Saturday, 29 December 2018

Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold is chronologically the third novella in the Penric and Desdemona series, but the fourth that I’ve read. It immediately follows Penric and the Shaman. These novellas are set in the World of the Five Gods, but you don’t have to have read the novels to read the novella series, and indeed I haven’t.

Some eight months after the events of Penric and the Shaman, Learned Penric, sorcerer and scholar, travels to Easthome, the capital of the Weald. There he again meets his friends Shaman Inglis and Locator Oswyl. When the body of a sorceress is found in the woods, Oswyl draws him into another investigation; they must all work together to uncover a mystery mixing magic, murder and the strange realities of Temple demons.

This book follows on fairly directly after Penric and the Shaman (well, apparently, it's eight months later), which was slightly confusing since the last Penric book I read was Penric's Mission set ten years or so later. That said, it more or less stands alone, except that it helps to have read the very first book of the series, Penric and Desdemona, to understand Penric and the world and sticking to chronological order (even if the author doesn't) generally helps.

Anyway, this was an interesting and entertaining read. Penric and his friend Shaman Inglis end up investigating a murder which involves a missing demon and no clear motive. I very much enjoyed following Penric and friends as they stepped through the crime, discussed possibility and eventually (rather dramatically) landed on the final answer. As expected from Bujold, the story was also fairly amusing (although I hold that this series is less amusing than the Vorkosigan books).

Highly recommended for fans of the Penric and Desdemona series and not inaccessible to new readers (though it's not my recommended starting point). I have two more novellas left to read in the series so far, and this book has made me consider buying them immediately (and the only reason I haven't is because I'm waiting for an imminent ebook gift card).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, self-published
Series: Penric and Desdemona book 3 of 6, both publicationly and chronologically speaking
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick Samphire

The Dinosaur Hunters by Patrick Samphire is the first novella in The Casebook of Harriet George. Although it’s the first in the series, I actually read the second novella first, because it was included in The Underwater Ballroom Society anthology. While the two novellas do stand alone, I suspect reading them in order adds to the context for the second story.

Mars in 1815 is a world of wonders, from the hanging ballrooms of Tharsis City to the air forests of Patagonian Mars, and from the ice caves of Noachis Terra to the Great Wall of Cyclopia, beyond which dinosaurs still roam.

Sixteen-year-old Harriet George has never had the chance for an adventure. Now her older sister is determined to marry her off. Harriet can’t think of anything worse.

Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, Bertrand, has a problem. He’s never been much of a police inspector. As far as Harriet knows, Bertrand has never caught a criminal in his life. But now the famous jewel thief, the Glass Phantom, has come to Mars, and Bertrand has been given the job of tracking him down. If he fails, Bertrand will lose his job and the whole family will be ruined.

Harriet will not let that happen.

So she comes up with a plan: she will capture the Glass Phantom herself. Even if that mean that she and Bertrand have to follow the thief’s intended victim, the Countess von Krakendorff, on a dinosaur hunt in the perilous Martian wilderness. But there is far more going on in this expedition than mere robbery, and the dinosaurs are not the greatest danger.

If Harriet cannot solve the mystery, her family won't just be ruined. She and Bertrand may not make it out of the wilderness alive.

In this novella we are introduced to Harriet who, at the age of sixteen, is living with her older sister and brother in law, after the death of her parents. Her brother in law is a police investigator but, alas, not very good at his job. Because Harriet can see that her future depends on his ability to bring in a paycheque, she decides to help him solve an impossible jewel thief case (which has been handed to him to give his superiors an excuse to fire him when he fails). And so, Harriet dresses up as a boy and accompanies her brother in law on a dinosaur hunting expedition in the hopes of catching the thief.

This was a fun and entertaining read. Harriet is pretty cool and I was amused at how she successfully manipulated Bertrand and his employers to keep herself safe. The world building is super weird and almost not at all scientific. There are dinosaurs on Mars, and airships and a breathable atmosphere. And a lot of their technology runs on springs and compressed air, which is actually pretty cool. It’s also probably sort of period appropriate, alternate history aspects notwithstanding.

I definitely recommend this novella for readers of speculative fiction after a cosy and fun read. It was relaxing (despite a bit of dinosaur-related peril) and I would definitely go and get the next story in the series if I hadn’t already read it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, self-published
Series: The Casebook of Harriet George volume 1 or 2 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

Monday, 24 December 2018

#ReadShortStories that are mostly poems (206 to 210)

A transitional batch here. And a poetry heavy one. I finished off Uncanny Issue 22 (at last) and started reading Meet Me at the Intersection, an Australian anthology edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina and featuring stories about a variety of minority identities.


