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review 2018-09-30 21:18
"The Stepsister Scheme - Princess #1" by Jim C Hines - Highly Recommended
The Stepsister Scheme - Jim C. Hines

"The Stepsister Scheme" is one of the few books recently that I've stayed up until the early hours to finish. It was a lot of fun. It was quirky, original, not afraid to handle dark themes but ultimately powered by selfless bravery and optimism.

 

"The Stepsister Scheme" tells the tale of three Princesses who set out to rescue a handsome Prince. These are not Disney Princesses with phenomenal hair, over-large eyes and chart-topping singing voices. These are Princesses who have survived the appalling abuse handed out to them in the original Grimm fairy tales and have gone on to become resourceful, talented, dangerous women who won't necessarily get to live happily ever after.

 

You'll recognise the three Princesses as the story unfolds, but you won't have seen this side of them before. Jim Hines presents his Princesses with a wonderful mix of humour, tension, excitement and I-want-to-stand-up-and-applaud originality that is a joy to read.

 

This is a story that seldom went where I expected it to go. It was humorous, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but the humour was a gloss on a tale about the strength it takes for young women to survive the things that people do to them.

 

The Fairies in this book are the stuff of nightmare rather than bedtime stories. There is violence and cruelty and more violence. There are men in the story but they are necessary to the plot, not central to the story-telling The worst and the best characters in this book are all female and they are all formidable. 

 

The world-building is solid, the pacing is good, the ideas are original and the action scenes are tense and exciting. And all of this is has a big bow of humour tied around it to make you smile even when blood is being spilt.

 

Reading Jim Hines, I feel I've found another talent as original and energetic as Terry Pratchett, only with all the books still ahead of me.

 

I read his trope-twisting Sci-Fi novel "Terminal Alliance.- Janitors of the Post-apocalypse " and enjoyed it. I only discovered his fantasy novels when I was searching for something to read for the "Grimm Tales" square in Halloween Bingo over on BookLikes. Now I'm hooked. I've already started the second book in the series.

 

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review 2018-08-13 16:20
Killing It
Killing It - Asia Mackay

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A fairly entertaining novel, although it didn’t keep me enthralled.

I couldn’t decide if ultimately, the whole spy organisation was believable or not; some aspects felt far-fetched, where I had expected something more on the… ‘realistic’ side? Not that I know much about actual MI6 operations are conducted, that is: it was more a feeling than anything truly objective. Some parts I found amusing and inventive, in a sort of parodic way that I could only envision in a novel or a game (such as conducting interrogations in disused Tube parts, so that nobody would hear the cries over the din of trains or wonder about ‘that drunk, stumbling friend I’m dragging with me at 1 am is absolutely not a suspect I’ve just finished torturing’). I’d say this works if you’re looking for the kind of caricatural spy network, and works probably less well otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on the fence with it.

As a result, the plot was a little unconvincing, and I couldn’t really connect with Lex as a character: I liked her snarky comments in general, but found it difficult to reconcile her callous take on offing and torturing people with the double standard of ‘I do it on a regular basis to other people, but no one dare touch my daughter’. While wanting to protect one’s family is totally normal, there’s an underlying hypocrisy here that doesn’t sit too well with me, probably because I usually have a strong reaction to ‘do what I say, not as I do’ people.

On the other hand, the novel raises interesting, if not unexpected points about age-old attitudes in the workplace regarding women, and especially mothers. In that, ‘Killing It’ is close to a lot of things we can still see nowadays, where in spit of feminist progress and workplaces generally opening up, a woman’s position is still subjected to ‘having to prove herself twice as much as the men’. (There’s been a lot of progress IRL, and I sure won’t deny this, but I’ve been in enough interviews with barely concealed sexist questions to know that the way to full equality is still long.) Basically, Lex’s struggle with coming back to work after her maternity leave felt real and relevant: some of her colleagues, and especially her boss, kept on questioning her ability to do her job and not ‘giving in to hormones’ and all manners of crap arguments. Here, too, some things were caricatural and laid out too heavily (like Bennie’s attempts at putting Lex down)—and, of course, Lex’s job is not just any office job, and is much more dangerous—but it doesn’t change the fact that many people (other women included) still assume too often that as soon as one becomes a mother, one becomes ‘weaker/less smart/less able/whatever’ and have to prove herself all over again… while nobody bats an eyelid at a man becoming a father.

Conclusion: The humour didn’t always work for me, and some things were definitely hammered in too much. Still, as a light novel that doesn’t demand too much focus, it worked.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-08-05 15:40
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Civil Campaign - Lois McMaster Bujold

Count Romeo Vorkosigan, the one-man strike team.

 

Oh, I've been looking forward to re-reading this novel, and it didn't disappoint.

 

Again with changing point of views, this novel is roughly told in 3 connected parts:

 

* Miles's courtship of Ekaterin - planned like a covert operation which blows up in his face spectacularly

 

* internal Barrayaran politics and

 

* Mark and Kareen's return to Barrayar, the subsequent cultural shock, and them starting a business operation.

 

I adore the first half of this book: Miles setting up his dinner party, hearing Mark's voice again, Kareen's struggle against the rules and regulations coming with her return home from liberal Beta Colony. And then there's Mark's bug butter enterprise with hapless (and clichéd/absentminded) scientist Enrique. There isn't a page that doesn't manage to bring a warm feeling to my heart, all the underlying shows of loyalty (Mark's Killer making an appearance when Mark perceives a threat to Miles's courtship), Ivan's good natured teasing - and of course, trying to make things difficult. The inner voices and humorous situations that don't fail to bring a smile to my face. All culminating in that absolutely hilarious failure of a dinner party because of a lack of communication and ignorance of social customs. I can't remember having laughed so hard reading a book as I did when the returning Vorkosigan parents come across Enrique trying to recover all the dispersed butter bugs.

 

A distracted-looking Enrique, his wiry hair half on-end, prowled into the great hall from the back entry. He had a jar in one hand, and what Miles could only dub Stink-on-a-Stick in the other: a wand with a wad of sickly-sweet scent-soaked fiber attached to its end, which he waved along the baseboards. "Here, buggy, buggy," he cooed plaintively. "Come to Papa, that's the good girls..." He paused, and peered worriedly under a side-table. "Buggy-buggy...?"

 

"Now... that cries out for an explanation," murmured the Count, watching him in arrested fascination.

 

It doesn't matter that the end is a foregone conclusion - that was obvious with the introduction of Ekaterin in Komarr. Too much time has been spent on her characterization and "voice" to have her fade back into the woodwork. So it's not the end that counts, but the road getting there. And perhaps Miles learned a lesson in humility... and also trust - in himself (because most of the spectacle stems from the disbelief that Ekaterin could ever choose him, a physically handicapped man) but also in others.

 

This is also a novel about growing up and stretching (social) boundaries. Cordelia's independence shouldn't pull wool over our eyes. On Barrayar women still are house-bound and don't play an overt role in society (with Lady Alys the obvious exception). Even with the invention of the uterine replicator which makes body births unnecessary, a real change towards equality hasn't occurred yet. Women are there to be married off, they don't have custody over their sons etc. A Civil Campaign addresses this issue in different ways:

 

We have Ekaterin and her custodial issues over Nikki (and her multiple husband-wanna-bes) where some estranged cousin of her late husband's wants to remove Nikki from her sphere of influence. Unfortunately, along with Miles's courtship this is solved by the traditional approach: In many instances she's a bit of a damsel in distress. Whenever something bad happens, a man is there to help her - be it Illyan, be it Gregor, be it her uncle, be it Miles. That Miles gains custody over Nikki in the end isn't mentionned any further. Well, to be honest, neither is the pressure on widow-Ekaterin to remarry. Granted, as said before, it's a foregone conclusion, but in the end she was pressured into her decisions. And as much as she might think otherwise - or that she might have made the same decision but granted more time for it -, the whole process, especially given her experiences with her late husband and the events of Komarr, leaves a bit of a sour taste.

 

Then there are Cordelia and Lady Donna who bulldoze their way through social boundaries. For Cordelia they don't even exist. Being Betan she isn't indoctrinated in Barrayaran customs but continues to view them as a kind of amusing anomaly... and fights for Mark and Kareen's right to lead their lives (and their relationship) the way they like. In a way Miles is Aral's responsibility (honor vs reputation) - and Mark's Cordelia's project.

