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.)

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.

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.

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.

Don’t get stepped on

34954246My first experience with what could be called Kaiju was the Godzilla cartoon (and Godzuuuuuuki… ignore the cries of horror) when I was a kid. My second was the Power Rangers series when I was in my twenties. The most recent was the latest Godzilla movie and Pacific Rim. I always thought they were fun, but not much more than that.

Giant Creatures in the World takes a long look at the Kaiju genre, and uses it as a reflection of the culture of the various times. While I doubt that producers were quite as deliberate as the essays might make it seem, they do make a good argument for a reflection between the movies and attitudes of the various times towards women, foreigners, the military, government and other subjects.

The essays in the collection were intriguing, covering from the era of the first Godzilla movie (and before by bringing in movies like King Kong as a predecesor) through to the far more recent Pacific Rim.

Unfortunately, there were a few quirks that brought down my enjoyment of the book. First of all, I think there was only one essay that didn’t include a variation on ‘this essay will discuss’, which made it feel a little like they all were written based on the college instructions on how to write an essay. The author bios make it clear that these aren’t college students, so couldn’t they have let the essays communicate on their own, without telling me explicitely what they intend to do?

There are also a few bad word choices scattered around. For example, an object does not revision something. Revision is a nown, not a verb. It might reinvision something, though. As well, there was one of my pet peeve homonym issues in that you ‘rein’ something in, not ‘reign’. A little more editing (and certainly copy-editing) would have helped a lot.

What I’m reading this weekend

Ah, weekends. Aren’t they wonderful things

I finally finished listening to George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, after working my way back to the top of the library wait list, a month and a half later. I’d been a little iffy about wanting to finish it, but the last 20% turned the whole book around for me. I have to say, though, the audiobook works much better than print for this story. Flipping through the paper book in the store, the jumping from voice to voice didn’t work as well in print as it does when dealing with a full-cast recording. I definitely recommend the audiobook for the story, which ended up completely different from what I expected.

So, my new audiobook is Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat by Giles Milton. I’ve listened to the first chapter, and I’m looking forward to the rest. After all, I’ve really enjoyed other books about the stories of WWII that you don’t hear every day.

My current bathtub reading is another Executioner novel, 430: Deadly Salvage. This one includes Russian nukes and a sadistic billionaire with plans. Cheesy fun.

I’m about to finish a book of essays from NetGalley. Giant Creatures in Our World: Essays on Kaiju and American Popular Culture tackles a trope that has been around for more than a half-century, if not a century: the Kaiju. Giant creatures that can be bad guys or good, depending on the story. And like Zombies, Kaiju movies can cover a multitude of commentaries on modern society, and the essays in this volume cover the gamut. I do have some problems with the writings, but I am enjoying the book as a whole.

And the other NetGalley book I’m reading is Girls Made of Glass and Snow by Melissa Bashardoust. It’s a fantasy novel with a new twist on Snow White.

And on the horizon from NetGalley are The Emerald Circus (short stories by Jane Yolen), Paradox Bound (a new novel from Peter Clines, a fantastic writer) and the book that made me do a happy dance when I was accepted, Artemis, the second novel from Andy Weir, author of The Martian.

Mice are really important, you know

31702736Note: This review includes minor spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Beggars in Spain has been my favorite Nancy Kress novel since back when it first came out, and one of my favorite social science fiction novels by any writer. Tomorrow’s Kin may have taken over for it. Mind you, the two novels have some elements in common, including the fact that both started as shorter pieces.

Tomorrow’s Kin takes a previous novella, Yesterday’s Kin, and spins it out. Basically, aliens come to Earth, but before to the start of the book, no one actually gets to see them. But now, an older geneticist (and how many books have a protagonist that is a grandmother?) is chosen to actually meet the aliens about the reason they came to Earth, which is a cloud of spores that will kill everyone on the planet. It turns out that the aliens are humans removed from Earth in the distant past for unknown reasons by unknown aliens, and the reason they came to Earth is that their world is in the path of the spores, but not until after Earth encounters it, so if a cure can be found, it will save them as well. Also, they want Dr. Marianne Jenner to find people who have their genome, since they want to meet their distant relatives (for reasons). It also turns out that her adopted son is one of those relative. (she has three children: a border patrol member who gets irate because the aliens are foreigners, and an environmentalist who is irate because of invasive species, and the youngest, a drug addict who is absorbed into the alien society).

This only covers the first third of the book, and then things get interesting. Turns out that the spores aren’t going to kill (many) people on Earth. However, when it comes, it wipes out most mice in the world, because they are vulnerable. This leads to a well thought out environmental disaster, followed by the innevitable economic disaster. Also, children after the spore cloud are born with either no hearing, or hypersensitive hearing.

The aliens left behind plans for space ships so that once they are built, Earth can come to their home, World. Only thing is, people think (in typical human prejudice) that if the aliens hadn’t shown up, all the bad wouldn’t happen. As a result, ships are being built, but the builders are planning to go attack World for revenge, because people seem to assume that the human aliens knew exactly what would happen and didn’t warn them about the other results of the spores. Personally, I think that attitude is asinine, but I can see it happening in the real world. Just look at the current political climate to see examples of this sort of thinking on both sides of the political divide.

But let’s avoid political debates, since they never turn out well.

The parts that fascinated me the most was the parts about the far-reaching effects of mice disappearing (kind of like the real world problems that could come from colony collapse among bees). And the whole business of the children with hyper hearing reminded me of the kids who don’t need to sleep in Beggars in Spain.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I look forward to the other (forthcoming) two books in the trilogy.

Walking out on Civilization

34956706One of my goals over the last two years was to expand my reading into areas that I might not have gone looking for before. And while I have read books on climate change, they have been primarily in the science field, by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction)

But Walking on Lava is not a science book about climate change. Instead, it is a more literary look at the world, climate change, and destruction of the environment. Artwork, poetry, stories, memoirs, and essays collected from the Dark Mountain Project magazine (which I had never heard of before

Honestly, I may not have been the ideal target for this book. On the one hand, I admired the writing as I was reading, but I also wasn’t really buying the message. There was a lot of talking about the dangers of civilization, and how it is destroying the world, over and over again. Instead, we should go back to living in harmony with the world, like our ancestors. But no one mentions the elephant in the room: to make that workable, you would probably have to get rid of as much as 3/4 of the world population. There’s just too many people to live local and on subsistence farming. And even if we did reduce the population, humans tend to breed at a growth rate, especially if you are trying to grow enough food for the local area (someone has to work the fields, after all). From all the history I’ve read, overpopulation isn’t the fault of civilization, it that civilization came about due to overpopulation to deal with the friction that resulted.

Still, the writing was (for the most part) lovely, and did make me think in places, even when I disagreed. ‘Shikataganai’ in particular, near the end of the book, affected me deeply.