Friday, 31 October 2014

Drowned Vanilla by Livia Day

Drowned Vanilla by Livia Day is the second Culinary Crime novel, following A Trifle Dead which I reviewed last year. I think Drowned Vanilla is a bit less geeky, but I think I enjoyed the twists and turns of the mystery more. This isn't spec fic, by the way, it's firmly realistic crime/mystery.
It’s the beginning of a hot, hot summer in Hobart. Tabitha Darling is in love with the wrong man, and determined to perfect the art of ice cream. Playing amateur detective again is definitely not on the cards—not even when her friends try to lure her into an arty film noir project in the historical town of Flynn.

But when a young woman goes missing from a house full of live webcams, and is found drowned in the lake outside Flynn, Tabitha is dragged into the whole mess— film crew, murder victim, love life and all.

There were two girls using the internet pseudonym French Vanilla, and only one is dead. So where is the other one? Why is everyone suddenly behaving like they’re in a (quite specific) Raymond Chandler novel? And how the hell did the best kiss of Tabitha’s life end up on YouTube?

Even ice cream isn’t going to get them out of this one.
This is another mystery story in the same vein as A Trifle Dead. If you enjoyed that book, definitely read Drowned Vanilla. I believe this is what's known as a cosy mystery. Tabitha is called up by a friend of a friend to help find a girl who's mysteriously disappeared. The disappearance turns out to be only the beginning (of course) and soon Tabitha is haring back and forth across the Tasmanian country side trying to get to the bottom of things — or trying unsuccessfully not to get more involved.

As well as the mystery elements, the story involves Tabitha's quest to make all the ice cream flavours (except vanilla) and inflict them on her friends (several recipes included). And her ongoing love-life confusion. The love triangle set up in the first book continues to be a source of angst for her and slight confusion for the reader (or, well, me anyway). I don't find it an annoying addition to the story, but I found her choices odd (I'm on Team The Other One, is what I'm saying).

But basically, Drowned Vanilla was an excellent book and I pretty much read it in two sittings. There were only two things I didn't like: the dearth of dairy-free frozen deserts (somewhat inevitable), and the fact that the Greek family celebrated Christmas in December (with no comment as to why, which made me a bit sad). I feel confident most readers won't be bothered by either of those elements.

Drowned Vanilla is a gripping and entertaining read and I recommend it to anyone who likes crime novels, banter and/or Tansy Rayner Roberts' other writing. If you enjoyed A Trifle Dead, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2014, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Culinary Crime/Cafe La Femme book 2 (of 2 so far. On going series of stand-alones)
Format read: Paper (gasp!)
Source: Pre-ordered from TPP website
Disclaimer: Friends with people involved in producing this book, nevertheless I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review, as always.
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Phantazein edited by Tehani Wessely

Phantazein is a fantasy anthology edited by Tehani Wessely. It's heavily fairytale/fable/mythology themed and contains stories by a range of female authors. This is the second all-female anthology Tehani has put together (the first was One Small Step), which is interesting, especially as Phantazein was unplanned.
You think you know all the fables that have ever been told. You think you can no longer be surprised by stories. Think again.

With origins in myth, fairytales, folklore and pure imagination, the stories and poems in these pages draw on history that never was and worlds that will never be to create their own unique tales and traditions…

The next generation of storytellers is here.
All the stories in this anthology have very strong fairytale-like themes (a point I unfortunately reiterated a few times when commenting on individual stories). I have to admit this isn't my favourite style of fantasy, but nonetheless there were some stories that really stood out to me.

My favourite stories, in the order they appear, were: "Kneaded" by SG Larner, which really grabbed me when I got up to it; "Scales of Time" by Foz Meadows and Moni, an illustrated poem, which was predictably sad but gorgeous; and "Love Letters of Swans" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, about Helen and Paris and Helen's slave girl, was probably my favourite story of the lot. I suspect leaning heavily towards the mythological rather than fairytalesque added to that, but however you want to classify it, it was an excellent story. Other stories I liked, again in the order they appear, were "Twelfth" by Faith Mudge, "Bahamut" by Thoraiya Dyer, and "A Cold Day" by Nicole Murphy.

As I said, the stories are mostly fairytalesque, but towards the end of the anthology there's an interesting shift away from what I usually think of fairytales towards other time periods. There's a steampunky story (still with magic) and then the Ancient Greek story of Tansy's I mentioned above. I should also note that when I say "fairytale" I don't just mean the European forest kind of tale, there is a pretty good amount of cultural diversity, including eastern and tribal stories. It's quite a mixed bag and all of them are a new take or twist on old ideas. None of them are straight retellings of anything that's ever been made into a Disney movie.

If you enjoy fairytales or fantasy more generally, this is definitely the anthology for you. I've made comments on individual stories below, and I think it's fair to say there's something here for all kinds of fairytalesque fantasy fans. I have used the word "fairytale" too much in this review. Sorry. If you don't think I should be apologising, go buy this anthology.


Twelfth by Faith Mudge — A fairytale about twelve brothers, complete with darkness and hope. Well maybe not a fairytale per se because the cautionary part is less the point of the story and anyway doesn’t caution the usual suspects. Mudge weaves a beautiful tale with a pleasing ending.

Bahamut by Thoraiya Dyer — A story about the sacrifices one must make to protect those one loves. Which is more important, saving a kingdom or being loved?

The Nameless Seamstress by Gitte Christensen — a tale of magic clothes, the imperial court and the near-mythological Weaver and Seamstress.

How the Jungle got its Spirit Guardian by Vida Cruz — A surprisingly epic tale for all that it retains the vibe of the earlier stories. And much more about people than the title suggests. Also gender roles

The Seventh Relic by Cat Sparks — An odd, slightly surreal story. Not quite my thing, I have to admit.

Rag and Bone Heart by Suzanne J Willis — A nice and sort of horrible (in happenings) story about a girl in a magic kingdom, a king and a helpful old witch. I liked it.

Kneaded by S.G. Larner — I found this story absolutely delightful. A brilliant take on the idea of people made not of flesh. (With, I think, a twisted allusion to Hansel and Gretel thrown in briefly). Definitely one of my favourite stories in this collection.

The Village of No Women by Rabia Gale — Into the village of no women comes a clever scholar to make the men wives from animals. A satisfying tale.

The Lady of Wild Things by Jenny Blackford — Evil fairy-type beings. Not a bad story, but it didn't leave a very strong impression on me.

The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash — Steampunky while still having a fairytale feel to it (but perhaps less so than a story involving forests). The style wasn’t really to my taste and I personally didn’t connect with this story.

A Cold Day by Nicole Murphy — A potter who makes magic pots to protect newborn children and the demands placed on her by the royal family. I liked this story, although I found the end a little abrupt.

Scales of Time by Foz Meadows & Moni — A sad/lovely poem of a girl and her dragon, written by Foz and illustrated by Moni. Sad thumbs up.

Love Letters of Swans by Tansy Rayner Roberts — A new take on the story of Helen (of Troy, sort of) and Paris. Engaging, awesome, an excellent note to end the anthology on. One of my favourites in this anthology.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2014, FableCroft 
Series: No.
Format read: ePub
Source: Review copy courtesy of publisher (but you can buy it here)
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Small Shen by Kylie Chan and illustrated by Queenie Chan

Small Shen is a short graphically-enhanced novel written by Kylie Chan and illustrated by Queenie Chan. The text is interspersed with graphic novel-style illustrations, particularly in the scenes flashing back to Gold's earlier days (hundreds of years earlier), whereas the main story takes place in the 1990s Hong Kong. Blurb from Goodreads although it bears no resemblance to the blurb on my paperback copy.
Shown through Queenie Chan′s stunning illustrations and comics, the story follows the stone spirit Gold′s entertaining adventures throughout history. His escapades include seducing a dragon princess, attempting to steal one of the Tiger′s wives, making bets with demons, and working for the Blue Dragon of the East.

Eventually, as a result of his crimes against Heaven and his constant philandering, Gold is ordered to join the household of Xuan Wu, the Dark Lord of the Northern Heavens. Xuan Wu is also known as John Chen, a Hong Kong businessman.

The story then follows Gold and Jade -- the dragon princess - in contemporary Hong Kong. The two small shen must help guard John Chen′s beloved human wife and baby daughter from demon attack. John Chen is vulnerable to attack while living on Earth, but his family are in the most danger of all...
Small Shen follows Gold, a minor deity who featured in Kylie Chan's Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang trilgies. I've read the Dark Heavens trilogy and the first book of Journey to Wudang and I have to admit I never paid a huge amount of attention to Gold. But Small Shen endeared him to me significantly. He's a bisexual, gender-swapping rock in human form. What's not to like?

There are two story threads in Small Shen: flashbacks to Gold's earlier days starting back in the 1700s and the story of Gold's service to Xuan Wu and John Chen and his wife in the 1990s. The flashbacks are mostly about Gold committing mischief and getting into trouble but also sketch out the series of events that led to him and Jade (a dragon) being in Xuan Wu's employ. The 1990s storyline tells the story of Xuan Wu/John Chen and his life with his wife Michelle from Gold's point of view. Anyone who's read White Tiger (Dark Heavens book 1) knows how that story must end (big spoiler for Small Shen).

What I found sort of interesting is how unlikeable Michelle was. She spent a lot of time complaining about Xuan Wu's godly responsibilities (he's the second most powerful god after the Jade Emperor) and how hideous his True Form (and basically anything other than human form) is. While I sort of already knew about that it was kind of horrifying seeing it on the page. Like why did they stay together/bother getting married? It does not strike me as a very healthy relationship at all. And that's without the more benign diva qualities Michelle brings in. I have to say, she wasn't supposed to be a likeable character (I'm pretty sure) and that bothered me a bit on principle (only partly because it made their marriage a bit baffling).

I particularly liked the way in which the story was broken up with illustrated flashback vignettes which mixed things up a bit. One aspect which was nice was the way in which Gold's historical shenanigans touched on Chinese history in a real-world sense, rather than just a mythological sense.

