Review ~ The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories

This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. (And trust me, if he knew about the extended metaphor in this review, he probably would have thought twice about asking…)

Cover via Goodreads

The Ramshead Algorithm and Other Stories by K.J. Kabza

Ramshead Jones has a billionaire father, a dysfunctional family, and a shocking secret nestled in the hedge maze in his backyard: Earth’s only portal to hundreds of other realities. When Ramshead’s unwitting father decides to rip the hedge maze out, Ramshead is forced to use dangerous magic to move the portal before it’s destroyed, too—unless the deadly maze of other family secrets that come to light destroys him first.

In THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories from KJ Kabza have been dubbed “Sublime” (Tangent), “Rich” (SFRevu), and “Ethereal” (Quick Sip Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities that not even Ramshead has discovered.

Cover design and interior illustrations by Dante Saunders. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Ages ago, I reviewed a Best Horror of the Year anthology that included Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar” (also included in this collection). I’ve been a fan ever since.

What Worked
Short story collections are like a box of chocolates. Sure, looking at the glossy bonbons, you don’t know which is going to be coconut cream and which one is, uh, pink, but you do roughly know what you’re getting when you buy a box of Whitman’s or Russel Stover. Such is the case when you pick up a collection or anthology—a certain quality author or editor is going to provide certain quality stories, despite inevitable pink cream equivalent. The way to avoid that is to buy a better box of chocolates. The Ramshead Algorithm, my friends, is a box of top-end Godiva.*

Every story in this collection is excellent. I had read over half of them in the past between Kabza’s self-pubbed collection Under Stars and some of his more recent publications. I decided to reread them in order to have the full experience of the collection. I noticed certain details (gardens, hedge mazes, ruins, and oceans) that repeat throughout as well a theme of searching and finding which I might have missed if I had only read the new-to-me stories.

I believe in my review of Under Stars I mentioned how well-done the world building is and I want to reiterate that. The short story form necessitates brevity, but every detail in these stories creates the world, whether the flash fiction-sized “All Souls Proceed” to the novella “You Can’t Take It With You.”

What Didn’t Work
My one and only beef was that I had scheduled out the stories from this collection not realizing that the final one in the collection “You Can’t Take It With You” was indeed a novella of a hundred pages. My entire reading schedule was messed up and it was basically my own darn fault.

So, there is nothing that didn’t work.

(Btw, “You Can’t Take It With You” is what Ready Player One would be without the nostalgia nods every .5 seconds. And this story is the better one.)

Overall
Readers might be interested to know that Kabza is a LGBTQ+ writer and some of his characters are LGBTQ+ as well. If your doing a diversity-in-reading challenge, sure, go ahead, this is a great collection to add to your pile. But, please, don’t let that be the only reason you decide to read The Ramshead Algorithm. Read it because who doesn’t want a box of Godiva?

* Okay, I’ll admit it, I have pretty middle class tastes and Godiva is what comes to mind when I think of classy chocolates. With a little googling, Godiva does make it to many “luxury” lists. Plus, most people have heard of Godiva while many of the other Swiss/French/etc. chocolatiers don’t really roll off the brain. But if you have a favorite high-end chocolate, go ahead and substitute it.

Publishing info, my copy: PDF, Pink Narcissus Press, 1/16/18
Acquired: 10/10/17
Genre: fantasy, science fiction, a dash of horror

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Review ~ The Overneath

This book was provided to me by Tachyon Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle

An odd couple patrols a county full of mythological beasts and ornery locals. A familiar youngster from the world of The Last Unicorn is gifted in magic but terrible at spell-casting. A seemingly incorruptible judge meets his match in a mysterious thief who steals his heart. Two old friends discover that the Overneath goes anywhere, including locations better left unvisited.

Lyrical, witty, and insightful, The Overneath is Peter S. Beagle’s much-anticipated return to the short form. In these uniquely beautiful and wholly original tales, with new and uncollected work, Beagle once again proves himself a master of the imagination. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Peter S. Beagle is one of my favorite authors and I’m always excited to see a new collection of his short stories.

What Worked and Didn’t Work
The majority of stories in this anthology follow something of a theme: unicorns and other mythological friends. Three of the fourteen stories are about unicorns, whether the traditional western European version or the chi-lin of China and Indian karkadann. There is also an assortment of dragons and trolls and other shape-shifters. My favorite of the anthology was “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!”, positing the creation of an organizational cross between the ATF and SPCA if dragons were a part of this world and possibly used by California marijuana growers for “security.”

