My Month in Reading, October 2019

My October reading was bookended with a few really great horror stories, which is as it should be. I also read the newest standalone novel by Kate Atkinson and finally finished a disappointing sci-fi novel by Amber Royer.


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Empty Ones by Robert Brockway

The horrifying imagery in the Vicious Circuit trilogy by Robert Brockway is second-to-none. He has a way with surrealist gonzo skull-fuckery that I love without reservation.

It helps that these books are hilarious and populated with lovable assholes. I also always enjoy stories about hidden worlds that exist under the surface of the real world. Case in point – the main villain in the books so far is a hollowed-out monstrous version of Mario Lopez who no longer understands humanity.

I also loved the first book when I read it a few years go, and this volume keeps up the stream of obscenity and gruesomeness to excellent effect.

LOVED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, and the audiobook read by Fenella Woolgar (possibly the most British name ever) is a big part of why I loved it. Transcription reunites narrator and author, and although I didn’t love this book as much, it’s still a damn good read.

Atkinson has a talent for the sort of imagery that surprises you with its incongruous perfection, and Woolgar’s delivery of Juliet’s world-weary witticisms is bar none. I just didn’t think the story resonated as much as Ursula’s adventures throughout her many, varied lives.

I’m also not sure how I felt about the end of the book. To a certain degree, it’s a spy novel, with the requisite misdirection and twists, but I felt like the ending didn’t have the punch that it should have once Atkinson laid all her cards on the table.

Still, she is an author I will follow wherever she wants to go. I’ve still got the rest of the Jackson Brodie mysteries to read, as well as her early novels.

REALLY LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️

You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles

I’m not sure what to think of the Forward Collection so far. This is the second story I’ve read from the collection, and although it was perfectly cast with David Harbour as the audiobook narrator, there wasn’t a whole lot to the story.

The narrator goes to an advanced fertility clinic that provides extrapolated dramatized versions of his potential child’s future life (warts and all), but it doesn’t go well, as you might have guessed.

The most interesting thing about this story is the idea of extrapolated futures based on genetics, but it doesn’t come to any conclusions about this development more complex than “that would be bad”, which is a song as old as science fiction.

LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️

Self/Made Volume 1 by Mat Groom

As an IT professional with coding experience, reading this book felt like what doctors must deal with any time they watch a medical show on TV – a catalog of teeth-grinding inaccuracies clearly only added for the sake of drama.

If you can accept the basic premise that a game developer could accidentally create a self-aware, artificially intelligent NPC and then find a way to bring the NPC out of the game and into a robotic body, you’ll probably find a lot to like about this book, especially the art.

I was too distracted by the fact that the developer carries around the code for the NPC in some kind of glowing orb that projects a hologram of the character’s face. The orb (precious, breakable) is the only copy of that character (no backups or code check-ins, I guess) so when the villainous CEO of the game company breaks the orb in a fit of rage, the developer is in danger of losing all her work.

I liked the idea of this book more than the execution.

DISLIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Institute by Stephen King

This was a solid adventure story that moved along at a brisk pace. I was expecting something a bit more horror-tinged when I started reading it, but instead this was mostly a fantasy about terrible things happening to telepathic and telekinetic kids. This was also the closest King has come to a young adult novel since maybe Eyes of the Dragon, although it was fairly profane, so maybe that would disqualify it in some circles. King sticks the landing here, and I enjoyed it a lot.

REALLY LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Screwball by Simon Rich

This is a fun little short piece narrated by Beck Bennett playing Babe Ruth as an talented idiot, presumably based on real history. In this telling, Ruth is an oblivious nice guy who just so happens to be good at baseball. When he runs afoul of another player who is completely useless as well as being the owner’s son, he blithely accepts everything the man says and does his best to be a good friend. A lot of the humor here relies on the disconnect between what Ruth perceives about the world around him versus what we know is going on via context clues.

REALLY LIKED IT


⭐️⭐️

Free Chocolate by Amber Royer

I struggled with this book. I wanted to like it more than I did because the premise sounded clever and funny, but the execution just got on my nerves. Bo Benitez is a culinary student who gets caught up in international intrigue when she steals cacao beans – a tightly controlled commodity because chocolate is highly coveted by aliens. Bo’s alien boyfriend talks her into stealing the cacao, and somehow she manages to stumble her way through a heist with little to no preparation or planning.