Small Shen was a fun read and I highly recommend it to all Kylie Chan fans and to anyone wanting to get a taste of her longer series. Although the trilogies are pure prose, the story in Small Shen — especially the 1990s story — gives a good idea of the sort of thing you can expect in the Dark Heavens trilogy (not to mention all the foreshadowing). Fans of Queenie Chan who aren't familiar with Kylie Chan's writing will, I'm sure, find more to like than just the illustrations.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Harper Voyager AU Series: Same universe as most of Kylie Chen's books. Prequel to White Tiger.
Format read: Paper.
Source: Purchased from an Australian bookshop several months ago
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Friday, 24 October 2014

Zac & Mia by A J Betts

Zac & Mia by A J Betts is a contemporary YA novel about two teens with cancer. That said, I feel obliged to point out that the similarity with The Fault In Our Stars doesn't go much further than that. (But clearly, comparisons will be continue to be inevitable for any books with teenagers and cancer for some time yet.)
The last person Zac expects in the room next door is a girl like Mia, angry and feisty with questionable taste in music. In the real world, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—be friends with her. In hospital different rules apply, and what begins as a knock on the wall leads to a note—then a friendship neither of them sees coming.

You need courage to be in hospital; different courage to be back in the real world. In one of these worlds Zac needs Mia. And in the other Mia needs Zac. Or maybe they both need each other, always.
The first thing I want to talk about is the clever way in which the story is told with regards to point of view. The first third ("Part One: Zac") of the story is told from Zac's point of view, the second third ("Part Two: And") is told from alternating points of view and the final third ("Part Three: Mia") is told from Mia's point of view. On the one hand, this means that for most of the book it feels like Zac is the more central character — because he comes first — but on the other hand I've decided it was an effective way to tell Mia's story. Zac's story is much more straightforward and we learn just about everything we need to know about him up front. Mia, conversely, starts off as a mystery only glimpsed from Zac's restricted hospital room and it wouldn't make sense to present her any other way.

Australian cover (Text Publishing)
Zac is the more easily likeable character, whereas when we first meet Mia she comes across as a petulant teenager who doesn't realise how lucky she is (to have a relatively easy to deal with cancer). It's not until we get to the last third that we really learn enough about Mia's past to understand where she's coming from. I had tried, while reading, to reserve judgement until we knew all the details about her and I'm glad I did. It would have been so easy to hate her for all sorts of reasons (and honestly I'm a bit surprised Zac put up with her issues so willingly). Having said that, I suspect that if the genders had been swapped there would be a lot less male-Mia bashing on goodreads.

I enjoyed Zac & Mia. It was a quick read which I wasn't keen on having to put down. Zac's bits, in particular, were quite amusing at times and Mia's bits touched on some difficult issues. It was also nice to see how very Australian the setting was. I read the US edition so there were some "translations" (can anyone tell me what the "corn dog" bit was in the original? Were they just talking about dodgy petrol station hot dogs? But don't they also say "hot dog" in the US? I have to know!) but it was still an undeniably Australian book. The Perth and olive farm settings were particularly strong and made me want to visit Perth (which I will be next year, so yay). Except one thing confused me about the farm: there's a lot of climbing through windows, none of which seemed to have fly-screens. WTF? Does Western Australia magically have fewer insects than the rest of the country? It wasn't something that bothered me unduly, it was just... odd.

So I highly recommend Zac & Mia to fans of contemporary (non-spec fic) YA. I would also recommend readers not be too quick to judge Mia. While I wouldn't say this was a happy read — it is about kids with cancer — it wasn't as depressing as, say The Fault in Our Stars and the source of the depressing bits wasn't necessarily cancer. (Although, yes, OK, the cancer part was depressing as well.) It's also not a romance story, though there is a small underlying romantic thread.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013 Text Publishing, US edition September 2014 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group
Series: No, standalone.
Format read: eARC of US edition
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Some spin-off short stories

One of my backer rewards from the Crudrat kickstarter were audio-short stories of Gail Carriger's other works. I reviewed Fairy Debt before and the story I'm reviewing today is the other one I hadn't previously read of the set.

The story is The Curious Case of the Werewolf That Wasn't, the Mummy That Was, and the Cat in the Jar. It's set in the Parasol Protectorate universe and features the father of Alexia, the main character of that series. I would recommend reading the story after having read the Parasol Protectorate books because some things are alluded to which are spoilers for the series. That said, no definite spoilers are revealed so if you can still read it alone.

The story tells us a lot more about Alessandro Tarabotti than we learn in the Parasol Protectorate, the latter being set after his death. On a trip to Egypt with his butler Floote, Alessandro encounters or deals with all the things mentioned in the long title of the story. It was an entertaining listen and illuminating as to the nature and employment of Alessandro. Highly recommended, particularly to Parasol Protectorate fans.

4.5 / 5 stars


The second story I want to talk about is This Night So Dark by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, a free e-short/novella (well it was about 50 PDF pages) set in the Starbound universe (to complement These Broken Stars and in anticipation of the release of the second book, This Shattered World. You can download it for free from the Australian link or from the US link (the Scribd link on either is probably your best bet if you're outside of Australia or the US).

Reading This Night So Dark reminded me of why (and how much) I enjoyed These Broken Stars. The authors' writing style is eminently readable and enjoyable, which is hard to remember the particulars of when there's a long gap between books. That, of course, would be why their first book won an Aurealis Award.

This Night So Dark tells the story of an adventure of Tarver's set before These Broken Stars. It is, in fact, the reason he becomes such a decorated soldier at such a young age and it was not quite what I was expecting. From the way it was referenced in These Broken Stars I had the impression it was something battle-field related, but that's not the case. It's more of a small mission (sort of, trying to avoid spoilers here) against bad odds. The important thing is that it's an entertaining read.

I definitely recommend This Night So Dark to fans of These Broken Star. It's free, why wouldn't you give it a shot? I think it's also a good taste of Kaufman and Spooner's writing which should give new readers an accurate idea of whether they'll enjoy their novel-length work.

4.5 / 5

Monday, 20 October 2014

Night Terrace Season One

Night Terrace is an audio drama produced by the Splendid Chaps team. I discovered it when it was being Kickstarted and just had to back it. The production was recently made available, both to backers and for purchase on their website. It is both hilarious and awesome.
Anastasia Black used to save the world for the government, but now she just wants a quiet life. So when her house abruptly starts travelling in time and space she’s understandably miffed. She’s also not exactly thrilled about Eddie Jones, who happened to be on her doorstep at the time and is now her unlikely fellow traveller. University hasn’t prepared Eddie to cope with other worlds or time paradoxes, but he still thinks they’re a step up from selling electricity plans door-to-door.

Together Anastasia and Eddie will face alien invasions, hideous monsters, and a shadowy figure known only as “Sue”. All the while hoping the house will eventually take them home…
Night Terrace Season One contains eight episodes, all just under half an hour long. After the initial set up in episode one, the remaining episodes are very, er, episodic. They reminded me ever so slightly of Doctor Who, except without the Doctor, and with a house instead of the TARDIS and Australian and funny... so OK, not that much like Doctor Who.

The underlying concept is pretty hilarious (see blurb above) and I was particularly amused by the door-to-door salesman who got caught up in the whole house turning into a spacetime conveyance thing. He is the classic useless sidekick (who majored in interpretive dance), always needing to be rescued by Anastasia, the more competent, jaded and generally annoyed time traveller.

Each episode is a self-contained story with the season rounding off with a sort of over-arching plot. The humour is distinctly Australian, which was nice to see, but I'm sure most of it will translate to international audiences. My favourite episode — the one which made me laugh the most — was the second, titled Starship Australis, which had the most topical jokes, I thought. That's not to say the rest weren't funny, that was just the one that stuck out to me.

I would really like them to make another series, which they've said will depend on the success of the first. And that means that if you didn't back the Kickstarter, you should go buy yourself a copy now. If you did back the Kickstarter and haven't listened to it yet, do yourself a favour and get on that.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2014, Splendid Chaps Productions
Series: Season one of ??? (hopefully many more)
Format read: It's an audio-drama, so listened to on my very old iPod
Source: Kickstarter

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress is a novella and the first longer work I've read by the author. I've previously read some miscellaneous short stories. It's near-future science fiction and I didn't quite enjoy it as much as I'd hoped to.
Aliens have landed in New York.

A deadly cloud of spores has already infected and killed the inhabitants of two worlds. Now that plague is heading for Earth, and threatens humans and aliens alike. Can either species be trusted to find the cure?

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is immersed in the desperate race to save humanity, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Siblings Elizabeth and Ryan are strident isolationists who agree only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Marianne’s youngest, Noah, is a loner addicted to a drug that constantly changes his identity. But between the four Jenners, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent human extinction—and not everyone is willing to wait.
This wasn't a bad read, but it didn't excite me with its ideas. Yesterday's Kin focuses on a scientist who has just made a fairly interesting discovery at a minor university. But it doesn't seem like an Earth-shattering discovery until the aliens who have recently come to Earth take notice of it. As the blurb above says, the aliens also reveal that a deadly cloud is floating through space towards Earth. Marianne, the scientist, becomes involved in the scientific effort to save humanity and the story is told in alternating chapters between her point of view and one of her sons'.

I think I would have been more excited by this story if it had taken a "scientific mystery" angle. That's not quite what it did though. The mystery and race to save humanity is one of several threads in the story, not given more urgency that other threads (in terms of how it made me feel, anyway). It seemed to be given equal importance as Marianne's feelings towards her family and her son's ambling journey through life before and after he becomes involved with the aliens. Not to mention the fact that I felt a bit let down my the resolution.

As science fiction, this isn't a bad read, but I wanted more from it. It wasn't actively bad or offensive or anything like that, but it just left me feeling "meh" about it. I would recommend Yesterday's Kin to fans of science fiction, particularly near future SF with biological influences.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Tachyon Publications
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Tsana's October Status

Well the good news is that I'm less behind on reviews than I was last month. I still have some way to go to catch up, though. I'm hoping that when I am caught up I'll have better luck resisting taking on too many review requests.

In other news, I interviewed Kaaron Warren and Jo Anderton about their past novels. And, as per usual, you can read my round up of spec fic reviews on the AWW website.

And in real-life news, the renovation hell I've been living in for the past six weeks is FINALLY OVER and I can sleep in peace. Such a relief. And as a bonus, we have a shiny new bathroom, which is not to be sneezed at.

What Have I Read?

Currently Reading

I'm about halfway through the latest anthology from FableCroft and edited by Tehani Wessely, Phantazein. It has a very strong fairytale vibe through it so far.

I also just started reading The Sorcerer's Spell by Dani Kristoff, an urban fantasy erotica novel. I haven't really read far enough to begin forming an opinion yet. I suspect I'll end up reading it slowly, probably interspersed with another novel.

I'm also still part-way through Help Fund My Robot Army. It's one of those books you can't read in large chunks. Or at least, I can't.

New Booksies 

 Assume review copies unless otherwise stated. Smaller haul than usual, which is a relief to me.

  • Phantazein edited by Tehani Wessely (currently reading anthology)
  • Skywatcher by Donna Maree Hanson (sequel to Shatterwing)
  • The Ark by Annabel Smith (already reviewed)
  • Difficult Second Album by Simon Petrie (short story collection with a great title)
  • The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller (purchased, start of a new fantasy series)
  • Undercity by Catherine Asaro (set in the Skolian Empire world, same characters as a story in Aurora in four Voices)
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (sequel to Ancillary Justice, already reviewed)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which won all the awards this year. If you enjoyed the first book, I see no reason why you wouldn't enjoy the second. Also, be warned that this review contains spoilers for the end of Ancillary Justice as that is what the sequel builds on. The blurb is similarly spoilery.
The Lord of the Radch has given Breq command of the ship Mercy of Kalr and sent her to the only place she would have agreed to go -- to Athoek Station, where Lieutenant Awn's sister works in Horticulture.

Athoek was annexed some six hundred years ago, and by now everyone is fully civilized -- or should be. But everything is not as tranquil as it appears. Old divisions are still troublesome, Athoek Station's AI is unhappy with the situation, and it looks like the alien Presger might have taken an interest in what's going on. With no guarantees that interest is benevolent.
Much the heavy-lifting with regards to worldbuilding was done in the first book, Ancillary Justice, leaving the reader able to relax and enjoy the world and the story in Ancillary Sword. For me that made Ancillary Sword more enjoyable; I knew how everything worked and was able to just enjoy the character interactions. Another big change is that Breq — more commonly referred to as Fleet Captain now — isn't telling a story across two time periods as in the first book. The tale here is much more linear and I found that made her and other characters' development more obvious.

Speaking of character development, a new lieutenant was introduced in this book who goes through a very tumultuous arc. I don't feel like I can really elaborate for spoilery reasons but it was satisfying to watch her change and also the corresponding changes in the relationship between her and Breq.

Seivarden, who was a very prominent character in the first book is slightly less significant in this one, but I absolutely adored her interactions with Breq. Her shift from something resembling a charity case in the first book to the most experienced lieutenant in the second is satisfying. Her emotional attachment to Breq is sweet and I thought it was cute how she got the soldiers under her command to sing like Justice of Toren's ancillaries used to.

I really enjoyed Ancillary Sword. I found it a cosy, comforting read which delighted me with Breq's competence. It's rare to see a protagonist that makes relatively few mistakes still be a compelling read. If you haven't yet started reading this series, why not? You should definitely give Ancillary Justice a try. If you've already read the first book, then absolutely do not hesitate to read the second. I am very much looking forward to the next book, which is unfortunately a while away.

5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2014, Orbit (UK)
Series: Yes. Imperial Radch book 2 of 3?
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Google Play

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Loving the Prince by Nicole Murphy

Loving the Prince by Nicole Murphy is the first in a new series of science fiction romance books by the author. I've previously read her paranormal romance series, which began with Secret Ones. This is more different and more science fictiony than I expected.
Cassandra Wiltmore is the heir to the throne of Rica, but it’s unlikely she’ll be stepping up any time soon. So she spends her days managing and building the Rican Balcite Mining Company. The company has made her family wealthy beyond imagination, but that kind of power needs careful control, and Cassandra is just the Wiltmore to control it.

When a new bid for the mining license is announced, Cassandra is determined to squash it. Then the thefts and threats begin, and every step she takes seems to be wrong. Taking on a new protector seems like an indulgence Cass can’t afford, but she equally cannot afford to be caught off-guard. If only the best man for the job wasn’t also the best-looking man she’s ever seen.

Kernan Radaton has ambition, and as protector to Cassandra Wiltmore, he’s well placed to reach all his long-held goals. If only his new all-business boss didn’t make him think of only pleasure. With the company, the heir and the family under attack, the last thing anyone needs is a distraction. But once everything is safe again, Kernan is developing new ambitions — ones that involve a lot of very personal time spent getting to know his boss on a very personal level.
A scientific error on the very first page did not bode well for this book. But happily it turned out to be the only egregious error and I was able to enjoy the rest of the book without getting annoyed at science. Admittedly, that was largely because most of the book dealt with logistics and corporate sabotage and not with anything technical, but that worked quite well. And the relationship between the two main characters, of course. That was also central.

I've made no secret in the past that romance isn't my favourite genre and one that I only dip into occasionally and then only if it's speculative. Loving the Prince was not too heavy on the romance — I'd say medium romance maybe — which worked for me. The story was very much driven by the plot — Cassandra trying to work out who's undermining her and get to the bottom of the conspiracy — and the romance was something that happened because the two characters were brought together. Plot driven romance is the kind I prefer.

I read through this book fairly quickly in about two sittings, which is a sign of how much it kept me entertained. The only part that almost made me put it down was (spoiler free) the bit in the middle where circumstances conspire to keep the two leads apart. But I suspect frustration was the intended reaction for that part. For those interested in the "steaminess" of Loving the Prince, I'd say it's low-ish (being medium romance, honestly I'm not sure what the standard scales are) with only one on-page sex scene.

Generally I found Loving the Prince to be an enjoyable read and I would absolutely recommend it to any speculative fiction romance fans. It kept me entertained throughout and I am interested in reading the sequel (although I'm also a bit sad it will probably star other characters).

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Escape Publishing
Series: Book 1 of Jorda series (of 3?)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading

Friday, 10 October 2014

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In by John Scalzi is the author's latest book and the third of his that I've read. Last year, I read and very much enjoyed Redshirts, which won a Hugo. Lock In drew my attention because of an excerpt I was able to read before requesting the ARC. And once I started reading it properly, I found it rather difficult to put down. (And it has a very long blurb, but it's a useful one so I'm not going to trim it.)
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse...
The main thrust of the plot of Lock In is Chris the new FBI agent's first case, which turns out to be more exciting than usual. Chris is a Haden's sufferer who generally gets around in a threep (robot body), The case is related to Haden's, which is the focus of the FBI unit Chris is assigned to. There's murder, explosions and corporate bad guys; it's an exciting plot. It's also a plot tied very closely to the worldbuilding, which is where the most interesting stuff is.

I'll discuss the more minor thing first because it will facilitate later discussion. This could be construed as a minor spoiler and if that bothers you, you should jump to the next paragraph. With Lock In written in first person, Scalzi has been very careful to not to indicate a gender for Chris, the protagonist. Haden's sufferers can live their entire lives online or inside threeps (which are usually androgynous, was my impression, but I may be wrong), which lifts most of the constraints on gender presentation. It's an interesting point to make but I have to say I found Chris came across as male. And I'm usually one to assume first person characters are female until some jarring pronoun/name corrects me. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it's interesting to note the extent to which the protagonist's gender doesn't change the story at all. (And if you're wondering, there was no romantic component to the plot, which I'm a little disappointed about because I think romance between Haden's sufferers would have been an interesting point to explore further.) But since I thought Chris sounded male, I'm going to cave and use male pronouns in the remainder of the review.

My favourite thing about Lock In was the background commentary on disability rights and treatment of people with disabilities. It is depressing, but not implausible, that a very specific subset of disabled people — locked in Haden's sufferers — are given access to the technology and medical treatments developed for them. This may sound obvious until you realise that other types of disabled people — quadriplegics, people locked in for other reasons and people with other mobility restrictions — aren't allowed to use threeps or the Agora. Not even an matter of the technology not being subsidised, just plain not allowed by the FDA.

In fact, the only reason so much money was ever thrown at Haden's is because a) the president's wife and daughter got sick and b) such a large number of Americans were affected. (The rest of the world successfully exists in this book, but we don't hear much about it other than that it also has Haden's and deals with them similarly.) It doesn't seem implausible to think that without a), b) would not have made as much of an impact. Indeed, the next president is about to reduce a lot of funding and subsidies for Haden's, which is a part of the background that's crucial to the plot.

The other disability-related thing I appreciated in Lock In was the way the Haden's community had developed in its own virtual space. And especially for people who were young when they caught Haden's, the virtual world can feel more like their natural habitat than the physical world which they are forced to use if they want to communicate (outside of email) with non-Haden's people.

So basically Lock In is a surprisingly good exploration of what happens when a plague causes severe disability in a large number of people. I think it deals with various issues well and I found the premise believable. It's also an FBI procedural tied closely to the worldbuilding. If near future SF and/or crime SF and/or medical SF is your sort of thing, then I highly recommend Lock In. Aside from all the stuff I've discussed above, it was a fun read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Tor
Series: Not yet? (But there's at least one novella set in the same world)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love

Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love is the latest volume in Twelfth Planet Press's Twelve Planets series of collections. With this one, I wasn't sure what to expect going in — other than feminism — since I'm not familiar with any of Love's other work. And it was about feminism, although that was mainly the last story, which I suspect is the one to stick in people's minds.
Secret lives, replete with possibilities. Elsewhere exists as a better place, in a better time, for a better life. The trick is how to get there from here. These stories give the answers. Share in the secret lives of books. Fly to Mars, the first stage, perhaps, in the onward journey to elsewhere. Hear the music of the heavenly spheres and be forever changed, providing the bad guys don’t hear it first. Discover Gaia may not be quite what we think she is. Discover the universe is a rather big place. Embrace Utopia for women too, if only …
It's called Secret Lives of Books, but I think what it's really about is the secret lives of stories. All five stories within grapple with the story of stories on some level. "The Secret Lives of Books" is literally about the secret story of a particular collection of books, "Kiddofspeed" is about a story that developed around some photos, "Qasida" is about the mysteries of Mars and the plausibility of fantastical stories, "The slut and the universe" (which has a couple of long subtitles which I'll leave for you to discover yourselves) is about the stories of feminism and misogyny. Fitting least into this patter, "The Kairos Moment" is a story about music, muisic itself being a type of story, albeit not necessarily in the narrative sense. There is, of course, the expected feminism in this collection, but I found it mostly manifested through the existence of female characters, apart from in "The slut and the universe".

My favourite story was "Qasida", which I decided would probably be my favourite when I was still halfway through it and had two more stories left to go. It's sort of a surreal story about Mars and magic (for lack of a better term) travel and aliens, except it's not all that surreal. It's told rather sensibly, which I think is part of the appeal.

I highly recommend this collection to all SFF fans. The stories were all equally good and almost equally unusual. I'd tentatively say this is probably in my top four of the Twelve Planets. Which might not sound like much, but you have to remember there's some very stiff competition.


Secret Lives of Books — This was a strange story that didn’t go the way it initially seemed it would. The main character is a recently deceased writer, trying desperately to get a living person’s attention. And then there’s his extensive book collection, which he has always been very attached to. I’d call this soft horror, as we incrementally — creeping — learn more about the books.

Kiddofspeed — Another unusual story, sort of chronicling the adventures of a girl taking photos of Pripyat (near Chernobyl, and based on real events) and sort of talking about the nature of story.

Qasida — Probably my favourite story so far. It’s another story of stories, this time about Mars and strange happenings. Visits to Mars, objects from Mars and the

The Kairos Moment — An odd story about the uplifting feeling people experience when listening to good music. And a researcher trying to study the phenomenon. And some strange happenings. I was entertained and quite amused. (And in case it isn't obvious, this story is certainly represented on the gorgeous cover.)

The slut and the universe — I seem to have noted that all the stories in this collection are unusual and this is no exception. It's a post-apocalyptic fairytale about feminism. Despite the post-apocalyptic setting not much seems to have changed and there is discussion (literally) on such feminist topics as the meaning of the word "slut" an why feminism is the root of all evil. It was also a rather entertaining read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2014, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Twelve Planets (but these are not connected volumes in any way; different stories by different authors which do not have to be read in any particular order)
Format read: Paper, shockingly
Source: Twelfth Planet Press stall at LonCon3
Disclaimer: The publisher is a friend but, as always, I have endeavoured to be impartial
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Ark by Annabel Smith

The Ark by Annabel Smith is the author's third novel but the first book of hers I've read. It's an epistolary novel (or, as I've seen someone call this style, the novel version of a found-footage movie), told in emails, transcripts, a few news clippings and related materials.
The year is 2041. As rapidly dwindling oil supplies wreak havoc worldwide a team of scientists and their families abandon their homes and retreat into a bunker known as The Ark, alongside five billion plant seeds that hold the key to the future of life on Earth. But The Ark’s sanctuary comes at a price.

When their charismatic leader’s hidden agenda is revealed it becomes impossible to know who to trust. Those locked out of The Ark become increasingly desperate to enter, while those within begin to yearn for escape.
I'm always a bit trepidatious, picking up a science fictional book by an author whose previous books have been non-genre. Sometimes those books can seem like genre tourists, not quite understanding the trope they're using (or not using). But I need not have worried in this case. The Ark is a solid science fiction book, with well thought through worldbuilding, a convincing premise and reasonable technological developments.

The Ark tells the story of the community living in a sealed seed vault. The why and how their community became sealed is most central to the story, while other personal relationships and the story of the unrest outside the vault are part of the background tapestry. I quite liked the way in which the external unrest was conveyed. Most of it came across in a series of emails between a couple in the vault and the wife's sister on the outside. We got glimpses but never a full picture, which gave us enough information to draw our own conclusions and make assumptions about the conditions outside.

The Ark is a quick read, surprisingly so given its apparent length. The formatting of the various documents (some more than others) makes the text sparser than in most books, so I was turning pages more quickly. That said, it's still a complete story with a proper plot (but I will say it wasn't obvious where the plot would go until it did). I would be interested to read more set in the same world because I think there are a lot more areas of her world Smith could explore if she chose to.

On the other hand, I found that the story-telling format and the way sections of the book focussed closely on different characters made it harder to become attached to said characters. For example, in the first section following the correspondences of a couple with the wife's sister, I never really warmed to the wife, even though I cared about what was happening to all three of them. And the second section was about a teenage boy (whose mother was a scentist), which gave us interesting worldbuilding information, but I didn't really care about the character, even when I should probably have been cheering for him later on. I enjoyed the story, but my one main criticism is that I would have liked more focus on character.

I should also comment on the interactive portion of the book. I read the ebook version, which exists (only?) as a PDF to preserve the unusual formatting that distinguishes different forms of communication. (It was a perfectly adequate reading experience on the iPad, if you're wondering, unlike some PDFs — ARCs mostly — which seem to exist only to make me annoyed with them.) There is a companion website — also available as an app, which I was advised was designed for phones while the website was better for iPad — with background content. There are sort of mood-setting short films of the bunker and what I found most useful: a slang dictionary for the teen-speak section. There is also a space to upload and peruse fan fiction, if that's your sort of thing. The book stands alone perfectly well (even with the slang), but for those wanting more, the website is an interesting place to poke around. I did, however, find that the setting clips made more sense after I'd finished reading because not everything is obvious from the start.

I recommend The Ark to SF fans, particularly fans of apocalyptic fiction. In particular, readers interested in an Australian flavour should definitely have a look. It was an enjoyable read that I just about inhaled in one sitting. There aren't too many epistolary SFF novels around (I can think of one off the top of my head and that's not coming out until next year), so it's a novel take on the apocalypse genre. 

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, self-published
Series: Don't think so.
Format read: Review copy of finished PDF ebook
Source: Courtesy of the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Interview with Jo Anderton

Today I have an interview with the wonderful Jo Anderton, author of the Veiled Worlds trilogy, The Bone Chime Song, and many other stories.

You've mentioned elsewhere that the Veiled Worlds trilogy was influenced by anime. Can you elaborate on this for us? Any specific influences or a more general aesthetic?

I think over the years of watching and loving anime it's managed to seep into my story brain, but then so have the big fat trilogies I devoured as a teenager! While there's definitely a general aesthetic thing going on, I'm more than willing to admit to a few specific influences.

Some of Tanyana's character was inspired by Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. I think it's the Major in her that makes her tough, but also at times distant, a personality trait that is challenged as the books develop. One of things I love so much about the Ghost in the Shell world is the way it plays with the concept of identity, and challenges the relationship between body and self. This is a big theme of the Veiled World books -- how much of ourselves is wrapped up in our bodies, what is it that makes me me, that kind of thing.

Another major influence is Full Metal Alchemist. Not only is Tanyana's suit absolutely inspired by Edward's metallic arm, but the brothers in the books (Kichlan and Lad) are based very strongly on the brothers in FMA — Edward and Alphonse. Something in the way Alphonse is trapped in his suit of armour for a body, unable to properly age and engage in the world while his brother struggles to find a way to free him… that's Lad and Kichlan right there.

Another possibly odd-sounding influence is none other than… Sailor Moon. You heard me. You know what I still love so much about Sailor Moon? She doesn't save the day through violence, she saves the world by helping people. It was really important to me that this happened in the Veiled Worlds books. So often in our stories the heroes win the day by resorting to the same violence as the so-called villains. But not Sailor Moon, dammit. And not Tanyana either.

In the Veiled Worlds, you set up a very technical magic system in the worldbuilding. You then gradually picked it apart over the three books. What led you to this setup?

I'm a sucker for worlds that aren't what they seem. This could possibly come from an unhealthy addiction to really complicated Japanese rpgs. You know the ones that don't necessarily make any sense but are still really cool because actually the world is a video game or the gods are really AIs… Or something like that. One of my favourite animes, Scrapped Princess, is like that too.

Basically, I just like it when stories set up a world, and then surprise! actually there's something completely different going on. So naturally I would do the same thing.

Book three, Guardian, breaks somewhat dramatically from the setting of Debris and Suited. Was this the plan from the very start? (Did you always know that this was where the series was going?)

Oh yes, absolutely. Each book has a theme, I guess you could call it. Or a lynchpin. Debris is all about Tanyana's fall. Suited is all about her Suit. But Guardian was always going to be about the Keeper. I knew that to do that, we had to go back to where everything began, and that meant switching settings. Crossing the veil.

Will we be seeing more novels from you or short stories or both? Can you give us a taste for what's coming next?

I certainly hope so! I'm very much enjoying the project I'm working on at the moment, and with any luck it will see the light of day.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack

Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack is a time-travel novel set mostly in 1305. It basically documents the expedition's stay in 1305 and the contemporaneous goings-on in the town of Languedoc. It is the second novel I've read by the author, the other was Ms Cellophane, which is unconnected.
There are people involved. That's the first mistake.
Scientists were never meant to be part of history. Anything in the past is better studied from the present. It's safer.
When a team of Australian scientists — and a lone historian — travel back to St-Guilhem-le-Désert in 1305 they discover being impartial, distant and objective just doesn't work when you're surrounded by the smells, dust and heat of a foreign land. They're only human after all.
But by the time Artemisia is able to convince other that it's time to worry, it's already too late.
Langue[dot]doc 1305 is an unusual book. It's told in a series of short scenes, switching between characters from the present (or, I suppose, near future, since they can time travel) and townsfolk in 1305. Commonly such short scenes would be an indication of a fast-paced, action-heavy plot, but that is not the case here. It is not a long book, coming in at just under 300 pages, but it is a slow, languorous read. The short scenes (and I should note, not all of them a super-short, but many are) give snapshots of minor events both in the lives of the expedition and the locals. Although seemingly unconnected at first, these do tend to lay down context for later happenings.

The characters are not at all what I expected. Artemisia, the only historian on the mission, is positioned very much as the main character, even as she is isolated from the rest of the expedition due to a clash of personalities and (research) culture. The scientists, quite frankly, often acted very pettily and put me in mind of the public servants in Ms Cellophane (in particular, I found similarities between the two antagonist characters). I felt like I should be on the side of the scientists (because I am one) but they were mostly such annoying people that I was very much on Artemisia's side throughout.

Gillian Polack is a historian, specialising in Medieval France, so I have no doubt that all the history included was as accurate as possible. I am also quite sure that there were jokes that I didn't pick up on because I am not a historian, but that did not make it an unenjoyable read. Instead, I suspect others with a stronger medieval background will get more out of it than I did.

I recommend Langue[dot]doc 1305 to anyone with a passing interest in history (especially Medieval France), speculative fiction reader or not. On the other hand, those looking for action and adventure would be better off looking elsewhere.

4 / 5 stars

First published: November 2014, Satalyte Publishing
Series: No.
Format read: Paper! Uncorrected Proof
Source: LonCon purchase
Disclaimer: Gillian is a friend but — as always — I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge