Tuesday, January 29, 2019

So long and thanks for all the glam

In another one of those "Hey, it placed in Goodreads' 'Best of 2019' survey so let's read it", I just finished Catherynne M. Valente's Space Opera.

How do I describe this?

The basic premise is that a race of bird like creatures makes first contact with Earth (literally everybody on Earth at the same time.) Having discovered our radio signals, the Esca more or less demands humanity send a representative to the Metagalactic Grand Prix, where humanity will compete against the rest of the galaxy's life forms in a singing competition to prove that humanity is sentient. Come in last, humanity will be destroyed.

Among the list of acceptable performers are such luminaries as Yoko Ono and Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, of which the latter gets sent. Kind of like a cross between Gary Glitter and David Bowie, the band used to be a trio, until the female backup singer died in a car crash. Decibel and Oort, on the other hand, are alive and taken to the center of the galaxy to compete. Along for th eride are a string theory/quantum universe leaping representative of a race of sentient Red Pandas and the bird Decibel keeps calling Roadrunner.

Seems part of the Prix's semi-finals includes races trying to disable the other entrants, since the rankings not only determine if new races are sentient but also the division of galactic resources. Given Decibel is essentially pansexual and going full on Captain Kirk, this doesn't go particularly well. Oort, on the other hand, does his best to fade in the background, particularly after Roadrunner gifts his cat with the gift of speech.

There's quite a bit of comedy throughout, including the 321, a sentient AI who chooses a form it thinks humans will find most helpful and trustworthy.

Which is to say knowledge isn't wisdom.
There's also a bit of angst, since Oort and Decibel haven't spoken in years, and the reasoning is actually kind of sad. 
It's kind of like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett teamed up to write a book on Eurovision with the help of an American ghost writer.It's not what I would consider to be great, and other than a flat ending, pretty memorable.

Friday, January 18, 2019

This ain't no picnic, and it ain't no country club either

After reading through the pseudonymous Riley Sager's  Final Girls last year, I approached The Last Time I Lied with some trepidation. Thankfully, whomever Riley really is evidently got some better editing this time around, because the pacing and suspense is SO much better.

We get introduced to Emma Davis at the outset, mainly through a flashback she has to 15 years prior, when her three cabin mates from Dogwood Cabin at Camp Nightingale vanished into thin air sometime in the early morning of July 5th. From there, we slowly meet Emma the New York City artist who's painting exhibition of woodland scenes have 3 girls always hiding behind the foliage.

Emma, who's never really had a real romantic relationship thanks to the stress coming out of that particular summer instead prefers the company of gay men mostly, other than a long distance affair with a French Sculptor whom she hooks up with on his brief visits to the city. Into her gallery opening walks Frannie Harris-White, the owner of Camp Nightingale, who buys a painting and invites Emma to lunch at her penthouse.

Seems Ms. Harris-White is reopening the camp, this time with underprivileged girls filling the cabins rather than the more well heeled members of New York society's daughters. As such, she wants Emma to return as the painting instructor for the summer. Which Emma does eventually accept, thinking maybe returning to the woods and Midnight Lake will help her to find out what happened to her friends Vivian, Natalie, and Allison.

As most folks who've gone camping for an extended period can attest, reentry is a pain. It takes some time for Emma to get comfortable again, particularly with Ms Frannie Harris-White and her two sons (Theo, a doctor and the one Emma accused of killing the three girls; and Chet, Theo's younger brother, who's wife Mindy is also on staff) and Frannie's assistant Lottie running the camp. There's a real sense of insecurity among the players, as no one really knows how comfortable everyone should be with one another after the way things ended 15 years ago. Emma gets assigned to be Den mother to the three girls assigned to Dogwood cabin for this new session, who remind her of the three missing girls. We find out about the motion activated camera attached to the door of Dogwood to ensure Emma neither causes or receives any trouble. We meet two other staff members from the same year when Emma was a camper. We continue flashing back 15 years, watching the girls play Two Truths and a Lie, a game Emma ends up teaching her new charges, Miranda, Krystal, and Sasha.

In the trunk that belonged to Vivian 15 years ago, Emma finds a map and a very old picture. The map eventually leads to Vivian's diary, which leads Emma to believe that the Harris family is hiding something. Sadly, Emma is also being watched in the shower, having a few crows dropped in Dogwood, and having LIAR painted across the cabin door in bright red paint.

All of which comes to a head, when on July 5th, Emma wakes to find her three new girls missing without a trace.

Emma becomes a prime suspect, not only because of the events of 15 years prior, but also her own institutionalization after stress induced hallucinations. Her habit of tossing out accusations at everyone like it's a game of Clue doesn't help either.

Anyway, in the end, we find all six of the girls and in the epilogue get most of the rest of the story. Mind you, the final solution makes sense to a point, but leaves more than a few unanswered questions. I can live with that, particularly since my guesses as to what was actually going on were wrong, unlike the last book.

As I stated at the outset, the pacing is much better this time around. While some of the intermingling of time is a little rough, particularly at the outset, and we're never really sure what's real and what's not, thanks to the unreliability of the narrator, it's still a fine novel. I'm much more inclined to read further books by our hidden author should more appear in the future now.

Monday, January 14, 2019

I guess it's a bone orchard?

Going through goodreads.com's best of 2018 list really expanded my To Be Read pile,a and the first one to clear the hurdle was Craven Manor by Darcy Coates.

We start with Daniel Kane, who more or less lives hand to mouth, while his roommate/cousin Kyle walks all over him. Daniel is more or less an Aladdin character, known for giving what little he has to those he perceives as needing it more. Which leads to an odd job offer received by handwritten note under the door, on the night Kyle decided to let Daniel know he's being downgraded to couch surfer, since Kyle's work friend needs a place to stay and can provide more than bill money.

The job is for groundskeeper at an abandoned estate a few miles out of town. One with literally no real road going to it. Indeed, it's a huge manor that's falling apart, although there is a groundskeeper cabin in the garden, not far from the family mausoleum. Pay comes in the form of two antique gold coins, delivered weekly in an envelope, and there are a few rules as part of the employment. Things like keep the curtains closed between midnight and dawn, don't open the tower, and never answer the door if someone knocks.

Given this is a horror novel of sorts, pretty much all of the rules get broken eventually, including the one about no strangers on the property, courtesy of a drunk Kyle who lets greed cloud his judgement.

However, most of the rules deal with the ghost of a little girl, Annalise, who's mother, Eliza, is locked in the tower. Annalise's brother, Bran, would be Daniel's erstwhile employer.

As Daniel becomes more involved in affairs of the estate, he discovers a small village in the surrounding wood where the residents have obviously never seen/read The Ruins, since to a being, all of them have been dead for a century and are covered in some kind of infectious black mold.

Which does set up the central conflict in the book, of whom Daniel should trust. His employer Bran, or out of date town gossip as to who really tore the door off the church and infected the townsfolk with mold? And who really was responsible for the death of Annalise?

It wound up being a different read than I expected, particularly since the setting and stories about Annalise suggested either gothic or vampire fiction. Instead, we get a fairly good ghost story without either a fairy tale ending or a really dark ending. I particularly liked that there is no real sense of place outside the manor, since the adjacent city is never named, and about all we see of it is Skid Row.

While not the best thing I've ever read, it is well written and engaging,which is a good thing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Under the Tuscan sun

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold has been on my "Want to read" list for several years now, but I've never gotten around to it until now.

Honestly, I know it was released with little real fanfare, the lauds for her fantasy came later with The Curse of Chalion, but this is still a rather tasty morsel, maybe not as polished as her later works, but really good none the less.

Unlike Chalion, we're mostly in the real world, in late medieval-early Renaissance Italy in the City-State of Montefoglia. (We're not given a year to work with, but much of the statuary discussed has pagan themes, although we're told that the Malleus Maleficarum is roughly 10-15 years old here and the Inquisition does have its fires going.) Nestled roughly between Venice and Florence, Montefoglia's Duke Sandrino has a bad tendency to dangle payment in front of Prospero Benefort and his daughter Fiametta in exchange for magically imbued artisan items, like a salt cellar that neutralizes poison and makes people tell the truth. Prospero's masterwork, a bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, sits beneath clay, waiting for metal to be poured in to make it real.