After she barely escapes the cacao facility with her life, she stumbles from one catastrophe to the next. The cover sells the book as a “space opera crossed with a soap opera,” and the pacing definitely reflects that. Bo ends up in one terrible situation after another, oftentimes while pining after one of several potential romantic prospects.

The author includes Spanish phrases through, presumably to give the book a multicultural feel, and it mostly works, although it was a bit much at times. A far more annoying trope is Bo calling out her “prey instinct” every time she runs into a dangerous alien.

I spent two and a half months reading this book in fits and starts, and only finished it because I brought it with me on a flight to Minnesota.

DISLIKED IT


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This was the horror novel I wanted for October. It was creepy, disturbing, and hair-raisingly suspenseful.

It features a villain who is disturbing because he truly believes he is helping children by sucking all the life out of them and turning them into vampires, and a henchman who does the dirty, horrifying work of torturing and murdering the people who get in their way.

I loved the characters and the setting, and I loved the idea of people who can navigate their own personal worlds with help from a talisman. I’d heard mixed things about the TV adaptation, but I enjoyed this book so much that I think I’ll give it a chance.

LOVED IT

A Detailed Mirage: Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

Published: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Genre(s): Adventure, War, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 12 hrs and 9 mins

I think what drew me to Fata Morgana was the promise of an old-fashioned adventure with a bit of romance: a WW2 bomber plane flies through a portal to another world and the crew has to learn how to deal with extreme culture shock while their captain falls in love with a mysterious woman. However, I wasn’t expecting that it would also include an obsessive attention to detail about the intricacies of flying and crewing a bomber.

Fata Morgana does deliver on that initial promise of adventure, but I have to admit that it required a bit of patience on my part to get invested in the story. I don’t generally enjoy it when an author has clearly gone out of their way to get every little detail right and wants to make for damn sure that you know about it. If you want to read an exhaustive catalog of the US Army Air Force bomber crew experience during WW2, you’ll probably love this book, but if you aren’t into that level of minutiae, you might have to give it some room to grow on you.

It doesn’t help that the characters are all fairly one-dimensional archetypes and they never rise above their first impressions. They wisecrack, they make earnest speeches, they sacrifice for the good of the crew, they’re generally stand-up guys. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se, because the story well-executed and there isn’t a false note throughout, but I can barely remember any of their names.

There is one interesting sequence late in the book where reality comes unstuck and things get a little surreal, but it goes on for long enough that it started feeling repetitive. The best parts of the book are when the crew has to do their job and fight back against their enemies, be they Nazis or otherwise. These sequences are thrilling and evocative, and are part of what brought the book home for me. There are a few action sequences full of heart-pounding moments and thrills, especially late in the book.

I did like Fata Morgana, but it feels like this review landed a bit more on the negative side than I intended. I think this a book for a certain type of reader laser-focused on verisimilitude, even in their science fiction. I don’t generally fall into that category, but I can still appreciate a story well-told.

REALLY LIKED IT

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The Girl Who Wasn’t: LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

Published: May 29th 2018
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 402 pages

LIFEL1K3 is the rare book that I mostly enjoyed until the end soured me on the whole thing. It’s a mash-up of a lot of genres and tropes, which gives it a certain amount of madcap charm, but it squanders that good will with some draggy pacing, an overload of teenage angst, and a final twist that feels like a gotcha moment designed only for shock value. It’s also overstuffed with plot and world-building, so it’s almost impossible to summarize succinctly.

When you live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you have to make ends meet in whatever way possible. Eve builds and pilots homegrown battle-bots from spare parts and pits them against challengers in gladiator battles with the help of her trusty little robot, Cricket, and her best friend, Lemon Fresh. She has a cybernetic eye and a “memdrive” installed in her brain to help her remember her past life, cut short when she was shot and left for dead.

