Review: Invisible Planets

Posted on February 20th, 2017 @ 21:42
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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in TranslationInvisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu

My rating:

Blurb:

Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

 

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

An interesting collection of science-fiction stories by Chinese authors—I didn’t like all of them, but none was particularly bad either, and the themes and places they dealt with offered different perspectives on what I’m used to see throug a more “westernised” prism. I found both similarities and differences gathered here, making those stories familiar in parts, and a journey in unknown territories in others.

“The Year of the Rat”: 3/5
Quite creepy in its theme (students without much of a job prospect are enlisted to fight mutant rats whose intelligence and abilities may be more than meet the eye), and in its conclusion, although I would’ve appreciated a bit more insight in the exact reasons why the whole situation turned like that.

“The Fish of Lijiang”: 3/5
By the same author, and another take on a society where freedom is only an illusion, where everybody and everything is at their designed place.

“The Flower of Shazui:” 2/5
An ex-engineer who fled his designated area tries to help a prostitute whose desires aren’t necessarily in check with her partner’s. Still interesting, but less exciting?

“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”: 4/5
The author later mentioned a few inspirations for this story, and I agree, for I could feel them (especially the Miyazaki-like tones of a district/street full of “ghosts”, souls in robot bodies gradually getting discarded). I really liked the atmosphere in this one, and the sad ending was pretty fitting.

“Tongtong’s Summer”: 4/5
I read this one in another anthology already, but I liked it the second time round as well. Caretakers operate robots remotely in order to help elder people, and their increased role in society gives birth to other issues, but also to great hopes for a generation that, all in all, has still a lot to bring to the world. The characters were also attaching.

“Night Journey of the Dragon Horse”: 2/5
A mechanical dragon and a bat go on a journey to bring back light to a dead world. Beautiful, but unfortunately a little boring.

“The City of Silence”: 5/5
In a world become one State, what happens when so many words are forbidden that communicating becomes impossible?
Very chilling, because the way this State evolved is, in fact, extremely logical and cunning.

“Invisible Planets”: 3/5
Glimpses into little worlds. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of them explored more in depth… and at the same time, I feel they wouldn’t have the same impact anymore if this was done? Very strange.

“Folding Beijing”: 2/5
A city living in three different spaces, each alloted its own time of the day, and with inhabitants forbidden to cross from one space to the other. Which the main character wants to do, of course. Also interesting, however I felt the ending didn’t have much of an impact on me. I kept expecting something more… dramatic?

“Call Girl”: 3/5
The call girl’s wares are fairly interesting here. I would’ve liked some more background about them, how she came to be able to provide such services.

“Grave of the Fireflies”: 2/5
Loved the atmosphere, this rush through the stars to escape a dying universe, guided by the last queen of mankind… However the story itself felt too short and rushed.

“The Circle”: 4/5
I could see where this one was going from the moment the gates were introduced, and I wasn’t disappointed. I definitely liked how it was all brought.

“Taking care of God”: 4/5
Depressing in a way, but dealing with a theme that I’d deem definitely different from my own ‘western’ vision, with taking care of one’s parents and elders being part of culture in a way it isn’t in my own corner of the world.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

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Review: The Emperor In Shadow

Posted on February 13th, 2017 @ 20:43
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Yamada Monogatari: The Emperor in ShadowYamada Monogatari: The Emperor in Shadow by Richard Parks

My rating:

Blurb:

Lord Yamada is called away―one last time―from his newly restored estates in Kamakura to help Prince Kanemore ensure that Princess Teiko’s son, Takahito, inherits the Chrysanthemum Throne. Unfortunately, assuming the throne proves to be the easy part. Yamada must then help Takahito renounce that throne in such a way as to hobble the power of the Fujiwara clan forever!

Rating:

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

First, please note this is not a standalone novel, contrary to what I thought when I requested it, but part of a series (and very likely the last volume). However, I didn’t find it difficult to follow the story and understand the characters: when the narrator alludes to events of the past or people he had previously met, he always adds a couple of sentences, nothing too long, just enough for a reader to understand the context. So this was good with me.

The setting here is that of feudal Japan (the Emperor and his court, bushi, military governors, geisha and courtesans) with a dash of supernatural: ghosts and youkai are common knowledge, and onmyôji and priestesses have actual power. In this world, Yamada and his faithful friend Kenji are confronted to attempted murder and political intrigue, from the Ise temple to the capital and the Emperor’s court; I found the mystery decent enough, not too complicated (my guesses about a few things turned out to be right) yet not too easy either for the characters to understand, without convenient deus ex machina bringing the answers (Yamada deducted those).

It took me a couple of weeks to read, but it definitely wasn’t boring (that was much more a matter of having lots of things to do and needing to prioritise other books in the meantime). The events made sense, the characters were likeable, and even though it’s not my favourite novel ever, it was entertaining and believable.

On the downside, there were instances of Yamada ‘hiding’ things from the reader, which I don’t particularly appreciate in mystery novels, and the female characters, while attaching, didn’t have much to do apart from conveniently be here when a specific piece of information was needed, or wait in their palace for the men to do all the work. Granted, the setting itself doesn’t lend itself to a lot of female freedom (aristocratic constraints, expectations placed on princesses, and so on), but it didn’t help.

Conclusion: Still enjoyable in spite of these flaws.

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Review: When the Moon Was Ours

Posted on January 19th, 2017 @ 20:52
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When the Moon Was OursWhen the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

My rating:

Blurb:

When the Moon Was Ours follows two characters through a story that has multicultural elements and magical realism, but also has central LGBT themes—a transgender boy, the best friend he’s falling in love with, and both of them deciding how they want to define themselves.

To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town.

But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Enchanting and full of diversity, although the flowery prose didn’t convince me.

The book opens on Miel and Sam, a skittish girl with roses growing out of her wrist, and a boy who doesn’t exactly know if he wants to be a boy or go back to being a girl. In itself, this was an interesting premise, as both characters were searching for their inner truth, all lthe while being surrounded by lies (or what they perceived at such): Miel’s memory—not exactly the most reliable; what Aracely, Miel’s adoptive guardian, knows and what she doesn’t say; Sam having to hide his body in everyday life; and the Bonner sisters, with their red hair and their mysterious ways, four girls acting as one, enchantresses ensnaring boys and wielding their own kind of power that always gets them what they want in the end.

There’s more magical realism than actual magic here, although Aracely’s ability to cure heartbreak, as well as her being a self-professed curandera, definitely hint at ‘witchcraft’. It’s more about the way things are shown and described, in the moons Sam paints and hangs outside people’s windows, in the roses growing out of Miel’s skin, in the rumoured stained glass coffin meant to make girls more beautiful, in how modern life and themes (immigrants in a small town, transgender teenagers, fear of rejection, or the practice of bacha posh, which I didn’t know about before reading this book…) intertwine with poetry and metaphor, with images of rebirth and growing up and accepting (or realising) who you’re meant to be. Not to mention racial diversity, instead of the usual ‘all main protagonists are whiter than white.’

To be honest, though, as much as the prose was beautiful at first, in the end it seemed like it was trying too much, and the story suffered from too many convoluted paragraphs and redundant descriptions & flashbacks. As it was, even though I liked this book in general, I found myself skimming in places that felt like déjà vu. Granted, it’s much more a character- than a plot-driven novel, but I’m convinced all the prose could’ve been toned down, and it would have remained beautiful without sometimes running in circles and drowning the plot now and then.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars.

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Review: Strange Magic

Posted on January 12th, 2017 @ 23:14
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Strange Magic (Yancy Lazarus #1)Strange Magic by James A. Hunter

My rating: 

Blurb:

Yancy Lazarus is having a bad day: there’s a bullet lodged in his butt cheek, his face looks like the site of a demolition derby, and he’s been saran-wrapped to a banquet table. He never should have answered the phone. Stupid bleeding heart—helping others in his circles is a good way to get dead.

Just ask the gang members ripped to pieces by some kind of demonic nightmare in LA. As a favor to a friend, Yancy agrees to take a little looksee into the massacre and boom, he’s stuck in a turf war between two rival gangs, which both think he’s pinch-hitting for the other side. Oh, and there’s also a secretive ass-hat with some mean ol’ magical chops and a small army of hyena-faced, body- snatching baddies. It might be time to seriously reconsider some of his life choices.

Yancy is a bluesman, a rambler, a gambler, but not much more. Sure, he can do a little magic—maybe even more than just a little magic—but he knows enough to keep his head down and stay clear of freaky-deaky hoodoo like this business in LA. Somehow though, he’s been set up to take a real bad fall—the kind of very permanent fall that leaves a guy with a toe tag. Unless, of course, he can find out who is responsible for the gangland murders, make peace in the midst of the gang feud, and take out said magical ass-hat before he hexes Yancy into an early retirement. Easy right? Stupid. Bleeding. Heart.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

A fun enough read in the UF genre, even though it dragged enough in places, and some things would’ve needed more development.

This book is packed with grit, action and magic suited to it, with a no-nonsense main character who wasn’t the most interesting ever, but likeable enough, in a sort of Noir way. This is the kind of character who’ll try to do the right thing, even if it means getting into dire straits, and I can seldom fault that: at least that’s a laudable motivation, and I’ve seen much, much worse in terms of not getting one’s priorities straight.

The novel reads a bit differently in terms of supernatural creatures involved: there’s magic, sure, but not the usual vampires or werewolves—the ‘monsters’ we get to see are more of the Rakshasa or extra-dimensional variety, which is a nice change.

Also, no useless romance, so bonus point as far as I’m concerned. Yancy’s family doesn’t exactly count, the ‘romance’ already happened—but there’s definitely something to unveil here in the next book(s), because why he had to leave them is not very clear.

On the downside, as previously said, the story itself dragged in some parts, causing me to skim more than read; some editing would’ve been good here, and same with the various flashbacks or inserts about this or that fact. (The latter made me think, ‘why not?’, but they tended to break the flow of action when they occurred during, well, action scenes, which is to say regularly.) This reflected on the characters in general: had they been more developed, they would’ve been more interesting to follow. Not to mention the lack of female characters, apart from a passing mention and a hostage.

The antagonist’s motives weren’t deep enough (so the guy doesn’t want to kill, but he still plans on having many people die to further his goal, but he doesn’t like and wish things were different, but he’s still going with it… Huh?), and when considering the plot as a whole, that was a seriously weak point. There were those serious stakes, pitching gangs against each other, trying to get Yancy killed while we’re at it, involving dangerous creatures, for a motive that didn’t hold much water and didn’t make a lot of sense because it was so likelyl to backfire anyway.

Still, I think this series would have potential, were it to give more room to its characters to evolve, so I’ll give the second book a try.

Enregistrer

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Review: The Girl Before

Posted on January 4th, 2017 @ 17:31
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The Girl BeforeThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

My rating:

Blurb:

A damaged young woman gets the unique opportunity to rent a one-of-a-kind house. When she falls in love with the sexy, enigmatic architect who designed it, she has no idea she is following in the footsteps of the girl who came before: the house’s former tenant.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

When Jane applies to live at One Folgate Street, a minimalist house designed b y famous architect Edward Monkford, after recently suffering bereavment, she doesn’t know yet that another woman, Emma, lived there before her, and that events surrounding her were not of the good kind. What matters is that even though the house comes with two hundred rules designed to make it the perfectly ordered and uncluttered, the rent is cheap, and it’s an opportunity at starting a new life and letting go of a painful past. But Emma’s shadow is everywhere: in the place she inhabited, in how the landlord used to perceive her, in how the house started to shape her… and the same thing may happen to Jane.

Well, this novel was quite readable, and I took pleasure (and was thrilled) at discovering gradually, through a double narrative, what happened to Emma and what is now happening to Jane: their reasons for moving into the house, their personal lives, what tragedies befell them and how those kept affecting them, as well as the parallels slowly drawn between them. There’s a constant game of similarities intertwining here, only to better highlight the differences and subsequent reveals, for neither Emma nor Jane are exactly who we think they are at first.

Granted, some of these revelations are a little convoluted. In hindsight, there’s also nothing invalidating them, and provided one’s willing to take a “what if?” approach, rather than expecting answers and explanations set in stone, well, it can work. They are problematic in some ways, though, for reasons I won’t explain here as not to spoil, but let’s just say that these are unreliable narrators we’re speaking of here, and lies or at least things unsaid are a big part of this story. Including infuriating lies.

I wasn’t satisfied with the ending—to be honest, I much preferred the beginning and the gradual increase in tension, when I was still wondering if there had been a murder or if it was suicide, and if the culprit was who I thought it was, or not. The ending… well, let’s say it was a bit of a letdown, with a last, questionable twist related to ‘perfection vs. imperfection’ that I found callous and uncalled for. Again, no spoilers, but frankly, it was unnecessary (and I don’t think it plays very well either into the theme of ‘sterile perfection and narcissism’ in Edward’s little world).

Conclusion: Enjoyable throughout, only it didn’t reach its full potential in the end.

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