Friday, December 30, 2022

Short Book Reviews: "This Fine Crew" of Weird and Wonderful Aliens

The Signal out of Space, by Mike Jack Stoumbos (Theogony Books)

This space opera hits so many tropes just right! It’s a school story (well, cadets in the Interstellar Initiative, but close enough), a patchwork of alien species learning to work together (shades of Star Trek) and a mystery. After a brutal interspecies war, the Interstellar Initiative is the galaxy’s best hope for peace, cooperation, and rewriting nasty first impressions.

    • To begin with, our motley crew includes:
    • A declawed reptilian engineer who goes “Mmmmmm!”
    • A furry medic with a secret noble heritage, like a werewolf with tusks
    • An insectoid programmed to adore humans, whose chosen name is Paul Newman and who has four arms, rather than wings
    • A barely-legal-age human pilot who reminds me of the kid in the film, The Last Starfighter with his gift with video games and puppy-like enthusiasm.

The prolog throws us into action as the crew hurtles across the Martian terrain in a test run when matters go seriously pear-shaped. It’s confusing because (a) there’s no context for any of these characters or their relationships (for example, one is referred to as “Paul,” but later turns out to be the sentient insectoid who has adopted the name, “Paul Newman”); (b) prologs at best are incredibly challenging to pull off and are usually a terrible idea. However, it’s soon over and when we return to the scene later in the book, we are better equipped to understand what’s going on.

From there, the story shifts into multiple POV, not-quite-linear time as we experience each character’s arrival and interactions. These chapters are brilliant. The depiction of the differences as well as similarities between the five characters/five species are gorgeously well done.

No book is perfect (not even mine!) but I found the few flaws trivial in comparison to the wonderful voices of the characters, the unfolding mystery, and the intricate politics of each species. It’s the first of series but stands alone very well. Fans of space-opera-with-aliens will love it!


Friday, December 23, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Combat Linguistics Rules!

 Battle of the Linguist Mages, by Scotto Moore (Tordotcom)

 This is a deliciously psychedelic romp through the virtual worlds of gamers, linguists, philosophers, cultists, and political power players. Isobel is the Queen of Sparkle Dungeon, a medieval rave-themed VR game. Her prowess makes her an ideal candidate to learn the secrets of "power morphemes"—dense units of meaning that can warp reality when skillfully pronounced. As she masters level after level of power morphemes, she realizes the driving force behind them—and her beloved game—is a shadowy faction led by the Governor of California, bent on developing the arcane art of combat linguistics to create a totalitarian empire. This faction is out to recruit Isobel, but so is the resistance movement of spellcasting anarchists. Unfortunately for everyone, the faction has attracted much bigger and weirder enemies than the resistance, emerging from dark and vicious dimensions of reality.

The story is jam-packed with ideas, action, and just plain fun. I mean, really, combat linguistics? I loved the characters, even the evil, scheming governor. I’m not a gamer, although many of my friends are, so I’m sure some of the hilarious Easter eggs and in-jokes went by me. If there’s a fault in the book, that is its length. There’s a limit to how many didn’t-see-it-coming twists one storyline can sustain and even whimsy falters after so many pages. Still, I enjoyed the linguistic mages enough to look forward with anticipation to Moore’s next book.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Gideon Sable Returns!

A Matter of Death and Life
, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)

Master thief, rogue, and con artist extraordinaire Gideon Sable is back for another supernatural heist, this time stealing an artifact rumored to grant immortality from a Las Vegas casino. In the process, he’ll pay off a very big favor and piss off his enemies. To do this, he pulls together his old crew, including his now-girlfriend, Annie Anybody, the woman who changes her persona as easily as her clothes and who can make electronics fall in love with her; The Damned, who wears invincible armor made of the halos of angels; and Johnny the Wild Card, who has walked the edge of madness so closely he’s on nodding terms with reality at the best of times. Joining them is predictably unreliable Switch It Sally, whose special talent is exchanging objects from a distance, instantaneously and invisibly. But the casino’s owners are definitely Bad Guys, it’s guarded by supernatural goons, and in this universe, nothing is ever as it seems.

I first encountered Gideon and his crew in The Best Thing You Can Steal, and this book is a worthy sequel. Green handles character, tension, and gorgeous if dark imagery so beautifully, his work is a joy to read. Here’s a taste:

“I finally came to a quiet cul-de-sac where the street lamps were remainders of a bygone age. All black iron and ornate stylings their light was so hazy that shadows formed dark pools between the lamps, like sinkholes in the world. The buildings were just dark shapes, with no lights at any of the windows, slumped together like drowsing animals, waiting for their prey to come within reach. Ample warning that this was not an area to be entered lightly, because the phrase ‘urban jungle’ isn’t always a metaphor.

“One photo showed a city where every building had been carved from a single piece of bone, and insects the size of people, or perhaps people who moved like insects, crawled up the outsides of the buildings. Another photo showed a flock of white whales, flying over an endless desert like living dirigibles. In a New York where all the skyscrapers were wrapped in ivy, lizards in smart city suits walked briskly through the financial district. Pterodactyls flapped around a broken Eiffel Tower…”



Monday, December 12, 2022

Community and Virtual Connection

Autographing at 2019 Nebula Award weekend
It’s been several years since I’ve gathered with fans and other writers in person. I used to attend local
science fiction conventions regularly, but the last one was FogCon (Walnut Creek CA) in February 2020. I find it amusing that my last haircut was in March 2020, although one is not necessarily causative of the other. I attended book signings at local stores and gave presentations at our local branch library. I also organized a monthly lunch and support group with a group of local writers. Needless to say, all these came to a screeching halt with the pandemic, and while some have ventured into in-person conventions, I have not done that yet. I’m in my mid-70s, which in itself increases my risk of serious disease or death, but I feel strongly that no one should ever feel pressured to defend wearing a mask or justify staying away from indoor gatherings. (In my case, there’s the personal risk, plus that my younger daughter spent the final year of her medical residency in Family Medicine taking care of desperately ill and dying Covid patients — this was before vaccines were available — and she is fiercely protective of me.)

All of which leads to social isolation, especially from my peer group, other genre writers. Video conferencing has helped ease the loneliness, although nothing entirely takes the place of hugs and shared adventures. My first forays included skyping my husband every night when I took care of my best friend in another state during the last weeks of her life; we finally went to phone calls because the video kept pixelating, the signal was so poor. Then my daughter attended medical school on the other side of the country and we video chatted regularly until her last year, when she was in clinic most of the time.

When the pandemic hit, I was fairly comfortable with many things video, and I started attending conventions remotely, for example, The Nebula Awards weekend, InkersCon, and various panels at other conventions. Hang-outs, mini-conventions, and themed chat sessions (such as those hosted by Lemon Friday) have proven to be great ways to meet new writers and learn much cool new stuff. I love being able to watch recorded events so I wasn’t forced to choose between two panels I wanted to attend. And to re-watch things at my own convenience. I even moderated a panel, although the inconsistency of my internet connection (due to living in a remote, mountainous place) knocked me offline for a full 10 minutes. Thankfully, the panelists carried on in fine fashion and no one seemed the worse for my absence!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Today's Moment of Beautiful Music

 Serene, gorgeous piano music for a rain morning.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A Disappointing "Elemental Master"

 The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley (An Elemental Masters Novel), by Mercedes Lackey (DAW)

I have been a fan of Mercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series for a long time. My favorite so far is Phoenix and Ashes, a Cinderella story where the prince is a WWI veteran with PTSD. I grabbed the latest with anticipation. Annie Oakley with Elemental Master powers? How will she use her silver bullets?

The story begins with a nightmare memory of her impoverished childhood and the malevolent nature of the couple she’s hired out to work for. I expected the man whom she calls “He-Wolf” and who plants a curse on her would loom throughout the book as the Big Bad, that her internal struggle would free herself of her fears, and that a showdown would involve silver bullets (against werewolves, according to canon). The action itself opens on a European tour of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and the introduction of Frida, a German woman sharpshooter, who happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. To no one’s surprise, not mine, both Annie and her husband have rare magical abilities, which they proceed to hone by studying with Frida and her husband. During the winter, they join in the hunt for nasty supernatural creatures, and Annie’s superb marksmanship and magical abilities prove an asset.

Most of the story reads like a leisurely travelogue of Europe, with details of places they travel through, the meals they eat, daily life in the show, how to take down and put up tents, their hosts in every town, and so forth, not to mention the magical exercises and mystical creatures, all lovingly laid out on page after sedate page. Characters talk at length about what is going to happen and who they are going to meet before the events themselves. Everything is so predictable that the sense of danger is minimal when it’s present at all, even during the nocturnal hunts. The confrontation with He-Wolf doesn’t come about until the very last pages, and even then, Annie is not in any real danger. She has one brief moment of childhood panic before she resolves the situation. There’s no internal struggle, no doubt of the outcome, and no remorse at what she’s done. While she was notable in negotiating with supernatural creatures during the Hunt, she never attempts to do that with the He-Wolf, which would have been a compassionate overture but also a huge step toward recovery from her childhood trauma.

The pacing, the resolution, the flat dramatic arc, and the overall sedate pace lag when compared to earlier “Elemental Masters” books. I’ve noticed that Lackey’s recent Valdemar books are written less tightly than the early ones, but they have more dramatic impact than this one. I presume that long-time fans enjoy a leisurely stroll through their favorite fantasy world. The “Elemental Masters” books are stand-alones, so the stories must be complete and engaging. I hope The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley is not a forewarning of a tedious future.


Monday, December 5, 2022

Shall-Be-Nameless Magazine Review

Every once in a while, I post a review of a magazine. Usually, it's done something to tick me off and I want to vent. Unreadable print ranks high on my list of no-nos.

For many years, I was a fan of a healthy cooking magazine. It provided me with wonderful recipes and articles about the chemistry of cooking. It changed its name, and I faithfully followed it into new territory. If there were fewer recipes that appealed to me, there were more articles on how food is grown, as well as other aspects of health. Last year, that incarnation went belly-up. I received a notification that the remainder of my subscription - all 3 months of it - was being transferred to a general "good living" magazine. I was assured of many healthful, delicious recipes. 

