The Expert System’s Brother

August 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brotherThe Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’m a card-carrying member of the “Read Anything Adrian Tchaikovsky Writes” club. I regret getting into his fiction so late in his career, but after the brilliance of Children of Time and then the witty cleverness of Spiderlight, I went ahead and bought a full membership. The Expert System’s Brother is just the latest in a series of impressive books that play around with genre conventions to make an original, memorable story.

With this novella, Tchaikovsky drops us into a primitive yet futuristic world, and begins to parcel out what we need to know about the setting on a need-to-know basis. Oddly, it doesn’t feel forced, nor does it feel like Tchaikovsky is making it up as he goes along; instead, it feels realized in a way that suggests he is intimately familiar with the world and knows how to set the stage without having to reveal all of his tricks. In fact, as you read the story, the impenetrable title begins to make more sense, until you understand it well enough to understand the clue it gives you regarding the story.

Tchaikovsky injects the story with a questioning-authority theme by examining zealoutry and mob mentality. Two passages stand out to me in this regard:

When we surround ourselves with people who call evil good, how quickly we accept their definitions and speak them back, round and round until every way we experience the world is tainted by it.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default.

The latter quote is reminiscent of one from Spiderlight, but it’s poignant and thoughtful enough that I’m not going to complain about seeing it twice.

While the book didn’t wow me like Children of Time or Spiderlight did, it kept my interest and played with my expectations. I like books that do that, and the way Tchaikovsky manages to do that with all of his books keeps my interest piqued. Besides, Children of Time is just so damned good that I feel like I have to lower my expectations since it seems to be the story he was working toward from the day he started writing. This is probably a 3.5-star story, but I bumped it up to four because Tchaikovsky continues to impress me.

Started: July 24, 2018
Finished: July 30, 2018

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Come Closer

August 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

closerCome Closer by Sara Gran

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I’ve seen this novella described as literary horror, which is timely, since I just finished another novella that could be described as literary science fiction. In that review, I asked what made a story transcend genre to be considered literature, and I concluded that it has to do with how well the author depicts their main character with an everyperson quality. Gran doesn’t quite accomplish this here with her main character, Amanda, but she does capture the decline of a relationship as one person descends a downward spiral of madness.

Come Closer is about a woman, Amanda, who finds herself possessed by a demon. At first, it seems like Gran is using the possession to play with our expectations of the character. In the beginning, it’s easy to wonder if the possession is real or if it’s all in Amanda’s head, but as the story progresses, we realize that no, this is a genuine possession. By the end of the story, though, we’re left wondering again, though not in the way we might expect.

The story has a sense of inevitability about it, especially as you near the end of the book and realize there’s not much room left for Amanda to return from her possession. Things get worse and worse, and the story grows bleaker by the page, where you’re left wondering just how far Gran is going to take Amanda. The answer is “As far as she can.”

I enjoyed this book for its straightforward, no-nonsense style, which is steeped in doom but strangely lacking in atmosphere. Gran’s style makes the horrific stand out even more, like a blood spatter against a clean white sheet, and she excels at grabbing your attention without being graphic. This book is Good Horror, and anyone who wants a dark look into the human (or demon) psyche would be well advised to read it.

Started: July 21, 2018
Finished: July 23, 2018

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Prime Meridian

August 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

primePrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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You might believe this is a science-fiction novella, and for good reason. It’s marketed as one, it’s set in a near-future Mexico City, and Moreno-Garcia is a known genre author. The story itself, though, isn’t a typical science-fiction story, though it doesn’t suffer for it.

Amelia, twenty-five and struggling to get by in Mexico City, dreams of going to Mars. She’s had the dream since she was younger, and even had plans to go, but life, especially for a young woman in Mexico City, gets in the way. An ailing mother, a weak job market, and an apathy born of lost opportunity conspire against her wishes. Working as a friend-for-hire as her means of support, she struggles to find meaning while living with her sister and children, but there’s none to be found.

Prime Meridian is a story that could exist as literature or science fiction, as the science fictional elements are all in the setting. The story is a character examination, looking at one lost soul who represents all the disadvantaged young adults looking for identity in a changing world. Remove or replace the science fictional elements, and you’re left with a story that could be published in a literary magazine.

Which, of course, begs the question of when a story crosses from genre fiction to literary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro managed it with Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood accomplished that feat with The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), so what sets them apart? It can’t just be the character studies, since there’s plenty of genre fiction that does the same. I think it has to do with how well the author can make their main character an everyperson, someone who captures the zeitgeist of that moment. Moreno-Garcia does so with Amelia, who represents the disillusioned Millennial generation.

The story is oddly compelling, considering that it’s not plot-driven. Moreno-Garcia knows how to pace her story to keep the reader reading, introducing more and more pieces of her story until she brings us to the end of this arc in Amelia’s life. It’s a gentle story, and while it doesn’t end with all the answers, it answers just enough to ease our curiosity. What happens next is up to us.

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: July 21, 2018

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Rolling in the Deep

July 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deepRolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

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I didn’t intend to read two McGuire books back-to-back like this; it’s just the way my reading list shook out. I like her style, so it’s not like I don’t want to read her stuff, but I usually try to space an author out more than this. Interestingly, I’ve read several of her novellas, but none of her novels as yet.

