Saturday, 17 November 2018

Merry Happy Valkyrie by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Merry Happy Valkyrie by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a Christmas-themed novella set in a strange small town in Tasmania. I'm not usually one for Christmas-themed stories or capital-R Romance but I made an exception because I wanted something lighthearted and I am a fan of Roberts' work. As it transpired, it's heavier on the fantasy than the romance, so that worked out well for me.i

Norse myth and magic collides with a small town Tasmanian Christmas in this festive romantic fantasy!

Lief Fraser has mixed feelings about returning home to Matilda, the only Australian town where it always snows at Christmas. As a TV weather presenter, it’s her job to report on the strange holiday phenomenon… but as a local, it’s her duty to preserve Matilda’s many magical secrets.

Then pretty Audrey Astor rolls into town to shoot the ultimate romantic Australian Christmas movie with her film crew. Sparks fly, secrets unravel… and soon everyone will know exactly how Mt Valkyrie got its name.

This was a fun read. Lief is a meteorologist who has been sent to cover the freak weather that frequently strikes her home town. Except she knows that the snow in northern Tasmania in December is more due to magic than any natural meteorology. (Northern hemisphere readers should remember that it is summer during December in southern Australia.) Lief's job isn't so much to cover the strange weather but to stop anyone noticing just how strange the weather really is. And there are camera crews to dodge and carefully direct.

This was a really enjoyable tale. Aside from the inherently amusing premise of trying to hide magic snow from reporters, Lief has family obligations to feel guilty about and exes too feel awkward (or not) around. The underlying premise of why there is weird snow was also really interesting, though I won't spoil it here.

I highly recommend this novella to fans of feel-good fantasy stories. I think fans of Christmas stories will also enjoy it, but I think those who feel ambivalently or negatively about Christmas will still find much to enjoy here. It's not sappy and any Christmas cheesiness is relatively minor.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: End of November 2018, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Thursday, 15 November 2018

#ReadShortStories with slightly more variety (181 to 185)

This batch of stories is a bit less homogeneous with a poem from Uncanny that caught my eye and an unplanned re-read (my eyes just slipped and fell). Mostly I'm still making my way through How to Fracture a Fairytale by Jane Yolen.


The Foxwife by Jane Yolen — About a man and his kitsune wife, whom he treats badly once he learns of her nature. It was OK. Didn’t feel that “fractured” though. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Smile by Beth Cato — A very short but satisfying poem about being told to smile. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/smile/

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal — A reread for me, after I finished the (first) two novels set in the same world. Interesting to see how some details transferred perfectly into the prequel novels while some minor background details had to shift. I think I enjoyed this story more the second time around, probably because I’m now more invested in the characters and not coming into it cold. Source: https://www.tor.com/2013/09/11/the-lady-astronaut-of-mars/

The Faery Flag by Jane Yolen — A young laird is led into faeryland by his dog, falls in love with a faery and... it doesn’t end badly. I guess that’s subversive but it’s not sufficiently emotive to be interesting either. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One Old Man, with Seals by Jane Yolen — The story of an old lady living alone in a lighthouse and coming across an old man surrounded by seals. I wonder whether this story packs a more significant punch of the reader is familiar with the source material? I am not and what seemed like the punchline wasn’t very punchy. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Halloween is Not a Verb by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Halloween is Not a Verb by Tansy Rayner Roberts is the latest novella in the Fake Geek Girl universe. It seems to be set later than other other existing stories and, as is probably obvious from the title, is Halloween themed.

Young Aussie witches Hebe and Holly Hallow are bringing their friends home to meet their mums for Halloween! What terrible life choices will Sage and Jules make around the bonfire? Why is Ferd flipping out about poetry? What’s with all the butternut pumpkins?

Epic friendship and festive shenanigans with the magical students from Belladonna University.

Credit where credit’s due, Halloween is Not a Verb does include several discussions in how impractical Halloween traditions are when transposed to the Southern Hemisphere and the middle of spring. That said, it’s also a book about witches that embraces the tradition with the in-story debates focussed on the details. I, however, fall into the third category of people that Roberts lists in the book: the Halloween denialist/Americanisation-of-Australian-culture-is-ruining-everything category. In light of that, the rest of the review will focus on the actual story.

I think this is one of my favourite Fake Geek Girl stories. As usual, it involves more character development than you might expect for this type of ongoing series, making for an engaging read. There’s also more peril than usual (in my opinion, which is not to say the other stories have all been peril-free). It’s also tightly written with a lot of funny bits and a dearth of boring bits. The only negative thing I can say about it is that sometimes I wasn’t paying enough attention at the start of a chapter and got a bit lost as to whose point of view we were following now, but that generally because clear eventually. There are a lot of characters to follow though, so if you haven’t read any of the earlier stories this might not be the best place to be introduced to the series.

Overall this was another fun read from Tansy Rayner Roberts and exactly the kind of story I was in the mood for when I picked it up. I think it was one of the best Fake Geek Girl stories and while I don’t especially recommend it as a starting point, I do highly recommend the series as a whole to anyone who enjoys humorous contemporary fantasy. And if you have read some of the other Fake Geek Girl stories, you can jump right in to Halloween is Not a Verb.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Self-published
Series: Fake Geek Girl story 4 of 4ish (excluding a prequel)
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon
Disclaimer: Although Tansy is a friend I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review

Sunday, 11 November 2018

#ReadShortStories which are still fairytale retellings (176 to 180)

For this batch of short stories I have continued to read How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen. My feelings about the stories in this collection but, well, I'll save that for the full review. In the meantime, some more story mini-reviews.


Granny Rumple by Jane Yolen — I particularly liked this story. It’s told from Yolen’s own perspective and recounts a family story that has been passed down a few generations. The story itself is about a Jewish family, including a moneylender, living in a Ukrainian ghetto and some of their interactions with goyim. It is told as an alternate-perspective basis for the story of Rumpelstiltskin with bonus racism and a small pogrom thrown in. I feel like this story, trying to explore a similar theme of different perspectives to “Happy Dens”, does so in a much more compelling manner and I found it a much more engaging and confronting read. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King by Jane Yolen — Three brothers set out to save their dying mother by retrieving a magical ring from a dragon. It wasn’t a terrible story, but it was on the long side and, ultimately, kind of unremarkable. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Brother Hart by Jane Yolen — A sad story about a pair of siblings, one of whom turns into a deer each day. I couldn’t work out which side I should be on while reading and it didn’t end happily. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Sun/Flight by Jane Yolen — I suppose this was inspired by Icarus, possibly with something else thrown in that I didn’t recognise. It didn’t really work for me. Fine, but meh. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Slipping Sideways Through Eternity by Jane Yolen — I liked this story. It’s about a modern fifteen year old who is briefly transported to 1943 by Elijah, who I gather from the story is a mythical Jewish figure. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen


Friday, 9 November 2018

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal is the sequel to The Calculating Stars, which I read and reviewed immediately prior. The Fated Sky takes place a few years after the end of The Calculating Stars and continues to follow Elma in first person. This review will contain some spoilers for the first book, but not more than if you’ve already read "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" novelette.

Of course the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, but there’s a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic—but potentially very dangerous—mission? Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? And with the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.

This was an interesting sequel. It follows a very similar overall structure to the first book but rather than striving to get into space, the goal posts have shifted to Mars. Various social problems from the first book still exist to create barriers for Elma and some of her friends. While the extreme sexism has been loosened up by the passage of time and the obvious need for (female) computers to calculate orbits and trajectories, the racism has been ramped up a notch. This was, of course, a problem that existed in the first book and that was highlighted through Elma’s friendship with Myrtle and others. But now, with the introduction of a pro-apartheid South African character, everything feels worse. This book highlights a lot of the racial problems from the 60s and, in doing so, is not a comfortable read. Elma tried to do her best but, as we are often reminded, she is still a white woman. (And the laundry in space thing made me angry.)

