Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The joke's on you, reader.

So there are basically two main elements to the book:
1) Where the heck are they and how do they get out alive?
2) What's with this guy who's an admiral but clearly not an admiral?

The first is handled with classic suspense/escape sensibilities - they come up with a plan, nearly succeed, plan fails and they're marginally worse off than before. Lather rinse repeat. This part holds together fine, it's a standard sci-fi model.

The second annoyed me tremendously. Within a few chapters, one of the underlings has figured out who the 'admiral' is, but they don't tell us. They drop hints like we know a darn thing about the worlds they come from. It's a series of inside jokes and the reader is on the outside. Throughout the whole book, exactly one paid off at all for me, and it was way too little after way too long. All the answers come in the final chapter, when two characters sit down and conveniently explain everything to the reader in a simple dialogue that no two human beings would ever have.

Will i read the next in the series? I don't know. It will depend a lot on whether it's building on these characters, or just the world they live in.

(I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Rest of Us Just Live Here" will ruin YA SF/F for you, in a good way

"But what about everyone else?"

This is what Ness asks in the introduction (though i guess i'm not sure it'll appear in the published version, one can never be sure when reading an ARC). It seems like every YA book these days features, as he notes, "a Chosen One, who has secret abilities he's never known about or an incredible inner strength that she doubted was there. They're the only ones who can defeat the Big Bad, topple the government, free the people."

Of the hundreds of kids who line up in District 12, only Katniss and Peeta are sent to the Hunger Games. There are plenty of Divergents, but only Tris is divergent enough to do what needs to be done. Harry's just one wizard in a school full of wizards. What about Katniss's second cousin, George, who lives on the other side of town? What about Lisa, an abnegation/erudite just keeping her head down and hoping for the best while handing clothes out to the factionless? What about Jill, the quiet girl in Ravenclaw who would be the best in her year except that Hermione is always better? They have lives, too, you know.

Ness offers up what would be a pretty generic coming-of-age story, a gaggle of kids finishing their senior year of high school, with all the checkboxes ticked: unrequited love (or is it?!), The Gay Friend, The New Kid, distant parents, college angst, etc. But each chapter leads with a plot summary of the equivalent chapter in a Generic YA Book, with all the tropes and cliches and whatnot. While The Chose One is saving the world, Mikey is wondering if he'll ever kiss his dream girl, if he'll stay friends with his bestie when they go off to school.

And the thing is, i hate Coming Of Age stories. 17-year-olds wangsting about the same thing everyone else around them is also going through just makes me snippy. But the juxtoposition made the story. By comparing Mikey and his friends to some unlikely teens out saving the world, it makes the mundanity of getting ready for prom into something much more potent.

Of course, there's also the humor - these are a bunch of normal kids leading normal lives in a world just like ours except that, every few years, Something Goes Horribly Wrong and a Chosen One has to fix it. Casual references to what is, for them, everyday life, are just absurd when they involve the Undead Army interrupting final exams.

(I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program.)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The Wolves" by Alex Berenson takes the character John Wells to a darker place and I didn't care for it

This is Book #10 in the author's John Wells series of spy thrillers.  John Wells is a CIA agent (and later a deniable independent contractor for the CIA) who has spent most of his career infiltrating terrorist cells in Afghanistan and similar countries.  Along the way he converted to Islam -- his religious beliefs and practices form a distinct part of his character.  And like most "lone wolf" spy novel protagonists, he has a complicated personal and romantic life.

I haven't read all of the John Wells books but of the several I have read, this one was my least favorite.  The storyline follows directly from the previous book in the series, "Twelve Days," so you probably should read that book first to understand the context of how the characters relate to each other.

This book is almost the complete opposite of Twelve Days in tone and pace.  The pace in Twelve Days was frantic with Wells going from country to country -- Europe, Russian, Middle East, Africa -- in a very short period of time to try to keep the United States from being tricked into entering a war with Iran.  And it was heavy on the violence as well.  This book starts when events have had a little time to calm down and because there is not a deadline, the action moves more slowly from place to place and even within a set location.  The level of violence is significantly lower in this book, as is the degree to which Wells's physical ability to carry out his mission and escape from tight situations stretches the bounds of believability.  For the most part, Wells doesn't pull off physically improbable stunts.

However, instead of being about saving the United States, the story in this book is all about revenge.  I didn't like that part of the book -- it made the character of John Wells even darker than he has been throughout the series.

One interesting part was how much time the reader spends inside the heads of the bad guys.  They aren't just caricatures but fully formed people who justify their own actions.

If you like this series and this character, you most likely will enjoy this book as well.  I didn't care for the particular focus of this book, but it was still a fairly entertaining read.  Even though this book was merely OK for me 3 stars out of 5), I would still read the next book in the series.

I received an ARC free from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Real Tigers (Slough House)" by Mick Herron is not the spy book I was expecting but definitely worth reading

This was not at all the book I was expecting from the blurb on the back of the book. I had not read any of the other Slough House books and always associate spy novels with nonstop action and page-turning speed. So I was a bit taken aback when the book started out fairly slow and "wordy" (by which I mean there are a lot of full paragraphs and not just the spare action and dialogue oriented prose you might see in an American thriller). Clearly this was not going to be a page-turner and I was tired and just wanted some mindless escapism so I nearly quit reading but was convinced to keep going and am glad I did.

The Slow Horses (which I only just now realize is a play on words of the building where they "work") are MI5 agents who have been pulled from official duty for various screw-ups and given make-work assignments designed to make them quit. These folks are not James Bond or any of the great fictional British spies. They are not especially heroic or competent and they don't appear to like each other very much. A lot of the wordy part at the beginning of the book gives the reader insight into these characters and what messes they have made of their lives. It can be slow reading, especially if you are expecting a spy thriller. If you get tempted to stop reading -- just keep going. There is a point to what you are reading and things will eventually start moving.

Just about the time you think the action is really going to start, you get more background but keep with it. This is definitely a book written by someone with a degree in English, not the typical American thriller that is often a mental movie script in novel form. It is much more character driven with a fairly involved plot. Sit back and enjoy the writing.  One of the benefits of so much of the book being about the characters and not just solid action is that it is not critical to have read earlier books in the series to be able to understand and enjoy this one.

I don't want to give out any plot details because it would spoil the surprises the author has built into the story. Right around page 114, I realized what kind of spy book this was going to be -- and it was nothing like I expected. For the rest of the book there were plots and counter-plots until you wonder who the good guys and bad guys really are and who is going to come out on top in the end. And I finally got more of the action I was originally expecting, even though the Slow Horses are not your typical spies.  By the time I finished, I was really glad I had kept reading even though it wasn't the book I had expected. This is definitely a thinking person's spy book -- a literary spy thriller. If all you want is page-turning action, this might not be the book for you. But I still recommend it because it will keep you on your toes.

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.