Aug 31, 2011

Book Review - Heaven to Wudang by Kylie Chan

It is with some embarrassment that I admit that while I had seen Kylie Chan’s books many times before I had always assumed that she was American for some reason and that her books were YA.
Kudos goes to Rowena Cory Daniells and her series of interviews of female fantasy writers (here) for correcting of the first of those misunderstandings and Kylie Chan for the second.

Heaven to Wudang was a review copy sent to me by the publisher.  Unfortunately it’s the third book in a trilogy (or sixth if you count her Dark Heaves Series).  But as regular readers will know I’ve never let chronological order get in the way of reviewing.

So the beginning of Heaven to Wudang was a little rough.  Book series sometimes develop their own nomenclature, or conventions, shorthand for oft repeated actions, situations etc., and I found this with Heaven to Wudang initially.  Fortunately I have  background in martial arts, and watching Honk Kong cinema. My reading-fu is strong.
The Synopsis

“Human and demon, heaven and hell battle for the fate of the world in this fabulous bestselling series ... The demons that could control stones and elementals have been defeated, but the most powerful of Simon Wong′s associates still remains to create almost undetectable copies of humans and Shen. This demon allies with Kitty Kwok to prepare a torturous trap for Emma and Simone from which they may never return. Wudang Mountain is enveloped by dark foreboding as Xuan Wu begins to reappear -- sometimes human, sometimes turtle, but always without memory. Emma and Simone are in a race against time as they try to rescue Xuan Wu ... before the demons capture him.”
HarperCollins Australia

Relationships and Issues
The strength of Chan’s writing I found to be in her character development, that even though this book was tying up lose ends and rounding of story arcs it was the characters and my emotional connection to them that pulled me through. 

Chan’s also to be commended for being willing to include the topics of gay marriage, gender swapping and HIV all in one tale, without making the book a vehicle for author voice.
If there was one thing that did drop me from the story it  was the cultural cringe I experienced when Emma used the ubiquitous ‘mate’, but I got over it.

Splendid Vistas both Beautiful and Gruesome
One thing you get when you mix ancient and expansive culture with the paranormal/mystical is the chance to play with some truly magnificent scenes.  There is one depiction of the Dragon’s realm that features a giant sentient tree that the inhabitants live in, that struck me as particularly imaginative and well described. 

There’s also a point at which the characters discover a demonic meat market where the meat turns out to be human, that I think hit the tone spot on.  Gruesome without making me want to lose my lunch.

Chan delivers a happy mix of mysticism, romance, and action. Not to mention some nice pop culture references. I’ll happily go back and read the start of the series.

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Aug 29, 2011

eBook Review - The Space Between by Scott J. Robinson

scottThe Space Between is a self published title by Queensland author Scott J. Robinson.  It’s Scott’s first novel, though he has been writing for some time. 

The cover quote from Jack Dann holds true there is some serious talent displayed in The Space Between, some very smooth writing. 

It’s an ambitious type of story for a first timer, here’s the synopsis to give you an idea:



The story is set in the multiverse of Ananake and draws on myths and legends of ancient Earth, weaving a tale that moves from Sherwood Forest to distant worlds and outer space. It involves, amongst other things, magical gateways, Area 51, sentient spacecraft, a 50 thousand year old intergalactic war, elves and dwarves, wonder bras, Machu Picchu and strong coffee.

Kim thinks her day is going badly when her friend fails to meet her at Sherwood Forest. Then an annoying knight hits on her and she is stalked by an elf and a dwarf. But then the aliens attack and things really start to go down hill. Collecting strange companions along the way she finds herself in a race to stop the war with the aliens before things really get out of control.

Why is it ambitious?

I think it’s an ambitious task, because the author is playing with lots of genres, in this case fantasy and sci-fi with a little thriller and adventure/mystery thrown in.  There’s lots of good ideas in the story and I found it a little difficult to suspend my disbelief when it came to some elements of the story line.  Some of the plot I found a little convenient, as if Robinson wanted to get all his great ideas in. It was, not surprising then, that the original ideas that Scott came up with were what really drew me into the story.

What I liked

I absolutely loved the character Keeble and Scott’s take on Dwarven Culture. I could read an entire fantasy series with the ideas that he developed around the idea of Dwarven singing and rock working alone.  Most fantasy dwarves are riffs off Tolkien, bearded, live underground and mine too deep.  But Robinson gives us snippets in The Space Between, of a culture that has far more depth.  The same can be said for the development of the character Tuki, a Moai.  We get a fully developed original culture that I find refreshing.  The most enjoyable parts of the novel for me were the ones that focussed on these two characters.

