Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Short stories 21 to 25

Two stories in this batch written as something like diary entries: the first and the last, and they couldn't be more different. One is told through a cooking blog during a pandemic, while the other is disturbing diary entries during an alien war. In between there was time travel, spaceships made from humans connecting a vast colonial empire, and some kind of transcendence.

So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer — This is the story of a flu pandemic told through the medium of a food (cooking) blog. It pulled me into the story as soon as I opened it and, despite not being into food or particularly interested in the recipes, I couldn’t put it down. A surprisingly good piece of writing. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_11_15/

Oblivion is a Crease Left By Memory by Chen Qiufan — Following the theme of a flight that lands 20 years in the future, this story is about an artist who was going to run an exhibit in San Francisco. Instead, they learn about a new form of art made possible by technology that taps into your brain and experiences. I found it an interesting read and not what I expected (the previous story I read from this anthology, by Charlie Jane Anders, had a very different, comical vibe). Source: https://seat14c.com/future_ideas/17F?utm_source=author&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=seat14c&utm_content=ChenQiufan

These Constellations Will Be Yours by Elaine Cuyegkeng — A story of colonialism and a future where spaceships are built from a particular group of people. Told from the perspective of one of the ships watching a woman who was not similarly made into a ship. I really liked the ideas in this story though it wasn’t a happy read. Source: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/these-constellations-will-be-yours/

Worlds Like a Hundred Thousand Pearls by Aliette de Bodard — Eh. A flash piece about grief and transcendence. It was OK but didn’t really grab me. Source: http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/the-numbers-quartet/aliette-de-bodard/worlds-like-a-hundred-thousand-pearls

Diary of War by Joyce Chng — Somewhere between a prose-poem and diary entries, this story tells about war waged by alien invaders, who turn out to be very invasive. The sparse style is moving, especially with this subject matter. Source: http://www.anathemamag.com/diary-of-war

Sunday, 28 January 2018

A Civil Campaign — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

A Civil Campaign is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It follows on after the novel Komarr and before the novella Winterfair Gifts and the novel Diplomatic Immunity. In A Civil Campaign we get to see the lead up to Emperor Gregor’s wedding from the points of view of several characters, who all have their own agendas.

You can read Katharine’s review of A Civil Campaign here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: Hi, my name’s Katharine, and I think I love Ivan.

Tsana: Didn’t you already? This doesn’t sound like news…

Katharine: Confirmation, Tsana. Confirmation!

Tsana: Well OK. And Ivan had a particularly amusing storyline in this book. From being deputised by his mother to run endless errands for Gregor’s wedding, to being forcibly recruited to help a new count fight for his countship…

Katharine: and then the whole thing with a past romance reappearing on the horizon. But we’ll talk much more about that later. So basically not much time has passed since the end of Komarr, and all characters we know and love are returning (if they ever left Barrayar) for the big event of the century - the royal wedding. This includes Mark and their parents… and with him, Mark brings some bugs.

Tsana: Those bugs were really the stand-out memory I had from my first read of this book. I still just snicker if anyone says “butterbug”, although mainly it’s me saying it and then sniggering to myself.

Katharine: I was about to ask how often it comes up in random conversation. It totally made me think of a more crunchy (and winged) version of a witchetty grub. Have you tried them? (For any international readers, they are a, well, grub, native to Australia and part of that ‘bush tucker’ thing you may hear Aussies talk of sometimes.)

Tsana: I have not. It’s also a bit different because witchetty grubs are for eating but butterbugs aren’t exactly. But I think we’re approaching spoiler territory. Wouldn’t want to ruin any jokes for people that haven’t read the books.

Katharine: This is true. The other important part of where we find our characters is that Miles has employed Ekaterin to landscape a bit of the Vorkosigan property into a public garden, so that they have an excuse to spend time together during her mourning period, now they’re back on Barrayar and the Komarr investigation is over.

Tsana: Which means we get to see a lot of interactions between them. But, much like we saw at the end of Komarr (since this doesn’t start very much later), Ekaterin has no desire to get married. For his part, Miles only really knows how to run military-type operations, which doesn’t translate quite so well to wooing.

Katharine: Though to be fair, I don’t know many people who are good at wooing. And there aren’t many others in the series either. In fact one of the running themes throughout this book are the love lives of several characters - Gregor and Duv’s success (or at least, getting there) and the dramas, shall we call them, for Ivan, Mark and Miles. Basically everyone should be as chill as Aral.

Tsana: Aral had the good fortune to be vomited on by the right woman at the right time — his first marriage (which we actually learn more about in this book) was much less successful. So I don’t know that we can really count him as a good romantic role model.

Katharine: That’s also very true. Drat, despite the good talk about his first marriage I had already basically forgotten all about it. Should we throw up the spoiler shields now?

