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Monday, 30 September 2013

Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh

I seem to be on a bit of a paranormal romance kick at the moment, don't I? As far as I'm aware, this is the last of it that my reading list contains for at least some time. If I'm enjoying the genre though, might as well read it; that and it tickles me that I was inadvertently filling my fiancé's Google store recommendations with vampire romance books. In any case, I had heard something of Nalini Singh's work prior to reading Angel's Blood: specifically that she was quite good at smut. So at the very least there was going to be something to talk about afterwards.

There's a bit of setting info that I should probably mention before continuing with the actual plot bit. Okay, so the Guild Hunter series takes place in a universe in which vampires are created by angels, for reasons that humanity is ignorant of. (If that basic concept seems absurd to you, then I can state emphatically that this will not be a book for you.) As payment for granting them immortality, vampires are charged to serve their angelic masters for 100 years, after which they are allowed to have their freedom. These circumstances don't sit well with some vampires, who take the chance to escape. This is where our heroine comes in. Elena is an individual born with certain abilities that allow her to track and capture vampires, making her an incredibly valuable asset to those wishing to regain those who have run away. Her skills are potent enough that she is hired for a rather unusual job: she must help Raphael, the archangel who unofficially rules North America, to find another archangel who has allowed his power to completely corrupt him. Along the way, sexual tension ensues. As a plot, it certainly has a lot more at stake than other paranormal romances that I've read recently: as much as I liked the two Argeneau Vampire books I reviewed recently, all that was really at stake was the personal happiness of the two leads. In Angel's Blood, the paranormal aspects actually lend a tangible possibility of peril: if Elena and Raphael fail in their endeavour, then there is the risk that the status quo of the entire world could be upset, and all the ensuing panic and chaos with it. It had a couple of pacing issues, but for the most part I really liked it.
So, to the romance. I think I'm still making my mind up about that one. On the one hand, it most definitely falls into the romance stereotype that makes me cringe: that of the super-possessive alpha male. There was so much reference to Raphael's absolute masculinity as his primary attractive quality, as well as the result of making Elena feel intensely feminine, that it began to feel rather silly. Maybe it's just me, but I find individual aspects of people sexually attractive, for instance a deep voice on men or curves on women, as opposed to their inherent masculinity or femininity. When romance writers point to "masculinity" as the reason for the initial attraction, then I can't help but think that they've created a heroine with confusingly low standards. Additionally, at the beginning Raphael has an alarming lack of consideration for Elena's personal boundaries. After mentally influencing her and constantly making reference to how much he wants her as a sexual toy, I find it quite insulting for him to call her sexually frigid. On the other hand, Elena makes an admirable stand against someone she has no real chance of harming when it comes to staking out the boundaries between their personal and professional lives; that she manages to piss off pretty much everyone that Raphael consults for help as a result is also rather impressive. The fact that she does feel sexually attracted to her archangel suitor do help alleviate their uncomfortable initial relationship somewhat, but overall it does feel somewhat dubious in the consent department.
Since I was just talking about the sexual tension, I might as well talk about the sex scenes. They were kind of disappointing. Having heard of Nalini Singh's reputation for smut, I was kind of expecting something that would be more...scandalous, somehow. It's not that the scenes are written badly, they're just a bit on the short side, especially considering the heat and in-depth nature of the flirting beforehand. It just feels like it's balanced wrong.

In conclusion, while there's a much grander scale to Angel's Blood than most paranormal romance, the relationship between the leads leaves something to be desired. The sexual tension is set up well through flirting, but the result is ultimately kind of disappointing. That their relationship starts with some rather dubious consent issues only complicates my feelings about it. 4/5

Next review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Signing off,

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bite Me If You Can by Lynsay Sands

I feel that talking to the fiancé about this book was a bad idea. It is most definitely not a genre that he gets: mentioning the stupid "science" behind the origination of the vampires only made things worse really, seeing as he generally knows his chemistry and biology. But you know what? I knew that this was going to be silly. And if this was anything like Single White Vampire, then I had a pretty strong feeling that I would like it.

Bite Me If You Can follows Leigh, a restaurant owner from Kansas City, after she is bitten and turned by a rogue vampire. Before she can be corrupted by the rogue vampire, however, she is saved by Lucien Argeneau, who has been charged with hunting down those who break the rules of their society. He finds himself stuck with her as she goes through the, incredibly painful, changing process, a prospect that he initially finds intolerable. As they spend more time together though, they find themselves growing closer, despite their separate issues: he is still grieving for his long-dead wife and children, while she has serious trust issues after a bad marriage.
Much as my fiancé would like to believe, I still maintain that this is not as trashy as the premise makes it sound. It is a romance that feels genuine and human, often bringing up aspects of relationships that are ignored elsewhere. The part that impressed me most was when the plot looked at the concept of consent: in their initial sexual encounter, Leigh is under the impression that Lucien had his drink switched at the bar, meaning that he may not be in the right state of mind to properly consent. So she stops everything until she can be sure that his consent is genuine. I also rather liked that instead of pushing their relationship further, Lucien is content to allow her to progress at her own pace. It makes a fantastic change from the borderline-abusive alpha males that so many romance novels are enamoured with. And the sex scenes are still well-written, so that's another point in its favour. So, like Single White Vampire, I have absolutely no complaints about the romance aspect of the novel.
Speaking of Single White Vampire, I still call bullshit on their explanation for the existence of vampires. Just pretend it's magic, it makes the narrative seem less stupid. Also, I would argue that my previous criticism for the actual vampire element being largely superfluous still stands. Admittedly, the actual presence of a background threat does make it feel more understandable, but this still only really applies to the first and last couple of chapters. Most of the stuff in between probably wouldn't be out of place in a vanilla romance. It's not a huge complaint, but I can see those who really like vampire romance to have issues with this.

Like Single White Vampire, a well-written, down-to-earth romance with some very good sex scenes, marred only by the oddly superfluous vampire element. I'm just impressed that they managed to legitimately discuss consent, which is sadly lacking in other romance novels that I've perused. 4/5

Next review: Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh

Signing off,

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

As you probably guessed, the last post made on the blog was not written by yours truly; instead you were reading a review from my fiancé. He got a copy of Blue Remembered Earth as a part of the Gollancz Geeks project, and asked whether he could post a copy of his review on here. I decided that it would be interesting to have both of us review it, simply for the comparison. So, here is my companion review.

I'm not quite sure what to make of it. As mentioned in Longeye's review, the story follows Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, grandchildren of Africa's most famous space explorer, as they investigate a mystery that arises in the wake of their grandmother Eunice's death. Along the way, they have to make deals and compromises with the Panspermian Initiative, a movement that wants to expand and colonise as much of the universe as is humanly possible.
As a plot, it's very good overall, with a consistent world and a well-constructed mystery. The characters feel real, in-depth and flawed. It wasn't without its problems though. Firstly, as mentioned in Longeye's review, there are certain elements that feel like they come out of nowhere towards the end: as such, I felt that they didn't really get the attention that they deserve, as well as feeling like a rather major change of direction. Secondly, I felt that Geoffrey's interaction with the elephants felt somewhat overworked: I appreciate that they are an important part of his life, but most of the interactions consisted of him watching them and occasionally spooking them. Really not that interesting. Lastly, and for me the biggest problem, I just did not connect with it. In my head, I know that it's a well-written book, with zero major plot problems. But it fell flat because I just didn't care about any of the characters. As such, when characters found themselves in danger or died, it didn't really bother me that much. I finished Blue Remembered Earth because I wanted to see the puzzle solved: the characters were just pawns moved in order to make progress.

Overall, I would say that I'm not sorry that I read it, but neither am I glad that I took the time to read it. I wouldn't pick up any other instalments in the Akinya series when they come out, but if Longeye were to force them on me, I don't think I'd object either. Take that as you will. 3/5

Next review: Bite Me If You Can by Lynsay Sands

Signing off,

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds (Guest Post)

This review will be posted in two sections, the top section here will consist of a general review of the book with no spoilers. The second section, under the line (or if you’re viewing just the limited post behind the “read more” link) will be a more in-depth look, but will definitely have spoilers!

