Review: “Space Carrier Avalon,” Glynn Stewart

Pros: Good space combat scenes
Cons: Starts slow
Rating: 3 out of 5

Glynn Stewart’s Space Carrier Avalon (Castle Federation) (Volume 1) follows Kyle Roberts, a war hero and pilot who’s been put in charge of the Avalon, a famous old ship on its way to being decommissioned. Obviously, the ship’s last flight won’t be nearly as uneventful as he expects. First he has to clean up the ship–it’s been used as a place to get rid of problem people (everything from rapists to drug runners). There’s also a piracy problem brewing on their route.

I really prefer a book that has a strong story arc right out of the gate. Space Carrier Avalon just didn’t grab me until well into the book. Also, while it’s nice to see women in strong roles, it would also be nice if their curves and sexual habits weren’t constantly on display (or at least, also tell me how handsome and virile the guys are so it’s even). For that matter, the characters as a whole could use more depth; they all felt a little thin.

All that said, the fight scenes were great. Stewart seems to have a handle on how to display fighter and ship combat, which aren’t easy things to get right! He’s also not afraid to have death and destruction rain down on his characters, so there’s something to lose. My guess is that the next book in the series would probably be better, since by nature it would start out with a story arc in place.

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SFWA Story Bundle

Want a bunch of science fiction ebooks, cheap? SFWA has a story bundle available until May 24. You sort of set your own price, although the price threshold determines how many books you get. I got the whole thing! (As though I need any more books to read…)

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It feels strange

I’ve been doing book reviews online since 1998, since before blogs and book tours and the like. It feels so strange to not be writing book reviews. Hopefully I’ll find a balance in which I can do a book or two every week or so just to keep my toes wet.

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews

Just so you know…

The reviews will become an occasional thing and I will only very rarely take items for review for at least a while. I’m going back to school and am already deep in books that are not nearly so much fun to read.

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews

Review: “The New Neighbors,” Simon Lelic

Pros: Interesting mystery
Cons: Structurally odd
Rating: 4 out of 5

Simon Lelic’s The New Neighbors largely takes the form of a manuscript written alternately by Sydney and Jack, a couple who recently bought an old house stuffed with creepy junk. After a neighbor dies they want to get their experiences down on paper (or at least Jack thinks it’ll help) so that the reader can best understand the strange incidents that have befallen them. Is it a ghost story? Is it a murder mystery? You’ll have to read to find out.

The back-and-forth between Jack and Syd rings true. In some ways it makes the situation between them worse as they get some of their harshest and hardest feelings down on paper between them. They’re having to hash things out in a tone neither has dealt with before. And as the narrative involves events that can be hard to prove at best, particularly once the police get involved, believing in each other has never been so tricky.

The families involved in this tale–Jack’s and Syd’s, as well as neighbor Elsie’s–are outrageously nasty, but also believably so. (If you’ve dealt with manipulative and abusive people in real life you’ll probably find some of the family members’ behaviors disturbingly familiar; consider this your warning if you aren’t up to reading about abuse.) Things spiral downward for the couple (Jack loses his job; Syd returns to drug use) and for Elsie as well, whose father puts her in the hospital. It’s depressingly hard to read about if you aren’t ready for it, but it rings true.

The structure was a bit odd. Sometimes one of the two people will have more than one section in a row, so you really have to pay attention to which name begins a chapter and not just rely on alternating chapters. The two character voices need a little more differentiation in my opinion. There’s also some confusion once we jump into and through the present events and thus the whole thing isn’t really being told the same way any more. The good part is that there’s a really nice wind-up like you want in a traditional mystery toward the end. There are plenty of hints and clues and ways for you to figure things out (or not) depending on what you pick up on.

Ultimately I enjoyed this novel and would try more by Peter Lelic.

NOTE: Free book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The Beloveds,” Maureen Lindley

Pros: Weird, shifting tale
Cons: Weird, shifting tale
Rating: 4 out of 5

Maureen Lindley’s The Beloveds focuses on Elizabeth, who feels mightily aggrieved. As far as she’s concerned her life has always gone wrong. Her younger sister Gloria appropriated both her date Henry (eventually marrying him!) and her bff Alice. Their mother left the family home to Gloria even though Elizabeth is the one who loves the place. She has wars with her neighbors, starts experimenting with poisons, and engages in frankly psychopathic behavior. It’s interesting how many books lately are concentrating on the psychos instead of their victims. It’s an odd change, and one I would have preferred to remain a rare niche rather than become a trend. I prefer main characters who are at least a little sympathetic, and it’s hard to find that in characters like Elizabeth. Lindley tries to make her understandable in some small ways, but for me it wasn’t enough.

There were too many spots where I’d try to imagine what’s coming next in the story and all I’d come up with was “Elizabeth will find yet another way to be a psycho.” It would have been nice to see a bit more coherent plotting than that. That said, without giving anything away I will say I liked the way the tale ended. I thought it was clever and interesting and hinted at more interesting things to come than most of the rest of the story did before it. Okay, so that last bit is also a bit of a minus. It seems like some of the same things that make the book good are also the things that make it not sit entirely well with me.

Still, I do love tales where someone’s devious nature results in plenty of thrilling twists and turns, so I did enjoy reading The Beloveds. Whether you’re likely to enjoy it depends on how sympathetic you want your main character to be.

NOTE: Book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The Broken Girls,” Simone St. James

Pros: Fascinating story
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

In Simone St. James’s The Broken Girls, the time period switches back and forth between 1950 and 2014, in the small town of Barrons, Vermont. In 1950 we follow four girls who attend the Idlewild boarding school, a place where families dump their unwanted or troubled girls. In 2014 our guide is Fiona, a journalist whose sister was killed and dumped on the abandoned grounds of the closed-down school 20 years ago, and who now finds herself writing a story about the planned renovation of the school. Just to make things even creepier, there’s a rumored ghost, Mary Hand, who haunts the school’s grounds in both time periods. Meanwhile, Fiona’s long-time obsession with her sister’s death–despite the fact that the man responsible is in prison–is driving a wedge between her and her boyfriend, Jamie. After all, it isn’t just that he’s a local cop. His father is the chief of police, and was a part of the investigation. As for Jamie’s family, of course they aren’t thrilled that he’s dating a reporter.

There’s a lot going on here. Fiona’s father, Malcolm, is a famous investigative journalist while Fiona mostly does fluff pieces. One of the girls from 1950 is an orphaned French girl who spent time in a concentration camp and who disappeared (only her friends thought anything serious happened to her–everyone else assumed she ran away). We end up with two mysteries: who killed Sonia in 1950, and was Fiona’s sister Deb really killed by her boyfriend Tim 20 years ago? Just to add to it, what role have the occupants of the town and the members of the police force played in all of this?

I found the mysteries to be fascinating and satisfying. There are subtle clues along the way, and I’m not ashamed to say I missed some of them–that’s indicative of a well-crafted narrative, in my opinion. There should be enough information to make you feel like you’re getting somewhere while keeping the ultimate clues subtle enough to keep you from feeling bored. It’s a tough line to tread.

The story did a good job with the ghost of Mary Hand. There’s definitely something inexplicable going on here, but it isn’t too heavy-handed and neither is it taken too lightly. Ultimately it does seem that there’s a ghost wandering the halls and grounds of Idlewild, but she isn’t overly powerful and doesn’t ride roughshod over the rest of the narrative. She adds the right level of creepiness.

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Review: “Live Your Life,” Ann LeFevre

Pros: Some good suggestions
Cons: Artificial gimmick; some not-so-great advice
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Live Your Life: 14 Days to the Best You by Ann LeFevre, PhD, LCSW, CMT, details 14 ways to improve your life and self. The “14 days” shtick feels like an artificial gimmick, because few of these suggestions are things where you’re going to see results in a day. The book tacitly acknowledges that when it conveys such sentiments as:

Show yourself compassion by listening to your cues and establishing a daily ritual that addresses your needs.

In one portion about exercise, LeFevre mentions being in pain all day every day for two to three weeks and just pushing through it until she felt better. While she stops short of saying we should do this ourselves, I think it’s irresponsible to send the message she does. When I developed tendinitis in my hands I, too, pushed through the pain–and as a result, it’ll never go entirely away. It’s important when in that much pain to at least get a doctor’s opinion if possible. Sure, some pain is temporary, but on the whole pain is a warning sign.

The book relies to some extent on visualization and self-affirmation techniques. These are techniques I’ve never been impressed by and haven’t heard great things about.

There are some good suggestions in here; nothing ground-breaking, but it’s still useful to have them all in one place. Again the whole “14 days” notion doesn’t really hold up when the author does things like put “Stay the Course” ahead of “Start Somewhere, Anywhere,” but they are both useful notions to think about. Each section includes “Thinking Points” and “Action Items” that nicely sum up the text and make it easy to come back and brush up on any things you want to try.

Ultimately, I feel like this is a late entry into the world of self-help that’s trying to do something new and instead just retreading old ground.

NOTE: Book provided free by publisher for review.

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Review: “Sparrow Hill Road,” by Seanan McGuire

Pros: Fascinating worldbuilding and characters
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road is about Rose Marshall, a ghost who’s been sweet 16 for decades. She’ll forever wear the prom dress she died in, and she does whatever she can to help those drivers who are headed toward a grim fate on the Ghost Roads. Sometimes she saves them. Sometimes she helps them get home one last time. Sometimes she saves their souls from an evil not-quite-phantom who fuels his immortality and youth using the ghosts of the newly dead–he’s the one who killed her, and she still runs from him, even though she knows eventually she’ll have to do something about him, if only because no one else will.

The description I read of this book made it sound like a novel concentrating on the latter plot line, but it’s actually more of an anthology of interconnected stories about Rose and the Ghost Roads. An intricate level of worldbuilding has gone into this milieu. Ghosts of all different kinds, following different sets of rules, abound. Routewitches pop up quite a few times, and on the whole they seem inclined to help Rose achieve her goals, although not always in the manner which she’d prefer. It was hard to imagine how Rose’s setup would support a book this large, but we’re talking Seanan McGuire here, so I trusted. I was right to trust–the stories are fascinating and imaginative all the way through. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

The characterization is beautiful. Rose is a complex character, not at all limited by her urban legend(s). (Naturally in the decades since she died she’s been the source of a handful of them, some more accurate than others.) We gradually learn more and more about her own death, until finally it’s time for her to tell us the whole story. We also see her square off against a ghost that doesn’t know it’s a ghost, fight to save someone who’s approaching their fate, and do an unpleasant favor for the Queen of the routewitches. She tags along with some ghost hunters on a whim, and discovers that some of her own family still has an interest in her. The stories are varied and interesting, as is the world in which they take place. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys ghost stories.

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Short Take: “Lullaby Road,” James Anderson

Pros: Fascinating little desert town
Cons: Ending loses its mooring a bit
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lullaby Road, by James Anderson, centers around truck driver and somewhat-thug Ben. He becomes babysitter for a day when someone leaves a child and dog out in the cold for him, and a friend of his drops her baby on him with little notice. It isn’t a comedy, though, as this desperate little desert town goes a bit mad. Someone hits a street preacher with their car and takes off again–but things aren’t as simple as they seem. The (father?) of the child Ben is forced to take in, Pedro, disappears–how and why? Another man who employs Pedro turns up dead. Someone tries to finish off the preacher–who and why?

Poor Ben. He’s a simple guy who wants a simple life, but he’s just a slice too good to turn away when others need his help, and it gets him into all sorts of trouble. He’s already had a variety of run-ins with local police, who largely think of him as a thug (it’s true he tends to solve problems with his fists), so he’s starting with a handicap. Luckily he has friends, some of whom are willing to do things like help look after mysterious children.

Unfortunately, the ending goes a bit off-track. It’s interesting, but somewhat mysterious and vague, whereas the rest of the book tended to be grounded in physical detail and a very down-to-earth character. Maybe if the change had been more gradual, or there had been more surrealism in the rest of the book, it would have felt natural. Instead it felt like I drifted into a different book when I wasn’t looking.

 

Book provided by publisher for review

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