readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

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

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**** 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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