When guilty pleasures disappoint

36262498I have a weakness for monster stories. They are a guilty pleasure of mine. For example, I went (by myself) to see Godzilla in the theatre. Come on, giant monsters stomping cities? Definitely a fun couple of hours, despite the plot holes, because I really like the characters.

So, when I saw Arachnosaur on NetGalley, I thought that would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, some guilty pleasures turn out not to be pleasures, and this was one of those.

Basically, two soldiers are the only survivors in an attempt to take out a terrorist group in the middle east. They are recruited to figure out how the terrorist group became so dangerous, especially since the senior survivor swears he saw another soldier blow up from the inside out.

The answer, of course, is giant primordial spiders found by the terrorists, who are trying to turn the effects of the spider webs (that’s what makes people go boom) into a weapon that they apparently want to sell for reasons never stated.

Along the way, the two soldiers pick up a pilot named ‘Speedy’ Gonzales, a doctor who is both female and Arab (and can whip up a serum that does something pretty ridiculous to save the lead at the end), a prostitute who name keeps changing from Lailani to Leilani and back (sloppy editing there). There’s also a captain who is a good guy but turns into an antagonist later, and a retired general who recruits them in the end for a ‘we fight the monsters no one believes in’ type organization. (preview chapters from the sequel appear at the end of the book)

I could have taken the plot falling apart and the ridiculous science at the end if the characters were likeable, but unfortunately, Daniels made me want to throw my ereader at a wall. He’s crude and sex-obsessed, likes to sleep with lots of prostitutes around the world (not sure why he isn’t in palliative care from all the STIs he must have), and his idea of good sex is being a jackhammer (seriously, no foreplay at all?). He also uses drugged condoms to take out a woman twice in the books (seriously?).

Then there’s the prostitute whose name keeps changing spelling. Supposedly, she finds Daniels’ confidence appealing, and his jackhammer imitation to be good. When the whorehouse is attacked (for no apparent reason), she jumps on his back, and he just runs around with her, and when confronting attackers without a weapon of his own, he plucks her off his back and throws her at the attacker like an angry cat. Sigh. And after that, she comes with them and helps? Oh yeah, and it turns out that one of her jobs is going to Abu Dhabi and working as a dominatrix. I kid you not.

Add all of this to soldiers in the middle east who have never heard of The Empty Quarter (hell, even *I* know what that is, at least in general).

Finally, the climactic scene had me going ‘ew’, and not in a good way.

All in all, I really can’t recommend this book to just about anybody. And yet, the preview chapters for the next book in the series kind of appealed. But only if there’s nothing better to read at the time.

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Space Janitors can be Bad-Ass

31363503Jim C Hines strikes me as a very funny guy. Even if you haven’t read his books, you might have heard of his game, a few years back, where he reproduced the back-breaking poses from the covers of popular paranormal romances (making the point that men on covers have reasonable poses, while women are put into poses that implies they are contortionists — apparently his chiropractor got a lot of business out of the exercise).

His novels are often just as tongue in cheek. For example, his Princess series take fairy tale princesses, and puts them together as action heroines.

Terminal Alliance, the first book in the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse trilogy, does a similar thing of taking a ridiculous concept, and then puts it in a serious scenario. It’s hard to take it too serious, and yet the plot gets very much so.

In this world, Earth was infected with a virus that turned humans into feral animals. Not zombies, but maybe a 28 Days Later sort of effect. Amazingly, they still survived until the kindly Krakau came by. They came up with a cure, and start restoring a number of humans at a time. Those humans are strong, near impossible to kill, and have no memories. Of course they go to work for the Krakau.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is the head janitor on the Pufferfish, an Earth Mercenary Corps ship commanded by a bridge crew of Krakau. When coming to the rescue of another ship, a new virus infects the Pufferfish, reverting to the human members of the crew to feral state. The command crew is dead, and the only unaffected humans are Mops and her team, who were in suits at the time for a repair.

Along with Doc, an AI, they get control of the ship and call the Krakau for help. Unfortunately, the Krakau plan to ‘put down’ the affected crew. Not willing to accept that, Mops and her team take the Pufferfish on a hunt to find the aliens who created this new virus, and find a cure for their fellow crew, despite being instantly named as rogues with a price on their head. And along the way, find out the truth of what originally infected their planet.

The universe is an interesting one, populated by relatable aliens, and others that are so alien that they can barely be understood. The various characters are engaging, including the extremely competent Mops, the gleefully violent Wolf, Monroe with his glitchy mechanical eye, the sarcastic AI Doc (who is part of a monocle that Mops wears), the very juvenile alien Azure, the sympathetic Krakau Admiral.

And while the world and the plot are very serious, I giggled my way through large parts of the book. The humour was perfectly balanced for my taste. It will be interesting to see what happens in the second part of the trilogy.

Life on the Moon isn’t as glamorous as you might think

34928122Second novels can be tricky, especially when the first novel was a hit. People who loved the first book expect the second to be just as good, but where the author might have had years to refine their first novel, they often get a contract that gives them a lot less time to finish the second.

When The Martian – Andy Weir’s wildly successful first novel, which was originally self-published – came out, I read it and loved it. I gave my father a copy for his Christmas book (everyone on my Christmas list gets a book as part of their gift), and he loved it. We saw the movie together in the theatres and really enjoyed it (even if they did throw out a good portion of the second half of the novel).

As a result, I approached Artemis with a lot of trepidation. There was no way it was going to measure up to The Martian, but I hoped that it would still be a good read.

Thankfully, it was.

Artemis takes place on the first city on the moon, where the locals live in cramped spaces (for the most part), and tourism is a large part of the economy, as the rich and powerful come to see where Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon.

Jazz moved to the moon with her father, a welder, when she was a child. Now estranged, she works as a runner, and as a smuggler. She’s trying to earn a very set amount of money that we don’t find out the reason for that amount until nearly the end of the story. Among other things, she smuggles contraband combustables (ie, cigars) for a businessman who moved to the moon to make things easier for his disabled daughter.

But then her client hires her to sabotage a business rival, offering an insane amount of money. But of course things go wrong, and Jazz finds herself on the run from the organized crime backers of the rival. She feels she has no choice but to to try to follow through on her promise.

The plot moved along nicely, and I enjoyed the planning and the action, but unfortunately the characters didn’t work as well as they could have. It seemed like Weir was checking off the diversity list. The main character is an Arab woman whose father is a devout Muslim. The on-Earth smuggling partner is in Africa, and presumabley black. Jazz has to work with a male former friend who stole her boyfriend. Another ally is the awkward geek. The cop is actually a former Mountie (who should not still be wearing the uniform). The bad guys are Brazilian. The city administrator is Kenyan. The daughter of the employer is in a wheelchair. After all that, you basically have a full Bingo card.

Still, Jazz was likeable, and you definitely get the feel that she had a life before and after the novel.

So, while Artemis is nowhere near as successful as The Martian, I would recommend it to fans of hard sf. I just don’t think it was be as big a breakout as The Martian was, outside of the SF fandom.

Goals for 2018

Welcome to 2018! Okay, we’re almost at the end of the first week of the year, but still, welcome.

It’s been nearly a year since I started this blog, and I was pretty scattershot with my reading last year. I will read just about anything that is words on a page (hence the blog name), but I didn’t direct my reading in any way.

So, now that it’s a new year, and I’m finishing the books I started over the Christmas holidays soon, I thought I’d set myself a few goals for this year. I’ve read people talking about how they were going to read classics, or only female authors, or only diverse authors. I’m not willing to limit my reading, but I have been trying to expand my reading.

For example, last year, one of my quiet goals was to read more poetry, and I did in fact read more poetry than I have since my school days (and lord, I hated the poetry they made us read then). Did I read a *lot* of poetry? No, but I might not have read any poetry at all otherwise. I even found one poet that made me all fangirly, and I now follow her on Instagram, because she is awsome.

Still, goals for this year. I want to eat better. I want to walk more. I want to sleep more. The usual sort of shit.

But for reading, I’ve settled on a few goals.

First of all, I want to read more short stories. Short fiction has never been one of my interests, although I’ve read some great ones. I did read four anthologies last year, all in the SF/F field, but this year I want to tackle some of the collections I have on my shelves. Helen Oyeyemi, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell are some of the short story writers who I have collections of on my TBR shelves, and I want to try and get through those.

Second, I want to read more books in translation. My reading has been very North American focused (and occasionally a book from the UK). Some of those writers may have been born abroad, but I’d like to try to get more books read that are translated from other languages.

Third, I have a trilogy (The Divine Cities by Robert Jackson Bennett) that I picked up each book as they came out, and now I want to actually read them. These can be my bathtub reads as soon as I finish the four book Lian Hearn series that I am in the middle of book three for.

Fourth, I love history, but I tend to focus on certain eras, certain countries (mainly the Ancient Mediterranean, such as Egypt, Classical Greece, Roman Empire). I want to read a history book about a time and area that I don’t tend to pay much attention to.

Five, I want to tackle Bookriot’s Read Harder challenge for this year. I did the 2016 challenge, but I don’t think I got anywhere with 2017’s list. But the list of categories for 2018 look appealing.

And reading adjacent, I want to publish a blog post every week. I think I can make sure to post at least once a week (not including any ‘what am I reading’ posts).

So, goals. Hopefully I’ll actually succeed with a few of them. Certainly, I’ve got enough goals to keep me busy.

First to come: A review of Artemis, by Andy Weir.

10336726You know that game about who would you like to go to a dinner party with, alive or dead? I think Tom Harpur has just jumped to the top of my list.

I’ve only read one book by Tom Harpur in the past; his best seller, The Pagan Christ, since the subject matter intrigued me. After reading Born Again, I definitely will have to read more of his work.

Harpur is a very interesting person. A Canadian of Irish descent (although Protestant instead of Catholic), he group up with deeply devout parents. His father had his life planned out for him — religious studies, become a priest, get a doctorate in theology, become a professor. At first, Harpur followed his path, but eventually (primarily after his father’s death), he started to deviate. He lost his belief in the bible as historical fact (while still embracing it as myth with great lessons to teach). His time as a Rhodes Scholar (like other accomplished people, including Bill Clinton) clearly led him to the tools to examine church teachings, rather than just accepting it without questioning.

He eventually moved from ministry to journalism, which let him travel the world and learn about other faiths through his reporting as a religious journalist. His first marriage dissolved, and then he married his second wife. Eventually he was pointed at the writings of Alvin Boyd Kuhn (who I will have to look into), which headed him down the road to writing The Pagan Christ, the controversial best seller that goes into the theory that Christ was a myth, adapted from the myths of other civilisations, and not a historical person that can be verified.

Finally, he covers the a bit of the aftermath of that book. Needless to say, there was a lot of aftermath, since a large part of the Christian faith is invested in the concept of Jesus as an actual person, while he argues that Jesus is a myth, and no less valuable for it.

The progression from devout christian following his father’s plan for him through to religious rebel without ever really losing his faith (it just evolves) was fascinating, and told in a conversational tone that draws you in. I will admit to being well disposed towards his arguments, so I’m not sure what one of those Christ as history people would think of this book, but even if I completely disagreed with him, I think I would still find him a fascinating person.

Unfortunately, Tom Harpur died earlier this year (2017) at the age of 87, so other than that mythical dinner party, I won’t ever get the chance to meet him in person.

A pity.

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.

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.