Book Review: Plague Nation by Dana Fredsti
Review by: Prof. Jenn
For a reminder of my opinion of Fredsti’s first zombie book in this series, and my interview with her, see here: http://nerdsinbabeland.com/archives/6571.
In Plague Nation, the zombie virus has spread from our one little college town to all the way across the, well, nation. We also learn that there is more than meets the eye with how the plague started in the first place. We catch a brief glimpse of a new villain, and learn more about a possible cure. Though the next book is called Plague World, so I wouldn’t hold your breath yet.
Here’s my professional opinion of Plague Nation, in list form, like the last one was. Also, lists are cool.
What I liked:
The pacing. This sequel is much tighter than the first one–it hits the ground running, and doesn’t let up. Having said that, there are enough quiet spots to allow us to catch our breath, but not enough to drag down the drama.
Character development: Remember when I complained last time about one-dimensional characters? Well they’ve developed here, and it makes us want to know what happens next much more now that we’re getting to know our characters better.
The drama re: Gabriel’s mysterious condition. It’s getting down to the wire, and it’s exciting.
Our new silky, creepy villain. Actually I wish we had more of him– the conclusion of his thread is a bit anticlimactic, though I can tell he’ll continue in the next book. But he’s great to have–a supervillain in a zombie story, totally charming and sociopathic.
The premise of including lots and lots of pop culture, and characters who quote movies, and reference them in their daily activities. Like we do.
What I didn’t like:
Ashley’s snarky inner monologue. It was a bit too much in the last book, and in the sequel, it’s even more out of hand. Instead of sounding like a funny, smart, kick ass protagonist (which I suspect is the idea behind writing her like this), Ashley just grates on the nerves.
As much as I like the idea of pop culture references in a story like this, it does get a bit overboard in actual practice. Also, it veers a bit too close to Walking Dead. There’s a fine line between postmodern remix and clunky copying, and this book crosses that line a few times.
The conspiracy plot-line: I won’t spoil it for you, readers, but I don’t get it–the motivations behind the new evil-doers are not plausible to me. I don’t know, go read it, then email me and see if that’s just me.
Bottom line: if you can grit your teeth past Ashley’s voice, pick up Plague Nation and have fun seeing how our intrepid wild cards are faring against the spread of the zombie virus.
The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson is the story of three young women whose lives revolve around games. Ruth is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York City whose research focus is on game theory and design. She pulls two friends, Lucy and Anna, into the development of her most recent alternate reality game, Trapped in the Asylum. The Magic Circle follows the dramatic, life-altering effects game development and practice has on these three women.
The Magic Circle has a lot of potential. It explores a segment of geek culture that I personally love (live action role-playing gaming, ARGs, etc) and involves three strong female protagonists. Additionally, Davidson incorporates different forms of story-telling, including having portions of the story told via gchat conversations, online forum conversations, and blog posts. It has a much darker tone than I expected and includes some interesting twists. While I would love to be more involved in LARP and ARG culture, I admit I do not know all of the intricacies of that world and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the culture they portray in this book. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book that acknowledges how enlightening and fun this world can be, primarily with regards to the Trapped in the Asylum game.
Nevertheless, there are some problems with the book. The first half of the book is slow. Aside from the parts of the book that serve to develop Trapped in the Asylum, I found myself having to struggle a bit to gain interest in these characters and their lives. The second half takes a dramatic turn and becomes much more of a thriller. It is faster-paced and much harder to put down. My biggest problem with the last half of the book is that there are a number of plot points that never get fully explained. These plot holes left me feeling slightly unsatisfied by the end and wishing the author had added just a few additional pages to wrap some things up. Admittedly, I am not familiar with The Bacchae, the Greek tragedy the latter half of the book is focused on, and therefore I might be missing part of the story. Regardless, I would have liked a little more wrap-up of the primary story lines in the final resolution of the story.
The Magic Circle is a dark thriller that skirts on the edge of a full examination of game culture and design. While I have a handful of issues with the way certain story-lines and characters were handled, I admire the effort Ms. Davidson put into exploring unique ways of handling prose and the examination of live action game culture. I am definitely interested to see what future stories Ms. Davidson has to offer.
Book Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwartz
Review by: Prof. Jenn
If you like perky romantic tropes, and you like Historical Fiction motifs, and you dig steampunk, this book is for you.
No, really–I mention tropes because they’re here in spades, but in no way do I mean to imply that’s a bad thing. Schwartz delivers the goodies into expectant hands in this high-action story, and just because we know what the goodies are (and have had them before) does not diminish their deliciousness.