 

Just a small point of criticism here: Cordelia's perhaps the one character that could use some more fleshing out, to be honest. She comes across as some kind of super-woman, all-knowing, omnipotent. Even Aral has his flaws - and he's had them from the start. And all that talk about her being Betan... it rankles a bit, her being the super-liberal, highly civilized woman for whom Barrayaran politics only serves as amusement. But that only renders her two-dimensional in the end.

 

And Donna? Well, in order to obtain the Vorrutyer Countship (which she de facto already held when her brother was still alive), she undergoes gene therapy on Beta and reinvents herself as Lord Dono. Interesting precedence?

 

I know I repeat myself, but it's this confrontation with tradition and regulation that make the novels set on Barrayar so interesting to me. Miles is a fascinating character, and I love him and his idiosyncracies. But put him back in this narrow-minded environment (albeit which already has changed and opened up so much within the whole series), and things get really interesting. Not to mention the fact that all the Barrayaran-based characters and their interaction are complex and vastly enjoyable in and of themselves. What would this series be without Aral & Cordelia, Ivan, Illyan, Alys, Pym or Gregor?

 

In a sense, this novel could have been the end of the series. Miles is settled in his private and professional life, he's accepted on Barrayar as heir to the Countship and important political figure himself. Mark's on the way to recovery. Gregor's married. And Cordelia and Aral enjoy their retirement on Sergyar. The rest of the series only puts on paper what's inferred here. But that's just a thought...

 

Anyway, an absolute highlight in the series.

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review 2018-07-22 07:53
Poison City (London Tau) - Paul Crilley

I'm still very new to urban fantasy, so maybe I couldn't appreciate this book as much as I felt I should. I always read the blurb and think, wow, that sounds great but somehow the stories always leave me wanting. I think it is because they straddle genres - humor and horror - but they don't seem to be able to maintain both at the same time, so just when you are getting in to the jokes it becomes serious and gory. Not that I mind serious and gory but then I expect the scares which are hard to come by in a humorous book.

 

Aaaanyway, I did enjoy this even if I didn't think it was as great as I had hoped (let's face it, few books are). The setting was unusual, South African Durban, but Gideon Tau (known as London) felt like a rather generic hero. On the other hand, I had a picture in my head of the comedian Sarah Millican as his boss, Armitage which was quite amusing and I really think the sherry-swilling, ball-licking, talking, magic dog should get a story all of his own (although I'm not sure you would be able to tear him away from his soaps long enough to have an adventure).

 

As I bought books 1 and 2 at the same time for very little money I will read the sequel but I have to say if I had to pay full price for it I probably wouldn't.

 

A note on the Kindle edition - it has no page numbers, which I find really annoying!

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review 2018-05-28 11:20
“Terminal Alliance – Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse #1” by Jim C Hines – highly recommended.
Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse) - Jim C. Hines

I'd never read Jim Hines before but I was in a mood for something light, so I picked this up expecting some kind of zany, "Guardians of the Galaxy" witty space romp.

 

What I got was a five star SF read. This is a funny, fast-paced, witty and original novel that also has a clever and quite serious plot.

 

The story takes place in a universe where most humans have been turned feral by a zombie plague from which 10,000 or so have been rescued by an alien race who now use them as a military force. The post-plague humans are hard to kill, aggressive and loyal. For the aliens, it's a great deal.

 

The janitors of the title humans who keep the warship clean and plumbing functioning, albeit that their leader, nicknamed mops, is occasionally consulted by the humans in battle command because she has good strategic insights and keeps a cool head.

 

When the warship gets caught in a trap that kills the alien officers and turns most of the humans feral again, it's left to Mops and her crew to find out what happened and save the universe, or at least humanity.

 

The pace is fast. The humour is irresistible. Yet this is not a shallow book. The universe-building is robust and complex. The characters, including the alien characters, are believable and engaging. The plot stands up against more mainstream SF and contains a big, skillfully revealed, secret.  Best of all, Mops turns out to be a giant amongst humans: a natural leader, a shrewd tactician, an insatiable reader (Jane Austin's and Mary Shelley's works have survived the holocaust), quietly brave and always witty.

 

What more could I want?

 

The book works as a standalone novel but sets up the sequel, "Terminal Uprising" beautifully. It comes out in February 2019 and I'd have already pre-ordered it except Amazon want to gouge me for a you-cannot-be-serious $18.42 for the privilege. I figure time is on my side.

 

Amazon pricing policy to one side, I highly recommend this book to anyone with who loves SF and has a sense of humour.

 

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