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.

War of the Worlds I and II

33269113I recently got the chance to read The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter, from NetGalley. It is written as a direct sequel to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, using the very same characters, but setting it in 1920, when the second Martian invasion arrives.

To really get the feel for this, I got the audiobook of the original novel from the Library and listened to it in between reading the new book, and I am impressed at just how well Baxter echoes the writing style of the original. The original only fleshes out the character of the narrator, who is a rather unlikeable type. Other than a brief switch over to a different character, the narrator is the only point of view character in the whole (short) novel, and only a handful of other characters (and only a couple of the survivors) even get names. One of those few named secondary characters is the primary character in The Massacre of Mankind (a title that also comes from a line in the original novel).

In the original classic, a series of explosions are seen on Mars. Sometime later, metal cylinders land on Earth in the area immediately around London. When they open, Martians emerge and starting building machines that allow them to move around in the higher gravity of Earth, and defeat all attempts to resist them. The narrator is trapped inside the invasion zone, and meets a number of other survivors, and spends a period later in the book trapped with a curate in a half-destroyed house right next to the pit where a later cylinder landed, unable to escape. When the increasingly deranged curate endangers them both, he has little choice but to kill the man to save himself. Finally, when the noises of the Martians disappear, he emerges from the house and heads into London, where he finds the Martians dead or dying, killed by Earth bacteria. He then covers a little of the start of recovery, including the fact that the narrator is clearly suffering from PTSD, which surprised me, since I thought awareness of this only began with the first World War, and this novel was published more than a decade before that war.

The Massacre of Mankind begins more than a decade later, when the Miss Elphinstone who appears in the original novel, is a reporter in the US. She is summoned by her former brother-in-law Walter (the narrator of the original novel) to Berlin. History has much changed as a result of the original invasion. WWI did not happen, since when Germany started invading their neighbours, including France, the rest of the world was not inclined to fight back after rebuilding from the Martian war.

The reason for the summons is that a new fleet has been launched from Mars. Instead of one canon shooting cylinders, now there are ten, shooting even more of their vessels. And the Martians learned from their previous failed invasion, so while the military expects the same timeline as the previous invasion, they are quickly overwhelmed by the new tactics. The Martians are able to set up a foothold in England, with people trapped inside the zone of control, making do with their situation, while the people outside work on coming up with a new biological weapon. This is followed by a second wave that spreads out from England, with snippets about the invaders hitting the US, South Africa, Germany, and other parts of the world. The new, female, narrator becomes an integral part of the attempt to stop the Martians from taking over the entire world.

While the original novel feels rather dated, the new novel was fantastic, while preserving the feel of the original (including the ridiculous ideas about the evolution of the solar system). The change to a female narrator gives a different slant on the story, since sexism. Beyond her, there are other strong women, heroic characters, characters that are anything but. And the ending wraps things up, while leaving everything on a note of uncertainty that means that if there is room for a follow-up, but if none appears, we have a satisfying ending.

Jonestown on water

32197111Dystopic fiction has been a trend in YA fictions, since well before The Hunger Games. For example, when I was younger I read a lot John Christopher, including the Tripod series (post-alien invasion) and The Sword of the Spirits trilogy (post-ecological disaster), or John Whyndham’s The Chrysalids (set in Canada with fundamentalists targeting mutations) and The Day of the Triffids (alien plants wiping out the world).

No, Dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds have been very popular through the years. The current trend had been on a bit of a down-swing, but we’ll see if the current state of the world makes it swing back up again.

The Ship is a British book (they do like their dystopias), set after economic/ecological collapse. Lalla’s father helped set up the dystopia (without an identity card and ‘screen’, you really don’t have a hope), but in secret he is setting up an escape for a carefully selected 500. Some are selected for the knowledge, and others because he approves of their actions (although sometimes the actions weren’t what he assumed them to be). Finally, he takes his wife and daughter to a waiting ship that he has loaded with those select, and enough supplies to last them for decades, although his wife is shot in the trip, and dies soon after they reach the ship.

The book focuses on the daughter, Lalla, who has her doubts. She bounces between sensible (supplies don’t last forever, and what about when things start to break down?) and teenaged naivetie (she wants to take the ship’s supplies back to London to help the people there… for a week at the most). She is obsessed with fruit that can’t be grown anymore in poisoned soil. When her mother was dying, she turned off the pain drugs because she was certain her mother would want to know she was there, and her mother dies in agony as a result.

To be honest, I really had trouble identifying with Lalla who has managed to get through the collapse, including actually seeing people killed, and yet is so naive that she thinks a ship’s supplies could save everyone in London.

I was more interested in the other passengers, and even her father. Not the love interest, though, who barely go any development. It was more the mother who refused to simply declare Lalla’s father, Michael, her son’s new father like everyone else on the ship, insisting on teaching him about his dead father. Or the woman in the laundry whose own daughter had turned away from her because of optimism (in a story much like Lalla’s the woman’s farm in Africa was sealed off from the suffering around it, but the daughter insisted on cutting down the wires to let in refugees, resulting in her father’s death at her own hands).

Over time, Michael started to remind me more and more of Jim Jones, and the ship as Jonestown, where the innevitable end will be death for everyone. The ship is going in circles in the ocean, with no plans to ever find land, but with no weapons, how would they fight off pirates.

The ending is appropriately ambiguous, but I figure it could be summed up as ‘Lalla starves in her rowboat, and eventually everyone else died, and nothing was saved’.

Thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book.

The Wayfarer Returns – Feudal Japanese Steampunk


Steampunk is a subgenre that has had quite the boom in recent years, although it is starting to die down somewhat. Most fall in to the standard ‘Victorian England with versions of modern technology powered by steam’ plotlines. I’ve read, and enjoyed, a number of these (such as The Ministry of Peculiar Occurences series by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris).

But while the standard Victorian England Steampunk stories have to work to get my attention, I’m a little more drawn to the steampunk stories set elsewhere in the world and in different cultures. For example, there is Cherie Priest’s series that started with Boneshaker, set in Civil War-era US, and there are multiple writers who tackled steampunk in Asia.

Toru is one of the later. It’s set around the historical event of Admiral Perry forcing feudal Japan to open up to the world, and incorporates historical persons, either as themselves or transformed into fictional persons. Toru, himself, is loosely based on a real person, but in this story he is the son of a fisherman who was rescued by an American ship from a sinking fishing boat. He travelled to America, learned English and travelled the country, collecting books and technology, before being cheerfully returned to his homeland by his very friendly American acquaintances (which seems a little silly, considering the prejudices of the time).

Once home, he talks his way out of being executed (as required by the isolationist laws of the time), and goes on to convice local lords that the US will be coming to force an end to the laws constricting contact with the outside world, and that they would use force if need be. To resist, he brought back steam technology, and convinces people to rapidly industrialise.

I have to admit, the fact that he is so convincing is hard to believe, and the fact that they develop steam trains, telegraph, dirigible, Babadge machines, and mini submarines all in a single year is ridiculous. However, I was willing to ignore this based on how likeable the characters were, and how enjoyable the plot line. I did appreciate the fact that there are references to things like just how depressing the landscape was in places because all the trees had to be cut down in the work.

But despite plot quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and I very much look forward to the second book when it comes out.

Superheroes can be a lot of fun

32718087When your reading time is limited (for any number of reasons), short story collections are a wonderful way to go. Short stories are, well, short. You don’t have to keep track of complicated plots if you are reading a book over an extended period of time.Instead, a story can be read in a day, and due to length, the plot lines and characters are simpler.

So, the question for a reader is what type of collection they want to read. I divide collections into three categories: Single author; themed; and ‘Best of’ collections.

Behind the Mask falls into the category of themed collection in that all the stories are variations on superheroes, or at least people with abilities beyond the normal. Most are about characters that could be called superheroes or supervillains (right down to the mad scientist with a hideout in a volcano), but there are also aliens (or the child of aliens), cyborgs, and even some magic realism. I requested this book from NetGalley mainly because I am a fan of Seanan McGuire, but I was pleased to find that the majority of the stories worked well for me.

Among my favorite stories were:
Ms Liberty Gets a Haircut by Cat Rambo, which was a look at a female superhero who was created as a sex object, trying to take control of her life.
Destroy the City With Me Tonight by Kate Marshall, where random people become city guardians when maps of the city appears etched literally on their bones, and everyone who knew them as individuals forget they ever existed.
Pedestal by Seanan McGuire, where a heroine tries to have a private life in an era of internet stalkers. Set in the world of her short story series about a different heroine named Velveteen
As I Fall Asleep by Aimee Ogden speculates about what if an aging superhero develops dementia
The Fall of the Jade Sword by Stephanie Lai is a steampunk story in Australia with an Asian heroine dealing with prejudice and family expectations.
Eggshells by Ziggy Schutz uses superheroes to look at post-concussion syndrome.
The Beard of Truth by Matt Mikalatos made me laugh in his story of a world where people are randomly developing powers, and a young man learns that if he grows a beard, everyone around him is forced to tell the truth.
Over an Embattled City by Adam R Shannon has the interesting idea of a comic book writer who makes superheroes and villains disappear by finding out their origins and writing them into comic book characters.

By the end of the collection, there were only three stories out of the twenty that didn’t work for me, and for a multi-author collection, that is an excellent ratio.

Behind the Mask is scheduled for release next week, and I highly recommend tracking down a copy.

Modern Poetry


Poetry is a category of writing that bored me as a student (high school does a great job of sucking all of the life out of a lot of reading). But now I have decided to give poetry another go. I started with more traditional poetry, with The Essential Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), and A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver (Goodreads Choice 2012 winner).

Then I saw The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory available of NetGalley, and decided that it sounded intriguing, so I put in a request.

The poems in this book were interesting. Very definitely free verse, with no rhyming, or even the sort of formatting I would have expected. And yet, the poems resonated with me. There was a lot of focus on the modern world, and technology (which was a pleasant change from most poetry) and a sort of whistful look backwards.

If there was anything negative about the collection, it was that there is little emotional variation. Pretty much every poem left me somewhere between melancholy and depression. In general this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it made it difficult to read more than a handful of poems at a time. I know that poets aren’t going to take orders, but still, the occasional poem that was more upbeat would have helped the reader.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes.
Am I going to rush out to find the author’s other collections? Maybe not.
Would I recommend it to other people? Only if I was sure they had no tendancy towards depression, since I think it would make things a lot worse.

Tie-ins don’t all suck

30139665When I was teenager, I read a lot of tv/movie tie-ins, mainly in the Star Trek universe. It was the heyday of the tie-in. Then they went through a period of time where they were churned out by writers who didn’t have the chops that I expected. They read like they were just produced to cash in on fandom. Even a lot of the Star Wars books (which were at the higher end of the tie-in novels, since for the longest time they were the replacement for the third trilogy, before Disney bought the franchise.

And I guess that over time I just lost interest in them. That may need to change. The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase is the second novel based on the very fun tv series The Librarians (spun off from a series of tv movies that I have not had the chance to see).

The concept of the series is of a secret organization that protects the world from magical artifacts by collecting them and storing them away in The Library (think a magic version of the series Warehouse 13). The series is a lot of fun, mainly because it never takes itself too seriously. You have Flynn, the rather manic Librarian, and his Guardian Eve, who used to work in anti-terrrorism. Then there are the three new Librarians, still in training: Jacob Stone (a rough type who publishes scholarly papers under a variety of pseudonyms), Cassandra Cillian (a mathematician with a brain tumour that is killing her), and Ezekial Stone (a rather sardonic young master thief). In the first season, the villains unleashed wild magic on the world, and it is continuing to have a wide-ranging effect (including the Librarian becoming the Librarians)

One of those effects has now impacted the Mother Goose treaty. It’s been safely stored away, but now it has been stolen, and three descendants of the original Mother Goose have been targeted. They also have a connection to the three parts of the original book of Mother Goose rhymes, which is really a book of spells, and the villain wants to use it to destroy the universe and create a new one (I was never quite sure why this was the goal, but oh wall). Oh, and Flynn has disappeared. Again.

Needless to say, each of the trainees teams up with one of the descendants (Ezekiel with a non-nonsense farmer’s wife/children’s librarian, Stone with the hot university professor, Cassandra with a tree-trimmer/aspiring rapper), while Eve goes after the central threat, and they all come together in the end.

This would have made an excellent episode of the series, and the writing pulls the reader along in a light and breezy way. It even managed to surprise me in a couple of places. As near as I can tell, Greg Cox writes only tie-ins, and while I am tempted to read some of his other tie-in novels, I would also love to see something completely original from him.

Still, by the time I was half-way through the book, I had put a reserve on the first book at the library and should be getting it next week. Beyond that, I look forward to the third book of this trilogy.