Warning Signs

When I receive review requests from authors (especially self-published authors; also especially first-novel authors) there are certain ‘warning signs’ that I look for in their letters, and that cause me to reject the request even if I have the time for it. (Some are only obvious in hindsight, sadly.) I’ve decided to collect some of those here, in the hopes of amusing our readers.

“I … never spend a cent for editing”

Most of the good self-published authors I’ve met absolutely hire an editor to go through their work. It’s just plain smart. As the saying goes, a lawyer who has himself for a client is a fool. Substitute an author who only has himself as an editor. Also, if a writer didn’t use an editor, why would he think that’s a good thing to tell a reader/reviewer?

“I know you don’t usually take this kind of book for review, but…”

I don’t review memoirs (for example). So what makes an author think that her memoir is THE ONE that will be different? Does the author really believe herself to be so singular among the streams of writers and publishers out there?

“Since you like J.D. Robb’s ‘in death’ books, I know you’ll love mine!”

If an author tells me her book is like a Robb novel, you’d better believe I’ll be running that comparison in my head as I’m reading. Since the author has me primed to expect a certain thing, I’m likely to think poorly of her book when it doesn’t live up to that. Also, when a first-time author says their work is better than that of a mega-best-selling author, I read that as arrogance. And let’s face it, since I already expect the resulting review won’t be a good one, I’d rather not review it at all. Arrogant first-timers are much more likely to throw a fit when someone gives their book a bad review, and I don’t need that kind of abuse.

“It’s a bio-thriller; I noticed that you like those.”

So why does it read like a character study, teenage wish-fulfillment story with a bare smattering of dubiously defined ‘bio’ or ‘thriller’? If an author tells me it’s a certain genre, I’m going to expect it to be of that genre. I’m also going to be annoyed with the author for misleading me as a reader. How authors manage readers’ expectations through descriptions and advertising is important. Also, why hobble himself by stretching the definition of his genre to the breaking point in order to get a review–all it means is that the reviewer will start out unhappy when they find they’ve been misled. That isn’t a good basis for a positive review. If authors can be straightforward about their genres, they’ll find it much easier to get their book to the right reviewer.

I’ll have to keep an eye out for other things I can add to this post over time. :)

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews Tagged with:

Review: “Triangle,” Teri White

Pros: Fascinating psychological relationships
Cons: Not what I was expecting from the description
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.

 

I read somewhere that Triangle was Teri White’s first novel. If so, I’m impressed–first novels are rarely this good. (And if not, hey, it’s still really good!)

Mac and Johnny meet in Vietnam. Johnny is an odd character in need of looking after. He’s childlike and simple, and Mac decides to take him under his wing. When they get back to the States they stick together, but Mac is forever losing their money in poker games. Eventually they find that Johnny is really good at killing. Mac takes the contracts, Johnny does the killing, and Mac loses the money in poker games, ’round and ’round.

Then one day Johnny ends up killing a cop without even realizing it. The cop’s partner, Simon, becomes obsessed with tracking down his partner’s killer. But how hard will it be to find someone who doesn’t remotely seem capable of killing?

 

It’s fairly remarkable how reasonable White makes this whole situation seem. Meek Johnny’s relationship with belligerent Mac seesaws between sweet and abusive. On the one hand, Mac has given Johnny a home and someone to take care of him, make his decisions and protect him from others. On the other hand, Mac has a temper, and Johnny isn’t very good at standing up for himself. It’s a beautifully drawn codependent and abusive relationship between two people who really do care about each other–but sometimes caring isn’t enough. Gradually police detective Simon starts to put together the pieces, following Mac and Johnny from state to state, because Johnny killed Simon’s undercover partner.

Simon becomes obsessed with Johnny. Unlike most movies, when he spends all his time trying to track down his partner’s murderer, disobeying his superiors all the way, he doesn’t come out on top. His department, co-workers and family start backing away from Simon’s increasingly erratic behavior. But Simon won’t stop until he finds Johnny.

Unfortunately I can’t discuss some of the neatest material without giving plot points away. So instead I’ll say this: the triangle of relationships between Mac, Johnny, and Simon grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Johnny, who should by all rights be the book’s worst of bad guys, is the character that made me tear up–and I wanted to root for him rather than any other character. Triangle is more of a character study than your average thriller novel, and I in no way felt cheated by that. This is one of the better books I’ve read recently.

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Review: “Pandora’s Star,” Peter F. Hamilton

Pros: Intriguing and imaginative aliens and plot, plenty of politicking and exploration of the world
Cons: Couldn’t for the life of me keep track of all the characters! Made things confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5


Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star (The Commonwealth Saga) (also available bundled with its sequel, Judas Unchained: 2-Book Bundle: Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained) is a vast, sprawling science fiction epic. Humans have settled on many worlds. Huge family dynasties rule human-occupied space. And fewer and fewer children are born as humans can now live for hundreds of years. They use rejuvenation treatments to reverse the course of aging, and as long as they back up their memories they can be returned to life using a cloned body after they die. There are politicians who’ve been involved in running human affairs for dozens and dozens of years. A movement called the Guardians of Selfhood on one planet insist there’s a mysterious alien called the Starflyer influencing human growth, in particular influencing our desire to visit alien stars.

Tech is very advanced. When someone realizes that a star in a nearby system has simply vanished, and that it must have been walled off by a Dyson sphere type of arrangement, the Commonwealth resolves to send a starship. Since most travel between worlds is accomplished via wormholes, this is a large undertaking. Once the ship gets there, the force field walling off the star system fails, leaving the Commonwealth’s ship vastly outnumbered and outgunned. It escapes, but it has caught the notice of the unusual alien hive-mind, and that mind’s sole goal is to expand, to make sure it is the only living thing anywhere. The Commonwealth starts standing up a navy and producing ships, but it’s far too late for that to do much good.

 

Distilling Pandora’s Star into those two short paragraphs is nearly a crime. We’re talking about an almost-1,000-page novel here, in which old souls all jockey for various types of power and position. This is a thick, fast-moving book with SO MUCH going on inside its pages. There are many characters whose viewpoints come up, and probably a handful that you could argue might fill a role of protagonist. It’s an ensemble cast, our Pandora. Each of those characters is carefully drawn. They give us insight into government, alien stars, human colonization, how long life and the ability to record or destroy memories affects an entire race–as well as those smaller connections between individuals.

That brings us to my major complaint, however. The cast of characters is so huge–often waiting several chapters of totally different material before bringing one of those characters back–that I literally had to devote multiple pages of a notebook to listing characters and trying to put a quick few identifying details to those names. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough. I’d find myself going, “Justine, wait, that name sounds familiar. Let me look through my notes. Okay, she’s tied to someone named Kazimir, That sounds familiar too, kinda. Then I read, “Glider. Sex” and suddenly it came back to me. I had to repeat that series of discoveries quite frequently, especially when characters were removed from their original surroundings, making it harder to link them back to their origins.

I absolutely loved the tapestry of characters; despite the number of them, Hamilton gives them very full personalities. There are plenty of wild events and discoveries to keep you pulled in. If you have a great memory for characters then I think you’ll probably do well with Pandora’s Star. If you don’t… well, keep notes as you go!

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The one problem with getting advance reading copies…

The one problem with getting advance reading copies is that most publishers prefer you wait to post the review until 1-2 weeks before release. So I’ve been getting reading done this week, and some reviewing, but I can’t post it until April or thereabouts. (This is not a complaint! It’s worth it.) I’m reading Peter F. Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star” and hope to put the review up on Monday. It’s slow going, and I have real trouble keeping up with the huge cast, but it’s an interesting read. Somehow I got out of the habit of reading SF regularly, so now I’m rediscovering how much I love the genre!

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews

Mr. Raven

Most rap is really not my thing, but I absolutely love this piece by MC Lars, “Mr. Raven”. (The video portion is made up of scenes from the John Cusack movie “The Raven”.)

Posted in News & Musings

Review: “The Burning Land,” Victoria Strauss

Pros: Fascinating world-building; interesting relationships; inventive religious plots
Cons: Some predictable (and depressing) events and people
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.

 

The Burning Land is book one of the “Way of Arata” series by Victoria Strauss. Gyalo is a devout member of a religious order that serves the god Arata. For a while Arata’s worship was outlawed, so they’re still rebuilding. The order believes that during the dark times a number of their people escaped tyranny by fleeing into the sacred Burning Land. While it’s likely that the harsh conditions killed them, the order must make sure. Gyalo is assigned to this mission; he’s a Shaper, one who was given by Arata the power to shape reality and transform non-living substances. With him are two Dreamers, whose visions will lead the expedition to their goal, as well as a guide and a handful of soldiers.

 

The reputation of the Burning Land as a place that has no sustaining resources, and that kills everyone who enters it, was too easily thrust aside once the expedition entered the lands. It made sense that most people wouldn’t be aware of the hidden resources of the desert, but for a while it came across as “everyone who enters this land dies… except that much of it is actually really easy to survive.” I expected at least a little bit of difficulty as they entered the area. That said, the Burning Land does eventually show its harsher side.

I enjoyed the basic core of characters in the book, including Gyalo and Axane, a Dreamer he meets while on his expedition. Gyalo is unusually firm in his faith without falling prey to many of the potential tropes in that area. Axane helped to keep me glued to the pages because I cared about what happened to her. A couple of the soldiers who accompanied Gyalo also show a surprising side of themselves. That said, some of the side characters are highly predictable and lack dimension. There’s never any question about how the order will treat Gyalo (or his companions) after he returns with his revelations. Nothing in that section was surprising, which made that portion of the book rather depressing.

There’s some great material in here exploring religion in interesting ways. The rules and strictures, the taboos, the heresies and outlooks… the main characters explore these things in thoughtful and interesting detail. With respect to dream interpretations, prophecies, etc. the book doesn’t make anything easy. There are plenty of things which are open to interpretation in all sorts of ways, and watching different characters come to different conclusions fascinated me. All of this added up to some great world-building.

Despite the occasional down-side, I very much liked The Burning Lands. It is not a fast-paced or action-filled book, and I found that to be just fine. The details of civilization, religion, and so on pulled me in until the very end, and I’d be interested to read the follow-on.

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Review: “The Paleo Chef,” Pete Evans

Pros: Scrumptious food
Cons: Not sold on everything
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The Paleo Chef: Quick, Flavorful Paleo Meals for Eating Well by Pete Evans is a collection of absolutely delicious recipes. Paleo is big on vegetables and avoids refined sugars, most dairy, and grains, among other things. While I don’t follow Paleo, I thought this would be a great source of healthful recipes–I buy vegetarian cookbooks for the same reason–and it most certainly is. There are some items Evans puts forward that I can’t quite buy into yet, like the idea of “activating” nuts and seeds by soaking them before use. Overall, however, these are recipes I would absolutely make again (and again!).

One of Evans’s goals is to make Paleo accessible for busy people. I’m ambivalent as to whether he succeeded or not. On the one hand, we did find most of these recipes to be pretty straightforward and simple. On the other hand, I think many people would look at the long lists of ingredients for some recipes and bounce. The length of those lists is deceptive. Much of the complexity comes from one of two places: First, many of the recipes in this cookbook are meant to be whole meals. For example, a recipe for pork cutlets includes a cabbage salad as well as a sauce. Obviously this will expand the ingredient lists. Second, many of the extended ingredient listings include a variety of spices and/or herbs, which are very easy to throw together in a moment or two. So I urge you to look past those things to the (entirely reasonable, in my opinion) amount of time and effort the whole recipe is likely to take.

Recipes in here typically have a lot of flavor. We made a meatballs in chipotle sauce recipe. It used all of the chipotles in two cans, plus a dash of the adobo sauce. Very spicy, but that spiciness is moderated by a nut ‘crema’ made of chopped macadamias, lemon juice, and lime juice that did a surprisingly good job complementing the meatballs. My only dislike in this recipe was that the sauce and meatballs got rather greasy while cooking, but skimming the excess fat out took care of that with no problem. As a note, the recipes often work with amounts of ingredients that don’t end up using up, say, an entire can of whole peeled tomatoes. So we took the leftover tomatoes, tomato paste, and adobo sauce and made a lovely soup out of them.

The first recipe we made out of this book, and also my favorite, is a wild salmon with coconut-lime sauce and sweet potato puree. The sauce includes lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves if you can find them; we had the former but not the latter and the dish tasted divine. I hadn’t expected a coconut/lemongrass/lime sauce to accent sweet potato in such a sharp and delightful manner. The only change we made to this recipe was to cook the salmon sous vide; this is a recipe that suits such substitutions well.

Salmon, sweet potato, and sauce

Salmon, sweet potato, and sauce

We also made a few side dishes here and there. A sauteed greens recipe was deliciously lemony, and it went way past what I think of as simple “sauteed greens”. Instead of just using kale, spinach, or chard, it uses asparagus, broccolini, garlic, zucchini, green beans, and kale. It makes a fair amount, and while it can weather refrigeration and some reheating, it’s best on the first night. Again this recipe sounds complicated since there are somewhat different instructions for the various greens (asparagus and broccolini, for instance, get blanched and then added to the sautee pan toward the end of the cooking). It’s another recipe that sounds more complicated than it is–the blanching is quite quick and easy.

Sauteed Greens

Sauteed Greens

One “trick” I learned from The Paleo Chef is something I intend to make extensive use of: the substitution for rice of cauliflower. You just stick the cauliflower in a food processor and pulse until the pieces are roughly the size of rice grains. (If you cut them too small then think of them as faux-quinoa.) Then the cauliflower gets sauteed in coconut oil for a few moments and seasoned with salt and pepper. It obviously doesn’t taste like rice, and it doesn’t have the consistency of rice. However, functionally it’s perfect for what it does. We served it under the meatballs with sauce and it served its purpose of taking up excess sauce so you don’t have to waste any. It also did a good job of moderating the spice in that recipe.

I’m looking forward to trying more of the recipes in here, such as a chai smoothie, churros (using coconut flour and arrowroot powder), pumpkin pie with bacon bark, venison skewers with beet chimichurri, grilled honey-mustard quail, Japanese crispy chicken, with miso mayonnaise, poached shrimp with avocado-preserved lemon salad, and many more. Chapters are divided into breakfast, vegetables/sides/snacks, seafood, poultry, meat, dessert, and drinks. I suspect the next recipe we make will be sweet potato rostis with poached eggs, spinach, avocado, and smoked salmon. YUM!

The Paleo Chef and Pete Evans haven’t convinced me to “go Paleo”, but I don’t think they need to. It serves as a great source of vegetable-forward recipes, judicious use of meats, and tricks like the cauliflower rice. I’d also make a dish like the salmon with sweet potato puree and coconut-lime sauce as a fancy dish for friends because it’s lovely and just so tasty. This book has earned its place on our shelves.

Posted in Cooking, Reviews Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: “Andromeda’s Fall,” William C. Dietz

Pros: Interesting characters and world; engrossing plot
Cons: Lack of chemistry in a pairing
Rating: 4 out of 5

Catherine Carletto is a wealthy socialite, and her family has close ties to the Emperor. When the Emperor’s sister, Ophelia, decides to stage a violent coup, she sets some of her people to finding and killing anyone who supported her brother. Cat’s uncle gets word to her just in time, and she manages to evade her pursuers. She does the only thing she can think of to disappear: she enlists in the Legion. The Legion is filled with people who want to escape their previous lives, so no one asks questions or probes too deeply. And besides, Cat wants to learn how to kill people so one day she might kill Ophelia.

As Andromeda McKee, Cat soon gets sent into combat. She’s a loner, but manages to make an unlikely friend out of one of her comrades, Larkin. Her superiors are impressed with her drive and common sense and she rises through the non-com ranks faster than she could have expected. Soon she’s responsible for more lives than her own, and she’s forced to make some tough choices. The Legion works side-by-side with the Empress’s troops, and when they take a family captive simply because the family supported the Emperor, Andromeda recognizes a friend from her school years. She’ll have to decide whose side to take and how to take it.

 

William C. Dietz’s Andromeda’s Fall (Legion of the Damned) is a very enjoyable military SF novel. The fact that the Legion knowingly harbors fugitives and criminals provides a decent excuse for how, in a tech-oriented future, someone might be able to hide in plain sight. Andromeda’s drive and focus get her through her training as a recruit, but I love that she isn’t perfect at everything. Larkin is an unexpectedly fantastic character–he has a surprising amount of depth to him, and I like that his ultimate loyalty to Andromeda has no hint of sexual attraction or romantic interest.

I enjoyed the action in Andromeda’s Fall–it kept me absorbed in the book, and I stayed up a bit late to finish reading the book (something that doesn’t happen often as I get older and need more sleep). There’s plenty going on, roping in the natives of the planet the Legion is on into the mix, as well as another race that would like to wipe humans out. One of the few things that confused me a bit was the use of “T-1″ … sort of power-armor, kinda, except that they have personalities and human operators are harnessed to their backs. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that this arrangement seemed less than optimal.

The only other thing that bugged me was a romantic relationship that eventually emerged. I didn’t feel any chemistry between Andromeda and her paramour, so the last-minute addition of this plot felt jarring and out-of-place. Other than that, however, I loved this book and look forward to reading its follow-on!

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Review: “Night Season,” Eileen Wilks

Pros: Cynna and Cullen’s relationship
Cons: This volume reminds me more of other urban fantasy worlds
Rating: 4 out of 5

Eileen Wilks’s Night Season (The World of the Lupi, Book 4) didn’t catch me up quite as much as the three previous volumes, but it’s still quite good. Don’t get me wrong–I love finally getting to see Cynna and Cullen’s relationship grow, and it’s delightful that their partnership doesn’t require the use of the ‘mate-bond’ that thrust Lily and Rule together. Most series would stick with that format, and it’s delightful to see an author who’s willing to do very different things with different relationships. That said, Lily and Rule have been such delightful characters so far that I didn’t feel ready to have a book that doesn’t include them. That’s a great compliment to Ms. Wilks’s ability to create great characters and relationships. Also, while Ruben (Cynna and Lily’s boss at the FBI) does show up in this one, and we learned a little more about him, he was absent for most of the book, which felt odd once he’d been swept up into events.

Edge, the world that Cynna, Cullen, and a few others get pulled off to, is an interesting locale. The only thing that keeps it stable is a medallion that’s been stolen, and that will destroy the minds of anyone who picks it up who isn’t supposed to (and it chooses its own bearer). Cynna has been brought here to use her Gift to Find the medallion. It’s gone far enough away, of course, that Finding it will be tricky at best. And of course there are plenty of dangerous things to get caught up in along the way.

It’s nice to start seeing a little more regarding the dragons at the beginning of the book. We also get to learn quite a bit about gnomes, and even a bit about the Sidhe (although not much). Gan–the demon who’s been growing a soul–has an extended role in Night Season, and it’s fun to watch as she gradually learns what it means to not be a demon. It isn’t an easy road for her, and learning proper behavior comes to her both slowly and painfully.

Cynna and Cullen have a great relationship. It takes on the combative, not-quite-trusting nature that I’ve seen keep people apart in other romance novels, but it works out much better than I’m used to. It doesn’t feel artificially boosted. It feels as though they’re working their way through genuine and important conceptions and misconceptions, rather than exaggerated and mostly-imagined conflict. The difficulties they have in coming together make sense for them and their situation; it’s very much in keeping with their personalities.

I missed the earth-based context for the series in this novel. I guess in taking a trip to faerie (sort of) it made the book feel a little more like some of the other urban fantasy worlds out there, where before now the series somehow managed to make everything feel new, including werewolves and dragons. It’s still a great read, however!

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Review: “Blood Lines,” Eileen Wilks

Pros: Wonderful worldbuilding, delightful characters, and engaging plot
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Eileen Wilks’s Blood Lines (The World of the Lupi) is book three in the series, following Tempting Danger and Mortal Danger. I started the series at book five thanks to the vagaries of reviewing, and I loved the series enough to go back and pick up the first four books. In this volume, Lily and Rule end up chasing down a demonic presence that seems bent on killing a number of important lupi. Cynna, another Gifted FBI agent with whom Lily works, and Cullen, a powerful sorcerer and lupus, quickly get pulled into the plot as Cynna’s old mentor turns up in the middle of it all. Cullen and Cynna are caught between irritation with each other and attraction. The clan Leidolf–an old enemy of the clan to which Rule and Cullen belong, Nokolai–is trying to use the death of its heir as an opportunity to kill Rule. To make matters worse, Rule has been infected with demonic energy and Lily can feel it spreading throughout his body with her Gift.

 

I’m not quite sure how Wilks does it, but her world feels much more unique than those of many of her urban fantasy contemporaries. Maybe it’s the lack of vampires. Maybe it’s all in the details of the structure of lupus society, the nature of magic, and the seriousness of Lily’s job with the FBI. Simply the fact that the main character isn’t a glib, snarky young woman with as much attitude as aptitude makes a real difference. Combined with that, the less unique details (such as magic having returned to the modern world only recently) feel less common.

As usual with Wilks’s books, we find out a bit more about how everything works in each new volume. This time it’s sorcery and Cynna’s unusual use of power, as well as the backbone of lupus clan structure and the ways in which demons can interact with the living world. There’s plenty of scheming and backstabbing to keep the plot fascinating and the pacing varied. The characters are fantastic and multi-layered–I really enjoy watching Cullen and Cynna, two very individualistic people, trying to feel their way around what’s happening between them.

Generally I take notes while I read books that I plan to review, so I don’t forget all the little details that add up to fascinating patterns. In this case I was so swept up in events that I wrote down almost nothing. On the one hand that makes it tougher to go into a lot of detail in the review, but it also conveniently illustrates how thoroughly I was immersed in the events of Blood Lines.

As a final note, Blood Lines starts out with a “dear reader” introduction from Lily that would make it much easier for new readers to the series to get their bearings. I applaud that kind of thoughtfulness in an author, because making it easier for new readers to jump right in also increases the number of people who might enjoy the series enough to dig up the previous books, as I did.

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