The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

It’s not often that a book completely surprises me. I’m notorious for spoiling the end of something–book, movie, whatever–long before I get there. I’m not aloud to speak during movies and TV shows, or talk to the Other about books we are both reading, until she’s finished it, because I inevitably give it away. I can’t help it! I’ve been trained over many decades of reading and a degree in what is essentially media to identify tropes, analyze plots, dissect character. Blame the Man.

The Library at Mount Char genuinely surprised me at almost every turn, right up until the end. Mr Hawkins has a gift of telling a compelling story completely without foreshadowing. I was carried along, sometimes wide-eyed, sometimes complacent and comfortable, like I was white-water rafting. Here, the current is calm, I’ll just enjoy the day, then BAM! Rocks ahead, outta nowhere, hang on to your hats, partners, here we go!

This was a weird, exciting, funny, horrifying novel. There is nothing meaty I can say that won’t spoil it, so I won’t say more than that, and even that is probably too much. Except it was wonderful.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, yes, yes! June 2015
Publisher: Crown, USA
Editorial: ???
Rating: 4.5/5
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy, w/ Horror elements

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Ms Bear is fairly well known among genre fans, so I should be embarrassed that this is the first book of hers that I’ve read, but I’m not. My reasoning was, believe it or not, that I’ve already got too many “Elizabeth”‘s among the authors I keep up on, and I just could bear (heh) to add another.

Then Karen Memory came out, and folks were actually talking about the book, not the prolific author who is amazeballs, which was a bit vague for me. Also, my TBR pile eclipses the sun and I’m easily distracted, so… Reasons, alright? Anyway, the stars aligned, the book crested the wave of my mammoth library queue at about the same time that I was in the mood for a Steampunk-Western-Victorian-Mystery and lo, turns out that Ms Bear really is amazeballs, as is Karen Memory.

The heroine has a unique, compelling voice, and her history is totally believable. The world-building is deep and rooted in my home region/city, which gave Ms Bear a sturdy base to build on, that I found easy to accept and mentally navigate. I had a few bumpy moments with Karen’s stubborn temper–I thought she was a bit too inflexible at times for someone of her background and career, and that those moments weren’t sufficiently supported by the text, but I got over it. And the climax was rollicking good fun, which I want to read again, now that I’m writing about it, and also I should put Ms Bear’s Hammered on my library queue, so Ta!

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, yes, yes! Feb 2015
Publisher: Tor, USA
Editorial: Beth Meacham
Rating: 4.5/5
Genre: Western Steampunk Mystery (whee!)

[See the Big Idea piece for Karen Memory on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, by clicking here!]

Rivers of London/PC Peter Grant series, by Ben Aaronovitch

Over the past few months, I’ve been hanging out over at File 770. Mostly lurking, to keep up to date on the Hugo awards: Puppies, EPH, 4/6, and other inside baseball fun surrounding the awards. Inevitably, threads over there turn into book recommendations, because people interested in the politics of literary awards tend to be voracious readers. One of the recurring names was Ben Aaronovitch, author of the series known as Rivers of London (also the UK title of the first book in the series, which was slightly confusing–it’s Midnight Riot on the US edition) or as the PC Peter Grant series.

The best way to describe the series, for a US audience, is as Dresden Files in the UK, only better. Much, much better. I like Jim Butcher’s books–I’ve read all of his published novels, for realz!–but the PC Peter Grant novels are miles (kilometers) better. None of the continuity and copy-editing problems with the Dresden Files, and much tighter writing. Even the reflexive chauvinism of PC Grant is more self-aware and wry than Harry Dresden.

For those unfamiliar with either, both series are Urban Fantasy/Supernatural Mystery, with elements of romance and a slight noir influence. Both main characters begin as bumbling, reluctant detective types, but Dresden gains power and authority rapidly in Butcher’s books, while Aaronovitch puts more emphasis on the process of learning. PC Grant is very much a student, painstakingly earning every spell, while Harry Dresden is already an experienced wizard in the first Dresden Files novel, and rockets into improbability rapidly, coming back from the dead in the latter half of the series as a near-immortal.

Okay, perhaps I’ve soured a bit on the Dresden Files after the resurrection bit. Anyway, I really enjoyed the PC Grant novels, and since there are only five of them to date, I was able to cruise through the whole series, courtesy of my local library, in about a week.

PC Grant has a fun “voice” and the individual stories are pleasantly weird twists on the police procedural type of mystery. There’s also a larger arc that is building throughout the series, serving as a secondary plot-line to the monster-of-the-week of each installment. Big fun, highly recommended.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: #5, Foxglove Summer, Jan 2015 USA
Publisher: DAW
Rating: 3.5/5
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Supernatural Mystery, good to read on the bus if you’re not likely to miss your stop.

The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig

fire sermonI don’t know what I think about this book, so I’m going to write until I form an opinion.

Set on a future Earth, after some sort of giant flash-bang, that I eventually decided was probably nuclear war, animal life has gone all wonky, including human animals. In the case of homo sapiens, people are born in pairs, called Alpha and Omega. Alpha’s are born “perfect,” with no visible abnormalities. Omega’s are usually born with a visible abnormality, but some appear “normal” while actually having mental abilities, and are known as Seers.

Being a Seer brings no special privileges in the divided Alpha/Omega society, and can lead to additional oppression or hardship, as both segments fear Seers’ power, even as they seek to exploit it.

Cass is the heroine of The Fire Sermon, a seer who manages to hide her abilities from everyone, including her twin, Zach, until they are tweens, although Zach suspects. Zach eventually “outs” Cass, and she is branded and cast out, to either survive alone or find other Omegas.

I think the world-building is the weakest part of the novel. Ms Haig paints both societies, Alpha and Omega, in broad strokes with little history or context. Elements of each society are  detailed when they directly pertain to Cass’s adventures, but the focus of the story is on people. Characters are richly detailed and distinct, even those encountered once and briefly, and so do most of the heavy plot lifting.

I enjoyed the unflinching examination of ability, disability, and ableism in the book. At times, I was made uncomfortable, my own assumptions and biases brought to light, which was awesome, but at other times, I found the rampant anti-Omega discrimination hard to believe. Fundamentally, I think I believe that compassion is the norm, so I couldn’t completely fall into the story: the basis of the social system was just too inhumane and abhorrent for me. It built up into a logical conclusion from the internal story logic, but the fundamental precis was too personally dissonant.

Also, I was a little disappointed that Cass’s character was singled out as some sort of super-Omega. Not only is Cass a Seer, and someone who can pass as either an Alpha or a regular Omega with minimal effort, but even as a Seer, Cass is special. A little predictable, that.

Hmm. It appears that I thought this book was fine: some interesting questions, well-written, but incomplete world-building, and trite hero and villain tropes made it ultimately disappointing.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes
Publisher: Gallery Books, USA
Rating: 2.5/5
Genre: Science Fantasy, with significant social commentary

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley

the rookIf I could insert a Kermit cheer in this space, I totally would. I really enjoyed this book, and was heartbroken to discover that 1.) it was published in 2012, so I can’t nominate it for All The (2016) Awards Evah, and 2.) the sequel, Stiletto, doesn’t come out until January 2016. Misera sum!

The Rook is everything I was hoping for, and more. A fast-paced, supernatural thriller, twisty right up until the end, I couldn’t put it aside. I’m normally not a fan of epistolary novels, but the letters were a minor part of the text, although they played a major role in the plot. The main character has a wry and macabre sense of humor that had me chortling on the bus, not to mention that the author is clearly satirizing certain fiction tropes (e.g. the Illuminati) within the story.

I may also have mentioned before that I quite like stories with unlikely heroes–the paper-pushing bureaucrat, or accountant, or help-desk operator. Myfanwy Thomas is something like the office manager for “Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service” (a tagline for the novel). Money quote: “There’s a reason that there’s no TV show called CSI: Forensic Accounting.” Whee!

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Unfortunately, no.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, USA
Editorial: ???
Rating: 4.5/5, highly recommended
Genre: Supernatural thriller

Carrie Patel, Recoletta Books

cities&thronesI was fairly excited about the The Buried Life and Cities & Thrones, books 1 & 2 from debut author Carrie Patel. They promised adventure, mystery, politics, a little mayhem… basically, my definition of a good read. And for the most part they delivered; however, the delivery should have been in three or four distinct books, not two hot-pot novels.

Ms Patel obviously has a lot of stories to tell in this universe, and those stories are probably very interesting. Unfortunately, each installment was packed with the three (or perhaps more) tales, and the result was rushed, confusing, and discombobulated. It’s difficult for an experienced author who has been writing for decades to keep multiple character’s plotlines separate, yet intertwined, and Ms Patel isn’t quite there.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, both published 2015
Publisher: Angry Robot, USA
Editorial: Lee Harris
Rating: 2/5
Genre: Fantasy, SF, Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Mystery Adventure Sci-Fantasy? I don’t even know.

40 Days

half a warLife got busy there for a while, so even though I’ve been doing a lot of reading, I haven’t been doing much blogging about what I’ve read. Obviously.

