Time for a mini-break.

You wouldn’t believe how much reading I managed to not get done this past week. It’s funny, but unemployment spoiled me a little, when it came to reading. I had entire days in which I had nothing to do but read. Now that I’m back at work, I have considerably less spare time, and I feel like I’ve barely been reading at all.

I keep wondering how I managed to read so much last time I worked. I mean, I still managed to read  8 books a month while working full time. Surelythat much couldn’t have changed! Now I haven’t even read 4, and September is almost half over. There have barely been any posts here!

It hit me yesterday what the difference was. In my last job, I wasn’t in training. Here, I am.

And it may not seem like that big a difference. But between a big test last week, another test this week, and a third coming the week after that… My schedule’s changed so that I’m now awake at 5:30 AM, which, let me tell you, is a truly evil time of day. I’m not used to that yet. At my previous job, people knew I was a loner and left me alone to read over breaks and lunches. Here people have this wacky notion that they have to be sociable to me or something, so I don’t really get reading time unless I skip lunch and stay in the training room when everyone else is gone.

That explains the general lack of reading. The lack of posts hinges around the fact that 2 out of the 3 books I’ve read so far this month aren’t books I can review just yet. 1 is owed to someone as a guest post, the other is one that won’t get reviewed until next month. So even what I have read isn’t much good for post-fodder.

Thus, at the end of this ramble, I’m taking a week off from blogging. Call it a mini-break. I need to have a little time in which I can catch up on some reading and not feel like I’m freaking out because argh, I can only post a single review next week and that’s not enough and I feel like I’m falling behind, panic panic panic!

(Ignore that I’m the one who determines my own post schedule here. Anxiety rarely listens to logic.)

So for the next week, no posts from me. Just reading, relaxing, and trying to not fail tests at work. On the 22nd, I’ll be back into my regular schedule for posts, and everything should be right as rain again!

See you all in a week!

On the Watchlist

Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

Humanity stands on the brink. Again.

Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic.

After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone’s happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

Eli Walker is the scientist charged with deciding whether gems are truly human, and as extremists on both sides raise the stakes, the conflict descends into violence. He’s running out of time, and with advanced prototypes on the loose, not everyone is who or what they seem. Torn between the intrigues of ruthless executive Zavcka Klist and brilliant, badly deformed gem leader Aryel Morningstar, Eli finds himself searching for a truth that might stop a war.

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

 

 

Scale-Bright, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.

Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

 

 

 

Tainted Blood, by ML Brennan

Former film student Fortitude Scott is finally gainfully employed. Unfortunately, said employment happens to be with a group of sociopathic vampires—his family. And as much as Fort is loath to get too deep into the family business, when his brother, Chivalry, is temporarily unable to run the territory, it’s up to Fort to keep things under control.

So when the leader of a powerful faction of shifters turns up murdered, Fort finds himself tracking down a killer while navigating dangerous rivalries, longtime grudges, and hidden agendas. Even with the help of his foxy kitsune sidekick, Suzume, he’ll need to pull out all the stops to hunt for the paranormal assassin.

But as he calls on fairies, witches, and ghouls for help, he discovers that the problem is much bigger than a single dead werebear. The supernatural community is preparing for a massive shift in power within the Scott family leadership—and Fort has landed right in the middle of the gathering storm…

I Am the Mission, by Allen Zadoff

He was the perfect assassin. No name. No past. No remorse. Perfect, that is, until he began to ask questions and challenge his orders. Now The Program is worried that their valuable soldier has become a liability.

And so Boy Nobody is given a new mission. A test of sorts. A chance to prove his loyalty.

His objective: Take out Eugene Moore, the owner of an extremist military training camp for teenagers. It sounds like a simple task, but a previous operative couldn’t do it. He lost the mission and is presumed dead. Now Boy Nobody is confident he can finish the job. Quickly.

But when things go awry, Boy Nobody finds himself lost in a mission where nothing is as it seems: not The Program, his allegiances, nor the truth.

The riveting second book in Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody series delivers heart-pounding action and a shocking new twist that makes Boy Nobody question everything he has believed.

Iron Night, by M L Brennan

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 7, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Underachieving film theory graduate and vampire Fortitude Scott may be waiting tables at a snooty restaurant run by a tyrannical chef who hates him, but the other parts of his life finally seem to be stabilizing. He’s learning how to rule the Scott family territory, hanging out more with his shapeshifting friend Suzume Hollis, and has actually found a decent roommate for once.

Until he finds his roommate’s dead body.

The Scott family cover-up machine swings into gear, but Fort is the only person trying to figure out who (or what) actually killed his friend. His hunt for a murderer leads to a creature that scares even his sociopathic family, and puts them all in deadly peril.

Keeping secrets, killing monsters, and still having to make it to work on time? Sometimes being a vampire really sucks.

Thoughts: I have an unpleasant track record with this series. I waited for ages to read the first book. Then I loved it. Then I waited for ages to read the second book. And I loved it too! I’m going to try to break my habit and not wait far too long to read the third book, because this series is so incredibly entertaining, well-paced and filled with characters that you want to spend time with. It’s not worth it to wait.

