Review ~ Countdown City

Cover via Goodreads

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

There are just 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace – an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

The second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Countdown City presents a fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse – and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you? (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, I won this book from The Geeky Library back in June 2014. Two years later in 2016, I reviewed the first in the series, The Last Policeman. I said at the end of that review I said I’d be reading Countdown City in the near future. Well… I guess that’s what the TBR Challenge is for!

What Worked
As with the first book, the thing I like about this series is the character of Hank Palance. Hank is just a regular guy. He just wants to be a police detective, a job he’s reasonably good at. Sadly, the end of the world is kind of getting in the way. The novel starts July 18th; in 77 days a meteor is going to hit the Earth, a possibly humanity-ending event. Hank is the type of character I like to write: a hard-worker who is being screwed over by circumstances. Despite everything, Hank is still this good, decent guy.

Winters also does a good job of advancing the timeline of societal breakdown as Impact Day approaches.  Things are getting dicey. People are starting to get a little nutty about resources. There are cults and scams and conspiracies. These things are a lot more interesting than the super lawlessness that most apocalyptic stories present.

What Didn’t Work
A bit of a **SPOILER** warning here — Hank has a knack of getting himself into trouble without a plan to get out of that trouble. While he gets the crap beat out of him, the narrative bails him out. There are a couple of swoop-in rescues of Hank in this book. They’re not really unreasonable, but this is a trend that can get old. **END SPOILER**

Overall
I enjoyed Countdown City. I had a couple of problems with the story, but I’m still interested in reading the third book. Maybe I’ll finish the series by 2020?

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Quick Books, 2013
Acquired: Won it from GeekyLibrary, June 2014
Genre: mystery, science fiction

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Deal Me In, Week 5 ~ “A New Man in Time for Christmas”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“A New Man in Time for Christmas” by Dustin Adams

Card picked: Q
Found at: Daily Science Fiction

The Story
Sometimes, Deal Me In brings coincidences; sometimes, juxtapositions. Today’s story, set at Christmas, comes late enough in the year that all the glitter and tinsel from the holidays has finally been vacuumed up. The weather today reminds me of early April days in Nebraska when the days are sunny, but the nights are still chilly. (After 18 years in AZ, I still don’t quite have a handle of fall/winter/spring.)

This story could, though, be a companion piece to Week 3’s “How to Sync Your Spouse.” Our narrator has ordered a new husband after the previous Brent’s suicide.

They said he’d be exactly like my late husband, only better, after my suggested changes, but this lump of Brent-looking plastic-rubber wasn’t Brent.

In order to gain a new start, our narrator puts Brent in sleep mode and wraps him up for under the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, she begins to wonder if it’s the improvements she’s made that haves caused Brent to be not-Brent.

The Author
You can find Dustin Adams’ bibliography online at his website. It hasn’t been updated in awhile; like so many, writing isn’t his only gig.

Deal Me In, Week 3 ~ “How to Sync Your Spouse”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“How to Sync Your Spouse” by Russell Nichols

Card picked: 6
Found at: Fireside Fiction

The Story

When Menzi saw Lindiwe, his heart skipped a beat.

When Lindiwe saw Menzi, her heart froze.

And the two of them have been out of sync ever since, with his clockwork heart now a beat early and hers now a beat late.

And, while this sounds romantic, it leads to many relationship problems for the couple especially when it comes to…ahem…ScrewTime. How does one sync her spouse? You go to a watchman, of course. The watchman, though, has bad news: the couple’s irregularity is also the basis of their love. And, in spec fic fashion, Nichols offers a nice flash fiction analogy for many long-time relationships.

The Author
Russell Nichols is a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, and short story and poetry writer. All the writing things are his. More about his work can be found at his web page.

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

Review ~ The Prestige

Cover via Goodreads

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose one another.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other’s ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magicians’ craft can command–the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations…to descendants who must, for their sanity’s sake, untangle the puzzle left to them. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
This is a reread for me. Sometimes, I get so caught-up in ARCs and the unread books in my “pile” that I don’t let myself reread intriguing books that I enjoyed the first time around. Boy, am I glad I decided to reread The Prestige.

What Worked
I first read it in 2010, about two years before my earnest interest in magic took hold. From the my standpoint as a slightly-beyond-layman, Priest knows his stuff magic-wise. Previously, I didn’t fully appreciate the differences between Borden and Angier’s performance philosophies. The division between dedication to theory and dedication to end-performance still exists in a world  that contains both Ricky Jay and David Blaine.

