Lexicon A Novel by Max Barry

Lexicon by Max Barry

Read August 2020
Recommended for Crouch fans
 ★     ★  

Sadly disappointing and messy for a book about the mind-altering power of words and their impact on personal lives.

Barry does the dual timeline, dual narrative technique, so your enjoyment may vary based on tolerance. The current timeline is from a man, Wil, who is kidnapped as he is leaving the airport to meet his girlfriend, while a past timeline is from a young woman, Emily, who is recruited off the streets for her talking talents to apply for a ‘magic’ school.

As enticing as that may sound, it leads me to a digression about the role of ‘magic’ and schools in fantasy systems. In most fantasy–especially since the popularization of Hogwarts–there are magic schools that are about learning magic, and magic systems. This is not one of them. The beginning is about a young woman qualifying for a private school and adjusting to it. If you pick it up hoping to learn about different spells and how they work, you will be disappointed. Instead, this is more ‘superhero’ type, where people kind of just fledged into full skills and there’s not a lot of scrutiny how this might happen. In one spectacularly inaccurate example of ‘persuasion,’ Barry tries to show us how attention-getting on the street is the same as persuading someone to do something they wouldn’t normally do (baring one’s breasts count, as does subsequently claiming assault)

Emily is the only character that is fleshed out to any degree, and even that is suspect. We don’t learn much about her runaway history, and nothing about life before. Her stories are largely consumed with love interests or manipulation by men, but I feel like I didn’t gain any understanding as to why this was okay with her until (spoiler). As for the rest of the characters, they are inscrutable, a nice way of saying one-dimensional. Wil argues with his kidnapper, then goes along. Eliot, the kidnapper, is full of drive but the reader has very little clue why, particularly as the dialogue between he and Wil usually consists of Eliot telling Wil they will all die if they don’t do something Right Now. This dialogue is terrible, like they are reading from fortune cookies:

“‘Yes, I kill people, when the alternative is worse. That’s the world. That’s the reason you and I are still here.’
Wil looked away. ‘I’ll come with you. I’ll do what you say. But not because you are right.’
Eliot but the car in gear. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Close enough.'”

To help us towards understanding the meta, Barry provides the reader with newspaper clippings, transcripts and, in one intrusive wall-breaking case, a (fictional) blog post:

“I just think it’s missing the point to get upset about bias in Fox News or MSNBC or whoever… relying on a single source of information means you can’t critically evaluate it. It’s like you’re locked in a room an every day I come in and tell you what’s happening outside. It’s very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don’t lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don’t.”

The ending… oh, that ending. Just how Blake Crouch was that? Now I have more questions, like why a certain someone’s character was completely different (spoiler: Harry. How come the Harry that forgot his Australian life–although I’m not sure that should have happened–where did he think he grew up? –how did he turn into the kind of guy that asked questions all the time? And didn’t go to help people in trouble?). Actually, while it was emotionally satisfying, it felt even more sloppy in terms of the novel.

While it’s an interesting collection of concepts, it would have done much better with Peter Watts, who can speak science while wrapping concepts surrounding psycholinguistics and neurobiology up in a sci-fi plot. As it is, it’s more thriller with people that have abilities, then a commentary on linguistics and thought.  I mean, I guess it is a commentary on linguistics and thought, but only to the point that Barry tells us it is, about every five pages. It might appeal to those who enjoy Blake Crouch and his thriller approach to sci-fi.

Sadly, I guess these words didn’t work on me.

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Magical Midlife Dating by K.F. Breene

Read August 2020
Recommended for dating optimists.
 ★     1/2   

I thought the first book in the series, Magical Midlife Madness, quite cute. The premise is that a woman is at odds after divorcing and her only son going off to college, so when she inherits a house out of the blue in a small California town, she thinks, ‘why not?’ The eccentric butler and gardener only add to the appeal. As she uncovers the mysteries of the house, she discovers she is spiritual heir to its magic and the plot revolves around discovering and accepting that magic and a new life.

