Category Archives: Review

Book reviews.

Ben Aaronovich — Rivers of London

I’m just going to review it under this title because I like it a lot better (and the cover is a lot classier) than the US version, which is just tacky. This always seems to happen–the covers for Joe Abercrombie’s books are always yards better in the UK but alas, there’s not a lot I can do.

I will preface this review by saying I am not much of an urban fantasy reader (though I did really enjoy Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam series, which I will have to review one of these days) and the genre name seems to have a number of negative connotations. However, this is a modern fantasy set in an urban environment so I guess that’s the best genre definition you could have? Anyway, I was excited to read this book because I thought the UK cover was lovely and the summary sounded right up my alley (and in fact is a distant cousin to the general idea of one of my own works in progress), a mix of police procedural and fantasy.

Probationary constable Peter Grant, after witnessing a violent murder and subsequently interviewing a ghost, is thrust into a division of the police force that deals with magic–it’s all real, and there are a number of in-jokes and weary nods regarding common misconceptions. It’s led by Thomas Nightingale, England’s last wizard, who may be much older than he looks, and who takes Peter under his proverbial wing. Together, they are forced to deal with a number of problems including a vampire nest in Purley, territorial disputes between river gods, and of course, the main mystery: why are people suddenly losing their minds, having their faces collapse, and murdering each other violently?

It’s a good police procedural; I appreciated the little nods and inside jokes, and Aaronovich really does a good job of making London come alive in a similar Neverwhere-ish fashion. I liked the dry humor that ran throughout the story, including a Harry Potter reference; the writing was self-aware of the tropes it used but not obnoxious about it. Some of the twists and turns were a little predictable, I had an idea of where the malevolent spirit was “hiding” about a quarter of the way in, and guessed a few other things, but there were enough surprises to make it not disappointing to read. Peter was a good character to follow the world through: as we are introduced to magical concepts, so is he, though the exposition isn’t done in a dull way because of his inquiring mind and “deviousness” (several characters make reference to this–I didn’t quite see it, myself, but that’s all right). I felt the “romance” sideplots were a little underdone, and read another reviewer complaining about Peter’s attitude towards women, but to be honest, it just seemed fairly normal for a man… I don’t know what THAT says, exactly.

The writing really gave a nice sense of London’s multiculturalism, again seen through Peter’s background (his mother is from Sierra Leone; his father is a white Londoner) as well as through the people with whom he interacts: the river gods are both traveling folk and African immigrants. The descriptions of both the rituals and the food give the book a lively bit of flair and really drop you into the world. There are some scenes of intense violence, as well, but they were not overdone.

In summary, it was a good, fluffy light reading book in between all of my schoolwork, though it was occasionally scary (a nice balance of fluff and fright). I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. And hopefully getting back into the swing of book reviewing for a bit.

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Tim Gunn — Gunn’s Golden Rules

Okay, I’ll admit I’m slightly ashamed that my first update in AGES is Tim Gunn’s new book… I feel like I should be breaking a silence or reading rut with something more serious. But unfortunately, this was a quick, breezy book to blow through in between reheating old samosas for dinner and attempting to teach myself Federal Income Tax.

If you don’t know Tim Gunn, you probably don’t watch Project Runway, and probably won’t be terribly interested in this book. Although I GIVE UP on that show after this season, Tim is probably the most appealing thing about it. He serves as the designers’ mentor, go-to advice guy, and general father figure. He comes across on television (and in the book) as just such a genuinely nice, likable person. Gunn’s Golden Rules is a small, slim book centered around his “golden rules” of how to treat people–the book begins with him bemoaning a dearth of manners in the modern world. Each chapter is centered around one of these rules, and fleshed out with his own experiences with people who followed or didn’t follow those rules, little anecdotes about his life (which is really fascinating–the story about the time that, at age 8, he might have met J. Edgar Hoover in full drag regalia is a doozy to be sure), and about his experiences with Project Runway, and the fashion world (best story: Diane von Furstenberg drunkenly demanding a hot dog.)

Gunn, or his ghostwriter, has a conversational style that is enjoyable and easy to read. Of course, it’s not going to win any literary awards–it’s basically just that, a one-sided conversation on paper. But no one’s reading this because they were looking for the next Great American Novel, they’re reading because they’re interested in what Tim has to say. (And I have to say I would have liked a little more Project Runway gossip, but what is in there is interesting if presented in a typically NICE and conciliatory manner.) I’m not a huge fan of the celebrity memoir genre in general, but I have to say that this was a nice palate cleanser in between characteristics of gross income, personal deductions, and capital gains and losses.

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Emma Donoghue — Slammerkin

It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.

That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.

This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.

It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.

This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.

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C. J. Sansom — Dissolution

Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.

The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.

Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.

It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).

What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.

So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.

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Michael Lesy — Murder City

After watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, my interest in Chicago’s violent Prohibition-era past was rekindled. In the process of browsing around on various message boards, Lesy’s book came up as a recommendation and I was duly excited about reading it. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a let down.

The book is a history of murder in the 20s, though not as gang-focused as you might think. Instead, the average person’s romantic entanglements gone awry, their intrigues and violent outbursts. It sounded promising and I was really excited to read it. Once I started, however, I was quite disappointed. The author’s writing style is very choppy but seemingly without rhyme or reason; he would create sentence fragments constantly throughout a paragraph but with little regard for emphasis. It made the reading very rough and occasionally confusing. It didn’t help that the chapters were poorly organized and the subjects chosen without rhyme or reason (yes they were all murders but the order seemed totally arbitrary).

You’d probably be better off just reading newspaper accounts of the incidents in question. Sadly, this was not a good use of my reading time.

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Jonathan L. Howard — Johannes Cabal the Detective

I know I had read and mostly enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (although it was a while ago and for the life of me, I cannot remember anything about it, and it was too late to grab it from the library when I picked up this book). Luckily, although it does help to have some familiarity with the first volume, this sequel can also function as a stand-alone. Howard’s world is vaguely like our own (there are Englishmen and pork rinds, for one thing…) but different enough: the countries the character traipse through are all fictitious, there are zeppelins and vaguely steampunk explanations for their structure, and of course, magicians have the ability to raise the dead (as a rather hilarious scene involving a newly revived Emperor proves).

Picking up where Johannes Cabal the Necromancer left off, The Detective finds Cabal in Mirkarvia, a vaguely Germanic country known for its rare steaks and heavy beer, caught stealing a tome on necromancy. He escapes, of course, and ends up on a zeppelin, fleeing the country, where he just happens to run into Leonie Barrow, also en route out of Mirkarvia. While in the air, a murder occurs, followed by more suspicious circumstances: after Cabal investigates, an attempt is made on his life, and other dangerous happenings are afoot. It doesn’t help that the sociopathic Cabal is being his usual self, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else and escape with his life and as much money as possible.

The plot moves quickly and the mystery is intriguing, and Cabal is one of those rare characters who is totally unsympathetic but yet entertaining all the same. It’s an enjoyable, fluffy book with all of the ends tied up neatly. There are certain little touches in addition to the writing that I liked; the summaries of the chapter titles (i.e. “In which Death awaits and a Plot is Hatched”) are clever and reminiscent of Victorian novels; the little illustrations accompanying them are also cute. After every chapter is a chart depicting some kind of airship and accompanying explanations, in period-toned voice, providing some context and amusement.

Issues: while Howard is very funny, occasionally I found myself wishing that he would give it a rest. There were so many bons mots and snide narratorial asides that it was a little too much for me. While I laughed a few times, I was also taken out of the story–I found myself putting the book down and picking it up again many times. Also, this might be a ridiculous complaint, but I counted at least three uses of the phrase “hoi polloi,” which is at least two uses too many. It’s one of those things that is an interesting word choice the first time, and becomes successively more annoying any times following. It’s not common enough to go unnoticed and it’s not uncommon enough to justify using it quite that many times. A minor nitpick but something that stuck out.

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Brent Weeks — The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge

I enjoyed The Black Prism so I went back and tried to read the Night Angel Trilogy. I say “tried to read” because I gave up about halfway through Shadow’s Edge. I think this is partially because Weeks has definitely matured as a writer since these books–there were phrases in them that set my teeth on edge. In a vaguely medieval world of assassins and thieves and high kings, seeing a phrase like “Durzo Blint was the best wetboy ever” just seemed out of place. Little things like that–phrases that were somehow a little off popped out at me constantly throughout the one and a half books that I read. The world building was not as developed as in The Black Prism; there were hints here and there, but with everything that was going on in the plot (and the plot was CONSTANTLY going) and the scattered nature of those hints, it was sometimes hard to build a coherent picture of the world of The Way of Shadows.

A brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t heard of this trilogy (though I’m fairly sure most fantasy readers have). Azoth is a young “guild rat” (i.e. a street thief involved in the organized crime of the city of Cenaria), trapped in a hard, violent life. His ticket out is to apprentice himself to the legendary wetboy (a magical assassin) Durzo Blint, the best of the best. In the background of all of this is political intrigue of the most violent and deadly variety, a looming invasion by the villainous (almost cartoonishly so) Khalidor, and the threat, of course, that Azoth, now known as Kylar Stern, will lose everything he has come to hold dear.

I eventually just gave up because of the plot, though. It was certainly exciting, and with a lot of twists and turns, but the crushing misery and constant deaths of everyone involved in the book just turned me off. (Also, the love scenes were cringeworthy.) For all that there was talk of hope, it was hard to see any. And while I do enjoy “dark” plotting and depressing literature, by the middle of Shadow’s Edge, it almost just felt pointless to me. It’s frustrating because there were a lot of things about the trilogy that interested me, a lot of things that were a little cliche but well done anyway or with a little twist, but it just wasn’t enough to keep me reading. I’m looking forward to the next book in The Black Prism series, but I can’t say that I’ll be revisiting The Night Angel again.

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