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.

Roadtrip across *all* of America

33825757I haven’t read every single one of Peter Clines’ novels (although I think I’ve only missed 2, and one is currently on my bookshelf waiting for me to get to it), but based on the books I have read, I have yet to find one that fell flat for me.

Paradox Bound is his latest novel, and it is a bizarre twist of a book compared to his zombie superhero novels and the world of 14 and The Fold. This one is Americana all the way through. It has a road trip (very American) in a Model A Ford, time travel, small towns that seem to live in the past, and a quest to find The American Dream, which is an actual object guarded by Faceless Men, which has been stolen.

Seriously, can you get more American than that?

Our entry point to the story is Eli Teague, who lives in one of those towns that seems out of sync with the rest of the world. Twice, as a kid, he runs into Harriet ‘Harry’ Pritchard and her Model A Ford that runs on water, and in one case a male travelling companion. The third time he runs into her, he ends up being pulled into her world, and the world of the other time travellers all searching for The American Dream. Unfortunately, this also brings him into the sights of the Faceless Men who kill anomalies, and are trying to recover the stolen dream that they had been tasked with guarding.

This leads to a road trip through the present, past, and future, and pulls in real historical figures, as well as legendary characters (such as John Henry, of the contest with the steam hammer fame).

The twists in the book manage somehow to be both predictable, and yet twisting expectations *just* enough to still surprise you, and the combination resulted in the book being intensely satisfying. I also liked that the fact that there was little to no romance between the two main characters, especially since Harry is recently (as much as you can tell with time travellers) widowed. Too many books insist on shoehorning in a romance between main characters, and the story isn’t always the better for it.

There are few writers that I will read without knowing anything about what the book is about. The list morphs over time, but currently, Peter Clines is high up on the list, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

The Semi-Annual Readathon

The twice a year Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon has just kicked off. 8am in Ottawa, Canada, so off we go

8am – starting with Terrorist Dispatch, a novel I  the Executioner series. A nice, short action novel

9am – Terrorist Dispatch is 19% done. I also got an email from the library that my reserve on the audio book of Sourdough by Robin Sloan is ready for download,  so that’s ready for later on.

10am – I’m now up to 48% on Terrorists Dispatch. 

11am – 72% done. I should finish in the next hour. After that, I’ll do a little audio book listening while knitting. 

12am – I just finished the first book. Next up, There Werewolf of Paris, by guy Endore, since The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast is covering the book this month, and I’ve been collecting episodes until I read the book. First the audio book, though.

1pm – I listened to the first 11% of Sourdough, then switched to The Werewolf of Paris. I’m only 3% into the ebook.

2pm – 17% into The Werewolf of Paris.  It is definitely of its time period. 

5pm – I took a break and went out for a late lunch (or early dinner). I also read some frantic for fun. Still, I’m at 39% for the werewolf novel.

6pm – 51% in the novel, plus 25 pages in this week’s bathtub read (there’s nothing better than a soak in the tub with a paperback to read.

7pm – And now I’m at 64%. Time to take a knitting/audio book break.

8pm – Another 11% of the Sourdough audiobook. I am thoroughly enjoying the reading. 

9pm – I’ve hit 76% in The Werewolf of Paris, but I think I’m close to my limit for the day. Before much longer, I’ll probably head to bed, although knowing my sleep patterns,  I’ll be up before the end of the 24 hours tomorrow morning. 

8am – I reached 82% before bedtime, and I have now finished the book. As well, I listened to a couple more chapters of the audio book.

Summary

Executioner 448: Terrorist Dispatch by Mike Newton – complete

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore – complete

Sourdough by Robin Sloan- audio book, 25% done

Ghost of a Dream by Simon R Green – 48 pages

Gaming novels can be good

33405149I rarely read game-based books, especially role playing game books, but for Seanan McGuire, I was willing to give it a try. (The last time I read a book for an RPG game was almost 20 years ago when I went through a White Wolf games phase)

I found the world — steampunk mixed with horror in an alternate US — fascinating, and the characters were very likeable. The plot itself was a bit obvious here and there, but included enough twists to keep me enthralled. Seanan once more proves herself versatile and well worth reading.

In this world, American Indians from various tribes got together to perform a ritual in an attempt to drive the Europeans off their land. This didn’t really work, but it did create a large number of animal and mystical dangers.

Annie Pearl is a member of a travelling circus, along with her mute daughter. She takes care of the wagon of deadly ‘freaks’. Things like nibbler fish that sound like pirhanas with even worse teeth and attitude, terrantula spiders, pit wasps, a corn husk creature with a pumpkin head that if allowed would plant itself inside the corpse of a human. It’s a dangerous job, but she does well at it, and it’s the last place her husband (a steampunk style inventor/Frankenstein) back in Deseret (in Utah) would look for her.

Unfortunately, the circus has had some bad luck, and may not make it through the coming winter. The manager decides to take the risky chance of going to a community called The Clearing in Oregon, which has a patchy reputation. The Clearing is just that, a treeless bow-shaped valley in the middle of the woods of Oregon. The people come across very hostile, but the circus has little choice.

Worse than the people of The Clearing is the shadows lurking in the forest, watching and waiting. And when Annie’s daughter is tricked by the local children into going alone into the woods, everything comes to a head. Meanwhile, the husband she fled is coming after her, and will stop at nothing to claim his daughter for reasons that are not good for her.

I’m not sure that I am interested in reading any of the other books written for this game setting, but I am very glad I read this one. It’s a perfect read for right around Halloween.

Note: I got the chance to read this book through NetGalley.

Two takes on World War Two

This month I got the urge for World War Two books. I went through two, one non-fiction and one fiction, in quick succession. Normally I don’t read multiple books on the same subject too close together, but this pairing worked.

34533307The first was Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, written and read by Giles Milton. Most of the non-fiction I’ve read about the World War Two focuses on great battles, daring spies, and political manoeuvring. All interesting, but after a while they blend together.

This book, however, looks at a different part of the war: sabotage. A small number of men, in the lead-up to WWII, realized that there was other, possibly safer, ways of fighting. They started designing limpet mines and other instruments of sabotage. When the war is declared, they advocated training small numbers of men to sneak in and destroy targets instead of using bombers. The main part of the military object to this as being improper, uncouth.. ungentlemanly. (in one operation, the head of the RAF refused to let his planes be used to parachute a team into enemy territory because he disapproved of their mission).

This book covers the political maneuvering and Churchill’s approval that let this department operate. It also covers a handful of their missions: destroying an isolated plant in Norway that was producing heavy water for atomic weapon development, blowing up equipment a Porsche plant that is producing tank parts, destroying train bridges in Greece carrying critical supplies for Rommell’s war in North Africa.

And while the UK military brass disapproved of these actions as being not cricket, the US military borrowed heavily. For example, if you’ve ever seen the tv series X Company, the characters are trained at Camp X, which was the US adoption of the ministry.

It also covers the period at the end of the war when there is a debate over whether the weapons and training should be maintained going into the cold war, or discarded as no longer needed. We also get a view of some of the people involved and what happened to them after peace (including the secretary who dated Ian Fleming and is believed to be a model for Miss Moneypenny)

The author reads the book for the audiobook, and is one of those rare authors who does an excellent job of it.

30655792After listening to this one, I had the urge to go for the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (read by Orlagh Cassidy). I’ve only ‘read’ the previous book in this series, even through the series has more than ten books. I don’t really have much interest in going back and reading (or listening to) the earlier books, but I think I’ll continue with the series going forward.

In the series, Maisie Dobbs is a widow, a war veteran (as a nurse), a private detective, and in at least the previous book, a government agent. In that book, she is asked to travel to Munich in Nazi Germany to impersonate the daughter of an inventor who has been tossed in a concentration camp. The Nazis will release him, but only to a family member, and his daughter (the only living family member) is too ill to travel. At the end of that book, Maisie has come out of mourning and reopens her detective agency.

The newest book in the series picks up about a year later, with her and her dearest friend’s family listening as the Prime Minister announces that war has been declared. This touches off a lot of changes as children are evacuated to the countryside, and young adults start signing up for armed services, while the previous generation frets, remembering the last war.

During this, Maisie takes on two cases. In the first, a woman who appeared in the previous book — a former Belgian freedom fighter who works in the Belgian Embassy — hires her to investigate the killing of a man who came to England as a refugee in the First World War. The police, swamped by the results of declaring war, believe it to be a simple robbery turned deadly. But then another former refugee dies, and as Maisie investigates, it appears that the deaths are related to events in the previous war.

The other case is more personal. A child evacuated from London goes to live with Maisie’s former in-laws. Her father and stepmother are helping out, and the child, Anna, is refusing to speak to anyone, and the people in charge of the evacuation turn out not to know who she is. She just turned up at the evacuation, although she isn’t part of the school group. Maisie finds herself drawn to the silent child, even though she knows how foolish that is, and works to both help the girl, and find out where she came from. Having lost her own child in miscarriage when her husband died, the child pulls on all her maternal instincts.

The story here is well written, very emotional, and slightly maudlin in places. As I said, I don’t feel any urge to go an read the other books (which start right after the end of the first World War), but I do look forward to seeing what happens next.

After finishing these two books, both of which I thoroughly recommend, both on their own and as audiobooks, I think I am done with World War Two for a while. Next up, I head into horror and science fiction.

A modern Snow White

32768509I haven’t been a big reader of fairy adaptions in recent years. I still have some favorites, in particular the Fairy Tales series that was edited by Terri Windling back in the nineties, featuring such fantastic writers as Charles de Lint, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey and Jane Yolen. The books covered the gamut of urban fantasy, historical, straight fantasy, and magic realism

Girls Made of Snow and Glass would fit into that series without any complaint, and is probably my favorite version of a Snow White story every.

Lynet, who is about to turn sixteen, is princess in a kingdom that is divided between the warm south and a north, where the king and his court lives, that was cursed by a previous queen to eternal winter. She looks just like her mother who died in childbirth, she is told. She idolises her step-mother, Mina, who came to the north with her wizard father when she was only sixteen. And both have something in common: the magics of Mina’s father, Gregory. Mina’s heart was replaced with one of glass to save her life, and when the queen died, Gregory made the king a daughter from snow, who would look just like his wife.

But unlike the fairy tale, Lynet loves her stepmother, and Mina, trapped in a loveless marriage to the king, cares deeply for Lynet. But with Lynet’s birthday approaching, first Lynet becomes infatuated with the new court surgeon, Nadia, a young woman from the south who tells her the truth of her origins, driving a wedge between mother and daughter. And a decision by the king deepens the divide, leading to tragedy.

Snow White is transformed into the story of the love between mother and daughter, with a side of a lesbian romance, and every step of it worked for me. I loved the book.

Thanks to NetGalley for the eArc of this book.