the Little Red Reviewer

Archive for August 2017

The Emerald Circus, by Jane Yolen

Available Nov 17th 2017

Where I got it: Received advanced reading copy from the publisher (Thanks Tachyon!)

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Are kids still reading fairy tales and older stories? I wonder.  What need do the ten year olds of today have for Alice in Wonderland when they can play video games instead?  What use is a Hans Christian Andersen story book when you can watch a Disney movie instead?  I think a lot of younger readers who get their hands on Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus  will find themselves yearning to learn more about Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, The Once and Future King, Charles Perrault, J.M. Barrie, Edgar Allan Poe, and more. My favorite kind of fiction is the kind that makes me want to read non-fiction.

 

The Emerald Circus showcases Yolen’s  range of talents in re-imagining classic stories and fairy tales,  and how being exposed to classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Arthurian legends, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe shaped the lifelong joy she finds in storytelling through prose and poetry.  If you are a fan of poetry, the story notes and poems section at the end will be your favorite area, as the vast majority of the poems showcased are new to this volume.  Long time fans of Yolen’s work will see many familiar friends in the Table of Contents, as a number of these stories were previously published in other anthologies over the years.   The gem of the table of contents most certainly is “Sister Emily’s Lightship”,  which means a whole new generation of readers will get to enjoy this famous award winning short story.

 

The collection opens and closes with the very strong Hans Christian Andersen origin story “Andersen’s Witch”, and the Nebula award winning short story “Sister Emily’s Lightship”.  “Andersen’s Witch” is an excellent set up for the rest of the collection, as the story takes place when Hans is but a child – poverty stricken, lonely, and unsure of his future.  He makes a deal that affects the rest of his life,  and he doesn’t realize the price of that deal until he lies on his deathbed.   I loved how ambiguous this story is – did these things really happen? Did Hans imagine them? Does it matter?  This beautifully told story gave me wonderful flashbacks of being a kid and reading The Snow Queen out of a massive (or it seemed massive at the time!) Andersen fairy tales book I had as a kid. The illustrations in that book got my attention, and the stories kept me coming back to it.

 

“Sister Emily’s Lightship” is the big draw for this collection, and although it appears last in the table of contents I’m sure most people will read it first.  Described by Yolen as “Emily Dickinson meets a Martian”, the story is told in a very different style than the other entries in this collection. Could an interaction with an alien have triggered Emily’s withdrawal from society?  What need would she have of salons and social calling, when she’s seen what the Earth looks like from space? How could local society possibly compete with her inner life that is so full of fireworks and supernovae?   These two stories make excellent bookends, as they have an odd mirroring of each other – the main character’s experience with something alien helps them to create unparalleled works of literature, but at the same time pushes them both towards a life of perceived  loneliness and reclusiveness.

 

And in between those two short stories any reader will find plenty more to enjoy:

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Let’s see, what new book goodies have come into my collection lately?  So much good stuff I don’t even know where to start! What looks good to you?

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin is the last book in her Broken Earth trilogy.  Oh, I should probably mention that both book 1 and book 2 of this series won Hugo awards. I’m kinda waiting for the right time to read this one, because I expect it will break my brain (in a good way!) more than a little bit. I don’t know too much about Noumenon by Marina Lostetter, but I know I’ve got till Sept 20th to read it because that’s when Book Club meets to discuss it.

To Guard Against the Dark by Julie Czerneda doesn’t come out until October, but expect the internet to collectively lose its shit when we are finally allowed to talk about this book.   Yes, I know, the cover says “Reunification #3”, and yes, this is the final book in the Reunification trilogy. However, that trilogy is the final trilogy in Czerneda’s long running Clan Chronicles. You know how Robin Hobb does interconnected trilogies? Clan Chronicles is a little bit like that. But in outer space, and with aliens. The end of this story has been 20 years in the making, and this long reaching series coming to a close is truly the end of an era.  I can’t tell you much except I’m about 1/4 way through To Guard Against the Dark and that my spoiler-y (#sorrynotsorry) review of The Gate to Futures Past (Reunification #2) will be posting soon.  We can of course, talk about Gate to Futures Past as much as we want, since that book came out last year.

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Wisp of a Thing – a Tufa Novel, by Alex Bledsoe

published in 2013

where I got it: gift from a friend

 

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If you enjoyed Alex Bledsoe’s first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver you’ll be happy to hear that, Wisp of a Thing is more of that. Not more of the same (not by a long shot), but more magical realism, more mists in the mountains hiding secrets that aren’t there for you to find – secrets that will reveal themselves in their own sweet time and in turns tease you, ignore you, or use you, along the way. The Tufa know what and who they are, and they know who us mortals are. Masters of staying hidden, the Tufa people usually have no interest in letting strangers in on their secrets.

Rob Quillen is learning about hiding. A finalist on a televised talent show, his girlfriend was killed in a plane crash on her way to see him compete in the finals. Drowning in grief, Rob just wants to hide from the world for a while. And where else to hide than the Great Smoky Mountains? Rob has the Tufa look about him, which may be why another singer told him of the Tufa music of Cloud County, Tennessee, and that if Rob found the right Tufa song, his broken heart would mend. Did this other singer think Rob a lost Tufa?

Upon arriving in the rustic village of Needsville, Rob discovers the most amazing music he’s ever heard. He hears it and enjoys it, but he sure doesn’t understand what’s just below the music, or what just the right circumstances allow him to see. It’s funny, because Rob thinks the universe revolves around him. It’s kinda cute and endearing how he thinks all this is about him. Rob is about to have the most surprising week of his life.

You know how the right piece of music can pull you right in? Maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe you’re restless and distracted, and then you listen to the soaring brassy themes of some John Williams music or the railroad track rumble and sizzle of distorted guitar in a rock song, or whatever kind of music floats your boat, and suddenly you feel centered and grounded? Alex Bledsoe’s writing is a bit like that too. His prose pulls you right in, pulls you right into a forgotten mountain town, pulls you right into secret histories, family feuds, and the forests and mists that hide it all.

Then it makes sense there would be music in this book, right? Oh yes, there is music! Wisp of a Thing is full of songs and verses, and these are words that have power. And people who have power tend to like to keep it, which means words have been hidden and buried. And the best person to find something that’s been buried is someone who is nearly a ghost herself.

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All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

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Yes, yes, I know I’m late to the Murderbot party. A while back my twitter feed exploded with things like “I love Murderbot”, and “I want more Murderbot!”, and just shook my head in confusion. I’m actually doubly late to the party, because I’ve now read this novella twice in the last month and am only writing about it now. My lame excuse is that All Systems Red was the August book for my local book club and I wanted to wait until after our book club met and discussed the story to write my review. Also? I’ve been too busy watching Master of None, Arrested Development, and GLOW to give a shit about what anyone else wants.

Much of the fun of our book club meetings is seeing who enjoyed the chosen book, who didn’t, and what people liked and didn’t like. We all have different tastes, and it’s rare that everyone comes to the meeting saying “I loved this book!”. All Systems Red is that rare book. Everyone loved it, we couldn’t stop talking about, and everyone was thrilled to learn that Martha Wells has more Murderbot novellas planned. The bookstore where our book club meets is located next to a police station, and I fear to think what those cops thought when they heard cheers and giggles coming from next door as we all cheered “Murderbot Murderbot Murderbot!”

So, what the hell is this Murderbot craze all about?

Murderbot is a Security Unit bot. You want to explore or scout an unexplored planet? Your contract with the company requires one SecUnit per ten humans, and all sorts of other required equipment of dubious quality. Until said equipment craps out, leaving you to die on a deserted planet, it will record everything you do and say with plans to sell the data later. HubSystem does seem to have a “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” type of personality.

The members of the PreservationAux exploration team have no idea their SecUnit has hacked it’s own governor module, and that this SecUnit helps them and saves their lives because it feels like it, not because it has to. These humans are on a deserted planet with a SecUnit who refers to itself as Murderbot. A SecUnit who has deleted as much data as possible to make room for more downloaded soap operas and other serial entertainments. Murderbot is socially awkward, anti-social, and couldn’t care less about the goals of squishy humans. Murderbot simply wants to be left alone so it can watch downloaded TV shows (huh. wanting to sit around and stream TV shows all day? that sounds, um, familiar)

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The Tourist, by Robert Dickinson

published June 2017

where I got it: received review copy from the published (Thanks Hachette!)

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Welcome to the 24th century, where the most exotic vacation a person can take is to a 21st century mall.  Experience germs and cell phones, risk mild food poisoning and interactions with sullen gothy teenagers, and then spend the night safely ensconced in a resort hotel.   There are tons of travel companies that offer these types of tours.  The companies and their employees choose to ignore all the smuggling that often takes place right under their noses. Time travel has become so easy and common, it’s not even called “time travel” anymore, it’s just called “travel”,  and you get to your destination via a high energy technology called translation.

 

“It’s the logic of travel: the past is just another country, and, if you can afford the translation, you can always go back. Nothing is lost, nobody really dies. You die, of course: but, if they have the right resources, other people can always come back and see you. You remain alive.”

                                The Tourist, page 310

 

The opening chapters of The Tourist fall somewhere between Kage Baker’s Company novels and the movie Twelve Monkeys, complete with a shadowy future century no one is allowed to see, rumors of a genocide in recent history, a near extinction event, and the challenges of how to tell someone you are from the past or the future.  There is a “map” of sorts in the front of the book, that on first glance looks like a map of a shopping mall, but then you realize it’s a chart of a time line. The time line is U shaped, with the character’s lives jumping back and forth all over the place. Ahh, the tricks you can play in a time travel book!

 

Spens is a rep with one of the travel agencies, his job is to shepherd his charges to the mall, show them how paper money works, and warn them against 21st-ers who know how to trick naive idiots.  For shock value, he buys a muffin at a coffee stand and eats it.  This is just a job for Spens, he lives at the resort and gets together for drinks with the other reps at night to share stories of their idiot clients.   He’ll work at the resort forever if it means he never has to work the tunnels again.

 

And then one day he loses a client.

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The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

where I got it:  purchased new

published in 2010

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I first read and reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed in 2011, and it blew my mind. I had no idea jeweled prose like this existed, I had no idea stories could be told like this. I didn’t know an author could do these things in a novel. I remember trying to give someone a 30-second elevator pitch about this book, and I knew I couldn’t boil the entire book down into a few sentences so I simply said something like Have you ever come across a metaphor that wasn’t a metaphor, it was the truth? That’s this book. The person looked at me like I was crazy, but I think I did Habitation justice with that pitch.

This is a hard book for me to talk about, because reading it has become a sort of religious experience for me. Not religious in the way of temples or praying or god or heaven or any of that stuff, but religious in the way of looking up at the night sky, seeing the Milky Way, and feeling very small and realizing you had no idea the universe and everything in it could be this beautiful and understanding that you are a part of that beauty, you are in it, you are of it. Religious like that.

I don’t so much talk about this book as fan-girl about it.

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

“This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?”

I call it a “surface plot”, because this is not a book about some simple plotline. Is a book about the power of story, the power of time, the power of faith, and the beauty of being destroyed and created by those powers.

Prester John had originally been on a mission to find the grave of Thomas the Apostle when he found instead the land of Pentexore, and five hundred years later, Brother Hiob is on a mission to find the possibly immortal Prester John. Where Hiob’s journey ends, he finds a tree. A tree whose fruit are books. Hiob is allowed to pluck three books from the tree, and he finds to his luck one of the books is in the voice of Prester John himself. The second is from John’s wife Hagia, and the third is from the famous storyteller Imtithal. No matter how fast Hiob and his assistant copy and transcribe, the books turn to rot faster. The residents of Pentexore may have had immortality, but it only takes hours for their stories to decompose. (and what does it mean when someone’s story dies?)

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Echopraxia, by Peter Watts

published in 2014

Where I got it: I don’t remember

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Echopraxia, from dictionary.com:

  1. the abnormal repetition of the actions of another person.
  2. the involuntary imitation of the actions of others

 

Daniel Bruks is a regular human.  Living out in the desert after committing career suicide, Bruks is just a regular guy. And by regular, I mean he has no augments and his DNA and brain haven’t been mucked around with. By regular, I mean humanity is, in general, leaving him behind. But so long as they leave him alone, he’s fine with that.

 

Bruks keeps saying he doesn’t understand what’s happening, or why the Bicamerals even took him along on their mission when it would have been much easier to leave him behind. He’s not alone, as for the first half of this book, I had no idea what was happening either.  Watts certainly throws the reader into the deep end, and it was a frustrating first hundred pages.  Luckily, about a third of the way in, there are some conversational infodumps that tell you exactly what all these augmented humans are, and what Bruks is not.  And maybe  Bruks will eventually come to realize all the mean names the augments call him, names like roach and baseline, aren’t insults at all.

 

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, and if you haven’t read Blindsight it is 1) one of the most incredible hard scifi novels ever written, and 2) won’t much prepare you for Echopraxia, as these two novels are those distant cousins who see each other at weddings and funerals, but can’t think of a reason to speak to each other.  That said, I couldn’t stop thinking about Blindsight while reading this novel. There is so much discussion in Echopraxia about how you can’t trust your own brain, you can’t trust your own perception. Blindsight was ALL ABOUT perception, and we see that story from Siri’s point of view, and of course he trusts his perception.  It makes for a fascinating dichotomy between the two novels!

 

Plotwise, I’m not 100% sure what is going on in Echopraxia. Bruk’s desert home is under attack by zombie drones, so he takes refuge at the nearby monastery of Bicamerals.  The Bicamerals are a sort of hive mind type thing, they have souped up synapses spiked with genetics from our ancient ancestors, genetics homo sapiens evolved away from because we “didn’t need that stuff anymore”.  Turns out, it isn’t Bruks the zombies are attacking, but the monastery. When the Bicams escape, they take Bruks and their “pet” vampire, Valerie, along with. What the hell do they need Bruks for? For that matter, what the hell do they need a god damn Vampire for?  Once out in space, the story takes a turn for the visceral horror, because Valerie is the smartest predator the Earth has ever seen.  (What are vampires doing in a hard scifi novel, you ask? Fantastic question!  And the answer is in Blindsight, and also in that novel’s appendix, where Watts brilliantly discusses how Vampires are genetically viable and possible on Earth, and why it was a really terrible idea for us to bring their genetics back)

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.