When the book opens, she’s about to fight a malfunctioning corporate bot to get medicine for her ailing grandfather, Silas. The battle goes south, but she’s saved at the last minute when she unleashes some kind of telekinetic power that fries the malfunctioning bot.

Only problem is, gladiator battles are broadcast throughout the local area, and her performance brings her to the attention of some unsavory types, including a religious sect who kill “deviates” on sight and a corporate bounty hunter who wants to capture her for nefarious purposes.

Lucky for her, she’s saved by a beautiful “lifelike” robot named Ezekiel, designed to resemble a handsome young man with super-strength, who she salvaged when his ship crashed nearby. When they try to make their getaway, another lifelike named Faith captures her grandfather, so Eve and her friends have to save him while also running from the bounty hunter hot on their tails. Complicating things is the fact that Ezekiel and Faith both seem to recognize her and call her by another name, Ana.

Now, it’s kind of hard to explain my criticisms of the book without spoilers, so I’m going to warn you now that the rest of this review will be full of them. When Faith damages Eve’s memdrive in a fight, Eve starts having flashes of another life different from the hardscrabble one she thinks she knows. It turns out that Eve isn’t who she thinks she is, which becomes a running theme.

Eve begins remembering her life as Ana, who lived in a corporate tower with her father, the inventor of the lifelikes. She knows the lifelikes and has a shared, tragic history with them! Also, her grandfather isn’t her grandfather. Instead, he’s an engineer who gave her fake memories so that she could have a fresh start.

Ezekiel was the boy of her dreams, Faith was her best friend, and the lifelikes (except possibly Ezekiel) betrayed her family and killed them in a revolution. The angst and the drama build as Eve tries to reconcile her identities and histories, deal with her buried feelings for Ezekiel, and fumes about people lying to her.

You might think that everything I’ve summarized up above is more than enough for one book, and you’d be right. However, Kristoff still has a few twists left up his sleeve. The first few twists just stir up more drama and angst, but the final twist is what soured me on the book.

It turns out that Eve isn’t even the real Ana – she’s secretly a lifelike designed to think she was Ana. After she was shot, Silas installed the memdrive to give her a fresh start as someone new. This revelation puts her over the edge, and she pushes her friends away and slides into apparent villainy in the final sentence of the book.

By that point, I’d already lost a little bit of patience with the number of plot twists and the angsty in-fighting characters, but I wouldn’t have minded the final twist so much if Eve’s decision was less black-and-white. If she’d gone out into the world to find herself with mysterious motivations, I’d at least want to find out more about who she decides to become. Instead, she seeks out another lifelike with clearly villainous motivations and tells him that they have a lot of work to do.

It felt like Kristoff was trying to force Eve’s decision to BE EVIL, and it made me not care about her journey. LIFEL1K3 was a bit of an exhausting read thanks to its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink storytelling, but that final twist just felt like it sold out the main character for a cheap shock.

DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Modernized Space Girl: Barbarella, Volume 1

Barbarella, Volume 1Barbarella, Volume 1: Red Hot Gospel

Written by: Mike Carey
Art by: Kenan Yar, Jorge Fornés
Published: October 10th, 2018
Publisher: Dynamite
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: E-Book
Length: 126 pages

First, some caveats about this review of the new Barbarella comic written by Mike Carey: I’ve never seen the Jane Fonda movie, so I watched the trailer to get a feel for it because it felt like a necessary entry point.

I also read the first volume of the classic comics by Jean-Claude Forest so that I’d have a baseline to compare against the rebooted series. From a writing standpoint, I’d say that the two versions of Barbarella are on close to equal footing, but the art in the modern version just does not do the character justice.

Forest draws the classic 60s version in black and white with an almost sketch-like quality to the art. The suggestive lines are still evocative even if the style is a little dated. It might be interesting to read a remastered version with full-color art as long as it didn’t lose the style of the original. I think I would have preferred that over the rebooted version, or at least a new comic that more closely follows the classic style.

The first volume of the Mike Carey version consists of a three-issue arc drawn by the series artist, Kenan Yar, and a stand-alone drawn by Jorge Fornés. Both stories start with Barbarella’s ship breaking down, which I’m guessing is a running joke from the movie.