Another two  stories are about the early days of  Schmendrick the Magician, from The Last Unicorn. While always nice to have his narrative expanded, neither “The Green Eyed Boy” nor “Schmendrick Alone” come close to the pathos and complexity of “The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon,” a story from the 2011 collection Sleight of Hand. My second favorite story of the book involves a different “wizard” and gives the book its title. In “The Way it Works Out and All,” a fictional Beagle and fictional Avram Davidson embark on an adventure into the Overneath, an alternate plane of sorts—navigable, if careful.

The setups for a couple of the stories were rather long and the collection might have been better if it were about one story shorter. My nomination would be  “Music, when Soft Voices Die” or “Olfert Drapper’s Day,” though the latter does fit the theme better.

Overall
A whimsical collection with definite high points.

Additional Note
Many of Peter S. Beagle’s ebooks are being sold by Conlan Press. Currently, Peter S. Beagle and Connor Cochran, the founder of Conlan Press, are involved in a legal dispute. I doubt that money from Conlan Press ebooks will get to Mr. Beagle. (Not to mention the many, many customers of Conlan Press who purchased physical merchandise, but have never received it.) Be aware when you purchase.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Tachyon Publications, 11/07/17
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: fantasy

Review ~ Dark Screams: Volume Eight

This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Hydra via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Dark Screams: Volume Eight edited by Brian James Freeman & Richard T. Chizmar

Frank Darabont, Bentley Little, Benjamin Percy, Billie Sue Mosiman, Kealan Patrick Burke, and Glen Hirshberg share chilling tales of ancient evils and wicked desires in this spooky collection assembled by renowned horror editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Found it by searching for Glen Hirshberg at NetGalley, doubly interested because of Frank Darabont.

What Worked & Didn’t Work
Five of these six stories reminded me of the best episodes from late 80s/early 90s horror anthology TV shows (Tales from the DarksideMonstersFreddy’s Nightmares). Each had a great twist of an ending and variable levels of gore.

Frank Darabont’s “Walpuski’s Typewriter” sets the tone for the anthology. It’s a nasty piece of work (in a good way!) involving a writer and a demon possessed typewriter. Darabont is best known for his screen writing and adaptations; notably The Shashank Redemption and The Mist. I hadn’t read any of his prose. It did not disappoint.

“The Boy” by Bentley Little was the perfect followup. I found myself wondering if I was supposed to like Christine’s neighbors, especially as they make fun of a kid who supposedly smells. By the end of the story, I wasn’t sure who was worse. Christine solves their stinky kid problem, in a way that is probably more honest than her two-faced neighbors would consider.

With Benjamin Percy’s “Tumor,” we’re solidly back in the land of Tales from the Darkside. This is a simple short, tale, but full of gory glee.

A shift in tone happens in the latter half of Dark Screams, Vol. 8. The stories are more complex and a smidge more contemplative in their horror. The one story that didn’t work for me was right after the mid-point, “Twisted and Gnarled” by Billie Sue Mosiman. The story is told alternately through first person point of view of a serial killer, The Man, and a somewhat psychic mother, The Woman. The internal dialogue of both of these characters really didn’t work for me.

Quiet horror continued in “The Palaver” by Kealan Patrick Burke. Alluding to the stories of the late 19th century, this is a tale within a tale. Our narrator is the owner of the slowly failing Palavar Barbershop. He’s told a story of cosmic horror from the Great Depression that may or may not repeat itself in the 21st century.

The last story in the anthology is Glen Hirshberg’s “India Blue.” As with many of these tales, the “payoff” is at the end of the story, which means reading through one man’s endeavor to bring cricket to America. Not just cricket though, but America’s Rockin’ Professional Cricket, complete with cheerleaders and a showboat player who has been drummed out of respectable leagues. Luckily, the journey is possibly better than the ending.

Overall
Solid anthology. It’s release date is Halloween and it’s the perfect little reading treat.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/ePub, Random House Publishing Group, 10/31/17
Acquired: 8/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: horror

Mini Reviews, Vol. 8

MiniReviews
Sometimes, I don’t have a lot to say other than, “Man, I liked this.” So, here are some things I’ve liked recently.

alt text The Janus Tree by Glen Hirshberg

Two stories from this anthology that are going to stick with me: “You Become the Neighborhood” and “Shomer.” “You Become the Neighborhood” has a rather ambiguous path and maybe a zigger ending, but, man, the ending is enough to make any arachnophobe uneasy. “Shomer” is a more direct tale and more indicative of Hirshberg’s ability evoke creepiness. In both cases, Hirshberg takes what is “normal,” points out the shadows and uncertainty, and then populates those places with… well…

Interestingly, this collection also includes “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey,” which would seem to be the short story jumping off point for the novel Motherless Child. This is a great place the get a taste for that in-progress trilogy.

alt text “Kindred Spirits” by Rainbow Rowell

A charming tale about…waiting in line. Okay, waiting in line for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s also about expectations and assumptions. Elena loves Star Wars and expects to be part of a celebration of that love. Instead, she faces that embarrassment that sometimes occurs when you love something deeply and slightly irrationally—even when among other fans of that thing. The notion of the “true fan” is handled lightly along with how we casually judge others without knowing anything about them.

alt text “Mystery of Asgina Lake” by Caren Rich

It might be the end of the summer vacation for many, but it’s just the beginning for Ella and Lena. This is a solid monster tale from Caren Rich with a great action climax that left me wondering, “What was that ting?!” I also loved that Ella and Lena were just casually tomboyish geek girls. Ella is gung-ho for adventure and Lena goes along, but with a good stock of comic books to keep boredom at bay. Originally included on the Fantastic Creatures Fellowship of Fantasy anthology.

The Janus Tree is 5.5/10 Books of Summer!

Review ~ Wicked Wonders

This book was provided to me by Tachyon Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

The Scott O’Dell award-winning author of The Green Glass Sea returns with her second collection: a new decade of lyrical stories with vintage flair.

Inside of these critically-acclaimed tales are memorable characters who are smart, subversive, and singular. A rebellious child identifies with wicked Maleficent instead of Sleeping Beauty. Best friends Anna and Corry share a last melancholy morning before emigration to another planet. A prep-school girl requires more than mere luck to win at dice with a faerie. Ladies who lunch keeping dividing that one last bite of dessert in the paradox of female politeness.

Whether on a habitat on Mars or in a boardinghouse in London, discover Ellen Klages’ wicked, wondrous adventures full of brazenness, wit, empathy, and courage. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I almost didn’t read this book.

I saw it on offer at NetGalley from Tachyon Publications (the only publisher that I’m auto-approved with—why they put up with my grumpy reviews, I don’t know) and I was interested. But then I remembered that I had just purchased a Glen Hirshberg anthology, and I didn’t really need another short story anthology, and I have a never-ending TBR pile mostly because I request too many ARCs and…I let Wicker Wonders pass by.

But then I got an email from Tachyon about widgets or something, and I guess I clicked a request link, and BAM! Wicked Wonders was ready for download. So, I read it, as one does when books show up.

And I’m glad I did.

What Worked
Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. I especially love his tales of childhood: adventures on bicycles to dark carnivals in the midst of summer thunderstorms. Great stuff, but it occurred to me sometime  in my 30s that all of Bradbury’s protagonists were boys. Makes sense since that’s his experience of the world, but I kind of wished that there were some of those kinds of stories with girl protagonists. Because, why not? Girls have adventures too.

Enter Ellen Klages and Wicked Wonders:

She intends to be a good girl, but shrubs and sheds and unlocked cupboards beckon.

Yep, Klages hooked me right there with that line.

The stories range across the spectrum of speculative fiction. “Singing on a Star” and “Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s” are strongly fantastical and “Goodnight Moons” is a straight-up sci-fi tale. On the other end, “The Education of a Witch” is only fantasy tinged and “Amicae Aeternum” is more of a bitter-sweet best-friends(who are girls!)-on-bikes story than space opera. There are even a couple of stories with no fantastic elements what-so-ever, including my favorite “Hey, Presto!” Had I known there was going to be a well-done historical fiction story with magicians I would have never hesitated to request this book!

What Didn’t Work
I am really picky about science fiction. For me, the most science fictiony story of Wicked Wonders, “Goodnight Moons,” was also the least successful. Happily, for me, science fiction is in the minority on this anthology.