The voices of the two magicians (and Andrew and Kate in the modern wrap-around) are clear and distinctive. This is something I didn’t appreciate the first time I read the story. I also didn’t fully appreciate the crossing events in the narrative. Basically, we’re given two separate (and incomplete) narratives; first Borden’s and then Angier’s. And that’s it. Despite having two modern characters working to make sense of the narratives, readers are left to fit pieces together without any extra-narrative interference. It’s a nice puzzle of a novel.

What Didn’t Work
We won’t talk about the science…

Also, Andrew and Kate in modern times are the least interesting portion of the novel, aside from the rather tense last five pages.

Overall
I’ll echo what I said in my first “review” of The Prestige: I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie. The movie is much different (how did I forget that Angier started out as fraudulent medium in the book?), but there are two major plot points —the twists—that are paralleled. But now that I’ve also seen the film probably a dozen more times, I’m further impressed by how well the adaptation works. Stakes needed to be higher in the movie. So, kudos to Jonathan and Christopher Nolan for creating a story that is the prestigious twin  of the book.

Publishing info, my copy: mass market paperback, Tor (tie-in edition with a terrible cover, not the cover above), 2006 (orig. 1995)
Acquired: Paperback Swap
Genre: horror, science fiction

Review ~ The Lost World

Cover via Goodreads

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Professor Challenger–Doyle’s most famous character after Sherlock Holmes–leads an expedition into the deepest jungles of South America. Together, the men–a young journalist, an adventurer and an aristocrat–along with their bearers and guides, search for a rumored country and encounter savagery, hardship and betrayal on the way. But things get worse as they get closer to the hidden world they seek. Trapped on an isolated plateau, menaced by hungry carnosaurs, it begins to look as though the expedition may never return. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Since reading The War of the Worlds back in December, I’ve been working my way through the “scientific romance” genre. I decided to branch out from H. G. Wells and read one of my favorite authors of the era: Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, I’m not sure I had ever read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle other than his Sherlock Holmes stories…

What Didn’t Work
Remember how in A Study in Scarlet there is a fairly long digression to the Salt Lake Valley and it’s perhaps not the most scintillating of Doyle’s writings? I felt that way about much of The Lost World. Parlors and the backstreets of London seem to be what Doyle does best. The wider world? Maybe not so much. (Doyle is one of my earliest writing influences; I don’t do the wider world any justice either. I blame you, ACD.)

What Worked
The thing that Doyle does do well is create problems for his characters. Being on safari in Brazil to an area filled with strange and dangerous beasts isn’t enough. No, our heroes must be firmly trapped, food and ammo dwindling, on a high plateau filled with dinosaurs and warring clans of natives and ape-men. As ornate as the problems are, so must the solutions be. Of course, Prof. Challenger and the rest are up to the task of escaping and proving to the world that the Lost World exists.

Honestly, I haven’t decided whether the gender politics of the story should go on the pro or con side of this review. The sole female character of this piece is Gladys, the object of affection for our narrator, Ned Malone. Honestly, she doesn’t seem that into Ned and sets him an impossibly task to win her love. I don’t know who’s worse here: Gladys for not telling Ned that she’s not interested, or Ned for buying into her BS and //***SPOILER***// being heart broken when he gets back and finds that she’s married a clerk //***END SPOILER***//. The whole situation almost feels like satire, which I’d be amused by. But I’m not sure it is.

Comparison With Wells
So far in this genre, I find that like Wells’ fiction better. Ranking what I’ve read in the past year would probably go like this:

  • The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells, 1896
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells, 1895
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells, 1898
  • The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912
  • The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells, 1897

Two things have thus far stuck out to me. First, Wells doesn’t really give the readers a hero to follow. Yes, there are geniuses in his stories, but they are ambiguous characters at best. Often, the narrator in a Wells tale is only managing to squeak by rather than being particularly heroic. In what I’ve read of Wells, there are no manly man like Prof. Challenger to save the day or even a Ned who is trying his damnedest to prove himself. Wells’ characters are survivors, while Doyle’s are conquerors.

Second, Wells always seems to have a point to make. While I don’t find him particularly preachy, or at least he balances it with entertainment, his views shine through. Doyle, less so. When Challenger and the other explorers help the “Indians” defeat the ape-men, there is some minor note about the horrors of weaponry and a smidge mention of colonialism, but mostly it’s celebration of the modern over the primitive. Mostly, I’m okay with Wells adding some politics to his stories.

Overall
The other two Professor Challenger stories sound very different from The Lost World, so I’ll probably give them a look. But probably not before I read more Wells.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, The Project Gutenberg EBook, originally 1912
Genre: scientific romance

This is 1/10 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