Blue Remembered Earth (which, for brevity, I will just call BRE) was gifted to me as part of Gollancz “get a free book and write a review” scheme, and to be honest I hadn't really heard of it before. Whilst I'm a very big fan of Sci-Fi, Alastair Reynolds has been one of those authors on my periphery for long enough that I figured this was a good place to start.

BRE is certainly an interesting book to read. It’s laid out in three sections, with section 1 being about the first half, section two being about the second half, and section three being a small chapter or two at the end. This layout also fits the pacing of the book, with the first section being a slow build-up, the second maintaining this level of pace with minor fluctuations, and the third being an all out brain-smashing of concepts.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the particular way Reynolds seems to write his technology. Whereas many sci-fi authors write technology that hasn't even been conceptualised yet (see much of the Original Series of Star Trek), Reynolds writes technology that we are just beginning to look at that has been perfected. One of the prime examples is the Space Catapult used to fire goods (and sometimes people) into orbit. Much of his technology isn’t that hard to imagine, it’s the interesting tilts he puts on it that make it fun.
The writing of his book is very fluid, and I didn’t find myself getting lost or confused at any point. Whilst few books have ever gripped me, this one very much did. Upon starting it was quite hard to put down! But what about the story? Well for the concise section the story follows the journey of Geoffrey Akinya and his sister, Sunday. The book opens with the funeral of their grandmother, a pioneer of space who guided their family to becoming one of, if not the, most influential and wealthy families in the solar system. With her funeral Geoffrey is called to investigate a vault on the moon that she owned, that members of his family are worried might contain something damaging to their reputation, and what follows is an intricate path laid out by his grandmother to discover one of the last secrets left to humanity. One of the largest, and perhaps strangest, focusses in the book is the relationship between Geoffrey and a herd of elephants. Called the “M-group”, Geoffrey has studied them for the majority of his life, working towards eventually merging their brain activity with his own to fully perceive the world as they do. Considered an expert in the field of elephant neurology, it is clear that Reynolds did his research with herd dynamics, and the information is genuinely interesting outside the bounds of the book (what isn’t fictional, at least!). The characters themselves were very interesting. There is Geoffrey, whom you follow for most of the story, who feels like a believable human. His main goal in his life is to work with the elephants, and even leaving for a week to visit the moon for the investigative journey he is loathed to part with them. Later parts of the book show his defence of “his” herd to be quite powerful. His sister Sunday is somewhat more whimsical than his down-to-earth views, but plays the part of the young artist sick of a restricted life perfectly. There are other peripheral characters, most notable their twin cousins, Hector and Lucas. As the Akinya family is a business family, Hector and Lucas appear to run the majority of it, and take a very businesslike approach to all decisions, only caring about the moon vault because they worry it might contain a scandal that would lower their stocks. There are some very interesting dynamics between these four, with Sunday being the rouge child that they tend to ignore, and Geoffrey being seen as a potential aid who is wasting his time with a “pet project”, whilst Hector and Lucas sum up everything that Sunday and Geoffrey dislike about the Akinya house. There are a few areas the book does fall a little short. Some of the terminology isn’t explained in the book, and it takes a little while for the reader to understand what it’s talking about. This is a problem for all sci-fi; how to explain futuristic terms. On the one hand a “dunce” character can be written in to be explained at for the readers’ sake, and on the other the reader can be left to figure it out on their own. Reynolds chooses the latter, but he does pull it off far more skilfully than many other authors I've read. There is a slight pacing issue with the main story, and a slight scale issue. Without giving too much away, the latter parts of the story involve some quite substantial time jumps, and with vast amounts of new information being provided at the same time it feels like the ending is trying to cram more book into the third part than there was in the second. I would have, personally, preferred the book to have a longer third part that stretched some of the last chapters out a little. Overall my impressions of the book were very positive. I read the whole thing very quickly, enjoyed it greatly, and actively looked for information of a sequel. When I found that it looks like Reynolds is considering further Akinya books I was quite happy, so that should give you an idea of my impressions! As a final score? If I had to I’d give it a 5. The story was detailed where it mattered, flowed perfectly, and the characters were perfectly fleshed out!