Overall
I’m fairly sure that I haven’t read any Ellen Klages in the past. Coincidentally, I had also almost requested her latest novel Passing Strange from NetGalley when it was available, but had decided against it as well on the grounds that my TBR pile was too high. After reading Wicked Wonders…well, that TBR stack is just going to have to get stratospheric. Ms. Klages, you have a new fan.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Adobe Digital Edition, Tachyon Publications, May 23, 2017
Acquired: NetGalley, 3/13/2017
Genre: speculative fiction

Standout Stories from the Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan-Feb 2017

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2017 edited by C. C. Finlay

I reviewed the Nov-Dec issue on January 27th. Here it is only March 22rd and I’ve finished the Jan-Feb issue. Progress! These are the standouts from the issue. Note: I didn’t say favorites.

“Vinegar and Cinnamon” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I could lead a comfortable rat-wizard life.

Maura is the golden child of the family; she has some ability with magic and is being taught how to use it. Sam is the good child of the family; he does his chores and then some to help the family get by. One day, by mistake, Maura turns Sam into a rat. And as a rat, Sam could have a very different life… Lovely story full of fairy tale and sibling rivalry.

“Alexandria” by Monica Byrne
This only slightly a science fiction story. Beth is a widower. A native of Kansas, she married a man, Keiji, from Japan. On their honeymoon, they went to Egypt to see the Lighthouse of Alexandria, not realizing it no longer existed. After that, they both “traveled” through their mutual love of books and maps. But now that Keiji is gone, Beth is left with farm land and very little to remember her husband by. So she builds a monument. The sci-fi elements are the sectional epigraphs from the future describing the confusing archaeological artifact found in what was once Kansas. It’s only March, but this might make it to my year end “best of.”

“Wetherfell’s Reef Runics” by Marc Laidlaw
According to the introduction, Marc Laidlaw lives on the island of Kauai. Therefore, I’m going to take his use of Hawaiian culture and slang as genuine and well-intentioned. I hope so, because it’s that Hawaiian flair that gives this light Lovecraftian story some extra omph.

“One Way” by Rick Norwood
Oh man, this story annoyed me. We start out with Harvey (has-been physicist), Jerry (boy genius), and Sam (uh, does the soldering). Together, just the three of them, build a perpetual energy machine…that just might destroy the world. My first objection to this story is the built-in-a-basement style engineering. That isn’t how things are developed and made. To recuse myself, I’m married to an engineer. The majority of my social circle are engineers. I’m a little protective of the fact that it takes many more people that anyone realizes to create the electronic wonders we use daily. And then there was Deloris, Jerry’s girlfriend. Deloris is an English major. Deloris doesn’t know science. Direct quote from Deloris: “That sounds important. I don’t know any science…” Deloris’s only purpose in the story is to have one of the male characters explain to her (and to us, the readers) what’s going on. It really bothered me that a story in one of the more prominent sci-fi literature magazines had such a poorly depicted female character. To further recuse myself, I have a degree in English literature. I also know some science.

Mini #RIPXI Reviews ~ Revenge & The Accidental Alchemist

MiniReviews

Revenge

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
Translated by Stephen Snyder
Picador, 1998, 2013 (translation), trade paperback

Revenge has been on my Want To Read list for ages, but I was only recently reminded of it by a post at Outlandish Lit. A readathon and a trip to the library converged and here I am. I finally read Revenge! And I’m kind of sad that I didn’t read it before.

Revenge is a surprisingly thin book. Eleven tales are told in only 162 pages. The eleven stories, though, are really one interconnected puzzle of narrative. It was, perhaps, the perfect 24-hour readathon book. The chapters were short; I could put it down every-so-often to do some social media things, but the stories were compelling enough that I didn’t want to stay away for long. While it isn’t full-out supernatural there is definitely a delicious Japanese horror sensibility to Revenge.

The Accidental Alchemist (An Accidental Alchemist Mystery)

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
Midnight Ink, 2015, Kindle ebook

This cozy-ish mystery begins so promisingly with an animated gargoyle named Dorian Robert-Houdin. His “father” was historical magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Obviously, this caught my interest. The mystery set-up is also promising: a murder and theft—and Zoe Faust has only lived in her fixer-upper for a day! Unfortunately, solving the mystery ends up somewhat overly complex with a lot of repetitive scenes. In the end, the confluence of events really wasn’t very satisfying.

ripnineperilfirst
RIPXI Info | Reviews