However, the sequel is entirely content to backtrack and recycle, first by suddenly giving us a main character that goes from embracing independence and a new way of living (hello, magic metaphor!) to one that is focused on dating. I’m not sure how we got here, because that wasn’t really the mental focus of the last book, which left her and the reader preparing for a magical attack. She compounds this with stupid decision-making, by deciding it would be appropriate to date non-magical people (‘Dicks,’ of ‘Dick and Jane’ fame, ha. ha.) and take them to the magical-people bar (logic escapes me). Presumably unable to think of a new UF-style plot (despite prior groundwork), Breene decides to recycle ‘accept the magic’ premise of discovering and accepting her supposed ability to fly.

Ugh. While I know I was experiencing QB™ the first book, I didn’t think I had it that bad. Madness was sweet, it held attention (mostly) and I didn’t skim (mostly). This, however, was just… same ol’, same ol’ mass-market, dingy-girl-woman looks for date. Think Stephanie Plum, book 19, only with less elements of what made the first good.

Despite having been ’empowered’ enough in book one to keep her ‘midlife’ body, she did take the rejuvenation moment to tighten up some saggy bits and remove some cellulite, so we’re treated to lots of hot-mama oogling/dressing up scenes here (she’s also kind of a self-righteous twit because she didn’t make her vampire minion any younger). Oh, it’s so empowering to date like this! Her Carebear™ non-boyfriend does lots of flexing, growling and advice-giving when he sees her, so we get the whole alpha male scene, tempered with Breene’s point that Jessie’s magic is equally strong.

But Jessie remains just dumb here–really, the whole premise of dating when she’s head of a magical nexus that the magical universe is salivating over?–and if there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s setting up your plot based on your heroine not being security conscious. (Talk about privilege!) There’s multiple instances where she does  ‘instinctual’ magical shout-outs for ‘help’–so stupid– and the trust placed in the respondees was questionable. Honestly, I was waiting for at least one to be a double-agent. Incidentally, all of the magical learning becomes hand-wavy ‘instinct,’ with an occasional reference to a confusing book the vampire is translating (don’t even try and figure that one out).

What I did like was the non-Bigfoot creature who was more than a little obsessed with flowers. That was pretty much the most redeeming character. Everything else, passable to lame. Oh, and for those that actually want dating and sex–there were no happy-sexy times here. Just ugh.

Hey, good news! I guess I recovered from Quarantine Brain™!

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The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of Edwardian mysteries
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

 

Written better than all of my QB™ reads, this is a fun palate-cleanser between more demanding books. Books that I’ve been avoiding, for instance, including finishing Romano’s well-done one on zombies (too long, too end-of-the-world depressing-people), Carter and Lovecraft (too creepy horror), The Light Brigade (too wartime), Indemnity Only (too 1980s sleezy Chicago crime couched in women’s rights). Idk, I really don’t, because I also hate rainbows and kittens. 

“This is the drawing room. It probably wouldn’t be so bad without the panelling, or the chairs, and if it was in a different house.”

Anyway, this is fun, fast break from all that. Sure, it opens with an almost-suicide which is a bit of an emotional slap, but we quickly find out that is unusual behavior from our extremely self-confident lead.

“But if I can’t find him through any of the clubs, we can just hang around all the filthiest opium dens in Limehouse till we meet him.”

“See?” said Merrick. “Things are looking up already.”

I burned through this on a lazy Sunday afternoon on the porch, because that’s just about the perfect time and place for a read like this. Great atmosphere with the growing threat of danger, but there’s some snappy dialogue in there to also provide humor. There is an instance or two of questionable relationship behavior, but it’s interesting because the characters call themselves out on it and–this is crazy, here–have a discussion about it. I don’t know what these modern authors are coming to, actually talking out relationship stuff.

“I don’t think anyone is entitled to exploit his fellows because of an accident of birth. You’re an earl, I’m a practitioner, both of us were born this way, and neither of us is entitled to feed off other people because of it.”

Crane considered that. “I’m bloody glad you’re here.”

“Really? Because I wish to God we were both somewhere else.”

Anyway, decent mystery, interesting dynamic duo, very interesting lead characters (including Merrick). I’d read more from this team, and that’s saying something, because I’m not usually a fan of this setting. Highly preferred over something like Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, etc.

Thanks to Nataliya for trying and sharing this gem. I highly recommend her review.

 

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The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt

Read August 2020
Recommended 
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Entertaining, in a Star Trek deus ex machina kind of way.