What I didn’t

I couldn’t invest myself in Kim, the main character and the one from contemporary Earth. As a reader I just didn’t connect. Mel the Elf was a bit the same, though she was an “aloof” elf, these characters had nowhere near the “meat” or interest of Tuki or Keeble.

Some of the humour seemed misplaced to me.  There was some good one liners and pop culture references but I felt that this detracted from the story rather than added to it.  If we are going to suspend our disbelief and accept the premise of this story I think it’s better to go a more serious action adventure route.

Summing Up

I read a fair bit of self published stuff, enough to come across the dregs and to find some real gems too. 

Scott displays solid writing, very smooth in parts, indeed it reminded me of Dr Who or Torchwood novelizations – you accept the premise (which might be a stretch i.e. Torchwood defending humanity from alien incursions sans all help from other nations) whole heartedly and then take the events and characters seriously.

I think this one is worth a look, if you are interested in something a little different than straight fantasy or Sci-Fi - a solid start.

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Aug 18, 2011

Galactic Chat 07- Featuring an Interview with Kelley Armstrong

As promised here is my interview with international best selling author Kelley Armstrong, courtesy of the Galactic Chat Podcast. You play directly from the player below or checkout the Galactic Chat series of podcasts here.

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Aug 7, 2011

Book Review–Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

If you are part of the Speculative fiction scene, even in this great southern land of ours, you will have heard of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker .  It was published in the Northern Hemisphere last year and snared the 2011 Michael L Printz1 award and was a National Book(US) Award finalist.

Now Bacigalupi (BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee2) is no stranger to awards.  His adult novel The Wind Up Girl was awarded both a Hugo and a Nebula and Ship Breaker seems to feature some of the ideas that made that book a hit. 

Dystopia? Biopunk? Just great fiction
Ship Breaker , features a dystopian future world with human society living in the wreckage of an age of excess, where green technology is not some fanciful ideal but a necessity, a part of life. 

Our story starts on Bright Sands Beach where our protagonist Nailer, works on a “light crew”-clans of young workers who crawl the ducts of abandoned container ship wrecks3 searching for copper wiring and other salvageables. It’s here we learn of a future world where the disparity between rich and poor has grown, where the rich travel the seas on futuristic sailing vessels and the poor are left to fend for themselves scraping a living off the bones of the past. Where strange religious cults have merged with old religions, where genetically engineered dogmen are grown, bought and trained as loyal soldiers and where even blood bonded crew will sell you out if the price is right.

This less than ideal lifestyle is interrupted by the wrecking of a “swank”(rich person) ship on the Teeth(the submerged ruins of an old city).  Nailer finds a young girl alive on the wreck and from this point on he is faced with a number of life changing decisions; to kill her so that he and his friend can claim salvage, to sell her to the life cult who will harvest her organs, or to return her to her father for a reward - if indeed she is who she says she is. What ensues,however, is a classic adventure tale with far future, Biopunk colour.

What I think makes this great fiction for teens is the choices Nailer has to make, the decisions that he has to weigh.  Life for Nailer, just like the rest of us, is not a case of making clear decisions based on black and white thinking.  Sometimes what advantages us isn’t what’s right and sometimes when we do what we must our actions don’t bring us solace.

Teens Plus
Don’t let the YA/Teen categorisation put you adult readers off.  Reading this book encouraged me to buy the rest of Bacigalupi’s work.  He’s a good story teller and like Scott Westerfeld and Marianne de Pierres he has a talent for making his work exciting and relevant to adolescents and enjoyable for those with a little more life experience.

I note that this book was recommended by the Wall Street Journal as a “good book for young men” in a side panel of the now infamous Darkness Too Visible 4 article that castigated the young adult genre for being too dark. 

Considering the thrust of that article I find its inclusion odd, because while well written, there are depictions of brutal familial violence and killing(though not without consequence, emotional and physical).  Perhaps this is just moral conservatism, which seems to have little trouble with young men reading about violence but frowns heavily on depictions/mentions of sex  - and it isn’t mentioned(sex) in Ship Breaker, child prostitution is faintly hinted at and the male and female protagonists share a quick peck, but that’s it. 

I’d suggest the book for the 14+ age group because of the violence. I’d also recommend it to adults who want to participate in a deftly imagined and painted and possible biopunk future.  It feels very plausible to me, a world where our technology allows us to survive and progress as a civilization but where not everyone gets access to that technology. A subtle warning with a glimmer of hope.
This book is a review copy provided by Atom Books

1. The Michael L. Printz Award is an award for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature. It is named for a Topeka, Kansas school librarian who was a long-time active member of the Young Adult Library Services Association.
2.Start practicing the pronunciation now, I have a feeling Paolo is here to stay.
3. I am sure that Paolo used the ship breakers of in developing countries as for inspiration
4. An opinion article that I am sure was designed to be inflammatory, as it fails to establish with any degree of certainty what darkness is, uses Teen and child interchangeably, and fails to give produce any convincing evidence that the YA category is full of “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings”.

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Aug 1, 2011

Book Review–American Gods 10th Anniversary Ed.

amgodI have only ever read two books by Neil Gaiman(please don’t lynch me) and they have both been religiously themed, i.e., Good Omens and American Gods.  I can’t for the life of me think why it’s taken so long to getting around to this one.

In my defence, while this 10th Anniversary Edition is a review copy, I do actually own another battered copy of its first iteration, unread, along with its spin-off sibling Anansi Boys- both languish on the TBR shelf.

The story, for the uninitiated…
After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the time until his release ticks away, he can feel a storm brewing. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But the storm is about to break... Disturbing, gripping and profoundly strange, Gaiman's epic new novel sees him on the road to the heart of America. [Headline Books]

So how can one give a review of a book that is beloved of so many, which has been read and reviewed over the last decade and still be fresh.

I’ll try.

Gaiman weaves a number of threads together in this work.  It’s a story about gods, travel murder, change,  gah! the more I pick at it the more things it seems to be.  So to begin I’ll break it down.

Neil Gaiman meets Route 66
American Gods felt very much like a road trip, despite the fact that a significant portion of the travel in the book was by plane.  Perhaps it’s mention of certain American landmarks and iconic places .  Maybe the stereotypes that the gods inhabit, hark back to an older America.  I feel the weight of nostalgia, for things lost in a vast open landscape.

That Gaiman can generate this feeling in me I think speaks for the strength of his prose, as in retrospect, there’s not actually that much travel.

Everyone comes to America, even the gods.
Aiding this perception is the fact that it’s an immigrant tale as well. A tale of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and the gods they carried with them. Many of the gods bear the accents and the mannerisms of the culture they spring from and in Shadow traveling to meet them, the reader is given a sense of the cultural diversity that is the melting pot of America, the gods journey there and their slow strung out demise.

Yggdrasil versus the Matrix
Entwined with these themes is that of change, old gods versus new - the gods of internet, credit cards and fibre optics. Is this is a comment on what America has become, a land of the almighty dollar, the land of the instant gratification? I am not sure.

The Missing God
One thing that did strike me as odd was the omission of Jesus.  If any god would be in America you’d think it would be Jesus, but he’s conspicuous in his absence, apparently he’s in Afghanistan.  Did Gaiman do this deliberately?  He mentions Jesus in the twitter interview printed in the back of this version, but it doesn’t answer the question of Jesus’ absence or apparent aloofness. Was he playing it safe?

Murder Mystery & Confidence Tricks
There’s a murder mystery entwined in the story as well, but the less said about that the better as it’s a nice little twist.

There’s coin tricks and confidence tricks through out the novel, magic and misdirection. Gaiman uses it both as plot device and on a meta level(this should hit you at the end, or before, if you are sharper than me). There’s something about old time confidence tricks that harks back to a bygone America, face to face cons that required an understanding of human psychology.

Summing up
This is the authors preferred text, it’s a little longer and obviously varies from the first itteration. It includes a twitter interview, as well as a novella featuring Shadow called Monarch of the Glen.  I doubt that I would go back and read the first edition, it’s not a tale that I think, given my present reading load, that would be of any benefit and this is after all  Gaiman’s preferred story.
For Gaiman fans that haven’t read this version, it would be worth it if you haven’t read the tale in awhile.  American Gods is not one of those pacey pot boilers you read in an afternoon.  It’s a book to be savoured and enjoyed, it’s a book that requires attention.

For some one who is new to Gaiman I’d recommend this version.  It’s not as I have said a pacey read, but an unfolding journey of discovery with a couple of twists that I and perhaps you won’t see coming.

This was a review copy provided by Headline.

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