Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

Read January 2023
Recommended for fans of Pratchett, MMOG
★    ★   ★   1/2

It all depends on your definition of ‘cosy,’ I suppose. I’ve been wrapping up George Saunders’ A Swim In a Pond In the Rain, in which he takes seven short stories and dissects them for meaning and demonstration of craft. I mention this because one of the common descriptions of Legends will almost always contain variations on the phrase ‘low stakes’ or ‘cosy.’ ‘Cosy,’ of course, usually applies to amateur female-sleuth mysteries of a certain type, and honestly, seems kind of diminutive. Perhaps it refers to the atmosphere of  a pleasant coffeeshop? Regardless, as there is no mystery and the coffee shop is a process, I hesitate in that word choice. Moving on. Are stakes low? Does ‘nothing’ happen?

It strikes me that what Saunders says about Chekhov’s Gooseberries can be said about Legends:

“A story means, at the highest level, not by what it concludes but by how it proceeds… The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.”

Legends thinks very hard about what it means to reinvent one’s life and to take unfamiliar risks. It uses an extremely familiar characters–orcs, elves, gnomes and humans–and an equally familiar setting–a generic fantasy world with a touch of 19th century technology. In short, if you’ve spent an hour playing Dungeons and Dragons or in World of Warcraft, you’ll fill in the blanks just fine. In fact, I think you are expected to. Baldree focus most of the narrative on Viv’s quest to build her dream coffeehouse. As common as that sounds, coffee is unheard of in this part of the world, so she reaching her goal will require some clever approaches. She’s got an ace up her sleeve to help her succeed.

‘Low-stakes,’ I think, mislead my idea of what to expect. For Viv, these are very high stakes: she’s walked away from a lucrative career as a mercenary with a few good friends to settle down in a new city and open the coffeehouse. The events in the story continue to challenge Viv, both emotionally and socially. Her new role as business owner means she can’t resort to swinging a sword every time trouble appears.

I’m just saying that … maybe, if you treated the rest of your life the same way you do the shop—invested in it the same way—then the cost would seem less.”

Is it then, cosy? Despite the clear roles of a D&D adventuring party, there are no adventures and the solution to the plot will not be slaying the Big Boss. There is a notable absence of horror which, frankly, is a relief, but don’t interpret that as a lack of threat, violence or physical danger. There’s pervasive humor, both in a gentle way and in a more ribald fashion, particularly from the old woman living down the street:

“I don’t mind tellin’ you, this beats the smell of horse apples, any day of the week.” Her eyes disappeared in the dried-fruit crinkle of her grin. “I’d always hoped we’d clear the high bar set by horseshit.”

Should you read this? Maybe. There’s perhaps a few flaws. Personally, I’d think it’d be a stronger work if it went through the writing mill one more time, but perhaps someone said, “hey, this is about an orc. We’re not talking Tolstoy, here. No need to get fancy.” But you know, in some ways we are: we’re looking at how one person steps out of the system and changes their life. I think it’s worth my time re-reading, and I look forward to the next installment Baldree releases.

 

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Magic Tides by Ilona Andrews

Read January 2023
Recommended for Andrews fans
★    ★   ★   ★   

 

Checked email at 10 pm, discovered preorder receipt, downloaded book and finished by 1 a.m.

Fun; a return to good, old-fashioned Andrews fun. Kate and Curran are once again trying to escape Atlanta, moving farther and farther out. They’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, but you know how hard it is to keep them from trying to help others. Kate runs off on a little errand to take on a band of kidnappers.

“Red Horn kills people,” Thomas said behind my back. “Your wife…”
“Will enjoy the exercise,” my husband said. “You know what they say. Happy wife, happy life.”

It did contain solid advice about dealing with management you don’t want to work for:

Both Jim and Desandra tried to pull him their respective sides, but Keelan proceeded to half-ass every task they had given him and was insufferably apathetic about werewolfing in general and following their orders in particular.”

Nice humor, great action, once again a nice variety of mythologies and fights. I appreciated the way the story seemed to side-step the over-power issue. It did descend into purplish prose at a couple of points, which I found a little disappointing, but unsurprising as it was effusively purple in the latest Innkeeper episode. I would have loved to see that replaced with more character interaction or shift sheer description into a more organic way of noticing the environment.

For those who are new to the series, there’s more than adequate world and character-building (which is a nice way of saying it might feel repetitive to series fans). Still, loads of fun and I’m sure to give it a re-read.

