End of the world

36118624When it comes to reading, my tastes run the gamut. Some days I want to settle in for a difficult read that makes me think. Other days I want popcorn. I mentioned this previously with respect to Simon R Green. Here’s another round of popcorn.

I’ve never read anything by Alex Scarrow. From what I can tell, his background has been in young readers, and non-sf thrillers. Plague Land (also called Re-Made elsewhere in the world) is very much SF.

Strange flakes start falling out of the sky. When it touches living creatures (humans or animals), it dissolves them quickly. It also poisons waters supplies. It’s first seen in Africa, and governments conceal who bad things are until it’s too later. Within a few days, there are very few survivors.

Leon, Grace and their mother, who have been living in London since their parents divorced, get a warning from their father, back in New York City. They try to get out of town by train, but get trapped when all travel is shut down. Within a day, the trio are the only survivors from a packed train. Eventually they come into contact with other survivors, who have figured out how to protect themselves.

Only, the virus, if you can call it, has moved on to phase two. It is using the dissolved organic material to create new creatures to go after the survivors in their haven.

On the one hand, the story hits the parts of me that enjoys zombie novels. However, it also falls into lazy plotting at times. Is the virus alien? If so, why try to recreate Earth animals? For that matter, why go after the survivors? There are far too few survivors to be a danger to whatever plans follow.

As well, there is a couple places that fall into the trap of ‘people do stupid things just so that the plot can be advanced’. That always annoys the heck out of me. And yet, at the end of the book, I do look forward to seeing what happens in the next book when it comes. After all, surely there must be a way of fighting back and surviving.

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Oh wow! Raving ahead

36053486In the last couple of years, I have been trying to expand my reading outwards. NetGalley has been a great way to try out some things that I might not have read otherwise.

One area that I’ve been working on is poetry. I’ve read several collections, some of which did not work for me, and some did to varying degrees.

Wild Embers falls into the category of not just working for me, but blowing me away. In fact, by the time I was a quarter of the way through the collection, I had bought Nikita Gill’s previous collection. By the time I was half-way through, I knew I was going to be buying a copy when the book hit the stores last week. And when it did hit the stores, I bought three copies: one for myself, and two that will be going into Christmas gifts for the two teenaged girls on my list.

The poems were beautiful. They mostly had a feminist bent, but will great imagery. The first section had poems interpreting life through astronomy. There was a section that had different takes on fairy tale characters, done as prose examinations instead of standard poetry. Another section similarly looked at women of Greek mythology.

This was the first poetry collection I’ve read since my first Mary Oliver collection that made me sit back and say ‘yesssss’.

Seriously, though, I want to rave about this collection to every woman I know, and strangers on the bus. I want to buy a stack of copies and give them to everyone who will take one. I can’t wait to see what Nikita Gill does next.

Not your Disney mermaids

34523174Mermaids. Pretty girls wearing seashell bras, with long flowing hair. Maybe luring seafarers to their deaths, or falling in love with the land and giving up their fish tails for human legs, leaving the sea.

That’s what most people think when they hear ‘mermaid’.

But it’s not what Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) thinks when she hears mermaid. Nope, definitely not her. And definitely not what you’ll find in Into the Drowning Deep.

After scaring us about politics in the world of the zombie apocalypse, and tapeworms taken as medicine only to take over people’s minds, she decided to tackle mermaids as only she can. First she wrote a novella, Rolling in the Deep, which I forked up $40 plus shipping to Subterranean Press for. In it, a specialty tv channel, Imagine, sends a ship looking for mermaids. They made their fortune with mockumentaries, and Lovely Ladies of the Deep will be their masterpiece. Except, the ship turns up, bare of life, splattered with evidence of violence, and will recordings of horror mermaids left behind. Everyone assumed those are hoaxes, but none of the people sent on the ship are ever found.

Now it’s seven years later, and Imagine is sending another ship, with even more scientists, and a lot of security this time, including two crazy big game hunters. This includes Tory, whose sister was Imagine’s on-screen personality in the original expedition. She’s been looking for what happened to her sister ever since. There’s also her work partner, Luis, her bitter ex, Jason, the separated couple Theo, an Imagine executive, and Jillian, an expert on mermaids. There’s the deaf twins and their sister who is also their interpreter. And the new on-screen interviewer who is on the autism spectrum and her former MMA fighter turned camera man.

Oh, and the main security system that would seal the ship in case of attack doesn’t work yet.

Needless to say, they find the mermaids, and people start dying in gruesome ways, while everyone else tries to survive by figuring out the mermaids.

The original novella stood on it’s own. And while this comes out of that novella, it pretty much stands on it own. However, it also cracks open the door just enough that another book is possible.

I’d read it. Actually, I’ll read anything published under the Mira Grant byline. Heck, I read the last 130 pages in a single day because I couldn’t stop reading.

(Wow. Two posts in one day. Not bad for me.)

I love Sourdough (and sourdough)

35046017Robin Sloan’s first novel is currently sitting on my bookcase of books to be read, but I haven’t got to it yet (and yes, I have two bookcases *full* of unread books). I do plan to get to it, based on reviews I read.

Instead, I read his second novel first, in part because I could get the audiobook digitally from my library (although I did buy the trade paperback, the audio book fit my schedule better).

What can I say except that I loved Sourdough. It was quirky, and while I don’t bake, I very much identified with the protagonist, Lois. I’m a software tester for the government, while she’s a software developer in private industry, but I can empathise with the level of stress she’s under, having been under it myself, complete with the stomach issues.

My way of dealing with stress ended up being taking up knitting, while in her case, she is gifted with an unusual sourdough starter from a pair of brothers who make her favorite takeout but who end up having to leave the country because of problems with their work visas.