Lorelei by Ali Trotta — A lovely poem about love and other things. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/lorelei/

What Grew by Sarah Gailey — I really liked this poem. It’s part body horror surrounding regular pregnancy and part fantastical. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/what-grew/

Okuri Inu, or the sending-off dog demon by Betsy Aoki — I am not sure exactly what this poem is about. My first thought was depression, but perhaps not. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/okuri-inu-or-the-sending-off-dog-demon/

Night Feet by Ellen van Neerven — A story about a teenaged girl playing soccer. And a bit how poverty and family circumstances are hurdles to that end. I expect the story would be more exciting for people who are into soccer, which I am not. Source: Meet Me at the Intersection edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina

Dream by Graham Akhurst — A poem with formatting that didn’t work on my phone screen and was much more powerful when I was able to read it on the iPad. It’s also the kind of poem that becomes clearer with subsequent readings. Source: Meet Me at the Intersection edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina

Saturday, 22 December 2018

#ReadShortStories (up to 205)


A bit of a different configuration in this batch, since I read through most of Resist Fascism before getting a chance to post incremental updates about the stories. To be less repetitive, I'm skipping those stories and jumping straight to the next ones I read, rounding them off to a multiple of five to keep things neat.

As you will soon see, I fell into a bit of a hole reading some stories published in Wired, after being linked to a Murderbot prequel. Wired's paywall only lets you read 4 stories a month, which is exactly why I stopped reading after four of their stories by authors that caught my eye. 🤷‍♀️

Then I went back to reading the issue of Uncanny I had put down a while ago. I originally put that one down because I was partway through a story that just wasn't doing it for me. Once I realised that no one was forcing me to read anything, I skipped the rest of that story and carried on with the issue. Huzzah.

~

Compulsory by Martha Wells — A short story about our beloved Murderbot, set before the main series. Contains no spoilers, so it’s also a good place for prospective readers to get a taste of the series. Source: https://www.wired.com/story/future-of-work-compulsory-martha-wells/

Trustless by Ken Liu — An interesting take on legal contracts: in the future they are coded (like computer code that needs to be compiled) and fully binding with regards to payment. As expected, a good read. Source: https://www.wired.com/story/future-of-work-trustless-ken-liu/

Farm by Charlie Jane Anders — A super depressing take on the future state of journalism that I hope never comes to pass. Source: https://www.wired.com/story/future-of-work-farm-charlie-jane-anders/

Real Girls by Laurie Penny — A nice little story about fake AI girlfriends and feelings. I quite liked it. It got the tone exactly right for what it was. Source: https://www.wired.com/story/future-of-work-real-girls-laurie-penny/

The Cook by C.L. Clark — A flash story about the romance between a soldier and a cook, both female. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-cook/

In Blue Lily’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard — A story set in the Mindship/Dai Viet universe. It’s about a plague that killed a lot of humans and one Mindship. The nature of the disease, involving strange hallucinations, made this a slightly surreal read and a little difficult to follow in my jetlagged state. But I mostly enjoyed it. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/in-blue-lilys-wake/

Persephone in Hades by Theodora Goss — A fairly narrative poem on the subject matter, examine motives. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/persephone-in-hades/


Thursday, 20 December 2018

Resist Fascism edited by Bart R. Leib and Kay T. Holt

Resist Fascism edited by Bart R. Leib and Kay T. Holt is a mini-anthology of stories about exactly what the title advertises. I backed it on Kickstarter because a friend who's in it (Rivqa Rafael) drew my attention to it. It made for an interesting read.

RESIST. ANY WAY YOU CAN.

The world is in turmoil. The world is always in turmoil, but in recent years, people have seen violence and hatred become proud instead of ashamed. What meager rights we've fought for are being deliberately eroded. And the vulnerable have any help stripped away. All of this is happening openly and without fear of reprisal. And the worst perpetrators are some of the largest governments of the world.

Resisting the spread of fascism is as important now as it was 75 years ago. And there are many effective ways to resist.

RESIST FASCISM is a micro-anthology of science fiction and fantasy tales that explore the many and varied ways people can fight back. From helping promote low-income housing, to fighting fascists hand-to-hand, to burning it all down. Best of all, RESIST FASCISM shows that you don't have to be a hero to advance change.

