Brainycat's Occaisonal Reviews

About Me: Full-time smartass, part-time misunderstood genius.

Interests: photography, reading, Formula 1, natural history, technology, science

Favorite Books: Stories featuring antiheroes: Cyberpunk, Horror, Urban Fantasy (not romance), Erotica (kinky and taboo)

The Grendel Affair - A lovely bit of pulpy escapism

The Grendel Affair - Lisa Shearin

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 2
bombs: 4
bondage: 1
blasphemy: 2
Stars: 3.5
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: FAIL
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



This is fun, quick, straight-up no frills monster hunting starring a protagonist who is one of the best female leads I've seen in urban fantasy - she's actually someone I'd like to hang out with. She has her strengths (though they're far from "godlike", she has her weaknesses (and they're not about chocolate or bad boys) and she's made from a core of steel wrapped in some normal human foibles. Her co-star / work partner is a bit stiff and one dimensional, but there's plenty of room for him to develop in subsequent books. Unlike so much of the UF genre, this story is gloriously free of romance. Which is not to say there's no sexuality, but it's just normal on-the-job tension between coworkers who like each other. There was not an iota of "instalove", nor did anyone make TSTL decisons because "Twoo Wuv". Thank you, dear author, for respecting the characters enough to let these people focus on the job at hand and not forcing them into situations for which they have neither the time nor inclination.

The pace of the story is "frenetic", but that's framed in the first chapter and adds to the tension. It doesn't feel forced, and the story takes advantage of different excitement levels to give the main characters time to breathe and develop. I think the development of our main protagonist is exemplary, actually, and is the strongest component of the book. The weakest part of the story is the "epic" scale of the conflict while our plucky heroine isn't nearly so developed. This creates a sense of her getting dragged along to play along with the big boys, and while she has total agency over herself and within her limited sphere of influence she doesn't really get to drive the plot. This is brought up often and helps drive some plot points - it's a deliberate decision from the author and is a major component of the inter-character relationships, and my ambivalence about this reflects my own tastes rather than a failure to write well.

There's a strong Men In Black feeling to the story - it's about an elite secret organization that hides in plain sight, keeping the sheeple safe from the things that go bump in the night. Like the MIB movies, supernatural critters hide in plain sight all over New York City and most play nice with each other most of the time. It's a solid, if not spectacularly original premise for the world building and affords the opportunity for any number of sequels. The supporting cast comes right out of the genre mold: The organization is run by a Dame Judi Dench lookalike, the science crew are all socially inept, the computer whiz is a anime and scifi fanboy, the Tall Dark and Handsome partner has a Tragic Past, etc. The supporting cast really aren't developed, though they are voiced well enough to tell them apart.

I've mentioned "sequels" a couple of times, and I hope the author continues this series for many episodes. There's a lot of potential in this series, and a lot of room to explore any number of tropes, settings and characters. The second installment "The Dragon Conspiracy" is out and I've bought it already. It's not groundbreaking or especially thought provoking, and that's ok. I read for entertainment, and the fact is this book is more entertaining than nearly all the swill coming out of Hollywood these days. It takes about as long to read as it does to watch a long thriller, but it's way more entertaining.

Engineering Infinity - Engineered itself a new fanboy

Engineering Infinity (The Infinity Project Book 1) - Charles Stross, Gwyneth Jones, John Barnes, Hannu Rajaniemi, Stephen Baxter, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, John C. Wright, Karl Schroeder, Robert Reed, Jonathan Strahan

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 3
boobs: 1
bombs: 3
bondage: 4
blasphemy: 4
Stars: 5
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: PASS
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



This is a big book. I don't use the "count pages" plugin in Calibre, but AZN says it's 400 kindle pages. Some of these shorts would qualify as novellas on their own. It took me a long time to get through it (short bursts before I fell asleep at night) but it was totally worth the effort. I actually finished each story in this anthology which is a rarity for me - most collections have at least one dud that I give up on. I wasn't familiar with the editor Jonathan Strahan before I bought this; Peter Watts and Charles Stross sold the book to me. I still haven't read any of Jonathan's books, but I've become a big fan of his ability to put a collection of stories together and I've already bought the next two anthologies in the Infinity Project series. I finished the book a few days ago but I wanted some time to digest the book before I wrote some gushingly fanboyish review.

The styles of these stories run the gamut from "free form speculative fiction" all the way to "old school hard science fiction". There's a couple of "creature feature" stories in here, but it's not about the critters as much as it is about how humans can adapt and change. Engineering has been described as "the application of science", and to that end all of these stories examine the dialectic relationship of human(ish) peoples to adapt to the reality of the world around them, and in turn adapt the reality to peoples' needs. All of the stories are thoughtful, well written and each of the authors is now on my "their name will help sell books to me" list. This is an example of what I expect from an anthology - I want to be challenged, I want to have my horizons expanded, and I want a series of knockout punches that together add up to a whole greater than the parts. This book delivers on all counts.

'Malak' by Peter Watts
    - A semiautonomous drone is programmed to assess the value of collateral damage before striking, and while optimizing it's algorithms to determine the easiest way to avoid politically costly civilian deaths it comes to some unexpected conclusions. I'm a HUGE fan of Peter Watts, and this story does not disappoint. Another knockout example of how dark, cynical and dystopic near futures needn't be cut from the same cloth as Neuromancer to be chillingly effective. Also, Peter did a spectacular job of writing from the POV of the drone without sounding like PacMan or Robocop, which is no small feat.

'Watching the Music Dance' by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    - Over the last few years, major software sellers have been moving away from the boxed model - where you buy an unlimited license for a version - and replaced it with a subscription model, where you pay a much smaller fee every month and get a limited time license but all upgrades are included. This has caused no small amount of consternation among sizable number of consumers who want to own their tools outright. Software running on a computer is one thing, but what about software we install into our brains? To whom do we want to be beholden to with regards to neurological enhancements: The companies making products? Parents trying to give their young children every possible chance to succeed? This is a poignant story that addresses these questions and leaves the reader with a number of questions to ponder rather than a tidy conclusion.
    
'Laika's Ghost' by Karl Schroeder
    - Not the strongest story in the bunch, but that's a reflection of the overall quality of the collection rather than any real weakness in this story. What starts off as a straightforward cyberpunky conspiracy story a'la "young hacker finds out too much, has to go into hiding from Big Corporation" turns into a byzantine world where the conspiracy is much bigger and a lot older than Big Corporation, and has implications for everyone on the planet. Well written and very atmospheric, this story falls short of the others because I felt like it didn't really sink it's teeth into some of the questions it raises.

'The Invasion of Venus' by Stephen Baxter
    - Every so often, while reading SciFi, I run across a story that verbalizes so much more eloquently than I could my ideas about how Some Big Event would play out in reality. The Big Event in this case is "discovering alien intelligences", and the way it plays out is "They're not even a little bit interested in a bunch of primates flinging poo at each other on some watery ball of mud". The story plays out as an extended allegorical conversation between a scientist and a woo-woo vaguely theistic character who are trying to come to grips with the knowledge that humanity is only the center of it's own world, and is inconsequential on the interstellar scale.

'The Server and the Dragon' by Hannu Rajaniemi
    - A long, long time after the singularity and in a star system far, far away the fruits of technology are far from safe. What is the relationship between predator and prey in the interstellar scale? This is another of the (relatively) weaker stories in the collection; I felt it took a long time to get to where it's going, but one could make an argument that that helps to show the monumental scale of how these sorts of things play out.

'Bit Rot' by Charles Stross
    - I have no doubt posterity will remember this as the seminal Post-Human zombie story. In Charles's entirely capable hands, the story stays entirely clear of the obvious horror tropes and stays firmly in the scifi camp, even though it's basically a zombie story played out on an interstellar ship manned by post-humans many generations removed from their biologically bound progenitors. An excellent read, and a fantastic demonstration of how no matter how capable and how carefully you plan, something can always go catastrophically wrong.

'Creatures with Wings' by Kathleen Ann Goonan
    - This story could've been a disaster, but careful writing saved it. It veered dangerously close to reading like one of those intensely allegorical inward journey of self discovery, but deftly avoided feeling like I was witnessing the author mentally masturbating while gazing deeply into her navel. That's a fine line to walk along a slippery slope, and major kudos to the author for staying on the straight and narrow. While I'm not even a little bit religious in the slightest, I do have a soft spot for the Buddhists and this story is driven by Buddhist principles and ideals. The first of two stories that try to provide a scifi retelling of classic religious tales, I think this one works much better than the other and it's certainly left a more lasting impression on me.

'Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone' by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
    - A very well written story that tries to work out how time travelling paradoxes could be self-healing. Not much going in the way of characterization or setting, but the plot moves along well and it was very well written. The quality of the writing, in that it stays out of the way and paints details only where they're needed, is what made this otherwise pedestrian story maintain the caliber of the rest of the collection.

'Mantis' by Robert Reed
    - The most unashamedly postmodern of the stories, this plays on the idea that every window works both ways and then tries to push the analogy into the quantum realms by having the viewers effect the viewed - eg, everyone somehow effects each other even though they can only observe each other but not communicate. Not the strongest story in the book, but it's a notch or two above the likes of "Laika's Ghost" or "Mercies".

Judgement Eve, John C. Wright
    - The second SciFi retelling of a religious parable, this time the subject is the ejection of mankind from the Garden of Eden from the Abrahamaic traditions. The characters and the world they inhabit felt to me like a pale rehash of Walter Jon Williams' "Aristoi", though to be fair only a wee part of creation and a tiny cast of characters is important to this story so maybe the sample is skewed. I didn't feel particularly impressed by this rendition of what the fall could be like in a post-humanist, nano-machine enabled world and I found myself skimming hoping something unexpected would happen. I got to the end of story with no surprises. "Mantis" is the better religious parable in this collection.

A Soldier of the City, David Moles
    - A lost soldier, hopelessly cut off from the unit to which he owes fanatical allegiance, wins the hearts and minds of a distant and backwards people while in turn learning to be more empathic and understanding of other cultures. Not unlike the movie Soldier, actually. Except different - much more talking and a lot less action. I liked the world building, and any story where gods walk among mortals - and themselves can be killed by megatonnage weoponry - has my interest right away.

Mercies, Gregory Benford
    - Oh my. In Formula One racing right now, there's a debate going on about the cost of competing in the sport. The school of thought I subscribe to believes that the backmarker teams - less well funded, and who will never win races let alone championships - are a vital part of the sport because they make sure the big name teams never come in last and their sponsors never have to face the indignity of being on a car at the bottom of the results listing. I feel like this story does the same job for this book. There just wasn't anything new or interesting in the plot, the writing was average with some big plot holes and stiff dialogue, the premise was shaky at best, the setting was perpetually unpolished and I never found myself caring what happened to the protagonist. Other than all that, though, it was a good story.

