book reviews by Althea

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Well, anyone that took a look at the Hugo Nominations noticed that the trolls and their slate voting took over once again. It’s an obviously-easy thing to do, because anyone who’s actually reading fiction regularly is going to have their own unique take on things; their own favorite authors, genres, styles, and mix of themes. It is vanishingly unlikely, given the sheer amount of work published in any given year, that there would be anything even slightly approaching the consensus that a ‘slate’ allows. So with the “Puppies” and their slate, what we end up with is like, instead of having our (flawed) two-party political system where basically we have two competing slates, what we have is a one-party system where the majority of voters are voting for a personal acquaintance whom they personally feel is a good candidate, but a vocal minority are voting in lockstep for someone they’ve never met, but who has been nominated by the party. In this kind of situation, the ‘party’ will always win. It’s not a new idea; it’s why political parties exist.

However, slate voting is antithetical to the whole concept of an artistic award. The award depends on the honest opinions of voters who really want to share their personal acquaintance’s sterling qualities with you, and to let you get to know them. Forming a competing party would utterly defeat that purpose.

So, what to do?

First, let’s shoot down any idea that the Puppies this year are even science fiction fans who are disgruntled that the stories they like aren’t getting the recognition they believe they deserve. In previous years, I do believe that some of the Sad Puppies were those people, led by a few writers who just found themselves unable to face the fact that their own writing just isn’t really as good as they believe it to be. This year, the Sad Puppies backed way down and I actually (perhaps naively?) found their new mouthpieces’ statements about getting more people interested and involved in the Hugo process and SF in general to be a bit believable.

However, then there’s the Rabid Puppies, who picked up steam this year. I spent a bit of time today reading some of their comment threads on various forums. And something became clear to me (I guess it’s not a secret). It’s not just that their tactics are “like” Gamergate’s – these voters ARE the Gamergate people. The same individuals, who have moved on to a new target. They were totally open about the fact that they haven’t read any of the stories/books, and have no interest in doing so. (I didn’t get the impression that they’re big readers at all.) They’re “it’s about the quality of the work” rallying cry is delivered with the exact same “wink wink nudge nudge” that “it’s about ethics in game journalism” was delivered with. They are fully cognizant that it’s got nothing to do with quality sci-fi (or journalism ethics). It’s all about stirring a pot of earnest and well-meaning people to hear the frantic buzzing as their comfortable nest is disturbed. They are 4chan-style cellar-dwelling trolls, doing it “4 the lulz.” The more upset people get, the more delighted they are.

In Hugo voters, they’ve found a small and concentrated hive of people to are really awfully easy to stir into a frenzy. I only became a Hugo voter this year. But I’ve read nearly all the Hugo winners. I grew up with the award always being there, and have always felt a lot of respect for it. It’s reliably been a way to select some usually-excellent reading material. However, I also do recognize that the claim that the award has been cliquish is not wholly without merit (it’s just not, as alleged, some kind of leftist conspiracy – which is a completely absurd and verifiably false theory). The voting pool was always drawn from a certain segment of fandom, and a great many of the authors and voters have always known each other. This is unavoidable, to a certain degree. You are going to read the work of people you know, authors you like, authors your friends recommended to you. And then you are going to vote for something that you read. So it undeniably has sometimes been hard for an author coming from outside of a certain circle to get recognition within that circle. There are certainly many excellent authors writing what I would call speculative fiction who have never received recognition on a Hugo ballot. (No, none of them have appeared on a Puppy slate – they seem to be adept at ‘recognizing’ some remarkably crappy work.)

The obvious question that many have been asking is, “How do we foil the trolls and get ‘our’ awards back?’ My question today:

Do we need the Hugo Awards?

It pains me to even type that question.

But, do we? Honestly, populist voting isn’t often the way to get high-quality content. Populist voting, in the age of the Internet, gets you ‘Boaty McBoatface.’ (OK, that was funny, but if you’re not personally invested, nominating anonymous dinosaur-themed porn for a serious literary award is kind of funny too.) Look at the winners of the Goodreads Choice awards. They are popular books, but are they generally the best literature?
It’s possible to go the way of the Nebula, and have stricter regulations about who is a qualified voter. There are potential benefits there, but drawbacks as well – again, it negates the concept of having a ‘fan choice’ award.

But, things have changed since the days when the Hugo was started. Technology makes it possible to rally and rouse mobs of strangers to unified trolling efforts. That same technology has also enabled more people to read more published stories than ever before. It’s no longer just a few monthly or biannual fanzines, where, if you have your subscriptions, you can count on having read nearly every qualified story. SF is everywhere now, and there’s more than any one human could read in a lifetime. But our technology, again, has enabled every reader to find an online community of like-minded readers, to have easy access to reviews, recommendations, read-alikes and a plethora of resources to help every single fan find the stories that they personally love. While technology has made it possible for the Hugo Awards to be sabotaged, it has also made them less important in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, I’ll be sad if they go. I hope they don’t. I do think that if they are to remain, the committee absolutely has to disqualify any ballots that reflect a slate. I don’t believe there’d be any legitimate problem with doing so, because, as I said at the beginning of this, it is virtually impossible to nominate with your true opinions and have those opinions precisely match anyone else’s. ‘Any’ identical ballot is suspicious, ‘many’ is a sure sign of trying to game the system.

To me, the choice is clear: disqualify slates, or give up on the awards. Because if it isn’t the ‘Puppies’ it’ll just be some other group next time…


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Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol – Maurice Level ***

Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol
Thirty Hours with a Corpse: and Other Tales of the Grand Guignol by Maurice Level

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very interesting anthology of short stories by this prolific and largely overlooked French author. These are probably best read in small doses, rather than one after the other in large chunks, due to a certain similarity in structure that becomes obvious after a while (the horrific ‘twist’!) – but they’re definitely enjoyable as entertainment, as well as being a fascinating glimpse into the concerns and attitudes of the average French citizen of the times.

The Debt Collector • (1920) • (trans. of L’encaisseur 1910)
Ten years at a bank have established our protagonist as a model employee. So he counts on getting a light sentence after turning himself in for having ‘lost’ the funds entrusted to him. He’s got a scheme… but not all works out quite as planned.

The Kennel • (1920)
A jealous husband is ruthless when the body of a neighbor is found in his unloving wife’s bedroom. (Note to self: regard anyone who keeps vicious animals with suspicious caution.)

Who? • (1920)
It’s passing strange that a chance-met stranger resembles the face a doctor has imagined as that of the skull that adorns his study. But it may be more than mere coincidence.

Illusion • (1920) • (trans. of Illusion… 1910)
A destitute beggar encounters one even more unfortunate than himself: a beggar who is blind. Moved by the blind man’s plight, and unseen, for one evening he poses as a wealthy benefactor. Although it has its touch of horror, overall this is a touching and meaningful story about the good in humanity, rather than the evil.

In the Light of the Red Lamp • (1909) • (trans. of Sous la lumière rouge 1906)
Fragile with grief, a widower asks his friend to accompany him while he develops the last, postmortem photograph of his deceased wife. In the darkroom, he discovers something terrible.

A Mistake • (1920)
Should a doctor be held responsible for decisions resulting from a faulty diagnosis? One patient thinks so! (But the decisions were really, really horrible.)

Extenuating Circumstances • (1920) • (trans. of Circonstances atténuantes 1910)
I still fail to understand why people ‘stick by’ family members who have committed the most horrible crimes. But they still do, just as the mother in this story stands by her son.

The Confession • (1920)
On his deathbed, a prosecutor confesses that for years, he’s been convinced that the man he sent to the gallows was actually innocent. He’s been weltering in guilt. But, as in most of these short stories, there’s a twist at the end.

The Test • (1920)
Will being confronted with a corpse cause a suspect who loudly proclaims his innocence to change his tune?

Poussette • (1920)
Religious fervor and a horror of the more carnal aspects of life have often been connected. However, one elderly, solitary woman extends her expectations of chastity to her pet cat – and she is doomed to be sorely disappointed.

The Father • (1920) • (trans. of Le père 1910)
Almost a precursor to the daytime talk show here… On her deathbed, a mother leaves her son a letter in which is contained a startling revelation. It’s up to him what he chooses to do with the information.

“For Nothing” • (1920)
After growing up in a single-parent household, and enduring the shame and deprivation of poverty, a man finally, as a last resort, appeals to his wealthy father. The man has never acknowledged him, and he doesn’t really expect him to. He makes a rash decision based on that expectation – which turns out to be a terrible mistake.

In the Wheat • (1920)
Malicious gossip sparks a peasant farmer’s suspicions regarding the behavior of his wife toward their landlord – with drastic results.

The Beggar • (1920) • (trans. of Le mendiant 1910)
Cautionary tale: when a family turned away and threatened the beggar who roused them from sleep; little did they know that he bore an urgent appeal for help from their son. If only they had listened…

Under Chloroform • (1920)
Would you rather put your life in the hands of someone who knows and loves you? Or in the hands of a cool and professional stranger?

The Man Who Lay Asleep • (1920)
Fresh from jail, a career criminal is eager to resume his life of mayhem and violence. Sneaking into a random family’s home with a knife at the ready, he’s got murder on his mind. But little does he know whose house he’s broken into…

Fascination • (1920) • (trans. of Fascination 1910)
Arguably over-dramatic, this short tale is a very remarkably accurate elucidation of the horror of that strange human urge to do the most drastic and irrevocable things we can imagine – even if we have no particular desire to do them.

The Bastard • (1920)
When a father becomes convinced that his beloved small son is not actually his child, he loses his mind – and tragedy results.

That Scoundrel Miron • (1920)
After falling into debt, an artist flees and creates a new identity in order to escape the arm of the law. Many years later, when he believes his old identity must be long-forgotten, he ventures back into art, using a new name. But the first gallery owner he encounters remembers the vanished Miron – and compares his new work favorably. Upon which, Miron freaks out. I found this one unconvincing, psychologically.

The Taint • (1920)
Huh. Who knew that something like epilepsy used to be considered such a shameful thing, on a level with how mental illness was viewed?

The Kiss • (1920) • (trans. of Le baiser 1910)
Dying of a self-inflicted wound, a lovelorn young man makes a sentimental final connection with the nun tending to his bedside.

A Maniac • (1920) • (trans. of Un maniaque 1910)
Night after night, a bloodthirsty spectator attends a daredevil show, hoping to see the performer have a terrible accident. The performer might just assume he has a devoted fan…

The 10:50 Express • (1920) • (trans. of Le rapide de 10 h. 50 1910)
The trauma of a train conductor who was on duty during a terrible accident.

Blue Eyes • (1919) • (trans. of ” Mes yeux ” 1904)
Barely recovered from a long illness, a young woman convinces the doctor to release her from hospital so that she can commemorate the anniversary of her lover’s death. But all is not as sweet as it seems: her lover was executed for the crime of murder. Still, the penniless, ailing woman is willing to do just about anything to be able to buy flowers to place on his grave.

The Empty House • (1920) • (trans. of La maison vide 1910)
A nervous burglar has an unexpected encounter within the house he’s ransacking. The story has a certain weakness I’ve encountered in other writing from around this time period: (view spoiler)

The Last Kiss • (1920)
Why would a man who’d been horribly disfigured with acid by his own wife, go to court and plead for her acquittal? His only request is that, when released, she come to visit him, alone. And then, we discover his reason.

Under Ether • (1918)
During WWI, a doctor is bound to treat any injured person – even an enemy soldier. From opposite sides of the conflict, the two men profess respect for one another. But on the operating table, a contradictory truth may be revealed.

The Spirit of Alsace • (1918)
A small village sends all of its able-bodied men off to fight in WWI. Practically as soon as they leave, the invaders march in, demanding supplies – and information. An elderly shopkeeper turns ‘traitor’ – or does he?

At the Movies • (1918)
Since her husband went ‘missing’ at the front, a woman has presumed herself to be a widow. After all, what other explanation could there be for having no word for over two years? She regales her small son with tales of his absent hero father. But when they go to see a documentary newsreel about life on the battlefield, an unpleasant revelation is discovered.

The Little Soldier • (1918)
On a date, a soldier recuperating from a wound tells his admirer war stories and behaves with gallantry. But although he’s survived the battlefield, he’s not out of danger yet. Very sentimental.

The Great Scene • (1918)
A playwright is frustrated that his star actor simply refuses to play a dramatic scene with the passion he intended. But real life tragedy doesn’t always result in histrionics.

After the War • (1918)
Playing up to anti-German sentiment, for sure… but a wonderfully cynical look at the limits of good intentions. The German officer billeted in the homes of French citizens states loudly that he only believes in doing what War makes necessary, and in not causing any more difficulty for civilians than in unavoidable. But will he make sure that what he preaches is practiced?

The Appalling Gift • (1923)
Ah-hah-hah-hah! This one is hilarious! And somehow, not ‘dated’ at all. Some things never change… An elderly relative gifts a couple who pride themselves on their impeccable taste with an enormous and hideous decorative vase. Their efforts to avoid insulting the giver gradually increase…

Night and Silence • (1922)
A trio of disabled siblings, hampered by their problems, come to grief. This grotesque tale puts the issues faced by the blind men and the elephant to shame!

The Cripple • (1933)
How cruel must a man be to only begrudgingly pay a farmhand the settlement granted him by the courts, when, after a terrible on-the-job accident, he’s lost the use of his hands? How dare he doubt the man’s disability and suffering? How terrible must it be to be crippled, unable to even help those around you in an emergency? Well… here’s a cynical answer.

The Look • (1933) • (trans. of Le Regard 1906)
Having developed a secret passion for another man’s wife, a doctor has found himself in the odd position of having become a close associate of the husband. He’s there when a terrible accident happens one day, and finds himself in the position of having his rival’s life in his hands.

The Horror on the Night Express • (1934)
In a train compartment, strangers often get to talking to one another during a long journey. One young woman is full of gossip about the latest outrage to hit the tabloids: the unsolved murder of a woman. Her husband is strangely loath to talk about the news. But by chance, one of the other men on the train was actually an investigator assigned to the case… and the information he reveals will lead to a dramatic act.

Thirty Hours with a Corpse • (1934)
A farcical tragedy. Two young men are in their rented apartment with the body of a recently-killed young woman. Together, they plan to escape and leave town before the death is discovered. But events conspire to stop them: first they’re not allowed to vacate the premises because they’re behind on their rent, then the boyfriend of the dead woman shows up looking for… one thing after another. Will they make their getaway? And why did she end up dead, after all? A bit more in-depth and developed than most of the short tales in this volume.

She Thought of Everything • (1935)
No longer in love with her husband, and eager to be with her secret lover, a wife carefully plots to kill her husband. But will ‘thinking of everything’ mean that her scheme will proceed as planned?

Many thanks to NetGalley and Dover for the opportunity to read this collection. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Magic Bites – Ilona Andrews ***

Magic Bites
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read because it was a book club selection. I’d heard good things about the author, so I was happy to check out the first in this popular series.

Well… it wasn’t bad. What I said in my book club: “Kate Daniels” is like “Anita Blake” for people who don’t like reading about explicit sex. It seems like these days, there is a virtual glut of these heroines… it’s not a genre I always go out of my way to seek out, but I thought this Ilona Andrews book was also comparable to (although also superior to) books I’ve read by Patricia Briggs, Kelley Armstrong and Chloe Neill.

“Magic Bites” introduces us to an intriguing near-future which is subject to ‘waves’ of magic. The emergence of this magic has wreaked a certain degree of chaos on society, as it is unpredictable as to whether supernatural energies or technology will be ascendant at any given time. Along with magic, supernatural beings are now part of the new normal – and some of them are highly dangerous. I very much appreciated how the world was handled, without too much ‘telling.’ What’s taken for granted by our protagonist, Kate, is taken for granted by the narrative, and the reader just has to catch on. It’s done well.

Kate is a strong, independent, smart-ass young mercenary. She wields a sword as well as having magical powers. She’s previously been offered a good job working with an organized magical agency, but has turned it down due to her (proudly-held) attitudes regarding authority. But now, her guardian, who worked at said agency, has been murdered. Kate must team up with his former colleagues in order to unravel the mystery and solve the crime.

If you’re a fan of the genre (urban, paranormal/supernatural fantasy investigation with a hint of romance) this checks off all the boxes that you probably want ticked, and is done quite competently. However, for me, it didn’t really transcend the genre. It was a good piece of entertainment, but I didn’t fall in love with the characters enough to rush out and find the sequels.

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A Shadow All of Light – Fred Chapell ***

A Shadow All of Light: A Novel
A Shadow All of Light: A Novel by Fred Chappell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe it’s just that I read ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ just recently, but I don’t think so. This book really brings Fritz Leiber and his ilk to mind, harking back intentionally to the swords and sorcery of an earlier era. The episodic structure and ‘low fantasy’ theme are similar to the Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser tales. The language that it’s told in definitely references Jack Vance. (Think: a liberal sprinkling of archaic and ‘ten-cent’ words in the midst of an otherwise informal, chatty narrative.)

As far as that goes, YMMV. I know many people love Vance’s writing style and laud it to the heavens. I personally have tended to find his prose stylings annoying. However, I actually found the language here amusing, because it fit with the narrator’s personality of a belatedly-educated man with the desire to impress his readers.

This narrator is known as Falco, a onetime ‘country bumpkin’ who came to the big city with the goal – in which he succeeds – of convincing the notorious shadow master (or thief?) Maestro Astolfo to take him on as an apprentice. In this world, shadows are a commodity. They can be separated from their owners, bought and sold, used for disguise or other purposes. Much of the trade in shadows is less than wholly legitimate.

In this volume, Falco tells us a series of tales, spanning a couple of decades, of his various adventures (and misadventures) working for and with the Maestro. Sorceresses, pirates, burglaries, assassins, booby traps, magicked jewels, double-crosses and suchlike accoutrements of fantasy adventures all make their appearances.

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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Poison Study – Maria V. Snyder ****

Poison Study
Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this one up based on all the glowing reviews I saw here on Goodreads. Thanks, Goodreads friends! 😉

This is a purely enjoyable fantasy. I’d classify it as a ‘comfort read,’ but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. There’s room set aside for escapism in my library!

Yelena has been sentenced to die for the crime of murder. At the last minute, she is dragged out of the dungeon and offered a reprieve: she can opt to avoid execution if she agrees to take the job of food taster to the king. In this chaotic kingdom, the post tends to have a high turnover rate as poisonings are quite common. Still, even a small chance at life seems better than no life at all, and Yelena (unsurprisingly) jumps at the opportunity.

The chief of security, Valek, takes her under his wing as he trains her to recognize the known poisons and identify them. But while he seems kind at times, he also has Yelena chained to his service by the threat of a slow-acting poison. Although she begins to grow comfortable and even to enjoy her new life, she is increasingly driven by the growing realization that she may be capable of magic – a magic that is strictly forbidden in this kingdom. This magic may also be related to Yelena’s traumatic past – and the murder that she admits that she committed.

I’ve already got the sequel, and am about to start it!

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Thirst – Benjamin Warner ***

Thirst by Benjamin Warner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve belonged to a post-apocalyptic book club for quite a few years now, so I’ve become quite familiar with this genre. (Although, I read this one all on my own, unaffiliated with any club meetings!) And, I have to admit, after a while it begins to feel like many of the books in this genre (post-apocalyptic literary fiction) have more similarities than differences.

For me, ‘Thirst’ reminded me in tone most of Edan Lepucki’s ‘California’ (…) and Karen Walker’s ‘Age of Miracles.’ (…). I think what it has in common with those (and, perhaps more obviously, with McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (…) and the superior melancholy of Shute’s ‘On The Beach’ (…)) is that the apocalyptic event is a phenomenon which isn’t of primary concern to the book. They’re not the stories where man has to figure out solutions and triumph over adversity. The real focus is on the quotidian details of survival (or the failure to survive). It’s about the slow decay of the characters’ lives and relationships, paralleling the decay of the world around them.

(The extended descriptions of the physical and mental effects of thirst also brought to mind parts of Monica Byrne’s ‘Girl in the Road’ (…)).

Of course, each of these books is almost required to come up with at least a slightly-new twist on what the trigger for the final disaster might be. In ‘Thirst,’ one day, inexplicably (and it will remain unexplained, so don’t wait for that), open bodies of fresh water combust and disappear, leaving behind a hot, dry and dusty land. When it happens, Eddie is stuck in a traffic jam and ends up having to run home, concerned about his wife, Laura. The couple are reunited, but everything is far from OK, and they – and their neighbors – begin to realize the true scope of the disaster. Anything drinkable is suddenly the one and only desperately-needed commodity, and ethics and morals erode in the face of duress.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. I’ll definitely be recommending this one to my aforementioned book club. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Arcadia – Iain Pears ****

Arcadia by Iain Pears
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read all of Iain Pears’ novels, and enjoyed all of them. I felt a little bit of trepidation about this one, after hearing that it was designed to be read in an electronic app, with alternate endings available. (…) I found the wisdom of this idea doubtful, as in general, I feel that it’s the author’s job to make those kind of decisions and to stick with them.

However, the printed version of the book, which I read, has no “choose your own adventure”-type elements. And I loved it.

However, it really did not resemble, even slightly, any of Iain Pears’ previous (widely ranging) work. It resembled David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas,’ more than anything.

In Arcadia, we’re introduced to three separate ‘worlds’ – or, maybe, ‘timelines’:

A pastoral realm resembling traditional European fantasy scenarios – with, perhaps, a few hints that this low-tech society might actually be a post-tech, post-‘collapse’ world. When a girl appears out of nowhere one day, like a vision, it’s assumed that she must’ve been a ‘fairy.’

A high-tech future dystopia where overpopulation is extreme, most animals are extinct and society is extremely authoritarian and corporate. But with the exception of a few Luddite rebels, people take their world for granted.

1940’s England – where we meet a tweedy professor who’s a minor member of the Inklings, does a bit of government spy-work on the side, and who works on creating a rather plot-less fantasy world in his spare time.

In the future scenario, we discover that a brilliant researcher has been working on a device that’s either a time machine or a way to travel to – or create – alternate universes. Threatened with a corporate takeover of her work by an amoral CEO who’d use her discoveries unethically, she flees through her machine to a place which will give her time and space to work.

However, when her device is accidentally discovered – and used – events start snowballing out of control. Physics demands that timelines be in ‘agreement’ – and if contradictions are created, whole worlds could end up zapping out of existence.

The above is a vastly simplified summation. This is a nice, twisty, complicated novel. It’s got a bit of the portal fantasy in it, a bit of harking back to HG Wells’ original Time Machine as well as its many descendants – and even, perhaps, a bit of Terminator! The separate worlds are nicely developed in parallel, and the separate threads are brought together masterfully.

Highly recommended. In conclusion, I send out a grimace of annoyance toward the public librarian who snidely informed me that this is “not a science fiction book” and I say, “IS SO!!!”

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