You know that episode where they use their skills to avoid the baddie, then bump into the baddie in a different place, and then they pull out their sophisticated computer thing, and cleverly get out of hard place? But then there is another obstacle that courageous maneuvers overcome with good planning, although maybe it doesn’t seem so at the time, because the Captain had A Plan All Along? Then, even though they are on the edge of the nowhere in the universe, they decide to take on the Big Baddie For Real because it could mean The End Of All Living Things, so why not, even though it’s only Enterprise/Voyager/Discovery against a fleet, but never worry, because they’ve got technology and Human Ingenuity on their side?

It’s pretty much like that, only instead of Klingons/Romulans/Borg/Dominion, we’ve got squid.

“‘If there’s Axiom shit behind this, and I bet there is, we need to comprehensively ruin that, too.’
‘Hurray, a goal,’ Ashok said. ‘How should we start?’”

I liked it, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as the first in the series, All the Wrong Stars, which delighted and surprised me by turns. Something about this felt expected, more like the third episode of a movie–Die Hard 3, if you will–where we’re doing the familiar thing and making the familiar jokes and we know it’s all going to turn out cool. More predictable and yet less sensible, if you can catch my drift. Which, if it doesn’t, then you are totally not the candidate for reading this book.

Wilfred gaped. ‘I… we… I’m going to have to check on that, and get confirmation…’ 
‘Of course. Trust, but verify, just like it says in the Bible,’ Ashok said.”

Note: I skipped the second book because reviews from friends who loved both the first book and this one were kind of lukewarm. For what it’s worth, I did add both this book and the first to my library, and I’m definitely not sorry to have spent actual dollars on it. Similar to Finder, The Expanse, Retribution Falls, and, you know, that sort of rogues in space thing (see, I didn’t say Firefly).

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Read August 2020
Recommended 
 ★     ★    ★     ★   1/2

“‘Of course, but do you understand what is at stake,’ he asked?
She had no idea… She was, however, curious.
‘Tell me,’ she said,  knowing a story lay ahead, as fine as any of the legends and tall tales her father had spun for her.”

Gods of Jade and Shadow is like reading modern mythology–mythology set in the 1920s in Mexico, that is. Though it is also a coming-of-age tale, Moreno-Garcia gives those conventions her own twist, paralleling it with a mythological hero’s journey. I highly recommend it, even for those who don’t normally enjoy the young adult journey (me).

I’m going to do something I rarely do, and be quite lazy in my review, pointing you onward to better places. I mean, I’m often quite lazy, but in this case, I think you should go read jade’s review, which is both beautiful and informative.

The story does do a few curious things with narrative. Although told largely from Casiopea’s point of view, it occasionally calls out both Casiopea’s and Hun-Kamé’s actions for what they are, an overt commentary that points the reader in interpretive directions. Structurally, it also felt somewhat formal, like a translation. I found that curious; certainly appropriate for a mythological tale, although not entirely sure it wasn’t also just me. I’ve been working diligently at improving my Spanish.

The pre-ending is extremely non-American, which was fascinating and appropriate when involving Mayan gods, and then continued to become extremely emotionally satisfying, so I’d just call that well done all around.

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The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Read 2020
Recommended for fans of Douglas Adams
 ★     ★ 

Almost entirely, but not quite, unlike tea–I mean, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There is no way easy way to say this, but despite ingredients that should be interesting, it just fails to work for me. However, unlike American Gods, which resembles it more than a bit, it is entirely more palatable and has 100% less offensive scenes, so there is that (I may have some trouble with statistics here). Nonetheless, because it is contains some Douglas Adamsisms that have stuck with me through the years, it still had moments of brilliance. Take his airport rule, for instance:

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’
Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.”

This is true. There is nothing about any airport that is pretty. Most people there are indeed tired and cross, which is why when they discover that their plane has been delayed, or cancelled, or erupted in flames, they tend to overreact.

But an airport is just the beginning of roughly three separate plot lines, give or take; a young woman who is thwarted from a vacation to Oslo by a mysterious giant of a man and a fireball blowing up the check-in counter; Dirk Gently, a detective who is hired to protect an unethical producer; and a mysterious old man who would like to lay in bed and be gently catered to by a team of nursing staff. Dirk’s own adventures further degenerate into conflicts with a large eagle and a malevolent refrigerator. It’s all very puzzling mostly due to the narrative breaks and confused protagonists more than any real mystery on the part of the universe.