Elle is an independent, stubborn, beautiful-redhead airship pilot (I know, how cool, right?) who finds herself embroiled in a take-over-the-world plot beyond her ken. Of course. Unexpected help comes in the shape of handsome, rich, magically-powered Mr. Marsh, whom she *definitely* isn’t in love with, nope, no way, and he absolutely will not fall in love with her either, huh-uh, nothing doing… oh. Yeah. Except they of course do. This is not a spoiler–you will see them getting together miles away, the moment the first flirty banter exits their mouths. But again–that’s not a bad thing.
This book is unabashedly rife with tropes, and absolutely does not apologize for them, nor should it. When Elle put on her goggles to pilot her airship, I bounced with joy. When Marsh ventured into old Italy and met a mage within a dusty apothecary shop, I sighed as I do when I am sipping a favorite brand of coffee. And there’s a train trip. With intrigue! Yes, I’ve seen many of those before, but I *like* them! It’s like watching an episode of Star Trek, or reading a Sherlock Holmes story, or watching a James Bond film. There are certain motifs and images (even lines or events) you’ll see over and over in these, but you *want* to see them, you expect to see them, that’s what makes those media so enjoyable. It’s a similar effect in Conspiracy, except Schwartz has included a few different genres mixed up in a big fun sundae.
There is a little awkwardness just in some of the mechanics of the writing. For example, we get a little overburdened with exposition, and there are some places where Schwartz loses hold of her feel for the time period–even though this is a Fantasy world, some of the dialogue comes across as anachronistic. But hey, I’ve just gorged happily on vampires and airships and absinthe fairies; I’m willing to forgive such minor shortcomings.
Bottom Line: A Conspiracy of Alchemists is a heckuva lot of fun. I recommend it.
Book review: Encounters of Sherlock Holmes ed. by George Mann
Review by Prof. Jenn
First, I would like the readers’ input as to coining a new term. I don’t particularly like the term “pastiche” in reference to books like this, as to me “pastiche” sounds like a parody or a mockery of the original material. Only one of the stories does this in this collection (coincidentally, my least favorite one), whereas the rest of these Holmesian delights range from the sublime (a fast-paced Watson-narrated mystery very close to Doyle in style) to the ridiculous (Mrs. Hudson battles demons and witches), to the crossover (Holmes investigates the murder of the Martian ambassador, post War of the Worlds invasion).
This book is like one of those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates–you don’t know if it’s a good truffle or a bad one until you bite into it. Some of the nougats I didn’t care for as much weren’t well written or mistreated Holmes as a character (I never like stories where Holmes isn’t in fact the smart one, but that’s just my taste). The ones that went down the best were either very Doyleian in flavor or were a skillful character mashup (Holmes meeting with Sir Richard Burton and his encounter with A.J. Raffles are two of the best). The tasty stories far outweigh the spit-outers, so don’t shy away from this collection because of a couple of duds, particularly if you’re a Holmes fan.
Bottom line: the good stories balance out the bad. Definitely worth a read, and if you’re a Sherlockian, you’ll want to add it to your collection. ~Prof. Jenn
I have had the great pleasure of reviewing Kim Newman’s previous Anno Dracula books (Anno Dracula, Anno Dracula: the Bloody Red Baron), and was happy to get the chance to check out Newman’s newest Anno Dracula book: Dracula Cha Cha Cha.
Newman’s first book took place in Victorian England, his second during WWI. Both books do a thing which I very much enjoy (when done well)–they combine a historical fiction base with fictional characters. This makes for a lovely mix of alternative history and mystery in one of the funnest cross-genres I have enjoyed reading lately.* What Newman does especially well in all these books is make the setting very important ( as all historical fiction should), includes fictional as well as historical (and original) characters in vital ways, and makes sure the story remains paramount.
In Dracula Cha Cha Cha, Newman puts us in 1960s Rome just as deftly as he previously put us in Victorian England and WWI Europe, with enough setting description to put us there, without detracting from the story. This is important because it’s in essence a detective story, and the what-will-happen-next, whodunit aspect is actually the most important thing in a story like this. Another quite skillful thing Newman does is incorporate the setting into the action, which means we’re getting more of the setting while still investigating the murder.
One of the funnest* things about all three Anno Dracula books is the spot-the-character game. Many beloved characters from fiction in the time period when the book is set appear in vital roles, and while Newman never randomly throws these characters in for no reason, it’s still an Easter egg game to see who shows up, and who ends up being a vampire. This latest installment is no exception–I know a lot of my geeky friends and I claim James Bond is a Timelord, but in this book he’s a vampire. Totally makes sense, and the way favorite character Kate Reed interacts with him is priceless. The deadly Lovelies are quite Bondian without being associated with Bond, and the groovy student-and-drug related novella Aquarius (included in this volume) are right out of a 1960s movie. I only wish Newman had included the Avengers (TV spies, not superheroes) in this mix. But that’s just me.
Both stories in this volume (the main novel, plus the novella Aquarius) are murder mysteries, and are just as gripping, mysterious, and full of twists as a story of that genre should be. I won’t even reveal anything about either plot itself, only that they are well crafted whodunits. They do get a little gory, but that’s of course to be expected in a vampire book. The only other thing I can say about plot, is that I wish Newman had had only the novel here, and published the novellas (from the last book and this one) in a separate collection. I understand that that would mean having two stories in two different time periods instead of keeping to one volume, one era, but the way it is now makes for kind of a long read. It’s not really a big deal, it’s just a thing to think about for the next one, guys.
Bottom Line: the Anno Dracula series is excellent, and I highly recommend this latest one.
*i am an English professor by trade. I’m allowed to say “funnest.”
Book Review: The Aylesford Skull by James Blaylock
Review by Prof. Jenn
The folks at Titan have sent me another snorter! This time, it’s a rollicking steampunk adventure starring savvy botanist and inventor Langdon St. Ives. I haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying previous St. Ives adventures, so I can’t speak to its place in the canon or how it holds up to them, but I can say to any readers who, like me, are being introduced to St. Ives for the first time here, you won’t either be lost or overburdened with exposition.
When the evil Dr. Narbondo kidnaps St. Ives’ son, we are hurtled headlong into a three-pronged investigation and chase, involving airships, Victorian Parkour, a glass cathedral, projected ghosts, and descriptions of pub meals that positively make one’s mouth water.
Blaylock does two things very well: he switches POV frequently enough that we get multiple perspectives on the action, but not so frequently that it’s jarring, or so we don’t get to know our characters well. It’s a perfectly balanced story as far as character in that way. It’s also action-packed–we really don’t know how the characters will get out of each predicament as they come, and it’s nail biting, with enough reflective rests that it doesn’t get too wearing.
Bottom line: The Aylesford Skull is fantastic. Highly recommended.
What I did not so much:
All Things Guy Adams Sherlock Holmes, all the time
by Prof. Jenn
Well nearly all. Thanks to Titan Press for this opportunity to review Guy Adams’ Sherlockian goodness, and for the interview “in.” Also, this appeared first over at my blog.
First of all, can I just express my extreme nerdy jealousy that Mr. Guy Adams gets to write all these? I mean, how do you get that gig?
Well, I got a chance to ask the man himself. Before we get to that, though, take a gander at my reviews of his many Sherlockian books.
Sherlock Holmes: the Breath of God
What happens when Holmes is faced with the supernatural? Not the faux supernatural, like in The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the actually unexplainable?
Or is it?
The Breath of God is a novel that fits right in with the Doyle canon and the best of the non-Doyle canon (I’m thinking Nicholas Meyer in particular). What it does well is maintain that Watson-centered narrative which is so essential to a powerful Holmesian story, in my professional opinion. The thing is, Holmes is such an extraordinary creature, that to be inside his head diminishes the astonishingness of him. Having the story told from outside him gives us the opportunity to marvel at his prowess and be mystified by his flaws. Knowing his flaws personally would be too wearing for a story, though it could make for a fascinating character sketch. But I digress…
The great thing about the plot of Breath of God is that you really don’t know what to think of the magical things that go on, just like Watson. Even up till the end there are certain threads that don’t end up tied up neatly. That’s not to say Holmes doesn’t figure it all out in the end, but… Man, I’m about to spoil things. Okay, I’ll stop. I’ll just say this: it’s mysterious, exciting, slightly meta (love the moment when Holmes says he needs to pull a Hound of Baskerville move), and the end is quite dramatic. Plus there’s philosophical dilemmas and some mashups of historical and fictional characters from that time period, which you all know I love when done well.
Bottom line: Sherlock Holmes: the Breath of God is a rollicking good time, and a book I’m happy to shelve next to the canon.
Sherlock Holmes: the Army of Dr. Moreau
I actually reviewed this one in depth before, it’s what made me want to do a big ol’ review on all of them once I realized Adams wrote the Sherlock Case Book too. Here it is on my site, and on Nerds in Babeland.
As you can see, I kinda liked The Breath of God better.
Sherlock: the Case Book
As a giant fan of the BBC series Sherlock, I had to add this companion book into my collection. It covers anything and everything about the first two seasons of Sherlock. It includes story synopses from the point of view of John Watson’s scrapbook, complete with his notes, photos and police reports, even phone call logs. But the highlight of the synopses is the post-it note conversation between Sherlock and John, plastered all over the scrapbook pages. Oh, and Mycroft makes a brief post-it note appearance as well. At its best, the conversation is charmingly contentious, as one would imagine it would be between those two. It does, though, get a bit old. Sherlock may be impatient with an intellect lesser than his (as anyone’s is), but he isn’t incessantly whiny and bitchy. The bitchiness factor tends to take away from his massive intellect as a character, and is just wearing after a while.
The documentary type bits are great (although I did find a couple inaccuracies), like a nicely done DVD extra. And of course one of my favorite parts is the By the Book sections. I’m wondering why there isn’t a By the Book section for each episode, but I guess I’ll just let my More You Holmes blog posts supplement them. (Wow, did I just shamelessly plug myself? :sigh: Sorry Mr. Adams, I couldn’t resist. And thank you for the compliment and bookmark. Squee!)
Bottom line: if you’re Sher-locked, you absolutely need this book.
And now… (drum roll…) here it is: the MinInterview with Guy Adams himself.
5 questions: Guy Adams
interviewed by: Prof. Jenn
1) What choices do you make in your novels re: references/adherence to Doyle and your own original departures, and why? Have you created a backstory for Holmes that helps you in writing him through novel length stories?
A lot of it is instinctive to be honest. Everyone views stories and characters differently as they can’t help but bring their subjective viewpoint into things. I have therefore written what I think is a completely accurate version of Holmes and Watson. Other people will disagree as MY Holmes and Watson won’t be the same as THEIR Holmes and Watson.
I suppose I bring a little more humour into their relationship but that seems natural to me between two men who have been so close for that long. They’re a marriage.
I’ve also chosen to let Watson grieve over a dead wife. Doyle was — rightly — too busy building stories to dwell on the emotions of his characters but I wanted Watson to have that. We’ve all loved and the idea of losing someone precious would cling to you, it plays a fair part in the action of The Breath of God.
The backstory is all Doyle though, I’ve read the stories many times over the years and that’s always the history I bring with me.
I have included favourite characters from other Holmes stories, such as Mycroft, Shinwell Johnson and Langdale Pike. Purely because those characters seemed helpful to the stories I wanted to tell.
As both novels blend Holmes with other fictional characters there is a natural inclination to bring the flavour of those works in too.
2) We share an acting background, so I have to ask–how does your acting training inform your writing, and vice versa?
It informs me hugely when it comes to character and dialogue. I played Holmes a couple of times too so that has hung over the whole process as I already feel close to the character.
Hopefully, having been an actor I can feel my way through stories. I can think in terms of the characters, bring them to life a little more.
3) What’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes story? What’s your favorite media adaptation?
I’m terrible at picking favourites because mood always gets in the way. Probably The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.
Media adaptation is even more difficult somehow because there’s such a wide variation, all of which bring something interesting.
I adore Jeremy Brett in the role (especially with Edward Harwicke, a gentle, wise Watson).
The relationship between Downey Jr. and Jude Law is lovely too though, whatever you may think of the action movie bells and whistles the two of them spark beautifully off one another.
But how can we ignore SHERLOCK? We simply can’t… it’s glorious and a flawless version of Holmes and Watson.
Sigh… who knows which of them I like the most?
I’m not a great fan of Rathbone. No… let me be clearer, I love the films but he and Bruce are not MY Holmes and Watson, they are some other pair entirely who I enjoy spending time with but don’t recognise as the same people.
4) Tell us the story of how you got the Sherlock Casebook gig. How closely did you consult with Moffat and Gatiss, or did they set you free? Did you interview the actors, creators, etc. yourself for those non-fic bits?
I’ve worked with BBC Books on a number of projects and, knowing that I was a fan of Holmes, I think I was just the safe choice for them. It wasn’t something I had to pitch or fight for. They just dropped me a line explaining that they’d got the rights and would I like to do the book.
Hartswood were heavily involved. Steven, Mark and Sue Vertue all chipped in on the material as I was writing it, correcting things and ensuring I didn’t contradict anything they might want to do in the future.
I attended the commentary recordings for the DVD and Blu-ray and did some interviews then. That was excruciating actually as my dictaphone packed up. Benedict was loveliness itself, working his way through a cup of soup while I got more and more stressed trying to get the thing to record. “We really are going to have to get on,” he said softly as I began to consider just crawling under one of the microphone stands and dying of embarrassment.
I had an absolutely wonderful chat with Andrew Scott on the phone. We gassed on for over an hour with me deciding I’d like to be his best friend. No doubt he has already been in touch with his lawyers to discuss restraining orders. A lovely, clever, brilliant actor.
Everyone was a joy, it was great fun to do.
5) Any more Holmesian projects on the horizon?
I hope to write more Holmes novels but that’s up in the air at the moment depending on Titan’s future plans. I have a lot of other novels I’m working on at the moment but I’d always go back, I could happily write Holmes stories forever!
5a) How do you get to write using these already-created characters? Is there some kind of copyright process you have to go through? (I’m asking for a friend…:) )
This is a tricky one! Strictly speaking, Holmes is out of copyright so you can do what you like with him (as is the case with all the other characters I used). That hasn’t stopped a few attempts on the part of the Doyle Estate to insist otherwise.
Copyright law is different all over the world so your friend would have to check the specific terms for where they wish to publish. It all comes down to either how long ago the original author died or how long since first publication of the original work.
Thanks again for your time and input, Mr. Adams! ~Prof. Jenn
Book Review: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian
Review by Prof. Jenn
Historical Fiction is one of those tricky genres that read like a few other genres combined. It’s a delicate balance between realism and storytelling, in which the setting is extremely important–almost a character. An author must do a lot of research to get the setting feeling correct and yet not become so bogged down in true history that he fails to immerse the reader in the setting (and in the story, of course).
Blood Eye by Giles Kristian is one of those historical fiction novels which performs this delicate balance quite well. The big secret to this book, IMO, is the easy way the POV character puts us right there with him. He’s young enough that we get things explained to us (in a good way) and a strong enough personality that he gets himself into unending amounts of trouble (which is great for us as readers, not so great for him!) and so we have tramped across half of early medieval Britain by the time his coming of age adventure story is complete. Not only that, but as this is the first of a trilogy, it reads as a sort of origin story for the hero that began as Osric and becomes Raven. It’s an origin story that definitely makes me want to follow him into the sequel.
The only weak spots in this narrative are the haphazard scenes in which Raven is apparently old, and telling his story to an audience. These scenes are few and only occur towards the end, and they feel out of place. He’s instructing various faceless whippersnappers to light the fire, get him a drink, etc. and it does nothing to help the story along, nor does it enrich his character. In fact, they read like a sloppy ripoff of the Kingkiller Chronicles premise. So that, not so good. The story itself? Fantastic.
Bottom line: Blood Eye is a good read. I recommend it with hardly any exception. ~Prof. Jenn
Review: Wake of the Bloody Angel by Alex Bledsoe
Review by Prof. Jenn
You’ll have to excuse my scattered writing style for this review, dear readers. I was up till the wee hours of the morning, reading this book. All the way through. In one sitting. Yes, it’s that good.
It’s also apparently the fourth book that features “sword jockey” Eddie LaCrosse, and as I haven’t read the others (*ahem* I can haz moar review copeez?), I can’t compare this to LaCrosse’s previous adventures. If they’re half as swashbuckling as this one, though, I’d blindly recommend them.
The thing about Wake of the Bloody Angel is: it’s adventure on the high seas, but with very real, compelling characters. It’s pirates and swordplay with nobody uttering “arr” whatsoever. All the blurbs about this book I’ve seen call it a combination of Fantasy and detective fiction. I wasn’t buying that, and I’m still not sure I do–it’s not really accurate to call this detective fiction, though I guess I can see why one would use such terms: it’s super-tight, plot-wise, much more than especially an epic style Fantasy; it centers around figuring out whodunit (or wheredunit); it boasts twists and turns that adhere to excellent mystery writing (a professor of mine once said that in mystery writing, *what* the reader knows isn’t as important as *when* he knows it); and it’s, well, exciting!
That’s what I like most about Wake of the Bloody Angel–it’s got a balance between swashbuckling and realism, between edge of the seat action and quiet moments of relationships, and between the stark reality of living as a fighter, and monsters and ghosts, and pirates, oh my. And the meeting with Rody Hawk was one of the scariest moments I’ve experienced since…meeting with Hannibal Lecter? Since the Cradle level in Thief 3? Yeah, *that* scary.
Bottom Line: YES! That is all.