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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

Not Interesting South Africa

The Wingman - Natasha Anders Floored - Ainslie Paton

The Wingman is an eminently forgettable contemporary romance I picked up mostly because of its South African setting. I had this foreign language teacher who always said the best way to learn conversational chatter was to watch soaps: they tend to be real familial, familiar, and local. So I've enjoyed contemporary romances from other countries on this level: they give me a real interesting view of a country. I mean, of course it's stylized and perfected, but it can be unvarnished in a way you don't get in capital L Literature. I read like a half dozen novels by Ainslie Paton because she writes so winningly about Australia, and about the Pacific Rim more generally. Floored is a straight up road trip novel, and so much fun if you want to drive through a dozen shitty Australian towns. Which I do! 

 

Anyway, The Wingman is not that, not by half. There's a little chatter about how no one speaks Afrikaans, but then no one speaks Afrikaans. The main girl runs a clinic is the bad part of town (i.e. the black part of town) but pretty much the community exists to menace her with gangsters or rescue her from said gangsters. Everything is paint by numbers small town romance with requisite slut shaming and label dropping, but that kind of label dropping that pretends it isn't interested in status objects like those bitches over there. Sure, Becky. 

BONKERS

The Dragon Factory - Jonathan Maberry Patient Zero - Jonathan Maberry

I kind of can't even handle how ridiculously pulpy this series is so far. Patient Zero pretends to a kind of scientrism, wherein the zombie outbreak our intrepid heroes race to thwart has, like, a modicum of scientific plausibility, I guess. Baltimore cop and chiseled jaw hero Joe Ledger gets tapped by one of those shadowy X filesy governmental organizations to track down a terrorist with a name like The Jackal. The leader of said alphabet soup organization eats cookies as his ominous tic; Joe has to murder a terrorist twice in a week; international pharma phuckers are the absolute worst. Patient Zero is good fun, with lots of kickass and a fullblown zombie outbreak to salve your need for bloodshed. 

 

But it's The Dragon Factory which really swings for the cheap seats. There's literal Nazis, genetically engineered chimera, Neanderthals, evil albino twins with a side of incest, clones, and more, so much more. SO MUCH MORE. I kept cackling through this novel, unable to believe how fucking bonkers everything was, and just when I got a handle on it, it would get MORE BONKERS. Uff da, I haven't had as much fun with something this silly in a long time. I'm going to read the shit out every single Joe Ledger novel as long as they stay this goofy, 

Historical anachronism happens fast

This is the Way the World Ends: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Keith Taylor

This poor novel had the bad sense to be published in August, this year of our Lord 2017, though, presumably, it was written earlier. EVEN SO, at the very moment of publication, it was already woefully historically anachronistic. I'm going to blame this, like so much else, on the Trump administration, and the unbelievable chaos and unprecedented violation of governmental, social, and ethical norms that we've seen in this fine country, the US of A, since then. Writing near future science fiction is an unbelievable bitch.

 

This is what got me. So, This is the Way it Ends is avowedly a love letter and a riff on Max Brooks' World War Z, which is also glossed with the subtitle An Oral History of the Zombie Wars. The writer here, Keith Taylor, notes in his introduction how taken he was by the retrospective and documentary feel of World War Z, and how, after expecting a raft of novelists to take up the style, he decided to fill the gap when no one did. This is the Way it Ends is successful in this Brooksian ventriloquism for the most part, and it you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like. (Well, other than a metatextual spin wherein Keith Taylor, current novelist, inserts himself inside this fictional narrative as "Keith Taylor," the documentarian for the novel. His intro dragging on fictional zombie narratives was way too clever-clever. It's the kind of thing that's fun to read to your wife after you write it, but shouldn't make it into the final draft.)

 

Like Brooks' novel, this one takes place a dozen odd years after the initial zombie outbreaks, after humanity has gone through the meat grinder of a full on zombie apocalypse and come out on the other side, shaky, diminished, but still standing. This is the section that got me: a centrist Republican, one who shepherded the US through the zombie wars, tells a story from mid-2019. Apparently, there are outbreaks happening all over Europe, and there's more and more worry about the zombie threat. At a bipartisan meeting, a reporter asks if maybe the US should close its borders. A democrat steps up, and in an act of partisan showboating, begins reciting the Emma Lazarus sonnet that is carved into the statue of liberty. "Give us your tired" etc. At this point everyone goes nuts, freaking that closing the borders is evil, and certainly no sane (or not evil) person would suggest such a thing. The Republican president is rueful: if only those stupid liberals knew better. 

 

So here's the problem with this. First, let me tell a joke: at an intersection with four corners, on each corner stands an individual: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, a centrist Republican, and an alt-right nutjob. Someone drops a case of money into the center of the intersection. Which individual gets it? The alt-right nutjob, because the rest of these beings are purely fictional. Second, Trump already tried, and has been moderately successful, in implementing his Muslim ban, just recently adding to the seven Muslim-majority countries he's put on the shit list. Though the courts have put on the brakes a little, public outcry was nowhere near uniform. In fact, I think I was in a minority for thinking that was self-defeating and cruel, in addition to racist. The Trump administration is working hard at curtailing literally all immigration, legal and illegal, and we don't have anything near a zombie fucking outbreak to point at, though you wouldn't know it from some Brietbart articles, boy howdy. No one reads sonnets anymore; those are for effete liberals and they are decidedly not in charge. Third, what is this word, "bipartisan"? I do not understand this strange concept. 

 

In some ways, this anachronism is adorable, and it dovetails into some blindspots Brooks had in WWZ. The farther Brooks gets from his worldview, the less compelling his narratives get -- the American housewife one is a big fucking mess, but then I have a whole thing about the housewife in fiction. Ditto with Taylor. As a native Brit with a Mongolian wife who spends a lot of time in Mongolia and Thailand, his grasp on pan-Asian politics is pretty great. Americans? Yeah, not so much. I'm not picking on him here though. I'm not sure I understood (even as someone who purported to at least a modicum of wokeness) how unbelievably racist and isolationist the United States is until the last election. And that election technically didn't involve zombies! 

 

Except it totally did and we're all going to die. The horror of reading horror fiction for me these days is in how unscary it all is. It's nowhere near as terrifying as considering a malignant narcissist who considers Nazis "fine people" starting World War 3, the one that will kill us all, while tweeting on the shitter one Sunday morning. In the words of Mira Grant, rise up while you can. 

 

 

 

Like a good tv show in print

Bookburners - Jeffrey Veregge, Mur Lafferty, Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mark W. Weaver, Brian Francis Slattery

I'm a little wary of multi-author narratives in print, which is a little goofy, considering that this is basically how all television is scripted. I love me some television, but, of course, it must be said that the strength of the singular vision -- the showrunner or creator -- is a huge factor in whether any given show is successful. (Successful to me, anyway; I'm not talking folding green. That's a whole other thing.) But I've been burned with uneven and unsatisfying multi-author novels before, so. I picked this is up because I've been slow-burning my way through Max Gladstone's Craft sequence. Maybe his name is top of the marquee because he's the best known of the writers, but I suspect not. This has his fingermarks on it, narratively speaking -- from the baroque murder mystery plotting to the strange other gods and devils.

 

But even if Gladstone wasn't the showrunner, if you will, whoever it was did an excellent job. I greatly enjoyed Bookburners, even despite my prejudice.. I felt like it overcame the lumpiness of multi-author novels I've read through what must have been good editorial control, which nevertheless allowed the individual writers to show off their specific style. Each section is episodic like television, with a mini-arc that has its own satisfaction. Sometimes the episodes were more mythology heavy, and that's fun too. The possibilities of the premise are no where near exhausted by the end, which is also a plus, given how many television shows / series / trilogies / whatever should be strangled after the first outing. How many Matrix movies are there, for example? Want to talk about season 2 of Heroes? or Lost?

 

Anyway, much fun was had by me.

Light Space Opera Marred by Sexual Violence

Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1 - Lindsay Buroker

Lots of shitty sff tropes hitched to the specific kind of ugly sexual politics one finds in romance novels overwhelm what should (and occassionally is) a quipping romp through the universe. Rape threats and straight up sexual assault continue regularly from the first scenes to,the end of the novel. Before I get the "but that's realistic" chorus, I would like us to all take a minute and consider that this is clearly supposed to be a comic space fantasy with romantic elements, and the introduction of "rape as realism" is unnecessary, thematically jarring, and fucking stupid. And that's not even getting into a 45 minute diatribe about the very equation of rape with realism. 

 

Which is disappointing because there are some nice comic moments and a gift for the absurd in Star Nomad, hidden in under bad world building and rape threats. Sure, a lot of it was derivative -- Firefly has its fingerprints everywhere, from setup to character types -- but I'm not looking to some romp through a pirate-infested asteroid belt to blow my mind or anything. (Unless it's Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, and that shit was amazing.) The Paradox series by Rachel Bach, starting with Fortune's Pawn, contains many of the same elements found here, but is much more expertly done. Start there for your lighter space opera. 

The Amish Face the Technological Apocalypse with Grace

When the English Fall: A Novel - David Williams

I'll admit I was trepidatious about being assigned this novel to review at first. Much as the setup is catnip to me -- a fresh take on technological shutdown and societal collapse? Sign me up! -- I have a real thing about how the Amish are sometimes portrayed. They're sort of infantized and fetishized in a lot of contexts, like they're just these adorable weirdos who don't have electricity. Not to get too far into it, but any religious group who practices shunning is on my shit list, and that goes for Scientology as well. But! The Amish are no monolith, like any group, and embrace a number of societal ideals I find admirable, non violence being the main one. Anyway.

 

David Williams managed to sidestep all of my fears, and spin a compelling tale. His main character, Jacob, is not without faults, but his very active engagement with the rough realities of the technological failure of the English (that's us, to them) is deep and thoughtful. A very good book. 

 

 

My latest at B&N Sci-fi & Fantasy

Hidden Legacy series review

Wildfire -  Ilona Andrews White Hot -  Ilona Andrews Burn for Me -  Ilona Andrews

Enjoyable action-driven detective yarns, with a magical twist. Though I occasionally have "but wait..." moments about how the House system works -- surely that makes no sense -- I admit this is nit-picking. I'm not reading Andrews novels for robust legal systems, so what I am complaining about? But they are good at energetic, ranging plots full of enough bloodshed and yearning to keep me well pleased. 

 

My latest at B&N Sci-fi & Fantasy.

Just odd

Desperate Duchesses - Eloisa James

I've been intermittently reading James's novels as the mood strikes me for historicals, and it always seems to go thusly: one novel that's cute and light, followed by one (or even two) that are too douchey or dumb. I first hit James because she's the daughter of Robert Bly, a local poet of some note. I pretty much live to hate read Bly's stuff, which I have the occasion to do because my dad thinks he's awesome. So there's this tangled web of fathers and daughters and reading and whatnot. 

 

Though James is a romance novelist, she's also a Shakespeare scholar and Robert and Carol Bly's kid. (I like Carol better than Robert as a writer; Carol's essays are aces.) So sometimes James writes a nice little ditty, and sometimes she goes too far up her own thing referencing Elizabethan poets. I adore Donne, but seriously, there's a limit. It just feels douchey at a point in Georgian romantic smut. And it's not as if I oppose some literary gilding in ur romance fiction, but just that it was excessive here. For sure the main character's dad DID NOT write the Christopher Smart poem to His Cat Joeffry, which is a great poem, and the misattribution annoys me some, even though it's fully acknowledged in a preface. 

 

This was not bad, just .. odd as a romance novel. It took me ages to sort the primary couple, which can be fine, like in Talisman Ring, but here just felt diffuse. Maybe it's the Georgian setting, which is historically less, ahem, straightlaced than either the Recency or the Victorian periods, but the open fuckery sometimes felt forced. Even set now, where fuckery is not entirely unexpected, I find the easy acceptance of marital affairs, especially by women, not precisely believable. Women have always been under the thumb.

 

Anyway, this was fine, but clearly the start of a series, so it feels like set dressing more than playing. I'm sure I read a later book in this series at one point, and while are nods to all kinds of shit that happened in previous books, which I find irritating, the book itself was well richer for the personalities laid down earlier. Alas, early and later have their issues. 

Lose yourself in this beautiful literary map of London

The Girl - Meridel Le Sueur Main Street - Sinclair Lewis War for the Oaks - Emma Bull In the Lake of the Woods - Tim O'Brien Freedom - Jonathan Franzen Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values - Robert M. Pirsig Fiend - Peter Stenson

A literary map of London, with its writers and characters charted by neighborhood. Which, this us just about the coolest. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul have nowhere near the literary relevance of London (not even close), but I would kill for a literary map of my hometown(s). Here's a start:

 

--Dr and Mrs Kennicot from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street honeymoon near Lake Calhoun; she's from St Paul
--Much of the action of War for the Oaks takes place in and around First Ave
--Zombie novel Fiend bops around St Paul and the St Paul suburbs, ending in the St Paul County Courthouse
--Meridel LeSeuer's The Girl takes place in the dodgy part of St Paul circa 1920s; not sure where exactly
--Franzen's Freedom takes place in Ramsey Hill in St Paul
-- Diablo Cody worked as a stripper in Sex World, Sheikh's, and other Minneapolis strip clubs, as detailed in Candy Girl
--Though much of Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods takes place in the Lake of the Woods (doi), it starts in St Paul when the protagonist's bid for governor fails
--Similarly, the (I think only pseudonymous narrator) of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance starts in the Wedge neighborhood. Specific streets are named, something like 25th and Colfax
--For sure there's stuff by William Kent Kreuger, Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, and Louise Erdrich I can't think of right now.

Star’s End: An Inner Space Opera

Star's End - Cassandra Rose Clarke

Man, I really like Clarke's stuff. Not real flashy, but emotionally detailed.

 

My latest at B&N SciFi & Fantasy

Wrong Title, help?

Star's End - Cassandra Rose Clarke

How do I go about changing an entry? Four Sisters is the working title of this novel, not its actual title. Which is Star's End, and quite good. Maybe not as affecting as her other stuff, but still something that I'll be thinking about this week. 

I didn't get this PhD for nuthin

The Silver Skull (The Elemental Web Chronicles Book 2) - Anne Renwick The Golden Spider (The Elemental Web Series) (Volume 1) - Anne Renwick

The Golden Spider and The Silver Skull are both fairly paint-by-numbers steampunk: it's vaguely Victorian-ish, with the ton & the peerage and all that, but there are Babbage cards and steam mechanicals and such too. 

 

The Golden Spider is probably the better novel, following a girl scientist trying to stop a killer and cure her brother and also there are spies.The Silver Skull relies on one of those "we have to pretend to be married so we might as well bang" scenarios, which I find tedious, and I didn't buy the reasons for the lovers to be apart anyway. But bonus points for pteranodons that the evil lady saddles up so she can have sky battles with airships. That was fresh. 

 

What I really wanted to say about this series, the thing I found utterly charming, was the epically nerdy science behind both of these plots. A science that was lovingly detailed with so much legit scientific terminology that I would just start skimming at points as the principals breathlessly talked chemistry at each other. The author's bio states that Renwick has a PhD in chemistry, and it shows: she loves this shit; she's not going to dumb it down; and she's going to work out the science plausibly, even if it's fictional. 

 

Hard science is very rarely my thing. I simply do not care about verisimilitude, unless you wrap it up with some actual characters, which doesn't happen as often as I'd prefer. And generally I'm not reading steampunk for the articles, but because I like the dash-punk pulp aspects: I want to see me a fucking kraken, or an airship battle that crashes, burning, into the sea, or some automata struggling with sentience. But here, in books where the steampunkery was wan and drab, I lived for the nerdy stuff, in a weird reversal. It just goes to show that the enthusiasm of the writer towards the subject, be it chemistry or krakens, goes a long way toward my enjoyment of a novel. 

New York 2140 Offers a Fascinating Tour of a Drowned Manhattan

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson

I am not fucking around: this is a great Kim Stanley Robinson novel. It's got everything I like about him: a bunch of hugely nerdy digressions, some legit science, a little light-hearted didacticism, and words words words. This man can write. Ok, sure, the plot is loose, but who even needs a plot when you've got a world like this, like ours but in extremis

 

My latest at B&N SciFi. 

10 Characters in the Mercy Thompson Series You Must Meet

Silence Fallen - Patricia Briggs

So this is a round-up I did for B&N SciFi, which is a little listicle-y because it's number 10 in a series and nobody much cares about, like, an actual review at that point. Either you'll read it because you're on the hook, or you won't.

 

But coming up with the list kinda reminded me how kinda terrible the Mercy Thompson series is about relationships between female characters. I think there's a big step forward in Silence Broken -- Mercy has real conversations with Honey, that Russian witch lady, and Marselia -- but that doesn't precisely make up for the previous 9 novels. It ends up being one of those bummers where I pretty much like everything about a series but a huge fucking gaping hole where normal human interaction should exist between people of the same gender, but alas, it doesn't. Or it does a little not, but. 

 

Oh, but as per the actual plot: I thought this one unstuck some stuff that had been, um, stuck, in the few previous. Mercy ends up kidnapped into Europe, so we get a whole new political and literal landscape to deal with. I though it shook up some things that needed shaking up in the Mercyverse. 

Fiasco and WTF

Venom and Vanilla (The Venom Trilogy) - Shannon Mayer

Uff da, this is some silly stuff.

 

Venom and Vanilla started with a bang. We're introduced to Alena on her death bed, cut down by a communicable disease that's so virulent that she's flown out to Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle to die isolated and alone. It's a sad, slow beginning, nostalgic for her simple life and small rebellions. Alena was a member of the Firstamentalists, an almost cult-like religious group who brooked no contact with the Supernaturals: vampires, werewolves, etc. Of course, fiction being what it is, the narrative lack dictates that, in order to cure the fatal disease rapidly killing her, Alena must become a Supernatural. 

 

I actually loved watching a protagonist struggle with her religion. Alena holds to her principles, even though she'd long questioned them, long past my expectations. While I found her childish refusal to do anything close to cussing annoying -- for fuck's sake, donkey butt has nowhere near the frisson of asshole -- I commend the commitment to character. Alena is a good girl, a religious girl, and she's not going to shed her convictions just because she's like a giant snake or there's a hot vampire or whatever. 

 

But that's about where I stop my praise, because this novel is such an absolute fiasco. Alena is turned into an ancient Greek monster by Merlin, THE Merlin, of all people, to be murdered by Achilles, who is apparently a thing, and Zeus works for Wal*Mart, plus there are vampires and naga and werewolves and satyr and god knows what fuck all. Oh, and there's a standard dystopia where Supes are second class citizens dumped onto the other side of a wall (oops, sorry Canada, you're now the dumping ground for supernatural creatures). 

 

This is one of those stories that is so far gone that I enjoyed it, just waiting for whatever bananas ass shit was going to happen next. Lightning shootout in Wal*Mart? Fine. Naked girl fight in a Queen Anne neighborhood attic? Sure. Casual slut shaming while reveling in the lead's nascent sexuality? Whatever. A house-sized snake fighting minotaurs? I guess. So much random shit happens, SO MUCH. SO MANY characters hide footballs, and not even stealthily, but like right in front of you like you don't have eyes in your head. It's so blatant it passes over insulting into something else completely. 

 

Anyway, I guess what I want to say is that the reader for the audio is fucking amazing, and I think she's the only reason I finished this thing. Her name is Saskia Maarleveld, and I really like her voice. 

 

The End. 

12 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Updates of 19th Century Novels

Heartstone - Elle Katharine White
Arguably, 19th century literature is defined by the extravagance of its poetry. (The Vampire Lestat ain’t got nothing on Lord Byron.) But the craft of the novel was percolating in the background, too, undertaken by such undesirables as women, satirists, and social reformers. If you care to, you can find Victorian jeremiads railing against the social rot perpetrated by novels, which read like anti-television tracts from the first decades of that medium. (My take: give any genre long enough, and it’ll become preferable to the newest alternative. I am constantly begging my children to rot their brains with television instead of YouTube. For crying out loud, put on headphones at the very least.)
 

Because early novels were written on the edge of things—not precisely respectable, and new enough for wide experimentation—many bucked the often rigid social structures of the times. In the second edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been subject to much howling by moralists, Oscar Wilde declared, “all art is quite useless.” By which he meant (among other things) that the novel should not be used only as a moral punchline, but should explore the wide variety of the human experience. From Trollope’s intricate family sagas, to the Brontë sisters’ howling family Gothics, to the lurid and/or didactic serials of Conan-Doyle and Dickens, the novels of the era tread a lot of ground.

 

Maybe that’s why they’re such good fodder to update for a contemporary audience: they managed to hit first, and definitively, a swath of the human experience. No, no one has to worry about the entailed estates of the Regency period, but the social burlesque of Pride & Prejudice, the relationship between the sisters, and the sting of betrayal—all still hold true. (Plus, Darcy: rwrrr.)

 

Here are 12 sci-fi and fantasy updates of major 19th century novels. I’ve not included works that already have a science fictional or fantasy twist to them, like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; they almost need their own roundup. I haveincluded edge cases like the Gothics, because any supernatural element tends to be ambiguous at best. (Quick: are the ghosts real in The Turn of the Screw?) Come let’s see what’s happening on the manse, in space.

 

I know this is super annoying, but my actual list can be found at B&N SciFi. It was hella fun to write.