The Ki-anna, Gwyneth Jones
    - This story has all the characterization and world building that's lacking in Mercies, with an interesting noirish detective thriller thrown in for good measure. It was a very enjoyable little "trek" story - ostensibly, it's about getting the protagonist from an orbiting station down to the surface of the planet and into a temple, but slowly and delightfully the plot thickens until all the players are trying to get somewhere physically and emotionally. An interesting story with some direct references to contemporary race and class struggles that works on a variety of levels, and has definitely put Gwyneth Jones on my watch list.

The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees, John Barnes
    - Probably the most relatable story to our contemporary world, it's placed in the near future where the first post-humans are still regarded as anomolous superstars. After using exophysics to try to tame rampant climate change, humans come to understand that for as much as we believe the anthropocene era is the most cataclysmic chapter in earth's history, the fact is we're still just a bunch of baby faced primates who just got here a few years ago - and our idea of "status quo" is hopelessly faulted by our tiny little sample size.

Thursday's New Books - 05 MAR

We Are All Completely Fine - Darryl Gregory Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Evolution, and Revolution - William Gibson, Victoria Blake, Jonathan Lethem, Pat Cadigan Night Terrors - Jonathan Janz The Children - Jonathan Janz

First, Bookaneer recommended "We Are All Completely Fine". I balked at the price, but read "Pandemonium" and was impressed with the writing skill while not too excited about the characters. Then Grimlock raved about WAACF, and I hadn't added but one book to my list this week, so I finally got a copy. Definitely looking forward to this; this looks like it's something to read on a long train ride.

The Cyberpunk anthology showed up on the "You might also like..." list at AZN. It looks like this came out last summer, but I'm not sure if this is a reissue of an older anthology. I couldn't find any record of me having previously read this anthology, though I know I've read at least a third of the stories and probably another 50% look familiar but I can't be sure until I actually open it up. I usually wouldn't buy an anthology with so many repeats, but I feel like I need to throw quids at anything labeled Cyberpunk to keep the genre vital. It has some truly great stories: Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" is so archetypical they based a movie on it, and Cadigan's "Rock On" illuminates the unglamorous and unseemly underbelly of the near dark future and is probably Cadigan's best short. It also has Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth" which, frankly, is the perfect example of why I don't like to read Mr. Doctorow's works. They can't all be winners, but I'm looking forward to rereading some classics and hopefully finding some new stories buried in here.

Somebody on here mentioned Jonathan Janz recently, and as I was looking at his canon I realized I already had a couple of books from him sitting in my TBR pile. I've included "Night Terrors" and "The Children" in this week's ereader sync to move them closer to the top of the TBR pile.

I'm very proud of myself for controlling my book appetites this week. I've got a couple thousand books on my reader, of which I've read a several hundred. I don't really need to collect books just for the sake of filling up my SDCard; as well as a constant influx of new fiction, I'm also buying nonfiction technical books regularly and I have half a dozen monthly magazine subscriptions I try to keep up to date. The fact is, having some files on disks doesn't entertain me or broaden my horizons so there's no reason I need to grab every new (to me) book that looks like it might entertain me. I'm still reading books I bought in the beginning of February (and years earlier...) so I'm in no danger of running out of material soon.

 

Also, with spring beginning to happen I'll be spending a lot more time on my photography which will cut into my reading time.

*Natural* Apocalyptic Montessa and *Born* Nuclear Lulu *Killers*

Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love - Mercedes M. Yardley, K. Allen Wood

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 5
boobs: 2
bombs: 2
bondage: 5
blasphemy: 5
Stars: 3
Bechdel Test: FAIL
Deggan's Rule: PASS (in spirit if not the letter)
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



Natural Born Killers is one of my favorite movies. This story covers exactly the same emotional territory though not as deeply and doesn't make any greater comments about society's use of media for it's vicarious bloodsports. I also felt a strong resemblance to Kutter, but AM&NL is a much better read. This just a cute little love story about two special people fated to meet each other, fall in love, and end their lives together in a blaze of glory. It's written at what I'd consider a YA level of vocabulary and complexity, but I suppose it's probably inappropriate for younger readers (I'm not a very good judge of these things).  It's not a long story - it only took me a couple of short sittings to read it. As romance goes, this is the sort of romance I like, it's twisted, dark and gory. No explicit sex though, and that's a drawback that's worth at least a star. I was also hoping for more gore since killing is what brings these two people together, and I think opportunities to show them growing together were skipped over in a few scenes. It felt like a bit of fearfulness on the author's behalf, like she pulled back a little from truly committing herself to following the characters where they wanted to go.

It's hard to write an in-depth review of a short novella. Especially this one, as it's really all about atmosphere and mood rather than plot and character. We know the characters before the story starts, we know their arcs, and the setting really doesn't matter. To make a musical analogy, Natural Born Killers is like Psyclon 9's Parasitic and Atomic Montessa and Nuclear LuLu is like Mr. Kitty's Time. AM&NL is a good story and I see why it won the awards it has. I like what it does and where it goes, but I just wish it were more explicit. Readers with more delicate sensibilities will probably like it more than I did.



Thursday's New Books - 26 FEB

Grimm Mistresses - Mercedes M. Yardley, Stacey Turner, C.W. LaSart, Allison M. Dickson, S.R. Cambridge, Amanda Shore Bleeding Shadows - Joe R. Lansdale Salvage and Demolition - Tim Powers The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein - Thomas Ligotti I Travel by Night - Robert R. McCammon New Amsterdam  - Elizabeth Bear, Patrick  Arrasmith The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics) - Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, Erika Eichenseer, Engelbert Suss, Maria Tatar

Thanks to Beauty in Ruins for pointing out Grim Mistresses, I think it'll go well with The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales which Bookaneer kindly reviewed for us.

 

The other books are trickling in through the Humble Bundle I bought the other day. I am an Elizabeth Bear fan; it seems like she shows up in all the SciFi anthologies I read.

 

It's been another really slow fiction week for me. Mrs. Brainycat and I have been marathoning Walking Dead, seasons 2-4. We had given up on the series partway through s2 because of all the TSTL, the implausible scenarios and the overly self indulgent screenwriting. Mrs. Brainycat's friends are all raving about the new season, though, so we're watching it for free on AZN Prime (s2-3) and Sky OnDemand (s4).

 

Each episode is 42 minutes, but it feels like hardly anything happens - judicious editing would leave a lot of room for more plotlines and character development. I find myself reading magazines and clicking around the internet on my phone while it's on, and I don't miss anything. I guess I just wish it were a lot denser. And rated NC17 or R, but I feel that way about everything.

Zero Sum Game - Adds up to a Positive Integer

Zero Sum Game (Russell's Attic) - SL Huang

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 0
bombs: 4
bondage: 2
blasphemy: 1
Stars: 3
Bechdel Test: Pass
Deggan's Rule: Pass
Gay Bechdel Test: Fail

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



I read this about three weeks ago and forgot to do a review. I recollect an action/adventure thriller that was enjoyable enough, but the simple plot and gimmicky use of the heroine's superpower detracted from what could have been a great book. From the cover and some of the marketing verbiage I get the sense that this is supposed to by a cyberpunky sort of story, but it's not set far enough into the future nor has technology progressed enough to start fracturing the definition of humanity. It's set in the very near future in southern California which ticked another of my favorite pet peeve boxes. I've long railed against movies written in Los Angeles about people in Los Angeles that are in turn filmed in Los Angeles. It's a big planet and I think we should explore the rest of it. After reading this book, it turns out books set near Los Angeles where the weather is always so perfect it needn't be mentioned get my gourd as well.

This isn't an Urban Fantasy book. We know this because our spunky heroine doesn't use magic, she uses math. But the way it's presented and used, it might as well be magic. My fellow unix peeps will understand what I'm saying here:
cat ${text} | sed s/math/magic/g
Our heroine is able to not necessarily "bend the rules" of physics, but take advantage of all the improbable loopholes. Conveniently, she's not just smarter but also faster and stronger than most people. And it's so hard being so much smarter and tougher than everyone else, too! As important as "math" is to the main character, the math wasn't developed at all - it just happens as if she were casting a spell or using a relic. Example: she's in a jam, she does "some MATH" and suddenly she's able to do a roundhouse kick through a second-story window from a standing start on the ground. This is not Charles Stross style math, this is Math As Mysticism. I started this book hoping the math would be intense but it's not. The use of the word "vector" is about as technical as it gets:

My leap took me high in an arc above the grimy pavement twenty feet below, a long moment of weightlessness before my shoulder slammed into the concrete wall above Tresting’s window. Time seemed to slow. In hundredths of a second I was going to fall; my margin for error was almost nonexistent. I looked down at the two-story drop below me, equations unspooling in my head, the acceleration of gravity tumbling through every incarnation of every possible assignment of variables, and I flattened my arm against the cinderblocks, forcing friction to delay me the slightest touch. Vector diagrams of normal force and gravitational pull and kinetic friction roared through my senses. Just before gravity won and sucked me into a two-story plunge to the alleyway below, I dropped the SIG.
It outstripped me by the smallest fraction of a second, and as it fell between the bars and the top lip of the wall above the window, I shot out my left foot and came down on it with my entire body weight. The frame of the handgun slammed against the bars on one side and the top lip of the window on the other with all the force a simple machine could harness, and became my very own makeshift crowbar.



The pacing of the book was frenetic; all action all the time. I didn't mind this so much, but I think some more downtime to give the characters some room to grow would have been appropriate. Most of the characters were very stiff, and while pains had been taken to make sure the tropes were uniquely voiced, all of the characters were still the typical cast you'd expect in a thriller. Again, they were all voiced and characterized well enough but I wouldn't call any of these characters especially memorable.

This book was a very quick read, and easy enough to digest. Not especially memorable or amazingly well written, but certainly better than a lot of the swill that's out there. I believe this is the author's first book, and I hope s/he continues to write and improve his/her craft. Not everyone is at the top of their game on their first try, but this is a much better showing than most first books. The book avoids so many of the pitfalls of the genre (like lame love interests) and shows a willingness to try something new which counts for a lot for me. This book was no Th1rte3n, but it wasn't a waste of time either.

Thursday's New Books - 19 FEB

Hung Hounds - Donald Armfield Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952-1976 - Peter Bunnell, Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox - Barry Hughart Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium - Clive Barker, Bob Eggleton The Mallet of Loving Correction - John Scalzi

It had been a really slow book week for me, I hardly read any fiction at all. My wife and I went to York for the weekend which sort of threw me off my normal schedule.

 

As a charter member of Beauty in Ruins' WTF Friday Buyer's Club, I got a copy of "Hung Hounds". I haven't started it yet, but I suspect it'll be the proper antidote to all the technical detail and Highbrow Art I'm reading right now.

 

I did get a lot of reading done on the trains, but not any of the dozens of books I've bought from recommendations here. I plowed through some exciting books about InDesign, and got a good start on "Aperture Magazine - The Minor White Years" (in hardback even!). That's the sort of book I find useful in physical form, as I feel the tactile experience of underlining, highlighting and making notes in the margins helps me recall the information later. Also, it's fun to share the book with other people and see what they add to the dialogue.

 

Then, this morning, as I was scrolling through the many dozens of posts I'd missed, I saw the humblebundle package that includes "The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox". I'm very excited about this; I read those books several times and I'm thrilled to have them in electronic format now. It's been a few years since I read them - I think it was even before my first marriage - so it'll almost be like reading a new series. The package also includes the Clive Barker marketing experiment "Tortured Souls", the latest John Scalzi memoirs, and a couple of anthologies that I'll try. There's also some books in there that are clearly not written for me, but for £25 and a donation to charity, it's a heckuva deal.

 

For those of you who (like myself) obsess over the tidiness of your Calibre database, I'll present the ISBN and series info I found for the books in the humblebundle:

Muse of Fire    1596061812
Science Fiction

Brayans Gold    1596063637
series: Demon Cycle #1.5
Fantasy

Inside Job    1596060247
Fantasy

Jacaranda    1596066849
series: The Clockwork Century #6
Fantasy

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox    0966543602
Fantasy

The Ape's Wife    1596065869
Fantasy, short stories (single author)

Nobody’s Home    1596066709
series: Anubis Gates #0
Fantasy

The End of the Sentence    1596066792
Fantasy

The Hunter from The Woods    1596064137
series: Michael Gallatin #2
Horror

The Top of the Volcano    1596066342
Science Fiction, short stories (single author)

The Jack Vance Treasury    1596060778
Science Fiction, short stories (single author)

The Mallet of Loving Correction    1596065796
Memoirs

Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium    1596066369
Horror

Black Hat Jack    1596066776
Western

Amityville Horrible    1596065656
series: OtherWorld #10.8
Horror

Academic Exercises    1596066091
Fantasy

 

Thursday's New Books - 12 FEB

Gridlinked  - Neal Asher Trailer - Edward Lorn Reamde - Neal Stephenson NOS4R2 - Joe Hill Clarkesworld: Year Six - Aliette de Bodard, Robert Reed, Catherynne M. Valente, Kij Johnson, Ken Liu, Carrie Vaughn, Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace Damoren - Seth Skorkowsky Last Train From Yokkaichi - Alan Henry Blood Type: An Anthology of Vampire SF on the Cutting Edge - Peter Watts, Mike Resnick, Laird Barron, Tim Waggoner, William F. Nolan, Stephen Graham Jones, Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Jason V. Brock, James S. Dorr, Jonathan Templar, Robert S.  Wilson

Shoutouts to Grimlock for "Gridlinked", Char's Horror Corner for "Trailer" and Seriously, Read A Book for "Reamde".

 

I've been wanting to read "Last Train From Yokkaichi" for quite a while; it's just about the only book about F1 I haven't read. I was very happy to find it on KU.

 

I don't recall where I found out about Damoren - probably from a different site that rhymes with "wood bleeds".

 

I picked up another couple of scifi anthologies. "Blood Type" is probably all over the place, but it has Peter Watts in it and I'll buy anything with his name on it. Peter has been published in Clarkesworld several times so I want to try their latest annual anthology.

Neuromancer - Can a book be one of your best friends?

Neuromancer - William Gibson

I've felt like I've been in a bit of a reading rut lately. It feels like I've been unimpressed by most of the books I've read lately, but I've been getting my recommendations from the same sources and following the same due-diligence procedures as I have in the past. I refuse to believe books are getting worse - while there are many more shitty books being produced then in years past, there are also more good books being produced recently as well. Therefore the most likely culprit for my malaise is myself. Have my tastes changed without my realization? Has my tolerance for anything less than completely amazing shrunk? Am I just generally grumpy and upset and taking it out on my readings?

When the going gets tough, the tough reassess their datum. So I reread Neuromancer for the umpteenth time last week. I don't even know how many times I've read it - at least three dozen times is a rational guess. I read it the first time as a wee lad when it first came out and it completely blew me away. This was back in the days when email addresses used exclamation points instead of ampersands, a megabyte was an unfathomably huge chunk of storage, and the nascent internet held all the promise of a bright and glorious future of an interconnected humanity sharing their science, hopes and dreams. We've come to an interconnected first world sharing pictures of cats, so I guess the dream isn't totally destroyed yet - but I digress.

Neuromancer has spoken to me throughout my life: as a troubled teen, an aimless young adult, an alcoholic adult and a sober middle aged person different parts of the book have syncopated with my thoughts and feelings and not provided answers as much as provided a language for mapping my internal spaces. The way the setting unfolds from every character's position like a tesseract designed by a technofetishist doing rails of coke the size of Sharpies, how every character is filled with loneliness and wrapped in fear but is searching for a way to accommodate their need for companionship resonates with me in a way I can't describe without sounding like a ridiculous fanboy. Which I am, to be honest, but I'll spare us all the details.

So, yeah, I reread my all time most favorite book to see if I'd changed unbeknownst to myself. It turns out I haven't. If anything I appreciate it more as I grow older. I don't look up to Case and Molly like I used to; I don't want to be them or imagine myself living their life (ok, maybe a little...) but instead I think I can appreciate them more as characters that live their own lives separate from me. Even as my relationship with Case, Molly, Finn, Dixie, Wintermute and Rio evolve the world they live in is familiar and comfortable as a well worn blanket, a safe haven of lawless bright lights and technomagic.

Thursday's New Books - 05 FEB

Serial Killers (Encyclopedia of 100 Serial Killers) - R.J. Parker Serial Killers True Crime Anthology: 2014 Vol. I - RJ Parker, Michael Newton, Peter Vronsky, Dane Ladwig, Sylvia Perrini 2015 Serial Killers True Crime Anthology: Volume 2 (Annual Serial Killers Anthology) - Michael Newton, Rj Parker, Kelly Banaski-Sons, Peter Vronsky PhD, Sylvia Perinni, Katherine Ramsland PhD Dead Heat - Ren Thompson The Grendel Affair - Lisa Shearin Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love - Mercedes M. Yardley, K. Allen Wood Red Moon - Benjamin Percy

Holy True Crime collection, Batman! I hope the serial killer books are insightful rather than purely prurient, but I have a feeling these are mass produced penny dreadfuls. They were super cheap on KU, so it's a no risk investment for me.

 

Moving on to the fiction, I'll read "Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu" sooner rather than later, otherwise I'm still working my way through books I bought in the middle of January. And a stack of magazines. And a pile of programming books. And a pile of graphic design books.

 

Shoutouts to:

Beauty In Ruins (who is becoming my Bizarro/Extreme buddy)

LizLovesBooks.com

Hunger for Knowledge

 

 

 

Psychopath for Hire - I'm not hiring

Psychopath for Hire - Matt Shaw

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 2
bombs: 0
bondage: 4
blasphemy: 3
Stars: 1
Bechdel Test: FAIL
Deggan's Rule: FAIL
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



This is not going to be a long review; the time I've spent reading the first 10% is more than enough time on this book. I thought I'd give this a try since I'd already bought it; I was hoping I'd like it better than "Sick Bastards". I didn't. For this review, I'll throw out some terms and let y'all put your own sentences and paragraphs together:
Derivative
Unoriginal
Uninspired
Predictable
Boring
Unrealistic
Simplistic

SICK BASTARDS - aka Nice Try

Sick Bastards - Matt Shaw

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 4
bombs: 3
bondage: 4
blasphemy: 4
Stars: 2
Bechdel Test: FAIL
Deggan's Rule: FAIL
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



This book has all the right elements to make me a fan: zombies, nuclear holocaust, explicit taboo sex and cannibalism. Unfortunately, all this goodness is narrated through a pathetically emo protagonist. At just a few pages in I was hoping someone would smack this guy around for a bit, a few more pages and I was hoping that he'd meet a grisly demise. Against my better judgment I didn't put this down at 10%, but stuck it out until 49%. I wish I'd had and saved myself several minutes of my life that I'll never get back. What's magical about 49%? Nothing; it's where I was when I put my reader down and fell asleep. The next day when I opened my reader and found the rest of this story staring at me, I just couldn't bear to keep reading.

This book is set in a recently post-holocaust modern industrialized nation. I'm thinking it's England, but I can't remember the specific details that lead me to this conclusion. But the holocaust doesn't make sense - a certain number of the population became fast moving, dull witted zombies (aka "Romeros") and the other portion of the survivors got an odd sort of amnesia where they can't remember their own or anyone else's name nor any emotional relationships. Otherwise, the amnesiacs remember how to operate things and what their life was like before the war. At no point is any sort of attempt at reasoning or an exploration of how this came to be ever discussed.

Inside this setting that defies explanation are a set of characters - or more correctly, caricatures - that feel like the cast of an Edward Lee Apalachia story, but boiled down until the bones are soft and rubbery. Big Daddy Killer, Momma the Passive Incestous Harlot, Manipulative Incestous Sexpot Little Sister, and the aforementioned Useless Emo Big Brother. I really didn't care about these characters, there just wasn't enough going on with them for me to engage with them. This negatively effects the explicit sex, too - because the characters are so flat the sex scenes read as "mechanical" and "uninspired".

With a setting and characters like I've described, you're probably expecting the plot to be substandard. Dear reader, you would be entirely correct. Typical plot device: despite being trapped inside a house that's completely boarded up from the inside and pains taken to hide any evidence of occupation, every few days an amnesiac knocks on the door asking for help. But at no point do the Romeros show up anywhere near the house. WTF? The plot was like this distant galaxy hurling the occasional gamma burst into the character's lives; things just sort of randomly happened, everybody reacted to it according to their proscribed (painfully boring) roles and then the next chapter started. Yawn.

I don't know if this book is trying to be allegorical and my need for the setting and plot to relate to each other and make sense and for the characters to be more developed is entirely missing the point, or if this is supposed to be a more literal story that got published before it was fully developed. I feel like this book landed in a deep, steep valley between the two types of stories and can't find it's way up either side.

The writing isn't great; it's serviceable and didn't have any glaring typos but it the language was painfully plain. Not sparse; sparse belies an economy that's seeking eloquence through brevity. This writing just uses a small vocabulary and simple sentence structures. Granted, our MC is dimwit but the world is full of great books with lively, vibrant prose coming from the POV of characters who are less-than-geniuses. I expect the stories I read to use more language than the piles of emails I send and receive every day at work.


The Martian - Making Mars Accessible

The Martian - Andy Weir

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 1
boobs: 0
bombs: 0
bondage: 0
blasphemy: 0
Stars: 3 (which is 1.86 in Martian gravity)
Bechdel Test: FAIL
Deggan's Rule: FAIL
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.

This is probably the definitive feel-good story for interplanetary botanists everywhere. I can see how this got the funding to get made into a movie; it's a straightforward story with plenty of precedent so audiences won't feel challenged. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a feel good story cleverly wrapped up in a scifi flag. Our intrepid hero Mark Watney is a study in charisma and I admit I feel a bit of a bro-crush on the fella. I was drawn into his celebrations and disappointments as his strategy for survival unfolded through his log/diary. It's a credit to the author that he made the monotony of marooned survival as exciting as he did.

The pacing is done very well in the purely literary sense, but I feel it was too dramatically perfect to feel realistic. And this is where the book loses a star. The peaks of his successes and the valleys of his failures line up too well; disasters strike at the most opportune time to advance the plot and all of the emotional highs happen on right on cue as our resident Martian completes his Major Projects.

But as so many journals and accounts of marooned people have shown us through the ages, it's not the major accomplishments that define the person or determine the likelihood of survival. It's how the person deals with the day in, day out monotony of solitude and hard labor. It's the gradual physiological changes and the evolution of psychological coping strategies that, in recollection, mark the passage of time. Daily tasks take on enormous importance - but we never learn about the day to life of Mark. Mark himself never really changes; he just disassembles and reassembles some stuff and travels around Mars until finally the [ending I won't spoil]. This illustration of "good ol' immutable American exceptionalism" loses the book a second star.

I've seen some reviews that lambasted the science for being too accessible, and some reviews that feel the science is too obtuse. This shows me the author got it right. I don't think there's anything wrong with the science, but there were certainly some presents lobbed into Mark's court that were there just to fill in some logical holes. I would have liked to see more detail, especially around the chemistry. But my entire background is in science and I do engineering for a living. I had a lot of fun "playing along" and solving some of the problems; but if a proper engineer who thinks about putting people onto stellar bodies all day long were to write a book I'm sure I'd like that more than I liked this book.

It's a quick read and very accessible; this is book was not even fractionally as ambitious as Red Mars. And while KSR's Mars trilogy will forever be amongst my favorite books, this book just doesn't have the depth or breadth to make any lasting impact.

MILK-BLOOD - A contender for "Best of Read in 2015"

Milk-Blood - Mark  Matthews, Richard Thomas, Elderlemon Design

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 5
boobs: 2
bombs: 3 (the economic violence of poverty)
bondage: 3
blasphemy: 4
Stars: 5
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: PASS
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



What a fantastic find this is! Written against the backdrop of inner city poverty, this is a short story about deeply imperfect people trying to cope with extraordinarily crappy circumstances. Drugs are a major part of this story, as is the supernatural. I found myself reminded of The House by Edward Lee - a miasma from years of psychic pain builds up and takes on a life of it's own, which is the sort of Jungian inspired supernatural shenanigans I like the best.

Speaking as someone with six years of sobriety after a lifetime of chemical addiction, I found the portrayal of addiction in this story to be among the best I've ever read. According to the bios on the usual sites the author's day job is drug counseling. This experience shows through. The horror and depravity of addiction feels gut-wrenchingly visceral. I found parts of this short story difficult to read - they're that powerful. And I'm the guy that can read Edward Lee while eating dinner.

To be frank, I didn't have very high expectations for the book; Wicked Run Press is Mr. Mathew's own label. I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing - he uses an economy of words that flows very well, the characters were all developed well and voicing was especially well done. I do not recall any typos or grammatical errors. This is a well produced book gloriously free of the problems that beset too many self-published books.

I've since purchased several other books from Mark Mathews. They are not going to sit on my TBR list for years; knowing that I have some more stories that could be this good is like having a stash of the good stuff tucked away for later.

Thursdays New Books - 29 JAN

The Damage Done - Mark Matthews On the Lips of Children - Mark  Matthews Stray - Mark Matthews Dark Currents: Agent of Hel - Jacqueline Carey Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor The Masked Songbird - Emmie Mears

Just a few books this week, which is a relief after the huge haul last week.

 

I really liked Mark Mathew's Milk-Blood (review forthcoming) so I picked up some more of his books. Lagoon has mixed reviews, but I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting perspectives so I'll try this. I'm also always looking for some UF that doesn't suck, so maybe we'll get lucky with Masked Songbird and Dark Currents. Unfortunately, I didn't realize Dark Currents is written by the same person who did Kushiel's Dart which I didn't like. Now that I've bought it I'll give it a try but unfortunately I'm not very optimistic.

Altered States - cyberpunk != [horror,dark scifi]

Altered States: a cyberpunk sci-fi anthology - CJ Cherryh, Jorge Salgado-Reyes, John Shirley, Roy C. Booth, Paul Levinson, William F. Wu, Malon Edwards, Cynthia Ward, Terry Faust

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 2
bombs: 4
bondage: 1
blasphemy: 3
Stars: 3.5
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: PASS (with a non-literal interpretation of the test that preserves the intention)
Gay Bechdel Test: PASS

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.



To be honest, I'm not sure I'd call most of the included stories "cyberpunk" but I'm an old school first wave cyberpunker from way back in the days of Omni v1. Hipster reviewer says, "I was cyberpunk before Neuromancer was published". Nor are many of the stories post-cyber or transhumanist. If I were editing the blurb, I'd say most of these are dark-scifi or future-horror. Despite being disappointed that the contents do not match the tin, I persevered on through the 17 included stories. The older stories all feel dated, and most of the new stories feel derivative. Unlike most anthologies, I don't recall any stand-outs - I believe the best of the bunch is "pretty good".

I read a CJ Cherryh novel many years ago; I recall not enjoying the experience and I've since avoided her canon. The short story Mech did nothing to change my opinion of her writing. She's accomplished, skilled and confident - but her tone, verbiage and general "style" just don't do it for me I'm afraid. Let this be an example of my own shortcomings as a reader and not her skills as a writer. Also, the story was originally published over twenty years ago and doesn't survive the "dated" feeling well.

Last Human by Jorge Salgado-Reyes is definitely dark-scifi. "Will the last one left alive please turn off the lights?" would be another apt title. In fact, I think it's the title of a totally unrelated short that covers the exact same territory. That's my long-winded way of saying, "This wasn't particularly original".

Gregory J. Wolos's Annabelle's Children is the first to bring up a theme that's in a lot of these stories - the ubiquity of mass media and it's ability to manipulate people. This story emphasizes the effects on one person's legacy after her death through a mechanism I consider gimmicky; YMMV. I'd file this under future-horror as well.

Tom Borthwick's Living in the Singularity took too long to get to where it was going, and didn't surprise anyone once it got there. Not the strongest story in the anthology by any means. I'd call this future-horror; the only scifi element of the story is the gimmick the author uses to talk about loneliness.

Cotner's Bot by D.L. Young is one of the more traditionally cyberpunky stories in the anthology, and even starts to brush up against interesting notions of how much humanity does an entity need to be human - but rather than dig into the meat of the question, we keep to the periphery with a focus on the shenanigans of the people trying to pass off the forgeries.

Midnight Pearls Blue was "First published in Stardate magazine, Oct. 1985" according to the blurb. The film Bladerunner came out in 1982.

     "Do you believe [this story] is a replicant, Mr. Deckard?"

     Yes, Rachael, I do.

And I do mean exactly that it's a ripoff of Bladerunner and not DADoES.

Better Than Everything by Malon Edwards is another solidly cyberpunk story, and one of the top three stories in the collection. How can you grow up and move on when your first love is always available in a new iteration?

Cynthia Ward's Ex Machina reads like Sturgeon's More than Human for the Nintendo generation, written with a dose of "Kid Sister's Gangster Street Cred" trope thrown in for absolutely no reason at all. I think there's a kernel of a great story in here, but it needs some more workshopping before it develops it's unique voice.

Island by Terry Faust - As I look over the text for this review, I remember reading this but it made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. And that's all I have to say about that.

John Shirley comes to the rescue and makes the anthology worth the couple of quid I paid for it with Meerga. Truly cyberpunk, truly thoughtful and truly one of the best stories in the book. Worth most of the price of admission right there.

To Sleep, Perchance is Mark Terence Chapman's contribution to the anthology. A super quick read, I think it's a great premise for the obvious conclusion but just needed a bit more honesty and vulnerability from the author to make the story really connect at a human level. Also, I think this is squarely in the "dark scifi" genre and isn't even remotely cyberpunk.

The Walk by Druscilla Morgan carries the posthumanist torch for the anthology, though again it would be better labeled Future Horror rather than cyberpunk. Mostly because it features a plot hole so big it could only be filled in with supernatural woowoo.

The Electrified Ants by Jetse de Vries is the third story that carries this anthology, and one of the stories that relies on the relationship between ubiquitous surveillance and nonstop consumerism. Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg ran GCHQ, and 10 Downing Street was a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton- that's the setting and origin of the conflict for this story. One of the longer stories in the collection, it reminded me of Wolf Time by Walter Jon Williams because of the bittersweet relationship stuff laid on top of some good ol' fashioned rebels vs. the Corporate Government.

Extrenum is a joint project from R. Thomas Riley and Roy C. Booth. I don't know who was responsible for which part of the finished product. It was originally in Apexology, and I've long been a huge fan of Apex Publications. This is not an example of the best work Apex has ever published. I'd call this just straight horror; the only thing remotely scifi about the whole thing is that it's set on Mars. Other than that, it reads like nearly every other multiple personality inspired short horror story.

Kerry G.S. Lipp's Attention Whore used a lot of words to make it's point. Too many words, actually. Speaking for myself, I'dve liked to have seen more conflict (story) and less exposition. It's a good start to what could be a great short, but like others in this collection it could use some more workshopping to develop the plot and tighten the characters. This story is overtly and self-admittedly based on the woowoo, and as such I'd call it Future Horror.

Frank Roger got shortchanged when they put his Unholy Grail in the same anthology as The Electrified Ants. For all intents and purposes, both of these stories cover EXACTLY the same intellectual territory and this makes it impossible for me not to compare them. I'd say Jetse's story is slightly better; but a significant part of my reasoning is the plot is more developed. Unholy Grail isn't as long, though, so it scores higher on the "brevity breeds eloquence" scale. I'd say this story gets an honorable mention, and helps make the anthology worth what I paid for it.

I think the people who put this anthology together read a lot of the same things I do (actually, they read a lot more than I do which is why they're putting this together and I'm buying it) and we share a lot of the same aesthetics. I am disappointed that the majority of the stories don't fit my strict definition of Cyberpunk, but since I like dark scifi and future horror I was still able to appreciate the stories. There aren't many "top shelf" writers in the collection, and this shows in the overall quality. Nevertheless, nobody gets to launch their writing career fully formed and at the top of their game - so we can forgive a bit of youthful exuberance and appreciate the efforts. I got this on Kindle Unlimited; I think the out of pocket price is about 3 quid, and I think that's a fair deal.