Fort is coming more to grips with his vampire nature, and even though he’s not entirely happy about it, he does use his abilities more to his advantage instead of constantly denying them, as he did in Generation V. Rather than going from angst to superpowered celebration, this causes some interesting tension in Fort’s character, where years of habit and uncertainty still cause him to view his vampirism in an unpleasant and sometimes frightening light but he not only needs the strength it gives him but also begins to crave both power and blood. Occasionally at inopportune times. In addition to this, Fort is taking on more responsibility within the Scott family, from making sure the bridge trolls get their shipment of goats to eat, to tracking down and bringing to justice a vicious murderer that has made its way into Scott territory.

Fort’s geekiness is brought more to light here, and not just film geekery, either. It’s offset, as before, by Suzume’s sarcasm, wit, and unending ability to pull pranks on Fort in ways that are more annoying than outright malicious, which was good to see. Pranking, in books as in real life, is one of those things that can quickly cross the line to cruelty, and I’m glad to see that things were kept on the comfortable side of the line. Suzume is one of those characters I could read about from now until the end of time. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, self-assured, and, as I said in my review of the previous novel in the series, incredibly competent.

The murder mystery in Iron Night starts with Fort coming home to find his roommate murdered, mutilated, and dumped through the apartment window. As the investigation deepens, it’s revealed that local elves are at the core of it all, and involved in a sinister plot involving blood sacrifice and breeding projects. It’s quite twisted, which is what makes Brennan’s plots so much fun to read. Things are rarely as they appear on the surface, new information is constantly coming to light, and the whole thing works quite seamlessly. I love the way Brennan plays with mythology, tweaks lore in ways that give everything a fresh new feel while still staying familiar to readers who grew up on classical fantasy and supernatural stories.

And yes, I’ll admit it, I was rooting for Suzume and Fort to get together by the end. Previously I gave the series praise for not falling prey to the old “lead male and lead female must hook up” dynamic, and in many ways, I still stand by that. While it was clear that there was a growing attraction between then as the story went on, it didn’t interfere with the story. It added to it, complemented it, but didn’t detract from it the way I find many romances do. I could really feel for the characters, and the romance didn’t feel shoehorned in out of some misunderstanding that characters need romance to be complete. Fort and Suzume are complete, whole and realized. And it’s partly because of this that they make such a good team, both professionally and romantically. This is what stands them apart from many other urban fantasy pairings I’ve come across. Not all, but many. And I like it!

When all is said and done, I want more. I spent the entire time reading this book kicking myself for not reading it sooner, much as I’d done for Generation V, and everything I liked about the previous book is still here in spades. The lore, the characters, the brilliant writing and Brennan’s flair for realism in observation and dialogue. It’s a well-crafted urban fantasy than stands head and shoulders above the competition, and if you haven’t given yourself over to the series yet, you ought to think about changing that, pronto!

(Received for review from the author.)

GUEST POST: Lian Hearn on “Blackguards”

Blackguards has been gathering quite a nice bit of hype lately, or so I’ve seen on social media, and I’m pleased to be able to host a guest post by one of the contributors. Please welcome Lian Hearn as she talks about the project!


Ragnarok’s Blackguards Anthology is the first time I’ve been invited to join a project like this. It came at good moment. I’d just returned to the Eight Islands, the fantasy world of Tales of the Otori, to write two more books which are set around three hundred years earlier than Across the Nightingale Floor. In this I look at the lives of the legendary hero, Takeyoshi, the founder of the Otori Clan, and of the five children from whom the five families of the Tribe are descended. So I’d been rereading my own books – not something I do often – and had come to an incident in Brilliance of the Moon which I’d always felt was a bit underwritten. It takes place when Takeo has come to Maruyama and confronts the Tribe families living there. He disposes of them rather quickly, though sorrowfully, in three paragraphs. One sentence stood out at me: I hoped to spare the lives of the young ones but the Tribe poisoned their own children rather than give them to me.

I am interested in this level of extremism, all too common in headlines these days. I wanted to write a story from the point of view of these young people of the Tribe who would choose death rather than compromise with someone they have been taught to hate. One of the (countless) things in Japanese culture that interests me greatly is the traditional attitude to death. From infancy, children of the bushi class were taught not to fear death. Even today testing your courage by visiting graveyards at night is a summer pastime. Japanese history, epics, tales and plays are full of characters, usually in the prime of life, who commit suicide in various ways, often by ripping their bellies, a method of death both painful and undignified. Women cut their throats or throw themselves into wells. This is invariably admired, if in a rather sombre fashion. Not to commit suicide is a greater crime, worthy of contempt.

Blackguards_front-coverVillains in Japanese history tend to be, above all, cowards. Strong men of courage are admired, no matter how conventionally ‘bad’ their actions might be. Characters like sengokujidai warlords, Hideyoshi’s generals in the brutal invasions of Korea, for example Kato Kiyomasa, Ishikawa Goemon, who was boiled alive and hence gave his name to a type of bath, or wicked Iemon in the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, have always been fantastically popular. There is less emphasis on personal responsibility or personal sin, rather a profound empathy for beings caught up innatural disasters, of which war is but one. And from Yoshitsune to the Byakkotai, failure, as long as it is heroic, is as deeply admired and as highly valued as success.

My story didn’t quite fit the description of blackguards (an iredeemably European word for me though I really like the two comparable Japanese words, akutô and gorotsuki). It is about people who live by their own laws, not those of the greater society. Within the Tribe families it is unthinkable to break these laws. No one escapes the Tribe forever. But for a moment we hope it will be possible, that the young will be set free from the darkness and allowed to live.

We all have our shadow side that we try to suppress, that when we see it in other people arouses hate and fear in us. But what is the shadow side of of those already on the dark side? Why do they hate and fear compassion and goodness in others? It is their own shadow side that they refuse to recognise, seeing it as weakness. The conflict between these is neverending and fascinating to me.

Lian Hearn is the bestselling author of the Tales of the Otori. Her most recent book, The Storyteller and His Three Daughters is available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about her at www.lianhearn.com

Can I just take a moment to say how much I not only want to read Blackguards, but how much I now want to read Hearn’s other works now too?

The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Show Me the Money!

What I’m going to talk about today may seem like a no-brainer for just about everybody reading this. Previously I’ve talked about a couple of things that are parts of an unwritten ethical code among reviewers, but this one has been written down, in dozens of places, and is pretty much a standard practice: Thou shalt neither charge nor accept money for reviews.

We pretty much all cling to this. To the point where many of us get angry when we find that someone did take money in exchange for their reviews. It’s seen as a betrayal of our code of conduct, a blemish on the face of amateur reviewing. It’s one thing to be doing this as a job, and getting paid from a magazine or newspaper or something similar, as part of legitimate business matters. But it’s another thing entirely to take money from someone when reviewing isn’t your job, when it’s a hobby.

True, many reviewers put in as much work on their blogs as they do on their dayjob. But we’re not paid by the hour, or the article, and we just accept that going in. It’s nice to dream about someday making money from ad revenue or affiliate links, and that’s typically accepted as okay even by those who choose not to do that themselves. But straight-up compensation in the manner of, “Hey, if you review my book, I’ll give you a free copy plus $20,” is just crass.

So where’s the dilemma part of this Reviewer’s Dilemma? Oddly enough, it was an author who recently got me thinking a little bit differently about this, who said that they have no real problem compensating people for their time because they know how much time reviewing actually takes.

Put that way, accepting a little cash now and then doesn’t seem so bad.

The problem arises, of course, when you consider that money is a great swayer of opinions. If someone pays us money to write a review, it isn’t that we’re likely to be more favourable toward the book. It’s that we’re likely to feel guilty if the book isn’t to our standards. How do you tell someone their book wasn’t that great when they just gave you enough money to pay your phone bill? (My phone bill is $29 a month, because I’m not all fancypants and pay for data or anything like all you crazy kids.) You feel like you ought to give them their money’s worth. Maybe the dialogue wasn’t that realistic or compelling, so you don’t mention that in the review. Maybe, if you rate on a 5-star system, the book warranted 3 stars, but you could add a line saying that some piddly little issue rubbed you the wrong way and that you think most others would rate it 4 stars. The bad becomes less bad when you feel guilty for saying it, so we seek to relieve some of our guilt by beefing the book up a little bit.

It doesn’t really hurt anyone. But it isn’t entirely honest, either.

Nobody has to know what you got in exchange for a review, if anything. Some of us get review copies, some of us just grab whatever looks interesting from the library, some do a mixture of both. We’re typically upfront about whether or not a book was a review copy, and in some places it’s required by law to state so because it counts as compensation for a service. But really, who’s to say? If you got a review copy but didn’t review the book until after it hits the bookstores, who’s to say you didn’t just go out and buy it? Similarly, who’s to say whether someone put money in your bank account?

But then we come to problem 2. If someone finds out you accepted money for a review, it practically destroys you. What you say becomes suspect. It doesn’t matter if a positive review would have been positive even if you hadn’t been paid, suddenly your words are called into doubt. You can say you’re honest, but you’d say that if you were dishonest, and people will point that out. Each word you wrote is now seen as less than truthful, bought and paid for, and the assumption is that you only said what you said because someone told you to say it. You sold out.


(Dammit, Supernatural, you really DO have a gif for everything!)

The problem, weirdly, comes down to perception. The change in perception within yourself when guilt may influence what you say, and the change in public perception when people find out you’ve done something that most of them won’t. It’s a standard practice because we all imposed the guideline upon ourselves, submitted ourselves to being held to that ideal by those around us. We may see the no-cash-compensation guideline as moral, but morality is often subjective to begin with.

I’m not advocating we start charging for reviews. I’ll never be doing that. I do happily accept review copies, and I consider that to be pretty much the same thing, given that a lot of the books I receive are books I probably would have bought anyway, so it’s the similar to just handing me the exact retail cost of a book and letting me get it myself. Only before it’s in stores. And with the bonus chance to discover books I might otherwise have passed over had I been left to my own devices. This is more acceptable than straight-up cash, even though logically, what it mostly does is cut out the middle man. But being subject to the social norms of reviewing the way I’ve chosen to be, I can’t deny that accepting a book seems better than accepting money, even if what I did with the money was go out and buy the book. Morality is weird sometimes.

But the author I mentioned earlier (who I’ve left nameless because if there’s backlash, I want none of it to hit them) does have something of a point. What we do as reviewers is work, and it is time-consuming. The public side of what we do, with reviewing and publicity on social media, that takes up enough time. But mostly it’s a fraction of the time it takes to actually read a book. Time isn’t the most important factor, though, since I think I can speak for everyone who reviews when I say that we’d be reading these books anyway even if we didn’t take time out of our days to write reviews and interact online. Reading is the source of our hobby. Nobody paid us to read books before, and I figure there’s no reason they should start now. It’s nice to think about being compensated for what we do, and it’s also nice that someone thinks enough of us to say we may deserve it, but I think the standard practice is the way it is for good reason. There are too many obstacles of perception to overcome, for one thing. And for another, logistically, if we didn’t write reviews unless someone paid us to do so… Well, let’s just say the vast majority of us wouldn’t be writing reviews. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing, keep on reading and writing about it and learning more things than I can keep track of and not paying my bills with my compensation (the grocery store doesn’t accept books as payment, sad to say), than not doing it at all because nobody’s willing to hand me a $20.

Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Aliens have landed in New York.

A deadly cloud of spores has already infected and killed the inhabitants of two worlds. Now that plague is heading for Earth, and threatens humans and aliens alike. Can either species be trusted to find the cure?

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is immersed in the desperate race to save humanity, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Siblings Elizabeth and Ryan are strident isolationists who agree only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Marianne’s youngest, Noah, is a loner addicted to a drug that constantly changes his identity. But between the four Jenners, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent human extinction—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Thoughts: Aliens are here. They’re secretive, uncommunicative, and the further one goes from where they’ve landed, the fewer people even believe that they’re really here at all, because there’s no interaction and change in human lives. But one day, shortly after geneticist Marianne Jenner discovers something relatively minor but still interesting about human mitochondrial DNA, human and alien life come much closer than anyone ever expected.

Much of the science discussed in the book is presented in layman’s terms, and with the exception of the definition of a haplogroup, there was nothing that I didn’t understand the concepts behind nor found that they didn’t make sense. However, I admit that I’m an amateur geneticist and anthropologist at best, so people with more experience in these fields may find the presented scientific arguments somewhat lacking. I really can’t say. But for my part, and for what I suspect will be the vast majority of readers, the concepts are sound and present some interesting speculation about early humanity and diverging evolution. You come away from Yesterday’s Kin feeling a little bit more intelligent.

The plot hinges on a sort of spacial spore cloud that Earth is rushing toward, a spore cloud that wiped out the Deneb race (which is what the aliens are referred to as, despite not being from anywhere near Deneb, though this isn’t an oversight on the author’s part so much as an in-book mention about how names stick despite inaccuracy) and which they suspect will wipe out humanity. Thus they have come to warn humans about the threat and to work with them to study the spores and see if they can formulate a vaccine or treatment before it’s too late. Told alongside this is the story of Noah, Marianne’s adopted child who finds out that he shares something in common with the Denebs at a genetic level, and, having spent most of his life feeling like an outsider and finally turning to drugs for confidence, decides that he’s better off throwing in his lot with them and joining them when they leave Earth.

The twist ending… Actually, let me stop there. The ending has multiple twists; it’s not just one thing that you think will go in a certain way and then ends up surprising you. It’s about 3. Which was impressive on its own, since the whole story was dealing with multiple complicated issues. I’d started to suspect one of the twists about 2/3 of the way through. Another began to dawn on me thanks to a throwaway musing from early on; it took a while for me to see it for what it was, not just a throwaway thought process but an important setup in a tale that wastes no space on the unimportant. If you keep that in mind, one of the twists may not come as much of a surprise, but it is still interesting to see how it all plays out and ties together. I hesitate to give any details, though, because anything specifics would be spoilers and really would spoil some of this well-crafted story.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read, being more of a novella than a novel, and sadly I found that the book suffered for being so short. It got in all the salient plot points, and then some. It told an interesting story. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was a story that could have been done better justice by being expanded and lengthened. The characters were interesting enough that I wished Kress could have gone deeper into their presentation, and I’m definitely more curious about Deneb culture and language (those being 2 of my big passions to begin with; it was pretty much a given that by including realistic culture and language info that I’d enjoy Yesterday’s Kin). This, I’m sure, is entirely a personal thing. The book wasn’t bad for being short. I just wanted more. And I often feel that way about novellas because I’m much more used to reading longer things.