I finished Half A King and Half The World, by Joe Abercrombie. I have not yet read Half A War–I read the first few chapters, and discovered that I needed a break. These books are not direct sequels; instead they focus on interrelated characters, shifting focus between close generations and caste. Caste probably isn’t the correct word, actually, but it’s the closest I can get to my impression of the combination of class, profession, and role.

NOTES:
2016 Hugo Eligibility: Half The World & Half A War
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), USA
Editorial: Natasha Bardon, Gillian Redfearn
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Fantasy, on the grim and bloody side

Threefer

internThis weekend I read The Intern’s Handbook and Hostile Takeover by Shane Kuhn, and Glow by Ned Beauman. They made for a fun weekend, indoors, as I have been avoiding the heat wave outside. 96 degrees! Impossible.

Shane Kuhn is in show business, apparently, which makes sense. The premise of the novels is a corporation that provides assassins under the guise of interns, because nobody notices the intern, right? This conceit automatically caps the age of the assassins; the narrator of both novels is John Lago, an intern-assassin on the cusp of retirement, who writes a helpful little handbook for the incoming recruits.

The narrative voice is unique–Holden Caulfield, jumped up on meth, and armed to the teeth. Mostly entertaining throughout The Intern’s Handbook, the voice grated on me more and more during Hostile Takeover. I definitely did not mind the over-the-top carnage, as it played cartoonish and rather Jackie Chan Goes Hollywood on my inner screen. Oh, and the very elaborate cross, double-cross, and triple-cross twists also start to wear a little.

glowI had this last issue with Glow, in a way, as well, although the twists were a bit more realistic. Still, there were a lot of twists and turns and plots, ranging across decades and countries, and after a bit one begins to wonder: how much is this actually necessary? If I skip the next couple of pages of backstory, will I miss anything important? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Also, not as deeply meaningful as the author was probably going for. In order to have a big theme, I think, a writer has to edit. If one keeps throwing ingredients into the pot, eventually it’s just leftovers.

Still, I liked the characters of Raf and his friend Isaac; their commitment to doing as many drugs as possible without permanent damage; and the setting of London. I’ve never been, so I have no idea how realistic is his portrayal of the city, but apparently Beauman was born in London, so I’ll take his words at face value.

In sum: all three were fun, and perfectly suitable fast reads, with variable levels of sex, violence, drugs, and music.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

authorityBook two of the Southern Reach Trilogy takes place outside of Area X, the creepy setting of Annihilation, in the bowels of Southern Reach itself, the government agency perched on the border of Area X, and tasked with researching the phenomenon at their doorstep.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy in fiction is generally just as dull and frustrating as the real-life DMV. The protagonist, John Rodriguez aka Control, has moved to the small town of Hedley to be “acting” Director of Southern Reach. From the first we’re informed that Control hasn’t had a sterling career–Southern Reach is his last chance and Southern Reach has problems that go all the way down. The Assistant Director hates and resents Control, his staff is just plain weird, the biologist from book one has only a handful of appearances and is mostly a cypher, and the plot begins and ends with Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong.

Mr VanderMeer is a strong writer, good with character and setting, but Authority (FSG Originals, May 2014) is a book that should be all about the story, and it can’t carry its own weight. The plot is choppy and episodic, relying heavily on Control’s ignorance to provide mystery and suspense; however, instead of invoking the sense of impending doom that made Annihilation so deliciously spooky, I felt annoyed. But I finished it, because I’m invested now, damn it.

I’m just into book three, Acceptance. I read in hope.

New Books New Books New Books

timesalvagerJust released in hardcover is Wesley Chu’s newest, Time Salvager (Tor Books, July 2015), featuring a convicted criminal and addict for a hero, time travel, and human colonization of the outer planets of the Solar System.

Chu’s last book was The Lives of Tao, which I keep meaning to read, but I haven’t quite excavated my TBR pile to that point. Also, Chu wrote two sequels to Lives…, Deaths… and Rebirths…, which means that I might have to read three books, not just one, so I’m grateful that Time Salvager is a stand-alone. For now. Wesley Chu was shortlisted for the 2014 John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award.

apexAlso out now is book three of Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy, Apex (Angry Robot, May 2015). Reviews of all three books are stellar, while noting “rookie mistakes,” especially in book one. These are also in my TBR pile, which currently eclipses the sun.

Naam is a professional technologist, a writer who is also creating the sort of future he writes about. His non-fiction book More Than Human won the H.G. Wells Award, and he was nominated for the Kitscie Award for Best Debut, the Prometheus Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He was a 2014 nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Both Mr Chu and Mr Naam will be appearing at Elliott Bay Book Co. this evening at 7:00PM, if you are in the Seattle area.