readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


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The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year Volume 6 – Jonathan Strahan, ed.

**** The Case of Death and Honey, Neil Gaiman, (A Study in Sherlock)
Actually read this one twice in a row, because it was fun to revisit the details… There may be many Holmes stories set in the famed fictional detective’s ‘retirement,’ but, not being a huge Holmes fan, it unavoidably reminded me of the only other one I’ve read, Michael Chabon’s ‘Final Solution.’
This story is a follow-up/sequel to the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man.” If I’d read that first, it would likely have been better – but this is still an extremely well-crafted story. The elderly Holmes is bored with solving murders and dealing with cases of death. When his brother passes away, he turns his phenomenal brain to a new mystery – the mystery of life. His researches take him to rural China, and an encounter with a crotchety beekeeper.

** The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees, E. Lily Yu, (Clarkesworld, 4/11).
I didn’t care for this story much, but I am clearly in the minority, as I think this is the third anthology I’ve come across that included it. The first time, I wrote: ” I feel like maybe I missed something here. Or maybe the ‘something’ just wasn’t there. I liked the set-up, the conflict between the two insect species and the revolutionary faction amongst the bees. But I didn’t feel that it all pulled together.”

*** Tidal Forces, Caitlín R Kiernan, (Eclipse Four)
More horror than sci-fi, this reminded me a bit of Kathe Koja’s ‘The Cipher.’ In both stories, a mysterious black hole appears, threatening to suck in all around it… Here, the atmosphere of threat and loneliness is built up quite well, and it’s also quite effectively creepy – but the ending wasn’t quite strong enough, for me.

*** Younger Women, Karen Joy Fowler, (Subterranean, Summer 2011)
You can read this for free here: http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine…
I’m guessing this is a response to ‘Twilight’ – and exploration into the question of why the hell an ancient-but-attractive vampire would want to hang around high schools and date 15-year-olds – from the perspective of a middle-aged mother with her own issues. Well-crafted and relevant.

*** White Lines on a Green Field , Catherynne M. Valente, (Subterranean, Fall 2011)
This story takes the coyote/trickster legend and transposes it onto a year at a Midwestern high school. Valente does a really great job of capturing the dangerous ambiguity of Coyote’s nature – but I felt like if I were more interested in the mythology of American High School as a concept, I would’ve appreciated this piece more.

**** All That Touches The Air, An Owomoyela, (Lightspeed Magazine, 4/11)
Excellent alien-contact story. You can read it for free, here: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fic… The alien Vosth are a sort of micro-organism based hive mind. They are capable of parasitically colonizing human bodies, taking them over. But they have agreed not to do so on this planet, as long as humans maintain airlocks and wear environmental suits. Most in the colony have taken this in stride, but the narrator is a rather emotionally disturbed, paranoid person who insists on wearing an enviro-suit at all times. The narrator may also be the one who pivots the fulcrum of human-Vosth relations.

**** What We Found, Geoff Ryman, (F&SF, 9-10/11)
Previously read in ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2013’ – at that time, I wrote: “This story does contain a science-fiction concept: What if the act of observing scientific facts causes those ‘facts’ to ‘wear out’ and change? But mostly, it’s a story about a man (an African scientist from a modest background) dealing with a family history of mental illness that has torn generations apart. Vividly, sensitively and believably written.”

** The Server and the Dragon, Hannu Rajaniemi, (Engineering Infinity)
I’ve read Rajaniemi’s ‘Quantum Thief,’ and felt that I might have appreciated it more if I was much more geeky about math. This story, I felt like I would appreciate more if I were much more geeky about computer programming and networking. There are a lot of references that I don’t fully get, not being educated in his fields, and as pure fiction, the storytelling just isn’t winning me over. I’m feeling like his work is for people other than me.