These stories were all good reads and, as usual, I've written some notes about each one at the end of this review. Taken as a whole, this anthology definitely delivered on what it promised. I enjoyed most of the stories individually, but I did find that overall there was a very strong US-ian vibe and maybe more small rebellions than I would have preferred. My favourite stories were "Ask Me About My Book Club" by M. Michelle Bardon, which was fun to read as well as being powerful and "Meg's Last Bout of Genetic Smuggling" by Santiago Belluco which wasn't without its flaws, but backed a powerful punch. Also, I can't not mention "Pelecanimimus and the Battle for Mosquito Ridge" by Izzy Wasserstein for being so different from the rest, and also containing dinosaurs.

Overall, I recommend this short anthology to anyone that finds the theme appealing. Aside from the Americanism mentioned above, I didn't find the stories repetitive and, unexpectedly, read the whole anthology through, without reading other stories in between.

~

To Rain Upon One City by Rivqa Rafael — A story set in a future on another world, where the poor aren’t even allowed fresh water that rains outside, but must drink recycled water as they barely scrape by. The main character, despite her youth, spends most of her time looking after her mother. I liked this story and I thought the martial arts aspect was a nice distinguishing touch.

3.4 oz by R.K. Kalaw — A story set in a dystopian world where airport security scanners check for emotions as well as liquids etc. To seem as compliant and unthreatening as possible, put protagonist must use magic to hide emotions. It’s also a story about family, love, and risk.

In the Background by Barbara Krasnoff — A story of small resistance in a world where rights have been eroded away. I liked it, although it leaves a lot unsaid.

The Seventh Street Matriarchy by Marie Vibbert — This story is about a housing estate and the new case worker who notices something odd when she’s assigned there. The story is about resisting corruption as much as actual fascism, but, either way, I liked it.

We Speak in Tongues of Flame by J L George — This story was rather more fantastical than lose of those that went before it. It has clear fantasy elements and a less obvious context. It’s definitely about resisting, though.

Meet Me at State Sponsored Movie Night by Tiffany E. Wilson — Young women briefly hijack the state-sponsored movie night to show some old cartoons instead of propaganda. It was a very minor form of resistance do while the story was clearly building up to something more off the page, I didn’t enjoy this story as much as some of the others. It felt like a very American take on the problem. (Also, if they have frequent blackouts, why not go back to cheap analogue watches instead of wasting precious smartphone battery just to check the time?)

Ask Me About My Book Club by M. Michelle Bardon — This is probably my favourite story in this anthology so far. After literal dragons take over the US government, a book club of witches form a resistance, posting coded photos of their brunch online while discussing books. I kind of guessed part of the ending, but it was still a very solid story. Recommended for fans of Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Pelecanimimus and the Battle for Mosquito Ridge by Izzy Wasserstein — Quite a different tone for this one. An epistolary story set during World War II in which a solder writing to his sweetheart back home talks about fighting fascists and also discovering and befriending some dinosaurs in Spain (they sounded like velociraptor to me). A welcome change of pace in this collection.

Meg's Last Bout of Genetic Smuggling by Santiago Belluco — This was a really solid story and a good way to end the anthology. It’s about a girl from Mars smuggling culture and information to Texas/Earth, where such things are banned. It took an interesting angle, sociologically as well as scientifically, and the ending packed a powerful punch. My only quibble was with the small issues that arose from the male author writing the female protagonist and getting a few details off. Disappointing but it wasn’t enough to ruin the story for me.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2018, Crossed Genres Publications
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: From backing on Kickstarter

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Tea and Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tea and Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a short novella set in a new fantasy world that I believe the author is planning to come back to. I actually started reading this in the middle of the night after finishing my previous book and having a bout of insomnia. It's so short I finished it the same night and even managed to get some sleep afterwards. (Not enough, but still.)

Meet Miss Mnemosyne Seabourne, the one lady in the Teacup Isles who doesn't want to marry the Duke. Meet Mr Thornbury, a spellcracker whose job is protecting the Duke from the love charms of eligible ladies. Together, they fight elopements!

Featuring croquet, libraries, enchantresses, teacups, portals and cake.

We have a protagonist who has no interest in marrying her ducal cousin but who is unfortunately in possession of a mother who is very keen on the idea. We also have a magic steeped world, with croquet reminiscent of the Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon (but without the Red Queen), and portals for men to travel through (but not women). And of course there's the non-landed spellcracker who Mneme finds far more interesting than the cousin her mother wants her to marry.

All in all, a very fun read. The climax was dramatic, to say the least, and the plot was exciting when it needed to be and amusing most of the time. I am certainly interested in reading more stories in this world.

I highly recommend Tea and Sympathetic Magic to fans of Roberts' other light-hearted fantasy stories. It's a new setting, but I don't think anyone will be disappointed, except, perhaps, by the fact there isn't more.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: December 2018, via Patreon
Series: Yes? I think so.
Format read: ePub
Source: Tansy Rayner Roberts' Patreon
Disclaimer: Although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Marry Me Mischa McPhee by Kate Gordon

Marry Me Mischa McPhee by Kate Gordon is a contemporary Christmas romance novella. It's not my usual genre (seeing as I'm not a fan of Christmas nor Romance) but I was drawn in by the promise of a queer romance and not too much Christmas. Also, I enjoyed Girl Running, Boy Falling, so why not.

When Maddy discovers a love note scrawled on the toilet cubicle wall at work, she decides to go on a quest to find out who wrote it and to see if, just maybe, it was intended for her.

This sweet Christmas holiday romance set in Hobart, Tasmania, is just the thing you need to ease into the festive season this year. BYO cup of hot chocolate and slice of cake!

This was a quirky fun read with a diverse cast and a bisexual protagonist. I admit that part of my amusement when reading this book was at some of the silly things Maddy did or didn't notice other people doing. In some books this sort of thing annoys me, but it worked well in this one since it was very clear when and with what Maddy was being distracted.

Although we only see Maddy over a short period, we get enough background context to see how much she's grown as a person over the past few years. Her mix of confidence and insecurity underscores this, also, her general character traits mesh well with the story and its development. And I was amused with how she kept going back and forth on the gender of the mystery person she was trying to track down.

This was a fun read and I recommend it to anyone who likes light and fluffy romance stories with a bit of a Christmas theme. I'm not about to immerse myself in the genre, but I enjoyed reading Marry Me Mischa McPhee and it made me laugh a few times. I will certainly be keeping an eye on Gordon's future output.

4 / 5 stars

First published: December 2018, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: No.
Format read: ePub
Source: ARC from Publisher
Disclaimer: Note that the author and publisher are friends of mine. Nevertheless, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review.

Monday, 3 December 2018

#ReadShortStories in another direction (186 to 190)

As I write the story count in the title of this blog post, I realise how close I am to hitting 200 stories read in 2018. Looks like I won't have much trouble reaching that goal and will probably end up going a bit over. While not finishing on a round number is a little disappointing, it would be weirder to stop so inorganically. Overall, it looks like this short story reading and blogging experiment has worked well and I will probably continue with it next year.

In other news, it was after the first two stories in this batch that I decided to give up on How to Fracture a Fairytale by Jane Yolen, so don't expect to see more of those stories here. You can read about why in this blog post.

Sleeping Ugly by Jane Yolen — A children’s story but an amusing remix of Sleeping Beauty. The tone worked well for this one, I thought. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

The Undine by Jane Yolen — A more depressing version of The Little Mermaid? I’m not really sure what we were meant to take from this very short story. Source: How To Fracture A Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

Next Station, Shibuya by Iori Kusano — A lovely and faintly creepy story told in second person from the point of view of a city, abut a grad student studying historic geography through poetry. I enjoyed the calm tempo of the story and the gorgeous imagery of Tokyo. Source: https://www.apex-magazine.com/next-station-shibuya/

We Interrupt This Broadcast by Mary Robinette Kowal — A prequel short story to The Calculating Stars that had me exclaiming in disbelief. Is this cannon? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting and quick read for people who have read the novels or the novelette (I don’t know that it stands alone nearly as well). Source: http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/45th-birthday-short-story-party-favour/

To Rain Upon One City by Rivqa Rafael — A story set in a future on another world, where the poor aren’t even allowed fresh water that rains outside, but must drink recycled water as they barely scrape by. The main character, despite her youth, spends most of her time looking after her mother. I liked this story and I thought the martial arts aspect was a nice distinguishing touch. Source: Resist Fascism edited by Bart R. Leib and Kay T. Holt


Saturday, 1 December 2018

How To Fracture a Fairytale by Jane Yolen — DNF

How To Fracture a Fairytale by Jane Yolen is a collection of short stories from across the author's long career. I hadn't read anything of hers before I picked up this book, but I'd heard good things, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy reading this book. I got a bit over half way before I decided to give up. This was not an easy decision, but I seem to keep promising that I'll let myself DNF books and in the end I figured it was time that I just put the book down, even though it's a review copy. Since it's short stories, I will still include my individual story reviews below and a bit about why this book didn't work for me.

