Read Recently — September 2016 — Science Fiction

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

Mercy brings what could be called “the Ancillary Trilogy” to an end. Breq encounters an unexpected relative in the undergarden, forms unexpected alliances, and brings her conflict with Anaander Mianaai to an at least temporary conclusion (though the conflict between Anaander Mianaai and Anaander Mianaai presumably goes on. I just love typing that name!).

All told, the best thing I can say about this book is that it is every bit as good as the rest of the series; if you didn’t like them you won’t find anything new and lovable here, but if you have enjoyed them you will enjoy this one.

Highly recommended.

Polity Agent: an Agent Cormac novel by Neal Asher

The fourth Agent Cormac novel (5th if you count the prequel Shadow of the Scorpion as the first book; I don’t) brings yet further troubles to the Polity. Cormac recovers from his confrontation with Skellor at the end of the last book; a portion of his memory is missing but can be restored to him any time he is ready to confront what he did to avoid Skellor’s fate. Mika basically becomes Jerusalem’s envoy to Dragon, who intends to confront Dragon with the news that their creators are extinct (or will be, soon (soon on a geologic scale, anyway. It makes sense if you read the book)). A haiman (human/AI fusion) named Orlandine begins an investigation of Jain technology — illegal, of course, and very dangerous, but then, Orlandine herself is very dangerous. Horace Blegg continues his investigations, and we get to see some of his very long memories. And an entity calling itself “the Legate” is distributing Jain nodes around the Polity. As its name suggests, the Legate is just a front for something else . . . something very dangerous.

This is, like the rest of the Polity novels, a re-read, and worth the time taken. Every time I return to an Asher novel I notice new things. With one book to go, the Cormac series heads to a climax; this book is highly recommended but you don’t want to start here. Begin with Gridlinked ( here).


Read Recently — August 2016 — And the Rest

Tales from the Nightside by Simon R. Green

This is a collection of Green’s Nightside short stories, including what the cover says is a new novella, just for this collection. I’ll tell you right now that they are up to the usual Green standard, which is to say interesting, but of varying quality.

“The Nightside, Needless To Say” features Larry Oblivion, Private Eye. Larry wakes up and doesn’t know where he is, or when and how he got there. But he does know one thing (or at least, it’s the first thing he finds out): he’s dead. He can’t remember who killed him, or how and why he’s still walking around. He can’t get his life back, but maybe he can get revenge . . .

“Razor Eddie’s Big Night Out” stars, of course, Razor Eddie, the Punk God of the Razor. There is trouble on the street of the Gods, so an old friend, one who knew Eddie when, comes looking for him. To set things right. Or at least as right as they can be, in the Nightside.

“Lucy, At Christmastime” has Leo Morn, professional bad boy, remembering Lucy, his first. His first what, though? Might be wiser not to ask. Anyway, Leo always spends Christmas with Lucy.

“Appetite for Murder” has Sam Warren, the Nightside’s first detective, and Ms. Fate, masked heroine and friend to Warren, tracking down a serial killer who takes body parts and who, after doing his first kill (a demigod descended from Heracles) by knife has switched to tearing the victims apart. Who is the killer? Why have they chosen the victims they did? Will this be Sam Warren’s last case? Does Ms. Fate have a secret deeper than anyone knows?

“The Difference a Day Makes” I’ve read before, in another collection. It has Dead Boy and John Taylor helping a woman find out what happened in the 24 hours she has forgotten.

“Some Of These Cons Go Way Back” has Harry Fabulous, con-man pretending to be drug dealer, falling in love . . . to his despair.

“The Spirit of the Thing” has John Taylor, during a period in which he’s hard up for money, doing some owrk for the scummy owner of the scummy bar called “The Jolly Cripple”. It’s something John soon regrets, but he isn’t the only one . . .

“Hungry Heart” has John being hired by a witch whose ex-over has stolen her heart–literally. Of course, very little is as it seems in the Nightside. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, a take on the Maltese Falcon (John had to do one sooner or later).

“How Do You Feel” is a Dead Boy story. Dead Boy was murdered in the Nightside, came back for revenge, and has been hanging around ever since. But one night in Strangefellows, Walker tells him that he missed someone. Someone ordered his death. If he wants to know why, he can go ask them.

In “The Big Game”, John Taylor is hired by the Doorman of the Adventurer’s Club to find the missing adventurers and heroes who make up the place. All of them are gone. But where? And why? Of all the stories in the volume, this is the longest, and also the least. Falling into that peculiar space called “novella”, it’s not tight enough to make a good short story and not deep enough to make a good novel. There are good novellas out there, but this one is a failure. Pity it’s the last story in the book.

Overall, these are Green’s usual fare. If you like what he does, you’ll like them. If not, you’re better off skipping them. If you haven’t read Green, don’t start here: start with Something From the Nightside for a sense of his urban fantasy stuff in general and the Nightside in particular, or Swords of Haven for the heroic fantasy stuff. Which makes this only mildly recommended.

How To Lose A War At Sea: foolish plans and great naval blunders edited by Bill Fawcett

A collection of short, non-fiction pieces on the general theme of naval warfare. While the title suggests loss is the focus, all wars and battles have two sides and you can’t write about the one without mentioning the other. These range from the Chesapeake, 1781 (titled “America’s Greatest Naval Victory?”) up to Operation Morvarid, in 1980, during the Iran-Iraq war. Trafalgar is in there, of course, as is Jutland and of course the entire Pacific war in WWII (how the Japanese went from having one of the finest naval air fleets in the world to, well, what they had at the end).

As ever, when you have a bunch of different writers working on different pieces on a vague theme, you have writing of variable quality, but a good editor can make up for that and Fawcett seems to have done a decent job Overall these are good pieces and if you have any interest in the topic this makes good, light reading before falling asleep or while in the washroom.


Read Recently — August 2016 — Re-read recently

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

A re-read. Originally  here Still recommended.


Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich


I could have sworn I wrote this up ages ago, but I can’t find it. It’s certainly not tagged. So, here it is again.

Ehrenreich and her editor were discussing new projects over lunch one day and Ehrenreich suggested a look at minimum wage workers, perhaps from the inside. The next thing she knew she had been volunteered, and this book is the result of her experiences.

Basically, she visited certain areas of the US and, brilliantly disguised as a middle-aged divorced woman, set about trying to find housing and minimum-wage work (“Women’s work”: waiting tables, housecleaning, cooking, etc.) and seeing if she could, at the end of the month, afford a second month in the same position. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this in 2016 or 2017 that most of the time, she could not. Nor that the work she could get was most often grinding, and sometimes horrible, though she often found something positive in it, usually the people.

Ehrenreich is aware, and notes, that her experiences cannot compare to those of the people who have to live in this sort of situation: she doesn’t have to stay, can flee harassment if it happens, can afford to take time off for medical treatment, etc. But her basic point, that the minimum wage “ghetto” is difficult even for someone with all those advantages to escape from (without outside help such as the money she already started with).


Christianity is Not Great: how faith fails edited by John W. Loftus

Another re-read I could have sworn was somewhere on-site, but isn’t.

Loftus, a former Evangelical Christian preacher turned atheist, has edited a series of anthologies of articles on Christianity and atheism, with titles meant to echo the big works of the four horsemen of atheism. This one of course, echoes Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.

Overall, a decent group of essays from writers many of whose names I recognized (and in some cases have owned books by), marred by a few errors probably of editing, like an early one that refers to “the displacement of Imperial power from Rome to Constantinople, which was renamed Byzantium”.

Mildly recommended.

Read Recently — August 2016 — Mysteries

Maisie Dobbs: a novel by Jackqueline Winspear

Set in 1929, this book introduces us to Maisie, a girl who rose from service to the rich to become a private investigator. Preferring a cerebral, psychologically-driven approach, Maisie’s first case has a man who believes that his wife is having an affair. She isn’t; she’s visiting the grave of a first love, who came back from the war with disfiguring injuries and PTSD. He moved to a facility known as The Retreat, sort of a home for war veterans with this sort of problem. The dead man died on the site, seemingly by accident, but Maisie suspects foul play . . .

Maisie’s a decent detective and she has a large cast of characters surrounding her, from the caretaker of her building (who helps her out in her investigation) to the noblewoman who helped her go from Service to detective, to her widowered father, but neither they, nor Maisie herself, nor the mystery in question really grab, if you get what I mean. It isn’t in any way bad; unlike with many books I read all the way through this but as I write this I had to look through the book again to remember anything about it.

It sort of falls into the narrow gap between recommended and not-recommended; I really ought to create a term for that space. If I must choose something, and I suppose I must, I’d call it mildy recommended (very mildly) because it’s not badly written at all and it might, in fact, work better for you than it does for me.

Robert B. Parker’s Kickback: a Spenser novel by Ace Atkins

In the cold weather of February, Spenser is hired by a woman from the suburb of Blackburn to find out why her son was sentenced to a juvenile facility in the Back Bay (literally in the Bay; it’s on an island) for no real crime. Like Mattie Sullivan in Lullabye, she can’t afford to pay him, but she can offer food (this time a sandwich. To be fair, it’s a good sandwich). Rita Fiore and her firm are working on the legal end of things, but Spenser should be able to find out the wherefores and whys.

So this isn’t a mystery as such; we know who dunnit and we know what and why dunnit. Put like that, it’s hard to express what Spenser is really up to here. Wandering around and pissing people off, definitely. At one point he gets falsely accused of statutory rape to try to make him back off. It works about as well as you might expect

It looks like there’s more going on than just an incompetent judge. Could someone be on the take? Could the mob be involved? Will Spenser get to the bottom of it? Of course he will.

Atkins does a little better with each book. I’m looking forward to the next one. Recommended.

Lending A Paw: a bookmobile cat mystery by Laurie Cass

Minnie Hamilton is assistant director at the Chilson, Michigan, USA district library. Thanks to donations from a wealthy patron, she has managed to get a bookmobile running, and for even more fun, she gets to drive it (the bookmobile is important because Chilson is a fairly widely-distributed district, with lots of small townships wherefrom people can find it difficult to get to the main library). During the winter, Minnie lives with her Aunt Frances, who has a large house, but in the rest of the year Minnie lives on a houseboat and Aunt Frances runs a B&B (more on that later).

Minnie was recently adopted by a stray cat, who she named Eddie (he just looks like an Eddie to her). On the first day of the Bookmobile ride, Eddie follows her off the boat and into the bookmobile, where she only discovers him once she’s underway and it’s too late to take him home. Worrying about what her boss will say if he discovers that she took a cat along (this on the one hand seems a little paranoid; the boss hasn’t forbidden bookmobile pets (though perhaps only because he hasn’t thought of the possibility), but on the other hand in today’s litigious society someone who is allergic to cats or afraid of them could cost the library a lot of money). Minnie decides to keep Eddie as much under wraps as she can.

of course, Eddie doesn’t agree with this plan, but fortunately he proves to be very popular with the locals. he also breaks loose at their last stop (attendance at which is light–okay, non-existent–due to a successful local softball game) and leads a pursuing Minnie to a corpse.

The corpse in question, one Stan Larrabee, was a local man with an oddly unsavoury reputation . . . but Minnie was fond of him because he donated the money that made the bookmobile possible. And he didn’t die of natural causes. Minnie tries to leave the matter to the police, but she just can’t leave it alone and Eddie keeps providing inadvertent (?) clues (he shreds a document that would lead her in the wrong direction, for example).

To a large extent this reminds me of the “Cat In The Stacks” series by Miranda James, especially in terms of Minnie’s relationship with the Police. Minnie’s is less familial than Charlie’s is, but it is distant — which drives her efforts to investigate herself (that is, the police don’t tell her what’s going on so she feels the need to make sure that the right person is caught and/or cleared).

Now, remember how I said that the aunt runs a B&B and that we’d talk about that in a bit? This is that bit. Minnie has breakfast at her Aunt’s place every Saturday, which is the one day that Aunt Frances gets one or two of the boarders to cook for everyone. This sets up the fact that, in addition to providing her boarders with a relaxing vacation, Aunt Frances also, without telling them sets them up with someone else in the house that year. Objective: matrimony! So far, this obnoxious habit has been rewarded with undeserved success, but this year things are going wrong: not that people aren’t pairing off, but they are pairing off with the wrong partners! Gasp! How dare they! Can Minnie and Aunt Frances get them all back to the people Aunt Frances, in her infinite wisdom, has decreed they spend the rest of their lives with? Spoiler warning: they can’t. (If I seem kind of annoyed about this subplot, it’s because I am. This kind of behaviour really annoys me)

The library stuff feels realistic, and we do get to see enough of it for that to matter. Other than Aunt Frances, Minnie’s friends are interesting people (and even Aunt Frances, when she’s not trying to be the marriage broker, is pretty cool). Eddie seems like a real cat, and I liked Minnie. All things considered, there’s enough good stuff here to outweigh the marriage subplot and call this one recommended.

Read Recently — August 2016 –Mind blown again

Pyramids: (the book of going forth) a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

A re-read, and not one of my favourite Discworld books. Which of course still makes it one of the better books this month.

Teppic is attending the Assassins’ School in Ankh-Morpork; it is considered one of the bests schools in the city, and possibly the known Discworld. Boys go in, and young men come out, able to handle any social situation, especially if it involves killing–excuse me, inhuming–someone. Assuming, of course, that they come out alive. Teppic is also the heir to the Pharoah of Djelibeybi (translates as “Child of the Djel”, the Djel being the name of the river that runs through it). Try saying it out loud. Shortly after he does his final test and graduates, he also becomes Pharoah, his father, being slightly dotty, having tried to fly.

Pteppic returns home, intending to bring modernity to Djelibehbi, but he has reckoned without the tremendous weight of the Kindom’s stratified society. He also reckoned without the power of the High Priest Dios, who has been making sure the right things happen for a long time now. Given that the kingdom is basically broke due to paying off all the pyramids, this takes some doing; fortunately Dios is up to the task. At least, it’s fortunate for him; not so much for Pteppic, who soon finds himself ordering the bigget pyramid ever for his late father. This is bad because pyramids act as dams and reservoirs of time and the biggest pyramid ever is going to bend time, and therefor space, around it.

Even with the assistance of his handmaiden Ptraci and the greatest mathematician on the Disc, can Pteppic escape from the Old Kingdom’s pocket of time? And if he can, can he get back again to set things right?

This one’s a little . . . weird, even for the Discworld. It doesn’t feel like it quite hangs together, though it’s certainly well-written enough. Of course, it’s only book seven in the series, and though it looks briefly at the issue of religion, that would be better explored in Small Gods, and time and death would be looked at in Thief of Time. I think it’s significant that none of the characters nor the Kingdom of Djelbehbi would be mentioned again in future books. Still, it’s amusing enough, and might be worth the price of admission for the scene in which Pteppic solves the riddle of the Sphinx.

Oh, and the mind-blowing part? The climax, of course. ;-P

Mildly recommended.

Akira: book 5 by Katsuhiro Otomo

Of course, if I’m mentioning minds being blown there must be an Akira book in the mix somewhere. Volume five brings matters closer to the climax of the story, opening with the US naval flotilla off the coast of Japan receiving a Russian scientist to join the already international band aboard an aircraft carrier. They are, of course, intending to study Akira from a (hopefully safe) distance — but is any distance safe with Tetsuo’s powers growing so quickly? We do get an explaination — or at least a guess — as to why Tetsuo’s body keeps undergoing these grotesque metamorphoses (used dramatically but, like so much, never explained, in the movie). We also learn why Akira is the way he is.

The US task force sends an elite team to take out Akira . . . but they aren’t the only ones attacking. And Tetsuo unleashes his power and makes his mark on the world . . . or on some world, anyway.

Highly recommended.

Read Recently — July 2016 — Nonfiction

Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live by Marlene Zuk

You might have heard of the “Paleodiet”, which comes accompanied by claims that if we eat the way our earliest ancestors did we will be happier and healthier. It was accompanied by a variety of other “evolution-based” claims about exercise , medicine, etc. Based on the title of the book, you can probably guess what Zuk (a professor of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota, according to her author blurb) thinks of these claims. Unlike some of those who argue in favour, Zuk brings science and research to the table, as well as the willingness to admit, where necessary, that she just doesn’t know the answer.

Zuk writes well and communicates her points clearly, using humour sparingly but effectively (and dryly). And it is nice to read a book about evolution (which is a big part of the story) that doesn’t have to spend time replying to creationists.


Wyatt Earp: a vigilante life by Andrew C. Isenberg

I first encountered wyatt Earp and the Matter of Tombstone in an episode of the original Star Trek series (“The Specter of the Gun”) in which the Enterprise is ordered to make contact with a reclusive species of advanced aliens, who test and punish our heroes by zapping some members of the bridge crew into a shared hallucination of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 CE, where they were to play Clantons to a set of hallucinatory Earps (plus Doc Holliday, who was fairly friendly to Dr. McCoy, one medical man to the other). This did tend to prejudice me against the Earps, perhaps unfairly.

Then again, perhaps not. Wyatt lived until 1929, long enough to spend the last years of his life in Hollywood, telling his story and making sure he looked good. The facts have emerged over time, though: the Earps were lawmen in Tombstone, they were not always so and were not so everywhere. Wyatt lived a life on both sides of the law, sometimes later arresting people for the same sort of acts he himself had recently done to earn a living. Earp was a fascinating man, always loyal to his family and loyal to his friends as long as it was convenient (Doc Holliday quarreled with him in 1882 and died about 5 years later, having seen Wyatt only one more time after the quarrel), and probably as good a man as he could afford to be, but not the paragon he set himself up to be. The result is a fascinating read, well-documented, and recommended.