“The woman’s smile gained a slightly plastic quality. That’s right, I’m accusing you of breaching federal law, and the Knight-Protector knows about it. Happy Monday.”

 

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

Read December 2022
Recommended for fans of colony ships
★    ★   ★    

 

An enjoyable, recommended entry for my women-in-space files. Though loosely described as horror, I found–thankfully–it to be more about suspense. It’s a quick little novella for fans of a colony ships, female captains and manor-house mysteries. I hesitate to say too much more because I find that part of the joy in these briefer works is the unfolding of the story.

“If Otto was right, then Watson had just discovered their first confirmation of something else out there in the space between the stars, perhaps the very thing that took the Calypso between its teeth at random and shook. Their systems hadn’t been powerful enough to detect anything during engagements, until now. If they could finally sense them, they could survive them.”

While Brown does a nice job of building the world and the ship, this is one of those that I’d say falls under ‘sci-fi’ light as it doesn’t get too far into the mechanics and details of the technology. There’s enough to give us the parameters for the set-up. That’s okay; I didn’t need Aurora level technical details, but some might want more. I, for instance, found myself wondering more about the crisis that launched multiple giant colony ships without better resources.

What I did need details on, partially because it seemed the set-up for the reason the protagonist is captain and partly because it seems to play a role in her psychological state, is why a crew would allow their captain to isolate during a time of crisis. It didn’t make sense to me on any level and very much had the feeling of being saved for Later Dramatic Reveal.

“‘I’m here to report ship and mission status.’ She looked as stupid yelling outside the bulkhead now as she had the first twenty times.”

Horror details are skimpy, and are more about suspense of both mystery and situation than body-horror. Personally, that’s exactly the kind of book I’m looking for.

“As soon as her fingers touched the metal panel, a bang like a gunshot cracked under her touch, making her spring back. It came again, even louder. This time it was accompanied by a hard, metallic scraping.”

There’s some word choices that feel a little off, one of those first-book, pre-hard-editing kinds of things (‘stared at a horrible noise,’ and my personal peeve, an inappropriate ‘smirked’). Hopefully, that will improve in the final edition, but I’ll note that it seemed better than the average first-book.

It has a good heart: an interim female captain trying to find her footing, a potential romantic interest, the sense of scrappy, desperate humanity going to try and overcome the odds through science, technology and grit. With all the elements that were eventually brought into the story (spoilery stuff), it might have been a bit too much for a novella.

However, I really liked the ending and the way most of it tied together. Honestly, though, there was enough to flesh this into a Robinson/Stephenson sized-novel if Brown would have been up for it. (That said, as a reader I appreciated just a bite-sized chunk). As it is, I’d definitely read more of her writing, particularly if Brown puts out a full-length novel in this world. This would make a very solid 0.5 kind of story in a series.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Tor/Forge for the advance reader copy. Of course, all opinions are my own. Duh. And of course, quotes are subject to change, but I think they’ll give you a flavor of the writing style.

Posted in Book reviews | Leave a comment

2022 In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

I’m just kidding; there’s no past tense. It’s 2023–as always, my retrospective is done full review-mirror–and it is still the Age of Foolishness, nary a drop of wisdom to drink. Speaking of ages, I think we can all agree that a new age began with 2020, can’t we? Pre- and post- SARS-CoV-2. For many, the quarantine of 2020 became the Year of the Pause, an interminable time that extended into 2021, and I was no different. 2022 felt stuttering and rusty, like it was attempting to shift into functionality but was unsure of what that looked like.

Judging from my friends’ reviews as well the general output of our content creators, I do not think I am alone in this sentiment. For every two steps forward, it was a step back–or do I mean the reverse? On the personal level, this manifested as a welcome return to in-person nursing and more ambivalent return to in-person dating (obviously at different times). It took a mere seven months for me to exhaust that stored-up extroversion, overfilling my socialization battery. Let 2023 be the return to social isolation! Just kidding.

Sort of.

But we’re here to talk books, right? Well, sure. Because it was a year of embracing the external challenge, I stuck to comfort reads. Without a doubt, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was my preferred storyteller and The Hanging Tree my favorite story. I was underwhelmed by most of the new books I read, with the exception of Vo’s Into the Riverlands, Cameron’s Artifact Space, and my singular five-star fantasy, Mr. Death by Harrow. Novellas were my saving grace and sometimes, shockingly, advance reader copies. In my normal mood for irreverence, the year deserves a few special carol awards.