Having been a fan of Hitchhikers and frequent re-listener to Stephen Fry’s reading, I couldn’t help but see similarities between the lead characters.  Dirk comes across like a slightly smarter version of Zaphod and Arthur, a strange mix of lucky and clueless. I don’t know that he ‘solves’ anything so much as stumbles unto the solution. The young woman, Kate, is quite literally, taken for a ride and had some of the general non-descriptiveness feel that I always got from Trillian.  

Mostly, Tea-Time contains entertaining interludes and observations loosely connected by plot. To me, it works better in wacky unreal space adventures than in a mystery.

When I was young, I was an enormous fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I must have read it ten times. I bought whatever I could then lay my teenage hands on, written by Mr. Adams. But the Dirk Gently series never really gelled with me. Was it a window of interest? I sold off the first, but the title of the second was too, too appropriate to let go. For years I have thought of that saying, that mysterious four o’clock ennui of the soul (both am and pm) and thought that the book deserved a re-read on that alone, as well as notes on a driving technique which I’ve totally used (Note it works much better in rural areas and suburbs).

“Perhaps it would save time if he went back to get his car, but then again it was only a short distance, and he had a tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was largely because of his ‘Zen’ method of navigation, which was simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was going and follow it. The results were more often surprising than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of the few occasions when it was both.”

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

Read 2020
Recommended for fans of fantasy
 ★     ★    ★    ★ 

Before there was TV Tropes, there was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

In 1996, Wynne Jones created the ultimate epic fantasy trope list. Done in a time when the portal–through-the-doorway–fantasy was popular, the conceit is that Tourists in fantasy lands who will find the Guide useful in navigating through the world. However, even should one not be physically traveling through the fantasy realm of choice, this guide could come in very useful. (It would also apply to most fantasy video games).

The book opens with a large, generalized MAP (“these empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labelled ‘Megamort Hills,’ ‘Death Mountains,’ ‘Hurl Range,’ and such”) and follows with a list of symbols used throughout the text. The majority of the guide is an alphabetized listing of common terms/items/ areas/ beings/ etc. found in fantasy books. The listings are priceless, filled with a gentle sort of humor that pokes fun at the tropes and without outright mocking. For instance, take the entry on insects:

“INSECTS are practically non-existent, possibly as a result of the WIZARD’S WAR (see also ECOLOGY). Parasitic insects such as LICE and bedbugs have mostly been stamped out–although fleas are still popular–and only HOVELS occasionally manifest houseflies. Small numbers of bees must exist, since honey is often served… and so much silkworms, because so many persons wear silken garments. Otherwise, almost the only recorded insects are the mosquitoes all Tourists complain of in the MARSHES (in stinging clouds OMT[official management term]).”

The beauty of it is that it’s true. There are never ladybugs in fantasyland, or wasps (unless they are the magical kind), or any other member of the insect family that should be so vital to pollinating crops and flowers that keep the realm functioning. They are usually only mentioned as a way to describe how horrid conditions are. Or take another example:

“DWARFS are short, muscular, bearded PEOPLE much given to mining and forging. They mostly live hidden inside hills, where they do their mining. Until recently, almost no female Dwarfs had been sighted, but now they are seen quite often… All Dwarfs, perhaps through living so long immured in DWARVEN FASTNESSES, have a very old-fashioned, surly demeanour. They bow a lot, but also grumble. They recite long epics about the marvellous deeds of their ancestors… they always keep their word once they have been induced to give it. They will join the forces of GOOD and supply ARMOUR, but before this the Tour may well have a difficult time with them. Dwarfs will take all Tourists prisoner for trespassing in their Fastness, and it will involve much persuasive talking to get them to be friendly.”