Rolling in the Deep is about an ocean expedition, ostensibly to discover mermaids, but funded by a network known more for its B-grade monster movies and questionable documentaries (think the SyFy Channel). The ship is filled with ship personnel, cameramen, hosts, scientists, and fake mermaids, so of course personalities clash, long before the secret of the mermaids is actually revealed. Characterization is Grant’s strongest skill, since she creates characters who you root for or against so strongly that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the story itself. I just wish there had been more to the story here.

A good three-quarters of the story is the setup, where we meet the characters, and then the last quarter of the story is a fast-moving conclusion where everyone dies (no spoilers there; this is noted in the first few pages of the story). There’s a lot of potential to the story, where characters could be heroes or villains once the chaos erupts, but it feels wasted as Grant rushes through the final act.

There’s a full-length novel that follows this story, and I’ll jump right into it next. I’m hoping the greater length will allow for a more measured conclusion, since I enjoy Grant’s style enough to want to keep reading her, even though I’ve only read one book that thrilled me (Down Among the Sticks and Bones). I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 23, 2018

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Beneath the Sugar Sky

July 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sugarBeneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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The Wayward Children¬†series is everything a good fantasy should be. It has interesting characters, all of whom could play the lead role in their own story, and all of whom play an important role in the mysteries that are unique to their home. As much as I loved the conceit of Every Heart a Doorway, though, I wasn’t thrilled with the story. McGuire won me over with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, so of course I was going to read Beneath the Sugar Sky. In the end, though, I didn’t like the story as much, even though it worked perfectly well.

McGuire takes the characters she created in her first book and writes an adventure story that uses all of their different skills, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact Jack and Jill’s story did. I think it’s because the story of Sticks was personal, while the other two books are more ensemble stories, so we don’t get to stay focused on any one character. What characters are here are sympathetic, and we get a good sense of their motivations, but I’d prefer to read Cora’s story instead of going on an adventure to help Rini (who, to be honest, was a bit of a prima donna).

Like the other books in the series, Sugar has great characters, diverse characters, great ideas, great themes, and a strong narrative. I just wish it had been another standalone story instead of a group adventure. I feel like McGuire created her cast of characters in the first book, and now it’s time for us to read their individual stories. Of course, without an ensemble book every so often, we’d run out of characters, so I can’t complain too much.

Started: June 20, 2018
Finished: June 21, 2018

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Time Was

July 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

timeTime Was by Ian McDonald

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I’ve seen a lot of reviews that gripe about how the story of this novella doesn’t match the blurb on the back of the book. I get that — you want to read about what’s on the box — but I went into this without knowing what it was about, other than a good introduction to McDonald. What I found was a fantastic story about love, history, and time travel, told as a mystery in some of the most beautiful language I’ve read. I can’t help but feel like those reviewers are missing the forest for the trees for not examining the story on its own terms, instead of how it was sold to them.

I’m very much a function over form reader, though I can appreciate good narrative when it doesn’t overwhelm the story. McDonald is a poet, creating succulent sentences that force you to slow down to appreciate them. He’s also a great storyteller who creates vivid characters to drive a compelling plot. In Time Was, he tells the story of a bookseller who stumbles across a letter in a book of poetry, which in turn leads him down a rabbit trail of history and science.

This is my first time reading Ian McDonald, but it won’t be the last. I’m curious to see what he can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Black Helicopters

July 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

helicoptersBlack Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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For years, I had written off Kiernan for being a little too loosey-goosey in her style, for having a bit more form than function. Last year’s Agents of Dreamland surprised me, though, enough for me to pre-order Black Helicopters, which I took to be a continuation of that story. It is and it isn’t, though; it’s an expanded revision of a story originally published only in a limited release through Subterranean Press which loosely ties in to Agents of Dreamland. In a way, that’s good, since it means readers can find an affordable copy of the book; on the other hand, it isn’t really a part of a series as much as it’s in the same universe.

The story has a Lovecraftian bent to it, like Agents did, but it’s buried beneath another story that jumps through time and isn’t easy to follow. It doesn’t help that one entire chapter is written mostly in French, and it further doesn’t help to discover after I had done all the impromptu translations through my Kindle that the chapter is reproduced in an appendix, fully translated. In short, Kiernan doesn’t make this story approachable, which doesn’t surprise me, but it does disappoint me that it wasn’t as straightforward as Agents.

I won’t give up on Kiernan, since I enjoyed Agents as much as I did, but I’m a little more hesitant to pick up anything she writes. I’ll be more selective in picking up my next book of hers to read. I do think readers who like thoughtful, Lovecraftian fiction (Thomas Ligotti comes to mind) might like this book better than I did.

Started: May 13, 2018
Finished: May 28, 2018

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I Call Upon Thee

June 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

theeI Call Upon Thee by Ania Ahlborn

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I stumbled across Ahlborn last year, and was pleasantly surprised with her command of atmosphere, and her ability to tell a creepy tale. I Call Upon Thee is her latest novella, and I’m pleased to say that nothing has changed in that respect. This is a dark, creepy tale of dysfunctional families, sibling bonds and rivalries, and possession.

When Maggie left home three years ago, it was partly to escape her family, and partly to escape something she brought home from the cemetery when she was twelve years old. When tragedy strikes the family, she’s forced to return home, convincing herself on the way that what she remembers from the cemetery could only be in her head. When her headaches inexplicably return and she starts seeing shadows moving along the hallway, she realizes that she’s come home just in time, to face off with whatever it was she left behind when she left home.

Like Ahlborn’s other books, the story here isn’t particularly original, but the way Ahlborn tells it is. She captures the characters, and the dysfunction that exists between them, so well that it’s hard to care that you’ve read a variation of this story before. Stephen King may have said “It is the tale, not he who tells it”, but I disagree. Ahlborn’s tales shine because she’s the one telling them. Another writer could tell this same story and not have it sing like this one does.

The story is told partly in the current time, partly through flashbacks, which works well with this kind of story, since Ahlborn teases the details of the story out through the reminiscing. We know something terrible happened to Maggie, but not what until we encounter that part of her childhood. I was distracted, though, by the font change that occurred when the story went into flashback. It was clear from the story when the shift took place, so the font change was unnecessary. It seems like an odd choice, either by the author or the publisher.

It’s funny, though, that this book is considered a novella. It’s twice as long as The Pretty Ones, the novella that turned me on to Ahlborn, and a few pages longer than the other two books of hers I’ve read. I’ve grumbled before about the weird distinction of novella versus novel, and how it’s an ambiguous demarcation that seems to be up to the publishers to define, and I’ll keep doing it until I get a proper answer.

Modern horror has become synonymous with surreal, bizarre, and nihilist, so it’s nice that Ahlborn is writing more classic horror, with strong characterization and a straightforward plot. Horror readers who haven’t discovered her are missing out, and her novellas are a great place to start. Short, sharp, and effective, they’ll prepare you for her novels, which pack quite a punch.

Started: May 2, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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Blanky

June 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

blankyBlanky by Kealan Patrick Burke

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The start of this novella is fantastic. It captures the grief of the main character, Steve, who has recently lost his 11-month-old daughter to SIDS, and whose wife has left him to come to terms with her own grief. We see his own struggle to return to some semblance of life, alone, without support. It’s heart-breaking. This is only the start of the horror, though, which involves the return of Blanky, the blanket that may have caused his daughter’s death, and that he presumed was buried with his daughter.

To say more would spoil it, but rest assured the story is vivid, atmospheric, creepy, and truly disturbing. Burke’s imagery is effective and horrific, but it’s the situation Steve finds himself in — and how it affects his tenuous sanity — that lingers. He captures emotion well in this story, and that alone is enough to recommend it to fans of horror.

I’m not as sold on the ending, though. It’s intended to be ambiguous (the final chapter is supposed to leave the reader wondering which version of this story is actually true), but it’s more Life of Pi, less “The Lottery” in how Burke sells it to the reader. As it is, the ending feels like a cop-out, like he’s pulling the rug out from under us. There aren’t any hints left in the story for us to contemplate, save for the final one which suggests Steve’s version of events is the real one.

Regardless, Burke is a writer to read. His storytelling skills shine, and the way he can build up a scene and its dread is something I haven’t seen in a while. Readers of horror would probably like it best, but anyone who wants to see talent would do well to read Blanky.

Started: April 26, 2018
Finished: April 26, 2018

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The Atrocities

June 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

atrocitiesThe Atrocities by James C. Shipp

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Shipp is a new writer for me. I heard some fantastic buzz surrounding this novella before its release, enough to convince me to give it a try. As I started it, I wondered if I had stumbled across a splatterpunk revival. Its opening sentence, after all, is “Turn left at the screaming woman with the collapsing face”, followed by “turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces”. These are the titular atrocities, statues based on Biblical stories hidden throughout a hedge maze that must be traversed before reaching Stockton House.

The house is where the main character arrives to work as a governess instructing the owners’ daughter. The only problem with that is the daughter is dead, and only the mother seems able to see her. The governess is a no-nonsense type, ready to quit over the impossibility of her task, but her curiosity and willingness to help override her feeling of futility, and she strives to unravel the mystery of the house.

Shipp is a promising writer. His imagery is vivid and shocking, but it’s not necessarily disturbing, partly because it doesn’t linger. There are definitely memorable bits and pieces of the story, but the scenes that feel like they’re supposed to be the disturbing ones don’t have much effect beyond that first quesy feeling. In a way, it reminds me a bit of splatterpunk, but only in the same way that Joe Lansdale is sometimes shoehorned into that genre: There’s just something about their writing style that’s hyper-descriptive but not always disturbing.

The ending of The Atrocities left me wanting more (almost literally; it felt like the story needed more time to bounce back from its sudden ending and give us more detail on how it wrapped up), but the prose and the setup were effective enough to get my attention. I didn’t immediately add Shipp’s other works to my to-read pile, but he’s definitely a writer now on my radar.

Started: April 22, 2018
Finished: April 22, 2018

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