Unfortunately, this all gets delayed when a Mercenary captain, Lord Ferrante, betrothed to Sandrino's daughter arrives, and it is revealed he is quite the villain. Indeed, as Duke Sandrino prepares to call off the betrothal and exile Ferrante, he is instead killed during the betrothal dinner, leading to Ferrante's hostile take over of Montefoglia. As is Fiametta's crush, Uri, the Swiss Guard captain and model for Perseus. Fiametta and Prospero flee not long after Prospero destroys Ferrante's sprirt ring, a ring housing the soul of an unshriven person. In the case of this particular ring, the soul of Ferrante's infant.

Prospero ends up dying during their escape, and the inn keeper where Fiametta runs ends up putting the body in the smoke house with the hams, waiting for payment for the room. Thankfully, Thur, Uri's brother and miner from Switzerland, happens across her, and they begin to realzie their connection. Unfortunately, Ferrante's men catch up with them and run off with Prospero's unshriven body that's been smoking with the hams for a few days. Thur has a touch of his own magic, related to the Earth, and he talks to kobalds on occasion. Fiametta's magic is related to fire, so one can only assume if their child has an affinity for air, it will compose a song about "September".

Anyway, Fia and Thur escape to St. Joseph, and the Abbot Monreale, who licenses magicians in service to the church. As the story progresses, we find out that Ferrante's magician, Vitelli, has packed both Prospero and Uri in salt in preparation to bind them both into spirit rings. We also find out Vitelli was a former student of Monreale, who in his studies of dark magic wound up becoming consumed by it.

As stated above, while it's not quite as polished as some of her later novels, this is exceptionally well written and filled with narrative goodness. Bujold does a wonderful job of working around societal limitations on women during the period in granting Fia some autonomy in her life, even as she has to hide behind her male figures. Seriously. While known for her science fiction, her fantsy deserves a read by those who enjoy the genre.

Friday, January 4, 2019

You and your words, obsessed with your legacy

I'm not sure if Morgan Brice's Burn counts as a book or not, since it clocks in at 100 pages and is listed as volume 1.5 on Goodreads. However, I own a copy and I finished it, so it's getting treated as one. (I know, technically, it's a novella, but....)

One of the original reviews of Brokeback Mountain I read summed it up as "90 minutes of angst, 1 minute of pleasure", neglecting to mention the 1 minute of pleasure happens roughly 15 minutes in. Burn is a bit like that, since we're picking up in the months following the events of Witchbane, as Seth and Evan try to find relationship balances in a fairly new romance that involves moving in together in Seth's RV. That Seth is trying to train Evan in the fine art of monster hunting and rote magicks doesn't help with this.

So, we follow Seth and Evan from Richmond to Centralia, through battles with a vengeful ghost, ghouls, zombies, and kobalds and a bunch of relationship drama and jealousies as Seth goes through the existential angst of how someone he loves would be better off with someone else and Evan thinks Seth isn't giving him enough credit for the things he can bring to the table.

This leads to both parties doing stupid things, and finally coming to terms in the end, along with a few shout outs to characters from other series, written under both Morgan Brice and Gail Z. Martin.

Honestly, I kind of liked this better than the first one, since it shows a less idealized version of boy meets boy, where boy and boy figure out sex only gets you so far when the rent's due, there's no food in the house, and someone ate the last Twinkie.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

There's a hole in the Bath

My first book of the New Year happened to be Simon R. Green's Murder in the Dark, the latest in his Ishmael Jones series, which as we found out recently is not part of his Drrod/Nightside universe, even if Black Heir is still present.

The major premise has to do with the Organization sending Penny and Ishmael to a site outside of Bath, where a hole has opened up. But not a normal hole. No, this one has razor sharp edges, no bottom, and doesn't actually have dimensions, as the scientists on site actually dug a tunnel under it that never intersected the hole.

As this is Ishmael, not long after they get there, people start winding up dead, cell phones have no signal, and Penny's car won't start. Despite the big interdimensional hole, we can be pretty sure something quite human is busy killing off the scientific team.

For such a short volume, it does contain a lot of stuff, including more clues into Ishmael's origins. On the other hand, the resolution to the mystery, while making sense also seems rather... unlikely. While the motive rings true, it really wouldn't play well in the real world, where less lethal methods that are just as vicious show up.

Fun read.