesn't entirely hang together as a whole by itself. There's conflicts set up, but we only get skirmishes around them and no real resolution. Mysteries are advanced and solved, things change, but we often don't see the long term results, and it's hard to identify the central "story" that I can say satisfied, it just explored some ideas and characters and morals. Many of the individual bits I liked, but it didn't come together. Maybe it would in subsequent books in the series.

I enjoyed it well enough, though, and found one of the central sci-fi-y concepts interesting enough, that I might move on to the rest of the series in time.

Finished: Blindsight by Peter Watts (reread, as I always tend to do when going to cons)

Finished: A Hidden Place by Robert Charles Wilson

During the Depression, a young man goes to live with his aunt and uncle. A mysterious girl lives upstairs that isn't quite normal. And meanwhile, a lonely drifter wanders the roads, drawn by some impulse towards another part of the country.

Robert Charles Wilson is one of my favorite authors. But it took him a while to get there. Some of his earlier work I've read, I liked, but not as much as his more recent offerings. This book is his first novel.... so I approached it with both curiosity and a little trepidation. First novels are often a little rough.

This one? It's a mix. I think technically it's fairly well done, the prose is good, at least the main characters seemingly well-drawn (if they sometimes change their opinion suddenly).

And yet... it just didn't really do anything for me. I didn't connect to the characters as I usually do, and the storyline just didn't thrill me. Part of it was the setting... I'm not generally a fan of period pieces. But the plot just seemed to drag on in kind of an expected direction... it seemed like a story better suited for a short story, to be honest, and even at that length it wouldn't have been one that impressed me much.

So two stars, only okay. But if this is your first experience with the author, check out some of his later work.
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