Category Archives: Reviews

Ghosts and Gods: THE APEX BOOK OF WORLD SF 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar – Review

Apex Book of World SF 3 3D

The Apex Book of World SF 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar
Genre: Adult Science Fiction Anthology
Publisher: Apex Books
Release date: June 15 2014
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
Pages: 266

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A tasty buffet of choice stories from all over the world, some stronger than others, but all of them great examples of diversity and imagination.

Before she became a ghost, Xiao Qian tells me, she had lived a very full life. She had been married twice, gave birth to seven children, and raised them all.

And then her children got sick, one after another. In order to raise the money to pay the doctors, Xiao Qian sold herself off in pieces: teeth, eyes, breasts, heart, liver, lungs, bone marrow, and finally, her soul. Her soul was sold to Ghost Street, where it was sealed inside a female ghost’s body. Her children died anyway.

Apex Books continues to delight me with the way they stretch the boundaries of what science fiction and fantasy can be. In this collection, the third in a series, editor Lavie Tidhar has collected sixteen stories from many countries, including China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Nigeria, Greece, Mexico, Germany, France, Sweden and India. I was thrilled to discover some new favorite writers, and I intend to keep them on my radar. Some of the stories are translated into English, others are written in English, but all of them have not only an other-worldliness about them, but at the heart of each one, you’ll recognize the ups and downs of simply being human. For the most part, it was a very strong mix, and while not every story grabbed me, there were two or three that either made me cry or left me speechless.

As is my habit when I review anthologies, I would like to highlight my top five favorites. All five of these have everything I look for in a short story: lovely writing, an engaging story, characters who change and grow during the course of the tale, and emotional impact at the end. Imagine how hard it must be to achieve all these things in only a handful of pages! And yet these writers managed to do so:

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu. A young boy named Ning lives in an odd family of ghosts, mechanical creatures with a human soul trapped inside them. But what happens when Ning finds out he’s not exactly who he thought he was? This heartbreaking tale had me bawling at the end.

Waiting with Mortals by Crystal Koo.

The neon in Hong Kong is like the past: an image of blurred points of light, and haste and shallow focus where the only certainty is a vivid experience eventually misremembered.

Koo’s writing is so beautiful, and this strange ghost story tells the tale of a group of ghosts who have not yet “crossed over,” but instead spend their days inhabiting the bodies of the living. Ben is a ghost who still pines for his friend J.G., a girl who is slowly losing herself by letting ghosts take over her body. A powerful and emotional story.

To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar. This author is truly metropolitan: she is a Lebanese-Canadian who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, so I’m not really sure how to categorize her story! This tale was particularly sneaky. It begins as a dreamy story about a woman who has been taught to weave dreams into stones for profit. But when she spies an intriguing and beautiful woman in a café, and begins to use her image as a catalyst for some very erotic dreams, the story suddenly turns dangerous.

Regressions by Swapna Kishore. A gorgeous story about time travel, as a group of “futurists”—women who are tasked with travelling back into India’s past and gently changing the tide of the Indian woman’s lot in life—must make sacrifices in order to improve the lives of women. I loved this story!

The City of Silence by Ma Boyong. Translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu. Just like George Orwell’s dystopian future, this 1984-esque story describes a future where the “appropriate authorities” control all language and publish a daily “List of Healthy Words” that citizens are allowed to use. When one man discovers a secret “Talking Club,” where one can speak whatever words he wants to, life becomes brighter—for a little while, at least. As with any dystopian, this is a chilling look at how dangerous government control can be.

Four other stories that nearly made this list are: Act of Faith by Fadzlishah Johanabas. A lonely man named Daud decides to teach his only companion, an android, the ways of his faith; The Foreigner by Uko Bendi Udo. A Nigerian boy seeks acceptance in a world filled with hate and mistrust. Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar. One of the few horror stories in the bunch, a girl contracts a nasty scratch while in the jungle, a scratch that changes her life forever. And Dancing on the Red Planet by Berit Ellingsen. An international group of astronauts, about to set foot on Mars for the first time, decide to make that special moment memorable.

So do yourself a favor and check out this anthology. I guarantee it will make you look at the world a little differently. Big thanks to Apex Books for providing a review copy.

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Adventure & Airships: THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan

The Bullet Catcher 3D

The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter (The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #1) by Rod Duncan
Genre: Adult Steampunk
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 384

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A rollicking steampunk adventure, filled with intricate twists and turns, top-notch world building, and a heroine that quickly became one of my favorites ever.

Illusion was my inheritance, fed to me on my mother’s lap as the drowsy rocking of the caravan and the slow rhythm of iron-shod hooves lulled me. It was a ripe strawberry conjured from the air, or a silver coin caressed from my soft cheek by the touch of a loving hand.

The first great illusion given me by my father was the gift of being, when needed, my own twin brother. I learned by stages to move as he moved and to look as he looked. My voice would always be the weakest part of the illusion, but even this could be covered by misdirection. At a distance of twenty paces, under the deceiving illumination of the stage lights, my friends could not tell me from a man.

From the opening paragraph of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, I was enchanted by just about everything this book has to offer. Duncan’s novel takes place in an alternate history UK that feels very much like Victorian England but with the steampunk addition of airships. Elizabeth Barnabus is the young narrator, and her voice was so clear and, frankly, feminine, that I kept having to remind myself that the author is male. I’ve run across several brilliantly written books with a male narrator written by a female author, but I think this might the best male author writing a female character that I’ve ever read. A delicious air of mystery and hijinks pervades this story, and I was immediately drawn into the unique world Duncan has created. True, there are many steampunk novels out there with airships and mechanical devices, but this book has much more, including a circus of illusion, a menacing organization called the Patent Office, and two lands divided by a hard-to-cross border.

