Category Archives: Reviews

Yearly Book Recap 2015 (Fiction)

Good evening fine word connoisseurs,

As you know, this year I undertook the challenge to read more female authors than usual. My goal was a clean 50 / 50 split, but when failure struck my goal was to work harder at including other narratives than cis white male ones in my literature landscape.

This is the recap of that (very modest) goal. As I’ve read both non-fiction and fiction works this year, I ‘ve split them into two separate posts.  For the fiction post I’ll be using the below categories:

Fiction:

  • Change-your-life good.
  • Worth purchasing. (Fantastic, but not amazing.)
  • You decide. (Might contain some good ideas, some decent writing or interesting characters. Depends on your personal taste if you’re going to get your money’s worth.)
  • Nice try / Gold star. (The author put a lot of work into this, but it didn’t quite come off as well as it could have.)
  • WTF Random Publisher? (How was this even published? For indie authors, they are automatically excluded from this category. Quality control should mean something.)

+ Note: the list numbers do not indicate quality or ranking of the individual books against each other.

Change-your-life Good

  1. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is gritty, raw and punches the reader so hard in the face they’ll have to wipe away the literary stains. Imagine if Raymond Chandler was still alive, still wrote and embraced multi-cultural narratives. That’s what Zoo City feels like.

2. The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s a book that grabs the 21st century, and pulls it screaming onto the page. It doesn’t know what american-centric story-telling is or why white people should be the coolest characters in the narrative. It’s the first (and only) book I’ve read so far that seems to have a global vision when it comes to where Sci-Fi should go.

3. Push by Sapphire

This novel is ridiculous. In 100 pages it manages to worm its  way under your skin and just stick there. Like an ooze. It’s about Precious, a sixteen-year-old with a horrific home life. Even though it takes you into this hell hole of humanity, it also gives you hope. It shows you how Precious (with the help of a good support network) is able to overcome and escape the cycle she was born into.

Female Authors: 2   Male Authors: 1    Various: 0

Worth Purchasing

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

A multi-generational tale about a family of immigrants who moved from Bengal to Boston. Although a little too focussed on the male-side of the family, it covers a range of perspectives and has a snappy pace to it. Highly accessible and very enlightening reading.

5. Once Upon a Time at the End of the World by S. Elliot Brandis

(Full Disclosure: S. Elliot Brandis and I belonged to the same writing club several years ago. ) 

Once Upon a Time at the End of the World is a novella about an android and a prostitute who form an unlikely alliance and engage in bounty hunts after the apocalypse. Exceptionally well written, but at times the dialogue and the themes explored contradict each other.

6. 2001: A Space Odessy by Arthur C. Clarke

An oldie but a goodie. The movie was a wash for my brother and I, but the book fleshes out a lot of the characters’ motivations and creates a fascinating world full of possibilities. Highlights why Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greats.

7. The Real StoryForbidden Knowledge by Stephen R. Donaldson

An exploration of, or treatise on, the darker side of humanity. Stephen R. Donaldson seems to not know where the line is for the reader’s comfort, but creates a compelling story all the same. Consume at your own risk.

8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fun, whimsical and almost impossible not to enjoy. Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie as she struggles to inspire Howl to be brave, all while hoping not to fall in love with him. The characters are more selfish than the animated movie, but loveable all the same.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Difficult to categorise, Let the Right One In is a fine example of cross-genre literature. It takes the disquiet of horror, the character-building of drama and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel and mixes them all together. The result is a captivating slow burn of a story that builds to a pitch-perfect crescendo.

Movie Note: Oskar is more complex than the Swedish movie, but possibly not as likeable.

10. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman knows how to write. He knows how to create diverse characters and infuse a story with compelling supernatural elements. Unfortunately, he can also get carried away. American Gods is full of profound ideas, but feels a little too loose on the narrative structure and sometimes events happen  that don’t propel the story forward. If it had been trimmed a touch, it would’ve been one of the best reads of 2015.

11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A coming-of-age / boarding-school drama that uses a sci-fi hook to hold the reader. Although the stakes are small and this type of story of love and loss has been told before, Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a tight little tale about 3 students which compels you to read on. Not the most original work to add to your library, but worthwhile to admire simply for its execution.

12. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

In many ways, a mess of a book. Plot threads are often left dangling in a strong breeze, the story takes too long to start, and then jumps around too much until it finds its focus. There are way too many characters. However, it’s well written and there are ideas piled on top of ideas wrapped in a sandwich of even bigger ideas. However, After the uproar about Patrick Rothfuss’s depiction of women in the Ademre society, The Mirror Empire may be questionably sexist depending on which lens you view it through.

Definitely worthwhile if you’re a writer for inspiration, as a reader of fantasy it might leave too many things dependent on a sequel for a satisfying finale.

13. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is an oddity. It’s a really good novel that’s about the lengths a mother will go to to save her son from his own foolishness. A story that features zombies, regret, a steampunk setting and several heart-clenching set pieces. Unfortunately, the front cover makes it look like a wild ride about air pirates. Not what the novel is about at all. So, if you can get over the shock and initial disappointment of not having any awesome dogfights or cussing air pirates in there, you’ll be alright.

14. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

It’s short, the stories are interesting and it’s … J.K. Rowling. If you’ve got Harry Potter fans in your house they’ll love it. If you don’t, they’ll enjoy the twists J.K. Rowling puts on our old myths and creates something new. Good fun for a rainy hour or so.

Female Authors: 6    Male Authors: 8    Various: 0

You Decide

15. All Over Him By Casey Chase

Hot, dumb, erotic fiction. Not quite paranormal though, despite the blurb promising it would be. If you like your sex hard and your men obnoxiously stalker-ish then this is for you.

16. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holdberg

Part of the post-Harry Potter fantasy novels which take pre-existing rules and try to tweak them a little bit. Starts out well with a frustrated teenager (one just legal enough to be romantically involved with an older man) who gets put into the ‘worst’ field of magic: paper. This happens despite her ‘mad’ skills.

At the commencement of the novel, the book seems to want to have a conversation about sexism and how it affects women, but then undoes all that by having the main protagonist fall in love with her teacher.

Full of whimsy, but its main plot hook loses momentum half way through and the tone shifts drastically between scenes for drama purposes. The Paper Magician seems unsure if it wants to a contemplation on love and loss or a flighty road through a magical landscape. It tries to do both, but struggles under the thematic weight and collapses by the end.

17. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemsin

Centers on the tribulations of Yeine Darr and her unexpected rise to the city of Sky. Takes some of the ideas of American Gods and twists them splendidly only to have all that setup undone by a passive protagonist. A novel that’s supposed to be about empowering women to challenge the world order, has Yeine’s actions mean nothing all while falling in love with the masculine (and emotionally distant) dark god in the novel.

18. Acid Row by Minette Walters

A thriller with a fantastic hook: what if a town rioted because a pedophile was placed in their neighbourhood? The story starts well with a little mystery and lots of suspense, but gets caught on its social message and psychologist jargon. The author attempts to convey that the community isn’t really bad, nor is the pedophile, it’s the way he was raised and proceeds to explain that three or four times to the reader. Eventually the story and likability of the characters gets buried under useless exposition and over-explained character motivation.

19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A classic, but one that was struggle to enjoy. Everything is there: a foreboding father, the backdrop of the moors, inter-generational hatred and domestic violence, but it fell short. I can’t identify why, but unfortunately it didn’t connect with me.

20. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A frustrating read. The first half, maybe even 3/4, is excellent. Great pacing, fantastic flashbacks and a powerful emotional ride through what seems to be an autobiographical story. However, the last 1/4 destroys all of that. There’s too much lumped in which feels tossed together at the end to make Amir’s life seem less messy than it was.  There’s the confrontation between the protagonist and his childhood antagonist, the mirroring of his friend’s son’s actions against an all too similar event earlier in the novel, a finale which only happens because the Amir forgets everything he knows about kids and says something inopportune, plus the shrinking of a village from many individuals into only those that are relevant to the story. If it was an autobiography, you could write it off. Life is strange. But when it’s fiction the coincidences can only get piled so high before it feels like the author is twisting the world inside-out to get the end out of the tale they want. This is one of those potential greats that got lost on its own trail.

21. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Magic for hipsters. Perhaps more precisely, magic for ivy-league, male hipsters. They kind of book that struts around pretending to be grown up but is simply a teenager trying on an executive-looking pair of pants. It spends 510 pages trying to get the reader to sympathise with a character who (SPOILERS) cheats on his girlfriend, brings about the death of a classmate and runs away from all his responsibilities. All the while bitching about how life has done ‘im hard. If that sounds like someone you love spending time with then buy away.

Female Authors: 11   Male Authors: 10    Various: 0

Nice Try / Gold Star

22.The Kingdom by Jennifer M. Barry

It features a pixie king and his human love interest  Otherwise a standard paranormal romance. A more comprehensive review can be found here.

23. Elis Royd by Ron Sanders

One of the few novels that starts out with the writer taking shots at some imaginary straw-authors before penning a poorly written tome. Clearly some thought has gone into it, but the execution struggles and the ideas could still with a few more hours in peculation.

24. Evolution’s Child: Earthman by Charles Lee Lesher

A book based on many ideas which has forgotten that an interesting world does not make a novel. Starts out with a solid chase scene but slides into talking heads after that. You might enjoy it if you’re deeply in love with the prose of Atlas Shrugged. More details here.

25. Winter by S.D. Rasheed

A paranormal romance that features one strangely inserted sex scene and ever-changing character motivations. At times forgets its own story and then spirals out of control with a main character who must fall in love with the dark demon to propel the plot along. Possibly the only novel I’ve read this year where I’ve wanted more description from the author so I know what’s going on.

26. Deadly Love by Wesley Robert Lowe

A thriller / mystery / romance about a lost ghost that returns to Canada to find her killer. (Perhaps?) Introduces a world full of drugs, violence and angry sex in the tourist section of Vancouver. All the ghosts have a confusing set of powers and none of the characters are believable or scary. At times I accidentally laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. Unfortunately, you can feel the author had a clear vision they wanted to show in this work but it got lost in the execution.

27. Invasion of Kzarch by E.G. Castle

Wanted to like it, but struggled with the character motivations. Full review can be found here.

28. Wool by Hugh Howey

I don’t want to put Wool here. I don’t. Yet here it is. Two of the best writers I know recommended this work. I read Hugh Howey’s posts on The Passive Voice and head nod along with him, but Wool was not good.

Wool starts with an interesting idea: what if we had to live in a silo due to a nuclear attack? Then he adds a conspiracy dimension to it, and a lot of events that don’t make sense. He kills characters for no reason, has villains pop out of nowhere to increase suspense and has the main character fall in love with a guy she’s met twice. What? How is that even a thing in 2015? Also, it’s long with extended introversion sequences that neither advance the plot nor the characters’ motivation. Overall, it’s a book that loses out due to pacing and plotting problems rather than writing skill.

29. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

If Scott Pilgrim could come alive and write a novel, this would be it. Except it would’ve been written by the Scott Pilgrim before he had met Ramona. It features a protagonist that is cis, white and a HERO! Because … reasons dammit. He leads his multi-racial crew to justice against the evil corporate empire by cyber-stalking a woman, signing contracts without a lawyer looking them over, and acting like a teenager in front of a director of a company. If you don’t mind that, and the long sections which are not at all related to 1980s pop-culture, then you might want to snatch this up.

30. Speculative Japan by Various

A series of old sci-fi short stories that were translated from Japanese authors. It features 3 opening / introduction essays and 2 afterword pieces, which should give an indicator of what type of book it is. Many of the stories feel uninspired by today’s standards and of the ones that are solid, it’s difficult to know if the original story was blandly worded or the translation turned them into uninspired pieces of prose. Often it feels like a vanity project by those involved and is a tad expensive when compared to the many great anthologies are already available.

31. HMS Ulysses by Alistair Maclean

It breaks my heart that this is here. I love Alistair Maclean. The Dark Crusader and Puppet on a Chain are two of my favourite novels of all time. In saying that, HMS Ulysses is chock full of b-grade war movie dialogue and overly dramatic scenes. Everyone is heroic and the characters, when not advising how dangerous things are, are unable to stop praising the dying captain. Interesting only as a reference point for how Alistair Maclean grew as an author.

Female Authors: 13  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

WTF Random Publisher?

32. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

An Irish take on Push that goes completely wrong. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, A Girl if a Half-formed Thing is so full style that it forgets to tell a story. It speaks from the first person in a dialect so difficult to piece together that I simply gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I understood what was being said, but it was so painful and the main character continued to be so annoying that I quit of frustration and read the ending. Surprise: it’s dark ending. If you like art house books, almost impenetrable novels and think reading should be a chore then this is for you.

Female Authors: 14  Male Authors: 17    Various: 1

Picture (c) sebra. Used under Standard License with Dollar Photo Club. 

Degenerated — S. Elliot Brandis — Review

One-sentence summary: 

A strong follow-up to the emotionally gripping Irradiated with a narrative that unravels at the end. 

Longer Thoughts 

Degenerated continues the story of Pearl, a mutant transformed by the after effects of a nuclear war, and her struggle to keep her humanity in a brutal landscape. It also tracks a new character, Flynn, who lives in the tunnels and is trying to keep his mutant abilities in check while surviving each day. It’s a harrowing book with an unflinching vision of the inhumanity men and women will inflict against each other if their lives are at stake. It also takes a much harder look at the effects of power and what it does to people, societies and cultural structures. 

There were several things I really loved about this work:

1. The action sequences. These are a lot tighter than in Irradiated and felt very real. At points I had to put the book down or take a small mental break from what was about to happen. 

2. Pearl’s character. In the first novel of the trilogy, Pearl felt more like a plot device for her sister, Jade. In this one she comes in to her own. She makes decisions, realises the limits of her choices and comes to grip with how the world is versus how she wants it to be. 


3. The internal politics of the tunnel. The world building of the tunnel and its economy is so great. This fantastic world is one that could exist, that could occur if the world descended into destruction. 


4. The slimming down of the prose. In Irradiated I enjoyed the writing and its lyrical quality, but sometimes it felt so dense that I got tired and struggled to continue reading it. With Degenerated that problem is gone. It flows, but it doesn’t feel as dense. I punched through this work in two 40-minute train rides and a little reading at home, it was seamless. 

When I finished it, I originally rated it as a 4-star novel because even though some things niggled at me, I really, really liked where the story was going. After a week of playing around with the novel in my head, I (very reluctantly) moved it into my 3-three star column. Here’s why:

1. The end of Pearl’s journey in this novel feels forced. The last few chapters seem to strip away her character and be placeholders for the author’s voice. They become a series of internal musings about life and how things are, but not from a person who has lived through the life she endured. 

2. Without (attempting) to give anything away, the final decisions of the main characters at the end don’t align with their previous actions. Their morality becomes theoretical instead of practical like in the rest of the novel. As the story moves to its ultimate showdown, it becomes less and less akin to a survivalist novel of independence, and more like an X-men comic where freedom unites to triumph over terror. 

In essence, in the last 10%, I became disconnected from what was happening and uninvolved. I found this strange because of all the works I’ve read by S. Elliot Brandis, this is the only one I’ve done that with. 

Conclusion

A (mostly) gripping follow-up novel that delivers on the original’s premise. It unfolds along the lines of two survivalists’ stories, but gets caught up with its own main thesis and narrative needs at the end. With crisp action, gritty realism and a dark vision for the future, Degenerated is worth your time if X-men is too PG or you enjoy dystopian fiction. 

Full Disclosure

S. Elliot Brandis and I used to belong to the same writing club.

You can find Degenerated on Amazon.

The Sci-fi Novel Brisbane’s Been Waiting For

Irradiated is a novel about how far love and the need to survive will push people. Sometimes it makes them do terrible things, sometimes it spurns them into a charitable act they might not live to regret. Whatever the situation, Irradiated asks the reader questions. “How far would you go?” it queries. “Do you truly love your brother, your friend? Even at the brink of despair, will you push on, hatchet in hand?”

S. Elliot Brandis provides no easy answers or simple characterisations. The residents inhabiting his world are fully developed, each with their own desires and goals. Although I didn’t agree with all of them or their choices, I certainly understood their motivations and sympathised (as best as I could) with why they’d opted to travel that particular road. Simply put, Irradiated made me care. With sparse dialogue and well-developed set action pieces, I got to know everyone. Their hopes, dreams and fears. On that basis alone, I suggest picking up this novel.

However, there’s also S. Elliot Brandis’ way with English. It’s literary, yet also poetic. Every sentence falls into place, as if part of a magnificent tapestry drawn in constants and vowels. I didn’t struggle reading this work and often found it difficult to put down even though I had work the next morning.

Essentially, if you’re looking to be challenged, or for a different take on the science fiction genre, then I’d highly recommend Irradiated. It’s excellently written, flows beautifully and pulls you deep into the world created.

You can grab this gem from any of your local Amazon stores today.