*****The Choice, Paul McAuley, (Asimov‘s, 1/11)
I really loved McAuley’s Confluence series, but then read a couple of other books by him that I didn’t really care for that much. However, this story is a winner. Definitely recommended for any fans of Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘Shipbreaker’ – it has that same setting of young people trying to make it and get ahead in a rough, climate-change-decimated future. However – this story also has aliens. And it’s great.

*** Malak, Peter Watts, (Engineering Infinity)
Timely and interesting story of AI. When programmers start to experiment with giving a battle drone a ‘conscience,’ they’re seemingly more interested in the decisions that will be made, rather than heeding those decisions. But a machine may make choices that humans might not contemplate. It’s a bit hard to get into a story told from a machine’s point of view, but the ending’s a kicker.

*** Old Habits, Nalo Hopkinson, (Eclipse Four)
Ghosts haunt the mall where they died. (Knowing someone who worked in a mall for a while, you might be surprised how many people DO die in malls.) Not bad; probably my favorite thing I’ve read by Hopkinson.

**** A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, K. J. Parker, (Subterranean, Winter 2011. )
I believe this is the second story I’ve read by Parker, and I’m very impressed. The Renaissance-ish fantasy setting is rich and enjoyable, but the meat of the story is in the complex relationship between two renowned composers, as their fortunes shift. Definitely going to seek out more from this author. (Just ordered two more books!)

**** Valley of the Girls, Kelly Link, (Subterranean, Spring 2011)
This story grew on me. The first time through, I found myself not liking it as much as most of Link’s work, and I kind of slid over some essential details. Then, I got to the end… and went back to the beginning, and started right over to get all those details in. It’s an exploration of the consequences of celebrity, the meaning of identity… and it’s also just plain creepy. Excellent.

*** Brave Little Toaster, Cory Doctorow, (TRSF)
Cute piece, with disturbing over tones. About adapting (or not) to life with modern technology.

**** The Dala Horse, Michael Swanwick, (Tor.com, 7/11)
Quite nice. An almost-retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, in a post-apocalyptic setting redolent of Scandinavian mythology and techno-magic. A little girl is sent away by her parents to escape unknown danger, on a perilous journey to her grandmother’s house.

*** The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece, M Rickert, (F&SF, 9-10/11)
A strange tale that explores death, grief, and how we deal with those who play the undertaker’s role.

*****The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu, (F&SF, March/April 2011)
Previously read as part of the ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2013.’ What I wrote: “‘The Paper Menagerie’ is the first work of fiction, of any length, to have swept the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.” I cried. OK, usually when I say “I cried” I mean one tear escaped my eye… This story made me cry a whole bunch of tears. A story of the disconnect between parents and children, the gap between cultures, and magical origami.

**** Steam Girl, Dylan Horrocks, (Steampunk!)
It’s a theme written many times before, but this is a particularly nice take on it. (It’s very, remarkably similar to Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s ‘The Changeling,’ and also reminded me of Bridge to Terabithia, and many other stories I read when I was younger.) A new girl comes to town, and introduces a nerdy boy to to a world of imagination. But her own reality might not be all that magical. Or might it? A delicate sense of ambiguity enhances the spot-on depiction of the feeling shared by all those who feel that they don’t truly belong in this world.

**** After the Apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh, (After the Apocalypse)
Second read (previously read in McHugh’s collection of the same title.) “In the classic format of the post-apocalyptic story, and mother and daughter on the road through the wasteland. Hard and nasty choices are made. It’s about strength, weakness, necessity, self-interest – the ties that bind; or fail to bind. As usual, McHugh looks unflinchingly at what people will do; discarding the pretty myths we might tell ourselves about ourselves along the way.”

*** Underbridge, Peter S. Beagle, (Naked City)
A frustrated professor, unable to find a permanent, tenured position, discovers that a concrete troll under a Seattle bridge, created as an art project, actually comes to life at night – and has a nervous breakdown. Masterfully written, but quite depressing (and lacking sympathetic characters).

*** Relic, Jeffrey Ford, (The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities)
Speaking of unsympathetic characters… there’s this odd and rather unpleasant story. A hermit lives in a remote shrine, with the relic of his saint, and gives occasional sermons. The story is very carefully designed so that everyone in it, when introduced, seems pleasant and innocent – but as more is revealed, they are shown to be venal or worse. It’s well done – but not particularly enjoyable.

*** The Invasion of Venus, Stephen Baxter, (Engineering Infinity)
A lack-of-first-contact story. What if aliens showed up and turned out to have neither benign nor hostile intentions toward us? What if they weren’t interested in us at all?

*** Woman Leaves Room, Robert Reed, (Lightspeed Magazine, 3/11)
An abandoned, unfinished AI persists down the ages. Not bad, but the ending was a little falsely sentimental for my taste.

*** Restoration, Robert Shearman, (Everyone’s Just So So Special)
In some kind of bizarrely fascistic future existence, the true nature of which is never made clear, an Assistant is sent by the Curator to work at the Art Gallery. Into a deceptively simple weird tale, a lot is woven in: totalitarianism, identity and loss, the nature of memory, the ethics of art restoration, the two-sided nature of the study of history, and the idea that it is written by the victor.

*** The Onset of a Paranormal Romance, Bruce Sterling, (Flurb, Fall-Winter 2011)
The first bit feels a bit like a ‘set’ dialogue. with the characters acting as puppets for the author’s thoughts – but the second part got me intrigued enough that I really wanted to find out what was going to happen with these characters. And then – it ends! Sorry, but this is not a short story. It might be the first chapter of a novel – but it’s not. You can read this for free here, if you want to be frustrated: http://www.flurb.net/12/12sterling.htm

*** Catastrophic Disruption of the Head, Margo Lanagan, (The Wilful Eye: Tales from the Tower Vol. 1)
An adult retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Tinderbox” (remember the dogs with eyes the size of dinner plates?) Set during an unspecified South Asian (?) war – Vietnam (?) – the soldier protagonist is a thoroughly awful person, and the story explores the ways in which war erodes a person’s moral sense.

*** The Last Ride of the Glory Girls, Libba Bray, (Steampunk!)
On a colony planet which seems an awful lot like the Old West (to the point of having a Pinkerton’s Detective Agency), a small group of female outlaws is raising havoc with their banditry. A reluctant detective is sent to infiltrate the band. I really wanted to know more about the backgrounds of the characters and their planet. I found the narrator’s ultra-religious background fascinating, and her emotional issues compelling. The steampunk stuff seemed kind of draped-on-top, and unnecessary.

**** The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book) , Nnedi Okorafor, (Clarkesworld, 3/11)
You can read this for free, here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/okora…
Excellent story, and a must for any fans of the ‘mutant’ theme. People who are bio-experiments are studied, locked up in a skyscraper. They’ve never known freedom, to miss it – but the instinct toward freedom is too strong to be denied.

*** Digging, Ian McDonald, (Life on Mars)
Interested in the idea of terraforming Mars? Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Red Mars’ trilogy, but maybe looking for something a little more succinct? Check out this story, which has some really original and interesting ideas about how such an endeavor might work out (or not).

*****The Man Who Bridged the Mist, Kij Johnson, (Asimov’s, 10-11/11)
Already read (in Nebula Awards Showcase 2013) – and you can read for free, here: http://www.asimovs.com/2011_10-11/exc…
A beautiful and romantic fantasy novella of an engineer who arrives to build a bridge over a river of poisonous mist, and the ferrywoman whose life has been devoted to crossing that treacherous expanse. Evocative, thoughtful, and bittersweet

*** Goodnight Moons, Ellen Klages, (Life on Mars)
OK, y’know, if this happened to me, my primary emotion would be furious anger at my husband, and that’s not even mentioned. Also, I have to say, euthanasia is an option. That probably makes me a bad person, but so be it. It’s not a bad story, however.

Average… 3.42, rounds up to 4 because that’s how I feel.

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Impossible Monsters – Kasey Lansdale, ed.

*** “Blue Amber”–David J. Schow
A pretty good take on the alien-pod-people theme, set on a rural ranch. A couple of cops come to investigate, and get far more than they bargained for. Firmly in the horror genre, with a ‘zombie’ feel to it…

*****”Click-Clack the Rattlebag”–Neil Gaiman
Super-creepy short tale, with the feel of the stories kids tell each other at sleepover parties… Reminded me just a little bit of Kelly Link’s ‘The Specialist’s Hat.’ (Another super-creepy tale.)

*** “Cavity Creeps”–Cody Goodfellow
Evil, nasty creatures – a metaphor for despair – plague the down-and-out inhabitants of a storage facility used as a flophouse. A lighter touch with the ‘message’ would’ve improved the story, but it’s still a good horror genre piece.

*** “The Glitter of the Crowns”–Charlaine Harris
A light touch and some nice twists here. In a rural mountain neighborhood, one family’s kids are overshadowed by the two young beauty pageant queens who live next door. But when werewolves are thrown into the mix, not all turns out as expected.

*** “Doll’s Eyes”–Tim Bryant
A man’s desire to have a child becomes twisted into something supernaturally evil, after repeated miscarriages…

* “Bloaters”–Neal Barrett, Jr.
I really dislike the style of writing featured in this story. A down-homey, tall-tale absurdism, I guess one could call it? For some, it may be a feature. The kernel of the story itself wasn’t bad (vampires and other supernatural creatures), but I felt like I was wading through unnecessary gunk to get to it.

** “Detritus”–Chet Williamson
A man staying in a hotel room starts to get obsessively grossed out by the idea of the biological remnants of previous occupants of the place. Good idea, developed well… but the totally random ‘surprise’ ending blew it for me. It wasn’t necessary.

**** “Monster”–Anne Perry
Very nice tale in the classic horror vein. A bookstore owner’s new partner offers to host him on a luxury cruise while they discuss the business. As a favor, the businessman also asks the bookseller to be a friendly companion to his young daughter, who’s grieving over the recent, tragic loss of her mother. But not all is as it seems, as a macabre thread weaves itself into events.

*** “Orange Lake”–Al Sarrantonio
Classic B-movie fare. A group of young people seek a week’s rental at a lake house, to party and have a good time. When they find a deal that seems too good to be true – it is.

*** “Nathan”–Selina Rosen
A boy’s ‘imaginary friend’ is a murderous psychopath.

*** “Blood Moccasins”–Bradley Denton
A rare genetic disorder causes the blood of the men of a certain family to morph into snakes when spilled. This isn’t really a healthy situation, but it can be turned to use…

*** “The Case of the Angry Traveler” (A Dana Roberts Adventure)”–Joe R. Lansdale
Mole people! Paranormal investigators! Aliens! A fun tale, felt like it would make a great TV episode.

3 star average, exactly.


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Razor’s Edge – Martha Wells ***

(Star Wars)

I received this book through Goodreads’ First Reads program! Thanks to Goodreads and the author!

This was the first Star Wars tie-in book I’ve read since the original Alan Dean Foster ones, Back In The Day. But I’d heard good things about Martha Wells and was curious to read something by her.

What most struck me about ‘Razor’s Edge’ was how well Wells captured the Star Wars characters. You could definitely vividly ‘see’ and ‘hear’ Leia, Han, Luke, &c.; it was all very true to the films.

However – I felt a lack of urgency in the book. I didn’t feel the need to rush to finish it, at all. I don’t think this is the author’s fault – I think it’s an artifact of it being a tie-in, relating an incident wedged between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – we already know that no matter how dire the situations the main characters find themselves in, everything will be OK (for the time being), and there’s no room for any change in the dynamics of their interpersonal relationships.

However, that aside – this is a fun, action-filled book, with Space Pirates thrown into the conflict between Imperial troops and the Rebel Alliance. Good fun.


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Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins ****

I picked this up because it was described a being very similar in style to China Mieville.
It was – but I don’t think it felt derivative at all.
It was sort of like if Mieville met Martin Cruz Smith met Philip Kerr. It may sound strange, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.

Set in an alternate Soviet state, Vissarion Lom is a ‘good’ cop, who sees it as an unexpected opportunity when he’s called to the capital to undertake a secret investigation. But of course – he gets into far more than he expected, and ends up questioning everything he thought he knew about himself and his society.

Higgins does a great job of creating his dark and atmospheric world, and weaving in mythological and original fantasy and science-fiction elements. (And really, just some wonderfully weird and grotesque things…) I’m impressed.

I’ll be picking up the sequel… and yes, it is all too obvious that there will be a sequel, but I liked it enough that I’m deducting no points for the cliffhanger-ish ending.


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Far Horizons: All New Tales from the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction – Robert Silverberg, ed.

*****”Old Music and the Slave Woman” – Ursula K. LeGuin.
Yes, I checked this book out from the library because I saw that it had a LeGuin story I hadn’t read before! And yes, this alone was worth the price of admission. (Well, since it was from the library there wasn’t a price, but, you know…)
Set in the world of the Ekumen. The egalitarian interplanetary alliance has come to this corner of the galaxy. Ideas of freedom have spread, causing riots and rebellion in a society based on racial slavery. An ambassador of the Ekumen is kidnapped by those who hope to use him as a political mouthpiece, and imprisoned.
A mere recital of the events of the tale can’t come even close to LeGuin’s succinct but thorough exploration of the evils of social injustice, tempered by the further evils that can happen when lofty ideals meet imperfect human reality. There’s more here to think about than in a dozen angry political screeds, and much more of worth.

*** “A Separate War” – Joe Haldeman.
A story which fills in a ‘gap’ covering what happened to one of the main characters in ‘The Forever War’ when the two protagonists were separated. A heterosexual woman from our time period deals with losing her lover, is trained for officership in a space military, and comes to terms with living in a homosexual future. I didn’t enjoy this as much as I remember liking ‘Forever War,’ but it was OK.

** “Investment Counselor” – Orson Scott Card.
This story introduces Ender Wiggin (of ‘Ender’s Game’) to the AI, Jane. Ender has just turned 20 and must figure out how to deal with his huge and hugely complicated trust fund. Jane presents herself as a piece of accounting software. While ‘Jane’ is the star of the show, here (by far the most intriguing and likable character in the story), the piece doesn’t answer enough questions about her to really stand on its own – it feels like a piece of deus ex machina. The custom of ‘speaking for the dead’ as described here, is unconvincing – a better job has been done elsewhere in Card’s work.

** “Temptation” – David Brin.
I’ve read Brin’s first ‘Uplift’ trilogy, but years ago. I remember thinking they were pretty all right, but haven’t gotten around to the second trilogy. This short story set in that world, didn’t really do it for me. It had a bit too much jammed into not enough pages, and the action and philosophy didn’t quite mesh. Rather a lot of time is spent in setting up a reasonably interesting sci-fi scenario – and then it’s sort of dropped: “Wait! Something new has come along! Now we are going to be faced with a philosophical dilemma having to do with the nature of reality and free will!” The terms in which the dilemma is discussed also seemed somewhat out of character for the individuals involved, as they’d been presented up until then. I also just didn’t find his sentient dolphins to be very compelling characters.

** “Getting to Know the Dragon” – Robert Silverberg.
Since Silverberg’s the editor, I guess he gets to put in whatever he wants! I haven’t read any of Silverberg’s other ‘Roma Aeterna’ alternate history stories, but I didn’t find this one to be among his best work. Again, there are two parts to the story that don’t really mesh that well. The main character, a scholar and ‘Renaissance’ man in a world dominated by the Roman emperor, has to deal with being co-opted into manic Imperial plans for grandiose architectural projects. The same character then reads a journal, recently unearthed from archives, telling the story of the hero Emperor Trajan’s journey around the globe. Like Captain Cook or Columbus, his supposedly heroic journey was actually marked by cruelty and barbarism. The take away seems to be that a ‘decadent’ and peaceful society may be better than a supposedly ‘progressive’ one. I’m fine with that premise, but the story just didn’t fully win me over.

*** “Orphans of the Helix” – Dan Simmons
For some reason, the introduction to/description of this story didn’t really grab me – but I actually really liked the story itself. It effectively advertised Simmons’ Hyperion books, which I haven’t yet read – but definitely want to. A bit reminiscent of a Star Trek episode, this short story has the AIs of a colony ship wake some of the crew to deal with a problem they’ve encountered – a far-flung colony is being harassed by a seemingly automated alien ‘harvester’ ship. Very enjoyable.

*** “Sleeping Dogs” – Nancy Kress
Set in the world of her ‘Sleepless’ novels, this short story makes a bit of a side-note on how her theoretical new bio-technologies might affect the lower echelons of society. A ‘trailer-trash’ type family illegally purchases some genetically modified puppies. Tragedy – and revenge – ensues. Not bad, but it didn’t fully transcend stereotypes.

*** “The Boy Who Would Live Forever” – Frederick Pohl
I believe this story was later expanded into a novel of the same name. It’s part of the ‘Heechee’ saga, which, due to the silly name, I always feel ought to be absurd and comic, but is actually fairly earnest sci-fi. This is very much in the vein of ‘classic sci-fi for boys.’ A young man (and his buddy) are willing to stake everything on a gamble of a mission – setting out randomly in an alien ship and hoping to find something of monetary value. But what he finds exceeds his wildest dreams…

*** “The Ship that Returned” – Anne McCaffrey.
Really, more like 2.5. The brain-ship Helva (of ‘The Ship Who Sang’ series) is experiencing grief after the death of her elderly partner, but finds herself a mission and some coping strategies to help her deal with it. McCaffrey’s very old-fashioned ideas regarding interpersonal relationships are very much on display here, but, as with most of her work, the writing style is breezily entertaining.

* “The Way of all the Ghosts” – Greg Bear
Maybe it was just my state of mind, but this story completely failed to keep my attention. I haven’t read any of the associated material, so maybe that has something to do with it. The premise – a team of misfits sent to deal with some kind of problem involving a tube-shaped pocket universe and alternate timestreams – seemed much more interesting than the snoozy actuality.

2.7 rounds up to 3 – LeGuin rescued this book from being a 2.


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Blameless – Gail Carriger ***

(Parasol Protectorate #3)
Two different people asked me about this book while I was reading it, which must indicate that the cover is attractive!

I said, in answer to their queries, something like: “Well, I’m up to the third in the series, and I’ve already got the next two, so yes, I would recommend them. They’re good fun. It’s the 19th century, there’re vampires and werewolves, action and romance. I wouldn’t claim they’re the best books in the world, but they’re good entertainment.”

I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one however – I think enjoyment would be greatly enhanced by getting to know the characters through the first two – without that, it might seem a little skimpy. Yes, the plot is quite silly, but there are some genuinely funny moments.


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The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan ****

I always enjoy Amy Tan’s writing, and this book, her latest, was no exception.
Here, Tan spins a lengthy but absorbing tale of a half-Chinese courtesan in the Shanghai of the early 20th century.
By turns sad and sexy, it ultimately unfolds that this is a story, more than anything else, of the relationships between mothers and daughters, as three generations of women unwittingly re-enact cyclical, mirrored events through their lives. (And unsurprising theme for Tan.)

The book can be a little slow at times, and there’s one section, which, after reading some descriptions, I believe was previously published on its own, as ‘Rules for Virgins,’ which really doesn’t fit in with the flow of the rest of the book, as far as styles and tone. However, overall, the novel really succeeds in bringing to life both a bygone era and the people who lived and loved in that world.

Recommended for fans of (but much better than) ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ It also reminded me of parts of ‘The Good Earth.’