The Alphabet Conspiracy by Rita Mae Reese

Read  January 2018
Recommended for fans of Rich
★    ★    ★    ★  

It might seem strange, but poetry can be so individual, and each piece can be an entire work in itself, that rating a book of poetry feels like trying to rate a book of short stories. There are forty-five poems in this slim little volume and at least two are deeply moving, including ‘Dear Reader’ and ‘Whatever You Do.’ A couple are fun, particularly ‘Terrible Holy Joy: Reading The Norton Anthology of Poetry in Bed,’ and ‘A Key to Pronunciation: /salm/’

“Thou leadest me safely past the landmine

at the beginning of psalm. Thou makest me a table in the presence
of dipthongs and diacritics…”

Other standouts include ‘Intercession,’ a piece on patron saints done like an alphabet book:

“There are patron saints for archives and Arkansas and advertisers.
Against dying alone

For backward children, boxers and boys’ choirs.
For birds and breastfeeding.”

Her style and subject matter reminds me of Adrienne Rich, one of my favorite poets. Visually, much of it is written in stanza form, but sometimes playing with format to impact meaning by using couplets or paragraphs.


ends with pursed lips and a puff of air
but starts with a closed mouth
and vibrating throat

a humming of our first note of ourselves–
our objective case:
feed me, love me, watch me

then the subjective: a narrow column
of impulse and irreverence
startled perhaps by the hissing

in the middle of the word’s path. See
the curved aching
toward the whisper of–him? her?

Subjects range from the deeply personal (‘In the ER Waiting Room with My Girlfriend’) to generalist thoughts on language. The ones about language, words (‘Hunger’) and pronunciation (‘Mishap’) were standouts. Many poems are about early family relationships; mother, father, aunt, and the death of brother James. A number reference the Bible or Biblical stories, and these were often of limited meaning for me. There are a couple of eulogies, one a memorial to a victim of forced sterilization, (‘Vivian Buck, 1924-1932’), another a memorial to miners killed in an accident (‘Monongah, 1907’).

My largest criticism is that, though a small volume, it might have benefited more from a thematic arrangement. Nonetheless, it’s a solid work, particularly for a first published volume. It turns out that Reese is now a local writer, residing in Madison after completing her MFA at University Wisconsin-Madison, so perhaps I can look forward to local exposure. Without doubt, this book remained on my TBR list for so long because of it’s catnip title, and I’m glad it did.


Dear Reader

You have forgotten it all.
You have forgotten your name,
where you lived, who you
loved, why.

I am simply
your nurse, terse and unlovely.
I point to things
and remind you what they are:
chair, book, daughter, soup.

And when we are alone
I tell you what lies
in each direction: This way
is death, and this way, after
a longer walk, is death,
and that way is death but you
won’t see it
until it is right
in front of you.

Once after
your niece had been to visit you
and I said  something about
how you must love her
or she must love you
or something useless like that,
you gripped my forearm
in your terrible swift hand
and said, she is
everything–you gave
me a shake–everything
to me.

And then you fell
back into the well. Deep
in the well of everything. And I
stand at the edge and call:
chair, book, daughter, soup.



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

The City & The City by China Mieville

Read  January 2018
Recommended for Fans of Miéville     
★    ★    ★  


Can a city have a personality? I think so. Certainly the feel of Los Angeles is entirely different from NYC, and different again from Chicago, right? But what are the components to a city’s character? Despite being the centerpiece of the novel, The City and the City never came alive for me. Half the time I felt as if I  was reading a dusty encyclopedia description of a city and half the time an oddly paced but elaborate mystery.

The story begins typical for the detective-mystery genre: we follow Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad to the scene of a murdered and nude woman. It is a seedy, run-down area full of addicts, and at first it appears as if she’s another lost soul from the streets. Tyador  commanders an eager young subordinate, Corwi, for her street contacts and legwork. Before long, an anonymous tip points them in the direction of Il Qoma, the city that lives within/alongside/interstices with their own city of Beszel. The citizens of both places are monitored by Breach, a mysterious authority who will spirit away those who mistakenly acknowledge the partner city without following proper channels.

“‘Why were you there?’
‘… It was a conference. ‘Policing Split Cities.’ They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berline, and Beszel and Ul Quoma.’

‘I know, I know. That’s what we said at the time. Totally missing the point.’
‘Split cities? I’m surprised the acad let you go.'”

The idea of two cities, co-existing in shared spaces but actually separate nations, is a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, Big Idea is all that holds this story together, which has little to humanize it amidst a slow and painful execution. It occurred to me that this is the premise of so many other books, the unseen co-existing with the seen, but I felt it was hard to get a grip on the intricacies of the schism.

Bezel and Il Quoma never truly differentiated for me. I think part of the reason is that Mieille relies on two main modes of describing his cities: the architecture and the political history. I felt very much like I was being given a lesson on Yugoslavia, or walled-Berlin, or one of the split cities so overtly mentioned. An example from page 43:

“In typical political cliche, unificationists were split on many axes. Some groups were illegal, sister-organisations in both Beszel and Ul Qoma. The banned had at varioius points in their history advocated the use of violence to bring the cities to their God-, destiny-, history-, or people-intended unity. Some had, mostly cack-handedly, targeted nationalist intellectuals–bricks through windows and shit through doors. They had been accused of furtively propagandising among refugees and new immigrants with limited expertise at seeing and unseeing, at being in one particular city. The activists wanted to weaponise such urban uncertainty.”

I can appreciate such description, but does it resonate? Evoke emotion? I think of Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, how London comes alive with the lyrical descriptions, and wonder at the difference. Perhaps people would have helped, or further character-building of the ones we had. Histories of the characters could have been used to gain more insight into the schism between the two, but only Tyador’s youth is shared in any detail. About the only person that stood out for me was the detective’s superior, who humorously managed to undercut Borlu’s complaints with every line of dialogue.

“‘This is bullshit. We’ve been screwed.’
‘It is bullshit, he tells me,’ Gadlem said to the world. ‘He tells me we’ve been screwed.’
‘We’ve been screwed, sir. We need Breach. How the hell are we supposed to do this? Someone somewhere is trying to freeze this where it stands.’
‘We’ve been screwed, he tells me, and I note he tells me so as if I am disagreeing with him. Which when last I looked I was not doing.'”

I enjoy China’s word-play, particularly ‘grosstopically,’ in reference to things that are near in physical space but from different nations But the word-smithing didn’t feel as sophisticated as Embassytown or as fun as Kraken, which is interesting, as they were published in a three-year span. Most of the vocabulary was created around the idea of ‘unseeing’ the neighbor city and it’s occupants. Overall, the language felt stilted and excessively formal for genre fiction, further distancing me from the story.

It’s not that I don’t understand the exploration of the dissonant, conjoined cities. We take the noir detective format, incorporate a nice play on the idea of two cities, merged but unseen, occupying almost the same space with each other. It’s actually a relatively common exercise in the spec-fic/sci-fi world, giving an author (and reader) familiar concepts to latch onto while the author forays into stranger places. There are times the Big Idea works well and can carry a novel on its own, but for me, this wasn’t it. I’d suggest Only Forward if you want to play with the idea of city and identity.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

Read  January 2018
Recommended for Fans of YA, explorations of identity
★    ★    ★  


Sometimes, it’s all in the spin. If you has said to me, “here, read this YA book with trigger scenes, set in the Old-Timey West with phrases like, “Poor critter was parched and gaunt as a crow’s skeleton,” I would have insincerely said, ‘sure,’ and immediately made plans to deep-six it down the nearest prairie well. But had you said, “here, I have this great book about a brown, mixed race, Native gender-bender girl who learns to see monsters after she kills one and is given a ghost-quest to take down the biggest, scariest, baby-stealing monster of all, but perhaps she’ll have help from some other legends,” I would have been intrigued, especially if you mentioned birds.

So, I’m cleaning out the TBR, and I have this in the library stack, and I have far, far too much of a headache for China’s wordy tricks and politics, so I pick this up, and you can switch me twice with a porcupine’s tail if I didn’t finish it the very same night. Even though–and this is a very big even though–it’s spoken in gawd-awful cowboy talk: “Stunned, she nearly swallowed a fly; in ten years as Monty’s shadow, this was her first invitation to join the wranglers for grub at the ranch house.” With more spitting than a llama convention. But it begins quickly, throwing the hero/ine Nettie right into trouble when a fancily dressed stranger tries to corner her inside the barn of her adopted parents’ tiny farmstead. I might’ve hung it up then and there if Bowden’s writing weren’t so durn good, and the sickle in the stranger’s eye didn’t seem to deter him from carrying on, until Nettie stabs him in the heart with a piece of wood and he turns to sand.

This becomes a watershed moment for her where she becomes brave enough to sneak away from her clearly drunk and abusive Ma and Pa and venture over to the next ranch to seek a job. She adopts a male personality and is starting to fit in when she discovers all sorts of beasties in the night, particularly the red-eyed, fanged ones at the local whorehouse. Soon after, the ranch hands discover a half-dead ancient Native woman who keeps repeating, “Pia Mupitsi,” and from there, Net’s destiny or curse is clear.

It is truly an intriguing and well written book. Net/Nat is annoying, as all teenagers, refusing to communicate when she finally has a learning opportunity and saying, “ain’t” every time she does. But it’s all made plausible by her horrible upbringing that didn’t give her the skills to puzzle out a world in shades of grey, and Bowden stays faithful to that set-up until the end, exposing Net in bits and pieces to the idea that not everything is one thing or another. In the setting of the Special Orphan Trope, she at least commits to the very gradual awakening of the ignorant and stubborn orphan.

But here’s what no doubt caught Past-carol’s attention: there’s some intriguing stuff running through here about gender and sexuality, and as Nettie has to navigate a man’s world by becoming Nat, she starts to learn identity is broader than what she learned from Ma and Pa. I was curious to see if Bowden was going to establish Netti as transgender, but by the end, I don’t think she did. I think Net is uncomfortable with definitions of femaleness and wants the freedom and roles of the male world, but I can see where future books might have her just be a ‘tomboy’ girl–who is, admittedly, attracted to both male and female. At any rate, a fascinating exploration of the topic as Net meets more people and develops relationships.

In some ways the quest is a McGuffin; though she’s forced into it, her journey isn’t really about learning about what she’s after. Rather, the goal is to learn potential skills that could help and engaging in adventures along the way, although, as is typical, part of the strategy seems to be relying on her own Specialness. The landscaped developed is both rich and sparse, and has the dry, arid feeling of the Texas desert, ghost towns and isolated farms included.

There’s a prolonged non-significant side incident on the way that was deeply disturbing and even more triggering than the initial farmyard scene. Seriously, I’m left wondering at the authorial choice; it’s the kind of thing that most definitely means I’d suggest it for the mid-teen crown not an advanced-reader younger one. Bowden is probably trying to make some kind of complex metaphor about sexuality in this book, but it is often contextualized in a bloody, violent framework. Had I been Nettie, I might have chosen, ‘none of the above.’ Which will be interesting to see how gender and sexuality is negotiated, if Bowden continues to remain roughly faithful to her chosen timeline of 1870s.

And while there’s a resolution, it is not an entirely clear one, so negative point for that. Still, the writing was very good, the landscape and atmosphere solidly developed and the Native myths intriguing. I’m sure I’ll pick up the next.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, young adult | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson, Vol. 3

Read  January 2018
Recommended for   
★    ★     1/2

Ah, the heady days of sci-fi, when men were men, women were women, and bug-eyed tentacled things were bug-eyed tentacled things. Picked up because of the Hugo and Nebula winner ‘The Saturn Game,’ this edition contains eighteen stories and novellas, along with assorted limericks and songs penned by Anderson. The editor notes that when completed, there will be anywhere from six to eight volumes in the collection. Dear Editor–unless you are someone’s devoted and rich parents, you probably don’t need to collect and publish everything they ever wrote.

‘Operation Salamander’ was perhaps one of my favorites, an urban fantasy type tale about a graduate student who is unable to continue a relationship with his girlfriend after she gets a teaching job. It feels a lot like a Zelazny short. ‘Sam Hall’ was another intriguing one, a forward dystopia where phantom rebel Sam Hall is created by a law-abiding Security official. ‘The Only Game in Town’ deals with two time-traveling agents and a group of Chinese explorers who discover 13th century America. ‘No Truce With Kings’ is another dystopia, a forward and fractured U.S. with emotional politics played out by a local warlord and his son who grows to take the opposing side. ‘Eve Times Four’ was a comical little bit about a group of people in an escape pod.

Others are solidly of the sci-fi tradition, a hero or small crew tasked to solve a particular problem while in space. ‘Sunjammer’ explores how to save an unmanned freighter from the effects of a sun flare. In ‘Hiding Place,’ a pleasure space yacht with a damaged engine is challenged to escape following raiders, and how to identify a new sentient species. ‘Supernova’ was how to convince a planet with a multitude of fighting tribes to allow a slightly more advanced species space for a research station.’Elementary Mistake’ was how and advance team capable of building an interstellar port discovers a raw materials problem. ‘Robin Hood’s Barn’ is about a stagnant future culture and a Patrician’s efforts to stimulate change by appearing to halt it.

The writing is very competent, but surprisingly dry. In these stories, Anderson tends to allow the world-building to grow only as much as he needs to tell the story, despite including a variety of alien races. They very much feel like novellas and novelettes, complete in themselves but narrowly focused stories. For me, many of the stories were s–l–0–w, feeling more geeky-wonky than riveting. For instance, the four sci-fi mentioned earlier all dealt with a situation being set up through somewhat lengthy discussion and explanation, then engaging in limited actions or more discussion why various attempts to solve the issue won’t work. The solution in a couple rely on hard science (‘Sunjammer’ and ‘Elementary’) which is only vaguely interesting. Depends on how moved you are by distillation, I guess.

If only it weren’t so terribly dry…

“‘It sounded terrifying,” Morruchan said, ‘until they pointed out that Valenderay is three and a half light-years distant. Ad this is a reach so enormous that no mind can swallow it. The radiation, when it gets to us, will equal a mere one third of what comes daily… and in some fifty-five days’ (Terrestrial) ‘it will have dwindled to half… and so on, until before long we see little except a bright nebula at night.'” (‘Supernova’)

In the sci-fi canon, my guess is that Anderson’s strengths are his skill in conveying ideas, and his conjecture/exploration of various problems that might be encountered in space. Certainly the range here is interesting. None felt overtly offensive, but with the benign male-centric dominance of the generation. Characterization is generally limited; there’s almost no backstory to characters and often they are roles as much as people. Dialogue is often didactic, whether from lecture or conjecture becomes irrelevant.

“‘I’m no expert. But as I understand it, the Staurni are a rare thing, a stricly carnivorous intelligent race. Normally carnivores specialize in fighting ability rather than brains, you know. I once talked with a buck who’d visited here and poked around a little. He said he’d notice fossil outcrops that suggested this continent was invaded long ago by a bigger, related species. Maybe the Staurni had to develop intelligence to fight back. I dunno. However it happened, you’ve got a race with high-powered killer instincts and not gregarious…'” (‘Arsenal Port’)

Overall, it felt time-period typical, the cerebral-focused sci-fi that lacked much emotional engagement. Except for ‘Saturn Game’ and ‘Hunter’s Moon,’ the stories were all written in the 50s and 60s. The two that were written later were the most stunning in terms of world building, ‘Saturn’ with it’s ice caves and ‘Hunter’s’ with it’s unusual alien life-forms. They also focused deeper on the relationships between characters, which brought an emotional component to the stories, so I suspect his later works would be more enjoyable.


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2017 in review

Let’s do some awards, shall we?

Best series installments: (tie) Magic Binds (Kate Daniels, #9) by Ilona Andrews and The Furthest Station (Peter Grant, #5.5) by Ben Aaronovitch

Series installment that deserves shredding: Etched in Bone (The Others, #5) by Anne Bishop

YA book I wish I had read when I was nine: So You Want to Be a Wizard (Young Wizards, #1) by Diane Duane

YA Book I still would have hated had I read it when I was nine: The Witches by Roald Dahl

Best YA book now: Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Book I was happy to get rid of: School Days (Spenser, #33) by Robert B. Parker

Best graphic novel: Lumberjanes, Vol. 2 Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson!

Authors to watch: Stacey Berg and Stephen Aryan

Book I use every week: Janet Evans' Total Swimming by Janet Evans

Favorite spider heroine: A Long Spoon (Johannes Cabal, #4.5) by Jonathan L. Howard, with a close second by Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Scariest mermaids: Into the Drowning Deep (Rolling in the Deep, #1) by Mira Grant

Book with design advice you definitely don’t want to follow: The New Bohemians Cool and Collected Homes by Justina Blakeney

Best Non-fiction everyone should read: Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Most overrated: (tie) The Long Walk by Richard Bachman, The Dispatcher by John Scalzi, and Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Favorite mindbenders that I won’t forget anytime soon: (Tie) Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

Book I continue to re-read with as much enjoyment as the second time: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Book I listened to for the (cough-cough) time: Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Best new audio book: Stephen Fry reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Title that Always Makes Me Smile: The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy by Beatrice Alemagna

Books that provided the most insight and truths: (tie) The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and No Time to Spare Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

All in all, a good reading year, although I’ll note you shouldn’t believe the hype: due to GR irregularities, a number of the listed ‘magazines’ were actually short story installments and some enterprising librarian re-shelved the free shorts from into magazines. Jerks. And I shelved some books for my mom, as I act as librarian and book-orderer for her.

I avoided the true stinkers, thanks to myriad reviews and friends’ recommendations. I re-read some great ones, and I pushed myself into more non-fiction. I hope to see you all around in 2018!

Posted in opinion | 7 Comments

Righteous by Joe Ide

Read  January 2018
★    ★    ★    1/2

This is a good book; don’t let my rating fool you. After all, what are ratings? A momentary reflection on the enjoyment of a read, a statement on the overall quality of the book, an assessment of value, or a comparison to an author’s other works? On any given day, I may rate according to any one of those things, while attempting to explain why in my review. Onward, then.

Isiah, known locally as ‘IQ,’ is contacted out of the blue by Sarita, the woman who had been dating his brother in the years before he died. Her call shakes him from his depression after discovering the car involved in his brother’s hit-and-run and realizing that it was intentional, a homicide. Sarita is worried about her half-sister, Janine, a DJ and gambling addict who lives in Vegas and claims she’s in trouble. This time, IQ asks Dodson along, who has been busy trying to go straight in the food truck business while supporting his very-pregnant girlfriend Cherise. As always, they discover more than they expected in Vegas after the sister’s boyfriend attempts blackmail. At the same time, the narrative follows IQ as he works his brother’s case and his last steps in the weeks before his death.

Although reviewers often dub IQ as ‘Sherlock-style,’ there really is only the faintest resemblance to the Coyle stories. In this book, the action is considerably amped up, and IQ’s deductions are primarily in service of rescues and not in solving a mystery. There’s also a dual timeline, with IQ’s earlier investigation into his brother’s murder intermixed into his trip to Vegas to assist Janine.

“Janine is a serial liar, and hopefully it’s a story she made up to get money from me. She’s done it many times before. On the other hand, she might be telling the truth and if she is, she’ll need help–oh, I’m sorry, Isaiah, I’m just assuming you’ll drop everything you’re doing and go.”

One of the challenges for me was that Ide uses a limited third-person narrative, giving the reader gets perspectives from virtually everyone in the story. Personal perspective from Dodson, Janine, a store clerk, her boyfriend Benny, Janine’s father, the loan shark, a local gangbanger, a local gang leader, etc. all serve to confuse the story line and create distance between the reader and the characters. On the one hand, this choice does give the reader some insight as to the motivation, potentially humanizing those choosing a life of crime. On the other hand, it is so many people that it is hard to care about one person in particular. Furthermore, I’m not sure it was successful. I felt like the perspective just convinced me the person in question was an asshole, making it hard to appreciate IQ’s efforts.

I felt mildly guilty not enjoying this more. Ide’s a solid writer and to be honest, I think he is using a technique very few authors could pull off. The overall quality of the writing is very high, far above the average mystery; really edging into literary fiction. A little stuck on what didn’t work, I happened to open Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead, another kind of mystery/ lit-fic that solves a mystery while looking at life in the underclass, hoping for more insight. I think a limited perspective would have helped a great deal. Ide could have put more of the information into dialogue, bringing the characters to life, or left it out altogether. My guess is, however, that he likely wanted to humanize some of the criminal stereotypes used. Dodson provides much of the comic relief, but in some ways, that’s a stereotype too.

I think changing emphasis on the story lines and concentrating on IQ’s brother’s murder and his resulting personal development could have done some amazing things. Greater focus on IQ might have let more opportunities for humor to creep in as well, because IQ mostly seems grim and irascible. While I appreciate his awareness of his contradictory impulses, it felt very tiring after a bit. He’s so young, and still struggling with the fallout of the murder that the plot with Sarita and Janine felt like a distraction from the emotional weight of the real case.

“Much of the guild he’d been carrying around for years had lifted and feelings were surfacing that he’d always ignored. He was lonely. He wanted friends… He wanted to have fun, not that he knew how. Inviting Dodson to come along was a bold step for him.”

Overall then, a middling kind of read, partially because Ide set the bar quite high in IQ. Still, I’ll be looking forward to the next book.

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

Hardcore Twenty-Four by Janet Evanovich. Second verse, same as the first.

Read  January 2018
Recommended for Fans of Stephanie Plum.        
★    ★    1/2

I finally figured out the target audience for this series! My younger cousin is trying to read again–she has a four-year-old and a two-year-old, so I’m doubtful for her chance of success–so I introduced her to this series. To be completely honest, I took three things into consideration when suggesting it: one, in the early part of the series, I always laughed out loud at least once a book, if not more; two, they have a low mental commitment value; and three, if the kids or her puppy damaged my book, I was fine. So when I was standing in line at the library, I saw the latest book was available and thought I’d give it a try. If nothing else, maybe I could do a hate-review, right?


As I noted in a status update, I read this with ambivalence. Sure, some parts were funny, but it was a kind of funny that is part nostalgia and part amusement. But there was a lot that mostly felt sad to me. While written competently, the content felt perfunctory and streamlined. It’s like the cleaned-up, mildly funny tale shared at a ‘bonding’ session where one is required to “tell something funny that happened to you.” It lacks a sense of zany and joie de vivre I associate with the early books.

As always, it relies on a standard set of ingredients:

  1. Wacky bond skips–Simon Diggery the graverobber; Zero Slick, who accidentally blew up a building cooking meth; and Edward Koot, who shot up a coffeehouse and damaged his own foot.
  2. Funny animal elements–Diggery’s pet boa constrictor and a dead groundhog, with guest appearances by Bob and Rex. Also includes references to dog poop.
  3. Innuendo with various men–Morelli, Ranger, and now Diesel
  4. Fun eating times: doughnuts, Cluck-in-a-Bucket and other assorted fast food
  5. Grandma at a wake and talking about sex
  6. Totaling Ranger’s cars–twice–resulting in using Big Blue
  7. Lulu’s skimpy outfits/the color of her thongs, and her various money-making schemes

It’s pretty much timeless, and that seems exactly the way Evanovich is determined to keep it. No political references, minimal pop-culture references and minimal technology references keep it from rooting it in a timeline. What this mostly reminds me of is a book version of a second-rate sitcom, maybe Three’s Company or something that is apolitical and timeless. A lot of the same jokes, ‘zany’ antics and absolutely no aging/dynamic character change allowed. All you do is change out the secondary characters, have a loose plot based on one scary skip and good to go.

The up side in this book, depending on which type of reader you are, is that it seems a little sex-positive, in that Steph is mostly in a relationship with Morelli but still makes time for Ranger. Of course, long-term fans of the series may prefer that she just picks one, but I think that ship sailed. And again, that might result in actual character progression.

So I’ll vicariously enjoy the early series by lending my books out, but she’ll be out of luck around thirteen or so, when I quit buying them (I know, I know. I couldn’t resist a sale back then). But maybe by then the kids will be school-aged and she’ll be ready for something more substantial.

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Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

Read  December 2017
Recommended for fans of Mira Grant
★    ★    1/2

My success with Into the Drowning Deep led me to this novella and nominal prequel. Sadly, this feels more like the Seanan McGuire I am familiar with; the one with the uneven tone, nominal characterization and tendency towards over-telling. With the Incryptid series, Grant did a number of related short stories and novellas that ranged both in time and in tone from the relative frivolity of the full-length books, and I can see the similarities here. This was most likely created before Into the Drowning Deep was a glimmer in someone’s eye, so the good news it that this would be an easy one to miss.

In this novella, photojournalist Anne is a willing participant on Imagine Entertainment Network ‘mockumentary’ expedition to discover mermaids. Styled along the lines of the finding ‘Bigfoot’ ‘reality’ tv shows, Imagine has a host of non-scientific people aboard ready for filming, as well as a handful of scientists to make it look legitimate. They also aren’t above stocking the boat (haha) with a troupe of eleven professional mermaids, aka ladies with a fondness for neoprene tails and synchronized swimming.

“‘You’ll have everyone believing in mermaids in no time.’
‘That’s the idea,’ said Anne. That was the idea that would secure her a new contract with the network and keep her on the air for another year.”

The first section has Anne and her cameraman, Kevin, interviewing people, lurking around the boat, etc., and trying to get to know Team Mermaid without compromising everyone’s non-disclosure clause, as apparently they weren’t allowed to film the group until part way through the trip. The captain of the ship is a woman and her first mate a deaf man, so the sign language element is present. A heavy-handed Imagine representative is on hand, once again providing the role of Character We Would Love to See Eaten.

The tone feels more urban fantasy than horror, with the ship’s occupants treating it as easy money, and generally squabbling when not doing research. There are only six scientists along–and thirty grad students–so the reader is treated to a couple paragraph sketch on each as well as their specialties. It isn’t done particularly organically, such in context of an interview or in meeting another scientist, so its easy to see why some readers would find it hard to connect with the characters.

The plot is glacial for a horror story. It isn’t until the 50% mark that there is tentative confirmation that samples from a deep sea probe contain blood that  “comes from a creature unknown to science.” Until that point, the crew has no idea that anything might be out of the ordinary. That is very unusual pacing for horror, and while The Blair Witch project might have made it work, Into the Rolling Deep doesn’t. General spoiler–it is literally 54% before someone disappears.

Additionally, my chief complaint from the last Incryptid book is here in force: Grant tells us.  All sorts of things. In the most boring way possible: Obedience was drilled into them as part of their training: a mermaid who couldn’t listen to instructions was a mermaid who was putting everyone around her in danger.” Honestly, I’m not even sure why Grant is telling us about the mermaid troupe because we barely get to know the members as individuals. But if sharing with the reader is important, why not mention an incident in relation to their shows?  “Ever since the near-drowning at Disneyworld, the crew was rigidly adherent.” Anyway, they aren’t, so what’s the point?

For those who are wondering it is worth paying for: No, not if you are looking for the same experience of Into The Drowning Deep. This is quick and uneven and lacks the tension of the full-length novel. In regards to relationship to the novel, Victoria and Jillian, main book characters, aren’t mentioned at all, so you won’t even be missing anything in character arcs. While the crew disappears, none are mentioned as Victoria’s sister, and Jillian’s research isn’t addressed.

While I don’t regret paying for it, as I’ve read an awful lot of free Incryptid short stories, I’d definitely preferred to have something more like Drowning. But that, oddly enough, reaffirmed my shaken faith that it’s smart to leave Grant on the Read With Low Expectations list.


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Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Read  December 2017
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy horror, ocean
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

I knew Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant had it in her, somewhere. She takes the promise she had shown in Feed, her creature inventiveness from Discount Armageddon and weaves them together with the horror atmosphere from Every Heart a Doorway to create a terrifically scary tale.

“News flash, Victoria: we know you’re looking for the little mermaid who can give you back your sister’s voice. You’re not going to find her.”

Victoria, or Tory, is a marine biologist, working summers for the tourist cruises through Monterey Bay, California (been there!) and spending the rest of her time and money researching the sounds of the ocean deep. Her older sister, Allie, was the videographer for an exploratory ship put together by Imagine Entertainment (aka ‘Dreamworks’?) to look for ‘mermaids,’ and was never found. Everyone on the ship was slaughtered or missing, and the bits of found footage showed fanged mermaid-like creatures hunting the humans down and eating them. The world remained skeptical, however. It’s seven years later, however, and a representative from Imagine approaches Tory and her research partner, Luis, with an invitation to be part of a second discovery mission.

I wasn’t sure exactly where the story would head, but at about 20% it occurred to me that it was Jurassic Park, ocean version. It even included two big game hunters everyone loved to hate: “They had traveled the world, taking their prey from every environment, every ecosystem. They had bribed, bartered, and trespassed to line up the perfect shot, creating their own Noah’s Ark of ghosts.” As soon as I met them, I felt sure they were the characters were were going to love being eaten, as the ghosts from all their big game hunts took revenge.

The locations are beautifully realized. In fact, for the first bit of Tory’s introduction, I felt I was reading a blog post about Monterey, California. But the world-building is a tad odd. The set-up for the story is done in 2015, but the majority takes place in 2022. There is supposed to be a greater divide between the wealthy and the poor, climate change is taking a toll, but drought has been solved with solor-powered desalination plants. It’s an odd juxtaposition, because in one moment it feels so very now as to possibly be last week, and then the next there are momentary references to advanced technologies we haven’t reached quite yet. Her partner, Luis, has a crazy amount of family money which he has used to help develop new technologies and lab equipment that they use for their research.

But you know what? Who cares about little world-building oddities. Its fun. It follows many classic horror tropes and yet the reader remains deeply invested. Tory is developed well enough to be both driven and kind, and her friend Luis is the epitome of the distracted, awkward scientist. There are two deaf women and their translator sister, all of whom have difference science specialties and focus (deepsea pod pilot, chemist, language specialist), so you just know that sign language will play a role somewhere. Olivia is a ‘personality’ and videographer who has been hired to document the trip. The representative for Imagine, Theo, has a chronic pain syndrome that he treats with an intriguing mixture of marine neurotoxins, and I’ll be honest–I totally expected that would play a role as well. His estranged wife, Jilliana Toth, is one of the reasons for the first expedition, as her life’s work as a biologist has been to prove mermaids exist. She’s a fascinating, determined character, full of guilt about the first expedition.

“Her career was a shipwreck. At least is was a shipwreck that she had, thus far, managed to survive. That was more than she could say for the ones who’d sailed upon the Atargatis. But the guilt, ah… The guilt was the reef upon which her marriage had crashed”

Which leads me, not incidentally, to one of the things that Grant/McGuire is finally getting right for such a prolific author who likes to see the unseen and counter expectations: we finally have a female cast that feels developed and well-rounded. And while a romance is brought into it, it’s a queer one, quite possibly the first in all her thirty-five-ish books.

“Olivia, who was staring down the barrel of a lifetime of nightmares, assuming her lifetime extended past this place, this ship, this damned and doomed voyage, said nothing.”

The writing is solid. It is often very evocative, but occasionally Grant gets a little carried away and will use some florid imagery and dialogue that doesn’t make sense. It is easy to forgive her, but it is the kind of thing that prevents it from being a truly remarkable book. Grant also made infrequent but completely annoying use of the full parenthetical paragraph. Seriously–get a better editor. At over four hundred pages, it is one of Grant’s longest works to date and while I enjoyed the science, it could have used some trimming.

What was also quite fun for me was the science-geek setting and the creature opposition. There’s a lot of interesting description of oceans, mammals, sea-life, etc. packed in here, but it’s usually more Mary Roach-level of discussion rather that very technical concepts. There are a couple of spots it gets a little more technical, particularly when Tory is explaining her research using sound to map ocean life, but most of it is accessible. The device of the videographer allows for low-level explanations.

All that said, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who happens to have an interest in oceans and urban fantasy.


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Murder on Moloka’i by Chip Hughes

Read  December 2017
Recommended for fans of surfing
★   ★   1/2

AKA, the review in which I absolutely can not be bothered to remember the details.

I have absolutely no idea how this found my way onto my radar. I think Hawai’i + mystery + environmental message kept it there. For some reason, I assumed also a Hawaiian narrator, but alas, no. He’s a gringo. Or the equivalent other word. Haole?

Short form: It’s decent but nothing special. Kind of like a good Magnum P.I. episode, I suspect, although my memories of watching Magnum are equally hazy. Beautiful scenery, a couple of attractive ladies, bonding with the dude that takes care of the mules. It’s perfectly serviceable read if you have it lying around on your kindle and your skull is too full of mucus to try and follow an epic space opera (I tried. It didn’t work). Best of all, it’ll even let you take a nap in the middle, unlike those other pesky mysteries that demand complete absorption. Lest that sound faintly damning, I’ll also say that it didn’t irritate me either. Not too much, at least. It was the perfect balance of vaguely interesting without being captivating.

So, surfer dude is also a private investigator. I can’t remember why, or how. Might not have been explained. Although he is white, he feels like he is a native Hawaiian because he was adopted into a Hawaiian family, but I can’t remember why. In fact, in retrospect, I can’t remember much about the lead’s history. He exists in the ‘now,’ which is pretty darn Zen surfer-dude of him. Perhaps it was hazy characterization. Hazy memory is also possible. There’s a really awesome woman that died, and her estranged sister who wants her murder solved. Instead of being forthcoming about details, the sister mysteriously refuses to answer questions. So she’s kind of vague and hazy as well, except I do remember that the narrator thinks she’s really hot but uptight (the reason is probably that she’s from Boston). And I think she has red hair, while her sister has blond hair, but I could be wrong about that. And her eyes change color from steely grey to something soft and fuckable. Super boringly obvious.

Our hero, whatever his name was, also has a way of connecting with all the locals by talking in a type of Hawaiian pidgeon that looks suspiciously like surfer dude talk with Hawaiin words thrown in. I appreciate the effort at cultural authenticity, except I kind of hate dialect of any form when written out (up here, we pronounce that ‘ow-wt,’ just so you are listening to it right). There’s loads of Hawaiian words sprinkled through the text, reminding me of Sandra Cisneros, but not in a way I liked. More in a ‘oh, this is what they mean by cultural appropriation’ kind of way, amiright pahdner?

So, surfer dude doesn’t entirely believe his rich, beautiful client, but gets involved because of the down-to-earth honesty of the mule dude and the utter suspiciousness of the four other riders who are clearly lying, along with the ex-husband who is also lying. Then there’s some stuff about a Hawaiian land trust and development and–


Where was I? Oh, to spice it up, his office gets rummaged through, and he gets warned off, and –this can hardly be a spoiler, people–he has sex with the beautiful client, because that’s what lonely P.I.s do. But don’t worry, he totally respects her space afterwards by thinking about his girlfriend. Anyway, there’s more hijinks as he gets close to solving the case, coupled with some absolutely astonishing cross-dressing. I mean, in the history of cross-dressing in mystery books, this was about as believable as Magnum P.I. trying to cross-dress. All it took was some makeup and a hat and a dress! I might have got a little eye strain at that point, but I’m totally sure it was the mucus in my sinuses, and had nothing to do with my eyes rolling around.

Wow, that’s a ton of detail for a vague little story. I guess the little grey cells were processing after all. Now if you were to ask me about it next June… The other vaguely interesting thing about this edition is that the author has an earlier–much earlier–version of the first chapter included. I didn’t read it because by then, I realized my way out of feeling cruddy was right in front of me all along: Kate Daniels.

Two and a half stars.

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