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In a Nutshell: Books - Playing Catchup

I'd just like to note that I'm actually playing catchup with some books I've read semi-demi-hemi-recently, not that I'm reviewing an actual book named "Playing Catchup" or anything.

Anyhow, that out of the way, let's get on the reviews, which have been sadly lacking recently:



Lost in Austen by Emma Campbell Webster

A cross between Jane Austen and a choose-your-own-adventure, I first heard of this book in the community whatwasthatbook, which totally rocks y'all. For finding books you're looking for, for the fun and warm fuzzy feelings of helping someone else find a book, and mostly just for either getting kicks of unexpected nostalgia ("OMG, I totally remember reading that book! I'd totally forgotten it!") or even finding something that sounds interesting and deciding to pick it up. Which is the case here.

Unfortunately, the premise that made me search it out and pick it up didn't pan out nearly as well as I'd hoped. I was hoping for something more original that just had the feel of Austen and maybe some characters/situations as Austen wrote, but instead got mostly the various stories rehashed (and in very rushed ways for some of them, which cuts out so much of the delight), spliced together a bit awkwardly (since Elizabeth Bennet also gets to take on the role and traits of Eleanor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, etc etc. in various places), and a very few other endings to possible choices thrown in. Quite arbitrarily, I might add.

Another downside is that instead of being a straightforward choose-your-own-adventure type book, it instead has this whole system of scoring for various attributes that you're supposed to compare your scores to get different results at different points, and so on. Which sounds alright in theory, but in practice is just annoying. Especially since the points most of the time are just an excuse for the author's humor and sarcastic comments on the plot. Which in turn are one of the good things about the book - the author is funny and has a fairly biting wit, and yet still obviously loves the books even as she pokes at them. But it's not enough to make the whole points system much more annoying than not.

Luckily you can just read through without keeping score, basically taking whichever the hell choice you want when it calls for a check against your scores, accomplishment lists, etc etc. Which does take some of the annoyance out. But you're still left with a highly-abridged version of the various Austen books that, if you're reading this at all, you've probably read two million times in a much better format anyhow. All the humerous comments in the world weren't enough to appease my disappointment, at that point. Especially when the consequences of various choices are so freakishly arbitrary, and often seem to just punish you for daring to go off the paths that the heroines have already tread in the originals.

So general verdict: Great premise, and not a *totally horrible* execution, but overall disappointing. Not generally recommended.





Of Two Minds by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman

This was a second "oh, that sounds like an interesting premise, maybe I'll try it" book from whatwasthatbook, and frankly a second strike. The book follows a girl/woman (right on the verge) in a kingdom where everyone has the ability to make imagination reality to some extent, and follows her adventures as she realizes she has some odd link with a boy/man she doesn't even know with the power of telepathy, who turns out to be her intended husband, the marriage arranged by her parents. Then even more odd crap happens involving a villain, another alternate reality, whole other planes of existence, etc.

Now, the above is a really succint summary, but frankly? I didn't *care* about the story or characters enough to really spell it all out at length. I didn't horribly hate the book, but I also thought it was frankly boring. The characters were *all* annoying, and I didn't know whose "side" I was on because I wasn't sure who the hell annoyed me the most. The ending was stupid and sappy, the story was... I guess technically original but had all the building blocks rehashed from a thousand other romances and fantasies... I just Did. Not. Care. About the only reason I read through the whole thing without just giving up from boredom was because it was also really short. Just at two hundred pages, in a normal-sized paperback, in the type of font that a college student might use facing a ten-page essay with eight or nine pages' worth of ideas.

So general verdict: Not recommended. Boring. You can do better.





Heart of Light by Sarah A. Hoyt

Now this book I found because it was one of Amazon's recommendations for me at some point, on some page. Either the actual recommendations page, or "people who purchased this also liked this" or whatever. And it's one that makes me realize that y'know, a lot of the people on Amazon are just stupid.

I find it a bit odd to compare this book to Of Two Minds, because I disliked them both for (somewhat) different reasons. This book is probably technically better-crafted and has better and more original world-building, but it also probably has the more actively ANNOYING characters and situations. To the point where I kept reading mostly in hopes that some portal would open up into the book world to allow me to reach through and smack the hell out of most of the characters, main or otherwise. Well, really I guess I kept reading mostly in hopes that it'd get *better*, since there was some originality there and the writing was, as I said, technically better. But it never did.