2022 Awards

Preferred Theme:  I joked in one review that my preference is Chicks-In-Space, but it is really more Agender-in-Space, or Asexual-in-Space. Becky ChambersMartha Wells‘ Murderbot re-reads come to mind. Once in awhile, a few others slip in like Thin Air and The Freeze-Frame Revolution.
Most Erroneous ShelvingHyperion. On my shelves since 2012, somehow it made it onto my Goodreads ‘Read’ list. Still haven’t read it. Some day I will, I swear. Probably. Maybe.
Second Most Erroneous Shelving: Mr. Death is shelved under own title and under magazine edition, because, well, Goodreads. Harrow proves once again that I adore her in short-form.
Believe the Hype: Novik’s Scholomance series, Novik’s Scholomance series, read in entirety with the release of the final installment, The Golden Enclaves. Also recommended with a team of buddies who can help digests the frenetic pace of Novik’s storytelling.
Most Unknown Book Among Friends: The Gifts of Imperfections by Brene Brown. Do you have that voice in your head critiquing your actions, days, performance, statements, whatever? She’ll help you find some compassion for yourself.
Book I Want To Live In: Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures. Super-cute with great illustrations by Stiefvater.
Most Interesting Untracked Stat: at least fifteen of the books I’ll admit to reading were re-reads.
Untracked Secret: I re-listened to Peter Grant series way, way more than I’ll admit to. No, I’m not even going to tell you how many times. Yes, I am listening to The Hanging Tree right now. Yes, when I finish, I’ll likely cue up Lies Sleeping.

And last, but not least:

Best Social Media Community Award: I never think of Goodreads as social media, but I suppose it is. You people are definitely my kind of people, book nerds who continue to bring humor, inspiration, company, and even more books for my To Be Read list. Book Riot’s sweet nomination as a Person To Follow is, in my mind, a reflection on the people around me who provide space and audience. Y’all are the best. Thank you for your comments, likes, friendships, and buddy reads. 😘

Posted in opinion | Tagged | 11 Comments

The Catch Me If You Can by Jessica Nabongo. But I’d rather not.

Read November 2022
Recommended for travel fans
★   ★   1/2   

Well, this is awkward.

The trouble with analyzing the autobiographical is that one is also, to some extent, analyzing the person. And that just seems rude, right? Thinking of the autobiographies I have read, I try to tread that fine line, but I confess I drift into murky waters with the public personas, the people who deliberately live their lives as on-camera. The Gen-Xer, anti-establishment, and introvert in me can’t imagine such a choice, but it seems to me that in becoming a brand or a product, one has opened oneself up to deconstruction of what that brand is, right? Since this book is based on Nabongo’s long-standing blog and Instagram of the same name (she describes herself early on as a “content creator”), I will proceed.

The book itself is a pleasure; solid, photo-focused, high-quality paper with large color photos on nearly every page. Although it does not have an entry for each of the 195 countries she visited, it highlights many of them in rough chronological order. It also includes a nice introduction to the book, an epilogue, a list of the 195 countries with year visited, and a suggested bucket list for the reader. Each section has small detail map of the country highlighted within the continent it is located, which I appreciated a great deal as a geography-challenged American. There’s also small sidebars, in the manner of some of the Dummies books, with ‘Tips,’ explanations, ‘Must Do/See,’ but these are infrequent. Kudos to the design team.

As the book takes place in chronological order, and it takes some time to travel all these places, it is, in many senses, also a rough journal of Jessica’s life changes. In a strange way, it goes from simple to complex, as Jessica is young when she starts and the countries she goes to are close and familiar; it gets more complicated as she gets older and the countries require more strategizing to reach. Thus, the initial countries are places like U.S., Canada and Jamaica, from 2008. Her piece on the U.S. was one of the more interesting, allowing her to address the issue of safety and traveling as a woman. She makes the unfortunate point that it was in the U.S. that her most frightening and unsafe interactions with the law happened, reminding us that safety is truly a matter of the speaker’s  privilege when we talk about safety and travel.

On the one side, she’s done an amazing thing on a number of levels. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people that have travelled to ‘every country in the world’ are largely wealthy people, and unsurprisingly, often white men. It’s even become a competitive sport, according to Slate; when one millionaire was upset with the Travelers’ Century Club and Guinness World Records, he went on to found his own travel-validation website. So what I am saying here is that major kudos need to be given to Jessica for muscling her way in to this club as a Black American woman and a first-gen immigrant.

And on the other side, this was terribly challenging due to the self-centered nature of the book, both textually and visually. A significant portion of the full pictures centered on herself with a gorgeous and scenic background, à la social media. Again, great–celebrate Black beauty. But flip side–in a travel book? It begs the question, now that I think about it, why visit all the countries? She answers this question early on, and for me, it sounds, well, admittedly self-centered. Because she can, because she’d be the first Black woman, and because she’d be setting an example. However, is that any less self-centered than the millionaire who wanted to make Guinness Book of World Records? At least she’s also doing it from the position of a potential role model. You get my ambivalence, obviously.

But, role model a little less mirror-gazing, if you would. There are few insights in the first third of the book; it’s mostly “I did this, I ate this, I shopped here, the people are lovely” (the people were always lovely). There is a surprising amount of complaining about the quality of accommodations for someone that plans to be traveling the world. In Honduras, she writes, “I put my foot down. I demanded luxury.” There’s some kvetching about the village in Benin that was the absolute epitome of the self-centered American. Eventually, it becomes less about meeting her expectations as she grows up–her time in Benin was transformative, she thinks; it was one of her first jobs post-college –but it remained a generally surface-level gaze at most of the countries.

Take the chapter on Ghana: The city Accra in Ghana, she writes “quickly became one of my favorite party cities.” But why this is, she doesn’t say. She will say sort of meaningless things like “I love Ghana because I love Ghanaians. Whether at home or in the diaspora, Ghanaian people have a warm and fun energy.” To be sure, there’s other information: a paragraph each about her favorite meal, a tattoo she got, celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2019, dancers, a bus ride, and a brief mention of St. George’s Castle and the slave trade.

In a rare moment of referring back to my goodreads review, I included there a long excerpt under a spoiler from the Saudi Arabia, 2018 entry.

TL;DR

What I am saying, then, is that if you’d like an Instagram-level overview of all the countries in the world, it’s lovely to look at, easier to read than Insta, and less annoying than the imperialistic white dudes out there. So, endorsement, I guess? But if you want to know something about the world’s countries and their people, even at a surface level, I imagine you could do better. Even if it was a picture book, because you’d have zero pictures of the author.

Update: I’ve since learned Woni Spotts was the first Black woman to travel to all the countries, and did it about a year before Jessica. There’s some back and forth between the two, I suspect. But it also means that Jessica is that much more challenging to support.

Posted in Autobiography, Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Read January 2023
Recommended for 
★    ★   ★    ★    1/2

All you need to understand is that this was published March 2021, which means it was written end of 2020. Yes, that 2020. You know, the one we began with baking bread together, creating song reels, and planting gardens, and ended up fighting about absolutely everything? By the time the book ends, you too will understand.

It begins sweetly enough, with a pastoral life any introvert would love: a 19th century French farmhouse, a paddock of sheep, a field of cabbages.

How I love the rugged outdoors life! Living out here with nothing but the fields and the animals and literally the best technological support that anyone ever invented.

The reader quickly understands that the narrator is a time-traveler survivor, and there has been devastation upon devastation upon the timeline. Worn out by never-ending war, he has escaped and sought peace in the only way he understands: by managing time.

“Language just isn’t precise and all-encompassing enough. So we all kept meddling, changing things, changing them back—though not back exactly, just to something closer to the way we thought we remembered it. We kept yanking time about until it broke.”

This seems almost logical, practically sane, and if Miffly is perhaps an less-sane tool to achieve those ends, well, at least she’s a cute and feathery tool, right?

The tone is nonchalant, perfect for the breezy attitude the narrator brings to his problem-solving. It also allows for a healthy helping of humor, both of the darker sort and the absolutely silly kind:

“‘We’re getting along platonically just exactly fine.’ Meaning we spent all afternoon throwing things at Plato and it was hilarious.”

And then, just like in Walking to Aldernon, Tchaikovsky leads us off the effing rails. Genius.

Now, I can be philosophical. Everyone dies, after all; every good time ends. Time itself ended.

By turns darkly funny and a deep commentary on society, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the ending. I have trouble managing my transitions, particularly after a story like that. What do you do, go back to normal life and pretend you don’t hate people just a little bit?

So I went and played a game where I managed a fish aquarium and all was good.

It’s a calling. Or, if it’s not a calling, then at least it’s a vocation. Or, failing that, you have to have a hobby, don’t you?

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Long Game by K. J. Parker

Read December 2022
Recommended for fans unreliable narrators
★    ★    

 

Sadly, a miss.

A first person, unnamed and quite likely unreliable narrator has to finesse a situation with demon and a traveler from a possibly mythical land. Our narrator is both arrogant and mockingly self-depreciating, airily dismissive of things he doesn’t want to consider or share.

“And what you should really be asking yourself (but you haven’t, because I’ve deliberately distracted you with my meretricious narrative tricks) was someone like me doing in Sabades Amar in the first place?”

World-building is curious. There is sanctioned magic and unsanctioned/demonic magic, and the language used for the sanctioned type sounds similar to Western churches. The voice is so breezy, it’s hard to tell what is needful and what is extraneous. There are a few bits where I enjoyed the writing:

“He was going through his host’s memories, absorbing them as coherent narrative and excreting them as a dream”

I don’t particularly like deliberately tricky narratives, where the speaker is going out of their way to conceal information from the reader or obscure details. It violates the contract between the author and reader, so I think it needs to be done for a reason. Is it done with a reason here, is the question, and I think it is, but perhaps with malicious intention. I prefer an Oceans Eleven kind of sleight-of-hand.

“I felt as though he’d pulled off a mask, and his own face underneath was indistinguishable from it.”

Then there’s the structure, careening back and forth in time with nary a page break or transition, and sometimes, using visual transitions where none are needed. Here’s my attempt to reproduce, with breaks, a typical section:

“Ah well,” I said. “It wouldn’t do if we all thought the same. You’re Idalian.”

                          ⊇⊆

(Which was, of course, impossible. Except—

Idalia, if it exists, which is not universally accepted, is eight thousand miles away. Liutprand of Gallen claimed to have reached it five hundred years ago, on his way to the Moon.”

It was a triple trifecta of meh for me: unreliable and unlikable narrator, sloppy narrative style and an ultimately problematic theme. The ending was only mildly redemptive for me, and was so focused that it belied the slow and interruptive nature of the prior pages. This is one where your mileage will definitely vary.

 

Jennifer and Nataliya loved it, while Stephen was more measured; see their reviews for a discussion of the positives.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Essential Peter S. Beagle Volume One

Read December 2022
Recommended for fans of fantasy shorts
★    ★    ★   1/2  

I’ve long been a fan of Peter S. Beagle. I’ve read all of his fiction and most of his short story collections, but this was in the pre-Goodreads days. I had been meaning to go back and re-read, when along comes the first of a two-volume collection of some of his short stories. The Universe (and Tachyon Publications) oblige! But I make no secret of my terrible memory; in fact, one of the reasons I joined Goodreads was to track the books I’ve read so that I could avoid that disconcerting experience of discovering I’ve read something before–a third into the book. But Beagle’s stories–ah, there’s nothing déjà vu about them–I remember them.  Professor Gottesman, Lady Death, Lila the Werewolf, and The Stickball Witch have all stuck in my memory despite reading decades ago, if not for the plot, than for the sentiment behind so many of them.

Beagle excels when his stories hit the intersection in the Venn diagram of memory, emotion, and feeling. Too far, they become a little more maudlin, another, more visceral. Professor is one of my favorites here, but will likely be more entertaining to those who recognize classical philosophers. The combination of a possibly deluded rhinoceros and the eccentric professor will never not amuse me, and I will always prefer its sweet ending.

“He would pour himself a glass of wine and sit down in the living room to debate philosophy with a huge mortar-colored beast that always smelled vaguely incontinent, no matter how many baths it had taken that afternoon.”

The Stickball Witch slides slightly into the other direction, a little less sweet and a little more… umami, I think. Not quite bitter, but rich and with a bite. I liked it, even more as an older reader. Despite being rooted in memory, it does a nice job of capturing an eleven year-old voice, cycling in and out.

“You couldn’t walk away from a double-dare, even from a dumbshit like Stewie. I mean, you could, but the rest of your life wouldn’t ever be worth living after that. I knew that then. Not believed. Knew.”

Speaking of endings, We Never Talk About My Brother is probably one of the best entries here. Like The Last Unicorn, it is a bitter gut-punch to feels. Framed as an interview, it’s a very different voice than the other stories.

“‘Declare to goodness,’ he said, and it wasn’t the smooth TV voice at all, but more like the way his mouth was born, as we say around here.”

El Regalo is a different but gentler version of a similar tale, and is a little easier to read. Beagle writes about his intention to turn it into a book. As a more modern young-adult urban fantasy, about a teenager and her younger brother who discovers he’s a witch, I’m sure it has a spot in the commercial market, but like The Last Unicorn, there’s a sense of age and consequence here that might miss the younger readers.

“Marvyn was utterly businesslike about lies: in a crisis he always told the truth, until he thought of something better. He said, ‘I’m warning you right now, you won’t believe me.'”

King Pelles follows that morality tale too far and lands a little outside delicious for me, but it’ll work for some as a twist on the fairy-tale setting. The Four Fables are a miss for me, mostly because fables have always missed me. I only read them as a youth because I had exhausted the fairy-tale section of the library. I like Beagle’s vividness, of course, but the inherent morality/consequence is too simple for his writing.

“‘Nobody is ever remembered for living out a dull, placid, uneventful life,’ he would say to his Grand vizier, whom he daily compelled to play at toy soldiers with him on the parlor floor.”

Spook and Lila are shorts nominally featuring Joe Farrell, of The Folk of the Air, and while it was sort of nice to see him again in Spook, the battle of wits verged a bit too far into the bitter for my taste. Lila, on the other side, feels too much of a wallowing in sexuality and is triggering for animal deaths–no doubt why it retained a negative feeling for all these years. Although Farrell’s problems in dating sound strangely familiar, so there may be an element there.

“The trouble is that I know her. That was the real mistake. You shouldn’t get to know people if you know you’re not going to stay with them, one way or another. It’s all right if you come and go in ignorance, but you shouldn’t know them.”

Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel have something of the feel of Brother, Regalo and Professor, only slightly different tone. I liked it, but it didn’t hit me quite as deeply as the others. Lady Death edges into that bitter taste again, (and strong echoes of Masque of the Red Death), as does The Last and Only; or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French. A Dance for Emilia feels forgettable nostalgia. It’s beautifully written, but just doesn’t have any tension. The voice was 100% Farrell. Beagle notes that out of all the stories, it is the most personal.

“He was the first person I had ever met in my life who talked like me. What I mean by that is that both of us much preferred theatrical dialogue to ordinary Brooklyn conversation, theatrical structure and action to life as it had been laid out for us.”

As a final note, that introduction by Jane Yolen–yikes. While I usually admire her writing, she includes mention of a school shooting in it. How this slipped past editing–such a strange and non-sequitur way for her to work on her own catharsis, apparently–I do not understand. It’s a discordant note in an anthology about people who are one one-step removed from the world, or about a world that is open to the possibilities of the mystical.

Stephanie Law’s drawings are the perfect companion to his works. I’ve long been a follower of her art on Instagram and recognized the style as soon as I saw it here.  I wish I could see it in color, however, and not my black-and-white screen. Definitely not optimal. (Watch her do gold-leafing on Insta sometime. It’s wonderful).

Is it essential? I don’t know. Does it have an overview of everything Beagle is capable of? Absolutely. Does it contain some gems? Definitely.

Table of contents for the completionists in the house:

  • Peter Beagle: Bottling Talent by Jane Yolen
  • Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros
  • Come Lady Death
  • Lila the Werewolf
  • Gordon, the Self-Made Cat
  • Four Fables:
  •      The Fable of the Moth
  •      The Fable of the Tyrannosaurus Rex
  •      The Fable of the Ostrich
  •      The Fable of the Octopus
  • El Regalo
  • Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel
  • We Never Talk About My Brother
  • King Pelles the Sure
  • The Last and Only; or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French
  • Spook
  • The Stickball Witch
  • A Dance for Emilia
 
 

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes

Read December 2022
Recommended for fans of light horror
★    ★    ★    1/2

I am a horror pansy. Not my genre. But I am a sucker for chicks-in-space, and after I read more than a few reviews noting Dead Silence was light on the ‘horror,’ I decided to give it a try:

“My head is throbbing again, a white-hot line of pain from the back of my skull down to the right side of my jaw, and a dead man is signaling me from across the common room. His hand waves frantically in a “come here” gesture, his eyes wild with panic.”

I liked it.

A recommendation with caveats, however; I have lasting trauma from the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz, and I still remember jumping during Wait Until Dark when I was a teen, so your mileage will definitely vary.

A small five-person space crew is finishing up a contract and about to head home. For some it’ll mean new opportunities, but for the team lead, Claire Kovalik, it’ll mean a desk job. When they catch the signal for a distress beacon for Aurora, a long-lost luxury liner, they decide to investigate. Unfortunately, boarding a derelict ship is just like opening the door to a basement; you never known what you’ll find, but it’s likely there won’t be bargains.

The story goes back and forth in time, from the current timeline when Claire is in the Verux Tower talking to two of her company superiors, and two months prior, when she was finishing the job with her team. Titled simply ‘Now’ and ‘Then,’ the sections are neatly segregated until they dovetail. We know she survived, because she is here, but Claire is the first to admit she’s an unreliable narrator, so everyone is having trouble believing her recollections.

“And the thing is, I realize with a dawning sense of horror, he might be right. I have no way of proving what I remember is accurate. What if my memories–the few I’ve retained–are wrong? What if I conjured up whole conversations and scenarios? Whole people? It’s happened before.”

In fact, if I have any complaint, it is that at times the story feels like a cross between an unproductive therapy session and suspense story, with not enough forward momentum on the internal elements. Claire spends a lot of time obsessing over the reality and quality of her thoughts, but interestingly, doesn’t seem to have much insight, only repetitive guilt cycles. I had the definite impression that the rest of the crew isn’t exactly 100% mentally healthy either, but I’m not sure this is developed as well as it could be. By contrast, Peter Watts does an interesting job looking at the issue of personality disorder and extreme environments in Starfish. Granted, that’s a challenge with a self-absorbed narrator; I just note that that can be an element that can bring the psych in psychodrama to the forefront.

“His existence has neat edges, sharp lines, with no shadows or uncertainties.”

That said, I enjoyed the character development. Some of the side characters aren’t developed very much, but I felt like that was very in keeping with Claire’s antisocial personality. Barnes clearly knows the rules of characters; evil is not enough to build tension; an author needs character foils as well. As such, it wasn’t a restful novel. I felt like the writing was usually up to the task: focused, atmospheric without being purple.

“Silence holds over the channel in my helmet for a long moment, my harsh, uneven breathing filling all the empty space, drowning out even the noise that might be the engines.”

The sci-fi aspects felt space-light and easy to absorb, for those who might be intimidated by spaceships. Set in 2149, it’s very much the beginning days of space exploration and there isn’t a lot of futuristic tech that one needs to worry about. Resource-limitations and gravity are not really a concern and are deal with a hand-wavy ‘gravity generator’ type scenario. It’s fine, really; I enjoy this generation of space travel writers that don’t need to spend a chapter detailing the technical advances that brought us to this point (hard eyeball to Neal Stephenson, here).

Plot was straight-forward, and if there was an expected Big Reveal, Barnes still left an additional trick up her sleeve. I really would have liked to see her explore a certain aspect more (which relates to the unproductive therapy part, I think), particularly in light of the hints that were dropped. Overall, a quick read that was an enjoyable change of pace for me. I look forward to more from Barnes.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Rules of Redemption by T.A. White

Read February 2022
Recommended for fans of Ilona Andrews
★    ★    1/2

Short version: what seems like a space-faring buddy flick turns into a court-intrigue romance novel with a deathly Mary Sue. It feels a great deal like Ilona Andrews, without the smoothly worked in backstory. There is some snappy smart-ass humor (also ala Kate Daniels) that plays well. Actually, feels a lot like an Edge world. There’s a few odd word choices that I associate with lesser-skilled authors, so it requires a little forbearance. More significantly, despite the packaging, it resorts to a basketful of tropes.

“They saw the delicateness of her features, the burgundy color of her hair and gray-purple eyes that changed colors in a certain light, and made certain assumptions. Assumptions she was happy to disabuse them”

I mean, that’s fine, right? But just throwing them together in a kitchen sink doesn’t really make it all work. List: (view spoiler). Did we really need to include a giant, powerful blonde dude as love interest as well? All that said, it was perfect… for the beach. And because I started skimming a little at the end, when some crazy stuff about battle forms, star systems and protective wards got too boring.

“Kira didn’t know how much she believed in the rumors and thought it was more likely their technology was simply more advanced than humanity’s, giving the appearance of magic.”

Ah, if only she knew.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment