Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles #1) by Philip Reeve

 

Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles, #1)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date read: July 16 to 23, 2018

This book gets a solid OKAY from me: good for young adult, but just fine overall. There was one thing about it that I couldn’t get behind, and that one thing get in the way of my enjoyment. More on that below.

Generally speaking, this book was too young for me, but this time I say that as an observation, not a critique, because it’s written/meant for a younger audience. Readers who enjoy YA would enjoy it as well, but the writing gave me that feeling that it was written with young readers in mind. Almost everything about it was geared toward young readers, from the young wholesome protagonists who are eager to throw themselves into the fray, to their fight to overthrow a corrupt system, to their grand magnanimous ideals, to the industrialized dystopian setting, to the bleak look at an environmentally devastating future, to the mustache twirling villains, to the non-stop action, and the list goes on, right into the spoilers. So I’ll stop listing things here.

I would recommend this book to young readers and anyone looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation. It’s a little violent for YA with some characters getting killed rather graphically, but the ideas and visuals and hydraulics this book inspire will look incredible on screen.

To get to that one thing that took me out of the story, I have to explain a little about the set-up. The conceit, municipal Darwinism, is really interesting. The execution, though, is… not as interesting. Municipal Darwinism is basically big cities consuming smaller cities. Once consumed, the smaller cities get broken into parts and their resources are used to fuel the bigger cities. The people who are consumed either assimilate and resettle in the new city or they are enslaved; it all depends on how “ethical” the cities doing the consuming are. Not all big cities are predators though. A few of them are peaceful, and survive by trading with smaller municipals. (I find them more interesting than the predators and wanted to find out more about them, but this story’s focus is on predator cities.)

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

These cities aren’t just cities stuck on land, though. They’re traction cities. Yeah, that’s right, they can move. They can run actually. Up to 100 km per hour, if I remember correctly. Yeah… This was where the book lost me. I could not imagine a city the size of London running around the world eating almost everything in sight at roughly 60 to 100 km per hour. I mean, the weight it carries alone would snap its appendages clean off every time it tries to take a step forward. Unless, somehow, the atmosphere is less dense and/or gravity is no longer a thing in this world… I don’t know. I could imagine everything this book threw at me, everything but cities running around on traction. Apparently not being able to buy into this one thing unravels the whole book because I found the rest of the story hard to take in while I tried to work out how London was galloping across the world, eating other cities. 

I went through the same thing with Updraft by Fran Wilde. The ideas introduced–bone towers and flying contraptions–were really interesting, but the ways in which they were incorporated into the story and dystopian setting didn’t make much sense to me, and that took me right out of the world the author tried so hard to create. And once it lost me, I could not get back into it.

So that was my stumbling block for Mortal Engines. Wish I could have liked it more because it’s got four more books in the series, and I love series (but I love solid world building more). So not dismissing these books completely, just gonna put it on the maybe list for now.

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Iron & Velvet (Kate Kane #1) by Alexis Hall

Iron & Velvet by Alexis  Hall

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: June 25 to 29, 2018

Kate Kane is a revised version of Sam Spade for our modern times. She’s a private eye living in urban fantasy London and she investigates cases involving vampires, werewolves, the fae, and other otherworldly creatures. The case this time is the murder of a werewolf outside a nightclub, and Kate is asked to look into it by an alluring vampire. She couldn’t resist.

This is a paranormal romance with a lesbian character at the center, and there’s more focus on the romance than the paranormal. Normally this wouldn’t interest me, but Kate is an interesting subject, so I didn’t mind following her around even when the investigation took various detours through her sex life.

The writing style is hardboiled and done very well, and I say that as someone who’s not a fan of hardboiled mysteries. But since I had heard lots of good things about the author, Alexis Hall, there were some expectations. Fortunately, they were met.

Since hardboiled is not my preferred genre, the writing was a little hard to get into at the beginning. I didn’t really get into the rhythm of the narrative or Kate’s voice until more than half the book was over, but by the end, it was an enjoyable read. A little too romance-heavy at times, but not a big deal.

What is a big deal is Alexis Hall not continuing this series. I think there’s a good thing here, and I was hoping there would be more. Oh well.

What stood out the most to me is the queer female detective angle, which I don’t see much in urban fantasy or mysteries in general, and I appreciate the work the author put into this character to make her seem real and not another tough-acting, hardboiled caricature.

Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh

Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 25 to 28, 2018

A quick, unencumbered read and not bad for paranormal romance. Personally I think Nalini Singh is one of the few better (readable) authors in this genre. If you like PNR, there’s a good chance you’ll like her books, and you’ll have a long back list to enjoy. Her style is very consistent and predictable.