Elizabeth, our heroine, lives in exile in the land of the Republic, an old-fashioned and oppressive place where women aren’t allowed in bars or out on the streets unchaperoned. Her true home, the Kingdom, lies just out of reach on the other side of the border. After the ruin of her family, she barely survives by eking out a living as an “intelligence gatherer,” except there’s a twist—Elizabeth makes her living at night by dressing up as a man and pretending to be her twin brother.

After the Duchess of Bletchley approaches “Mr. Barnabus” and begs him to find her missing brother, offering a king’s ransom for completing the job, Elizabeth agrees, knowing the money will get her out of debt for good. But Mr. Orville’s (the Duchess’ brother) trail proves hard to find, until Elizabeth stumbles upon Harry Timpson’s Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, a wondrous circus that just might hide clues as to his whereabouts. Elizabeth finagles herself into the ranks of the circus-folk and gets a job cleaning out the lion pens, but the mysteries keep piling up. Why is the dreaded Patent Office after Mr. Orville? Who is John Farthing and why is he following Elizabeth? And what does the mysterious contraption, a box that Mr. Orville supposedly stole, do anyway? There are dangers aplenty, as well as adventure, all wrapped up in a lively narrative that whisks the reader along with barely time to take a breath.

I have to begin by talking about the character of Elizabeth, because she was such a bright and vivacious part of this story. Many of the other characters were strong and engaging as well, but none can compete with Elizabeth, who really steals the show. One of the ongoing and unexplained mysteries of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is whether or not Elizabeth’s twin brother actually exists (and by the end of the book, I still wasn’t sure!). She has been taught by her father from a very young age the art of “becoming” a man, in dress, makeup, hair and attitude, and in this way she conceals herself and is able to move among men and conduct her intelligence gathering. Duncan’s descriptions of how quickly she can change into her brother, and back again, were fascinating. Elizabeth is never without her battered old case that hides the clothing and wigs necessary for her illusion.

But disguising herself as a man isn’t without its challenges. Elizabeth’s friend Julia, who believes there are actually two siblings, begins to fall for the brother (awkward!). And throughout the story, not everyone is fooled by the disguise. Eventually Elizabeth’s dual life becomes rather complicated, and you can imagine the hilarity that ensues.

The details of Elizabeth’s backstory and the reason she now lives in the Republic are slowly doled out over the course of the book. Duncan does a great job of avoiding “info dump” by letting the story unfold in its own way and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.

Part of the plot revolves around the circus that Elizabeth briefly joins, but this is by no means a “circus story.”  However, she meets several colorful and endearing characters while working there, most notably a young boy named Tinker who melted my heart, who also used to live in the Kingdom, and a fortune-teller named Tania who seems to know exactly what Elizabeth is up to.

The steampunk elements were so interesting, and Duncan goes into detailed description at one point about exactly how an airship runs. In fact, there were so many interesting touches that remind you this world is very unfamiliar. Details like the avian post (birds that deliver letters) and the hub ship that Elizabeth lives on (an old boat no longer in use) and even a strange holiday called Ned Ludd Day (which explains the meaning of the word “Luddite”) were so charming. Even though at its heart this story is what I would call a “caper” and is filled with chase scenes and misdirection, it’s also an alternate history story that is rich with colorful details.

The author includes a glossary called The Bullet Catcher’s Handbook at the end of the book, which explains some of the unfamiliar terms used in the story (including  “bullet catcher”) which I found very useful. He also begins each chapter with short excerpts from the handbook, like this pithy statement:

“Lying is an art form. It becomes sin only if the deception is discovered.”

By the end of the story, many of the mysteries are solved. But Duncan teases us with a hint of what’s to come in the next book, which luckily for us is not that far away (January 2015!). Run, don’t walk, and pick up this wonderful adventure tale with one of the most clever and resourceful heroines you’ll ever meet.

Many thanks to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

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BROKEN FOREST by Eliza Tilton – Review

Broken Forest 3D

Broken Forest (The Daath Chronicles: Book One) by Eliza Tilton
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Release date: May 2013
Source: Finished paperback from author
Pages: 229

three stars

The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric and magical tale that just needs more work, with female characters that mostly disappointed me, but some fierce action scenes that sort of made up for some of the let downs.

I’m a bit surprised by all the five-and-four-star reviews for this book on Goodreads and Amazon. Maybe I’m just not the right target audience for this story. There is no doubt that Eliza Tilton has a vivid imagination and a promising future as a writer, but the execution of this story did not work for me in many ways. The author sets out to write a fairly traditional fantasy novel, complete with character names that are nearly unpronounceable and a fantasy realm that may or may not exist, and to some extent she succeeds. Broken Forest has a quality of mystery and magic to it that I really enjoyed. There are riddles to be solved, characters that you don’t understand and who require more scrutiny, and exciting action scenes that were very well written. However, despite the very low page count of this book, it took me nearly a week to finish.

The story goes like this: Avikar is a young man who feels responsible for his young brother’s death—he drowned in a lake while Avikar wasn’t paying attention. When his sister Jeslyn is kidnapped, Avikar feels it is his duty to rescue her. But the rescue plans don’t go all that smoothly, especially when Jeslyn gets to the land of Daath, the magical realm where her captor, Lucino, lives.

Not everything worked for me, although these things did:

1. A sense of magical mystery. A lot of plot points aren’t explained until late in story, which kept me interested and trying to guess what was happening. Several clues about who Lucino really is are dropped here and there, but the author never really explains his origins. It was frustrating at times, but hopefully book two will delve into the mysteries of Lucino and his people.

2. Bows and arrows, swords and general violent mayhem. Bows and arrows! Enough said.

3. Multiple points of view. I do love stories that jump around to different characters’ POVs, and Broken Forest circled around the three main characters—Jeslyn, Avikar and Lucino—giving the reader a broad picture of the rather ambitious scope of the story. It’s always fun to peek into the minds of both the good guys and the bad guys!

4. A secret realm called Daath that humans don’t believe in. Just like the fae realm, Daath is simply a fairytale that humans have grown up hearing stories about, but they don’t believe it actually exists. Jeslyn doesn’t either, until she’s brought there by Lucino.

And in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are some things that I think needed work:

1. Tilton’s writing is solid, and she’s on the right track, but some of her sentences are particularly awkward and strange and needed more editing, such as:

“The brush passed through my hair methodically.”

This definitely felt like a “first book” to me, and while I can see the author’s potential, it just wasn’t up to my standards of writing.

2. The character names had me scratching my head. I understand the need to come up with “fantasy” names to make your story feel exotic, but I stumbled over most of the names in this book, over and over again. Avikar, Lucino and Tarrtainya all stopped me in my tracks, for some reason. More perplexing to me was that in the midst of these fantastical names, a few of the characters were named “Martha” and “Susie.” Huh?

3. The horrifyingly old-fashioned, downtrodden, and abused female characters that saturated this story. As a (yes, I’ll admit it) feminist, I’m always on the lookout for strong female characters. It’s almost a given these days, at least in YA literature, that your female lead needs to be strong. But the women in Broken Forest were mostly weak. Jeslyn, our “heroine,” fainted so many times I lost count. Instead of being enraged by being kidnapped and taken to another world, where she will be forced to marry the leader, she meekly accepts her fate, gushes about the wonders of Daath—the flowers! the animals! the beauty!—and (gasp) starts to fall in love with the enemy. Only one female character avoided this trap, sort of, and that was a plucky girl named Raven who, despite her pluck, starts to fall for Avikar.

4. The unexplained “reptilian race” that Lucino is part of. I know, I know, up there I said I liked the mystery. But it was also frustrating that Lucino kept referring to himself as able to change into his reptile form, but we never really get to see that happen. (At least I don’t remember it.)

There was so much more I wanted to know about the characters and the world that Tilton created, and I’m sure she has much more in store for readers in the second book. Whether or not I will read the next installment is still up for debate. Unless Tilton’s female characters take a giant leap forward, I’m not sure I’ll be there for the ride.

I want to thank the author for supplying a review copy.

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Seriously Awesome Dialogue: LOCK IN by John Scalzi – Review

Lock In 3D

Lock In by John Scalzi
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: ARC from publisher at Comic Con
Pages: 331

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A terrible virus sets the stage for a futuristic police procedural, filled with unique ideas, snappy dialog, and a bit of social commentary about what it means to be disabled.

“I royally pissed off Trinh tonight,” I said. “I think she hates me more than she hates you.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Vann said. “But if you got her even halfway there I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I don’t drink,” I said.

“Good,” Vann said. “Then you buy me a drink. Come on. I know a bar.”

“I don’t really think you should be hitting the bars tonight,” I said. “You have a hole in your shoulder.”

“It’s a scratch,” Vann said.

“A hole in your shoulder from a bullet,” I said.

“It was a small bullet,” Vann said.

“Fired by someone trying to kill you.”

“All the more reason I need a drink.”

This was my first John Scalzi book, but it won’t be my last. Scalzi’s humor is definitely in sync with my own, and I enjoyed the playful and humorous banter between the characters immensely (see above).  Scalzi took a tried-and-true formula—the police procedural—and gave it a unique futuristic spin. The story sounds simple enough: two FBI agents, one a rookie and the other a veteran, try to solve a murder. What aren’t so simple are the complex relationships that emerge between the victim and the guy caught red-handed—literally—at the crime scene. Scalzi’s story has multiple twists and turns that were confusing at times, but the murder was almost beside the point. I was much more interested in the characters and the crazy but thoroughly interesting medical condition called Haden’s syndrome, the result of a world-wide pandemic that has become the norm for many people.

I loved this book in much the same way that I love the television show Castle: the murder is somewhat interesting, but what keeps me coming back again and again are the characters and their relationships. Scalzi’s dialog is perfection. He’s also done a ton of research about viruses, computer hardware and software, and corporate and political America (or maybe he’s just really smart!).

The story begins with a brief introductory chapter, told in the form of a Wikipedia-like entry, on the history Haden’s syndrome. My first reaction to this was “info dump!” However, it turned out to be a handy tool that I referred back to more than once while reading the book. Hayden’s is a very complex disease. Many people who contract the virus simply die, but others survive the fever and later become “locked in,” unable to move their bodies while their brains continue to function normally. These Hadens use android-like conveyances called “threeps,” where they can upload their brains and use the threep to move freely about, giving them nearly normal lives. Still other survivors of the virus called Integrators, the smallest percentage of all, retain their physical and mental capacities, but have the ability to allow locked in Haydens to “borrow” their bodies (for money, of course).

C3PO

What a threep might look like. I’ll let you think about it for a minute. Got it?

I found this set-up fascinating, and while somewhat confusing (there is a lot of discussion about neural networks that frankly went over my head), I went with the premise and had no problem buying into Scalzi’s future.

Our main character, a famous Haden named Chris Shane who has recently joined the FBI, and his new partner, the jaded and unpredictable Leslie Vann, join forces to solve the puzzle of a murdered Haden that appears to be a suicide. Things get complicated when the perp at the scene turns out to be an Integrator who has no knowledge of what happened. On the sidelines, trouble over a controversial bill is brewing, a bill which has just been passed and which will drastically cut funding for Hadens. And it’s only Chris’s second day on the job!

Scalzi has given us a disabled main character, which was a bold move that really works. At first I was having a hard time picturing exactly what the heck a threep looked like, but then it clicked and I suddenly had a much better understanding of how Chris and his fellow Hadens got around. (see above visual reference!) I loved the fact that twenty-some years after the first wave of the virus, people are more or less comfortable interacting with Hadens and their threeps, although no matter what decade you live in, I suppose there will always be people who are prejudiced.

I especially loved Chris’s partner Vann, who has some very personal secrets that she holds close—secrets that she eventually shares with Chris. Vann is a heavy drinker and always seems to spend her free hours in a bar looking to get laid. But she cares about her job, and I loved her relationship with Chris as she slowly begins to trust him. Plus she gets some really funny dialogue!

Some of the political situations in Lock In echo our current—and ongoing—state of affairs: big corporations lying in wait to take over the little guys, the plight of the disabled and who is going to pay to take care of them, among other hot topics. The author wraps it all up in the context of the story, and although it could have turned into a rant about the downfalls of our society, the events are simply woven among the other story threads, and it all feels just right.

One element that I didn’t get enough of was the virtual reality world, created just for Hadens, called the Agora. The Agora is a place where Hadens can go to interact with other Hadens, and where “Dodgers” (regular humans) aren’t allowed. It had the potential to be a very cool part of the story, and while there were a few scenes that took place there, I wanted more.

Overall, though, Lock In was a great read, filled with just enough action for those who are looking for it, and just the right kind of humor to keep me laughing up until the end. Highly recommended.

Big thanks to Tor Books for the review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Check out John Scalzi’s blog Whatever.

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

A Blockbuster of a Story: THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir – Review

The Martian 3D

The Martian by Andy Weir
Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Release date: February 2014
Source: Finished hardcover from Blogging for Books
Pages: 369

five stars

The nitty-gritty: An edge-of-your-seat survival story, a brilliant and sarcastic main character, lots of twists and turns, and a fascinating look at our country’s potential for space travel.

Seriously, this was the best time I had reading a book in a long time. I mean, I’ve read some really good books lately, but The Martian was just so much fun! I wish I had time to read it again, and I wish I could read it again for the first time. I am jealous of all of you out there who haven’t read it yet, because you have that experience to look forward to. Andy Weir can do no wrong in my eyes, and I hope he’s working on his next book right now. When I got back from Comic Con last week and was looking through the event schedule, I discovered that Andy Weir had been on a panel, and I didn’t get to see it! Of course, that was before I read his book, so I may not have gone anyway, but I’m kicking myself right now. Simply put, if you have any love at all for space travel and exploration, you are going to love this book.

In many ways, The Martian reminded me of the 1995 movie Apollo 13, one of my all-time favorite movies, and strangely enough, when I turned on the TV this morning, Apollo 13 had just started playing on TNT! It was fate! I stopped what I was doing and watched the entire movie, which made me want to read The Martian AGAIN.

For those not yet in the know, here’s the story set-up:  Mark Watney is an astronaut who has just been stranded on Mars, after the rest of his crew leaves him for dead following an accident that cuts short their mission. Mark tells his story in the form of log entries, using the Martian term “sol” (in place of “day”) to show the progression of time. He wakes up after being severely injured in an explosion and realizes that 1) he’s not dead, and 2) he’s all alone. This sets the stage for a thrilling survival story as Mark attempts to stay alive in the harsh environment of Mars with limited tools and materials—and food—at his disposal.

When a NASA tech named Mindy inadvertently picks up a satellite photo that proves Mark is still alive on Mars, all hell breaks loose as NASA’s mission suddenly becomes urgent: instead of mourning the loss of one of their astronauts, they now have the nearly impossible task of trying to bring him home alive. With the other five members of the Mars mission on their way home—a grueling eleven-month journey—a decision must be made: is there any way to save Mark? And if so, can the crew of the Hermes help?

One of the best parts of this story is Mark Watney himself: a laid-back, extremely intelligent botanist who has a sarcastic streak the size of a Martian crater.  His ingenuity may feel over-the-top and unrealistic at times—I mean, that man can do anything! He’s more MacGyver than MacGyver is! But he’s been sent on the Mars mission for a reason. He’s highly intelligent, he’s got mad survival skills, and he’s trained to think fast and calmly in the face of disaster. I don’t think it will be a spoiler to tell you one thing that Mark does: he figures out HOW TO MAKE WATER. I am not joking. And so water—or lack of it—isn’t really a big problem for him. (Oh, don’t worry. He’s got a lot of other problems…)

His sense of humor really shines through, and the book is filled with lines like these:

“I unraveled Martinez’s bed and took the string outside, then taped it to the trailer hull along the path I planned to cut. Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.”

“I started the day with some nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. First, get some hot water, then add nothin’.”

“It’s true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.”

“I’ll spend the rest of the evening enjoying a potato. And by ‘enjoying’ I mean ‘Hating so much I want to kill people.’”

The story would have worked well if we’d only had Mark’s log entries to go by, but the author decided to show three main points of view instead, so we get a much more layered story. The narration cuts back and forth between Mark’s log entries, the big-wigs at NASA who are trying to decide the best course of action to save him, and the crew of the Hermes, the ship that’s traveling back to earth with the other five astronauts. Weir manages to give all his characters depth, and I especially loved the parts with the five astronauts—Lewis, Vogel, Beck, Johannson and Martinez—as they come to the realization that Mark is not dead after all, and they must decide what lengths they are willing to go to in order to save him.

The book is filled with technical jargon: mathematics, chemistry, botany and details about mechanical and electrical engineering, all which had the potential to lose me, right-brained human that I am. But despite the pages and pages of intricate descriptions of Mark fixing things and figuring out how not to blow himself up, I was riveted to the page. Even the details that went over my head couldn’t diminish my enjoyment of this story!

The pace kept me turning pages as fast as I could. There are parts where you think, “Wow, things are going really well. Wait. They can’t go well forever, can they?” And guess what. They don’t. Just when you feel you can breathe a sigh of relief, bad shit starts to happen. Luckily, Mark Watney is pretty good at handling unexpected situations.

I didn’t know before I started reading The Martian that it started its life as a self-published book online, and like many self-published success stories, it took several years before it was snapped up by a major publishing house. Now it’s a best-seller and all set to be a movie next fall (allegedly!), starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott (and that’s one movie I’ll wait in line for).

My advice? Read the book first. You won’t regret it.

Big thanks to Blogging for Books for sending me a free review copy. All opinions are strictly my own.

Read more about The Martian and Andy Weir:  The Martian Press Release | A Conversation with Andy Weir | Author Bio

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Unexpectedly Sinister: THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll – Review

Through the Woods Cover

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Genre: Young adult graphic novel (short stories)
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release date: July 15 2014
Source: Purchased at San Diego Comic Con
Pages: 208

It came from the woods. Most strange things do.

five stars

I don’t read many graphic novels, and after reading Through the Woods, I’m not sure why that is! I chanced upon Emily Carroll at San Diego Comic Con signing books at the Mysterious Galaxy booth, and on a whim I purchased a copy and waited in line. Not only did the author surprise me with a doodle on the signature page, but her book was a surprise as well. I expected a slightly scary fairy tale-themed story for teens, but what I got was much darker. Carroll’s artwork is bold and graphic, and her drawings are beautifully detailed, although at first glance they appear simple because she uses so few colors.

Throught the woods 1

Through the Woods is a group of five stories that use the common fairy-tale theme of the woods to tie them all together. But “common” is definitely not a word I can use to describe this book at all. Lurking between the covers are five very different stories that all seem to start on the path you might expect: children or young women are put in a situation where they will need to travel through a wooded area at some point during the story. But each tale ends up in a completely different place, and this is why Carroll’s book stands out. With each turn of the page, the tone becomes increasingly more sinister, and the reader becomes more and more uncomfortable.

In A Lady’s Hands Are Cold, a young girl is sent by her father to marry a man who lives in a palace, but when she arrives, she discovers a terrible secret waiting for her. Carroll’s use of the color red throughout each story hints of blood and terror (although “hints” is hardly the correct word: there is blood aplenty here!). My Friend Janna is the story of a girl who helps her best friend, who can “see” ghosts, perform séances for unsuspecting clients. But what happens when the girl starts to see real ghosts? Perhaps the scariest tale is The Nesting Place, which starts out with a school girl going to stay with her older brother and his wife. Little by little, we realize that something terribly wrong is going on in their house. The tension ramps up to a horrific reveal, and it was not at all what I was expecting.

Through the woods 2

Each story is told with a minimum of words. Carroll’s gorgeous but sinister illustrations manage to convey most of the horror in these tales. She turns the woods into elongated arms and fingers, like tree branches grasping at the girls who foolishly wander into them. Her characters are often drawn with dark circles around their eyes, which hide their expressions and add a sense of doom to the stories. I finished this book with an odd feeling of unease, but even then I wanted to go back and stare at the pages, to try to figure out how the author made me feel this way. Emily Carroll has become one of my favorite illustrators, and her high contrast palette of colors and stark use of black, white and red make this book especially appealing to me.

If you’re expecting happy fairy tale endings, then Through the Woods probably won’t be your thing. But if you’re looking for a creepy collection of beautifully illustrated stories that will make your heart beat faster, then this book is a must-read.

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The Los Angeles I Wish I Lived in: CALIFORNIA BONES by Greg Van Eekhout – Review + Giveaway!

California Bones 3D

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: June 10 2014
Source: Finished hardcover from publisher
Pages: 300

five stars

The nitty-gritty:  A disturbing—yet unique and compelling—magic system, set in a gritty and dangerous alternate world Los Angeles, a dangerous heist, and lots of double-crossing.

They passed into a chamber. Ragged and moldy tapestries hung like cobwebs before walls plated with scapulas. Femurs, arranged in fluted columns, soared to a domed ceiling, the remains of boys from Sacramento and San Francisco and Fort Bragg, and Kansas and Nebraska and New York and Connecticut, and Chumash and Cupeño and Mohave Indians from California, and all the enemy captures from the Hierarch’s wars. Places like this were where the Hierarch flung his toothpicks.

Hey, I finally get to gush about a book with the word “bones” in it, ha ha! I had the best time reading California Bones! Not only did it remind me how much I love urban fantasy, but it takes place in my own backyard, and it was a blast reading about places that I’ve actually been to. I was lucky enough to meet the author this past weekend at San Diego Comic Con, and I want to give a big thanks to Tor Books for giving away free copies of the book. Since I had already received a review copy from the publisher, I’m going to give my signed copy away to one person who leaves a comment on this post (U.S. only this time). California Bones is an irresistible mix of Ocean’s Eleven-type heist story and urban fantasy, set in a magical Los Angeles that seems familiar at first glance, but is really quite different.

Daniel Blackland is a thief who has been hired by his “uncle” Otis to break into the ossuary, an underground vault of sorts that houses some very powerful magic. But Daniel is much more than a thief. He’s literally been fed magic from the time he was a young boy in the form of the bones of extinct and magical creatures, making him a powerful osteomancer.  Not only that, but Daniel is technically dead and living under the radar. Otis makes a deal with him that’s too good to pass up: if Daniel succeeds in his mission, he can keep the sword that was stolen from Daniel’s father, a sword which contains Daniel’s magical essence and is hidden somewhere beneath the city. When the story begins, Daniel is rounding up his “crew” for the job: a shapeshifter named Jo; Daniel’s ex Cassandra who is a master lock-picker, among other things; Moth, the muscle of the group who has the ability to survive any injury and heal himself; and Emma, the mysterious “inside man.”

As Daniel and his crew plan their heist, a magician named Gabriel has noticed something odd: a rare magical signature in the city that proves that Daniel Blackland, who presumably died ten years ago, is still alive. And the hunt is on. In the middle of all the action is the elusive yet all-powerful Hierarch, the magician who rules the Kingdom of Southern California and who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Daniel’s magic.

There is so much to love about this book. I think the world-building was probably my favorite part. Van Eekhout sets his story in a magical Los Angeles that still has many of the places I’m familiar with, like the La Brea Tar Pits, Disneyland, and the Griffith Observatory. But he also turns LA on its head by using a watery canal system in place of its freeways. It takes guts to pull that one off, but the author somehow convinces us that riding boats to get from one place to another is perfectly normal. He also uses lots of sly references to real people, such as William Mulholland, the man who was responsible for building the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s (and whose name you will recognize if you live in Los Angeles—Mulholland Drive, anyone?) and who in California Bones is a water mage.  Even Walt Disney makes an appearance!

Daniel’s ability as an osteomancer was fascinating, and despite the slight “ick” factor of eating animal and human bones to acquire magical powers, I loved the way Daniel could use a creature’s magic for his own—for example, by ingesting the bones of a sea creature, Daniel is able to breath underwater.

The characters were very well done as well, although the book was almost too short for me and I would have liked to get to know them even more. Even though Daniel’s parents are dead when the story begins, we get to know both of them in flashbacks, particularly his father, who was a powerful osteomancer in his own right, and who literally made Daniel into the magician he is. (And whose death is described in horrific detail!)

I loved the unusual character of Max, the “human hound” that Gabriel frees, who then helps him track Daniel. Max is human, but he’s been specially bred—like a hound dog—to smell the faintest traces of magic and find whoever he’s looking for. Just about every character in the book surprised me at some point. Van Eekhout gives them superhero-like abilities, but each has his or her own faults as well. These magicians are about as human as you can get!

If you enjoy twisty tales that are full of unexpected double-crosses, then you are going to love this book. California Bones has everything—a compelling story, a unique magical system, danger around every corner, and characters that feel like friends—and I’m thrilled that this is only the first in a trilogy. Highly recommended!

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Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. I’m very excited to have a signed copy to give away to one U.S. resident who leaves a comment on this post! Tell me how excited you are to read California Bones! I may choose the most enthusiastic comment, or I may just pick a random winner. Honestly, I haven’t decided yet! I’ll select a winner on August 15th.

Signed hard cover of CALIFORNIA BONES with special character coasters from Comic Con!

Signed hard cover of CALIFORNIA BONES with special character coasters from Comic Con!

 

 

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The Corn is Back! – BLIGHTBORN by Chuck Wendig – Review

Blightborn 3D

Blightborn (The Heartland Trilogy #2) by Chuck Wendig
Genre: Young adult dystopian
Publisher: Skyscape
Release date: July 29 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 528

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A worthy and energetic sequel, with several new characters to love, filled with action, adventure, secrets, and danger. Jeezum Crow, people—read this book!

**Mild spoilers ahead!

I’m gonna kill Cael McAvoy.

Then I’m gonna get Gwennie back.

Another glimmering thought: I love her. I love her more than I love anything. More than this boat. More than Momma. More than me.

Love and hate.

Two strong tastes that sit bright and bitter on the back of his tongue, and next thing he knows he’s ditching the spyglass and reaching behind him to grab a corn sickle, the blade gleaming along its moon-silver curve. Felicity’s knife, once upon a time.

Before he even knows what’s happening, he’s running.

Hate carrying him headlong into the corn.

In a sea of “second in a series” books I’ve read so far this year—and might I say that many of them have been disappointing—I’m happy to report that Chuck Wendig’s Blightborn is a more-than-worthy follow-up to Under the Empyrean Sky. Not only are the stakes higher this time around, but the characters are even grittier, the bad guys (and gals) nastier, and the fighting more violent. This series is definitely for young adults who are closer to the “adult” side, as the graphic violence is a bit over the top at times.