Friday, 6 September 2013

Single White Vampire by Lynsay Sands

Every once in a while, when I'm bored of long, weighty tomes, I like to read trashy romance novels. I read them knowing they're stupid, but quite frankly I throw whatever standards I have to the wind and enjoy them when they're in my hands. I have a feeling that it lowers my fiancé's opinion of me, but that can't be helped. With that in mind, how could I resist a book named Single White Vampire?

Single White Vampire starts with editor Kate Leever writing to one of her new authors, Lucern Argeneau, attempting to persuade him to attend some publicity events to capitalise on his wildly popular vampire romance novels. His reaction is a succinct "no". She assumes that it's because he's a surly and gruff introvert. While this is true, it's not his only reason: Lucern is himself a vampire, and his books marketed as fiction are actually accounts of the great romances of his immediate family. When Kate finds that she can't persuade him to attend anything via writing, she decides to take a different route: camp out on his doorstep until he agrees to do the publicity. With two equally stubborn and beautiful people in the same breathing space, it's obvious that sparks are going to fly.
One of the glorious things about trashy romance, especially of the paranormal variety, is that the writing is often cheesy enough to provoke unintentional laughter. That was actually missing here, which I was really not expecting. I think there was only one point where a double entendre just took me straight out of a narrative: in a novel of 369 pages, that's pretty impressive. There are no swooning heroines, no overly-aggressive and possessive alpha males, no corny lines about how either lover smells "spicy" (something that has always confused me). Instead you have an editor who takes her author's peculiarities completely in stride, and a vampire who presents a tough shell to the world, but is a complete sweetie underneath all the grumpiness. The relationship actually feels realistic, which is impressive. Although I might just feel a bit of deja-vu considering that they initially bond over video games, which was a nice touch. There's also a decent amount of space in the narrative to cover the consideration that goes into a relationship which will forever stop you from having a normal life, instead of the heroine just skipping willy-nilly into a decision that should take time to deliberate over; again, it was a nice touch.
The one thing that bugs me is the explanation for vampirism that's given. It is simultaneously interesting and INCREDIBLY STUPID. Okay, so the idea is that vampire condition is caused by nano-machines in the body that increase the body's efficiency and require an intake of blood to work. That's not a new idea, but the idea of nano-machines being used to increase the human life-span isn't totally far-fetched in our day and age. The problem begins when you think about when the book is set. The book states that it is the year 2003 (the year Single White Vampire was first published in America), at which point Lucern is over 600 years old. So we are apparently supposed to accept that people had manufactured nano-machines in the middle ages, the same era that believed that shaving chicken bottoms and tying them to sores would cure the plague. I call bullshit. I could have accepted magic, but when you try and put a scientific theory to a supernatural being like vampires, it had better be DAMN good.

As a romance plot, it's a nice mix of sexual tension, unexpected humour and some decently written sex scenes. The vampire aspect does feel a little bit superfluous, but when it does arise it's dealt with reasonably well. If you're looking for a more down-to-earth romance, then this will probably suit quite nicely. 4/5

Next review: Something slightly different. You'll see....

Signing off,

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

You would think that my first example of Charlaine Harris' writing on this blog would be one of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, right? Nope. Instead it's the first book of her lesser-known series, the Harper Connolly Mysteries, mainly because I didn't feel like reading about vampires just yet. So is there a reason that this series hasn't had the same explosion of popularity that True Blood has? 

Grave Sight follows Harper Connolly and her step-brother Tolliver Lang as they travel to a small town in the Ozark mountains to try and track down the body of a missing teenager. Despite their intention to help, they are not given a warm welcome, as Harper's ability to mentally sense the location of the dead and see their last moments, gained after she survived a lightning strike to the head, leaves many feeling uncomfortable. At first, things appear to go according to plan: they find the body, cash the cheque and leave town. It is when they are called back to the town after another death that events start spiralling out of their control. 
I really liked Grave Sight. As a mystery, it's well-crafted and suspenseful. Admittedly, I had kind of guessed the murderer by the sixth chapter or so, but my reasoning behind it was slightly off, so I guess it balances out in the end. Much of the suspense comes from the character of Harper and her relationship with the world around her. She's incredibly blunt and abrasive to other people, because she knows that her abilities attract the disgust of the majority of people that she encounters; why make the effort to try and pretty things up if people are automatically going to think the worst of you? This makes her attempts at detective work significantly more difficult, as most people just don't want to talk to her, let alone sit through an interrogation from her. The fact that she's essentially an emotional wreck and physically weakened from the lightning strike only makes her more interesting to follow, as it creates additional obstacles between her and what she wants to achieve. 
The one thing that confuses me is the way that Gollancz has marketed the book. The back cover proclaims that Grave Sight is part of their Gollancz Romancz range. Admittedly, there is a sort of love interest, but it's not written in a particularly sentimental or serious way: there's never any implication that the encounters with this love interest will lead to anything that could be considered permanent. The only thing it really adds is some tension between the step-siblings, as Tolliver is unhappy leaving Harper with someone whose motives he isn't sure of. 

A very good book, one that I think should get more attention. If you like Charlaine Harris' writing or paranormal mystery, but don't want to wade through a romantic sub-plot that takes up more space than the plot-plot, then this is a great pick. 4.5/5 

Next review: Single White Vampire by Lynsay Sands 

Signing off, 

Monday, 2 September 2013

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I should really have no excuse for this one. With this kind of title and the obvious tween-style title, I really have no business reading I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. I mainly picked it up because I thought it might be so bad it's hilarious. Having finished it, my feelings are considerably more mixed.

I'd Tell You I Love You follows Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan in her sophomore year of private school as she falls in love for the first time. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that Cammie attends a school specifically training the all-female student body to become spies for government organisations like the CIA and NSA, and her new crush can't ever learn this.
As a plot, this is both far too simple and unnecessarily complicated. It is simple because the events of the novel focus almost entirely on Cammie's exploration of her new feelings, with side plots like her tempestuous relationship with a new teacher and the father of one of her best friends going AWOL get so little attention that they lend little to no texture; additionally, there are some obstacles presented that turn out to be such let-downs that they might as well have not been there. It's unnecessarily complicated because there are a lot of moral implications that espionage entails that such a simple plot can't hope to fully encompass. For example, Cammie knows right from the beginning that the students from the Gallagher Academy are viewed with palpable contempt from the local town, Roseville. As such, when she starts pursuing her love interest, she lies and tells him that she's home-schooled for religious reasons. This is the least of the deceptions that she creates in order to win over her chosen boy, including fabricating her own birthday and family history. I find this very uncomfortable, as the foundation of any good relationship is trust; admittedly, while the narrative does attempt to address this and other issues, it takes her far too long to realise that this might be seriously underhanded and unfair towards a boy who is essentially loving a pack of lies. I will give the author props for at least addressing this though, as the ending tends strongly towards the bittersweet part of the spectrum. The only thing that bothered me about the spying bit was the Covert Operations stuff about looking out for your team. While I can understand the concept of minimising risk and the potential for information leaks, it seems to assume that the teams they'll be working in will be friendship groups, with the inherent desire to keep them safe. To me that seems a flawed perspective: in espionage, they aren't going to put you in friendship groups, because, ultimately, your friendship is less important to your employer than the stuff you are supposed to be stealing or sabotaging; if anything, the emphasis on keeping your team safe is taken to such an extreme that it starts to become a liability.
My other main issue is the characterisation. I know what Cammie is like, because she narrates the story. I can't say the same about anyone else really. Cammie's best friends are stated to be Bex and Liz, but I couldn't tell you much about them other than Bex is the gregarious friend while Liz is the geeky friend. There's really very little to them otherwise. It means that when you get to the inevitable, "choose between a boy and friends" quandary, it wouldn't have made a difference to me whatever one she chose: both sides had personalities akin to cardboard.

I wanted to like this, but I don't think that the writing and construction really lived up to the interesting prospects created by the basic plot. Props to Ally Carter for trying, but average at best. 2.5/5

Next review: Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Signing off,