Tell me that doesn’t about describe every single dwarf population you’ve run into in fantasy. I’ll wait while you check. She’s spot-on, isn’t she? Here, let’s check one more entry under ‘D’:

“DUNGEONS are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. If the Tourist is being confined is lucky, there will be a small barred window too high up to reach, through which the contents of the moat trickle, and old (fetid [OMT]), filthy [OMT]) straw on the ground. There will be a thick door (locked) with a small shutter in it where what passes (only just) for FOOD can be thrown in at prisoners, generally dropping tantalizingly an inch out of reach, and there will always be rings in the walls carrying chains and sometimes old bones too. It is all designed to make you feel low. There may even be scutterings [OMT] that could be rats (but see ANIMALS). Do not, however, let this get you down. The average stay in such a place is, for Tourists, twenty-four hours.”

Surprisingly, strangely true, particularly with regard to the stay. Because how else could the story progress? 

However, despite the amusement, this really isn’t something that can be read straight through. It gets exhausting, much like reading any volume of the encyclopedia (for those who remember what that was like; for those that don’t, it’s rather like endless scrolling and clicking through a reference site). It is precious fun–I agree with a fellow GR friends that the entry on horses and cross-pollination if quite funny, although I’d note that most ‘desert nomads’ seem to be horse-breeders, so I’m not sure if that holds true–but more fun in a word-of-the-day sense over a straight read-through. Wynne Jones follows this up by writing her own ultimate portal fantasy called The Dark Lord of Derkholm, from the point of view of a (benevolent) Dark Lord. 

So, rating: highly, for cleverness, completeness and humor, but less so for actual readability. Not really a book I feel motivated to add to my library, but that’s probably how it’d work best, as a pick-up, put-down kind of read.

Note: nominated for the 1997 Hugos ‘Best Related Non-Fiction Work,‘ which is hysterical all by itself. 

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The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of Suzanne Palmer, The Expanse
 ★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

“You know I am, at heart, a pragmatist. That’s why I seek chemical assistance to have less pragmatic experiences.”

This was a non-pragmatic experience, a decidedly enjoyable one that was a steady crescendo of adventure and action. I devoured it as best I could around work and sleep, being careful to not read before bedtime. I’m excited to go on to the next.

““Fair enough. I’ll go with you. I’m a little curious to find out what’s in this box myself.” “Spiders or gold, spiders or gold,” Ashok said.
“Oh, Ashok. It’s like you never even consider the possibility of golden spiders.”

This is the story of the White Raven (“a fast cruiser just big enough for her crew of five people (or four, or maybe six, depending on how you defined “people”) and her crew, captained by Callie, licensed investigator for the Trans-Neptune Authority, one of the large deep space political organizations. She and the crew take odd jobs for the Authority, and are on their way back from a job when they run into an ancient space wreck. When they investigate in hopes of salvage, they discover Dr. Elena Oh in cyrosleep and are able to successfully revive her. She was a member of one of the expeditions that left a dying Earth nearly 500 years ago in hopes of finding a habitable planet, but has instead found aliens. But is Dr. Oh talking about a new alien species? Or the squid-like Liars, who were responsible for sharing technology with Earth that has allowed them to colonize further out?

“Ticking clock!” Ashok said. “Action and excitement!”

This was fast and furious space adventure, with some unpredictable elements. There’s only one known alien species, the Liars, so named for their seeming inability to tell the truth about basic history or events, but who have been acceptable trade partners for technology. It’s an interesting angle to interspecies communication that doesn’t get the full exploration it deserves; it’d probably be interesting to read a book strictly around that concept. However, Pratt does perfectly well with it as a backstory as well. Aliens, space pirates, expedition ships, alien remnants–there’s a ton of fun stuff here. There’s also a romantic angle to the story that may or may not work for some.

Characters are interesting, and achieve a fair amount of individuality (depending on how you describe it) for a medium sized-cast. Callie; Stephen, the doctor; Drake and Justine, the navigator and engineer; Shall, the A.I. ship; Ashok, the enthusiastic human who is well on his way to making himself into a cyborg. They end up joined by Dr. Oh and Lantern in the course of their adventures. They are a little bit role driven, but that’s okay; they each play it well. Ashok ends up being a bit of the comic relief, much like Kizzy the mechanic on “A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.” 

“I like him. He must be good for morale.”
“Insofar as he gives the rest of us a single person to focus our annoyance on, he absolutely is.” Callie sighed.”