I didn’t comment on the science when I reviewed the first book because there wasn’t anything that jumped out at me as being wrong or suspicious. In this second book there’s a little bit more to comment on, though nothing especially dire. I am a little sceptical about the use of human computers, although it’s probably more or less possible for what they’re doing, in a terrifying sort of way. The one aspect of that which particularly made me raise an eyebrow was using a sextant to sight on starts to get their position. Not because there’s anything wrong with the method but because I couldn’t help thinking that if they missed their launch window and had to delay the mission, they would have to retain to sight along a different set of stars. (They would also have time to do that, so it’s not exactly a huge problem, I just found it a little alarming.) the biggest issue, for me, was the washing machines, dryers and ovens they had aboard each of the ships going to Mars. The amount of energy those use! Especially back in the 60s when energy efficiency wasn’t a star rating on your white goods (I think). Wiki tells me they probably had solar power, even back then, but still! Think of the excess heat those machines produce! I suppose this is more an expression of horror than a complaint.

Anyway, The Fated Sky was another excellent read and I remain invested in this series. I am delighted that more books are on the way and I look forward to reading them when I can. (In the mean time I’m going to go back and reread the novelette that sparked this world.) It’s possible to read The Fated Sky without having read The Calculating Stars, but I think reading them in order will give a more enjoyable experience. I recommend this series to fans of science fiction, the development of space travel and the social history surrounding space flight development.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2018, Tor
Series: Yes. Lady Astronaut book 2 of 2 so far (with at least 2 more coming)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is a book that I had heard a lot of good things about before I picked it up. I probably should have given in to my friends’ urging and read it sooner but I was a little bogged down in review books and other things. And it’s not as though I put it off for that long.

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

The Calculating Stars is set in an alternate history universe in which the space programme is accelerated and follows a woman who is married to the lead engineer of the space agency, has a PhD herself and is a pilot who wants to go into space one day. The story starts when a meteorite hits the earth and sets in motion a series on problems, starting with killing everyone in Washington DC and along most of the Northern American eastern seaboard and ending with crucial changes to the earths climate. Elma and Nathaniel are positioned closely to the people in power and play a pivotal role in the post-meteorite world, making them very interesting characters to follow.

The post-meteorite world, however, is still the 1950s with all the cultural baggage that entails. There are high barriers for women participating in the work force (even when they are already trusted to work as computers) and even higher barriers for people of colour. A lot of the story involves Elma bumping up against the glass ceiling and her friends coming up against similar or worse obstacles. The depictions of misogyny were very frustrating to read at times and when they weren’t it was only because some of the characters were darkly joking about them. The plight of the black characters was less prominent (since the story was told in first person) but more present than it could have been, which was good to see.

I enjoyed this book a lot, even after making the mistake of starting it the night before an early morning (oops). Despite a busy week without much free time I read it quickly and now I am very keen to start the sequel. The Calculating Stars doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger but it certainly ends before the whole story is told. Luckily these two books were released in close succession and I don’t have to wait for the sequel to become available. I highly recommend The Calculating Stars to all fans of science fiction and particularly of the early space programme and the role of women therein (not all of which is fictionalised in the book). I expect fans of Hidden Figures will find much to like here, although there is much less focus on the black characters.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Tor
Series: yes. Book 1 of 2 so far (with two more planned)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Retribution by Jennifer Fallon

Retribution by Jennifer Fallon is the second book in the War of the Gods trilogy, preceded by The Lyre Thief which I have also read and reviewed. As you might guess from the series title, this is a big fat fantasy book. And, being the second in the series, is not a good place to start reading. I definitely recommend starting with The Lyre Thief, or even the earlier two series: The Hythrun Chronicles and the Demon Child Trilogy.

Since fleeing Winternest to avoid King Hablet's wrath when he discovers the truth about her parentage, leaving her slave, Charisee, to take her place, Rakaia has been on quite an adventure. She has met the demon child, traveled the continent with the charming minstrel, Mica the Magnificent, enjoying more freedom than she ever imagined trapped in the harem in Talabar.

But her freedom has come at a cost. Mica has committed an unthinkable crime, worse even, than stealing the golden lyre, and she is now his unwilling accomplice, sailing the high seas on a Tri-lander pirate ship, doing everything she can to avoid upsetting the man she once thought she loved, but has now realised is quite insane.

Meanwhile, Charisee, still pretending to be Rakaia, is trying to make the best of her new life as the Lady of Highcastle. But Rakaia's past will catch up with her, even as her own lies are in danger of being exposed.

As Adrina struggles to hold Hythria together, and Marla tries to deal with the fallout from the shocking events that take place in the Citadel during the treaty negotiations, Wrayan Lightfinger and the apprentice sorcerer, Julika Hawksword, must travel to Sanctuary to find out why the fortress is back. What they will discover is shocking and will affect the entire world, even though they don't realize it.

I have been a fan of Fallon's writing for many years now (much longer than this blog has been in existence) and this latest instalment set in her longest-running universe does not disappoint. Fallon continues to masterfully connect the plot threads of many characters in ways that feel organic rather than contrived. There's a lot going on in this book and each set of characters have their own motivations for following their own paths. To the point where events that are genuinely coincidental (from the reader's relatively omniscient perspective) seems suspicious to characters inside the story.

The complexity of the intertwining storylines is something I have always enjoyed in Fallon's writing. Retribution picks up the same groups of characters that we came to know in The Lyre Thief and continues their stories. I would not expect this book to make sense without having read the previous volume. I imagine that having read the earlier series is also helpful since there are some references to earlier events and some minor characters in Retribution who were central to the stories in the Demon Child Trilogy and/or the Hythrun Chronicles. Although The War of the Gods is a separate series it is also a continuation of ideas and characters introduced earlier.

I really enjoyed Retribution and am looking forward to the next book in the series (although I fear it will be a longer wait than I would like). I recommend this series to fans of intrigue and fantasy books with large casts of characters. And especially to fans of Fallon's earlier works, especially the two series set in the same universe.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, HarperVoyager
Series: War of the Gods, book 2 of 3
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 25 October 2018

#ReadShortStories which are fairytale retellings (171 to 175)

This batch of stories has seen the start of a new collection by a new-to-me author, Jane Yolen. The stories in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale have mostly been quite short and, as you can guess from the title, fairytale retellings. I've mostly found them enjoyable but not life-changing. That said, there are a lot more stories left to go, so maybe I'll change my mind as I read further.


Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen — A short Snow White retelling with a more satisfying end for the stepmother. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

The Bridge's Complaint by Jane Yolen — An amusing story about goats, a bridge and a troll, told from the perspective of the bridge. I rather enjoyed it. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

The Moon Ribbon by Jane Yolen — A girl acquires an unpleasant step mother and step sisters (much like Cinderella) and a magic ribbon from her late mother. There is no ball but the abusive relations get what’s coming to them. A more interesting read for how far it deviates from the original. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Godmother Death by Jane Yolen — A story about Death and her godson. An enjoyable tale. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Happy Dens or A Day in the Wold Wolves' Home by Jane Yolen — A story containing three shorter stories. When Nurse Lamb goes to work at Happy Dens, where older wolves are looked after, she is at first afraid of being among all the wolves but then hears some famous fairytales from the wolves points of view and feels better about it all. It’s a story about spin — positive and negative — and how people tend to make themselves the heroes of the stories they tell. I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy about it. The stories told by the wolves were a bit too positive to be entirely believable (in the context of the story world)... or maybe it just hasn’t held up well in our current fake-news world. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Competence by Gail Carriger

Competence by Gail Carriger is the third book in the Custard Protocol series. I have previously read and reviewed the first two: Prudence and Imprudence. While the previous two books followed Rue as the point of view character, this new instalment alternates between Tunstell twins Prim and Percy (though we still get to see a lot of Rue, of course).

Accidentally abandoned!

All alone in Singapore, proper Miss Primrose Tunstell must steal helium to save her airship, the Spotted Custard, in a scheme involving a lovesick werecat and a fake fish tail. When she uncovers rumors of a new kind of vampire, Prim and the Custard crew embark on a mission to Peru. There, they encounter airship pirates and strange atmospheric phenomena, and are mistaken for representatives of the Spanish Inquisition. Forced into extreme subterfuge (and some rather ridiculous outfits) Prim must also answer three of life's most challenging questions:

Can the perfect book club give a man back his soul?

Will her brother ever stop wearing his idiotic velvet fez?

And can the amount of lard in Christmas pudding save an entire species?

I have generally been a fan of Carriger's books since I first picked up Soulless eight years ago (I remember because it was at Aussiecon 4) and I have now read all the books, novellas and stories set in this universe so far. Unfortunately, this one has not become a favourite. I didn't hate it, but I felt that it dragged a bit in the middle and could have been funnier and more tightly paced. I was expecting to laugh out loud and I don't think I did for the whole book.

That said, this wasn't a bad book. I still plan to read the sequel and will probably keep reading the Parasolverse novellas. It was also interesting to see more of the world outside of Europe. As the blurb reveals, this novel starts in Singapore and (more or less) ends in Peru. We already saw some of North America in How To Marry A Werewolf and so Competence fills in a few gaps. But ultimately this was a fairly character-driven story with a strong focus on Prim's relationship progression, with the other characters' relationship as side plots. The most adventurous side plot was very much a minor side plot which was a little disappointing because it could have been a bit more exciting. I live in hope that it was also acting as a set up for a future story.

I think another reason this book didn't grab me as much as I hoped was because of Prim's reticence in pursuing a relationship with her obviously end-game love interest. Overcoming fears born of societal expectations could have been interesting but I got a bit too much of a "gay panic" vibe from Prim until she finally came around. It was particularly strange given the sheer number of queer characters in the series generally and in her life specifically. I suppose their society is at the point where gay male relationships are more accepted in certain circles than lesbian ones, but still. And to be clear, it all works out fine but I didn't enjoy the journey.

Overall, I had problems with this book but I it wasn't quite bad enough for me to give up on the author. As it is, I recommend it to fans of the Parasolverse books who have read the earlier books in the Custard Protocol series but I also recommend coming into with low expectations (and hopefully you'll be pleasantly surprised).

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Self-published (outside of North America)
Series: Custard Protocol book 3 of 4
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Before Mars by Emma Newman is the third stand-alone book in the Planetfall series. So far, all three books can be read in any order, but I have been reading them in publication order as they were released: first Planetfall, then After Atlas and now Before Mars. I have greatly enjoyed the entire series, and Before Mars is my new favourite.
After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist-in-residence. Already she feels like she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth--and she'll be on Mars for over a year. Throwing herself into her work, she tries her best to fit in with the team.

But in her new room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note written in her own handwriting, warning her not to trust the colony psychologist. A note she can't remember writing. She unpacks her wedding ring, only to find it has been replaced by a fake.

Finding a footprint in a place the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that her assignment isn't as simple as she was led to believe. Is she caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy, or is she actually losing her mind? Regardless of what horrors she might discover, or what they might do to her sanity, Anna has find the truth before her own mind destroys her.

This was a gripping story about geologist-painter Anna and her arrival on Mars. It's set roughly simultaneously to the other two books (I would have to reread the first one to double check) except mostly on Mars. The title, I think, comes from the large number of flashbacks and memories which inform Anna's character and her place in the story. I very much enjoyed the way the book alluded to a dark past before revealing the focal incident from her past surprisingly far into the book. It was brilliant.

I think the book also has slightly different impact depending on which, if any, of the other books have been read before. And how many details from the earlier books a particular reader remembers (not many, in my case, until I had been well and truely reminded). Unfortunately I can't elaborate on that further because spoilers. Suffice it to say it would be very interesting to be able to rewind time and experience them in a different order... but I suppose I will have to settle for rereading the series when it's finished.

Before Mars is an excellent read exploring a corporation-run dystopian future in which not much exploration of Mars is happening because it's not profitable. It also explores a range of mental health issues, in large part centred on the ubiquitous computer brain implants. The approach taken is also different to the other books.

Before Mars is my favourite of the Planetfall books so far, and since I hold the others in high esteem, that's really saying something. I see there's another book in the series coming next year (don't read the blurb if you haven't read the other books!) and I am very much looking forward to reading it. I highly recommend the series to fans of science fiction and/or the earlier books.

5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, Gollancz
Series: Planetfall, book 3 of 3 so far (more planned) but so far they're all standalone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks