Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave

Gumtree Gargoyles by Rebecca Rosengrave was pitched to me as a fantasy novel set in Canberra. It's the author's first novel, aside from the fact that I wouldn't categorise it as a novel; length-wise it's more of a novella. Content-wise there are a lot of issues with it. If you can't be bothered reading the rest of this review, I'll save you having to scroll down to my summary paragraph and say this: I read this book so that you don't have to. You're welcome.

Most children inherit tangible gain when a parent passes. Property, memorabilia, money. The legacy of a loved one is more often than not, ancestral currency in some shape or form. This, wasn’t the case in Katie’s situation! Not that pawning the presence of a parent for cash was an aspiration, but Katie would have preferred inheriting anything other than what she actually did. In the space of a week, a mouldy old stamp collection, or indeed nothing at all, didn’t look too bad in comparison to what mental illness had bequeathed her. ​

In the wake of her father’s suicide, Katie inherited a responsibility. Her father’s sudden abdication from life bore consequences far greater than what she could have ever anticipated.

The deliberate absence of her older sister post family tragedy, meant that by default, Gargoyle Guardianship of the Australian Capital Territory fell straight into Katie’s lap. As the eldest child from the relevant family, who still resided in Canberra, Katie was the official beneficiary to a title that bore the burden of the Nation’s Capital!

Meet your new Gargoyle Guardian!

There were so many issues with this book that it's hard to know where to start. The only positives were the general premise of gargoyles guarding humanity from other supernatural beings — it wasn't well-executed, but it wasn't a bad idea — the setting, and the extra sleep the book helped me get on my recent international flight.

The thing that bothered me the most about this book was mostly confined to the opening. As the blurb suggests, the main character's father commits suicide, leaving her the hereditary family responsibility of supernatural guardianship. Then comes the confusing ableism. Katie and her siblings spend some time raging against the inadequate mental health system (fair) but then they'll turn around and say something ableist about a mentally ill person or someone who is perceived to be unusual. Violent criminals are "crazed" and the word "insanity" is thrown around in thrown around in a mental illness context, which, um, no? Especially given the press release I was sent stating "[the author] hopes to use this book to bring awareness to the failings of the current health system and how it has affected her own family in the most tragic way." Flippant ableism aside, said failings of the mental health system aren't explored in any depth in the book, so that seems like an odd goal.

The second most annoying aspect of the book, and the most persistent, was the poor writing. It's frightfully overwritten and under-edited, peppered with nonsensical sentences that were at least a source of baffled amusement. The author bludgeons the reader with every minor fact, entirely lacking in subtlety. The prologue is a boring infodump of history that could have easily been integrated into the story (although I'm not sure all the details were even necessary), which was full of "as you know, Bob"-isms as it was. We were witness to several key conversations between the protagonist and people she's known her whole life that one would expect to have happened earlier in their lives.

On the topic of the protagonist, she struck me as somewhat incompetent, even as she ultimately solved the problems put before her. It's true that in the context of the story she wasn't expecting to inherent her role. However, she seemed too ignorant of the supernatural world beyond just that. It was implied that her father used to share aspects of his work with her and her siblings, so why then does she not know much about the world she lives in? At one point her brother looks up supernatural stuff on Wikipedia! (Normal, human Wikipedia!) Katie's confidence at the end of the book that she is fully able to do her job seemed delusional, given how much she had put herself and her friends and family at risk throughout. Yes, they ultimately prevailed but there were some close calls and you'd think she'd at least want to improve on that.

Speaking of the danger she put her family and friends into, there was rather a lot of sexual assault and harassment of the teenage younger brother, which was played for laughs when it was women doing it and only sinister when it was an older man. Sigh.

Finally, a criticism of the plot: the mysterious cause of some attacks the protagonist had to investigate was blindingly obvious once she was given the first proper clue (in the form of a riddle, because of course). And yet, none of the characters worked it out despite actually living in a supernatural world, being Australian and having spoken with Australians multiple times in their lives. It was frustrating to wait way (too long) for the characters to be told the obvious cause.

Nothing about this book was satisfying aside from making notes for my impending review. If it weren't for the book being so short (and my having already watched my fill of movies on the plane) I would not have finished it. As it was, it was tempting to stop and write a DNF (did not finish) review. But that review would have been shorter and less precise since some of the above points did not come up until the latter parts of the book.

I do not recommend this book. The premise is sound, but it is not worth the effort, thanks to the subpar execution. It could've been refined down to a nice novella with a stronger editorial hand, but it wasn't.

2 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, self-published
Series: Let's hope not. (There do seem to be some picture books set in the same world, I think? I couldn't find them on goodreads, though.)
Format read: eARC
Source: publicist
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Masquerade by Laura Lam

Masquerade by Laura Lam is the third and final book in the Micah Grey trilogy. It's been rather a while since I read the first two books, thanks mostly to the roller coaster that is the publishing industry. In any case, the final book in the trilogy is now out, so it's the perfect time to pick up these books if you have an aversion to incomplete series. If you haven't already, I suggest having a look at my reviews of the first two books, Pantomime and Shadowplay.

The gifted hide their talents, but dare they step into the light?

Micah's Chimaera powers are growing, until his dark visions overwhelm him. Drystan is forced to take him to Dr Pozzi, to save his life. But can they really trust the doctor, especially when a close friend is revealed to be his spy?

Meanwhile, violent unrest is sweeping the country, as anti-royalist factions fight to be heard. Then three chimaera are attacked, after revealing their existence with the monarchy's blessing - and the struggle becomes personal. A small sect decimated the chimaera in ancient times and nearly destroyed the world. Now they've re-emerged to spread terror once more. Micah will discover a royal secret, which draws him into the heart of the conflict. And he and his friends must risk everything to finally bring peace to their land.

Masquerade continues to follow Micah as he tries to keep living his life. Of course, being the protagonist of a fantasy book, things are never quite so simple. Micah's powers grow, unrest grows in their city and new mysteries appear. Can Micah and friends work out what's going on and why and who is involved? (Well yes; it's a book.)

I enjoyed the first two Micah Grey books a lot and was disappointed that I had to wait so long to read the last book in the series. Unfortunately, waiting so long also meant that some aspects of the story had faded from my mind by the time I picked up Masquerade. It took me a little while to get reacquainted with the world and characters and, consequently, a little while to get into the story. It's hard to say how much of my reaction to the first part of the book was as a result of this and how much is more from the book itself. Either way, I found the opening a little slow and the pacing a little off in the first part of the book. Later on, as the story approached the climax and tensions were high, this was not an issue.

Overall I enjoyed Masquerade but I can't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it in closer proximity with the first two books. I definitely recommend this series to anyone to whom an intersex and/or bisexual main character appeals. If you enjoyed the first two books, this concluding volume ties up pretty much all the loose ends (that I can remember). If you hated the first two books, I'm not sure why you bothered reading to the end of this review.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2017, Tor
Series: Yes, Micah Grey book 3 of 3
Format read: ePub
Source: purchased on Google Play

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow by Kate Leth and Brittney L Williams

Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat Vol 2: Don't Stop Me-ow written by Kate Leth and illustrated by Brittney L Williams is the direct sequel to Vol 1: Hooked on a Feline, which I reviewed last year. Volume 1 ended part-way through a story arc and Volume 2 picked up where that story left off.

In another world they might be gal pals who help each other through hard times. But when Patsy Walker and Jessica Jones meet at last in the Marvel Universe, could it be they'll end up as...best frenemies?! Not everyone can get along all the time, which is why the world's heroes are about to be rocked by a second Civil War! But when the fallout from the battlefield hits close to home, Patsy is forced to take stock of her life and face what it really costs to be A.K.A. Hellcat! Plus, fallouts with former friends don't get any worse than Patsy and Hedy. Now Ms. Wolfe is about to torment her rival more than ever, with a little help from Patsy's evil exboyfriends! Will Hellcat get burned by her old flames?

As well as picking up mid-way through a story arc, Hellcat Volume 2 also ends part-way through a story arc, which was kind of annoying. Especially since it felt a lot more unfinished, being an incomplete villain face-off. Having a "to be continued" when it seems like only one more issue would finish off the story was very frustrating.

Another thing that was frustrating was the tangential impact of the latest comic event on Patsy's story. In this case Civil War II takes out one of Patsy's regular friends (I suppose I'll refrain from spoiling who or how) and everyone has to spend a little while reacting to that, which wasn't otherwise necessary to Patsy's story.

Negativity aside, I enjoyed this volume and I continue to enjoy reading about Hellcat. Patsy has interesting friends and interactions with them. I especially like her housemate, who gets a bit more story progression in this volume than in the previous one. There's also a section involving Jessica Jones, which was pretty great. Less interesting was the part where Patsy was revisited by ex-boyfriends/husbands, but that was at least resolved pretty satisfactorily.

The villain that appears towards the end (and doesn't get resolved in the included issues) is Black Cat, as you may have guessed from the cover art. I particularly liked how Black Cat recruited what amounts to a girl gang to do her henching and I hope we see more of them after the storyline is resolved.

Overall, if you liked the previous volume of Hellcat, I definitely recommend picking up this next instalment. Unnecessary cliffhangers aside, I'm definitely planning to pick up the next volume, although I'll probably wait until I've cleared out a bit more of my current comics backlog (I'm pretty sure the next volume is already available, if that matters to you). If you haven't read any Hellcat before, I'd recommend starting with the first volume, which properly introduces all the supporting characters as well as Patsy herself. In general, I also recommend this series to fans of female superheroes, because duh.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2017, Marvel
Series: Hellcat, ongoing series, trade volume 2 of 3 so far, containing issues #7–12
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All Star Comics, Melbourne

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Final Girls by Mira Grant

Final Girls by Mira Grant is a science fiction horror novella from the Seanan McGuire pseudonym that brought us the Newsflesh and Parasitology series. It's not set in either of those universes, however, and in my opinion is a bit more firmly rooted in the horror genre than either.

What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

Dr. Jennifer Webb has invented proprietary virtual reality technology that purports to heal psychological wounds by running clients through scenarios straight out of horror movies and nightmares. In a carefully controlled environment, with a medical cocktail running through their veins, sisters might develop a bond they’ve been missing their whole lives—while running from the bogeyman through a simulated forest. But…can real change come so easily?

Esther Hoffman doubts it. Esther has spent her entire journalism career debunking pseudoscience, after phony regression therapy ruined her father’s life. She’s determined to unearth the truth about Dr. Webb’s budding company. Dr. Webb’s willing to let her, of course, for reasons of her own. What better advertisement could she get than that of a convinced skeptic? But Esther’s not the only one curious about how this technology works. Enter real-world threats just as frightening as those created in the lab. Dr. Webb and Esther are at odds, but they may also be each other’s only hope of survival.

As described in the blurb, the story of Final Girls follows Esther, a reporter who is covering a radical new psychological (/psychiatric since there are drugs involved?) therapy using an advanced form of virtual reality — so advanced, it incidentally includes the ability for outsiders to look at people's dreams while they're in the system. Esther has been chosen for the job because of a past that makes her especially sceptical of the lofty claims made by Dr Webb's organisation. Dr Webb, meanwhile, just wants to convince her of the efficacy of the system, using whatever means necessary. Things fall into horror when outside forces throw carefully laid plans awry.

This isn't a lengthy read but it is a very tense and interesting one. Midway through the book I was honestly unsure whether our protagonists would survive the ordeal and was wondering how the story would end. The fact that the reader is given more information than some of the characters — who have no way of knowing what's happening outside of the virtual reality — significantly adds to the tension. About half the story takes place in a virtual world and those scenes are easily differentiated from the real world scenes through the use of a different font, making the delineations quite clear.

Final Girls was an excellent read and I recommend it to fans of science fiction and horror. Being a novella it's also a quick read but one that will not leave you disappointed. I look forward to reading more of Mira Grant's work in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: late April 2017, Subterranean Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings

The Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol 1: Believe It by Chris Hastings is the first collected volume of Gwenpool comics. It collects issues #0–4 and is more or less an origin story for the character. I previously read and reviewed the Gwenpool holiday special, a small portion of which was reprinted in this collected edition.

Gwen Poole used to be a comic book reader just like you...until she woke up in a world where the characters she read about seemed to be real! But that can't be, right? This must all be fake, or a dream or something, right? And you know what that means...NO CONSEQUENCES!

Could Gwenpool truly be Marvel's least responsible and least role-modely character to date? She can if she tries!

Gwenpool is a great character. She started off as a bit of a joke — a Gwen Stacey version of Deadpool — but has grown into her own character. Although we don't get her full back story in this volume (there are hints that more information is coming) the basic idea is that Gwen is from our universe and has been transported into the comic book world. Her super power is knowing everyone's secrets because she read a lot of comic books back in our world. This also gives her a reason to break the fourth wall and allows her to make direct references to real-world pop culture that aren't possible in other comics.

Gwen is a rather devil-may-care character at first, but soon starts to realise that just because she's from the real world, doesn't mean everything is going to magically work out for her with no effort. Things get a bit dicey and Gwen realises she needs to actually try to survive the situation she's gotten herself into.

This is a hilarious comic and I recommend it to fans of humour and silliness. I think it will appeal to fans of Squirrel Girl and Spider-Gwen, although it is significantly more irreverent than both of those. I am looking forward to the next issue and I hope the writers keep up the current, fresh vibe (and that she manages to get some pants added to her costume, c'mon Ronnie).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016
Series: Gwenpool vol 1 of onging series
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: All-Star Comics, Melbourne

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale is a novelisation of the awesome comic book character's early high school life and emergence as a superhero. It's a YA book and is set when Doreen Green is fourteen and has just moved to New Jersey from LA.

WHO RUNS THE WORLD? SQUIRRELS!
Fourteen-year-old Doreen Green moved from sunny California to the suburbs of New Jersey. She must start at a new school, make new friends, and continue to hide her tail. Yep, Doreen has the powers of . . . a squirrel! After failing at several attempts to find her new BFF, Doreen feels lonely and trapped, liked a caged animal. Then one day Doreen uses her extraordinary powers to stop a group of troublemakers from causing mischief in the neighborhood, and her whole life changes. Everyone at school is talking about it! Doreen contemplates becoming a full-fledged Super Hero. And thus, Squirrel Girl is born! She saves cats from trees, keeps the sidewalks clean, and dissuades vandalism. All is well until a real-life Super Villain steps out of the shadows and declares Squirrel Girl his archenemy. Can Doreen balance being a teenager and a Super Hero? Or will she go . . . NUTS?

This book was awesome! I mean, Squirrel Girl is already a pretty awesome character and if I had any apprehensions going in it was that the novel character wouldn't be quite the same as the comic character. But, although novel!Doreen is younger than comic!Doreen (who is in college), the authors managed to get her voice down exactly, giving the book a very similar feel to the comics. And there are footnotes from Doreen as she reads along with us.

On top of that, some of the chapters are from other characters' points of view, like Doreen's best human friend Ana Sofía (more on her shortly) and Doreen's best squirrel friend Tippy-Toe. Yes, there are chapters from Tippy-Toe's point of view. And they are in first person. And they are awesome. So awesome. And my favourite thing with Tippy-Toe is a bit of a spoiler...

Tippy-Toe picks up some ASL from watching Doreen and Ana Sofía sign to each other and then is able to sign to Ana Sofía in an emergency. Eeeee!

Ana Sofía, meanwhile, is the first friend Doreen makes at her new school and is instrumental in keeping her spirits up when times are tough. She also plays a part in helping Squirrel Girl save the day.

Squirrel Girl is awesome and you should read this book even if you haven't read any of the recent comics. They are completely independent of the book, despite being about the same character. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes YA and/or superheroes and also doesn't hate fun. Because Squirrel Girl is awesome.

5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2017, Marvel/Scholastic
Series: Yes? No? Squirrel Girl is an ongoing character in the Marvel comics universe, anyway.
Format read: Paperback! Gasp!
Source: Purchased at local book shop

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Barrayar - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.


Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice - almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about - which also made it even more realistic - they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first - which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do - it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech - it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>

Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter

A Feast of Sorrows by Angela Slatter is a collection of short stories, almost all of them reprints. Long-term followers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Slatter's stories and I have previously read and reviewed The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Sourdough and Other Stories, both of which I loved. A Feast of Sorrows contains some stories from those two collections, which I haven't reviewed a second time, as well as stories new to me and stories not set in the same universe.

A Feast of Sorrows—Angela Slatter’s first U.S. collection—features twelve of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Award-winning Australian author’s finest, darkest fairy tales, and adds two new novellas to her marvelous cauldron of fiction.

Stories peopled by women and girls—fearless, frightened, brave, bold, frail, and fantastical—who take the paths less traveled by, accept (and offer) poisoned apples, and embrace transformation in all its forms. Reminiscent of Angela Carter at her best, Slatter’s work is both timeless and fresh: fascinating new reflections from the enchanted mirrors of fairy tales and folklore.

Slatter's stories are always beautifully written and those included in this collection are no exception. I think, overall, I have preferred her "mosaic novel" volumes of stories, rather than those, like A Feast of Sorrows (or Black-Winged Angels), which are more thematically than literally linked. That doesn't stop the stories themselves from being gorgeous, of course, and I also suspect I would have enjoyed this volume more if all the stories had been new to me.

That said, I was delighted to learn, when reading the Afterword containing Slatter's notes on each story, that the last three stories in A Feast of Sorrows will form the opening of another mosaic novel, to be called The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales. Certainly something I'm looking forward to.

My notes on the individual stories, written as I read them and skipping most of those I'd read before:


  • "Dresses, three" — A tale of magical dresses, their maker, her son, and their wearer.

  • "Bluebeard’s Daughter" — A brew of fairytales. A poisoned Apple, a witch with a house made out of confectionery, and a girl too clever to be easily trapped.
  • "The Jacaranda Wife" — Similar in general ideas to a selkie story, but with a woman that comes from a jacaranda tree rather than a seal.

  • "Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope" — Rumplestiltskin, more or less. Read this one before, but reread it because I couldn't remember the ending. A tale of mother-daughter bonds.

  • 
"The Tallow-Wife" — A longer story that I think is set in the Bitterwood/Sourdough universe (or Angelia, as Theodora Goss dubs it in the introduction). I enjoyed the story about a wife and mother coming to terms/realisation with some of her life choices, but I didn't find the ending very satisfying as I have many of Slatter's same-world stories.

  • "What Shines Brightest Burns Most Fiercely" — To my delight, this story follows on with some of the characters from the previous one, "The Tallow-Wife", and improves it by association/continuation. It also gives a bit more insight into side characters as one gets a deserved comeuppance.
  • "Bearskin" — Another story linked with the previous two. An unfortunate tale about an unhappy child and his questionable fate.


As I keen saying, Slatter's stories are wonderful and I cannot recommend them enough to all fantasy fans. As far as collections of short stories to start with go, this one is a good a place as any and gives a reasonable cross-section of Slatter's work. As ever, I look forward to reading of Slatter's work as soon as I can get my hands on it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Prime Books
Series: Not really, but some stories are linked to others in other volumes.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is a companion novel to Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It follows characters which appear in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but covers events that happen both before and after the events in the earlier book. The two books can be read in any order, although the existence of one of the characters in A Closed and Common Orbit is a spoiler for one of the events in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Otherwise, there is very little overlap.

Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for - and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

The environment and ensemble cast in A Closed and Common Orbit are quite different to those in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  The book consists of alternating chapters from the points of view of two characters: an AI who has just been moved to a human-looking body, after having been a ship AI; and Pepper, the human woman helping the AI. The AI sections are set in the "present", having some temporal overlap with Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  whereas Pepper's sections recount her rather horrific childhood. Sidra, the AI, has relatively mundane concerns regarding learning how to function as a person, and fitting in so as not to be discovered (an AI pretending to be human is illegal). Pepper's childhood and teen years, however, are much starker than might normally be expected and I found her half of the story more gripping and emotive.

It was not immediately apparent how the two stories tied together — aside from the obvious part where Pepper features in Sidra's story — but this became clear at the end (and a bit earlier, if you were paying attention). Even so, I was more invested in (young) Pepper for the entire book. The ending was wonderfully touching, and Sidra was involved in that, but it was mainly touching because of what we had learnt about Pepper's life. Which is not to say that Sidra's story was boring — it certainly had its exciting moments — but my interest in it was more intellectual than emotional.

If you enjoyed Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, then I expect you will also enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit. However, if you didn't like the plot structure of Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  then, despite the dual storylines, A Closed and Common Orbit might not be for you. If you enjoy sociological SF about community and the meaning of personhood, then this is definitely the book for you. I am keen to see what else Chambers writes, whether or not it is set in the same universe as her first two books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Hachette Australia
Series: Sort of. Wayfarers universe, second publication set in that world
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold is chronologically the second book in the main Vorkosigan Saga timeline. It's a direct sequel to Shards of Honour, with which it is now mostly sold in an omnibus edition. This is my second read of Barrayar, and will be discussed like Shards of Honour was as part of the great Vorkosigan Saga Project in the near future. This review, including the blurb below, contains spoilers for Shards of Honour.

Cordelia Naismith was ready to settle down to a quiet life on her adopted planet of Barrayar. But bloody civil war was looming, and Cordelia little dreamed of the part she and her unborn son would play in it.

I mentioned this was a re-read for me. The main thing that stuck in my head was part of a climactic scene near the end (let's say related to the awesome cover art I managed to find). There was a lot of stuff I had forgotten, like an entire romantic subplot, which was fun to rediscover. I did find myself overly anticipating the climax, which coloured my reading a little.

Barrayar is a very intense read featuring Cordelia adjusting and being baffled by the more rigid Barrayaran society after giving up Betan life at the end of the previous book. She starts off hoping for a quiet life with Aral, but things don't go according to that plan at all. As well as major political events which force/allow Cordelia to kick some arse like she did in Shards of Honour, we are also privy to the relatively minor tribulations of fitting in with the much more conservative Barrayaran society. Cordelia trying to work out why certain taboos were taboos was pretty hilarious, especially since we, the readers, almost know the answers she's trying to work out.

Although my last read-through of this book was also immediately after Shards of Honour, I noticed a few new things this time around about the two books. Barrayar was written after Bujold had done additional worldbuilding through five (or six, depending on whether you count The Warrior's Apprentice) other books, and I noticed a few almost-plot-holes (worldbuilding gaps?) that Bujold was able to fill with Barrayar. Mostly involving Betan contraceptive practices and some of the events of the previous book. It was interesting to see that refinement in action, and how seamlessly it fit together.

Barrayar is an excellent read and a fitting and dramatic continuation of Cordelia's and Aral's story. I don't recommend reading it without having read Shards of Honour first, even if you've read later Miles books and know something about what happens. The two books really do form one story and very much belong in an omnibus together. I also suggest reading them at the start of the Vorkosigan Saga, although they (together) stand alone from the rest of the series reasonably well.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: Baen, 1991
Series: Yes. Vorkosigan Saga. Chronologically follows on directly from Shards of Honour and is sort of the chronological book 2.
Format read: ePub as part of Cordelia's Honour omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen some time ago

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spelling the Hours edited by Rose Lemberg

Spelling the Hours edited by Rose Lemberg, subtitle Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology, is not the kind of book I would usually go out of my way to pick up, mainly because I don't read very much poetry. I'd glad I did, though.

"When I first envisioned Spelling the Hours, I imagined a crowd of poets first researching and then writing about forgotten figures of science and technology around the world. What happened instead was much more intimate: many, if not all the poets wrote about people with whom they were already deeply familiar." - From the Introduction

The idea behind Spelling the Hours was to highlight some of the overlooked figures in science and technology. In practice, this means that it was a collection of poems about people other than straight cis men in science and tech. A lot of the poems were about women who did not get contemporaneous credit or recognition for their work. There was a lot of breadth in the topics covered from physics and astronomy to medicine and computing. Some of the names were familiar to me, like Jocelyn Bell and Lise Meitner, but most were not. I imagine that most readers will find at least some new names in this volume.

I'm not going to comment on every poem individually. One that particularly stood out to me was "Girl Hours" by Sofia Samatar, the last poem in the chapbook. It focusses on Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the "girl hours" used to perform calculations. I liked how it mimicked the structure of a scientific paper but in reverse and it was a poignant note to end the chapbook on.

They were all good poems though and I highly recommend this chapbook to fans of science and poetry and to anyone interested in hearing about some overlooked scientific names. I should add that, one of the reasons some of the names were familiar to me is because I am a scientist myself and some of these stories get around a bit more in the scientific community (I've seen an award named after Lise Meitner being presented and I heard about Jocelyn Bell pretty much when I learnt what a pulsar was). I imagine a different spread of names might be familiar (or more unfamiliar) to different people.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Stone Bird Press
Series: no
Format read: paperback
Source: gift from publisher

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Shards of Honour - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Through 2017 and 2018 Tsana and Katharine are reading The Vorkosigan Saga (in more or less chronological order), starting with Shards of Honor all the way through to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, including novellas. Tsana is re-reading, and Katharine is brand new to the series and together they’ll be discussing themes, characters, worldbuilding, and anything else that sparks their interest.

The first book up for discussion is Shards of Honour, first published in 1986. You can read Katharine's review here and Tsana's review here.


Katharine: So I have to confess, I have read one other thing by Bujold and that was “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma”… back when I was serious about reading everything and then got overwhelmed by it all.

Tsana: I read that one too, but not close to when I read most of the other books. I felt a bit meh about it, from memory. I originally read all the books that existed at the time in 2011, starting from Warrior’s Apprentice and ending with the Cordelia books we decided to start with. Let me tell you, reading Shards of Honour first instead of second last was a very different (and superior) experience. Starting from Shards of Honour (and yes, I’m going to keep writing it with a u) gave me a better appreciation for both Cordelia and Aral as characters, unlike the first time around when I couldn’t get out of the mindset of seeing them primarily as Miles’s parents and through his eyes. It was easier to relate to them this way and I’m interested to see how that will effect my re-reading of the later books.

Katharine: I want to write it with a ‘u’! American spelling looks so mispronounced. I’m glad I’m getting the superior experience — usually I’m a hard and fast ‘publication’ order reader, but Alex had some strong feelings on the subject. Coming the series brand new, I’m loving starting off with main characters who aren’t spring chickens — Aral and Cordelia are excellent at what they do, and it’s believable because of their rank and experience.

Tsana: So we’ve discussed the characters a little bit. Before we get into some of the meatier topics, let’s chat about the setting. What did you think of Sergyar? Apparently I didn’t take it in at all the first time I read it. Gentleman Jole is set on the same planet and I noticed a lot more setting when I was reading that one. Coming back to Shards of Honour and discovering that actually the weird wildlife had been there from the start was a bit of a surprise.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the first books in the Vorkosigan saga, an epic military science fiction saga spanning many books, worlds and generations. I say one of the first because there is some lively debate as to reading order, but it is chronologically first (except for Falling Free which is set 200 years earlier) and was published first (by two months) but I seem to recall reading that it was written second, after The Warrior's Apprentice, but I can't find a link for that right now. In any case, it is an excellent place to start reading the Vorkosigan saga.

When Cordelia Naismith and her survey crew are attacked by a renegade group from Barrayar, she is taken prisoner by Aral Vorkosigan, commander of the Barrayan ship that has been taken over by an ambitious and ruthless crew member. Aral and Cordelia survive countless mishaps while their mutual admiration and even stronger feelings emerge.

This was a re-read for me, motivated largely by the Vokosigan Saga Project I'm undertaking with Katharine, and one I want to review because — as with most of the Vokosigan books — I read it before I started blogging. I'm also mindful of the possibility of repeating myself. I'll obviously try not to, but as of this writing Katharine and I haven't done our discussion post so it's hard to predict which direction that might go.

Preamble aside, I definitely enjoyed this book more on a second read than on the first. The main reason for that is the first time I read it was after a lot of Miles books and was largely sad that I had run out of Miles books. I was also used to seeing Cordelia and Aral primarily as Miles's parents and not through their own eyes. When I picked it up this time, it was after a sizeable gap since any other Bujold/Vorkosigan books (I read Gentleman Jole just over a year ago) and I felt like I was coming to the series fresh. I really enjoyed reading Cordelia and Aral's story of their first few meetings. I also really enjoyed the setting of Sergyar and noticed a lot of things I didn't remember from the first read-through, like the fauna, which I noticed more in Gentleman Jole than in my first read of Shards of Honour.

I also found myself paying more attention to certain other aspects of the narrative, like the plot Aral was involved with in the second half of the book (spoilers omitted) and the ordeal Cordelia went through when she went home to Beta Colony after the war. Of course I remembered the part about Cordelia not fitting in, but it was more chilling this time around, having spent the past five years reading about feminism and gas-lighting. It makes for a thought-provoking read that made me feel very uncomfortable on Cordelia's behalf. As did what Aral was up to at the time.

Shards of Honour was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to fans of science fiction, feminism and military SF. As far as the Vorkosigan Saga is concerned, Shards of Honour is an excellent place to start reading. I very much wished I could start reading the next book (Barrayar, also featuring Cordelia and Aral) straight away but alas the blogging project means I have to wait a little bit.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1986, Baen
Series: Vokosigan Saga. A good starting point but actual numbering is complicated.
Format read: ePub as part of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Vigil by Angela Slatter

Vigil by Angela Slatter is the author's debut novel but regular followers of this blog may recall that Slatter is also a much-lauded author of shorter stories and collections and a few mosaic novels. I have reviewed several of her works before, which you can peruse here. Most notable of those, to me, are The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Sourdough and Other Stories, two mosaic novels (collections of linked short stories) that I adored. Vigil is, in many ways, rather dissimilar.

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength - and the ability to walk between us and the other - as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale - and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways - and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.

And Verity must investigate - or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

Vigil is an urban fantasy novel starring Verity and set in the city of Brisbane. Verity is half-human, half-Weyrd and an investigator whose main job it is to solve crimes, especially those where Weyrd shenanigans impact on normal humans. The story mainly follows Verity as she gets embroiled in a few cases.

This was an interesting read because I am more familiar with Slatter's more historically-set fantasy stories, albeit not exclusively. Vigil is still quite dark in its fantasy elements, as I've come to expect from Slatter, but these elements are mixed in with the real-world normality of Brisbane. The story happens when the Weyrd leaks into the normal and contaminates it.

Verity and the other characters all have layers to them, which makes the book particularly compelling. As well as enjoying Verity's character, I rather liked a couple of the side characters in particular. The human police officer whose job it is to deal with the official side of the investigations was well done, as was Verity's human love interest. What I liked most about David, the love interest, is the way the relationship was important to Verity but not her main concern for most of the book. For most of the book solving murders is the main thing going on in Verity's life, closely followed by not dying and keeping the people important to her safe. I appreciated that the romantic storyline was in the background because, let's face it, a string of siren murders is kind of more interesting than a healthy romantic relationship.

I highly recommend Vigil to fans of urban fantasy and Angela Slatter's other work. It brings a fresh and elegant darkness to to the genre, tying multiple cases together into a single coherent story. I really enjoyed it and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, although it was a self-contained story.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Hachette
Series: Yes. Verity Fassbinder book 1 of ? (at least 2)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 20 February 2017

Aurealis Award Shortlists announced!

It's that time of year again when the Aurealis Awards shortlists are announced. And what shortlists they are this year! (I might be biased — Defying Doomsday and one of the contained stories, "Did We Break the End of the World" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, were shortlisted *does a happy dance*)

You can go read the official announcement over on the Aurealis Awards website, but for your reading pleasure I have also reproduced it below, with added links to those books that I've reviewed. Hopefully, by the time the actual award announcements come around I will have added more reviews since a lot of these books are in my TBR.

And of course, a big congratulations to all the finalists!


BEST CHILDREN’S FICTION 
Blueberry Pancakes Forever, Angelica Banks (Allen & Unwin)
Magrit, Lee Battersby (Walker Books Australia)
Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket, Caleb Crisp (Bloomsbury)
The Turners, Mick Elliott (Hachette Australia)
When the Lyrebird Calls, Kim Kane (Allen & Unwin)
The Hungry Isle, Emily Rodda (Omnibus Books)

BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL / ILLUSTRATED WORK
Mechanica, Lance Balchin (Five Mile)
BROBOT, James Foley (Fremantle Press)
Negative Space, Ryan K Lindsay (Dark Horse Comics)
The Spider King, Josh Vann (self-published)

BEST YOUNG ADULT SHORT STORY 
“A Right Pretty Mate”, Lisa L Hannett (Dreaming in the Dark)
“Dune Time”, Jack Nicholls (Tor.com)
“No One Here is Going to Save You”, Shauna O’Meara (In Your Face, FableCroft Publishing)
“Did We Break the End of the World?”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press)
“Pretty Jennie Greenteeth”, Leife Shallcross (Strange Little Girls, Belladonna Publishing)

BEST HORROR SHORT STORY
“Non Zero Sum”, RPL Johnson (SNAFU: Hunters, Cohesion Press)
“Flame Trees”, TR Napper (Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2016)
“Penny for a Match, Mister?”, Garth Nix (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
“The Red Forest”, Angela Slatter (Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales, PS Publishing)
“68 Days”, Kaaron Warren (Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, Broken Eye Books)
“Life, or Whatever Passes For It”, Durand Welsh (Peel Back the Skin, Grey Matter Press)

BEST HORROR NOVELLA
“Box of Bones”, Jeremy Bates (Ghillinnein Books)
“Served Cold”, Alan Baxter (Dreaming in the Dark, PS Publishing)
“Waking in Winter”, Deborah Biancotti (PS Publishing)
“Burnt Sugar”, Kirstyn McDermott (Dreaming in the Dark, PS Publishing)
“Pan”, Christopher Ruz (Andromeda Spaceways Magazine #62)

BEST FANTASY SHORT STORY
“Watercress Soup”, Tamlyn Dreaver (Andromeda Spaceways Magazine #65)
“Where the Pelican Builds Her Nest”, Thoraiya Dyer (In Your Face, FableCroft Publishing)
“Dune Time”, Jack Nicholls (Tor.com)
“Penny for a Match, Mister?”, Garth Nix (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
“The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat”, David Versace (Aurealis #89)
“The Cartographer’s Price”, Suzanne Willis (Mythic Delirium Issue 3.1)

BEST FANTASY NOVELLA
“Raven’s First Flight”, Alan Baxter (SNAFU: Black Ops, Cohesion Press)
“By the Laws of Crab and Woman”, Jason Fischer (Review of Australian Fiction)
“Forfeit”, Andrea K. Höst (The Towers, the Moon, self-published)
The Bonobo’s Dream, Rose Mulready (Seizure Press)
“Burnt Sugar”, Kirstyn McDermott (Dreaming in the Dark, PS Publishing)
Finnegan’s Field”, Angela Slatter (Tor.com)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORT STORY
“Trainspotting in Winesburg”, Jack Dann (Concentration, PS Publishing)
“The Baby Eaters”, Ian McHugh (Asimov’s Science Fiction 40/1)
“The Autumn Dog Cannot Live to Spring”, Claire McKenna (In Your Face, Fablecroft)
“Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart”, Samantha Murray (Clarkesworld #122)
“68 Days”, Kaaron Warren (Tomorrow’s Cthulu, Broken Eye Books)
“The Least of Things”, Jen White (Aurealis #94)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVELLA
Waking in Winter, Deborah Biancotti (PS Publishing)
“Salto Mortal”, Nick T Chan (Lightspeed #73)
“Going Viral”, Thoraiya Dyer (Dimension6 #8, coeur de lion)
The Bonobo’s Dream, Rose Mulready (Seizure Press)
“All the Colours of the Tomato”, Simon Petrie (Dimension6 #9, coeur de lion)
“Did We Break the End of the World?”, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press)

BEST COLLECTION
Crow Shine, Alan Baxter (Ticonderoga Publications)
Concentration, Jack Dann (PS Publishing)
A Feast of Sorrows, Angela Slatter (Prime)
Winter Children, Angela Slatter (PS Publishing)

BEST ANTHOLOGY
Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann (ed.) (PS Publishing Australia)
Defying Doomsday, Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench (eds.) (Twelfth Planet Press)
Year’s Best YA Speculative fiction 2015, Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein (eds.) (Twelfth Planet Press)
Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 10, Jonathan Strahan (ed.) (Solaris)
In Your Face, Tehani Wessely (ed.) (Fablecroft Publishing)

BEST YOUNG ADULT NOVEL
Elegy, Jane Abbott (Penguin Random House Australia)
The Bone Queen, Alison Croggon (Penguin Books Australia)
The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale (Penguin Random House Australia)
Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman (HarperCollins Publishers)
Gemima: Illuminae Files 2, Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)
Goldenhand, Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin)

BEST HORROR NOVEL
Fear is the Rider, Kenneth Cook (Text Publishing)
My Sister Rosa, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Grief Hole, Kaaron Warren (IFWG Publishing Australia)

BEST FANTASY NOVEL
Nevernight, Jay Kristoff (Harper Voyager)
Fall of the Dagger, Glenda Larke (Hachette Australia)
Den of Wolves, Juliet Marillier (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Vigil, Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher Books)
Road to Winter, Mark Smith (Text Publishing)
Sisters of the Fire, Kim Wilkins (Harlequin Australia)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
Watershed, Jane Abbott (Penguin Random House)
Confluence, SK Dunstall (Ace Books)
Gemima: Illuminae Files 2, Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Allen & Unwin)
Squid’s Grief, DK Mok (self-published)
Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley (Harper Collins Publishers)
Threader, Rebekah Turner (Harlequin Australia)


Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Chatting with my friend Katharine, who also runs a book blog, Ventureadlaxre, it came out that she'd been meaning to read Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga and I had been meaning to re-read it, since I read most of them before I started blogging. And so, an idea for a blogging project was born.

Katharine and I will both read a Vorkosigan book a month, going through them in internal chronological order, more or less, and then, as well as any ordinary reviews, we will write a discussion-type blog post about each book. She will bring the "reading for the first time" perspective and I will bring the "re-reading and what it adds" perspective. These posts will be cross-posted to both our blogs.

I haven't re-read anything since I started blogging except Harry Potter (because of the illustrated editions) and books I was actively working on (Defying Doomsday, science checking stuff), so this will be interesting.

Now get ready for a monthly parade of horrible covers as I re-read some of the best science fiction books around.

Baen has the worst covers, mainly because of their font choices.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis is a children's novel (the main character is 12ish) about a young dragon that gets turned into a human girl and has to make it on her own in a strange new city. And also chocolate.

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she's ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she's still the fiercest creature in the mountains -- and now she's found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time...won't she?

This was a delightful read. Sometimes I, as an adult, find books for younger readers a bit too condescending or talking-down to the reader too much, in a way that probably wouldn't have bothered me when I was closer to the intended age bracket. This is absolutely not the case with Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. It's a lovely book that will be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

The story follows Aventurine, a young dragon who's sick of being stuck in her family cave, waiting to  grow up so she can safely hunt and fly around outside. One day she decides to experiment with going outside and the first human she meets transforms her from a dragon into a human girl. As well as being traumatic, the transformation, which hinged on an enchanted hot chocolate, awakens Aventurine's love of chocolate. As well as working out how to live as a human, Aventurine becomes fixated on tasting chocolate again.

This book has a lot of delicious chocolate descriptions in it, which made me a bit sad not to be having any chocolate when I read the book. Recommendation for reading: consume with hot chocolate. The setting is a vague Germanic medieval fantasy world, which we don't see much of beyond the city and the mountains. We hear a bit about a few other cities too. The main focus is definitely on the characters: Aventurine and her friends, family and other people she encounters.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart was the kind of story in which the bad guys are merely annoying rather than actually evil, which was refreshing, especially coming out of having read a few more dire books. It's not that everything always goes well for Aventurine, but nothing especially dire happens and overall this was a very feel-good book. Highly recommended for people looking for a heartwarming read.

I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy, dragons and books for younger readers. It is, like I said, written for a younger age group than YA usually is, and I'm not sure that all teens will necessarily enjoy reading about a twelve-year-old. But I think it can be enjoyed equally as much (if not more) but adults (and maybe teens who are less self-conscious).

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: February 2016, Bloomsbury (UK/ANZ)
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor is a sequel novella to Binti, which I reviewed here and which went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella. The sequel follows on from the original story, showing us the next chapter of Binti's life, and focussing on a very different set of experiences. This review will contain some spoilers for the first novella.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula-nominated Binti.

It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.

And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.

But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.

After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

The first Binti novella followed Binti on her eventful and ultimately traumatic journey from her home on Earth to the prestigious Oomza University. Binti: Home opens on Oomza University and follows Binti as she makes the decision to go home for a visit. Rather than focussing on the journey this time, the story focusses on what happens after Binti gets home.

The novella deals a lot with change and belonging. Binti was changed by her time at Oomza, from learning new things and living in a different environment with a diverse assortment of people. She was also changed, both emotionally and physically, by the events en route to Oomza. How does she then go about fitting in back home? In a culture where no one leaves (usually) the very act of going away and coming back is subversive in itself, but the added changes of the journey are revolutionary. The scenes with Binti's family were the most upsetting, I thought, and although some of their reactions are understandable I, as the reader sympathising with Binti, couldn't help but be outraged at how unfair they were.

If you enjoyed Binti, I definitely recommend reading Binti: Home. It's the next part of Binti's story and, as the ending strongly implied, it's not the last part either. I hope there will be a third story because Binti: Home ended on more of a cliffhanger than I was expecting. I turned the page expecting more story and was met with "About the Author"! I need to know what happens next! Argh! If you haven't read Binti, I recommend picking that up first, since Home builds a lot on what came before. If you're a fan of thoughtful science fiction, I highly recommend this series of novellas.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2017, Tor.com
Series: Yes, Binti book 2 or 2 so far
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan is a science fiction novella set on two large asteroids out in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. It is a quick and compelling read more about morality than technology, although of course there is technology in it.

Camille is desperate to escape her home on colonized asteroid Vesta, journeying through space in a small cocoon pod covertly and precariously attached to a cargo ship. Anna is a newly appointed port director on asteroid Ceres, intrigued by the causes that have led so-called riders like Camille to show up at her post in search of asylum.

Conditions on Vesta are quickly deteriorating—for one group of people in particular. The original founders agreed to split profits equally, but the Sivadier syndicate contributed intellectual property rather than more valued tangible goods. Now the rest of the populace wants payback. As Camille travels closer to Ceres, it seems ever more likely that Vesta will demand the other asteroid stop harboring its fugitives.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a happy read. The story follows a few characters on Vesta where something akin to racial tensions are coming to a head. Of the founding families, one has been singled out as having not pulled their weight (because they contributed intellectual property rather than physical technology to the settlement) and their descendants are being are now targeted. The main characters on Vesta are some of these descendants and their friends/sympathisers mounting a resistance against the bigotry targeting them.

The Ceres sections of the novella are set a few years later than the Vestan parts and mainly follow the Director of the Ceres colony as she interacts with Vestan refugees. In both settings there is discussion of morality, from different perspectives, and a few different moral questions are faced by the characters. The story doesn’t really resolve these questions — mostly because there are no right answers, I suspect — and leaves us only with a chapter in the characters’ lives closing. We do not know all the details of what happens next.

I enjoyed The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred and found it a compelling read, especially after I got past the first chapter and got a better idea of what the story was about. I recommend it to fans of science fiction and political stories. As I mentioned, aside from being set on asteroids and taking the relevant environmental factors into account in the background, there isn’t very much science (or, well, technobabble) in this story. If that’s something that often puts you off SF, then I still recommend giving The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred a shot.

4 / 5 stars

First published: November 2016, Subterranean Press
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is the second book in the Illuminae Files trilogy. I previously reviewed the first book, Illuminae, here. The sequel maintains the found footage/documents format of the first book and is a relatively quick read because of it, despite clocking in at 659 pages in my edition. I should also mention that I checked the science for this book so this wasn't my first read through, although it was my first experience of the final copy in all its artistic glory.

Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The saga that began with Illuminae continues on board the space station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of BeiTech’s assault. Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter, Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum may be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival. The fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

I enjoyed Gemina more than Illuminae. I think partly because now, with the second book, the authors and the production team have really gotten into their stride with the found documents format. Also, I just liked parts of the storyline more (no space zombies, for example). Also, a lot more of the overarching plot becomes apparent in this book. While there is still some mystery about exactly what's going on and why, we are much less in the dark by the end of this book than we were by the end of the first. (Which is how it should be, obviously.)

I was also quite fond of both protagonists in Gemina: Hanna, the daughter of the station chief and a girl who can kick anyone's arse; and Nik, the drug-dealing scion of a big organised crime family from space-Russia. And they already knew each other before the book started, which adds some layers to their story. Also, I can't write a review without mentioning Nik's cousin Ella, one of the most prominent secondary characters. She's an awesome hacker who contributes significantly to the story and is also pretty decent disability representation. Yes, she has/had a fictional disease but the mobility and respiratory consequences of it have real-world counterparts. The best thing is she's allowed to do her thing without much of a big deal being made of her physical limitations.

I recommend Gemina to fans of science fiction and YA SF. If you enjoyed Illuminae then I definitely recommend continuing on to Gemina, which I enjoyed more. Gemina almost stands alone but I don't suggest reading it on its own because the bits that tie in with the overarching plot and the events of the earlier book won't make much sense. And will kind of spoil the effect. I am definitely keen to read the last book and find out how everything is resolved.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: October 2016, Knopf (US) and Allen & Unwin (Aus)
Series: Illuminae Files book 2 of 3
Format read: US hardcover
Source: Authors
Disclaimer: I did some science-checking for the authors (and hence also read an earlier version of the MS)
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie SF Reading Challenge

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire is a novella with a difficult-to-remember title until you realise the list is chronological. I didn't actually realise it was a novella at first, only checking to make sure it wasn't a sequel to something I hadn't read when I requested it. I also hadn't really paid attention to the blurb, which made the opening prologue especially powerful for me.

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

From the title and cover, I kind of thought this book would be more creepy horror than it was. I wouldn't actually call it horror at all. It's about ghosts, but from the point of view of the main character being a ghost herself and integrating into society without most being being any the wiser. It also contains the investigation of weird shenanigans and some heroics, as most fantasy books do. It also deals quite a bit with suicide, which is how the protagonist's sister died, suicide prevention, and what it means to die when it's "your time" or not (the latter through a fantastical lens).

The opening hit me hard and the rest of the novella kept me eagerly turning pages through my jetlag. Jenna is a compelling first person narrator, taking us through her day-to-night life, her perceptions of New York — including the New York only people like her can see — and some of the realities of being a ghost. I greatly enjoyed the alternate vision of New York McGuire painted in this book, as well as her vision of ghost life.

I really enjoyed Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day and highly recommend it to fans of ghosts, othered or liminal cities, novellas and Seanan McGuire.  I would recommend this to readers who enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway (although I will note I didn't like Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day quite as much as the other novella). This novella also sold me on the soft goal of trying to make my way through McGuire's back catalogue, so expect to see more of her books on this blog in the future.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: January 2016, Tor.com novella series
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Bitten by Amanda Pillar

Bitten by Amanda Pillar is the second novel set in the Graced universe. I have previously reviewed the other novel, Graced, and one of the novellas, Captive. Although Bitten is set after Graced, they can be read in any order and the novellas aren't necessary to follow the stories in the novels.

The city of Pinton has never been safe…and now a serial killer is on the loose.

Doctor Alice Reive is the city’s coroner, and she’s determined to help find the murderer. Enlisting the assistance of the Honorable Dante Kipling and city guard Elle Brown, they race to track down the killer, before another victim dies.

Hannah Romanov – Dante’s missing twin sister – has spent hundreds of years living on an isolated mountain. But her quiet life is thrown into chaos after she discovers a baby left in the wilds to die. Hannah will do anything to ensure the infant’s survival, even if it means travelling to the worst place in the world for her – Pinton.

Bitten is a little bit of a lot of things. It has some romance in it (basically all of the key characters get paired off) but isn't a capital-R romance novel. There are murders to solve and a serial killer to catch, but it's not exactly a mystery novel or a police procedural either, despite one of the characters being a coroner. Really it's the story of a group people and how their lives intertwine during a certain period of time, which happens to also involve some murders. Because of all that, it doesn't follow any well-worn genre beats but the story threads all come together towards the end, which was the part I enjoyed most.

Being set in the same universe, the main characters from Graced do make an appearance but reading the earlier book isn't necessary for understanding Bitten. The only issue I can see with reading them out of order is being "spoiled" for who pairs off with whom in Graced, but from memory it was pretty obvious and not supposed to be a surprise. Also, there is definitely a heavier focus on the new characters introduced in Bitten, and I generally enjoyed reading their stories the most — particularly Alice the coroner, Hannah the Graced vampire and Byrne and werebear — even when I wasn't sure how they were going to intersect. They all had interesting pasts which tied the story together nicely.

I would recommend this books to fans of vampires, werepeople (not just werewolves) and magic/psychic powers. Also to fans of urban fantasy, particularly the kind set in a low-tech future.

4 / 5 stars

First published: January 2016, self-published
Series: Graced Series book 2 of 2 so far
Format read: eARC
Source: Review copy from author
Disclaimer: Amanda is a friend but I have tried to not let this influence the content of this review.
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Monday, 9 January 2017

After Atlas by Emma Newman

After Atlas by Emma Newman is a companion novel to Planetfall, which I previously reviewed here. You don't have to have read Planetfall to read After Atlas — both books stand alone entirely — but some background/historical context for After Atlas will be clearer sooner if you've read the other book first. Even if you spend most of After Atlas trying to remember the names of the Planetfall characters before caving and checking when you're near the end, as I did. Also, it should be possible to read the two books in either order.

Gov-corp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to do why Casales was found dead in his hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

To figure out who killed one of the most powerful men on Earth, Carlos is supposed to put aside his personal history. But the deeper he delves into the case, the more he realizes that escaping the past is not so easy. There’s more to Casales’s death than meets the eye, and something much more sinister to the legacy of Atlas than anyone realizes…

Planetfall wasn't exactly a cheerful book, so I picked up After Atlas because I was in the mood for a depressing read. Boy, did it deliver in that regard! Set on a dystopian Earth forty years after the colony ship in Planetfall left, After Atlas follows a detective assigned to a murder case. Carlos the detective, also the first person narrator, is owned and enslaved by the Ministry of Justice and contractually forbidden from revealing that fact. Because of the NDA included in his contract, most free people don't believe slaves like him exist, which makes for some interesting social interplays (and bitterness).

A large part of After Atlas is a murder mystery, with the victim the leader of a cult Carlos escaped when he was sixteen. The cult insist on having Carlos be the investigator and, of course, the situation brings up a lot of difficult memories for him which also serve to fill in the reader on his backstory. The story of the cult and of Carlos's connection to the departed spaceship end up being key components of the story, along with the murder itself.

Newman paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity in this series and especially in this book. Honestly, I was surprised at how bleak some parts were and I recognise that's not for everyone. But I really enjoyed the book and the story and the issues it raised. I will definitely read any more books that come out in this series, although I'm not sure more are planned. I recommend After Atlas to fans of dark SF (I wouldn't call it horror, though) and to anyone who enjoyed Planetfall, although it's a pretty different read in many respects. I've enjoyed all of Newman's books that I've read, but I should warn you that if you've only read the Split Worlds series, this series is very different, so be warned.

5 / 5 stars

First published: November 2016,
Series: Planetfall series, book 2 of 2 so far (but both stand alone)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley