book reviews by Althea

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The Fall of the House of Cabal – Jonathan L. Howard ***

The Fall of the House of Cabal
The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s really funny!!!

This was my first Cabal novel, and I did NOT stop reading it in order to go fetch the earlier books in the series, even when I was ordered to by the author (in no uncertain terms, too!) I’m so sorry, Mr. Howard! (I was snorting out loud with laughter on the subway, though.)

Regardless of the author’s stated wishes, I think the book works just fine as a stand-alone. Plenty of needed information on past events and character development is provided, and I quickly felt like I knew all the characters perfectly well. Although it follows up on prior situations, it’s very much focuses on current action, and it’s mostly a self-contained ‘quest’ tale.

The necromancer Johannes Cabal has come across an ancient tome which has given him clues to the existence of 5 magical thingummies, which, if collected, may reveal a way to revivify his lost love, whose corpse is preserved under his house. He gathers a group to join him, which ends up consisting, in the author’s words, of “something cheerfully devilish, something engagingly vampirical, something stoically witchy, and something peevishly necromantic.”

The adventure will take them not only into alternate realities but into the very depths of hell (where the Satan we know has been replaced by a petty jumped-up bureaucrat with an axe to grind…)

Many thanks to St. Martin’s and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this highly entertaining and humorous tale. (Correct reading order be damned, but I think I may have to loop back and find the others now.) As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Smile of the Stranger – Joan Aiken ***

The Smile of the Stranger
The Smile of the Stranger by Joan Aiken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many other people, I was a big fan of Aiken’s when I was younger, but I was never particularly (if at all) aware that she’d also published books “for adults.” Well, “for adults” is a bit subjective. If this book had first been published recently, rather than in 1978, it would definitely have been marketed as “YA.” The cover, here, also makes the book look soooooper Harlequin-romance-y. I am pleased to report that it is not. As a matter of fact, in nearly all ways, this book is very much in line with Aiken’s other work. It’s a Victorian-esque British historical with plenty of adventure, a bit of creepiness, and a good dollop of humor.

At the outset of the French Revolution, young Juliana Paget has been living with her father in Italy. But one day she relates a bit of a peculiar tale to her father: she was shopping at the milliner’s when she overheard a strange woman asking after her father, a noted writer, and enquiring as to his whereabouts. Her father’s reaction to this news is unexpected, even though Juliana always knew he was a bit of a recluse: he insists on fleeing the country immediately. Even though the elder Paget is in extremely poor health, and the deteriorating political situation makes international travel nearly impossible, he will not be denied, and next thing you know, there’s an escape from a lynch mob and a daring balloon ride. Juliana’s dad tells her that although he has always kept all information about his estranged family from her, she has wealthy relatives in England, and he’s sure that they will be accepted – if only they can get there.

But getting there, as it turns out, will only be half the battle. Will Juliana be able to avoid being married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather, who’s rumored to have done away with his earlier wives, and to be diseased into the bargain? As Juliana tries to make her own way in the world, she realizes that more than one person’s agenda is set in opposition to her well-being – and that there are yet more family secrets that she does not yet know.

My only real quibble with the book is that Juliana’s a bit of a goody-goody, and the villain is a bit too one-dimensional and unsympathetic (especially considering the situation), but the book was still great fun. Although it’s a straight historical, without any fantastic or supernatural elements, I think this would appeal to a lot of steampunk fans.

Many thanks to SourceBooks (who’ve brought this back into print) and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.
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The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas by Paula Guran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*** “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor (Binti,
Previously read, as part of the Hugo Voters’ Packet.
“Enjoyable YA space adventure with an engaging protagonist.
In this future, the Himba tribe of Namibia are an insular minority, looked down upon by the majority Khoush although the Himba have become specialized experts in math and ‘harmonizing,’ producing “astrolabes” (which seem to be the future’s smartphones). Teenage Binti’s skills have won her a coveted scholarship to an intergalactic university, but to her family, it is unthinkable that she would be permitted to leave her tribe and go. Unwilling to let her dreams die, Binti runs away and soon finds herself on a ship en route to Oomza Uni. Unfortunately, that ship is hijacked by alien terrorists.
Although the setup is both fun and fascinating, there were a few plot holes and the way things eventually worked out was too easy and simplistic, I thought.
My issues with the story:
(view spoiler)

2. On a related note, although yes, the professors at the Uni did both the right and the sensible thing by acceding to the terrorists’ demands, it seems inconceivable that none of them would mention the slaughter of a boatload of their colleagues, some of whom would undoubtedly have been close friends, lovers, family… No grief or anger at their loss is shown – only a bit of anger at demands being made. Overall, the mass murder is treated like a quickly-forgotten no-big-deal.

3. Binti’s skin treatment is revealed to be a cure-all to the alien Meduse race. Luckily, it turns out that the formula is not unique to Namibia; it can be produced elsewhere. However, no mention at all is made of the immediately obvious situation: if something you have is valuable to a warlike species, you and ALL OF YOUR PEOPLE are in deep danger. It never seems to occur to Binti that if she can’t provide more of it, the Meduse would undoubtedly invade Namibia for it.

4. In a story this short, there’s room for a limited number of unexplained and logically unlikely thingummies. We start out with one, the mysterious ‘edan’ that Binti found in the desert and uses as a good luck charm. It sure is convenient, when she’s attacked, that her good luck charm turns out to be a mentally-powered force shield AND translation device! But, seeing as there wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t, I can accept that. All the Meduse are appropriately shocked that she can suddenly communicate with them. However, that’s kind of negated when later, it turns out that communication can ALSO be facilitated by a quick ‘sting’ that’s actually some kind of DNA/blood transfusion… I think that having either the ‘sting’ or the ‘edan’ as a plot device, but not both, would’ve made the story stronger.

5. As one last minor point, I would’ve liked more on what ‘harmonizing’ is and how a math/engineering-related skill translates into negotiation skills. But that’s mostly just because Binti’s professional thought processes are interesting. I wanted to find out more about the ‘astrolabes’ she makes, too!
(hide spoiler)]

**** “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 2015)
My favorite piece by de Bodard that I’ve encountered so far.
Court intrigue meets space opera meets family drama. The setting reminded me of Vernor Vinge’s ‘Fire Upon the Deep,’ with it’s sentient ships and bizarre zones of space where physics works differently. It also reminded me of Somtow Sucharitkul’s Inquestor series, with a glittering panoply of an Asian-inspired society with aristocrats, soldiers and scientists.
Thirty years ago, threatened by her mother the Empress, the Bright Princess disappeared along with her space Citadel. Now, upon the brink of war, the Empress seeks her missing daughter – and the cutting-edge weaponry secrets she undoubtedly had, in order to achieve her feat. Her head research scientist is working on the mystery. But when the scientist disappears without a trace, the situation become even more critical. Her top general (and former lover), and her remaining daughter are ordered to investigate. But some situations have no easy solution.

**** “Gypsy,” Carter Scholz (F&SF, Nov/Dec 2015)
Earth has passed the tipping point. The environment is in ruins, states are collapsing, greedy oligarchs and businessmen are grabbing what resources they can for themselves and letting the planet’s billions go to hell. One brilliant scientist forms a desperate, long-shot plan – to secretly divert resources into sending a ship to Alpha Centauri, in the hopes that there will be a planet there where humanity can start again. That ship is the ‘Gypsy’ and this is its story.
The opening of the piece is too “tell-y not show-y” as the author bluntly lays out this near-future scenario, but as it went on, it wholly won me over. It intercuts between letting the reader know how this plan slowly came to fruition, and ‘current events’ aboard the ship.
The story includes a plethora of scientific details and problem-solving which I believe would appeal to fans of Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ – but this story is ever so much better, on so many different levels. It has real dramatic tension (and excellent writing.)
The ‘Gypsy’ was designed for a crew of twenty, who are all in drug-induced hibernation. Only in emergency situations is an expert specializing in the system that the emergency is in, awakened. So the story features a string of emergencies, each dealt with by a different character, whose personality and motivations we learn in their section.
As readers, even as we see the remarkable extremes of human ingenuity and hope, from the beginning, we have to say, “This is more than just a long shot. This might be truly impossible.” I wondered how the author was going to deal with that. And at the end, I thought he pulled it off wonderfully.

*****“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” Usman Malik (The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,
Previously read.
“I’d heard good things about this story before reading it, and it lived up to all of them.
Our narrator grew up hearing stories from his grandfather about the dethroned Mughal princess he knew, living in poverty, running a tea shop in Pakistan which has protected by a jinn. Those tales didn’t seem significant to him until his grandfather dies, and he goes back to Florida for the funeral, from his job as a professor in the Northeast. Among his grandfather’s effects he finds a journal which will lead him to Lahore, in search of a mysterious and secret treasure.
The story seamlessly melds Indiana Jones-style adventure with philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe, and with a sharply-drawn, contemporary depiction of the relationships between lovers, communication between generations, and the difficulties of the immigrant experience. Yes, it’s a lot to take on in one short story, but it all works perfectly.
My one quibble? I’ve always had a fundamental objection to stories where (view spoiler) This story does that with acknowledgement of this problem – but it does it anyway. And I still didn’t love that aspect. But I still loved the story. It’s amazing. Read it!”

*** “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu (F&SF, Mar/Apr 2015)
An alternate history – with a twist. Rather than simply introducing a different possible incident in our history which could lead to variant outcomes, the reader gradually realizes that time here is running backwards. It’s well-done – the idea is introduced smoothly, and the flow of events, one to the other, actually seems to make almost as much sense as the way things really happened. Of course that sense – or rather, the lack thereof, is a main theme of the piece, as Bao Shu brings in Sartre’s existentialism into the narrative.
The ideas are interesting, but the story structure itself feels a bit bare-bones, as the narrator tells the story of his life, starting with his earliest memories at four years old, through student years and being a rebellious youth at Tiananmen Square, up into a distinguished career… Through it all, the one constant is his love for his childhood friend, QiQi, even when she is separated from him – or lost to him. I suspected that the narrative might turn out to be some kind of ‘confession,’ due to its unembellished, matter-of-fact tone. But no, it’s just the style.
The conclusion was a bit sappy in an annoying way, too. (view spoiler) I still found the story overall to be original and thought-provoking.

**** “The Last Witness” by K. J. Parker (The Last Witness,
(Previously read)
What if someone had the ability to erase your unwanted memories? The collateral would be that that person would take on your memories as his own, absorbing them in such a way as to make them indistinguishable from his own past.
What kind of person would you have to be in order to agree to do such a thing? What kind of person would the agglomeration of these memories make you?
If you answered, “not a very nice person,” you would most likely be correct, says K.J. Parker.
The marketing of this novella makes it look like a traditional fantasy story, but it’s actually a much more ambitious, philosophical work – part thought experiment, part character study. I thought it was quite successful – if not necessarily very pleasant.
I think it would be enjoyed by people who liked Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘The Slow Regard of Silent Things,’ but I thought that this novella was actually more interesting.

*** “Inhuman Garbage,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s March 2015)
Murder mystery aboard a space station! A dead body has been discovered, secreted in a recycling bin. Upstanding detective Noelle DeRicci is motivated and determined to solve the case. Unfortunately, from her perspective, no one else seems to be. Her partner is fine with slip-shod work. She certainly doesn’t trust the coroner who’s assigned to the case. The deceased woman’s employer is a suspect – after all, he’s reputed to be involved in organized crime, and he had just fired her, non-amicably. The recycling magnate who reported the body may be hiding something. And her boss seems to want to just drop the case.
Detectives struggling against obstacles and opposition is nothing new in crime fiction – but what makes this story really fun is that we get to see each of these characters’ individual perspectives on the situation. As it turns out, there are more facets to this crime than DeRicci guesses.
This is apparently part of the ‘Retrieval Artist’ series; after reading this I’m definitely interested in exploring more in this universe.
eBook PDF available for free, here:…

*** “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans, Mythic Delirium Books)
A fractured fairy tale – a sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, mixed with elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans.’ Our narrator is a shape-shifting rat-man, a earthy, garbage-loving member of the ‘Fair Folk.’ He treasures his hopeless obsession with Dora Rose, a swan maiden whose lofty beauty puts her far above his league.
But now, a troll-ish/ogre-ish woman masquerading as the human mayor of the town of Amandale is working hard on a grotesque project – she’s using children to hunt down swans and warping an ancient magic to turn their bones into musical instruments. Dora Rose’s family has all been killed, and she’ll be next, unless her hapless suitor can find a way to help her.

*** “Johnny Rev” by Rachel Pollack (F&SF, Jul/Aug 2015)
I’d previously read a companion piece to this one, “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls.” Then, I’d commented that it was written to feel like a short entry in an ongoing series, although it wasn’t. Well, I guess, since then, a couple of more entries have appeared. This one still is chock-full of references to events that seem like they should already be in other books.
Our protagonist, Jack Shade, is an occultist who’s bound by a geas to assist anyone who shows up asking for his help and bearing his business card. But what’s the right thing to do when the holder of the business card is… himself? And the goal of this magically-created duplicate is to defeat none other than – Jack Shade.
It’s a fun urban fantasy tale, but I didn’t really care for the writing style, overall. (I really don’t need to know the color and style of every character’s outfit…)

Many thanks to NetGalley and Prime Books for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature
Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An anthology of ‘speculative’ fiction by author who are known for writing mainstream fiction. I’m not familiar with the majority of the authors, but hey, figured I’d give it a try.

*** “Portal” by J. Robert Lennon
The discovery of a magic portal in the backyard is given an amusing dissonance by the fact that the family who owns it treats it like any other property amenity, such as perhaps, an inground pool. And, the narrator tells us, they’ve allowed it to fall into disuse, in fact, almost forgotten about it, although it was quite the novelty at first, and was used as the starting point of any number of family excursions.
The setup is great, the alternate worlds imaginative and disturbing, especially in their reflections on family members’ obsessions and failings. But then, the author doesn’t really do much with the idea, and simply ends the piece abruptly on a note of indefinite ennui.

**** “Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner
If I’d read this in an anthology of sci-fi shorts from the 50s or 60s, I never would’ve guessed that it didn’t belong. The themes and setting are both very much in line with the concerns of SF of that era – but hey, that’s also probably the era of SF that I discovered first, and that I came to love – so I can’t say it’s a minus in my book.
In this future, the ‘problem’ of aging has been solved. The vast majority of citizens are physically children, although they can live indefinitely in their prepubescent bodies. People who age and die are now a persecuted minority, on the brink of extinction. When an injured adult man turns up on the doorstep of one boy and girl’s home, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen one…

**** “The Squid Who Fell in Love with the Sun” by Ben Loory.
Awww. It’s a sappy parable. But its message about curiosity and ambition; the driving force toward knowledge and exploration – even in the face of ridicule, hopelessness and despair… and its dream of a better, even if unseeable future… brought a tear to my eye.

*** “Five Fucks” by Jonathan Lethem
I’m not generally a big fan of Lethem, but this one had a strong start. After a one-night (or so she thought) stand with a strange (both strange to her, and rather odd) man, a woman discovers that she’s somehow lost time, and has been reported as a missing person. Compelled to find her lover again and investigate what actually happened, the situation only gets worse, and odder…
Up till there, I loved it – but I don’t think that the author succeeds in wrapping it up well at all.

*** “LIMBs” by Julia Elliott
In a near-future nursing home, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient is using new prosthetics to help her to walk unassisted, and is also undergoing a new treatment designed to recover lost memories. Those retrieved flashes of memory allow her to realize that not one, but two of her fellow residents are men who were important to her in the past.
Very well written, but a bit sentimental for me. Recommended for fans of ‘Like Water for Elephants.’

**** “We Are The Olfanauts” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Really good – the introduction made much of this author, but I’m going to have to say I agree with the accolades. Giving us the point of view of a man who works as a content reviewer at a new media company, the story is full of interesting speculative details about new technology, but also subtly and effectively delivers a host of observations and indictments on our present world and where it’s heading.
Like any social media content, the new tech, which involves being able to share scents as well as sound and visuals, is able to be abused by trolls and others. The protagonist here spends his work days reviewing ‘questionable’ content, and his leisure hours pursuing company-approved activities. There’s a lot packed into the short pages here – commentary on corporate culture, the inequity of hierarchies, the emotional toll of this sort of work, the ramifications of censorship, the consequences of adhering to rules, guidelines, and schedules, &c. Nicely done.

**** “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen
An interesting investigation of the ‘time travel paradox.’
A young woman meets a couple of older men in a coffeeshop, and finds their philosophical conversation more fascinating than that of her college peers. She falls into a slightly odd and unequal friendship with both men… although finding one of them attractive might have something to do with her starry-eyed attitude. But then, they seem to fall off the face of the earth. Did they just get bored with her company and ditch her? Or is something stranger behind this? An odd note piques her curiosity and makes it difficult to move on…
Interesting ideas, a very believable ambiguity, and truly insightful capturing of psychology…

***** “A Precursor of the Cinema” by Steven Millhauser
A wholly and utterly convincing art history essay – the catch, of course, is that the artist in question, and indeed, the 19th-century art movements he was allegedly involved with, such as the “Verisimilists,” are all fictional. The artist that the writer focuses on has, we are told, faded into obscurity as he, and all of his remarkable paintings, disappeared. Researchers have been left with only contemporary accounts of his exhibits and shows, which reportedly featured never-before-or-since-seen effects enabled by what the artist described as ‘animate paint.’
Fascinating, eerie, and wonderfully written. I’m not at all surprised to hear that the author won a Pulitzer.

** “In the Bushes” by Jami Attenberg
In a near-future rural America, bankrupted by foreign wars, the poignant tragedy is that young people have to go back to making out in the bushes, rather than in the backseats of cars. Straddling the line between apocalyptic doomsaying and absurdity, this one didn’t work for me.

*** “Fugue State” by Brian Evenson
Creepy pandemic tale, featuring a plague which brings confusion, dissociation, amnesia… and, of course, death.

** “Reports Concerning the Death of the Seattle Albatross Are Somewhat Exaggerated” by W. P. Kinsella
If you are the target audience for a baseball/sci-fi tragicomedy, this may appeal to you. I, however, am not that reader, and did not particularly enjoy this story of an alien, alone on earth, masquerading as a baseball team’s mascot, abandoned by his countrymen. Cue the sad clowns…

*****“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss
It’s a bit difficult to make the case that Gloss really belongs in an anthology of science fiction by non-SF authors. Yes, she also writes ‘mainstream’ fiction, but she’s a winner of the prestigious James Tiptree Jr. award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and this story in particular was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards. If all those don’t add up to Sci-Fi creds, I don’t know what does!
Regardless, 5 stars from me for this story. Quiet but intensely vivid, the piece brings us into the life of a solitary shepherd who, on one of her long lonely watches, sees something strange fall from the sky. Her reactions and decisions are not at all what most first-contact stories presume, but they make utter sense in the context of the character and her life.
The almost-hyperrealism of the setting and scenario also drew me to contemplate how very different – even ‘alien’ – to many of us, the actual lives and situations of many people right here on this planet might seem.

*** “Conrad Loomis & The Clothes Ray” by Amiri Baraka.
Well, this is an excellent introduction to a potential story about an eccentric African-American inventor and his more-conventional buddy. Excellent writing, and pointedly sardonic commentary on the obstacles – and dangers – faced by a brilliant black man with a potentially world-changing – and valuable – invention on his hands. However, then it just abruptly ends. Really too bad this idea wasn’t developed further. However, I think I’ll definitely have to put the book of short stories this originally appeared in on my list (“Tales of the Out and the Gone.”)
Available for free, here:…

** “Topics in Advanced Rocketry” by Chris Tarry
For a publicity stunt intended to revive interest in space exploration, a company has decided to shoot an “average American family” up in a rocket. The venture is none-too-safe, and public opinion/interest isn’t quite where it was hoped. And even on the launch pad, the family can’t stop their mundane bickering.
Yeah, the piece has depressingly true things to say about our society, but I didn’t particularly care for it.

*****“The Inner City” by Karen Heuler
Creeeeepy! A mildly eccentric but utterly believable West Village resident is looking for a job. When she comes across some discarded paperwork that indicates that someone might’ve been fired from a nearby office, she takes the initiative to seek it out – after all, they must have a vacancy they’re looking to fill! But the secret office she finds is absolutely not what she was looking for.
This one will be coming back to haunt me…

**** “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders
I’ve previously read and enjoyed Saunders’ “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” but I think this story is even stronger. It shows us another aspect of a dystopian near-future, one where convicts might pull strings for the “opportunity” to enter experimental drug testing programs rather than a ‘traditional’ prison. The disturbing revelations pile up as our protagonist is led toward having to make a terrible moral choice – but the by-the-by implications of what these experiments might indicate about the outside world are equally bad – and completely believable.

** “Amorometer” by Kelly Luce
Felt a bit like an intended homage to Haruki Murakami, but it didn’t really do it for me.
A bored housewife receives a letter which was intended for another woman of the same name. A lonely, retired professor is seeking a former student, whom, he claims, decades before tested unusually high on an experimental device designed to measure a person’s capacity to love. The housewife is intrigued. What if she was this extraordinary woman?

** “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky” by Max Apple
On assignment to interview an elderly scientist of some renown, a journalist discovers that the man has left his past work behind him, and is now wholly obsessed with the alleged benefits of a fad diet. I didn’t particularly care for the story, and moreover, I didn’t feel it belonged in this anthology, as there’s no indication that the yogurt diet’s ‘benefits’ are anything more than a sad delusion.

**** “Monstros” by Junot Díaz
Four stars instead of 5 only because this is very clearly the first chapter of a novel, not a stand-alone story. The introduction to the story here implies that the novel is to-come, but Wikipedia disagrees: “Since 2007, Diaz was reported to be working on another novel, entitled Monstro; however, in June 2015 Diaz stated that he had effectively abandoned that novel.”
That’s a shame, because I would read the hell out of it.
Two Dominican Brown University students, one a nerdy writer, one a wealthy playboy, and the beautiful but troubled girl that our narrator (the nerd) is obsessed with, all happen to be at home in the DR when a new plague breaks out. The plague’s effects are a new and extremely creepy twist on the zombie trope… but I guess we don’t get to find out what happens.

** “Minotaur” by Jim Shepard
Two couples meet for drinks. Their conversation reveals their fraught relationships and the disconnection caused by the fact that the guys are government agents working on super-top-secret projects that they can’t talk about to anyone. The piece feels a bit unfocused and all-over-the-place. I wouldn’t have chosen it for this collection, as calling this speculative fic is too much of a stretch for me.

** “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler
In this alternate world, Weekly-World-News-style space aliens are a fact of life. A spinster-ish, small-town homebody is unexpectedly sought out by one of these aliens, and swept off for a whirlwind romance in his UFO.
This tragicomedy is too silly and stereotypical to achieve real pathos, but doesn’t go over-the-top enough for satire, either.

* “Near-Flesh” by Katherine Dunn
Previously read; did not re-read: “tells of a nasty, unattractive woman who uses male sex robots to gratify herself… and gets what’s coming to her. I didn’t like it.”

Many thanks to Tachyon and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this interesting mix of stories. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Secret of Goldenrod – Jane O’Reilly ***

The Secret of Goldenrod
The Secret of Goldenrod by Jane O’Reilly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This charming and old-fashioned-style story for young people can definitely be enjoyed by readers of all ages. I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Zilpha Keatley Snyder – except for a couple of mentions of cell phone cluing me in that this was a more recent publication, it completely brought me back to the Snyder books that I read back in the 70s.

Trina’s dad renovates old houses for a living, so she’s used to having to move from place to place. But his latest job – a dilapidated and remote mansion called ‘Goldenrod’ – is going to be more challenging than usual, in more ways than one. Not only is her new school a tight-knit, tiny community where everyone already knows each other, but the whole town seems to sincerely believe that Goldenrod is haunted – they’re legitimately terrified of the place. Trina has no such fears – but something does seem to be a little bit odd about Goldenrod. It seems that she can sense the ‘mood’ of the house. And then, in a secret tower room, she discovers an amazing antique dollhouse – and a doll that can talk.

The setup is great, and I loved everything about the haunted house, the doll, &c. Trina’s personality was complex and believable, accurately capturing a girl just at the cusp of maturity and all of her conflicting wants regarding family and friends. However, I didn’t think that the second half of the book, and the resolution, was as good.

Part of this was the coincidence that I’d just (not of my own volition) viewed the terrible and sappy movie “Instructions not Included,” which features the exact, precise same scenario involving “postcards from mom.” After the movie, I just couldn’t take that premise seriously. Another part was that, in my personal experience, trying to make nice and befriend a bully is a waste of time at best. It never really ends well. Thirdly, too much of the story’s energy toward the end was invested in the “throwing a big party,” which was a bit of a dull climax. And lastly, the family scenario was wrapped up just a tad too neatly for my taste.

Still, overall, I enjoyed the story – and younger people will likely enjoy it even more.

Many thanks to Lerner Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Convocation (Tremontaine Season 2, Episode 1) – Ellen Kushner ***

Convocation by Ellen Kushner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Season 2 of this serial begins!

And… here we go! The setting of this first episode is a party at which all our main characters make an appearance. It’s an obvious device to create an excuse to introduce new readers to all of our prime movers (and to remind returning readers who everyone is and where they’re at) but it’s really done quite well – I didn’t find myself bored or annoyed by the reminders at any point.

The scheming duchess Diane is front-and-center here, and it may not be enough for her to have a lucrative trade deal with the Kinwiinick traders, and the freedom she’s grabbed by getting her husband out of the picture – what if she could hold Tremontaine in her own right, rather than merely through virtue of her marriage?

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A Shadow Bright and Burning – Jessica Cluess ***

A Shadow Bright and Burning
A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Henrietta Howel has recently become an instructor at the girls’ school where she grew up as a charity case. Unfortunately, her situation hasn’t changed much – the cruel and bullying headmaster still disrespects her, and she still lives in fear of revealing her abilities – abilities that she fears will brand her as a magician, and result in her being sentenced to death.

However, her situation is about to change. When she’s found out, she’s not denounced as a magician, but acclaimed as a sorcerer (yes, big difference, in this world), and moreover, hailed as the “chosen one” of a prophecy that will supposedly be instrumental in saving England from the monsters that were unwittingly summoned from another dimension and are wreaking havoc throughout the kingdom. Off Henrietta goes to sorcerer-school, where she’ll meet a variety of interesting fellow students – all boys – who may become rivals for her attention with her childhood friend, a stable boy whose brush with an evil monster may have left him with some strange abilities of his own.

But is Henrietta really the girl the prophecy spoke of? Is she even actually a sorcerer? If she isn’t, is England doomed?

If I wanted to be nit-picky, I could be, I suppose. It’s not the best-thought-out scenario I’ve encountered in literature. There are a few logical “but wait…!?” moments, and tropes abound.
But – I liked it. In my post-election mood, I needed something light, fun, and distracting, and this hit the spot. Recommended for fans of YA, faux-Victorian fantasy heroines, and magical school stories.

Oh, and those monsters I mentioned that are ravaging England? There are still more to defeat when this finishes up, so be on the lookout for sequels.

Many thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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