The story picks up soon after the end of Under the Empyrean Sky, as the various characters have been scattered here and there by events at the end of the story—and you really should read Empyrean first because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Our three intrepid friends Cael, Rigo and Lane are on the run through the corn. Boyland is trying to find Cael and exact revenge because he thinks Cael killed his father. Wanda is trying to find Cael because he is her “intended.” Cael is trying to figure out a way to get up to the flotilla, a city that floats above the ground, and find Gwennie, the girl he loves. Boyland also wants to find Gwennie, because she’s his intended…and add into the mix a whole new slew of characters who are also out to get Cael. It seems like a mixed up, crazy plot—which is partly correct, but Wendig keeps things together by telling his story in short chapters that switch from character to character, allowing the reader to clearly grasp what’s going on.

This time around we get to see what life is like on Ormond Stirling Saranyu, the floating city where Gwennie and her family have gone to live, having won the lottery at the end of the last book. But life is not all roses and fancy parties. Gwennie learns some horrible truths about her new life, but she also meets a boy named Balastair who eventually becomes her ally. There is plenty of danger both in the air and on the ground, as the POV switches back and forth. Although it was fun to see the life of the privileged on the flotilla, I actually felt more invested in what was going on in the Heartland below a bit more. Cael is still my favorite character in this series, and because he spent most of his time on the ground, well, let’s just say my heart was in the Heartland.

If you’re looking for a page-turner, then you’ve definitely found one. Wendig writes like a cocaine addict—or maybe he’s just hopped up on coffee from his Chemex—in either case, Blightborn is fully of crazy shit, and it never really slows down. My only issue with the story is that it might be too much. Not only is the action non-stop, but there are a lot of characters in this story, maybe too many for my aging brain cells to remember.  But I did fall in love with a couple of new characters, especially Balastair, the scientific genius behind the Pegasus project, and his bird Erasmus; and a ten-year-old girl named Squirrel, who charmed the pants off me with her enthusiastic attitude and mad knife-throwing skills.

Despite all the action, there are some quiet and sweet moments, mostly between Cael and Lane, and Lane and Rigo, as they each feel the need to confess some very personal and life-altering secrets. One character in particular broke my heart—Cael’s sister Merelda, who ran away from home in the last book to hitch a ride on the flotilla, but unfortunately got more than she bargained for.

As usual, Wendig’s writing skills are top-notch. He’s one of the few authors I’ve read that really understands rhythm in prose writing—he knows when to hit the beats, and he knows when to pause. It’s the kind of writing you want someone to read out loud to you.

And of course, THE CORN is back. Corn plays a very special role in this series. It’s scary, it’s creepy, and it’s everywhere.  Not since Children of the Corn have I been so grateful that I don’t live near a corn field!

Under the Empyrean SkyThe story does end on a cliffhanger—and you know how much we all love those (not!)—so here’s hoping book three isn’t too far away from publication (although I can’t find any trace of it on Goodreads…) If you haven’t started this series, I highly recommend it. Just take a deep breath before you start reading: you’re going to need it.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Read my review of Under the Empyrean Sky here.

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Quirky & Erudite: INVISIBLE BEASTS by Sharona Muir – Review

Invisible Beasts 3D

Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir
Genre: Adult speculative fiction
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Release date:  July 15 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 256

three stars

The nitty-gritty: A strange and magical look at some very unusual animals, a narrator with an insatiable curiosity, no plot to speak of, but beautifully written.

Imagine, however, some unlucky person who would die without ever having encountered a flower, a person whose footfalls regularly met cement, whose raised eyes bumped off a dead layer of clouds, whose hopes consisted of daily crusts, and whose fears were so familiar they couldn’t be bothered to wear faces. Smelling the Parfumiers’ honey, that sad soul would know precisely what a flower was and what it meant—the heart of change that makes hope possible. Our bees had become like the invisible sisterhood of the Muses: their honey was pure poetry.

Invisible Beasts is described as “fiction,” but honestly it felt more like non-fiction to me, a scientific and clinical look at our natural—and unnatural world. Muir has crafted a character named Sophie who comes from a family of people who can see invisible animals, and what sounded like an awesome premise for a story was instead a mostly dry observation about different types of invisible animals, all with their own odd names, as seen by a woman with an eye for very detailed descriptions. This book is meant to be a journal where Sophie writes down details of all the invisible animals she discovers, but unfortunately, there is no plot to this book at all. For a girl who loves a good story—I mean, who among us doesn’t?—it was a bit disappointing.

However, Muir is a lovely writer and I enjoyed many of her made-up creatures. I believe most, if not all, of these stories appeared in literary journals prior to being bundled together into this book, and on their own, some of them are perfectly crafted short stories. Sophie is a playful and wry character who infuses subtle humor into her observations of the creatures that only she can see. Her sister Evie is a biologist who knows her secret, and together they have many lively discussions about the natural world. And even though the talent of being able to see invisible beasts is supposed to skip a generation, Evie’s son Leif has the ability as well (although he only makes one appearance in the book).

Of all the creatures in this story—including the Fine Print Rotifer, the Wild Rubber Jack, the Glass Kraken, and the Feral Parfumier Bees—my favorites were the Truth Bats. Truth Bats are able to detect whether a person is telling the truth or not by the timber of their voice. They are small fuzzy creatures that hang around in honest people’s hair, but a lie will send them flying away. Sophie “loses” her Truth Bats when she lies to her sister, and the only way she can get them back is to tell her the truth.

I also loved the Grand Tour Butterflies, whose wings show beautiful designs of vistas and cities. When the butterflies flock, they can join together and mimic their surroundings just by changing the pattern on their wings. I found myself wishing that some of these creatures were real, so I could see them for myself, although some of them were just too strange and horrifying, and I wanted nothing to do with those.

The story ends with an odd Epilogue that for me, strayed from the topic of animals and biology and dealt with the nature of love. It felt completely out-of-place, but then perhaps I just didn’t understand what the author was trying to say. By that time I had grown bored with Muir’s fascinating creatures and I was ready to read something else.

If you are the sort of reader who loves science, and animals in particular, I believe you will love this book. Don’t get me wrong—it was fascinating to read Sophie’s descriptions of “her” animals, especially when she delves into the stories of how they evolved. Invisible Beasts is a love letter to animals, and Muir’s poetic and fervent writing even made me see the beauty of spiders (at least as long as that chapter lasted!). The obligatory cautionary message about global warming and destroying our environment was subtle, and while I normal cringe at such “messages,” in this case I whole-heartedly agreed with the author. Quirky, odd, and at times beautiful, this is definitely a book that will make you think.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version.

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Grrrl Power: FULL FATHOM FIVE by Max Gladstone – Review

Full Fathom Five 3D

Full Fathom Five (Craft Sequence #3) by Max Gladstone
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: July 15 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 368

five stars

The nitty-gritty:  A world that shimmers with magic, female characters that do wonderful and impossible things, and a layered story that will keep you riveted.

They fell through space and worlds, following that unseen beacon. They did not slip from realm to realm so much as burst through. The color of the sea changed, wine-red and spreading. Constellations danced and transformed.

The volcano’s mouth approached. At its bottom, pinhead small but growing larger, lay the pool, another sky into which they could fall forever. The size of a cherry now, a fig, lemon orange apple pineapple watermelon—

She braced herself for impact, too late.

This is the third book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, and as much as I loved the last two books, I think this may be his best yet. Each book in this series can easily stand on its own, so reading the first two books first isn’t necessary—but why would you want to miss out on them? Gladstone’s world is full of gods and idols, sea monsters and Craftswomen, nightmares and pools where you can remake yourself. Each detail is painstakingly melded into the story so that you feel as if you are right there with the characters. Things that we are all too familiar with—job security, market shares, salesman-client relationships—are cheekily disguised as fantasy elements, which makes them much more interesting.

In Full Fathom Five, idols are molded and created by the Order for pilgrims. But when Kai, a priest with the Order, witnesses the death of an idol named Seven Alpha, she makes a risky decision to jump into the pool to try to save her. But Kai nearly dies in the rescue attempt and is later fired by her boss for attempting something so risky. It is only after she meets a street kid named Izza and a poet named Margot that Kai realizes Seven Alpha’s death is only part of a much bigger scheme. With her friends, new and old, to help out, Kai must get to the bottom of what’s really happening to the idols, keep her distance from the murderous Penitents, and try to get her old job back, before anyone else dies.

The biggest surprise for me this time around was the fact that most of the main characters in Full Fathom Five are women. In fact, just about every male in the story is a side character or a bad guy. Not that I don’t love me some strong male characters, too, mind you, but it was a nice change of pace to see a male writer taking the time to create such interesting, strong and utterly human female characters, who are all flawed in one way or another, yet possess the strength to rise above those flaws. I think my favorite character was Izza, a fifteen-year-old thief who is distraught when her goddess the Blue Lady dies. Izza takes care of a rag-tag group of street kids who look up to her to tell them stories about the Blue Lady and restore their faith in the world—much like Wendy Darling telling tales to the Lost Boys.

I also loved Kai, who nearly dies from trying to save Alpha Seven, yet never gives up hope that she will figure out the truth of what’s going on. We also have two characters who make a return appearance from Three Parts Dead, Mrs. Kevarian and Cat (who along with vampire Raz was my favorite character of that book). Unfortunately, Raz is nowhere to be found in this story, but that’s ok, because all the other characters are so amazing. Each woman goes through pain (and sometimes torture), loss and disappointment, yet never do they lose their faith in the gods and idols they worship.

Gladstone’s brilliant writing skills are hard at work, as usual. His lush and poetic prose is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to his books, and it just gets better and better. And as far as the world-building goes, you don’t get much better than this. The island city of Kavekana (think Honolulu, Hawaii) is completely different from ours, yet there are moments of odd familiarity, like when Kai stops at a corner store to buy frozen yogurt. At its heart, this is a mystery story, as Kai tries to figure out who is killing the island’s idols. The pace is not the rip-roaring action-packed sort, but rather the slow-building kind that surprises you when you realize you’re in the middle of some desperate action and you can’t pinpoint exactly when you got there.

The scary monsters this time around are the Penitents, gigantic human-shaped creatures made of stone that patrol the city and keep order. The kicker, however, is that their bodies act as prisons for the city’s criminals, humans who have been caught and placed inside a Penitent, where their bodies and wills are bent to perform the duties of a Penitent, until their sentence is over and they are released. What a truly terrifying way to be punished!

The ending was perfect, and I wasn’t expecting to tear up like I did. But Gladstone hit all the right notes, both emotional and plot-wise, and I couldn’t imagine a better ending. Whether or not another Craft Sequence book is in the works remains to be seen, but I for one certainly hope Max isn’t done with this fabulous world.

Many thanks to Tor Books for providing a review copy. I was not compensated in any way and all opinions in this review are mine and mine alone. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Check back later this week, because Max himself will be stopping by with a guest post!

Catch the rest of the series:

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews