Most of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.
In the fourth quarter of 2008, I read the following books:
1. War For The Oaks, by Emma Bull
I knew this wasn't going to be good after reading the overblown similes in the first two sentences - "By day, the Nicollet Mall winds through Minneapolis like a paved canal. People flow between its banks, eddying at the doors of office towers and department stores". Thankfully, it's not all like that - much more and I'd have just had to stop like I did with Moby Dick. Even so, it's a pretty piss-poor effort. The story doesn't hang together very well, characters' motivations are poorly explained and they feel flat, and the world is just nowhere near convincing. And yes, I did remember to flick my suspension of disbelief switch for a story about fucking fairies, elves and a rock band, but even with that it was not well-realised. But the worst bit of all is the "duel" at the end is to an extent recycled from the story told much better in Walter Hill's film "Crossroads". Yawn. Watch Crossroads instead.
2. Dogland, by Will Shetterly
This fantasy is apparently semi-autobiographical. It's told from the point of view of a young boy - at the start of the book he's four, it ends when he's eight - albeit filtered through the adult writer's hindsight. He also admits early on that he's not sure whether he's writing what really happened or merely what he remembers. The author has woven in some "real fantasy" too which can't possibly have happened - the Norse world-tree Yggdrasil grows outside his home, the Christian Devil is a local businessman, and no doubt there are others I missed. But even if you're not versed in weird mythology, it doesn't matter. The child's wonder at what goes on around him and his odd (by adult standards) take on things is splendidly refreshing. There's enough magic in the mundane world as he sees it to satisfy the fluffiest of fantasists. My only niggle is with the last few pages where the delicate balance between what is clearly real and what might just be the child's imagination breaks down rather unpleasantly, which left me rather unsatisfied. But even so, I can strongly recommend this book.
3. The Last Battle, by C.S.Lewis
It was with some relief that I reached the last book in the Narnia series. Books five and six (chronologically) were very disappointing. This one is somewhat better than its two pre-decessors. It would even be worth reading, if only it wasn't so damned preachy. The overt christianity is just sickening. If I wanted to read that drivel, I'd read the bible.
Literary crossovers are almost invariably bad. They are the dregs of fan-fic. This being a cross-over involving H.P.Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos makes that only more likely. But in fact it's really very good. It's written much in the style of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" - indeed, there are a few references to that book having just been published - and is told in the first person by Kerouac himself. Kerouac sees R'lyeh rising from the sea and ends up travelling across the US in company with Neal Cassady and William "Naked Lunch" Burroughs to save the world. Much of what happens is, as you would expect with a Kerrouac/Cthulhu cross-over, inexplicable, but even so, it's an enjoyable read. Recommended reading, provided you have at least a passing familiarity with the Cthulhu Mythos; familiarity with Kerouac's work isn't so important.
5. A Shadow In Summer, by Daniel Abraham
There's a lot that I want to like about this book - the fantasy world it's set in is very well-described, and the people in it behave as, well, people and not ideals or caricatures, with all their weaknesses. And, despite it being the first part of a tetralogy, it stands reasonably well on its own. Unfortunately, the author has tried to weave too complex a story. There is too much plotting, scheming and indirection. I'm sure that it all makes perfect sense to someone reading it several times, but I'm afraid it lost me a few times. This is one to get from the library.
6. Plague Zone, by David Wellington
Wellington has published most of his books online in serial format, one chapter every few days, and got a publishing deal out of it (ha! take that Howard Hendrix). This background as a serial shows through, as the book is filled with cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger and resolution after resolution. This makes it ideal for reading on the journey to work, as it breaks down into conveniently sized chunks. He specialises in horror novels - at least he always seems to be writing about zombies and vampires and werewolves - but this is really an action thriller. The wheels fall off and things get a bit silly a couple of times, but that's OK, you expect that in both horror and action thrillers. I was left wanting a sequel. Wellington has done sequels before, so my wish might be granted. This ain't a great work of literature by any means, but it's an enjoyable read, would be so even for those who don't like horror, and I recommend it.