At first she makes sourdough for herself. Then the chef at the company cafeteria starts buying her sourdough. Then she gets pulled into an underground (figuratively and literally) market. Meanwhile, she’s still trying to figure out how to solve the egg problem at work (ie, teaching a robot arm to crack eggs instead of smashing them).

Along the way, she is trying to solve a number of mysteries. Why does the starter require music? Why do her loaves of bread have faces on them? Who runs the market? Where did the starter originally come from? And why does it seem strangely alive?

I was thoroughly sucked in, both by the narrator and the book itself. The audiobook even has some bonuses, such as actual ‘music of the Mazg’, which the starter needs to thrive, at least at first. As well, one plot point is a company that makes a food substitute called Slurry, which they market to techies with bad stomachs. There are occasional emails and advertisements from the that appear in the audiobook, but not the paperback.

All in all, I loved the book, and I look forward both to reading Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and whatever he comes up with next.

Fast Food Fiction

13515091In my view, some books are perfect gourmet meals — to be savoured slowly, with great concentration — and some are McDonalds — doesn’t matter where you are, you know what you’re getting, and sometimes all you want is fast food.

Simon R Green (much like Mercedes Lackey) is a fast food writer, and when I’m in the mood, his books hit the spot.

The Ghost Finders series, which I have just finished the third book of, is about a team from the Carnacki Institute that deals will supernatural encroachments. Every book has the same elements.

1. You start with a more simple haunting (in book three, Ghost of a Dream, it’s a derelict train station being renovated for tourism). This introduces the characters and their witty banter (of course it’s witty). Happy and Melody flirt (and am I the only person who pictures Toby from the TV show Scorpion as Happy?), while JC mopes over his lost ghost girlfriend Kim (met in book one, lost in book two, and who makes a brief appearance). JC has creepy eyes, Happy is a coward who used to use drugs to dull his ESP. In the end, the haunting is solved, but there are hints of worse to come.

2. The meat of the book ties in with greater dangers from other planes of existence. In book three, the haunting is an old theatre (also being renovated to reopen). The haunting is weird, but not overly dangerous, but once they get there, things take a turn for the much worse.

All in all, this series is a fun read. The sort of book that I use for my bathtub read (nothing better to end the day than to relax in a hot bath with a drink and a book before bed)

Sometimes a book is just a book

36054850Kathleen Hill’s memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels, was an interesting read, but she stretches her theme to near breaking in places.

On the one hand, it’s a memoir of her early years (childhood, early marriage, teaching in Nigeria and France with her new husband). But then she jumps ahead 30 years for another interlude in her life at the end of the book. In this scenario, the last chapter seems out of place. She tries to tie it in to the earlier chapters, but it didn’t really work well. I would have almost preferred a book on it’s own about her relationship with Diana Trilling and the years she spent going to the woman’s home and reading Proust to her as Diana went blind. It felt like there was a lot more material to be uncovered there.

Then there’s the fact that each chapter is built around (and named after) a novel she was reading at the time, and how she looked at her life through the lens of the book. But based on that, the first chapter set in Nigeria really had to labour to make that connection. This is also the only chapter based on a black (and African) writer. Where every other chapter goes into enough detail about the book it is centered on that I don’t think I need to read the book in question at all, the chapter ‘Things Fall Apart’ (by Chinua Achebe) spends at most two paragraphs on the book, and then just details thing that happened to her. Sure, there’s elements like her visiting a museum about slavery, or her students reacting to the assassination of JFK, but the other chapters included long passages of decribing plot elements in the book she was reading, and how she interpreted that into her own life. It felt rather like she had used this book because she felt guilty about not including an African writer when she spent so long on her early married life in Nigeria.

So, while I enjoyed the reading, it did feel like two loosely connected books were put together because neither was quite long enough on their own.

What if Oz were a Circus?

34358792Jane Yolen is one of the great writers of middle-grade/ya fantasy (and the occasional Adult, such as the beatiful Briar Rose entry into Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale series). She is especially adept at the short story length, and there was a period of time when I was younger where I rarely picked up a YA fantasy anthology without finding a story by her.

This is a collection of short stories that cover over thirty years of her short stories, although a number of the stories have appeared in others among her collections (aimed at different audiences, though).

I did find that the first four stories in the collection were still my favorites at the end of reading.

Anderson’s Witch (2012) is a theme setter for the book, being a fairy tale origin story for Hans Christian Anderson, with him making a bargain with a supernatural being as a child. Considering the sort of person Anderson was as an adult, this story fits nicely into explaining the real person.

Lost Girls (1997) was my absolute favorite, in which a girl gets pulled into Neverland, and finds that Peter Pan is a jerk, and his territory is very sexist, with all the Wendys (he can’t be bother to remember names) cleaning and cooking, using the pirate threat to keep them in line. So what’s a modern girl to do but start a strike.

Tough Alice (1997) is about Alice having to confront the Jabberwocky over and over again until she figures out how to defeat it.

Blown Away (2013) is a variation on The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy comes home, telling the story of being dropped, injured and amnesiac, outside of The Emerald Circus.

After those four stories, there was a string of stories that were a little less enthralling to me. Lancelot as the Wandering Jew looking for the graves of Arthur and Guinevere, a different take on Poe’s The Raven, a story of Disraeli and Queen Victoria, origin/birth stories for Robin Hood, Merlin, and Excalibur (along with Guinevere). And then a strong finish with the story of Emily Dickinson meeting an alien poet who takes her on a tour in his spaceship.

One additional element that I enjoyed is that at the end of the book, there are author notes about each story and it’s origins, and each one is accompanied by a poem, at least loosely related to the story’s subject matter.