readingtrance

book reviews by Althea

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 7 – Jonathan Strahan, ed.

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**** The Contrary Gardener – Christopher Rowe
In a war-torn future America, ‘agriculture’ is no longer practiced – but everyone grows ‘victory gardens’ featuring bio-engineered crops to help with the war effort. (And everyone still turns out for the Kentucky Derby, fancy hats and all.) A talented gardener’s complicated personal relationship with her father comes into play, when he sets her up for a meeting with some ‘friends’ who want a favor. New author to me; I’m favorably impressed.

*****The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times – Eleanor Arnason
A myth from an alien culture. I absolutely love this sort of thing, and this is done very, very well – it rings true. Apparently, Arnason has written a whole string of stories about the Hwarhath – they sound fascinating; I’ll have to seek them out.

**** Close Encounters – Andy Duncan
I’m not usually a fan of UFO-type stories, but this is a nicely done, wistful tale of an elderly man who’s put his former fame as an alleged contactee behind him. But when a lovely woman knocks on his door asking for an interview, the past gets stirred up unexpectedly.

**** Great-grandmother in the Cellar – Peter S. Beagle
Excellent, traditional-feeling fantasy story. A young woman is cast into a magical sleep by her no-good suitor, and her brother must call on his deceased but magical great-grandmother to help remedy the situation.

*****The Easthound – Nalo Hopkinson
OK, I previously said the Hopkinson selection in the previous volume of this anthology was my favorite. But this story is now my favorite Hopkinson. I wholeheartedly loved it. It is quite similar to the Star Trek episode, ‘Miri’ (also one of my favorites). However, it’s a lot bleaker – and there are werewolves.

**** Goggles – Caitlin R. Kiernan
A wonderfully bleak entry into the steampunk genre. Well, it’s really steampunk only in the throwaway details – we’re given to know that the state of the world is due to Tesla’s experiments, and that there was a former age of dirigibles, etc. But what we’ve got here is a group of children, hiding in a bunker and guided by a probably-insane teacher, going on highly-dangerous missions to scavenge food.

*** Bricks, Sticks, Straw – Gwyneth Jones
Four AI software clones – copies of the minds of actual human researchers – are stranded in the outer solar system when something goes wrong with their mission. Each deals differently with their newly-found independence.

**** A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones – Genevieve Valentine
At either end of a monitoring station, a staffer keeping an eye on the progress of a ship that has just left Earth. On one end, a young man whose parents took him to space at a young age, who’s homesick for the Earth he will never see again. On the other end, an Indian woman filled with longing for the chance she’ll never have to escape the dying Earth. Very poignant.

*** The Grinnell Method – Molly Gloss
Hmm. Although the ornithologist here is explicitly only following the Grinnell method of taking notes, there are some interesting parallels with Joseph and Hilda Wood Grinnell’s actual life: Joseph’s widow, Hilda, was (like the protagonist) also an educated scientist whose work was probably under-appreciated, and who continued her husband’s work after his death. Interesting!
Here, the scientist finds a young girl to mentor, and notices bizarre events connected to an atmospheric phenomenon. And – that’s about it. Nice set-up, but very inconclusive.

*** Beautiful Boys – Theodora Goss
A researcher theorizes that the bad-boys who steal her heart are actually aliens here to seduce Earth women. I wasn’t as impressed with this as I expect to be by Goss’ work.

*** The Education of a Witch – Ellen Klages
In this exploration of sibling jealousy, a young girl takes Disney’s Maleficent as a role model – with unexpectedly dramatic results. I can’t say I can’t relate… (http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photo…)

*** Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, The Potter’s Garden – Paul McAuley
This is good, but it seems like an addendum, or ‘bonus’ material to a longer work.
Mai Kumal accedes to her estranged father’s last wish, after he dies, and travels through space to the habitat where he spent his last days. She spends some time getting to know the people he lived with, and viewing the art that he was devoted to, coming to a greater appreciation of who he was as a person and an artist.
It’s weirdly structured, with a rather long ancillary story shoved in there (the ‘Ring Racing’ segment). I really felt like there ought to be another novel somewhere about Mai’s father’s life, but I don’t believe there is.

**** What Did Tessimond Tell You? – Adam Roberts
Take the wry, academic humor of Connie Willis, cross it with the science-oriented ideas of Ted Chiang, and you’ve got something close to this story. I didn’t like it quite as much as Willis or Chiang – but it’s really quite good.

*** Adventure Story – Neil Gaiman
Imagine if, late in life, your mother told you, sort of offhandedly, about the time, before he met her, that your deceased father was involved in goings-on straight out of ‘The Lost World.’ Brief, funny, but there’s not much to it.

*** Katabasis – Robert Reed
Contrasts an alien woman’s current job as a porter for a future fad for extreme trekking (people are immortal, thanks to technology, so they can take a lot of abuse in alien landscapes), with her past experience making nearly the same trek as part of her tribe’s last, desperate act (a trek that makes the Trail of Tears look like an afternoon stroll). Some good stuff here, but it dragged a bit (something that often happens when characters are going through boring and agonizing experiences.)

**** Troll Blood – Peter Dickinson
Very, very nice mythopoeic piece melding academic study of Scandinavian sagas with an actual encounter with the subject of one of these Beowulf-type sagas. My only complaint was that the resolution felt a little bit too easy, but overall this is a beautiful, resonant story.

**** The Color Least Used By Nature – Ted Kosmatka
A grand tragedy. Possibly one of the most emotionally wrenching things I’ve read, ever. I’m giving it 4 stars, because I feel like the writing deserves it, but – I can’t honestly say I *liked* it, emotionally. It’s about the life of a Hawaiian man, caught in a changing culture, contributing to the dying of his island’s last magic, and failing in life at nearly everything he does. Written with understanding and honesty – but oh, people are jut awful in their weakness.

*** Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls – Rachel Pollack
An adventure that definitely feels like part of a series – but I don’t believe it is. Jack Shade is a poker-playing occult specialist who seems to specialize in freeing trapped souls… But when a mild-mannered but wealthy widower asks for his help, he unwittingly gets into something deeper than expected.

*** Two Houses – Kelly Link
A small group of astronauts, far out in lonely space, tell each other ghost stories and succeed in freaking each other out. I actually really liked the main ‘secondary’ story in the piece (creepy art installation!), but I didn’t think that the parallel that was set up worked as well as it should have.

**** Blood Drive – Jeffrey Ford
A very funny and dark satire of our gun culture and school shootings.

** Mantis Wives – Kij Johnson
“Love will tear us apart, again.” Anthropomorphism of mantises who have made sexual cannibalism an art form serves as a commentary on human relationships. Creepy, but felt more like notes than a finished product.

* Immersion – Aliette de Bodard
Written well, but I strongly disagree with de Bodard’s metaphorical characterization of sophisticated ‘galactic’ (global) culture as an addictive habit that will take over and destroy ‘purer,’ ‘simpler’ cultures. Sure, sure, the ‘tourism’ device she imagines certainly could have the problems and potentials she mentions, but that’s not what she’s really talking about. She’s talking about ‘cultural immersion,’ and objecting to (or treating with condescending sympathy) people who choose not to remain ‘true’ to their ‘ancestral culture,’ and characterizing them as ‘lost souls.’ I read the end of the story as an argument in favor of some kind of ‘separate but equal’ scenario, and an argument that people from different backgrounds literally cannot *think* in the same way and can never truly understand each other. As a believer in shared humanity, and a believer in the ability of creative works (and yes, even our technological devices) to help different peoples understand one another, I find the underlying messages in this story not just wrong, but pernicious.

***** About Fairies – Pat Murphy
A very autobiographical-feeling story which deals sensitively and effectively with dealing with the illness and death of a parent, whilst in the middle of life. And about Peter Pan, and the sanitization of dangerous myths, and, of course, about fairies… Truly excellent. I really wish Pat Murphy was more prolific as a writer.

**** Let Maps to Others – K.J. Parker
Another excellent short story by Parker, which makes me pleased that I ordered two books from this author since reading the story in last year’s ‘Best’ anthology. There are really two parts to this story – the first explores academic competition and one-upmanship, taken to a disturbing level. The second, following from the results of the first, probes literal exploration, and the consequences of obsession – with a heaping dose of irony.

** Joke in Four Panels – Robert Shearman
Overly sentimental and kind of squicky (pretend to be a loyal dog? Really?) analysis of the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip.

**** Reindeer Mountain – Karin Tidbeck
Already read, in ‘Jagannath’: “Two sisters, rivals. A conflict over a family heirloom. A family tale, folklore about the mysterious Sidhe-like ‘vittra.’ One girl has always dreamed of other worlds. She’d be delighted to be swept off by a fairy lover to ‘under the hill.’ But that’s not what happens.”

*** Domestic Magic – Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem
Just because your mother happens to have the powers of a witch, doesn’t mean that she’s a good mother…

** Swift, Brutal Retaliation – Meghan McCarron
A pair of sisters in a mildly dysfunctional family are haunted by the ghost of their recently-deceased brother. Really not up to best-of-the-year standards; the conclusion where it sums up everyone’s feelings and motivations is written very awkwardly.

*** Nahiku West – Linda Nagata
A noir murder-mystery set in a future where nanotech biotech is ubiquitous – but strictly regulated. The story does an excellent job of capturing the angsty tropes of the genre, while creating a scenario that depends on its imagined future – the sci-fi setting isn’t just a veneer.

*** Fade to White – Catherynne M. Valente
A dystopic, Handmaid’s Tale-influenced tale where WWII went far more nuclear than it did in our timestream. Most American men are infertile. Radiation is everywhere. And society is desperately clinging to the 1950’s-style myth of a perfect America filled with blonde children and devoted housewives.

** Significant Dust – Margo Lanagan
A teenager, horsing around, has accidentally caused her sister’s paralysis, and is consumed with guilt. She has run from the situation, and is now in what seems to be a remote Australian roadhouse/outpost, which seems to be plagued by disoriented time travellers and UFOs. But it’s not really clear. The way the story’s structured, with slow reveals, leads the reader to expect that things will eventually become clear – but they don’t, and it end very inconclusively (and for me, unsatisfyingly.)

*****Mono No Aware – Ken Liu.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.”
Ken Liu has done it again. This story should win awards this year. Here, Liu explores the Japanese cultural concept of acceptance of the transience of all things, in the face of an Earth facing imminent destruction from a rogue asteroid – and characters who make the decisions they believe to be right. I’m not usually a big proponent of self-sacrifice, but the examples in this story make a good case. Emotionally wrenching, and beautiful.

3.4 average rounds up to 4, because I want it to.

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