7. In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker
At its heart, this is a historical romance, wrapped in a sci-fi secret history layer of time-travelling cyborg conspirators - none of which is particularly promising. But it works. There are just enough tiny details to make the setting and characters come alive - only a couple of very minor bit-parts are the sort of lazy caricature that usually plagues these genres, and the players are observed with a healthy degree of cynicism. There are only two things that really grate - some (but not all) of the dialogue is in mock-Tudor, when that just isn't needed because the real-English descriptions are good enough to set the scene; and the last half-dozen pages don't fit well although they may well set the scene for the next book in the series. I won't know that until I read the next one. I've already ordered it.
8. In The Midnight Hour, by Patti O'Shea
I only read this because it was free. I certainly wouldn't have bothered if I'd seen it in a shop - it's another of those books where the cover artist is obviously pissed off with his employer and has decided to wreak terrible revenge. It starts off reading like bad Buffy fanfic - a fight against the undead! in a graveyard, no less! Thankfully, the unimaginative magical combat against stupid beasties stops quickly - although it rears its ugly head a couple more times later. There is a story in here. Potentially a good one. But it's terribly let down by the unnecessary and cringe-worthy sex scenes. And then let down further by some more unimaginative magical combat at the climax. Yuck. Avoid this book.
I see from her website that the author specialises in "paranormal action romance" stories. In this book, the action is scant and poorly executed, the paranormal is boring, and the romance ain't romance, it's soft-core pornography. Oh, and while you're on her website, have a laugh at all the other bad cover-art.
9. Orphans of Chaos, by John C. Wright
Oh dear, an "X of Y" book. Such titles are usually a sign of bad fantasy, and combined with the bad cover art, I'd put off reading this for quite some time after getting it as a free download from Tor. Turns out that it's actually quite good. The orphans in question are the children of Titans, held as hostages to prevent their people from going to war again and overthrowing the Olympian gods. They are kept in what is ostensibly a strict (and cruel) British residential home (the author tries hard to make the setting really British, and mostly succeeds, but his roots show through in a few places where he's left in some American idiom, and those are terribly jarring - I wish authors wouldn't try so hard to hide themselves like this. By all means write about somewhere you're not a native of, but don't try to pretend to be a native. Grrr) where the staff are all supernatural beings - drawn primarily from Classical mythology, but a handful of British myths are also touched on and I may have missed some others. The story centres around an attempt by the children to escape from their captivity and their exploration of their own suppressed supernatural powers.
The setting is imaginative and is a good compromise between the supernatural magic of mythology and a rational, mechanistic worldview, and is actually part of the story instead of just backdrop; characters have motivations and feelings. This is one I can recommend. Sci-fi fans will find it inventive and new, classicists will enjoy a different take on their chosen field.
Incidentally, the author attended St John's College in Maryland which teaches a "Great Books Program". From what I've read of this, it has some resemblances to that taught to the characters of this book. Wright says in the introduction "let it not be imagined by any reader that the ... institution depicted in this fantasy is meant to resemble the author's alma mater". Really, I don't think anyone would ever think that. St John's actually sounds like the sort of place I would love to study at.
10. Callahan's Cross-time Saloon, by Spider Robinson
This collection of short stories, connected by a theme of absolution and recovery, is just wonderful. It's not really science fiction, as technology plays only the most minuscule of parts; the stories are strongly character-driven, and should appeal to just about everyone.
11. Tales From the White Hart, by Arthur C. Clarke
Where the previous collection of shorts was all about redemption and people, these shorts almost all focus on some technological gizmo and how someone gets screwed over by it. They also feel so much like it's the same story being repeated over and over again, just changing a few details each time. Meh.
12. A Machynlleth Triad, by Jan and Tom Morris
This is my third collection of short stories in a row, this time the theme being descriptions of the Welsh town of Machynlleth in the past (a fictionalised account of events during the Glyndŵr rebellion), present, and future. There is a strong theme of Welsh nationalism throughout. And unfortunately, while the first story is entertaining and tells of momentous events, the second and third are rather more prosaic descriptions of the state of affairs, in which nothing of interest happens. The third is particularly poor, being a laughable description of a silly Welsh Utopia. This could have been so much more, but has been hijacked by the authors' politics. It's still worth reading, but only if you get it from the library or if you can find it really cheap second-hand.