Tsana: Shields up!

~~~ Spoilers now! All the spoilers! So many spoilers! ~~~

Friday, 26 January 2018

Short stories 16 to 20

This batch of stories was the point at which I realised that I should include poems in this whole keeping track of stories thing. Not because I read that many poems, but because otherwise any isolated poems aren't noted anywhere and that seemed like a wasted opportunity. I don't know that my reviews of poems are going to be any good (see first example below), but hey. Very short things are generally quite hard to review.

The stories (and poem):

Apathetic Goblin Nightmare Woman by Cassandra Khaw — An angry poem about meeting expectations, or not. Source: https://uncannymagazine.com/article/apathetic-goblin-nightmare-woman/

A Salvaging of Ghosts by Aliette de Bodard — A story about murky depths that warp reality and a mother mourning her dead daughter. Kind of a depressing story, set in the Xuya universe with additional interesting local world building. Source: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/a-salvaging-of-ghosts/

Rabbit Heart by Alyssa Wong — A brief story about short-lived replacements for rich people’s dearly departed. Source: https://firesidefiction.com/issue37/chapter/rabbit-heart/

The Spy Who Loved Wanton Mee by Vina Jie-Min Prasad — A short spy story that reminded me of the old spoof TV show “Get Smart” set in Singapore and more queer. Amusing and unserious. Source: http://queersoutheastasia.com/spy-loved-wanton-mee-vina-prasad-issue-1

How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market by Stephanie Campisi — This was a bit too over-written to properly grab me. There was an interesting story in there somewhere, but I found it drowned, a bit, in similes. Source: Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella set in the Vorkosigan universe. Chronologically it follows the novel A Civil Campaign and comes before the novel Diplomatic Immunity. It does not really stand alone without having read the few books preceding it in the series. This review also contains general spoilers for some of those earlier books.

This Hugo-nominated novella adds a delightful extra chapter to Bujold's Vorkosigan series, describing the wedding of Miles and Ekaterin and events leading up to it. In the festive season of Winterfair on the planet Barrayar, Lord Miles Vorkosigan is making elaborate preparations for his wedding. The long-awaited event stirs up romance and intrigue among his eccentric family and friends, particularly for bioengineered space mercenary Sergeant Taura and shy, diffident Armsman Roic. But Miles also has an enemy who is plotting to turn the romantic ceremony into a festival of death. Winterfair Gifts offers another of Bujold's witty, character-centered science fiction plots with a twist of romance.

I would say the most interesting thing about this book is that it's told from the point of view of Armsman Roic, the most junior of the Vorkosigan armsmen. He is usually assigned to night duty and we previously met him in that capacity in A Civil Campaign, when events rather escalated. Trying to live down those events — which really weren't his fault — Roic just wants to regain the good regard of both Miles and Head Armsman Pym. In this novella we follow Roic around while he goes about his less usual duties in the lead-up to the Vorkosigan wedding.

It was an amusing story, and I enjoyed following Roic around, for all that I'd forgotten he was the point of view character in this one. It was particularly interesting to see his perspective on various characters that we're used to. Not only Miles — which was expected, and who we've seen him from other people's points of view before — but also the more prominent side characters who make an appearance here. Roic expends a lot of attention on Taura, who is visiting Barrayar for the first time with Elena, her husband, and Arde the jump pilot — the latter being a source of fascination to Nikki. We also get a fresh perspective on other characters such as Aral, Cordelia and Gregor from the perspective of an underling.

This was a fun quick read and I definitely recommend it to fans of the Vorkosigan series, especially those who've read the earlier books. Fun as this novella is, it does not stand alone without some knowledge of the rest of the series that came before it. I really enjoyed re-reading it and pretty much inhaled it in a single session.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2002, in the Irresistible Forces anthology, edited by Catharine Asaro
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically after A Civil Campaign and before Diplomatic Immunity
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles in Love omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Monday, 22 January 2018

Reading stories 11 to 15

Post title brought to you by apparently I am counting stories read this year (I mean, automatically, because spreadsheet). And because I am definitely going to run out of post titles if I don't standardise them somehow.

A mildly amusing anecdote about the first story in this batch: for reasons I'm still unclear on, the version of the story that appeared in Pocket was only the last section of story. The fact that I still thought it was a pretty good read without the first two thirds or so of the text is testament to the author's writing. But of course, when I realised the mistake (basically, when I was logging it in the spreadsheet) and did read the start of the story, I found it an even better read that delved more deeply into the issues that previously only seemed touched upon. Shocking, I know. I will have to be vigilant if I get to more stories from the same magazine.

On another note, I just subscribed to Uncanny since I've been reading a lot of their stories. Will be interesting to see how having ePubs of the whole magazine rather than saving isolated stories affects my reading experience.

Stories 11 to 15:

A Complex Filament of Light by S Qiouyi Lu — A story set in Antarctica about a person dealing with difficult feelings after a loss. Isolation, auroras and mental health. Source: http://www.anathemamag.com/a-complex-filament-of-light