In the longer story, Barbarella crash-lands in the middle of a rebellion on a repressive religious planet where the church removes everyone’s genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex (because pleasure is a temptation.) Naturally, Barbarella considers this a horrifying injustice and does everything she can to fight the church, stopping only at murder. The story is a bit forgettable. It doesn’t help that Barbarella isn’t driving the plot for most of the arc.

I’m also not a fan of Kenyan Yar’s art, which doesn’t capture the look of the character. The perspectives are oftentimes awkward, and Barbarella herself doesn’t have the cool elegance of the original. It’s a shame, because the cover art is uniformly great. The covers made me wish for an arc drawn by one of those artists.

The art for the standalone story was a much better fit for Barbarella’s style and personality. That story follows her as she books passage on a ship towing three bespoke planets to their destinations. When someone sabotages one of the planets, the story turns into a spin on an old-fashioned mystery. I liked it more than the longer arc, but it felt comparatively slight and a bit rushed.

I’m not sure if I’ll read more Barbarella. This volume was a bit shallow, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Yar’s art. I still might watch the movie, though, even if it is super-cheesy and somehow rated PG despite its reputation for innuendo.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Suburban Weirdness, Circa 1988: Paper Girls, Vol 1

paper girlsPaper Girls, Vol. 1

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Cliff Chiang
Colors by: Matthew Wilson
Published: April 5th 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Adventure
Format: Paperback
Length: 144 pages

Paper Girls feels like a forgotten 1980s adventure that piles on the subversive twists. They don’t make movies like that anymore, let alone ones this weird.

I think the technical term here is “box office poison,” and yet I’d love to see Paper Girls up on the big screen. It begs for the kind of lovingly nostalgic adaptation that could only work with modern special effects and sensibilities.

Erin is a paper girl in the small town of Stony Stream, Ohio. Her story begins on the morning of November 1st, which is known in her profession as “Hell Night” thanks to all the teenaged trick-or-treaters still humming on stolen sugar highs.

When Erin runs into three other girls on the same route, they team up to stay safe during the night, but run into something far more sinister than marauding teenagers. Things only get weirder from there.

If you enjoy Vaughan’s work on Saga, you’ll recognize the same bizarre sensibilities here. What starts off like a throwback to Spielberg at the height of the eighties quickly collides with Vaughan’s surrealist sci-fi tendencies, and shit gets weird.

I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in the story at the end of the first volume, but it definitely grabbed me and made me want to keep reading. As soon as I finished issue five, I bought the next issue at full price and am seriously considering subscribing to the series on Comixology.

My only real criticism of the book is that the girls don’t get much character development. Erin is a good girl. Mac is a cynical rebel. KJ and Tiffany are… present? Somehow the book still works despite hanging on archetypical characters with little to no depth.

That said, that lack of depth could be a major turnoff if you aren’t a fan of Vaughan’s brand of weirdness. My hope is that future issues flesh out the characters a bit more, but either way I’m hooked.

LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Tell Your Story to the Trees: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Volume 1 CoverTrees, Volume 1

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Jason Howard
Published: February 24, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 160 pages

Trees has a simple premise and a massive scope. It asks: what would happen if aliens invaded Earth and then completely ignored humanity?

The book opens ten years after massive alien “Trees” landed on and crushed cities across the globe. The invaders never tried to communicate with humanity, and there were no obvious signs of life inside their impossibly tall alien pillars.

Many people fled from under the shadows of the Trees, but those who remained found new ways to live. New societies formed in these most unlikely of places, and this volume tells some of their stories.

The book shifts back and forth between perspectives in a handful of far-flung locations, including an artist’s colony in China, a research station in the Arctic, an Italian city in the grip of warring fascist mobs, and a border skirmish in Somalia.

Although Trees doesn’t match the tone or worldview of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the narrative here is similarly ambitious and deeply concerned with the particulars of human behavior. This is, I think, the first time I’ve read a volume of an ongoing series that included eight issues in its first arc.

That scope and ambition is commendable, but it also means that the larger plot doesn’t have much forward motion. The Trees are essentially an enormous backdrop for more intimate, character-driven storytelling. The most compelling story told in this volume is about young love in a dangerous place.

However, despite the focus on character-driven stories, Ellis introduces so many characters at such a fast pace that I couldn’t tell you any of their names without referring back to the book.

Also, the pacing in this first volume is very measured, which makes me wonder how many issues Ellis and Howard have planned for the overall series. It looks like Trees is on hiatus and has been since December of last year, but Image says issue #14, which completes the second story arc, releases later this month.

As for Jason Howard’s art, it is chock-full of expressive characters and beautifully rendered cityscapes. My only real criticism is that several of the female characters look very similar, so I initially had a hard time keeping them straight in my mind.

If you’re the impatient type, it might be best to hold off on reading Trees for now, but if you’re into personal stories with a global backdrop, it’s definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Armada: Second Wave Slump

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Cline

Published: July 14th 2015
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 349 pages

The Last Starfighter is a very bad movie. The too-thin story is nothing but a delivery mechanism for a few minutes of primitive CGI, and I question the taste of anyone who could watch it nowadays without groaning.

Accordingly, if you operate under the theory that very bad movies are the ones that actually deserve reboots, there has never been a premise more ripe for a “re-imagining” than The Last Starfighter. The advances made to video games since the heyday of arcade cabinets are exponential, and the line between games and combat simulators has never been thinner.

Armada is Ernest Cline’s pitch for a Last Starfighter reboot, tailor-made for the inevitable blockbuster film adaptation. It improves on the movie in a few ways but introduces new problems; although it is more grounded and believable than the original, the plotting is slapdash and the pop culture references are overwhelming.

In Armada, Cline tells the story of Zack Lightman, a fatherless teenage gamer with anger-management issues and a high score in the titular game – a popular space-flight simulator/shooter. Zack’s late father was also a gamer obsessed with pop culture, but he also had a crackpot theory that all science fiction is part of a government plot designed to prepare people for alien invasions.

Zack obsesses over everything his father loved despite his suspicions that Lightman the elder might have been a little crazy. Although his obsession does eventually tie into the plot, it’s mostly just Cline’s excuse for peppering the dialogue with references to 80s movies. In fact, in the book’s most egregious moments, the characters quote dialog verbatim instead of having real human conversations.

When Zack sees a ship from Armada flying past his school, he thinks he’s going crazy like his father, and tries to write it off. However, we immediately know a few things that he seems willfully ignorant about despite his intimate familiarity with The Last Starfighter:

  1. He isn’t crazy. That was totally a real alien ship.
  2. He is going to get recruited by the military.
  3. Oh, and, his dad is totally alive out there somewhere. Duh.

All of this is screamingly obvious, but the book takes its sweet time getting to the point where Zack actually steps into a spaceship. I’m sure that once this is a movie, the pacing of this section will be better and it won’t feel like such a drag to spend time on Zack’s normal life, but here the first act of the story is deadly dull. I could definitely have done without the chapter-length walk-through of Armada’s in-game mechanics, especially because at that point the stakes were still nonexistent.

It doesn’t help that Cline spends a lot of time setting up characters and situations that never really pay off. Zack’s anger issues just go away without him ever actually addressing them. His love interest gets one significant scene and then barely appears in the rest of the book even though she’s actually a pretty cool character. The overall effect is a book that feels underdeveloped and rushed, as though producing a movie-ready follow-up was the main priority here.

And, yes, the pop-culture references that Cline is known for do feel a bit heavy-handed. Somehow the same obsession with 80s culture worked just fine in his début, but here it took me out of the action almost every time. There’s also a weird scene where Zack describes how hot his mom is and admits to a mild Oedipal complex. These are all things that I think Cline would have fixed with another rewrite or two.

It’s a shame, really, because I genuinely enjoyed Ready Player One, and I was really excited for Cline’s follow-up. I think he has a lot of potential as a writer, and I could still see that potential in Armada even if I don’t think the execution is there. For example, the government’s recruitment plan makes a lot more sense than The Last Starfighter, and once the invasion gets underway, Cline introduces a new mystery that makes for a far more compelling dramatic question than whether Zack will get recruited.

Cline already has a lucrative deal for his third book, so it’s not like the shakiness of his craft on Armada is going to derail his career, but I hope he gets the chance to put a bit more love and attention into his next book.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

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The Bunker: Apocalyptic Wish Fulfillment

The Bunker, Volume 1The Bunker, Volume 1

Written by: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Illustrations by: Joe Infurnari
Published: August 19th 2014
Publisher: Oni Press
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

In The Bunker, five friends decide to bury a time capsule in the woods, only to find the titular bunker when they start digging. Once inside the bunker, they discover letters from their future selves, who somehow sent a bunker full of evidence back in time to warn their younger selves about the impending apocalypse they will have a part in causing. It turns out this innocuous-looking group of young people includes a future president, a soon-to-be brilliant scientist and several other eventual movers-and-shakers. Heavy stuff for a bunch of recent college grads, no?

When I started reading The Bunker, it occurred to me to wonder whether I’d ever read a graphic novel with art I hated despite enjoying the story. I’m honestly not sure I ever have. Probably the only situation where I continued enjoying a book in spite of the art is when the artist changed for an issue of a comic I was already invested in reading. In any case, I really did not like the art in The Bunker, and the story didn’t do anything to win me over.

My biggest problem with this book is a serious lack of characterization thanks to an indistinct art style and some fairly underdeveloped writing. The art is so stylized that it becomes very hard to tell the difference between the extremely generic characters. The main visual distinction is that some of the characters wear glasses and some don’t, and one guy is bigger than the others. We get a bit of back-story here and there, but the author spends the most time on one of the girls, who remembers being raped by her uncle when she was young – i.e. the most cliché, heavy-handed way to make a story about a woman feel Serious and Real.

As for the dialogue, it’s oftentimes the case that every other word the characters say is “fuck”, and everyone speaks with essentially the same voice. One character does make a few unfunny and off-color jokes in the first issue… but then things get all serious and he stops behaving that way. After the bunker and its predictions come into play, this turns into a fairly serious-minded tale of doom-and-gloom.

Ultimately, The Bunker just felt like a weird kind of wish-fulfillment. Instead of discovering a more personal and believable secret from their future selves, the characters find out that each of them is an incredibly important world-destroyer and of course that they were able to figure out how to send a huge bunker back in time. I think it’s possible to tell an interesting story about receiving notes from your future self, but this doesn’t feel like the way to do it, especially because the details strain credibility in so many ways.

The worst part? This first volume is almost all setup and very little plot. Not much of substance happens after the characters find the bunker – they freak out and fight with each other and then eventually get around to dealing with one of their predicted catastrophes. Definitely a disappointment.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Gamification and C-Monkeys: Corporate Double-Talk

Gamification and C-MonkeysGamification and C-Monkeys by Keith Hollihan

Published: October 22nd 2013
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre(s): Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 280 pages

Gamification and C-Monkeys are a pair of related novellas sold together as a “flip book” with a different cover on each side. The effect is clearly meant as a call-back to days when publishers sold slim, pulpy novels in bound pairs, and although both stories include familiar beats, Hollihan leavens each with modern ecological concerns and stylistic touches.

I decided to start reading these novellas thanks to a highly scientific method that involved skimming the first page of every review copy I have in my possession until I found one that hooked me enough to keep reading.

Gamification, a thriller about corporate espionage, offered just the right combination of spare prose and business jargon. I was soon caught up in the plight of the main character, a former corporate executive and current ex-con recently released from prison and struggling to make ends meet. When he begins working under-the-table for his old company cleaning up after the CEO’s ill-advised affair with a woman at a rival company, things start to get hairy.

Hollihan definitely knows his jargon. I’m pretty sure that if you turn this book sideways, a few inter-office memos and a quarterly report might fall out. He also has a pretty solid grasp of thriller conventions and pacing; the book starts out slow but steady until things inevitably begin escalating and Hollihan pulls the rug out from under his main character.

It was exciting reading, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, but the end of the novella left several story threads unresolved or unexplained, and I was admittedly a bit confused about who did what to whom and why. It felt a bit like Hollihan ignored motivations and explanations  in the name of surprise and excitement. It worked in the moment, but ultimately left me unsatisfied.

I assumed that C-Monkeys might shed some light on the parts of Gamification that remained unexplained, but I was sadly disappointed. At one point in Gamification, the main character is given a pulpy dime-store novel about a mad scientist on a mysterious island full of giant salamanders. C-Monkeys is essentially the expanded version of that novel’s summary.

Unfortunately, in expanding the story, Hollihan doesn’t bring much more to the table. The main character in C-Monkeys is a cipher with no back story and no clear motivations. We are eventually told a bit more about who he is and why he might want to sneak on the island, but it comes late in the story and feels like an arbitrary info-dump instead of a shocking revelation. Honestly, nothing about C-Monkeys felt particularly surprising or remarkable.

I wanted to like Gamification and C-Monkeys more than I did. Both novellas were eminently readable, and Hollihan gets a surprising amount of entertainment mileage out of corporate espionage and the particulars of drilling for oil, but Gamification’s many twists add up to a lot of nonsense and C-Monkeys just feels unnecessary. I might be up for reading more of Hollihan’s work, but I can’t recommend this pair of novellas.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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Ancillary Justice: I Am Beside Myself and Myself

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Published: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback/eBook
Length: 410 pages

Ancillary Justice is science fiction crammed full to the brim with wild ideas. The main character, Breq, is an “ancillary soldier” cut off from her ship for almost twenty years, but she isn’t exactly human, at least not by the standards of her society, the Radch. The Radch, it seems, were aggressive about expansion over thousands of years. As part of that expansion they captured entire civilizations and turned the leftover bodies into these ancillaries – soldiers that shared a mind with their ships, that were effectively as much a part of their ships as any piece of the hull. Corpse soldiers, to quote a slang term.

Breq, who comes from a ship called the Justice of Toren, has spent the past twenty years tirelessly working towards revenge against Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who shares one similarity with Breq and other ancillaries: she has thousands of bodies under her control. This, naturally, complicates Breq’s plan for revenge. In the current day scenes, Breq searches for an artifact that will help her carry out her plans while also caring for a petulant drug-addicted former solider who once served on her ship. These alternate with flashbacks to Breq’s time spent as an ancillary soldier on the last planet annexed by the Radch.

Leckie does a great job of slowly revealing more and more about Breq’s past and the nature of the tragedy that befell her ship. She also takes fairly simple building blocks and turns them into fascinating philosophical mind-benders. What, after all, does it mean for Breq’s I to mean the ship Justice of Toren but also all the hundreds of ancillary soldiers in her hold? The narrative is simultaneously first-person and omniscient, jumping from place to place as the ship’s many perspectives build to a greater whole.

Leckie also sets up the Radch society as one that does not distinguish between the genders when speaking. In practice, this means that everyone in the book is “she” regardless of gender. Further complicating matters for Breq is the fact that she has a hard time distinguishing gender traits when in other societies, and tends to use incorrectly gendered pronouns. At first I found this a bit confusing, but once I got used to it, I found myself not really worrying about the gender of characters. Leckie drops hints here and there as to the actual gender of certain characters, but in practice it doesn’t actually matter.

The scope of Ancillary Justice feels simultaneously personal and global; Breq’s actions are deeply rooted in events from her past, but the result of her fight against the Lord of the Radch could have far-reaching repercussions. The world-building is pitch-perfect, and never feels heavy-handed or overwhelming. As soon as I finished this book, I checked to see if Leckie has any plans to continue writing in this world, and she does – apparently this is the first book in a loose trilogy. That said, it feels like Breq’s quest is contained; the end does set up possible future stories, but I couldn’t begin to guess where else Leckie might take the world of the Radch. However, I find that exciting.

I think my favorite part of this book was the way that Leckie took so many truly alien elements and made them feel natural and believable. The characters are human, but a type of human thousands of years removed from our society, and changed in many strange ways. We don’t ever meet any non-human characters, but they lurk just at the edge of the story, menacing and dangerous.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, and I’ll definitely be checking out Leckie’s short stories as soon as possible.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

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