I’ve read 4 books from her Archangel series and thought the first 3 were fine–the 4th was awful but that’s another thing altogether. They’re a bit long and too romance-focused for my liking, but fine overall. She builds unique worlds very well and populates them with striking, beautiful, otherworldly creatures who are as beautiful as they are violent and vengeful, and she adds interesting alternate histories to these worlds and characters. The romance can always be counted on to be hot and heavy and instantaneous, if that’s what you’re looking for. If not, it can be suffocating.

The writing is almost always too focused on the romance for my liking, and I find it weird and awkward whenever it shows up in the middle of intense action scenes, like right in the middle of a chase scene. They’re easily overlooked, though, if you don’t mind these kind of things in your paranormal romances. I, however, do–there’s a time and a place for the sexy times. Not in the middle of a investigation or kidnapping is all that I ask for. How is this so difficult to NOT write…

Anyhow. This book is no different than any of the other books by this author because her writing, themes, and content are very consistent. Only major difference is it leans more towards sci-fi than fantasy and features shifters and characters with mind powers instead if angels and vampires. There are factions and conflicts, an enemies-to-lovers story line, various urban settings, and lots of action and sexual tension as usual. And also as usual, there are a lot of explanations. Every character’s motive and background is explained, as is every thought and feeling they have toward each other; this is another trait of this author’s writing style. You never have to wonder why. Everything is laid out in the open. No sense of mystery anymore; hence the 2-star rating.

DNF: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible (The Austen Project, #4)

Date read: May 28 to 30, 2018

This book has been called the modern Pride & Prejudice all over the bookish blogosphere, and that was the first thing that got me interested in reading it. That is until I actually read it and found it to be… ridiculous.

But maybe I should explain further. I personally don’t think it’s possible to rewrite a P&P suitable for our modern times because the social and economic consequences of marrying outside one’s class no longer carry the same stigma (at least not in most Western societies), and so a modern tale about the Bennet sisters’ plight would not have nearly the same impact as the original. It wouldn’t have any impact at all tbh. That whole “want of proprietary” thing and having mortifying parents wouldn’t work at all either.

Plus, this book is a collection of first-world problems and I could not get through more than 10% before wanting to set it on fire.

I mean…

Liz is a writer for a magazine, and Jane is a yoga instructor; both currently living in New York.

After their father falls ill, they return to their hometown Cincinnati only to find the family a mess–mother still high-strung, younger sisters still ridiculous–and their childhood home falling down around them.

Since Jane is single and approaching 40–OH THE HUMANITY–their mother has to get her married off soon or else… I have no idea what “or else” means. This isn’t Victorian England, and the family estate isn’t entailed. Perhaps a yoga instructor’s salary isn’t as comfortable as one would hope, but it isn’t quite destitution either. So I really don’t get the desperate picture the author is trying to paint here.

But anyhow, back to the story.

Enters two wealthy eligible bachelors.

Bingley is a handsome, charming, easy-going doctor who just moved to town, AND he’s got an equally handsome and bankable (bangable?) best friend. But Darcy is a curmudgeon. More than that though, he’s a neurosurgeon. And this was precisely where I stopped reading. Couldn’t take it anymore.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern updates to this classic are surprisingly shallow. I was expecting more, maybe something clever or poignant with a little humor, because of all the praise this book has gotten. But really, it’s like any other contemporary romance out there, and the prose itself is nothing special. I honestly don’t see what everyone sees in this book.

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: May 5 to 6, 2018

Currently available for free on all ebook sites.

This novella is a good start to the series, and I regret letting it sit on my e-shelf for the past couple of years and forgetting about it. Found it again in a bout of spring cleaning, and after the wild ride that was Altered Carbon, I needed something light and happy to take the edge off.

Not expecting much, I went into this book with some reluctance expecting to see the same old regency romance set-up (scandalous aristocrats and nobility, rogues/rakes, strong-willed governesses, “compromised” virtue, various mentions of class and marriage and marrying out of one’s class), and it does have those things. However, it surpassed my expectations by actually being well written and I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would for a few reasons:
1) it’s better written than most of the regency romances that I’ve read (and/or abandoned)
2) it’s smarter than I expected
3) it has self-awareness of its own genre and the tropes/pitfalls of its forerunners
4) it actually addresses some of these tropes and pitfalls.

At only a 100 pages, it’s not long enough to address all those things, but it does a decent job of getting me interested in this series and Courtney Milan’s writing. I’m hoping the rest of the series will be just as good or even better.

Angels Fall by Nora Roberts

Angels Fall

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 18 to 26, 2018

Not bad, but also not good either.

I mean, there are good parts, but they’re offset by little things I find annoying and there were a lot of these little things which accumulated at the end. So it was a bumpy read. The Montana setting and vivid descriptions of a small town sitting at the foot of the Grand Tetons were a nice touch though, and the main character was sympathetic. Easily my favorite part of the whole book was the setting. Everything else was mostly filler.

A couple of weeks ago my neighbor got a new job out of state and I “inherited” her library. Normally this would be exciting–I love sorting through books–but this time, not so much. She and I don’t have much in common book-wise, and her collection consists of fiction, lots of mysteries and thrillers and quite a few romances. All contemporaries and not a single sci-fi or fantasy in the bunch. All huge door-stoppers too. Majority of these will go to charity because I have my own pile of similar fiction that I still haven’t been able to chip at no matter how much I avoid it try.

Anyhow. I now have a huge stash of Nora Roberts books and it’s been a real–chore?–experience sorting through them.

I went into this book expecting–well, hoping–it’s like The Witness which was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. This book has a similar set-up: small town, picturesque backdrop, lots of wilderness, nosy busy-body townsfolk, protagonist with a traumatic past who is on her own, and a murder mystery plot in the background. What’s different from The Witness is the uneven pacing and utterly unlikable love interest who is actually quite an ass. This turned out to be the sticking point with me because I could not get over how much of an ass he was. Moreover, I could not see what she saw in him, and so I couldn’t get into the story whenever he appeared, being all ass-like.

More on this book in particular when I get home.

* * * * * 

I’m home now, but still don’t have much to say about this book. Maybe with a little more time it’ll come to me. For now though, all I can say is this book makes me angry, and not in a good way, because the set-up is good and there is so much potential for the rest of the book to be good. But unfortunately Nora Roberts had to go and be all Nora Roberts all over the damn book. I wouldn’t say she ruined it, because I’ve read worse, but she got very close. So much potential, all wasted.

*angry muttering*

It could have been SO GOOD.

Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

#1. The Birthgrave
#2. Shadowfire (formerly Vazkor, Son of Vazkor)
#3. Quest for the White Witch

These books are intense. Like, INTENSE. Mind-blowing. Ground-breaking (only sort of a pun). And easily the best sword-and-sorcery series I’ve ever read, which might not mean much coming from me since I’m not a fan of the genre in general, but recently I learned it’s because I haven’t read any good sword-and-sorcery. None that fit my particular taste. Until now.

Tanith Lee’s writing fit the bill. Some people don’t like her prose and say she had a tendency to over-write her stories, that she was too flowery with her words, too elegant or too extravagant at times. I like it though. I know it can be hard to read, might take some time getting used to, but I like it. I find it very enjoyable, especially when it’s at odds with the intensity of the stories she was telling.

This trilogy was originally released with Conan-the-Barbarian-esque cover art, complete with scantily-clad women in awkward poses, to convey the style of fantasy its written in… and appeal to its “target” audience? It’s target audience is actually me… but who could have known that back then, right? Recently the whole trilogy was re-released with darker, slightly gothic-looking covers (see below) that are more in line with the characters and apocalyptic world in which they live, which I prefer. 

I still have the last book to read, so below are not quite reviews, just some brief notes and impressions.

* * * * *

The Birthgrave

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: June 21 to September 2, 2015

A hard book to read and an even harder book to like. And I enjoyed it very much, mostly because I have strange taste in genre fiction and strange books always call out to me, but I think, if the mood is right and you’re looking for something with depth, with flesh, to sink your teeth into, you might want to give this challenging book a try.

The writing is subversive and sublime and unexpectedly hard-hitting, and not what I expected from the Conan the Barbarian throwback cover and description. I simply expected Conan the Barbarian but told from a female perspective, which sort of what this book is. It takes Conan as the foundation for which the story builds on to create a whole new world that’s on the edge of destruction and reincarnation.

And I find every part of it fascinating because it really delves into and takes advantage of all the things that genre adventures often ignore, like the inner life of a confusing character who is, by all accounts, an alien. She is definitely not of the world in which she walks. And in most stories written in this genre, she would’ve been ignored or killed early on. Here, though, she gets to tell her tale.

* * * * *

Shadowfire (Birthgrave #2)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 14 to 18, 2018

Still good but still a hard read like the first book. Unlike the first book though, we’re no longer following the mysterious nameless woman who emerged from a volcano, broke the world into pieces, and set a host of apocalyptic things into motion.

Instead, we move on to her son’s perspective, Vazkor (son of Vazkor). He’s an angry young man who was raised in a society that valued violence, might, and masculinity. He grew up without his mother, only having heard tales of her in a destructive, demeaning light all his life. So when he grows up, he does the expected thing. He sets out to kill her.

I’m not saying he isn’t within his rights, but the reason behind his revenge journey is… weak. His mother would not have approved.

Still an interesting story and still well written, but maybe not as compelling as the nameless woman’s story because it lacks the nuanced, alien feel of her narration. Vazkor is more in line with the series’ old Conan the Barbarian inspired book covers. He’s more human in his wants, needs, and motivations, and therefore not as interesting to me.

These books though… when I see or hear people say “pillars of the genre” and then name the usual names and list the usual books, I always wondered what my pillars of the genre would have been if I had grown up reading sci-fi and fantasy. I think this series would have easily made my list.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: April 26 to 29, 2018

This is a deceptively angry book. It may look normal and unassuming on the outside, even boring, but on the inside, it’s a slow-building, roiling, burning rage, the kind that sucks you in and makes you burn along with it. And I could not stop reading or even look away. Finished it in 36 hours. All I did this weekend was read this book and let it burn.

Beautifully written, bitterly frustrating, angry and wholly unexpected.

Looks real black and white now–very clear–but back then everything came at you in bright colors. No sharp edges. Lots of glare. A nightmare like that, all you want is to forget. None of it ever seemed real in the first place.

[…]

Would it help to announce the problem early on? To plead for understanding? To argue that solutions only demean the grandeur of human ignorance? To point out that absolute knowledge is absolute closure? To issue a reminder that death itself dissolves into uncertainty, and that out of such uncertainty arise great temples and tales of salvation?

[…]

I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence. Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.

[…]

The afternoon had passed to a ghostly gray. She was struck by the immensity of things, so much water and sky and forest, and after a time it occurred to her that she’d lived a life almost entirely indoors. Her memories were indoor memories, fixed by ceilings and plastered white walls. Her whole life had been locked to geometries: suburban rectangles, city squares. First the house she’d grown up in, then dorms and apartments. The open air had been nothing but a medium of transit, a place for rooms to exist.

The theme “you can’t ever go home again” prevails infuriatingly throughout the writing, cementing the fact that, here in this story, you really can’t go home again.

Normally I hate fiction that leaves the reader without closure or an ending. Why read books that imitate real life when there’s already too much real life in your own life? That has always been my reason for staying away from contemporary fiction. But it’s different with this book and its open ending and lack of closure and lack of subtlety, all because it’s Tim O’Brien (better known for his memoir of his experience in the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried). There’s a sharpness to his writing that has always spoken to me. It’s almost as though I get him and what he’s saying. No one writes about memory and pain like Tim O’Brien, and no one writes about being lost in the wilderness of post-traumatic stress quite like he does.

My heart tells me to stop right here, to offer quiet benediction and call it the end. But the truth won’t allow it. Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of us. Who are we? Where do we go? The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating, but this is a love story. There is no tidiness. Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.

This book found me at the right time and in the right state of mind to appreciate its infuriating complexity. In a different mood, at a different time, and I would have no doubt stopped reading somewhere about page 20. But there was something about this past weekend that made this book call out to me. Every word, every line, made sense in a way that contemporary fiction rarely does for me. Maybe it’s Tim O’Brien. Or maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe I just wanted to get lost in the woods or a lake (preferably one that’s accessible only by helicopter).

Rosemary and Rue (October Daye #1) by Seanan McGuire

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: September 2 to October 5, 2015

Never thought I’d say this, but I sort of hate this book and it’s all because of the main character, October (Toby) Daye. She is just so damn infuriating. But the thing is, not liking the MC has never stopped me from reading a book, continuing a series, or even enjoying the writing. But I just can’t do it with this book.

Credit where credit is due, this is not nearly as bad as some of the urban fantasies I’ve read, because there is a lot of potential in the world building and all the mythology woven into the writing is very interesting. However, the book itself is not as well put together as it could have been. It started out okay though, but then half-way through it started to unravel, with each chapter making less sense than the previous. By the end, not much about it made sense to me anymore, least of all the main character herself–the reason for the series, the reason we supposed to care about these books.

There are too many things wrong here–pacing’s too slow, tone too depressing, main character too apathetic and infuriating. Personally I don’t find the fae that interesting; they’re pretty obnoxious tbh. However, in spite of that, Seanan McGuire’s got a good thing going here, such as the interesting modern-day San Francisco setting, an alternate world filled with otherworldly creatures, and a long-term story arc that’s fitting for a long series. I especially like the setting(s), magic, courtly politics, depths and complexity of the world building. I’d like to be optimistic and say maybe this was a fluke. Maybe the next book is better. Maybe I’ll pick up it some time in the distant future when I no longer recall why I hated this book, but let’s be honest, that’s probably not gonna happen because Toby is still the main character and that makes it too difficult for me to care

Also, the first half of this book was too much of an uphill slog and the second half was too weirdly repetitive, especially the action sequences. It felt like the same couple of scenes kept happening over and over again. Toby kept getting almost killed too many times that by the the Nth time, I was like, OK maybe you’re better off dead…? She’s a professional private detective, yet she is no good at detecting, but I’m gonna cut her some slack here since she did spend a good number of years as a goldfish.

Another thing I couldn’t get into was the mystery. Didn’t care about the victim; didn’t care about Toby’s connection to her either.

Last but not least, this book feels like it’s the middle book of an ongoing series, not the first book. It feels like we’re being dumped in the middle of on-going cold war between two huge factions and we’re given very little background to work with. We’re supposed to figure things out as we go along. Too many things crucial to plot and character development are summed up quickly, rather than shown. The relationships between the characters are already well established, and so there’s a ton of history that we’re not privy to and we just have to accept that. Like I said, infuriating.

I can’t imagine how the next book is any different, and based on some of my friends’ reviews, it’s not. And that’s why I’m quitting this series.

Don’t know why I can’t seem to get into Seanan McGuire’s writing though. Feed was meh and a DNF at the sample chapter. Her short stories were also meh. I see so many people on my feed enjoying this series, reading all the way up to book #10, and I just wanna know… how? How do they do it? How did they get through books 2 to 9???

A group I’m in on Goodreads is reading Every Heart a Doorway this month, and I’m tempted to join in because I have the book (thanks, TOR!), but I’m dragging my feet because… Seanan McGuire.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1) by Jodi Taylor

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: February 12 to 24, 2018

RIVETING.

If I didn’t have to work for a living, I would have finished this book in a single night, and then reread it immediately. And then maybe once more in audio because it was that kind of book and exactly what I needed.

I honestly did not expect this book to be so funny, or rather, I didn’t expect it to feature dry British humor so heavily. It had me laughing so hard, so many times, I could not read it in public. And then there were times when it had devastatingly honest commentary that made for some hard reading, but the humor certainly helped to offset the heavier moments.

This book is not without faults or shortcomings by any means. The beginning is slow and longish and very explain-y. You have to wade through a ton of background and set-up info before the action gets going, and the real action doesn’t start until half-way through the book. But it’s got a great cast of characters and snappy dialogue and, once the action started, things happened quickly. Literally, it was just one damned thing after another.

I really like Madeleine Maxwell, simply called Max, as the narrator. She is funny (often without meaning to be),smart quirky, and honest, and I had a great time following her on her journey to the cretaceous period.

Since the quirky characters and their nerdy, haphazard, time-traveling ways are so endearing, I find that I don’t really mind all the other stuff. All the things that normally bother me, things that plague all time-travel books such as plot holes and continuity issues and the method of time-travel itself, don’t really register. Sure, they’re noticeable if you look into them, but I don’t really care (this time). Just gonna enjoy the ride (through time).

Long series are a blessing when you find one that fits. I personally love long series, but rarely do I find one that makes me want to keep reading. This one is one of those rare ones. Good thing there are 8 more books and a couple of short stories already written.

A few memorable moments:

“I certainly wasn’t where I should be and it would be the cautious, the sensible thing to do. But, for God’s sake, I was an historian and cautious and sensible were things that happened to other people.”

[…]

“The Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings was the official body whose task it was to oversee repairs and maintenance to our beloved but battered listed building. We had them on speed-dial. They had us on their black list.”

[…]

“Time is important in our organisation. If you can’t even get to an appointment in your own building on time, they argue, you’re not going to have much luck trying to find the Battle of Hastings.”

[…]

“And finally, I have been asked by Mrs Partridge to raise this issue. As some of you may struggle to remember, next month is your annual appraisal and I’m advised by Mrs Partridge that some of the forms you were asked to complete as a preliminary need… more work.

“Your personal details update form… Mr Sussman; you are not a Jedi Knight. Kindly amend the details in Box 3–Religion. Ditto Mr Markham, Mr Peterson, Miss Maxwell, Mr Dieter and Miss Black.”