It’s one of those kind of books that I read a bit too fast the first time through, so I skim over some of the details. I get the feeling there’s a little hand-wavy stuff about the physics, which doesn’t bother me at all. Consider me your friendly neighborhood reader: all I need is semi-plausibility.  This reminds me a great deal of the kind of fun I had reading the Finder series, or A Long Way…, and was actually more fun for me than most of the Expanse books. It was $1.99 on Amazon when I last checked, so I feel like I got a bargain.

“When I stormed out of my father’s house thirty-five years ago, I told him my ambition was to travel so far the sun would be invisible, not even a speck among the stars.” Stephen paused. “The young are very stupid, aren’t they?”
“They are. I’m not sure the old are any better, though.”

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A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Read July 2020
Recommended for fans of  Kingfisher
 ★     ★    ★    

Really, how can any baker resist a title like that, along with the lure of an enthusiastic but somewhat unreliable sourdough starter named Bob? But what at first seems to be a murder mystery when a young baker named Mona finds a body in the bakery morphs fairly quickly into a coming-of-age story, in the setting of a politically unstable landscape.

“You’re making their lives better, just a little tiny bit. It is nearly impossible to be sad when eating a blueberry muffin. I’m pretty sure that’s a scientific fact.”

There were two problems here, both of which will vary tremendously depending on the reader. One, the lead is a very timid sort. While she does grow into her magic, I would hesitate to say she grows significantly into her personhood power. While that is entirely alright, the mileage one gets out of this may vary. She’s a young, rule-follower, trusting sort of young person, and that’s fine. Her emotional breakdowns are in line with this persona, as are her worries. And I kind of applaud Kingfisher for trying to tell a story about someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and who doesn’t get powered-up and stomp all over the story. But. But not my favorite kind of lead character. I might have liked her better if I was ten.

The second challenge–perhaps like much in baking–was one of scale. Had Kingfisher been content to keep it a smaller story like in Minor Mage, it would have worked better for me. But I found myself puzzled, supremely, by dual ideas (spoilery) of a large enough city that children can escape multiple guards on a canal and through smugglers’ pathways, but that same young baker can make seven golems and twenty gingerbread men can hold off an advancing army in a way that a populace can’t. Like, how effing incompetent is this city and the advancing army?

That said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The baking is probably the most fun. Bob the sourdough starter is hilarious and steals every scene (and that ranks right up there with things I never thought I’d say about a book, along with spiders are cool). I kept waiting for the little gingerbread man to run down the road shouting, “you can’t catch me,” but that could be because I just read The Big Over Easy.

“In Bob’s case, it was easy. I stuck both hands into the soup tureen and tried to convince him that what the world needed was a whole lot more Bob. As this coincided with what Bob himself had always believed”

It’s a decent Kingfisher, which means the characterization feels solid. There’s a few standard characters rolled in (pushy, loving aunt, a thief) as well as some intriguing ones (the uncle, the horse witch). It’s ethics and world-building are probably geared a little simply compared to some of her other works, which may be why it feels a little younger. Still, it’s a Kingfisher, and the writing is occasionally quite perfect.

“Nobody said anything to me, and they didn’t exactly stare, but they knew I was there, and I knew that they knew, and they knew that I knew that they knew, all in a creepy, crackling tangle of mutual awareness.”

On the scale of Kingfisher, I’d say Nine Goblins < Defensive Baking < Minor Mage < The Tomato Thief.

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Short Story Round Up, Part 2

 
 
 

“Our King and His Court”

 
by Rich Larson
Read July 2020
Recommended for fans of Abercrombie, The Godfather
 ★     ★    ★    ★    1/2

Tor.com’s summary says it all. It’s a partially deconstructed story, one that gives the reader a moment, then goes back to a few isolated moments that lead to a crisis of conscience. Despite that, it still packs an emotional punch.

“He knows his way to the bone room by rote, but the walk seems unreal this time, something from a dream. He moves slower and slower. Partly the fault of the body: lactic acid seething in his muscles, bone-deep aches in his limbs. Partly the fault of the mind, of the familiar shadows reminding him that Mateo was the only bright thing ever born in this place.”

Although it takes place post-apocalyptic events, those aren’t really the point or the meat of the story. I’d definitely read more by Larson, although I’d treat him the same way I treat Abercrombie, and make sure I was in a mood for blood.

Our King and His Court

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”Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory”

by Martha Wells 
Read September 2020
Recommended for fans 
 ★     ★    ★    ★    ★  

A quick little short that takes place after the quartet of novellas.

For the value of neutral that meant “whatever the highest bidder wants.” It’s difficult for Ephraim and the other councilors and her family and almost everyone else she’s spoken to since returning home to understand that. But none of them have any real experience with the Corporation Rim, except as a source of cartoonish villains in media serials.”

Yes, yes, yes. I get Dr. Mensah’s dilemma, I really do. This is the ethos that is gradually replacing the -isms that surround us, and there’s something about it that is equally sickening.

She knows SecUnit is not so much taunting her with its abilities as refusing
to pretend to be anything other than it is.

Just what I needed.

https://www.shortstory.club/assets/martha-wells-home.pdf?mc_cid=c265a16cab&mc_eid=712017bfbd

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‘Dave’s Head’

by Suzanne Palmer in Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 156  
Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of Palmer, dinosaurs
 ★     ★    ★    ★    
 

‘Dave’s Head’ is a short story about a woman, her uncle, and an animatronic dinosaur head (generic) on a road trip. Just a touch of bitter and frustration to make it feel emotionally real. I’m becoming a Palmer fan. I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers that’s under four stars.

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/palmer_09_19/

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‘Pockets’

by Amal El-Mohtar
Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of pockets
 ★     ★    ★    ★    

“The first strange thing Nadia pulled from her pocket was a piece of fudge. It was a perfectly ordinary piece of fudge. But Nadia hated fudge, and couldn’t imagine how she’d come to be carrying it around. She remembered this in particular because it was a bright, cool autumn day and she’d dug into her jacket pocket instinctively, looking for change to leave in a busker’s open violin case, and had come upon the piece of fudge instead. After staring at it awkwardly for a moment, she dropped it into the violin case and hurried away before she could see whether the busker was scowling at her or not.”

An interesting little story about a woman who pulls things out of her pockets and what it might mean. A little magical, a little reflective.

Uncanny Magazine, Jan/Feb 2015

Pockets

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‘How To Survive an Undead Honeymoon’

by Hailey Edwards
Read July 2020
Recommended for fans of Hailey Edwards
 ★     ★    

The series is wrapped up, but what, you are surely wondering, did Grier and Linus do on their honeymoon? Never fear, this novella answers the question and describes the sordid honeymoon events at a haunted bed and breakfast. Strangely, I felt like it was less ‘romancey’ than the prior series, so take that for what you will. It focuses instead on the investigation of the house. Are they ghosts? Poltergeists? What’s with the creepy owners? The lying kid? What’s Lethe hiding?

Something about it doesn’t quite gel. I don’t know if it’s my confusion/ambivalence at the solution to the mystery and situation, or at the sudden new turn personal events take at the end. It’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t really live up to the promise of earlier books. Or maybe Quarantine Fever is finally wearing off.

Two and-a-half ghosts, rounding down to differentiate it from the 3 star reviews.

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‘Monster’

by Naomi Kritzer in Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 160 January 2020  
Read August 2020
Recommended for fans of Kritzer, Teenage nostalgia
 ★     ★    ★    ★ 
 

Evocative and sad. An adult woman is in search of her childhood friend, Andrew, someone who befriended her when she felt alienated and developed a strong connection based on their nerdlike interests. The search requires going into a rural province in China, and as she travels, the narrator, Cecily, also travels back and forth in time.

It’s well done, but a piece that should be read more for the characters, their relationship and for the atmosphere over plot. There is a definite plot underneath the search, but it is given so little detail in the beginning that it has trouble ramping up the urgency, especially when it is reconciled with the nostalgia. There are a couple of small mistakes, one regarding eyes and one regarding encryption that I think make the impact of the story less powerful (or perhaps more so?) because the solution is so imperfect. Still, a sophisticated blend of past and present.

When I check my e-mail one last time before I go to bed, I have an e-mail from a mysterious address that says, Just like the story, sometimes sacrifice is required, Cecily, if everyone else is to survive.

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_01_20/

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