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/

Monday, 1 October 2018

Girl Running, Boy Falling by Kate Gordon

Girl Running, Boy Falling by Kate Gordon is a contemporary YA novel set in small-town Tasmania. It seems that most of the non-spec fic YA books I read are on the depressing side of things, and this is no exception! It's a quick read, but one that's both thoughtful and a bit heavy. I found it difficult to put down and inhaled it in less than a day.

Do you ever look at the sky and think that’s where we belong? Like maybe the world is the wrong way around and we’re meant to be up there, floating?

Sixteen-year-old Therese lives in a small town on a small island. Her Aunt Kath calls her Tiger. Her friends call her Resey. The boy she loves calls her Champ. She’s a lot of different things for a lot of different people.

Therese has always had her feet on the ground. She’s running through high school, but someone in her life is about to fall …

And when he does, her perfect world falls with him. For the first time in her life, Therese can’t stand being on the ground.

Girl Running, Boy Falling is a raw read about a girl and boy— who are beautifully flawed.

Girl Running, Boy Falling is written from the point of view of Tiger, who starts off the book going through usual teenage stuff, perhaps slightly amplified by her family situation and lower-than-average self-esteem. She doesn't feel like she has her life together, despite presenting as a bit of a workaholic to others, and I found her and her friends to be a mixture of relatable and frustrating.

Gordon does a good job of setting up the background for Tiger and Wally before shattering Tiger's world. While I suspected what was coming, it didn't happen quite when I expected and that increased the impact for me. And increased my sympathy for Tiger and her friends. After that I found myself connecting to Tiger more strongly and found her reactions very believable. As I have already said, I had difficulty putting the book down, all the way through.

It's very tempting to make a comparison of this book with Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, so I will, briefly. Girl Running, Boy Falling could be the new generation's Looking for Alibrandi, dealing with some similar issue but also updated with issues more relevant to teens of the twenty-teens than the nineteen-nineties when Alibrandi was published. But aside from sharing a theme or two, Girl Running, Boy Falling is it's own book that tells its own story and deals with difficult issues in its own way. It's also about teenagers at an Australian public school, which I've recently come to learn is not all that common in Australian YA, so that may be an additional point of attraction for some readers.

Overall, Girl Running, Boy Falling is excellent and I highly recommend it to fans of contemporary YA and anyone interested in the Australian setting. It's well written and gripping and I will definitely be reading more of Gordon's books at some point in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2018, Rhiza Edge
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Review copy from author
Disclaimer: Note that the author is a friend. Nevertheless, I have endeavoured to write an unbiased review