Landmark by Cassandra Khaw — Lovers separated by astronomical distances try to stay in touch with technology. The extreme long-distance relationship. Dour. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/khaw_12_17/

An Account of the Sky Whales by A Que — A lovely story about flying space whales, the boyfriend of a whale researcher making the journey to collect her ashes, poachers. A meaty world, well-developed in this novelette. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/audio_06_17d/

Relentless Adaptations by Tansy Rayner Roberts — A story about a sleep-deprived new mother in a world where all fiction has been reduced to classics + gimmicks (zombies, vampires, etc). Also an apocalypse, but she’s too tired to pay much attention to that. Very amusing. Source: Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein

It Happened To Me: I Melded My Consciousness With the Giant Alien Mushroom Floating Above Chicago by Nino Cipri — A vaguely amusing story. Not bad, but not interesting enough to get away with not being funny at this short form. Source: https://firesidefiction.com/it-happened-to-me-i-melded-my-consciousness-wtih-the-giant-alien-mushroom-floating-above-chicago

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire is the latest instalment in the Wayward Children series. I have previously read and reviewed Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, both of which I loved. Happily, beneath the sugar sky continues this trend. It is set after the events of Every Heart a Doorway and does hark back to some of them. While it would probably work read in isolation, I recommend reading (at least) Every Heart a Doorway first. And it’s such a wonderful series, why wouldn’t you want to read all of them?

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.

Sumi died years before her prophesied daughter Rini could be born. Rini was born anyway, and now she’s trying to bring her mother back from a world without magic.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces a new character, Cora, recently arrived at the school for children who want to go back through their doors, and from whose point of view we see much of the story. In the real world, before Cora went through her door, she spent a lot of time being teased for being fat and only really found her place on the school swimming team as an endurance swimmer. Knowing this, of course her doorway lead to an underwater world where she was a mermaid.

But that's not actually the main plot of this story. The real plot starts when a girl falls from the sky into the school's turtle pond. Her mother was one of the girls that died in Every Heart a Doorway and now she's disappearing out of existence as her world (where time is running on a different schedule) realises that she was never born. A team of students — Cora, Kade, Christoper and Nadya — set out on a quest to fix things and stop Rini from disappearing. The quest takes them through a couple of different worlds, including Confection, Rini's home where everything is made of sugar.

This was another gorgeous story — a portal fantasy about portal fantasies. I really enjoyed reading Cora's reactions to their circumstances and, well, I always like a badarse character who doesn't look it. We also get to learn more about the pasts of the other characters in the book, adding layers to the story. Some day, when there are a lot more books in the series (I hope), I want to reread them all in quick succession, to keep everyone's stories in my mind better instead of reading a sequel two years after the first book. The only thing that bothered me about this book was the grammatically incorrect Russian name of Nadya's world. But this was very minor compared with the rest of the book.

I highly recommend Beneath the Sugar Sky to fans of the Wayward Children books. I recommend reading this book after Every Heart a Doorway but it's not completely necessary. I especially recommend Beneath the Sugar Sky to readers who enjoy reading about a fat protagonist who deals with a lot of real-life issues, as well as magical problems. I hope there will be more Wayward Children books. This is a wonderful world and I would be happy with a long series set there.

5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2018, Tor.com
Series: Wayward Children book 3 of 3 so far
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on iBooks

Thursday, 18 January 2018

A second batch of stories

It's possible that I need to think of a better blog post naming scheme for these series of posts, but since they don't pertain to a specific challenge, I don't have any ideas. I do have an update on my short story recording/organisation, however. Now I have a script that will automatically extract story details (title, author, mini-review, link) from my spreadsheet so that I can copy the output directly to a blog post. All I have to do is add the bolding (which might become automated too...). This was easy enough to do inside the spreadsheet itself, but for reasons I won't bore you with having a script is less fiddly, especially as I tick stories off as being blogged about. (This setup works using Apple's Numbers and Applescript, so it's probably not for everyone.)

My favourite story in this batch is hands down "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E Lily Yu, which was apparently short listed for ALL the awards, and I can see why. Definitely recommend reading it if you haven't already. The longest story in this batch, which actually took me a few days of reading (in between novel reading) to get through. I didn't actively dislike it, but it didn't really grab me and is probably my least favourite Greg Egan read to date. Oh well.

Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty's Place Cafe by Naomi Kritzer — A story about the imminent end of the world at the hands of an asteroid, and the friendships made along the way. A mostly good story, but the science was silly; they kept complaining that they couldn’t map the trajectory because Arecibo got defunded, but that is entirely the wrong sort of telescope for asteroid tracking (and even if it wasn’t, it’s also not the only telescope in the world). Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kritzer_03_17/

Dragon Brides by Nghi Vo — A story about a queen who, in her youth, had been rescued from a Dragon by her now-husband. A nice story but a little slow and I saw the end coming. Source: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/dragon-brides/

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E Lily Yu — A delightful story about educated wasps who can make paper, write in Mandarin and make maps. Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/yu_04_11/

Uncanny Valley by Greg Egan — A long story about a realistic android made in the image of a Hollywood screenwriter with all his memories loaded in after he died. Or almost all his memories, which is where the story lies. An OK read but I didn’t love it nor connect with the protagonist. Source: http://www.tor.com/2017/08/09/uncanny-valley/

An Age of Ice by Zhang Ran — A story about a near future when cryonic freezing and thawing have become reality. Thoughtful but not excessively so. (And not as extreme as, say, Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold, but certainly tending in that direction.) Source: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/zhang_07_17/

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh is a standalone YA science fiction novel and the author's debut. It's set in a nearish future Seoul, during a very long-running and high-tech war. It's also been described as "K-drama meets Pacific Rim", which is not entirely inaccurate.

After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I've made no secret of having watched too many K-dramas (Korean TV shows) in the past couple of years, and this book hit a lot of the same buttons for me as those shows. The biggest difference, really, being the futuristic setting and the inclusion of other satisfying science fictional elements. (Really, I've watched a lot of fantasy/supernatural K-dramas — if you have any science fiction recommendations, please tell me in the comments.) It's not just the setting which hits the K-drama notes, but the casual Korean phrases the author left in the text — it was like Viki subtitles but with much better grammar. But on to the actual story...

About a hundred and fifty years in the future Jaewon, our first person narrator, is a poor kid from the wrong side of the river (literally the Han river) who is on a scholarship to a prestigious military academy in the upper-crusty Neo Seoul. A lot of the story places him between two extremes: rich school friends with promising futures on the one hand, and local gangs and unskilled labourers and foot soldiers on the other. The war affects everyone in this strangely post-nation world, but of course it affects some people worse than others.

Against the backdrop of Jaewon trying to do his best and not get into too much trouble, other people are brewing trouble around him. There are the rebels who want Korea to go back to being a country, there are weird medical experiments, and there's a shady past surfacing to further complicate matters for Jaewon. There's also a romantic storyline and a troubling storyline for one of Jaewon's friends. I particularly liked the fact that although there is a major war on and children are being recruited into the military, the teenaged main characters aren't expected (by the narrative, as well as by the adults) to save the day and fix the world. Given some of the set up, that would have been an easy trap to fall into. The only thing I didn't really like in this book was the history of the ongoing war, which was a bit weird, especially with how it was being referred to. That said, the present consequences and so forth were fine, so I was able to overlook it without too much trouble.

This was a very enjoyable book to read and I think fans of YA science fiction (particularly dystopias and similar) will find a lot to like here. Honestly, I feel a bit weird calling this a dystopia. Because it absolutely is, fighting mechs can't change that, but aside from the constant large-scale war it didn't feel that much more dystopian than parts of the real world (and they had levitating phones). Anyway, I strongly recommend this book to fans of YA, nearish future science fiction and mechs. I especially recommend it to readers interested in a non-USian setting.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Tu Books
Series:No (or, well, not yet? I'd read more if a series were to eventuate)
Format read: Hardcover! Try not to die of shock ;-p (actually the ebook isn't available outside of North America, so I had no choice)
Source: Book Depository :-/

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict is a fictionalised account of the life of Mileva Marić, who was Albert Einstein's first wife. It's based partly on historical records and letters sent between the couple, but also includes a dollop of conjecture, as the author notes in her afterword.

A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

This book caught my eye because— well why wouldn't it? As a woman and as an (astro-) physicist myself, why wouldn't I be interested in reading about a lesser-known woman who was so close to some of the most fundamental progressions in physics a century ago? And while I don't generally read non-fiction outside of work, this was a novelised account, so it didn't count as non-fiction, right? That's not to say I didn't have some problems with it.

First off, I didn't like the first person narrator voice of Mileva. I thought that as a woman in the same field — albeit more than a century later — I should at least have something in common with her. But aside from her professed love of physics I couldn't find any commonalities. I was also surprised at how much discussion of hair and appearance there was from someone who I would have expected to not care about those things beyond what was strictly necessary as mandated by society. I did not connect with the character at all, although I do admit I became invested in her plight as I read further.