But if you’re looking for a quick short sci-fi read with a solid grounding in anthropology and biology, then I definitely recommend Yesterday’s Kin. Kress has some talent at cramming a complex issue into a short space, condensing events just enough to be concise while still being clear, and leaving every moment filled with appropriate tension and development. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s bumped Kress up on the list of authors whose work I need to read more of.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

August in Retrospect

Holy crap, it’s September! Like, today! Summer’s almost over, you guys! What’s up with that, anyway?

Honestly, I’m glad that the cooler weather is on its way. The cooler rainy autumns that my part of the world makes for excellent reading days. Curled up under a blanket, a mug of tea nearby, the sound of rain pattering against the windows… It’s a beautiful thing.

But before I get too entrenched in the future, let’s do the usual step back and see what went down this past month.

Reviews

Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig
Blightborn, by Chuck Wendig
The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
John Golden: Heroes of Mazaroth, by Django Wexler
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
Queen of the Darkness, by Anne Bishop
Happy Hour in Hell, by Tad Williams
Lock In, by John Scalzi
The 100, by Kass Morgan
Day 21, by Kass Morgan

10 books reviewed, which may not be a record for me, but it’s not exactly something to sneeze at, either! And 9 books read. I was aiming for 10 books read last month, but my roommate came back from PEI for the long weekend so I didn’t end up with as much reading time over the past few days, because we were busy eating at almost every Japanese restaurant in the city, enjoying the weather, and appreciating the time we had before she went back. Go figure, I’m only about 100 pages from finishing a book, too. But still, 9’s a good amount of books read, so I’m not complaining.

Other Stuff

In this months’ Reviewer’s Dilemma posts, I discussed whether errors in ARCs should be discussed in reviews if they affect the reading experience (and accountability for those errors), what it feels like when you have a different opinion of a book than most people have, the different viewpoints on DNF (Did Not Finish) reviews, and discussing whether rereviewing older books is worth it.

I showcased some character art from Susan Krinard’s newly-released Black Ice, sequel to Mist, and shone the spotlight on Anton Strout’s upcoming Incarnate, 3rd book in the Spellmason series.

I also celebrated the fact that I have a new job coming up! Next week, I start training to be a sales and service rep for Air Canada. And after the shock of losing my previous job in early June, I’m really happy about essentially trading up on the employment ladder. The pay won’t be as high as before, but it’s enough for me to get by on, the work is already fairly familiar to me, and the perks of the job are fantastic. I’m looking forward to starting, even if it means that some of my reading time will be curtailed.

Upcoming

In September, I’m aiming for the usual 8 books read and 8 reviewed. Hopefully I’ll be able to feature a guest post or 2; I was surprised to realise that there weren’t any guest posts in August! I also had planned to do another On the Watchlist but ended up too distracted by what I already had to focus on what I didn’t have, so maybe I’ll try to highlight some books I’ve got my eye on soon.

I don’t know if The Reviewer’s Dilemma is going to continue. It’s been a surprisingly popular series, but I’ve run out of issues that I wanted to talk about. If it does continue, it likely won’t be so frequent; maybe biweekly instead of weekly, if I think of an issue in reviewing that I want to talk about.

I’ve been debating doing a readthrough of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, too, and doing more of a chapter-by-chapter commentary rather than just an end-of-the-book general review. I’ll probably start this at some point in September, maybe halfway through so I can settle into my new job a bit before taking on another project.

I’ve also upped my reading goals for 2014 from 75 books to 90 books. I don’t think I’ll be able to make a full 100 books like last year, but 90 should be within my reach, and considering it’s only just September and I’ve already read 63 books, 75 seems like less of a goal and more like a marker that I’ll just breeze past by Halloween. 90 seems like a much better goal to aim for.

So, that was my August! Lots of reading, lots of reviewing! How was this past month for you? Was it productive, or did the summer heat kill your desire to do anything but lie in bed and suck on ice cubes? (Nobody’s judging; that sounds like a decent way to beat the heat to me!)

The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Looking Back and Wincing

Sometimes I wish I could purge this blog of everything I’ve written that’s over 2 years old.

Why? Because I’ve changed. And I know it. Not only has my writing improved, but so has my ability to critique novels. I know better the difference between something good and something I enjoyed. My skin has toughened and I’m not longer quite so afraid of saying negative things about a book for fear that I may hurt someone’s feelings. I’m better able to articulate my impressions of a novel, and I think my reviews actually say more, and say more valuable things, than they used to.

But why I really want to do that purge is because of how my tastes have changed over time. I look back at some of the novels I rated highly and I wince, actually physically wince, and wonder what it was that made me think so highly of them when I know I wouldn’t do so today.

Part of it is exposure, of course. It’s something I’ve talked about before. We don’t review in a vacuum. Each book we read makes its impressive, good or bad. Whether that book is a shining example of literary merit or something that gave us concrete lessons in how not to write a good novel, each time we read a book, it adds to our experience pool. So a book that seemed utterly fantastic 3 years ago might seem like garbage compared to everything you’ve read since then.

So here’s the dilemma of this week’s Reviewer’s Dilemma. To re-review or not to re-review? How much effort should we put into keeping our expressed opinions current, and how much are we okay with keeping out of date opinions around for others to be influenced by?

I’ll provide a little personal history here. When I first started this blog, at the beginning of 2010, I reviewed pretty much anything I read. Whether that was a new fantasy novel or a random Amish morality tale that I found for $0.50 in a department store clearout bin. (No, seriously, I really did review that.) A book was a book was a book, and I wasn’t that picky about what I stuffed into my brain. I read and reviewed some genuinely good things, but back then, I wasn’t as focused, and I wasn’t as experienced.

So take, for instance, my reviews of PC and Kristen Cast’s House of Night novels, or at least the 6 of them that I actually read before getting bored with the series. I rated them all 4 out of 4 stars until Tempted, when I got sick of so many things and the series started to go downhill and I ended up rating that one 2 stars. But if all you go by are my reviews, it looks like up to that point, the series is a solid one. After all, I also rated A M Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea 4 stars, so the quality must be comparable, yes?

Er, no. Not even close.

It isn’t that the series took a drastic downturn. From what I remember of them, I probably would rate the first one 4 stars still, maybe a high 3. I rated them similarly because they stayed so much the same as the series progressed. I figured then that what must be good in one book must therefore be good in another. Overlooking such miniscule things as character development (of which there was little), diversity (plenty, if you count the constant reminders that one of Zoey’s friends is gay), and realistic characters (I don’t know if they were reduced to painful caricatures of themselves or whether I just got tired of handwaving their lack of depth while reading about them).

If I were to read them for the first time today, my opinion of them would not be so generous. If I were to reread them and rereview them, I would be far more critical.

But, should I?

There are 2 ways I look at this. 1 is that my blog is a catalogue, not just of the books I’ve read, but also a timeline of my own improvements. I jumped into this reviewing thing without doing any research, and it shows. Erasing my past reviews would eliminate the chance that someone’s going to come along and see something ridiculous that I wrote when I was considerably less experienced, but it also takes away the context of the blog as a whole. I’m be selectively erasing the unpleasant parts of my past that I didn’t want people to know about anymore.

On the other hand, how many people read a review blog as a chronological sequence of events, anyway? I’m pretty sure that nobody has found my blog recently and clicked back to January 2010 to see what I talked about then. So like much of a person’s past, those events and reviews are still there, but largely ignored because they’re not relevent anymore. No harm, no foul.

I’ve been tempted a few times to grab certain books again and give them another go. Some I suspect I will rate higher. Some lower. Some I will rate the same on the 1-5 number scale but my commentary will be much improved. As a personal exercise, this is appealing to me. It’ll be good for me to see where I am compared to where I was, see where I’ve gotten better and where I’m still clearly weak when it comes to commentary. And maybe it will give older books some much-needed revival in attention.

But that’s also effort that I could be putting into reading and reviewing books that I haven’t already read. Where does the line get drawn? 3 years from now, will I be looking at books I reviews in, say, May 2014 and wincing just as hard, trying to rewrite them to be better and more up to whatever standards I set for myself at that time?

Rereviewing is one of those traps that can be hard to climb out of. Before I started reviewing, I read a lot, but most of what I read I was rereading. For the umpteenth time. I called myself an avid reader, but being happy about reading 50 books in a year doesn’t mean as much when 7 of those books are the Harry Potter series, and you’re reading them for the 5th time. At that point it’s less like reading and more like passively moving my eyes over words on a page to remind myself where in the story I am. Reviewing forced me to step out of that comfort zone and start actively reading again. So I worry about falling too deep into rereads. At what point is enough enough? One reread and re-review? Two? Only so long as there’s at least a year between them?

There’s no point in rereviewing if my opinions have stayed the same over time. That much is clear. It’s why I use Jo Walton’s Among Others as my ultimate comfort read, and have read it at least once a year since getting it. No need to write another review when all I’ll be saying is how awesome it still is. But for books where my opinion has changed, or my ability to critique it, I have to wonder if it’s worth taking the time and effort to write up something new, to approach an old read in a new way, and provide some updated content for others to potentially enjoy here.

If nothing else, it might put a stop to me beating myself up over the fact that I’ve improved over time. Improvement is a good thing, and every reviewer will get better the more the read and the more they review. It’s inevitable. We don’t start out perfect. We all have room for growth. Acknowledging that isn’t so bad, and demonstrating it is even better.

It also might be an encouraging project for those who are new to reviewing and who are seeing these fantastic reviews on a dozen or more blogs, written by people who have honed their art over the years. When you see only those things, it can get discouraging. It can feel like you’re a whisper in a storm, that not only are you too new and small to even be heard, but if someone does hear you, there’s the fear that you’re not actually going to be saying anything worthwhile. So there might be some merit to the community aspect of blogging, if some people took it upon themselves not just to reread and rewrite from a few older reviews, but to also openly compare and contrast. Stand up and saying, “Yes, back then, I was awful compared to now. But I worked hard and improved, and so can you.”

Now that I’ve got that saccharine notion out of the way…

What do you think of redoing reviews to provide more updated opinions? Do you think it could be worthwhile, or do you think it’s a waste of time? Let me know in the comments!

Day 21, by Kass Morgan

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 16, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) No one has set foot on Earth in centuries — until now.

It’s been 21 days since the hundred landed on Earth. They’re the only humans to set foot on the planet in centuries…or so they thought. Facing an unknown enemy, Wells attempts to keep the group together. Clarke strikes out for Mount Weather, in search of other Colonists, while Bellamy is determined to rescue his sister, no matter the cost. And back on the ship, Glass faces an unthinkable choice between the love of her life and life itself.

In this pulse-pounding sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100, secrets are revealed, beliefs are challenged, and relationships are tested. And the hundred will struggle to survive the only way they can — together.

Thoughts: The sequel to The 100, Day 21 picks up a very short time after the previous book ends, with the exiled children still, well, in exile, and the situation on the Colony quickly deteriorating. Oxygen is running out everywhere except the affluent Phoenix section of the Colony, people are dying, and there’s an unmet demand for justice. On Earth, it becomes increasingly apparent that the teens are not alone, and that some of the surviving humans really don’t want the newcomers there.

I want to say that Day 21 is more of the same, that if you liked The 100 then you’ll like this one. And it is, really, and you probably will. The positive aspects of the previous book are stronger here. Unfortunately, the drawback is that some of the weaker aspects are stronger too, resulting in the same lack of balance that caused the first book to suffer so much in my eyes. The story is no longer reliant on flashbacks to carry the weight of development, actually moving the plot forward instead of keeping things at a general standstill, though there still are some flashbacks to continue giving us insight into what made the characters who they are today. There’s more action and thus more tension as opinions divide on how to deal with the Earthborns, and the sickness that’s slowly spreading through the camp.

The dialogue is also stronger, and I think that was due in part to how Morgan neatly sidestepped most situations in which verbal conflict was bound to happen. Most of the arguments between characters last for a line or two and then are either resolved or ignored, which isn’t how people tend to argue. So there was less arguing, which took away a weakness and made the rest of the dialogue seem stronger for it. There are still moments, of course, but they’re fewer and further between here than before, which was good to see.

One thing I didn’t touch on about the previous book is the suspension of disbelief required to accept a few of the major plot elements. The most egregious one comes at the end of The 100, where oxygen is cut off to Walden and Arcadia, and Glass and Luke are stuck in one of the oxygen-deprived areas. With a few hours, effects are being felt. People are getting dizzy. Their lips are turning blue. They’re losing consciousness. But we open on Glass’s perspective here to note that they’re confident they still have a few days of air left (and then have an ironic dinner by candlelight, something that will add to the oxygen depletion). Glass has the brilliant idea to access Phoenix via something she used to use to sneak from section to section in the past: air ducts! Ignoring, of course, that if the air ducts were open, there would actually be access to air. She’s surprised that the air duct she uses is blocked off, but it was blocked off by another person who snuck across, not because of the oxygen cut-off.

In a flashback, Clarke’s father mentions Saudi Arabia, which was actually renamed New Mecca, and he handwaves this gaffe by saying that the country changed names a lot before the Cataclysm that wiped out humanity. Over 300 years ago. Which means that he would have grown up knowing and using the correct name for the country if he referred to it at all, so this was a clear and clumsy attempt to convey information to the reader about Earth’s history. On Earth, some of the teens are falling ill from a mysterious sickness, which Earthborn Sasha eventually gives them the info to conclude is from a berry that grows near the came. She advises them that they should clear the plants so no one eats it, because it’s “very poisonous.” So poisonous, in fact, that without any form of treatment but time, she knows that everyone who ate it will be fine in a week, because you have to eat a really large amount to be sick enough to die. Yeah, that fits the definition of “very poisonous.”

And then there’s the issue of language. I could write a paper on this issue in books, I really could. 300 years separate the Colonists from the Earthborns. And they speak the very same variety of English with no vocabulary or grammar changes, or even an accent that’s tough for characters to follow. I can’t suspend my disbelief on that one. Come on, even today we still have new articles flying around websites to explain the differences between British English and American English, and when some people try to handle Canadian English, they get things wrong. Even assuming that Colonists and Earthborns had access to the same records and so the same written language and history, their spoken language would have diverged over 3 centuries, even just accounting for the vast differences in lifestyle. It’s not clear if everyone in the original Colony spoke English, though there are hints dropped that it was a multi-cultural group, so chances are there would be new words introduced from originating cultures, new words and phrases evolving over time. Ditto for the Earthborns, who spent about 250 years underground before finally coming back to the surface. But everyone communicates just fine with no awkwardness or struggle to understand a single thing.

It’s the little things like that which caused me to raise an eyebrow while reading. Things that weren’t planned that well, or thrown in for effect without considering how they tie in to, well, reality. Between that and the fact that in a few chapters, nothing happened except for watching people watch other characters, it still made the book feel like it was moving at a plodding pace, and most of the interest stayed with Glass and Luke as they fight their way back to Phoenix and then onto a dropship as the rest of the Colony starts falling apart. There’s tension in the Earth segments of the story, too, but much of it feels so distant than it’s hard to feel much concern about. The sickness was focused on by only a single character. A psychopathic killer within the group was revealed very casually at the end, with very little horror and emotion. With the exception of Bellamy, once again I had a hard time caring about what was going on.

This is an average sequel to an average book, with little special to redeem it and make it stand out from better books around it. It’s not bad, really. It’s just not that good. The idea behind the book is more interesting than the book itself. If you want to read a really good book about teenagers thrown onto a supposedly empty world where they have to survive after being expelled from a place with abusive control and population problems, then I recommend Monica Hughes’s Invitation to the Game instead.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The 100, by Kass Morgan

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In the future, humans live in city-like spaceships orbiting far above Earth’s toxic atmosphere. No one knows when, or even if, the long-abandoned planet will be habitable again. But faced with dwindling resources and a growing populace, government leaders know they must reclaim their homeland… before it’s too late.

Now, one hundred juvenile delinquents are being sent on a high-stakes mission to recolonize Earth. After a brutal crash landing, the teens arrive on a savagely beautiful planet they’ve only seen from space. Confronting the dangers of this rugged new world, they struggle to form a tentative community. But they’re haunted by their past and uncertain about the future. To survive, they must learn to trust – and even love – again.

Thoughts: Life in the Colony is tough. It’s not so bad for those in the Phoenix section, the wealthy and elite who get more ration credits and privileges than, say, those in Arcadia or Walden, but even on Phoenix, it’s tough. Being part of the privileged elite doesn’t stop you from getting arrested for rule infractions, Confined until your 18th birthday when you will be retried, and then probably executed anyway.

This is the situation that most of the characters in The 100 find themselves in. Imagine their surprise when they discover that instead of being killed on their birthdays, a group of 100 of them (hence the title of the book) are granted a sort of reprieve: to be sent down from the orbiting Colony to Earth, where they will see if the radiation and damage from the Cataclysm has faded enough for the rest of the Colony to resettle the planet. 1 prisoner escapes back onto the ship. 1 young man not condemned forces his way onto the ship to be with his sister. And down to the planet they go.

The story is told from multiple character viewpoints, one per chapter, with about half the book taking the form of flashbacks, revealing what the various characters had done that landed them in their current predicament in the first place. It was an interesting combination of both showing and telling, setting the story at a pivotal point in their lives, and taking steps back to reveal more about them. It’s a very character-driven novel rather than an action-driven one, as most of the interesting events happen in the past. I had expected, given the book’s premise, that there would be a stronger element of survivalism  to the novel, which I enjoy a lot, and I was disappointed by the lack of it. The flashbacks provided a great amount of information and background, but I feel that there was a lot of potential that got passed over by having the majority of compelling events be things that already happened.

This book wavers between impressively dark and painfully simplistic, which is a shame because striking a better balance might have spoiled a bit of the impact of the more mature and disturbing scenes, but it also would have made for a better book, in my opinion. Orphaned children dying of intentional radiation poisoning (and the teenagers that slips one of them a lethal dose of painkillers to provide a painless death), a woman attempting to strangle and kill her unwanted and illegal second child, the idea of killing people when they become adults for crimes they committed as children, it’s all pretty grim, and the author deserves some praise for feature a few moments that made me recoil because they were deeply impacting and emotional. But then you get rather simplistic dialogue and motivations for characters who are in a complex and tense and altogether alien situation, and they seem more like bad actors reading lines than people with any real drive to what they’re doing or saying.

There are very few of the characters who I actually found likable, mostly for this reason. I think Bellamy was the one who had the fewest moments that made me want to facepalm. Bellamy may have been ignorant of some issues regarding his sister, but that was actually something that drove his character development, and I enjoyed seeing him to come grips with what he’d done and the revelations about the person he’d done it for. Glass and Clarke, the primary female protagonists, seemed to have much of their decisions based upon will-they-won’t-they romance, and it was only in their flashbacks that they really showed the depths of their respective personalities. Wells is the guy who endangered everyone on the Colony by actively sabotaging the ship’s structure in order to try to reconcile with the girl who said she didn’t want to be involved with him anymore, and believe me, there is no end to how much I ended up hating Wells. He makes a compelling case for how someone can be a good leader but a very bad stupid person.

The book wasn’t entirely bad. It mostly suffered from weak dialogue resulting in weak characters, and from a seeming lack of direction when it came to moving the plot forward instead of relying on flashbacks to carry the weight. The past was deep and full of development for the characters, but the present was weak and considerably less compelling, and that, I think, is what’s largely at the core of the book seeming uneven. Adding flashbacks to almost every chapter spreads the compelling backstory out across the whole novel, but that doesn’t make it a balanced novel, no matter how much it may seem at first to be. But there is still potential for the story to develop, since now that we’ve seen what brought everyone to their current positions, there’s nowhere to go but forward.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)