Fantasy legend Jane Yolen presents a wide-ranging offering of fractured fairy tales. Yolen fractures the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets, holding them to the light and presenting them entirely transformed; where a spinner of straw into gold becomes a money-changer and the big bad wolf retires to a nursing home. Rediscover the tales you once knew, rewritten and refined for the world we now live in―or a much better version of it.

On the surface, these should be the kind of stories that I enjoy. For example, I am a bit fan of Angela Slatter's short stories, and a lot of those could easily be described as "fractured fairytales" (or shattered and twisted horribly...). Most of the stories in this book didn't stand up to those at all. I found most of the stories I read to be shallow and fairly bland. Some of this could be due to not standing the test of time well, but I don't think that applies to all the stories.

From the stories I did read, the best were definitely the ones drawing on Yolen's Jewish background. My favourite was "Granny Rumple", which was told in the style of a family story passed down a few generations. It had depth and feeling and more interesting characterisation than a lot of the other stories. To be fair, it was also a more lengthy story, but "Slipping Sideways Through Eternity" was short, involved the holocaust, and was also better than most of the other stories. The story I found most amusing was "The Bridge's Complaint", which was told from the point of view of the bridge and was an interesting take. The story that jarred me the most was "One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King" which was long and just boring. I would guess that it was based on a Chinese story (and the author's afterword confirms this) but I don't see what this retelling added in terms of making an interesting story.

There were "about the story" bits at the end of the book, which I didn't read (except the one I just mentioned above, and that was only for this review) and poems which I couldn't be bothered trying, given my general exhaustion with this book. Honestly, I am going to be glad to stop seeing it in my currently reading section.

I obviously don't recommend this book. There are much better "fractured fairytales" in the world. I would recommend starting with Angela Slatter's, but she's hardly the only choice.

~

Snow in Summer — A short Snow White retelling with a more satisfying end for the stepmother.

The Bridge's Complaint — An amusing story about goats, a bridge and a troll, told from the perspective of the bridge. I rather enjoyed it.

The Moon Ribbon — 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.

Godmother Death — A story about Death and her godson. An enjoyable tale.

Happy Dens or A Day in the Wold Wolves' Home — 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.

Granny Rumple — 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.

One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox, and the Dragon King — 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.

Brother Hart — 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.

Sun/Flight — 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.

Slipping Sideways Through Eternity — 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.

The Foxwife — 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.

The Faery Flag — 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.

One Old Man, with Seals — 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.

Sleeping Ugly — A children’s story but an amusing remix of Sleeping Beauty. The tone worked well for this one, I thought.

The Undine — A more depressing version of The Little Mermaid? I’m not really sure what we were meant to take from this very short story.

And that was all I read. I started the next story, but just gave up in psychological exhaustion. I list the rest of the stories below for some semblance of completion.

Great-Grandfather Dragon's Tale
Green Plague
The Unicorn and the Pool
The Golden Balls
Sister Death
Sule Skerry
Once a Good Man
Allerleirauh
The Gwynhfar
Cinder Elephant
Mama Gone
The Woman Who Loved a Bear
Wrestling with Angels

No star rating.

First published: November 2018, Tachyon Publications
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Navigating the Stars by Maria V Snyder

Navigating the Stars by Maria V Snyder is the first book in the author’s first SF series (she has many fantasy books under her belt already). It was also my first experience of the author’s work and I’m pleased to say it was a very positive one. I was drawn to pick up this book because the blurb intrigued me and I am glad I took a chance on it.

Terra Cotta Warriors have been discovered on other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. And Lyra Daniels' parents are the archaeological Experts (yes with a capital E) on the Warriors and have dragged her to the various planets to study them despite the time dilation causing havoc with her social life.

When one of the many Warrior planets goes silent, and looters attack her research base, Lyra becomes involved in discovering why the Warriors were placed on these planets. And, more importantly, by who.

The first thing I want to say is that Snyder clearly did her research when it came to setting up a futuristic society. Not only does she bother to include time dilation in her interstellar travel — remarkable in and of itself since so many books take a lazy magically fast travel approach — but she also thought through the social ramifications of it. The story opens with Lyra, our protagonist, sad, angry and desperate over the fact that her parents will soon be moving to another planet for work. Since she is under 18 and has to come along, that means she will never see any of her current friends again. The way the research base kids deal with that situation struck me as very believable and it was an emotional scene to read.

The way they travel through space to distant planets is still a little bit magic, time dilation or not, but it was sufficiently well thought out that I didn’t find anything to complain about. Ditto the quantum computer that controls navigation and a host of other things. There was also a bit of maths-based problem solving that I found it quite plausible that Lyra would be capable of. In summary, this book gets my “physics done right” seal of approval. Oh, and there was also some realistic treatment of head wounds, which was refreshing to see.

Not ignoring the laws of physics wasn’t the only thing done right in this book. The story was engaging and I enjoyed Lyra’s voice and being in her head. The archaeological side of things, which Lyra was frequently involved with thanks to her parents, was also interesting and not overburdened by boring details. By the time the more mysterious elements of the plot came to the forefront, I was well and truly invested and couldn’t put the book down. (And now I am sleep-deprived.) the romance was probably the least interesting element of the plot, since Lyra’s love interest is literally the only other teenager insight, but he was a sufficiently interesting character that I didn’t get annoyed at him and actually worried for his safety (I may have forgotten that I was reading a Harlequin book at that point.)

I highly recommend this book to all fans of hard science fiction and/or YA. Snyder shows that lazy shortcuts to advance the plot (magic travel, ignoring concussions) aren’t necessary to make a story interesting and engaging. I was really pleased with the realism (yes, realism, even when strange inexplicable things were also happening) and the amount of research that clearly went into this book. I was trepidatious about how the ending would go and whether I would still want to read the sequel, but I am pleased to report that I am definitely interested in finding out what happens next (and that it didn't end on a horrible cliffhanger or anything like that). Bring on the sequel!

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2018, Harlequin Australia
Series: Yes. Book 1 of a new series called Sentinels of the Galaxy
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman

The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman is a science fiction crime novel and the first book of the author's that I've read. Although it has intrinsic science fiction elements, it felt a more like a crime book with most of the story revolving around a series of religiously-charged rape-and-murders of women.

Two troubled homicide detectives race to find a serial killer in a town filled with surgically reformed murderers, in this captivating near-future SF thriller.

In a small religious community rocked by a spree of shocking murders, Detectives Salvi Brentt and Mitch Grenville find themselves surrounded by suspects. The Children of Christ have a tight grip on their people, and the Solme Complex neurally edit violent criminals - Subjugates - into placid servants called Serenes. In a town where purity and sin, temptation and repression live side by side, everyone has a motive. But as the bodies mount up, the frustrated detectives begin to crack under the pressure: their demons are coming to light, and who knows where that blurred line between man and monster truly lies.

This was very much a crime novel with the trappings of science fiction. Yes, some of the science fictional elements were essential parts of the plot, but the murder-solving part of the story would have worked just as well without them, with only minor tweaks. The premise of religiously-motivated murders in a small and insular religious town would have worked just as easily with an ordinary prison next door instead of a brain-washing facility. The idea of brain washing criminals to make them contributing members of society is an interesting one to explore, but I didn't feel that this book explored it in much depth. The impracticality of the system was only touched upon, ditto the morality. In the end it felt more like window-dressing than an integral part of the story.

When I was reading, I thought this book started out OK with a tolerably interesting premise an a seemingly rapid pace. But it wasn't long before I started to feel bogged down in the repetitive writing style (a lot of people spent a lot of time looking at things and each other in various ways) and not that interested in the plot. Sure, the murders needed to be solved and the culprit wasn't super obvious (there was a small pool of possibilities but it seemed like they all had roughly equal means and opportunity for much of the book), but the protagonist spent a lot of time being distracted by less likely possibilities and also her own past problems.

(Also, a thing that annoyed me quite a bit was that the author talked about AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) but then fixated on AR when it was quite clear from the story that VR was what was actually happening. And then there were the haptic VR suits which made no sense as described. The gory details of how they could even function as described were completely skipped over (and given how many other extraneous details we got, that seemed particularly egregious). The whole section with the detectives investigating in "AR" struck me as both sloppy writing and a bit gratuitous.)

As you can probably surmise from the rest of this review, I did not enjoy this book. By the end, it was a trial to finish. Even ignoring the plot and science fictional aspects I mentioned above, a stronger editorial hand would have made a big difference. I can't recommend this book, but I'm sure less picky readers who enjoy reading crime could find something to enjoy.

2.5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2018, Angry Robot
Series: Don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells is the fourth and semi-concluding Murderbot Diaries novella. I say semi-concluding because it ties up the story in the Murderbot Diaries so far, but we have been promised a novel in the future, so this is not the last we'll be seeing of Murderbot. I have previously reviewed all three earlier novellas: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol.

Murderbot wasn’t programmed to care. So, its decision to help the only human who ever showed it respect must be a system glitch, right?

Having traveled the width of the galaxy to unearth details of its own murderous transgressions, as well as those of the GrayCris Corporation, Murderbot is heading home to help Dr. Mensah—its former owner (protector? friend?)—submit evidence that could prevent GrayCris from destroying more colonists in its never-ending quest for profit.

But who’s going to believe a SecUnit gone rogue?

And what will become of it when it’s caught?

Another Murderbot diary, another night staying up too late reading it.

What struck me most about this concluding novella was how much it tied the earlier three novellas together. My feeling with those first three was that they were self-contained stories within the same overarching framework. They made more sense to read together, but were very episodic. In contrast, Exit Strategy binds all those stories together and concludes the overarching story started in the first book. I don't recommend reading it without having read the earlier books. I also look forward to rereading the whole series in a row, which I am currently planning to do in the lead-up to the upcoming Murderbot novel (tentatively slated for early 2020, so no rush).

Exit Strategy continues with the sarcastic tone we've come to know and love from Murderbot, and gives us the opportunity to see how far Murderbot has come since the first book and the freshly-hacked governor module. The reprise of several characters that we haven't seen since book 1 emphasised this contrast. This was a satisfying and slightly violent read and satisfactorily concluded an arc of character growth, while leaving the stage open for a follow up.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is another excellent Murderbot read. If you've read the earlier books in the series, what are you waiting for? If you haven't, I suggest starting with All Systems Red and reading all four novellas in a row. If you're a fan of science fiction and sarcasm, you won't regret it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Tor.com
Series: Murderbot Diaries book 4 of 4 (of the novella series)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased (pre-ordered) from Apple Books

Friday, 5 October 2018

80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie is the most recent (unthemed) collection of his short stories. It's mostly reprints from various venues (including some from the authors previous two collections, which felt a bit odd, but perhaps isn't given that I think they're currently out of print) and story lengths range from flash fiction up to short novella.

Amorous space squids. Sentient fridges. A derelict alien spacecraft adrift within an interstellar cloud. Speed-dating zombies. The truth behind the extinction of the dinosaurs. A potentially lethal interasteroidal freight consignment. And a planet on which biological diversification has utterly failed to take hold in eight billion years.

My favourite stories in this collection were generally the longer, meatier ones. I quite liked "All the Colours of the Tomato", which is about semi-intelligent alien fauna and painting and radiation. But my favourite story was probably "The Thirty-First Element" which was a weird hard SF story that quite appealed to me. Short reviews of these and all the other stories are below, as usual. I have generally omitted reviews for flash stories (also as per usual), since these are difficult to properly review.

I did not reread all the stories in this collection that I had previously read. I have indicated the titles of stories I did read in bold below, but have also included the mini-reviews I wrote of the other stories the first time I read them. These aren't bolded and are instead italicised.

Overall, I recommend this collection to science fiction readers who are looking for a mix of series and silly stories. Fans of Petrie's work will find much to enjoy here, even if they've read the previous collections of his work (as I had). Some of the flash stories are groan-worthy shaggy dog stories, but if you can make it past that, there's much to enjoy here.

~

Product Warning — A very amusing introduction/warning about an explosive anti-piracy measure.

Introduction by Über-Professor Arrrrarrrgghl Schlurmpftxpftpfl — mildly amusing, but a bit wordy.

Jack Makes a Sale — Flash, which I may have read before...

All the Colours of the Tomato — An interesting premise and a long story to explore it. I had to read it over a few sittings but then, once some questions were answered in interesting ways, it felt like it ended a little abruptly. Still an interesting read, though.

Working Girl — Flash

The Fridge Whisperer — Hilarious. Writer attempts to write (what seems to be The Hitchhiker's a Guide to the Galaxy) while his fridge gains sentience and wreaks havoc. Awesome.

Running Lizard — A haunting story about a series of gruesome murders, a forensic psychologist who is also a were-creature, and her brother.

You Said ‘Two of Each’, Right? — Biblically amusing flash

The Speed of Heavy — An amusing space cargo caper involving an exchange student, some crickets and some bats. I lol'd.

Talking with Taniwha — A lovely and thoughtful hard SF story about learning to communicate with very alien aliens. I love the depth of world building and consideration that went into this one.

Half The Man - amusing flash

Tremble, Quivering Mortals, At My Resplendent Tentacularity — Another amusing flash, shaggy-dog stories though they are

The Assault Goes Ever On — Weird flash.

Dark Rendezvous — A space explorer comes across a derelict ship drifting in a favourable direction for rendezvous. Where did it come from? Ominous. I particularly liked the attention to dust particle detail in the nebulous setting of the story.

Podcast — Inadvertently stranded in an escape pod, trailing the main shop through hyperspace. Limited supplies and a broken hyperspace switch with only the pod's AI for company. A very enjoyable story. One of my favourites so far [in Difficult Second Album].

Must’ve Been While You Were Kissing Me — Zombie speed-dating noir shaggy dog story.

The Day of the Carrot — An amusing tale of giant vegetables. I liked the choices of authors for the interspersed pseudo quotes.

Latency — A really solid hard SF story. A research team on another planet studying it's only life form. Solid science, interesting concepts played with.

At the Dark Matter Zoo — an amusing poem.

Suckers for Love — Alien mating romance. An ultimately disconcerting story. Squidlike.

The Thirty-First Element — An excellent story that put me in mind of classic hard SF. Not because it was, shall we say, scientifically plausible, but because it took an idea and ran with it to an extreme conclusion. In space. It was interesting and contained some mystery (although the ending did not come as a surprise) and some light horror elements.

Against the Flow — A short nonsensical story with an eye-rolling shaggy-dog ending.

Reverse-Phase Astronomy as a Predictive Tool for Observational Astronomy — A very amusing story written in the format of a scientific article.

DragonBlog — The story of a dragon-slayer told in blog style. Amusing.

Niche — Flash. Lots of moths.

November 31st is World Peace Day — One of the longest stories in this collection, this one follows a woman who gets kidnapped by time travellers after a failed job interview. The kid appears haphazardly plan to hold the world to ransom using their time machine, but they didn’t count on our protagonist being smarter than them. An entertaining read written in a lighthearted style.

Mole of Stars — short flash. Probably better if you know what a mole is (it’s a chemical term meaning 6.02 x 1023 particles), but even so, a poignant end.

4 / 5 stars

First published: September 2018, self-published
Series: Not really
Format read: ePub eARC
Source: Author-provided review copy

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

#ReadShortStories about all sorts of things(166 to 170)


The most significant milestone in this batch of stories is the finishing of (new-to-me) stories in 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie. This means the full review of that collection is coming soon, and that I'm now going to read a few random stories about the place before the next collection I plan to read (by Jane Yolen, if you were wondering).


The Thirty-First Element by Simon Petrie — An excellent story that put me in mind of classic hard SF. Not because it was, shall we say, scientifically plausible, but because it took an idea and ran with it to an extreme conclusion. In space. It was interesting and contained some mystery (although the ending did not come as a surprise) and some light horror elements. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Against the Flow by Simon Petrie — A short nonsensical story with an eye-rolling shaggy-dog ending. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Reverse-Phase Astronomy as a Predictive Tool for Observational Astronomy by Simon Petrie — A very amusing story written in the format of a scientific article. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

November 31st is World Peace Day by Simon Petrie — One of the longest stories in this collection, this one follows a woman who gets kidnapped by time travellers after a failed job interview. The kid appears haphazardly plan to hold the world to ransom using their time machine, but they didn’t count on our protagonist being smarter than them. An entertaining read written in a lighthearted style. Source: 80,000 Totally Secure Passwords That No Hacker Would Ever Guess by Simon Petrie

Elephants and Corpses by Kameron Hurley — An interesting premise of a body-hopping mercenary and not a bad story, objectively. I didn’t love it though, since the setting was not my cup of tea. Dark and not really the kind of dark I enjoy reading. But I expect others will find it more appealing than I did. Source: http://www.tor.com/2015/05/13/elephants-and-corpses-kameron-hurley/