Open Thread: Coming Attractions

School has started again, and it is kicking my butt.  So reading for reviews is going to be slowing down for the next couple of weeks.

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

However, I thought  you might like to see some of what’s coming up in the next month or so.  Here’s books I’ve received from authors and publishers on the premise I would read and review them–not necessarily in the order they will appear.

  • The Stone Lions by Gwen Dandridge.  A children’s fantasy novel set in Moorish Andalusia, which doubles as a text on symmetry.
  • Torsten by Joshua Kalin.  Historical fiction about three friends who sail with Christopher Columbus.
  • USA Noir edited by Johnny Temple.   An anthology of noir short stories, a “best of” collection.
  • Narrative Structure In Comics: Making Sense of Fragments by Barbara Postema.  A scholarly work about how comics work.
  • The Sky Devil by L. Ron Hubbard.  Three pulp stories of manly adventure.  Due to some difficulty with the shipment, Galaxy Press kindly also sent along the audio version, so I’ll be reviewing that as well.
  • The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.  Back to historical fiction, this time about the 1862 Dakota Uprising.

Plus anything else I come across I have time to post about.  If all else fails, I’ll be digging through my old journals for reviews I did before I had a blog.

Anything on this list you’re looking forward to?  Are you a publisher or author who would like to send books for me to review?  Let me know in the comments!

Giveaway: Autumn Giveaway (Ends September 30, 2013)

This giveaway has now ended.  Congratulations to the winner, who will receive an ARC of “Hen of the Baskervilles!”

There’s a chill in the air as fall approaches–time to warm up with a book!

This time the prize is one of seven books that I’ve recently reviewed:

  • Beneath the Bleak New Moon by Debra Purdy Kong
  • Conquering the Chaos by Ravi Venkatesan
  • Dark Harbors  by J.K. Dark
  • Dead But Still Ticking by David M. Selcer
  • Hen of the Baskervilles by Donna Andrews
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  • Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner

The rules are a bit different this time, so please read them carefully.

  1. This contest runs from 9/16/13 through 9-/30/13.  The contest is open to both U.S. residents and the international community.
  2. Only one book will be awarded, but you get to pick your preferred prize.
  3. To enter, (a) find the review of the book you want and push one of the social media buttons or post a link to it in your blog and/or (b) boost this giveaway by pushing a social media button or posting a link in your blog.  Then post a comment to this entry detailing which options you chose, and what book you’d like.
  4. You can earn a maximum of four chances by both using the media buttons and linking in your blog for both the book you want, and the giveaway itself.
  5. When the contest ends, I will randomly choose the winner, weighted towards the people who have more chances, of course.

By entering this contest, you help increase the readership of this review blog, and improve the chance of more giveaways in the future!  To help you find the reviews, here’s a look at the covers….

Beneath the Bleak New MoonChaosDark HarborsTickingHen of the BaskervillesLiesFlag

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Lies

Locke Lamora is a con artist and thief living in the city of Camorr, a sort of fantasy version of Venice strongly influenced by Dickens and Machiavelli, and probably named after the Camorra, a real-life Italian organized crime group.  Orphaned…presumably…at a young age, Locke learned thieving early on, and took to it well.  He has his own gang, the Gentleman Bastards, and they are secretly far more successful than they’ve been letting on to Capa Barsavi, the local crimelord.

The Gentleman Bastards are in the middle of a really big scam when their plans collide with other plotters, one of whom is willing to do the unthinkable in order to achieve their goal.  Tragedy ensues, and Locke must scheme faster and meaner than ever before if he is to survive, let alone come out ahead.

This book doesn’t have any likable characters, though a few are somewhat sympathetic or act for a cause greater than themselves.  Locke’s one virtue is loyalty to his very small group of friends.  He also has a bottom line he won’t cross, which makes the person who will the villain of the story.  He and his compatriots are quite clever, however, which makes this a good caper story.

Trigger Warning: Torture is practiced by several characters, including Locke.

Due to much of the plotline being dependent on twists, it’s hard to be specific without being spoilery.   I did feel that one section towards the beginning was a bit padded.  We see a twist, then the reveal that it’s a con game, and then flash back to a long sequence of Locke and his gang preparing for this trick.   It didn’t establish much that wasn’t covered elsewhere in the book, and could have been cut, allowing the reader to figure out how it was done.

This is the first of seven planned books about Locke Lamora.  The second, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is already available, and the third, The Republic of Thieves, is scheduled for release in October.   (This giveaway was presumably to create buzz for that.)

The lack of characters I want to continue reading about really hurt the book in my opinion.  Others may find Locke more lovable.

Anime Review: [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility

Anime Review: [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility

[C]

Kimimaro Yoga is an impoverished college student, bitter about the suicide of his father, which he sees as abandonment, and working hard to make sure he has a financially stable future.  One day he is approached by a being called Masakaki and offered a deal.  If Kimimaro accepts a loan from the Midas Bank with his “future” as collateral, he can become an Entrepreneur, with access to the Financial District.  There he can engage in battle with other Entres, using Assets, personifications of their futures.  Kimimaro distrusts easy money, but is tricked into accepting anyway.

Then he finds out that when they said his future was the collateral, they weren’t being metaphorical….,

This is an eleven episode anime series and a bit of a mind screw,  The rules are never fully explained, several characters’ motives remain murky, and the ending is going to take some sitting down and thinking to puzzle out.  It’s also not about economics in the way Spice and Wolf was, so when people sling around financial terms, they’re not explained and often have little to do with their real world applications.

However, there’s a lot of allegorical economics going on, and students of such matters will be able to tell which theories the writers side with by the end.  Several of the characters, including Kimimaro, and his mentor/opposite number Mikuni are morally ambiguous.  Would you sacrifice the long term to protect what is precious to you now, or sacrifice the present to preserve the future?

It’s also very pretty, though those new to anime might find some of the color combinations overly garish.

There’s a fair amount of violence, though most of the “blood” is money, and it could be triggery for suicide, as this happens more than once.  Because of this and the need to understand basic economic principles to grasp the underpinnings, I’d recommend this for older teens and up.

Manga Review: Puella Magi Kazumi Magica Volume 1

Manga Review: Puella Magi Kazumi Magica Volume 1 by Masaki Hiramatsu & Takashi Tensugi

Kazumi

A couple of years back, there was a surprise hit anime titled Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  While many magical girl stories have dark undertones beneath their fluffy, candy-colored exteriors, Madoka went full on into very dark places by twisting some of the standard genre cliches.  I won’t spoil those plot points here, just in case.

Kazumi takes place more or less in the same world as the Madoka series.  Young Kazumi wakes up to find herself stuffed in a trunk, naked, and with no personal memories beyond her name.  After some confusing adventures, Kazumi discovers that she can use magic, and is told that she is a mahou shoujo, a “magical girl.”  Kazumi is told that magical girls make a bargain with certain beings.  In exchange for having a wish granted, they must use their magical powers to fight monsters known as “witches.”  Being amnesiac, Kazumi does not remember what her wish was.

Kazumi meets other magical girls, and fights some monsters.  But given the world she’s in, there must be something else going on….

It’s difficult to go into too much detail about the plotline without discussing spoilers.  Suffice it to say that this volume is deceptively light-hearted, and the subtitle “The Innocent Malice” will apply by the end of the series.    I should mention that despite the main characters being junior-high age girls, the target audience for the series is seinin, young men.  In this volume, that’s most notable with some blatant fanservice scenes that the artist’s notes make clear are to appeal to him.

I’m a bit dubious about recommending this volume, as for the people who are into the deeper themes and plot twists, the series will read better as a whole.

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks by Robert Lory

This is another Ace Double, two small books combined into one upside-down from each other so they make a fair-sized paperback.  In this case, a short novel and several short stories by former ad executive Robert Lory.

Lamp1Masters of the Lamp is a spy novel set in the far future.  Two agents of the Federation’s Intelligence Arm have gone missing, and the Head, an organic supercomputer, suspects a connection.  It’s up to Shamryke Odell (named after a long-extinct plant), top agent, to discover what’s up.  Though he prefers to work alone, Sham is teamed up with Aleya Nine of the Merchants’ Guild.  He’s reminded that she’s an expendable partner.

Soon enough, the agents find themselves bound to Marquette, the planet of religious fanatics.  And not just one denomination, but all sorts of religious fanatics.  Disguised as pilgrims, Sham and Aleya must discover what’s really going on behind the scenes, who’s responsible and what their ultimate goal is.

The story is James Bond-ish, with gadgets, double agents and people being killed just as they’re about to spill the secret.  Sham is alleged to be a ladies’ man, but doesn’t get any until after the story ends.  Religious belief is generally treated as a bit silly, but at least one bit of dogma turns out to be a life-saver for the cult that practices it.

Lamp2

A Harvest of Hoodwinks is an anthology of short tales linked by the theme of deception.  The most striking of the stories is “Because of Purple Elephants,” in which two small children discover an alien spaceship, with telepathic invaders aboard.  The older of the boys must make a decision that could save Earth or mean death.  “The Star Party” is interesting for following the notion of a genuine astrologer to a painful conclusion.  “Just a God” deals with an abrupt change in theology.  And “Debut” is a very short piece that’s almost all twist.

“Snowbird and the Seven Warfs,” about a Cheyenne man mistakenly drafted into an alien game show, demonstrates one of the problems that crops up in Ace Doubles.  They were still using rather old-fashioned standards when it came to talking about sex, even in 1970.  Thus the last few paragraphs take a very roundabout approach to implying that the man has had his penis enlarged.

This isn’t the best Ace Double I’ve read, but it was bargain priced, and “Debut” really is a gem.

Book Review: Journeyman Wizard

Book Review: Journeyman Wizard by Mary Francis Zambreno

Journey

Jermyn Graves is a spellmaker, a rare kind of wizard that can reshape old spells for new purposes, and even create new spells for other wizards to use.  Or rather, he will be once he finishes his journeyman training with the only master spellmaker in the land.  When Jermyn arrives at the isolated village of Land’s End, however, he finds that the winter cold is more than matched by a chilly reception from certain people.

Lady Jean Allons’ household has been struck by tragedy and family rancor, making for tricky navigation for the young wizard.  When tragedy strikes again,Jermyn must use his training and the help of his skunk familiar Delia to solve the mystery before he himself is condemned to die.

This is the second in a young adult fantasy series about Jermyn, the first being A plague of Sorcerors.  It’s a pleasant light read.  While Jermyn is a talented wizard beyond his years, his inexperience shows, and he lets prejudice get the better of him when dealing with a local hedgewitch.  Jermyn’s seventeen in the story, but there’s nothing that makes it unsuitable for younger teens.

The worst thing I can say about the book is that it’s a little forgettable–it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized I had read it before and thus already knew who the murderer was.  Check your local library for this and the previous book if student wizards are your cup of tea.

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

I bought this book directly from the author, who markets it by going around to conventions in person.  He’s hoping that by the time he reaches the third or fourth book in the series, he’ll thus have an inbuilt audience.  I will say that it seems to have done well at getting readers to actually review the book on Goodreads.  Since it’s a first novel, I’m going to be a bit more nitpicky than I otherwise might.

When political scheming by Prince Barok of the Zoviyan Empire against his possibly more evil half-brother Prince Yarik backfires horribly, the young royal finds himself going into exile.  Accompanied only by Leger, an alcoholic war hero who’s been appointed his alsman (head servant) as a slap in the face, Barok finds himself ruling the remote and dilapidated province of Enhedu, whose people (and the ghosts of the title) are less than happy to have him.

Soon, Prince Barok is joined by his one faithful servant, Dia, a concubine who has her reasons for being grateful to the otherwise less than admirable prince.  It’s about this time that Barok learns a few things about his heritage he wasn’t aware of, and that his exile might be less coincidence than fate…or someone’s plan.  Now Barok must somehow restore Enhedu’s prosperity and prevent its people from being forced into slavery.

There are four first-person narrators, Barok, Leger, Dia and Geart (Prince Barok’s former bodyguard, who spends much of this volume in prison or slavery.)  This can get confusing, as most of them have very similar narration styles–Barok’s more distinct at first, until his personality changes.  With the switching back and forth, it takes a fair amount of time before it’s clear where the plot is going.

Quite a bit of time is spent on the community building part of the plotline; the author’s researched well, but this does require some patience on the readers’ part.  The volume is illustrated, some maps, some scene-setting photographs and diagrams, and a couple of handwritten notes that are a bit hard to read (especially the one that is supposed to be hard to read.)

I do see a lot of potential here, but this was perhaps a little ambitious for a first book.  I noticed a tendency to overdo the negative qualities of some of the villains, for example.  A neighboring lord isn’t just greedy, he’s fat, ugly, balding, rude and illiterate.  A meddlesome woman isn’t just self-righteous and judgmental  she’s also fat, lazy, nagging, frigid and either doesn’t understand how pregnancy works or tells easily spotted lies about it.

This is also a book that could use a glossary.  There’s three different military units that all have names that start with “H”, for example, and that took some leafing back and forth to figure out which one was which.

This is a relatively low-magic setting, at least until near the end, when one of the characters really gets to cut loose.  In the final chapters, we also get a few details that make the religious struggle not quite as simplistic as “sky father religion bad, earth mother religion good,” but it’s a very small caveat that is likely to be more important in later books.

While it’s an okay read, I would need to see some strong improvement in the next volume before recommending the series.

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Based on the manga by Shinobu Ohtaka, Magi is a 24-episode anime series currently streaming subtitled on the Crunchyroll website.  It’s set in an Arabian Nights-influenced world with djinn and other trappings of the genre.  Young Aladdin was raised in an isolated temple with no human contact for as long as he can remember, and is thus new to the outside world.  Good thing he has a big blue genie to help him out!

magi

In the first episode, Aladdin meets up with Ali Baba, a drifter who dreams of conquering the local “dungeon” (a mysteriously appearing building filled with traps and monsters) as it’s said anyone who survives a dungeon will gain great wealth and cool magic items.  Soon, the pair is exploring the dungeon.  But they’re not the only ones.  The local lord (who’s cruel and a little crazy) and his slaves battle Ali Baba and Aladdin.  One of the slaves, Morgiana, survives and becomes free, later joining our heroes on their adventures.

After some individual adventures, the trio reunites in Ali Baba’s hometown and the main plot kicks in.  The government has become corrupt and someone’s manipulating both it and the rebels to assure that the country is thrown into chaos.

Good points:  There’s plenty of cool fight scenes, the dungeons are inventive and there’s a nice variety of characters on the good guy side.  Sinbad, sailor of the Seven Seas, is particularly nifty.  Morgiana doesn’t get stuck with a cheerleader or damsel in distress role.

Not so good stuff:  For a series taking place in a hot desert area and the main characters spending most of their time outside in the sun, the character designs are suspiciously light-skinned.  Morgiana’s lack of agency in the early episodes may be off-putting for some viewers, we don’t get to see her real personality until episode 6, after which it never goes away again and she has full agency.  (But be aware that episode 6 might be triggery for some viewers for abuse in her backstory.)

Also, most of the bad guys are kind of cardboardy, committing evil acts because, well, they’re evil.  The big exception here is Cassim, Ali Baba’s blood brother.  While he is by no measure a good person, his motivations make sense given his background and circumstances.

Fate is a big theme in the series.  It’s explained that destiny is the force moving events in the direction of a better tomorrow.  But it’s a general trend, and many of the characters suffer great injustice and pain in the process.  The secretive organization Al-Sarmen seeks out these people to empower them to curse their fate and “reverse the flow of destiny.”   However, they have no interest in easing suffering or increasing justice, they just want to return the world to formless chaos.  For some reason.

Overall, the series (which has a hasty conclusion; the manga continues) was enjoyable to watch.  Some of its issues might make it less watchable for certain viewers.

Book Review: Universal Station

Book Review: Universal Station by Beth Brown.

This volume is by the Beth Brown who also wrote “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. Like that book, it’s a light fantasy about the afterlife. (Indeed, one of the main characters is a dog.)

Universal

Broadway musician Johnny dies in a plane crash during World War Two, and is met on “the other side” by his psychopomp, who happens to also be his beloved grandfather.  Grand escorts Johnny to the eponymous station, a transit hub for spirits to rest and recover while they get ready to move on to their final destination.

Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of dead Nazis just now, and they launch a coup to take over the Universal Station and run it their way.  Johnny and his now-talking dog must flee this onslaught.

Sadly, the charm of a talking dog is overwhelmed by the repetitive, preachy dialogue about the nature of the afterlife and how right Johnny’s grandfather, Grand, is about everything.

There’s a romance in the backstory, but if anything the dialogue in it is even more nauseating in its preciousness.

There’s a different book going on in the background that would be arguably more interesting, and whose midpoint would be about the end of this book. In it are all the actual action scenes, and the adventures of Johnny’s love interest trying to escape the Nazis.

This is an interesting curio, but it’s easy to see why it’s fallen into the memory hole.

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