Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Reading Notes, 6/10/21

Finished Reading

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

According to my blog archive, I finished my first reading of Children of Dune in 2006. I then tried to read God Emperor of Dune. Eric had warned me that it was a tough read. I don’t know when I gave up on it, but it made a reappearance on my 2011 TBR. I don’t think I ever got to it in 2011. Around the internet, the general advisement for God Emperor was, read the Wikipedia entry and the Fandom article and move on. When I set up my Dune “challenge” for this year, I allotted one month each for the first three books (these were rereads) and two months each for the last three. Which meant that I needed to finish God Emperor around the end of May. I decided that if I didn’t finish it by then, I’d give in and read the summaries. I planned a chapter a day; classic “eating the elephant” strategy. And it worked! So, fifteen years after my first try:

God Emperor of Dune is sort of an awkward book. Without delving into too much research about the matter, it feels like Frank Herbert had a good idea for the first three books, which were marketed as a trilogy at the time. The books were successful and Herbert had more ideas—why not write more Dune books? Well, the next phase of the story really required some set up. More set up than could be handled in exposition. So, God Emperor ends up being this weird bridge book. All the characters that you’ve come to know in the first three books are gone or very changed. Except for Duncan Idaho, who has really been more of a background character until now. Things happen, there are some important events that set up Heretics of Dune, but there is also a lot of philosophy and a lot of people scheming in rooms to not much avail.

I’m glad I got through it, but I probably didn’t gain a huge amount by reading the book instead of reading the summaries.

All the Flavors by Ken Liu

All the Flavors was a novella originally published by GigaNotoSaurus. I ended up with a copy of it on my Kindle and, while cataloging titles, I decided to impulse read it. I haven’t read much of Ken Liu’s works though The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is very well regarded among people I know.

This story is subtitled “A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America.” It’s sort of a take on the Yellow Peril stories that became a thing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America. Based on history, somewhat, it involves Chinese workers in Idaho. Very good; I liked it a lot. Also, my first Book of Summer!

Currently Reading

  • The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism, edited by Donald K. Hartman – So far, it’s a little slow. To be fair, Hartman warns of this.
  • Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert – I’m reading a chapter a day.
  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury – A book I keep mis-titling. Reading an essay or so a day.

Reading Challenge Check-In

The Classics Club
Goal: 10 Books by 12/14/21
Progress: 5/10
âś… Read Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathanial Hawethorn

#ShelfLove
Goal: Abstain from acquiring books; read at least 21 books from my shelves.
Progress: 1 pre-order, 3 free books, 2 very cheap books, 4 ARC/review copies; 5/21+
â­• On one hand, I’ve read a few of my own books. On the other, I’ve still acquired a few too many ARCs/review copies…

I Read Horror Year-Round
Goal: Read 6 books from 6 categories.
Progress: 2/6
â­• No progress here at the moment, yet I don’t feel behind.

Nonfiction
Goal: Read at least 30% nonfiction.
Progress: Currently 35%
âś… Back up after The Haunting of Alma Fielding and finishing up some nonfiction “morning” books.


Review ~ A Master of Djinn

An advanced reading copy of A Master of Djinn was provided to me by Macmillan-Tor/Forge via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city—or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

Summary via Goodreads

When I reviewed The Haunting of Tram Car 015 last year, I stated that I would definitely be willing to spend more time in Clark’s supernatural/steampunk Cairo. I didn’t realize at the time that a novel was forthcoming!

A Master of Djinn scores high in my three fields of “what makes enjoyable fiction according to Katherine”: setting, characters, and plot.

Obviously, I think very highly of the setting. I love the notion of steampunk, but I think it requires a light touch, especially when magic is also involved. Perhaps 1912 is a little late to be honest-to-goodness steampunk. We have, I suppose, entered the “cog age” by then. The magical elements end up giving the era a technological boost. I’m also a fan of mythical entities that don’t get a lot of play like djinn. (This is what led me to Clark’s fiction in the first place.)

Agent Fatma is possibly one of my favorite characters in fiction. She’s smart, tough, and has a very particular fashion sense. She’s also not perfect and knows when to ask for help, which is kind of important for an investigator. The supporting cast of character are fun and competent but also have their flaws.

The plot is a solid police procedural, though one with trips to djinn-run libraries and interviews with deity-touch informants. There are a few twist and turns (one of which I saw coming) and the conclusion is much bigger than the inciting incident, which is fine. There are of course themes of Fatma being a woman in a man’s world, though for the most part she’s proven herself. More vital to the plot is the casual hypocrisy that happens when an institution says “we’ve hired *a* woman; we’re progressive now!” and how that leads to people in power who believe that their society too is so progressive that there are no more problems of race or class. These aren’t issues that are harped on; Clark doesn’t preach at his reader. But these are issues that are in play and direct certain aspects of the story.

A Master of Djinn is set in the same world as Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili,” and, aforementioned, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. While events from those plots are referenced and there are shared characters, they are not needed to enjoy A Master of Djinn. But then, I’ve read all of them, so it might be hard for me to tell. (The links above will take you to Tor.com where those stories are currently available for free. A no-risk taste, if you are still undecided.)

{Books} Two Short Reviews

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Cover: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. DjèlĂ­ Clark was the July pick for the Occult Detective Book Club (a group on Facebook and Goodreads, if you’re into such literature). It is set in the same universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” which I read and enjoyed back in January of this year. “Djinn” is available online, so I reread that before diving into Tram Car 015.

As I mentioned with “Djinn,” the world building is very deftly done. I’ve generally had a problem with steampunk because usually it’s not just retro science-fiction, but 19th-ish century sci-fi mixed with Gothic/supernatural elements. It’s just too much. Clark, though, blends “advanced” technologies and the supernatural seamlessly. The supernatural is, in fact, why this version of 1912 Egypt has the technologies it does.

I felt like the characters in Tram Car 015 were a little less compelling. Agents Hamed and Onsi are fine, but Fatma (from “Djinn”) is such a great character that they suffer in comparison. Both stories are good though; they’re set in the same world, but not directly connected. I’d definitely read more if Clark wanted to spend more time in this setting.

Levels of the Game

Cover: Levels of the Game

I found Levels of the Game by John McPhee while looking for McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (recommended by Deb @ Readerbuzz). The latter was listed in my local library’s online system, but really the license had expired and I’m on a wish-waiting list for it if the library decides to renew the license, but! Instead I noticed another book in McPhee’s catelog with a tennis court on the cover. Nonfiction about tennis? Yes, please. (Tennis is my summer sport. But there are no sports this year. Sadly, this doesn’t mean there’s no summer this year…)

Additionally, the structure of this book is rather curious, and since I’m thinking about writing a nonfiction book, I wanted to see how McPhee would pull it off. Levels of the Game is fairly short, less than 150 pages. In it, McPhee profiles two tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, as they play a match at Forest Hills in 1968—the first US Championship tournament of the open era (meaning both amateurs and professionals could compete). As is mentioned in the book’s summary, McPhee begins with the first toss of the ball. Interspersed with the action of the match are biographical digressions comparing and contrasting the players.

Ashe and Graebner met in the semi finals of the tournament. Why write about a semi final? The two players were both American and Davis Cup teammates. But they were also very different. Ashe was a quick, finesse player; Graebner was more reliant on power and consistency. Ashe was a black, raised by a disciplinarian single father who held down multiple jobs to support his family. Graebner, white, was the son of a doctor and wanted for nothing in his life. Politically, one was of course more liberal and one more conservative. McPhee contends this influenced their styles of play as well.

I’m not sure if the conceit of the book, the stories told during the match, entirely works. The match itself didn’t seem that interesting and I was unaware while reading that this was the first US Open and that Ashe would be the only amateur player to ever win it. I did appreciate how McPhee moved smoothly between past and present and didn’t burden himself further by telling things in absolute chronological order.

I also didn’t realize until after I checked this book out that I read McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are, a profile of basketball player Bill Bradley, back in 2011. I enjoyed that too. If anything, now I want to read Draft No. 4 more.

Deal Me In, Week 3 ~ “Eidolons”

DealMeIn

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

“Eidolons” by Harlan Ellison

Card picked: 10♣
Found in: Angry Candy

You’ve got time. You have always had time, but fear slowed you, and you were overcome. But this is the hour that stretches…and you’ve got a chance. After all, it’s only your conscience come to kill you. Stop shivering and put up your dukes.

The Story
Vizinczey, a man wanted on two continents, tells of Mr. Brown, a collector of tin soldiers. Or rather a collector of soldiers from throughout time which he turns into tin soldiers. Mr. Brown knows many secrets from Promontorium Sacrum, or the area beyond the edge of the map. Mr. Brown is killed by his “creations,” but he tasks Vizinczey with helping mankind. Vizinczey does so by imparting thirteen, well, “they are not quite epigraphs, nor are they riddles.”

These vignettes are about time, and inspiration, and creativity. Maybe. With Harlan Ellison, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

The Author
Harlan Ellison was a prolific, award winning, and occasionally problematic short story and screenwriter. He’s probably best known for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” though even that is subject to controversy…

Review ~ The History of Soul 2065

This book was provided to me by Mythic Delirium Books via NetGalley for review consideration.

History of Soul 2065 Cover via Goodreads

The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff

Months before World War I breaks out, two young Jewish girls just on the edge of adolescence—one from a bustling Russian city, the other from a German estate—meet in an eerie, magical forest glade. They are immediately drawn to one another and swear an oath to meet again. Though war and an ocean will separate the two for the rest of their lives, the promise that they made to each other continues through the intertwined lives of their descendants.

This epic tale of the supernatural follows their families from the turn of the 20th Century through the terrors of the Holocaust and ultimately to the wonders of a future they never could have imagined. THE HISTORY OF SOUL 2065 encompasses accounts of sorcery, ghosts, time travel, virtual reality, alien contact, and elemental confrontations between good and evil. Understated and epic, cathartic and bittersweet, the twenty connected stories in Nebula Award finalist Barbara Krasnoff’s debut form a mosaic narrative even greater than its finely crafted parts. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I am auto-approved on NetGalley to review books offered by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so I occasionally make an effort to pick a few of their titles. I read quite a few short stories as a part of Deal Me In, the Black Cat Project, and in the course of my random reading. Therefore, I’ve lately been hesitant to add short story anthologies to my list of obligations. This one, though, piqued my interest.

What Worked
Mixing genres can go horribly wrong.  That these intertwined stories included “accounts of sorcery, ghosts, time travel, virtual reality, (and) alien contact” attracted my attention, but I figured that these stories would be very loosely connected. I figured this would just be, well, a short story anthology; maybe with some wrap-around element at the beginning and end. Otherwise, how could Krasnoff possible glue all those genres together? Pleasingly, the tales were more interconnected than I expected, jumping form family member to family member and generation to generation. And jumping from genre and genre. It works because the characters are always in the forefront; the genre elements never overshadow.

The long-term story of Chana and Sophie, the two girls whom we meet in the opening story, is told in the reflection of their families. Each story is told from a different family member’s as focus: spouses, children, grandchildren, in-laws, and occasionally friends that are like family. The structure is very well done. The concluding story is “The History of Soul 2065.” The number is a joking reference to a chapter number, like Laborers Local 151. The concept is that there are only a certain number of souls in existence and each has been shattered apart. Certain people end up with parts of the same soul. The interconnectedness of this idea is the theme of the entire work.

What Didn’t Work
Krasnoff writes with a very light touch, but sometimes settings feel very generic. Places and times all flow together. Maybe that’s on purpose, but without notes at the beginning of the chapter, I wouldn’t necessarily know if a story was set in the past or the future. I feel like a few telling details would have grounded the stories better.

Overall
The History of Soul 2065 was very enjoyable, though often times sad. No family escapes heartache, but also no family is without hope.

Publishing info: Mythic Delirium Books, 6/11/19
My Copy: Kindle ebook via NetGalley
Genre: speculative fiction

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

#COYER ~ Short Story Update

Because Reading is better than real life

Beyond picking up free/cheap e-reads via Amazon, Smashwords, and B&N, the internet really is awash in great fiction. And I have a habit of bookmarking and leaving stories to “read later.” You know,  when I have extra time. My list keeps getting longer, so I figure it’s in the spirit of COYER to clean out my virtual  Table of Contents too.

Aika (Keepers of the Flame: Origins #1) by Cate Morgan – As the world crumbles during the Second Blitz and her world is personally destroyed, Aika becomes a pawn for the Dreamtech company. But her destiny lays in the realm of the mystical. The Keepers of the Flame series isn’t quite my thing, but this prequel is well written with a nice dose of world-building. Interested? The Keepers of the Flame prequels are available for free at Amazon!

“The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar – I was about halfway through “The Book Seller” when I realized it was set in Central Station, the same world as “Strigoi” (which I read during COYER in the summer of 2014). The tale continues Carmel’s story, but from the point of view of Achimwene, a seller of old paper books. Carmel is a futuristic strigoi, feeding on the memory “data” of others. Achimwene is un-noded, not part of the information web on which Carmel depends. I really enjoy Tidhar’s science-fiction setting and I’m looking forward to reading Central Station, the novel, which is being released in May.

“Wet” by John Wiswell – You know I love a good ghost story, and I doubly love a ghost story with a twist. In “Wet,” an Arizona immortal helps a young ghost move on. The story has humor as well as chills. The setting is so subtly established that I could believe that there are ghosts and immortals walking by me on Apache Blvd every day.