That investment mainly paid off in making me want to shout at the page and tell her not to make certain poor decisions. That said, I was a bit disappointed to read, in the afterword, that the story was more fictional than I had hoped (some of the less consequential and/or more mysterious events were made up/extrapolated). This of course includes all the private interactions with Albert that weren't referenced in their letters to each other. Which brings me to the most controversial part of this book: Albert's treatment of Mileva. The way the author writes it, there were a lot of red flags in the beginning, but I can see how they were easy to overlook in a state of youthful inexperience. That didn't stop me being angry at Albert on Mileva's behalf, especially when he grew resentful of her for both being a housewife and daring to want to be more than a housewife. Those interactions, while somewhat upsetting, were the more interestingly written part of the book.

The other thing that bothered me, fiction aside, were some of the descriptions of physics. I generally didn't find them to be that great. I mean, the first description of special relativity was terrible, although the second one (when it came up again later) was an improvement. It was disappointing since it ought to have been quite central to the story. Some of the general physics chatter was superficial enough to not feel actively wrong, but... well, not everyone can be everything, but it was still disappointing.

Perhaps this book is best taken as historical fiction and not read for the physics aspects. As I said, I didn't find the characterisation of the protagonist very satisfying (and I didn't find her voice at all believable at first), but others might not have the same issues. It was overall an interesting read and I can imagine a passable Hollywood movie being made of it. I recommend it to readers that find the premise interesting, but with the caveats discussed above.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Sourcebooks
Series: no
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Friday, 12 January 2018

Some short stories to start off the year

On the back of my victorious short story reading challenge in late 2017, I have gotten into the habit of reading short stories.

I also have a great way of managing the stray short story reading: Pocket. It's a "read later" article manager that I'm only using for short stories (I theoretically also use Instapaper for non-fiction articles, but rarely check it). Pocket has smartphone and iPad apps as well as the website and all of them sync your stories and your place. I also discovered a Chrome extension, Accelereader, which tags all the stories in Pocket with reading time (which you can even adjust to your actual reading speed) so you can get an idea of the time commitment before you start a story. Very handy (apart from the need to open Chrome to get those tags on newly added stories). It's also supported by my Kobo, which does time estimates without the chrome extension. Recommended if you're looking for a way to keep online short stories for later perusal.

Anyway, here are the first five stories I've read in 2018:

Velveteen vs the Flashback Sequence by Seanan McGuire — More of a chapter establishing character than a properly stand-alone story in its own right. Nevertheless, an enjoyable read.  Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs3.php  

Velveteen vs the Old Flame by Seanan McGuire — A less fun read that dredges up some unfortunate back story from Velma’s time as a junior superhero. As with the previous story in this sequence, it feels a bit more like a chapter than a self-contained short story. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs4.php 

Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots West Coast Division by Seanan McGuire — The plot thickens as Velma, our retired superheroine, faces off against the new generation of her former child hero team. New characters with interesting back stories are introduced and Velma’s road trip comes to an end. Source: http://seananmcguire.com/velvs5.php 

I Won At NaSuHeMo! by Marissa Lingen — A fun, quite short story written as diary entries of someone pursuing National Super Hero Month — a quest to get super powers in the vein of nanowrimo. Source: http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/superhero/marissa-lingen/i-won-at-nasuhemo 

A Hundred and Seventy Storms by Aliette de Bodard — A story of a young mindship, her keeper and a dangerous storm. An interesting read. I particularly enjoyed seeing a relatively young mindship who still has close living relatives. I am enjoying the Xuya universe and will definitely be reading more stories. Source: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/hundred-seventy-storms/ 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Spider Woman: Shifting Gears Vol 1: Baby Talk by Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez

Spider Woman: Shifting Gears Vol 1: Baby Talk written by Dennis Hopeless and illustrated by Javier Rodriguez is another volume 1 following, chronologically Vol 2: New Duds, which I previously reviewed. Because randomly restarting numbering schemes is just so Marvel. Anyway, this is the volume with the pregnant Spider-Woman on the cover, and all five issues contained inside it deal with the one story arc of Jessica being (very) pregnant and then having a baby.

Jessica Drew is a private investigator, a super hero and...a mom-to-be? Since we last saw her, Spider-Woman's got a whole new responsibility -now she's adventuring for two! Ben Urich and Porcupine are still along for the ride -in fact, half the time they won't even let Jess leave the car! How's a gal supposed to save the day when her friends are being all overprotective? Then, Spider-Woman will be in over her head when she gets trapped in an alien hospital. Jess is no stranger to unusual circumstances, but getting held captive by Skrulls in the center of a black hole with a bunch of extraterrestrial moms-to-be might take the cake! Expectations won't be disappointed in the mother of all Spider-stories!

This was a strange read, not least because it started with an eight-month pregnant Spider-Woman and no explanation as to how or why. However, having gotten past the surprise — helped by the cover — the story takes us to interesting places. First Jessica Drew must deal with having to step back from her usual superhero PI work. Since her superpowers didn't vanish, she finds it hard to hold back because she can still beat up bad guys and the only thing stopping her is the risk to the baby if something more dire than petty criminals show up.

The story takes us through the boredom of pre-partum maternity leave, a requisite bit of action involving aliens and saving a bunch of other pregnant people, then a look at Spider-Woman's life as a mother. I enjoyed the middle part of the story the most — the action and the butt-kicking while pregnant. Overall, I thought this volume raised some interesting issues regarding motherhood, friendship, work and the sense of self. That said, the ending was a little sudden and did not follow through on some of the subversive ideas that were being built up earlier on.

Nevertheless, this was a fun read and I recommend it to fans of Spider-Woman. The pregnancy is dealt with better than I expected and we do find out why/how she got pregnant in the end. (We don't find out why everyone expects the baby to be a normal human though...) Spider-Woman has had some crappy storylines and this one is not so bad, even if it was unexpected when it launched.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Marvel
Series: Spider-Woman, ongoing series. The start of a reboot which still follows the previous continuity
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Purchased from All Star Comics in Melbourne

Monday, 8 January 2018

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor is the first in a rather long series (nine books according to a quick glance at goodreads) about time travelling historians. I picked it up because my mum has been recommending the series to me incessantly, so I bought the first book to make her stop.

Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake....

The title is a pretty accurate description the plot of the book, alas. It's a series of events, very loosely linked by a bit of an overarching plot that I can only hope becomes more significant in the later volumes. Also a lot of plot holes, but I'll get to that later. The book starts with the main character being recruited to the organisation of time-travelling historians, takes us through her training and then suddenly jumps forward four years with minimal cues in the text. A conversation in the middle of a chapter about people having known each other for four years really shouldn't be the main indication that so much time has passed. That's just one example, but it's symptomatic of an overall lack of polish that could have been fixed by a good structural edit. (More copy-editing wouldn't have hurt either, but that wasn't the main problem.) As far as I can ascertain, these books were originally self-published but have since been picked up by various small publishers. It doesn't seem like they were edited for re-release either, unless the newish print editions are completely different to the ebooks. (I can appreciate the difficulty in making significant changes in a book 1 when later books have to remain coherently linked to it, but still.)

The biggest problem with this book was, like I said, the structure. It's one thing to ignore the standard western story-telling structures of climax and denouement etc. Fine. But a bit of foreshadowing and firmer worldbuilding would not have gone astray. Establishing the crappiness of the near-future world would have fit brilliantly at the start, but instead there was more worldbuilding loaded up near the end, which was very frustrating.

The only thing that kept me turning pages instead of giving up in frustration was the author's ability to string a series of events together into something approaching a compelling yarn. It was an addictive read, despite the part of my mind that was despairing at what I mentioned above. (Of course, that means that it could have been brilliant with better editing. Alas.) The main characters were well-written and I was invested in their outcomes. On the other hand, I did keep losing track of some of the minor characters and was much less invested in them, including at times I was clearly supposed to be invested. As far as the minor romance plot goes, let's just say I found our protagonist much more forgiving than I would have been and I did not end the book very invested in that relationship.

As for the plot, Jodi Taylor's historians start off on the Connie Willis side of things and, rather bafflingly given what they and the reader know about the bad guys by that point, shift over to the Kage Baker side of time travelling historians (without the cyborgs). I can't say I found their motivations exceptionally consistent, especially in the moments when it really mattered and when the people who knew the full picture were involved. That got particularly annoying towards the end.

For all my annoyance as evidenced in the above paragraphs, I mostly enjoyed reading Just One Damned Thing After Another. I wouldn't recommend it above Connie Willis or Kage Baker, although it was funnier than many of those authors' books (except To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, which is hilarious). Right now I'm pretty torn about whether I will read the next book in the series. I expect I would be entertained but, even if the writing improves with successive books, I don't trust that I won't continue to be frustrated.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: Self-published in 2013, my edition Accent Press 2015
Series: The Chronicles of St Maries book 1 of about 9 (and ongoing I think)
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased from iBooks

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein

Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2015 edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein is, as advertised, an anthology collecting the best YA speculative fiction short stories published in 2015. The stories are a mix of fantasy, science fiction and horror, and a few somewhere in between.

Fans of Kaleidoscope will find more tales of wonder, adventure, diversity, and variety in this collection devoted to stories with teen protagonists.

Our goal is to uncover the best young adult short fiction of the year published in the anthologies dedicated to the form, the occasional special edition of a magazine, and individual pieces appearing in otherwise “adult” anthologies and magazines, and bring them together in one accessible collection.