One good point I suppose is that the book at least tries to throw some diversity into the mix - it takes place in a slightly fantasy version of the Victorian era, but doesn't take place actually in England, instead having its physical settings in various portions of Africa. Because of this, it also throws some non-traditional (as far as fantasy goes) races and characters into the mix. The bad side of this is that while there's technically variety as far as location and skin color goes, the characters also badly badly revert to overhashed types. You've got the Timid Englishwoman With a Hidden Spine, the Pukka Sahib(s), the Noble Black Man, and the Fierce Black Woman, mainly. There are a few very minor characters who don't fall into such stereotyping, but overall, my main thought was "gods, haven't I read these characters in many badly written things before?"

In a way, the diversity is also one of the main strikes against the book, as much as I hate to say it. I mean, in theory any wandering away from the overtrod "white people in Whiteland" fantasy tropes should be applauded... but in this particular case, it doesn't work because there's too much else to keep most readers from being immersed, and adding the jolt of a whole different land and culture to the mix is in a way the final nail in that coffin. In other words, while in some books I might really enjoy immersing myself in a whole new land and culture that I'm not very familiar with, here I'm left without a familiar land or culture, with characters I can't empathize with because I frankly just don't much like them, in an overall setting (Victorian quasi-magical) that's not quite what I'm used to, in adventures that are much different from my normal life. So... too freaking much difference really to allow me to bridge the gap between myself, and the events in the book. You gotta give me *some* bits of familiarity or even just empathy here to work with, people.

So anyhow, the summary: half-Anglo, half-Indian woman and her brand new mage-husband get sent to Africa to find some mystical gem for the Queen, the actual reason being hidden from the delicate flower of a wife, of course. Along the way they have attempts on their life, meet up with More Magic, meet up with an old friend of the husband, meet up with said Noble Black Man and Fierce Black Woman who have semi-coninciding, semi-conflicting interests, have to go into the depths of Africa, and no one can decide who they hell they want to sleep with, until the end.

That's... pretty much the events of the book, really. Oh, there's more detail, and much mental hand-wringing and hang-ups and crap, but really it's about a Quest for the Gem-Shaped MacGuffin, and the fact that despite two of the characters are newly married, they still don't know what or who the hell they want in a partner, and oh yeah, their personalities all suck and therefor don't mesh at all.

Seriously, I just wanted to throttle the main female character for a) being too submissive half the time, b) not thinking for herself, and c) not being able to make up her damn mind about anything and d) being Stupid. I wanted to throttle the main male character for being short-sighted and selfish, being stupidly helpless, being blind, being stupid, being whiny, did I mention being stupid? I wanted to throttle half the other major characters for being too unbending, too prejudiced in their own sense, and too damn stereotypical, among myriad other faults.

So yeah, don't read the book for the light fluffy loveable characters, in other words. There is some good stuff here throughout the other chaff... the characters DO have their redeeming moments from time to time, and the world-building isn't bad on its own, and the actual writing seems technically good... but it's hard to pick out the wheat from the vast amounts of chaff, so to speak.

General Verdict: Don't bother.





Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale

This is actually the best of the batch of four books for my main reviews this time, but I feel a bit embarrassed saying so, because it's also definitely a) very very niche, and b) definitely Not Great Lit. More fluff, really. But hey, sometimes you need a little fluff in your life.

This book takes place in another generally Victorian setting, but this time with the twist that Demons are real, and all abandoned hell generations ago, instead coming to the mortal world to be redeemed. Their descendants, called Prodigals, are now living in (and restricted to) the capital city (we're never really given a specific location, but it seems like England), and mostly live in a ghetto originally called Hopetown, but known to everyone as Hells Below.

The Prodigals are mostly human-ish, but have some physical differences such as sharp black fingernails and often oddly-colored eyes, slightly pointed ears, sharp teeth, etc. They have some powers as well, often differing between Prodigals, and depending on the bloodline(s) of their originators apparently - heightened senses, the ability to fly (without wings) for a rare few, prophecy, the ability to start fires, etc etc. And they're also very definitely discriminated against.

Along with this difference from our real world, there is also the Inquisition. It's never really explained if it's the actual Inquisition that managed to hold on throughout the centuries and just changed a bit through time, or if it's a revival of sorts, but at any rate it's both religious and deals with law enforcement, and religion is pretty big, which I guess is fairly natural when you've got the actual descendants of demons right in front of your eyes. And as usual, a lot of the Inquisition is corrupt, so that while it's supposedly for the Good of all, etc., it's really oppressive and all that. Surprise surprise. Never would've expected something called the Inquisition to be other than rainbows, kittens and bunnies. Never.

The story itself revolves around a (male) Prodigal and a (male) Inquisition possible love interest (not gonna spoil the eventual outcome). So yes, this is a sorta gay gothic historic urban fantasy sorta thingy. So as I said, very niche. It can get slightly explicit, but not extremely so. It's not what I'd consider flat-out porn, but also not for the kiddies, if ya get my drift. So.. there's that.

It's also a bit odd and perhaps jerks you out of the story a bit because it's basically two main stories revolving around the same characters, and the first one is in first-person from the Prodigal's point of view, while the second story is in third-person limited omniscient revolving around the Inquisitor. Except that for the very ending it comes back around to first-person for the Prodigal again. So yeah, that's a bit odd, and jarring.

In general though... well, this isn't Deep Meaningful Lit, and while the prose isn't exactly purple it can get distinctly lavender at times. But it's generally well-written, and I like the characters a lot - they're flawed, but yet somehow not to the point where you want to pick them up and slap them silly. And the world-building, IMHO, is interesting. It's just... not deep, which isn't really all that bad a criticism, all things considered. And of course it's probably very limited in audience appeal, but there you go.

General Verdict: Not without flaws, but enjoyable for what it is. Just has a very limited audience, probably. But if you like gay fiction, blendings of fantasy-and-real-world, Victorian lit, AND a gothic touch... you might want to give it a spin.



And for a few remaining very very quick and brief summings-up of some of the sequels I've read:



The latest Rachel Morgan book (Kim Harrison): More of the same, which is mostly good. This series has its definite ticks and some eye-rolling moments, but in general I consider it one of the better supernatural-urban-fantasy series out there. It continues to actually develop the characters (somewhat... although a lot of them still take some giant steps back at times) and the situations, so... I plan to keep reading, at least for a while yet.

Iron Kissed (3rd book in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs): Hrm, a bit torn. I still like this series and will get the next one, and in some ways it's good because it definitely resolves some issues hanging from the first two that I feared would continue to be dangled as unresolved plot points for ages. So in general it's good but... there's some Bad Stuff that happens to the main character toward the end, which first totally seems to shatter her and then she seems to shake off with no lasting ill effects, all of which left me cold. I'm hoping she'll turn out to be deluding herself a bit and will still suffer more ill effects than she expects in the next book, or I'll call foul.

Heroes Adrift (3rd book in dealing with the Sources and Shields, by Moira J. Moore): Probably about on par with the previous two, but it took a large turn away from the previous settings and so on, so that left me a bit cold. And now there's even more Unresolved Mysteries hanging around, which is a bit annoying, but overall I still liked the book.

Under Orders & Dead Heat (newest books in the loooong series by Dick Francis, the latter book also co-written by Felix Francis): I mostly just wanted to include these to squee a bit over the fact that there are semi-new Dick Francis books after it was decided that he was Never Writing Again and all that. And also to say that while I was desperately afraid there'd be a drop in quality after the death of his helpmate-wife and also the co-authorship of his son, I didn't see any such drop, myself. I still enjoyed these books quite a bit. Even if the first is yet another Sid Halley book which dude, I like the character, but there are OTHER characters I liked too, and would like to see some of THEM make a return for a change...



I've read more new (or new to me) books in the intervening time, I'm sure, but either can't really bring them to mind, or don't want to review them for reasons of repetition (like the Agatha Christie books, which I wouldn't really be saying much different for each particular one.) But this should be enough to somewhat catch me up, at least. Sorry about the gaping silence on this front for a while...

Comments

khedron
Jul. 8th, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC)
Heroes Adrift (3rd book in dealing with the Sources and Shields, by Moira J. Moore): Probably about on par with the previous two, but it took a large turn away from the previous settings and so on, so that left me a bit cold. And now there's even more Unresolved Mysteries hanging around, which is a bit annoying, but overall I still liked the book.

I was going to agree with you here, and say that so far, I've liked the second one best of the three -- it gets into the interesting question of how this government-funded disaster prevention agency is seen by regular people, who pay the taxes and don't ever see tangible proof of the success of averting storms. But then I realized I'd be admitting to reading the three books in the past week or so. Oops. Caught. =)
stormfeather
Jul. 8th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
Bwahahaha, yeah, they're not Great Lit, or the greatest modern fantasy ever, but they're light and fun and easy to read, at least.
khedron
Jul. 8th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
Oh, totally. I tend to go less for romance & more for world building, but these've been fun so far.