The first issue had one, exactly one, article I was interested in (the varieties of lavender bushes).

The next issue (summer 2022) contained:

The cover features a man wearing huge beads, nail polish, and a tattoo of a cross. He is grinning widely, showing unnaturally white teeth. I've never heard of him.

Article 1: A list of "summer fun" events sure to be Covid super-spreaders.

Article 2: "For the dad who has it all": a collection of gender-stereotyped merchandise I'd never buy for anyone.

Article 3: "Pool party" featuring blow-up pools large enough to accommodate several adults. In my area, water restrictions forbid filling pools. Don't the magazine folks realize that some of us live in drought zones?

A bunch of articles on makeup, with or without SPF. Yawn.

Article 4. A remodeled porch, with many pages of interior decoration porn. 

Articles too-many, more interior decoration that would be way beyond my budget even if I could stand to look at it. Chairs designed to give you crippling back pain. Fabric upholstery my cats would love as scratching posts. Wall paint so dark as to create instant depression. Kids' rooms no self-respecting child would enter.

Article 5. Ah, gardening. Planters with trellises. Nope, nope, nope. Well, maybe, if I wanted to grow only 2 bean plants. Nope, nope, nope.

Articles more-too-many. You've-got-to-be-kidding-me style decor, complete with a plaque that says, "You're a mess." Yep, you are.

More sure-to-drive-kids-insane decor. More gloom-inspiring wall paint.

Article 6: "Egg bites"???

Article 7: Ah, some actual recipes, beginning with hearty salads. I think maybe I can work with this...until I look at the nutrition information and see sodium levels that start at 500 mg/serving and go upwards of 1,500 mg/serving. In what universe is this healthy??? (The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg.) You could get your entire day's allowance of sodium in just one salad!

Article 8: Cover guy in "Finding Home." Wearing pajamas, then wearing 1890s-style onesies. Wearing...what is that thing? I'm so uninterested in this person I don't recognize and who seems bent on warping his spine that I'm anti-interested.

Article 9: Drinks, all of them containing alcohol. Many pages' worth.

Article 10: Summer gatherings in this family's garden. Same back-pain-inducing furniture, but the garden looks nice. They have a cute dog. Maybe an outdoor meal might be safe...oh no, now they're indoors. Still, they look like a nice family.

Article 11: More decor, described as "exuberant patterns and joyful color." Too busy, too impersonal, too aggressive on the eyeballs. Does anyone actually spend time in these rooms?

Article 12: More salads, these arranged on large platters that look pretty but are designed to make sure (a) ingredients are distributed unequally; (b) there will be unusable leftovers. But I'll take a look. I like salads. I see 654 mg sodium...1.064 mg, here's one with only 470 mg. sodium but 42 grams of least most of it's unsaturated, but depending on your caloric intake, that could be an entire day's fat allowance. (See the above-recommended limits on sodium.) 

I'll pass.

After I toss the issue in recycle bin.

There, I feel much better.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Book Reviews: Cool Idea, Confusing Bummer Ending

Book description: “Vanja, an information assistant, is sent to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka to collect marketing information. Intending to stay just a short while, she falls in love with her housemate and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.”

Told through deceptively simple prose, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka depicts a world chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. Layers of bureaucracy and social conditioning create the illusion of a happy community, while despair, disease, and alienation produce attrition and threaten the city’s survival. Social and psychological disintegration parallel the breakdown of the physical environment. Objects large and small must be constantly marked with written labels or names spoken aloud or they break down into amorphous goo.

The use of language in creating and maintaining reality is one of the more creative I’ve seen. I admired how Tidbeck introduces her world with very little explanation, using subtle clues layered into the otherwise prosaic action. For most of the book, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on: the mutable nature of matter, the increasing suppression of dissent, the enforcement of conformity, and the inexorable loss of history. I was curious about how humans had come to live in a world in which the basic rules of physics were so plastic and what the underground resistance was about, but I was also confident that the answers would be made clear.

The publisher describes this book as, “A surreal debut novel set in a world shaped by language in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.” The only part of this description I agree (other than “debut”) with is “surreal.” Atwood and Le Guin created imaginative, provocative stories, but their work is accessible to most readers. There’s a difference between being mysterious and mystifying. As I waited for the answers to the many questions Tidbeck raised, she piled mystifying upon mystifying until I had no idea what exactly Vanja was discovering (other than that the commune was re-using stable “good” paper for announcements).

The book ends with Vanja acting in an erratic, destructive manner, setting fire to the records she previously treasured, and then being lobotomized so that when she’s freed, she no longer possessed the speech that would allow her to re-shape the world as part of the resistance. I don’t mind grimness, but such a downer puts Amatka squarely in the 1984 camp. This could have been such a cool book, too, with a denouement that made all the sacrifices worth it. After earning my trust as a reader, Tidbeck dropped the ball royally. I doubt I’ll pick up anything of hers in the future. To be fair, however, I don’t think the disappointing ending is entirely Tidbeck’s fault; it’s what happens when pretentious literary editors take on genre projects.