I have, in general, read "best of" anthologies before, but not any that focus on YA stories. In fact — and this is a phenomenon discussed in the introduction of the anthology — I don't think I've read more than the occasional isolated YA story in the context of some other anthology or magazine. Collecting a whole book of YA stories then made for an interesting overview of the genre as aimed at a younger audience.

A lot of the stories in this volume tackle difficult issues, such as abuse or the necessity of touch decisions, and do so well. However, that does not make for light or comforting reading. My favourite stories in this anthology were a mix of hopeful and more challenging: "Blood, Ash, Braids" by Genevieve Valentine, "Function A:Save (Target.Dawn)" by Rivqa Rafael, "Entangled Web" by E C Myers, and "Blue Ribbon" by Marissa Lingen. The last was my absolute favourite, despite being one of the more difficult to read stories, thanks to the subject matter.

As usual, more detailed notes on each story are below. I recommend this book to fans of both science fiction and YA. Beware, as I have already mentioned, it is not overall a light read, though some individual stories are light.

  • Songs in the Key of You by Sarah Pinsker — a nice story about a near future when “everyone” has personal soundtracks playing from their wrists and a girl who can’t afford the device but loves music. 
  • Blood, Ash, Braids by Genevieve Valentine — A witchy fantasy story about the the Night Witches in WWII (Russian women bombing Nazis from planes). An enjoyable read about friendship, protection and magic.
  • Mosquito Boy by Felix Gilman — A concept that didn’t really grab me. The narrator tells us of the emergence/existence of mosquito boy creatures (why are there no mosquito girls?). That’s pretty much the whole story. Meh.
  • The Rainbow Flame by Shveta Thakrar — This story is about teenaged girls questioning the world and their place in it. Except it’s a world made of magic and stories and, of course, things aren’t exactly as they have been told. I found it a bit slow to start and, while it picked up and got more interesting, it’s not a favourite.
  • The Sixth Day by Silvia Anna Hivén — A strange apocalyptic world in which the edges of reality seem to be stretching out and disappearing. It was interesting and a bit disturbing.
  • For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply) by Chesya Burke — An outcast girl with a special, magical role to play for her Ghanan home city, which will make her die young.
  • Kia and Gio by Daniel José Older — A story about ghosts, aliens and unrequited love. A nice read.
  • Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind by Erica L Satifka — A flash story told in the form of a bucket list (as per the title), complete with some crossed out items. Also more hints about the coming end than I expected. I liked it more than I expected to.
  • Function A:Save (Target.Dawn) by Rivqa Rafael — a lovely story about a coder and the president’s daughter/her almost-girlfriend. Set in a near future with bio-hacking and fancy medicine, this story was engaging, a little magical and, ultimately, satisfying.
  • Noah No-one and the Infinity Machine by Sean Williams — an odd yarn set in the Jump universe, but much earlier that that trilogy. I expected it to have a dark ending, but it ended up being quite lighthearted.
  • Forgiveness by Leah Cypess — a challenging story about a physically abusive relationship in a future where there are chips to control that sort of behaviour once it’s reported.
  • Probably Definitely by Heather Morris — a nice story about a ghost and a teenager still working on finding their place in life. I am impressed at how naturally-seeming the author’s non-use of pronouns was.
  • I’m Only Going Over by Cat Hellisen — a slightly odd story about a weird girl at a party and the protagonist trying to chat with her.
  • The Ways of Walls and Words by Sabrina Vourvoulias — This story took a while to grab me, which was unfortunate since it was quite long and a bit slow. It’s about two girls imprisoned and in service, in an unkind situation. The setting is, I’m pretty sure, colonial times in what is now the Dominican Republic. Their histories and friendship were interesting.
  • Reflections by Tamlyn Dreaver — The setting of this story seemed promising, but I had difficulty getting past the lack of (semi-)scientific explanation as to how the moon could be terraformed. The story of a girl being forced to move away upon the failure of that terraformation didn’t, unfortunately, do enough to draw me in. Not bad, but not enough for me. 
  • Entangled Web by E C Myers — A quick story set in a world with quantum smartphones that allow you to see how other versions of you are living. An interesting idea piece. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of the world.
  • Blue Ribbon by Marissa Lingen — An affecting story about a group of teens and younger kids who get locked out of their space station after quarantine is enacted during a series of races they competed in. Tragic. One of my favourite stories in this anthology. 
  • Bodies are the Strongest Conductors by James Robert Herndon — A troubling story about a teen with an unusual medical condition and his friend. I didn’t exactly enjoy this story, but I also felt like I couldn’t look away.
  • Pineapple Head by Joel Enos — An odd story that didn’t go where I expected it to from the ominous hints (I thought) it gave the reader near the start. It’s about two gay boys connecting over time.
  • Grass Girl by Caroline M Yoachim — A shirt story about girls made of wood and the bamboo girl who feels out of place and uncool among them. I liked the symbolism.
  • The Birds of Azalea Street by Nova Red Suma — This story started out creepy and gross, but finished satisfyingly. I started out not very into it but ended up liking it more than the opening made me think I would.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: The last of 3 yearly "best of" volumes
Format read: ePub
Source: The publisher
Disclaimer: This book was published by the same publisher as Defying Doomsday. Nevertheless, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold was my favourite book the first time I read the Vorkosigan saga. Chronologically it falls after Komarr and before the novella Winterfair Gifts (or the novel Diplomatic Immunity if you don't feel like counting novellas). It's quite a departure from the more military aspects of many of the earlier novels, and is instead a comedy of manners with some political machinations on the side.

The recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson returns to Barrayar, following the events described in KOMARR, and finds herself under siege from several suitors, including Miles Vorkosigan. Miles’ initial attempts at courtship result in colossal disasters, affecting as well Miles’ brother Mark, who is forbidden from courting his own ladylove by the girl’s outraged parents. Some nasty political maneuverings by ambitious Vor aristocrats create new trials for Miles while he wages his campaign for Ekaterin’s heart. Intrigue, wit and high hilarity make this Hugo and Nebula finalist a must for readers of science fiction and romance alike.

The most important question, for a re-read of a favourite book, is did it hold up? The broad answer is yes, although it was quite different to re-read than to read for the first time. The main reason for this is that there was quite a bit of humour that depended on surprising revelations which, of course, weren't as surprising the second time around. I found myself laughing more at miscellaneous interstitial scenes that hadn't stuck in my head as clearly than I did at the big key scenes I remembered most clearly from my first read through.

Even if it was a little less funny the second time around, this was still an excellent book. The point of view changes between Miles, Ekaterin, Kareen, Mark, and Ivan, giving us insights into all of those characters as they strive towards their goals. The background setting of the lead-up to Emperor Gregor's wedding provides a bit of chaos and a lot of cause for schemes from third parties. Even so, between Miles secretly courting Ekaterin (secret from her, not from anyone else), Mark trying to sell his new business venture to investors, Ivan being bossed around by everyone from his mother downwards, and Ekatarin and Kareen striving for self-actualization, there's a lot of room for entertaining scenarios just between the key players.

A Civil Campaign is still one of my favourite Vorkosigan books and also books in general. I spent a lot of this current re-read of the series looking forward to this book specifically and probably hyped it up a bit too much in my mind. I was disappointed that I laughed less than I did the first time I read it, but, really, I only laughed a little bit less.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 1999, Baen
Series: Vorkosigan Saga: chronologically after Komarr and before Winterfair Gifts
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles in Love omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Reflections on 2017: short stories and other reading

Happy New Year to all my readers!


2017 was a tiring year for me. Not as bad as 2016, so that's something. But I still ended up reading less than I would like. Which is hardly a disaster (and really, is more because of K-dramas luring me in than anything else).

I finished 83 books in 2017, not counting short stories that weren't part of an anthology or collection. From late September I challenged myself to read 100 short stories before the end of the year. They are all listed, with short reviews, at the posts below.
I managed to reach my goal on the 29th of December, so that was nice. I don't plan to do a similar challenge in 2018, however, I realised that having a way of noting short stories on my blog without extraneous effort was very encouraging. In the past I have felt that reading random short stories took time away from reading books that I could then review here. After the short story experiment/challenge I have decided to keep posting short reviews of all the stories I read. I'm going to group them in fives, though, so that the post doesn't go up too long after I read the first in the batch. I'm going to keep track of them in a proper spreadsheet too, so I can do some nice stats on them at the end of the year.

Speaking of spreadsheets, mine has yielded the usual nice charts that I like to share at this time of year.

First off, lets talk about genre. I have been mainly in the mood for science fiction the past few months, so my genre pie chart is much more evenly split between fantasy and science fiction than usual. I didn't read as many comics this year either, so that wedge is a bit smaller. It's 43% each to fantasy and science fiction, 11% to superheroes and only 1% each to horror and other. And 1% lost to rounding, apparently.

Next up, there's forms. As I said, I didn't read that many comics, and even fewer anthologies or collections — although this is apparently an average percentage for me, something I'd like to improve on. My novella reading is up too. I think this is partly because the shorter form is appealing and partly because so many great novellas have been coming out.

The last pie chart I'm going to include is the gender one. Unsurprisingly, I'm still mostly reading books my female authors. "Multi", in the plot below, is for works with multiple creators of different genders.

One final plot that isn't pie-shaped. This is the plot of how many books I read per month. On average, I read about seven books per month (well, 6.9 if you want a little more precision).


The last thing for this post is to talk about resolutions for the new year. I did a pretty abysmal job at keeping track of challenges this year. I did participate in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, again, but other than submitting my reviews to the challenge I didn't really make much of a fuss over it.

I am not going to do any challenges in 2018 except for the basic Goodreads challenge (which I've set to 100 bookthings). I do want to make a new year's resolution to read more anthologies and collections that are already in my TBR. When I started doing the short story thing, I took stock and realise how startlingly many anthologies I own that I haven't even made a start on. That's something I'd like to fix.


What about you, readers, what are your reading goals for 2018?