Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Books Received in June & July 2021

Many thanks as always to the publishers who sent my books over the past few months.

The Undertakers by Nicole Glover - This is the second book in Glover's Murder & Magic series. I loved The Conductors and really enjoyed this book as well. My review, and the book, will be out November 9th.

Nothing bothers Hetty and Benjy Rhodes more than a case where the answers, motives, and the murder itself feel a bit too neat. Raimond Duval, a victim of one of the many fires that have erupted recently in Philadelphia, is officially declared dead after the accident, but Hetty and Benjy’s investigation points to a powerful Fire Company known to let homes in the Black community burn to the ground. Before long, another death breathes new life into the Duval investigation: Raimond’s son, Valentine, is also found dead.

Finding themselves with the dubious honor of taking on Valentine Duval as their first major funeral, it becomes clear that his passing was intentional. Valentine and his father’s deaths are connected, and the recent fires plaguing the city might be more linked to recent community events than Hetty and Benji originally thought.

The Undertakers continues the adventures of murder and magic, where even the most powerful enchantments can’t always protect you from the ghosts of the past . . .


 The Offset by Calder Szewczak - The premise here sounds so interesting, and reminds me a bit of Neal Shusterman's Unwind, which I liked.   Out September 14th. 

It is your eighteenth birthday and one of your parents must die. You are the one who decides. Who do you pick?

In a dying world, the Offset ceremony has been introduced to counteract and discourage procreation. It is a rule that is simultaneously accepted, celebrated and abhorred. But in this world, survival demands sacrifice so for every birth, there must be a death.

Professor Jac Boltanski is leading Project Salix, a ground-breaking new mission to save the world by replanting radioactive Greenland with genetically-modified willow trees. But things aren’t working out and there are discrepancies in the data. Has someone intervened to sabotage her life’s work?

In the meantime, her daughter Miri, an anti-natalist, has run away from home. Days before their Offset ceremony where one of her mothers must be sentenced to death, she is brought back against her will following a run-in with the law. Which parent will Miri pick to die: the one she loves, or the one she hates who is working to save the world?

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Video: Sleep Sound (D&D)

R. A. Salvatore has written a nursery rhyme introducing his famous Drow warrior Drizzt Do'Urden, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch with some stunning visuals. While it's called an 'introduction', if you're unfamiliar with the Forgotten Realms (now just called Dungeons & Dragons apparently), then you won't understand what's going on or who any of the characters are. Also, don't watch this if you don't like (not cute) animated spiders.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Book Review: We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen

Pros: interesting protagonist, tense action, compelling mystery

Cons: somewhat frustrating opening

Grace Park is the Orbiter on the spaceship Deucalion, a psychologist sent to monitor the crew on their mission to scout out a newly discovered planet and prepare it for colonization. Her role, her standoffishness and the fact that she not a conscripted member of ISF makes her something of an outsider among the crew, fitting in more with the androids on board. Things immediately start going wrong when they arrive at the planet. Facing mistrust and paranoia, Park has to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.

The opening’s a bit slow as you’re introduced to a lot of characters, settings, and history. It’s also frustrating as you’ve only got the information that Park is privy to (with the exception of some emails at the start of some chapters), so it takes quite a while before you both begin to understand what’s going on. That slow opening pays off at the half way point when the tension ramps up and it becomes very hard to put the book down.

The book begins with a mystery but parts in the middle felt very much like a horror novel. The action is fast and explanations limited (though eventually you do learn enough to understand what’s really going on).

Park is a challenging protagonist as she has a limited range of emotions. It’s easy to understand why she’s ostracized by her peers, but seeing her actions from the inside helps the reader empathize with her. I did find it a little strange that a 13 member human crew could make a 3 floor ship feel crowded and full of ‘cliques’, but those early complaints faded as the action ramped up. I enjoyed seeing Park’s friendship with various androids as the book progressed.

It’s an interesting book. Definitely worth pushing past the opening to see where the book goes. The ending felt right, though it left unanswered questions.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Book Review: Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Pros: interesting politics and worldbuilding, fun romance

Cons:

Cassandra’s first social event after losing her ability to work magic and breaking up with her fiance starts off poorly. A carriage of ladies has been stopped by trolls and forced to walk in the snow, getting lost. While helping look for them, Cassandra’s ex shows up just as she wakes another troll and makes an unfortunate promise. Now she has a week to find out who’s cast an impossible weather spell or be imprisoned by an angry elf lord.

This is a fun novella with romance and fantasy elements. The setting is an England where Queen Boudicca ran off the Romans and her descendants made a peace pact after warring with the elves. Politics is a woman’s game, and the pact demands rituals be performed perfectly.

Cassandra was the first female magic practitioner, but after a mysterious event, she can no longer use magic. She’s a headstrong character that you can’t help but sympathize with, who learns a few lessons about her own privilege even as her life hasn’t turned out as she planned.

The romance is fun and engaging.

Magic is sparingly used, but interesting when it comes up.

This is the start of a series but can be read as a standalone.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

History Book Review: Bread, Wine and Money: the Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral by Jane Welch Williams

Pros: very detailed analysis, excellent overview of the history required to understand the author’s thesis, lots of images

Cons: some images are of poor quality, some ideas/terms could have used a bit more explanation

It’s become conventional knowledge that the trade windows at Chartres and other cathedrals were donated by members of the trade guilds that are depicted. Williams has done a thorough job in this book, published in 1993, of refuting that claim.

The book is separated into 5 chapters, with an additional introduction and epilogue. There are 4 colour plates and 151 black and white plates. There are extensive notes and a bibliography. Chapter 1 briefly examines the literature that’s been written about Chartres cathedral with regards to its stained glass (dating and program), specifically focusing on interpretations regarding the trade windows. Chapter 2 goes over the historical circumstances in Chartres around the time the cathedral was built. It details the tensions between the chapter, the bishop, the count and the townspeople (including a riot in 1210). Chapters 3-5 are analyses of windows dealing with bread, wine, and money changers in that order. They each go over what other historians have said about the windows, the historical context of those trades (bakers, tavern keepers, and money-changers) then analyzes each window that shows those trades comparing them to others within the cathedral, to those from other cathedrals, and ancient Roman works.

Williams points out very quickly that there are few if any contemporary records supporting the idea the trade windows were guild gifts. Her very thorough examination of the interrelationships of power, and how bread, wine & money (that is the cash economy as well as monetary gifts to the cathedral) were incorporated into liturgical practice within the cathedral as well as the liturgical year (in terms of taxes and ‘gifts’). The book also examined how practices changed over time (for example, how the Eucharist was given less often to regular people and eulogy bread was passed out instead).

There were a lot of black and white images, including several useful maps and floor plans of the cathedral showing where the various windows were located in the building. Some of the window photos were of poor quality so it was hard to see what the author was describing (though this is probably due as much to the state of the windows at the time the book was made).

I did find that a few terms and ideas could have used a bit more explanation. For example, the author seems to assume that the reader knows that bishops were appointed from outside the Chartres chapter rather than voted on by the canons, which likely added to the antagonism between him and the canons.

I learned a lot about church practices and how various groups in society related to each other. It’s a great reminder that people have always been complex and relationships never easy, especially where power and money are involved.

If you’re interested in the middle ages, medieval art, cathedrals or liturgical practices, this is an interesting book and, I think, proves the point the author is making. It’s given me a lot to think about with regards to how I read church windows.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Shout-Out: The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

A ruthless princess and a powerful priestess come together to rewrite the fate of an empire in this “fiercely and unapologetically feminist tale of endurance and revolution set against a gorgeous, unique magical world” (S. A. Chakraborty).

Exiled by her despotic brother, princess Malini spends her days dreaming of vengeance while imprisoned in the Hirana: an ancient cliffside temple that was once the revered source of the magical deathless waters but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

The secrets of the Hirana call to Priya. But in order to keep the truth of her past safely hidden, she works as a servant in the loathed regent’s household, biting her tongue and cleaning Malini’s chambers.

But when Malini witnesses Priya’s true nature, their destines become irrevocably tangled. One is a ruthless princess seeking to steal a throne. The other a powerful priestess seeking to save her family. Together, they will set an empire ablaze.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Movie Review: Project Power

Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2020
Netflix original
IMDB listing

Pros: excellent special effects, tight storytelling, several interesting twists, compelling characters

Cons: doesn’t delve into to the personal costs of taking the drug beyond the obvious

There’s a new drug in New Orleans called ‘power’ that grants the taker 5 minutes of an unknown animal based ‘super power’. A cop wants the drug to level the playing field. A vigilante wants to find the source of the drug. Both turn to a teenaged dealer just trying to make a better life for herself and her mom.

The characters were interesting and I found their stories compelling. There were a few scenes I thought were just for character building but turned out to contain plot elements, which was great. The script was tight and entertaining with a couple of good twists along the way.

Jaime Foxx’s humour in the 90s turned me off, but I’m finding he’s a fantastic action hero and does an amazing job as the vigilante, Art. Joseph Godon-Levitt’s cop was kind of unorthodox but fun. His scene with Robin’s mother was pretty funny despite the tension. I really liked Dominique Fishback as Robin. She hit the right mark of needing adult help while maintaining the teen core of ‘I can take care of myself’.

There are some excellent fight scenes. One started out kind of unique but they kept up the ‘shoot from behind glass’ too long making the end of the fight very hard to follow.

The powers are determined by what’s found in nature, which still leaves an impressive range. They were used enough to demonstrate what’s possible, but not enough to ruin the novelty. The special effects were very high quality and looked amazing.

My only complaint with the film is that it doesn’t really address the personal consequences of taking the drug. It points out that not everyone gets a super power, some simply blow up, but doesn’t really point out that even in cases where people do get super powers, the powers themselves can - apparently - seriously mess the taker up too. For example, the guy with fire power apparently gets seriously burned by them. Is it the power that burns him or the aftereffects (the fire around him once the 5 minutes are up)?

On the whole it was a great film and it’s surprising I hadn’t heard about this film before turning it on.

(If you watch the trailer, be aware that past the half way point they reveal several spoilers.)
 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Books Received in April & May 2021

Many thanks as always to the publishers who sent me books recently.

The Curie Society written by Janet Harvey, illustrated by Sonia Liao - The first in a series, this is a fun graphic novel with great artwork encouraging women to join STEM fields.

A covert team of young women--members of the Curie society, an elite organization dedicated to women in STEM--undertake high-stakes missions to save the world.


An action-adventure original graphic novel, The Curie Society follows a team of young women recruited by an elite secret society--originally founded by Marie Curie--with the mission of supporting the most brilliant female scientists in the world. The heroines of the Curie Society use their smarts, gumption, and cutting-edge technology to protect the world from rogue scientists with nefarious plans. Readers can follow recruits Simone, Taj, and Maya as they decipher secret codes, clone extinct animals, develop autonomous robots, and go on high-stakes missions.


We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen - This debut sounds amazing. Can't wait to read it.

This psychological sci-fi thriller from a debut author follows one doctor who must discover the source of her crew's madness... or risk succumbing to it herself.


Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.

Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that’s when things begin to fall apart. Park’s patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.

The Godstone by Violette Malan - I love Malan's writing and can't wait to see what her new series is all about.

This new epic fantasy series begins a tale of magic and danger, as a healer finds herself pulled deeper into a web of secrets and hazardous magic that could bring about the end of the world as she knows it.


Fenra Lowens has been a working Practitioner, using the magic of healing ever since she graduated from the White Court and left the City to live in the Outer Modes. When one of her patients, Arlyn Albainil, is summoned to the City to execute the final testament of a distant cousin, she agrees to help him. Arlyn suspects the White Court wants to access his cousin's Practitioner's vault. Arlyn can't ignore the summons: he knows the vault holds an artifact so dangerous he can't allow it to be freed.

Fenra quickly figures out that there is no cousin, that Arlyn himself is the missing Practitioner, the legendary Xandra Albainil, rumored to have made a Godstone with which he once almost destroyed the world. Sealing away the Godstone left Arlyn powerless and ill, and he needs Fenra to help him deal with the possibly sentient artifact before someone else finds and uses it.

Along the way they encounter Elvanyn Karamisk, an old friend whom Arlyn once betrayed. Convinced that Arlyn has not changed, and intends to use Fenra to recover the Godstone and with it all his power, Elvanyn joins them to keep Fenra safe and help her destroy the artifact.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Shout-Out: Aetherbound by E. K. Johnston



Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston's latest is story of survival and self-determination.

Pendt Harland's family sees her as a waste of food on their long-haul space cruiser when her genes reveal an undesirable mutation. But if she plays her cards right she might have a chance to do much more than survive. During a space-station layover, Pendt escapes and forms a lucky bond with the Brannick twins, the teenage heirs of the powerful family that owns the station. Against all odds, the trio hatches a long-shot scheme to take over the station and thwart the destinies they never wished for.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Video: Troll Bridge

Troll Bridge is a fan made film of short story by Sir Terry Pratchett of the same name. The special effects are surprisingly good and it's clear that everyone involved cared deeply about the Discworld and wanted things to look just right. Pay close attention to the end credit ballad, which continues the story.

Cohen the Barbarian was angry. Angry that he never died in battle, angry that the world had forgotten him, and angry that his knees were starting to play up in the cold.
He was also angry that his faithful mount had been gifted the ability of magical speech. The horse was insisting that they had made a wrong turn back at Slice.
He was also angry that the horse was probably right. This was not how it was supposed to end for the barbarian. This was not how the Discworld’s greatest hero imagined it at all.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Shout-Out: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern―seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised―flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future―outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Shout-Out: Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart

This Jamaican-inspired fantasy debut about two enemy witches who must enter into a deadly alliance to take down a common enemy has the twisted cat-and-mouse of Killing Eve with the richly imagined fantasy world of Furyborn and Ember in the Ashes.

Divided by their order. United by their vengeance.

Iraya has spent her life in a cell, but every day brings her closer to freedom—and vengeance.

Jazmyne is the Queen’s daughter, but unlike her sister before her, she has no intention of dying to strengthen her mother’s power.

Sworn enemies, these two witches enter a precarious alliance to take down a mutual threat. But power is intoxicating, revenge is a bloody pursuit, and nothing is certain—except the lengths they will go to win this game.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Book Review: Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Pros: quite thorough in some areas, decent number of images, very interesting subject matter

Cons: fair amount of repetition, some sections could have been fleshed out more

This is the third book in Russell’s history of the devil, following The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity and Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. (Click the titles to read my reviews of them.) It examines the development of the history and figure of the devil during the middle ages, considering issues like when and why he fell, what he looks like, what his powers are, his role in the fall of mankind and its subsequent salvation by Christ, and whether God is ultimately responsible for the devil's actions. 

The book has 11 chapters: The Life of Lucifer; The Devil in Byzantium; The Muslim Devil; Folklore; Early Medieval Diabology; Lucifer in Early Medieval Art & Literature; The Devil and the Scholars; Lucifer in High Medieval Art & Literature; Lucifer on the Stage; Nominialists, Mystics, & Witches; and The Existence of the Devil. The book also has an essay on the sources used, a bibliography and an index.

Due to the nature of the topic and how people and institutions wrote either building on the past or opposing the writings of others (writings that were deemed heretical), there’s a fair amount of repetition. It’s really interesting seeing the slow development of ideas. The book focuses mainly on the timeline of the fall of the devil & the evil angels (at the time of creation, sometime later) and the image and powers of the devil.

I’d have liked longer chapters on the Muslim devil and Byzantium as I don’t know as much about those areas of belief and his examination of them was very superficial.

The book includes a decent number of black and white photographs to help visualize the subject matter.

The section on witches was interesting as it focused on how preachers kept the fire and brimstone ideas of the devil alive even as theological discourse around evil was slowly letting ideas of the devil fade in importance.

The book pointed out a lot of interesting information about how Christian thinkers in the middle ages approached ideas of evil, the devil and God’s omnipotence. Despite the level of repetition, it’s a fascinating book.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Book Review: The Falconer by Elizabeth May

Pros: interesting world, complex protagonist

Cons: protagonist didn’t consider consequences

A year ago Aileana Kameron’s mother was killed in front of her by a fae. No longer the social debutant she once was, XX now fights the fair folk at night, social engagements notwithstanding. But her reputation is suffering and her father’s patience is almost gone. Soon she will have to choose her future, or have it decided for her.

While I sympathized with Aileana’s history, I didn’t particularly like her as a character. Her desire to kill the fae was treated very much like a drug addiction and it was hard seeing her losing her life to this obsession. I really liked her mechanical tinkering and would have enjoyed learning more about her various inventions. I was surprised by how little she thought about the consequences of her actions. Her reputation aside, the fact that she throws a bomb at monsters on a bridge in one scene with no thought of what destroying the bridge means for the city (or what kind of destruction her bomb could do in general before using it) showed how young and unprepared she was.

I liked that her best friend played a decent role in the book, and that female friendship was seen as an important factor in her life (something that’s often overlooked in SFF in general).

The book is set in an alternate Scotland, where the fair folk are real but most people don’t believe in them anymore. Only a few people, like Aileana can see them (with or without aid). The city felt like a vibrant place and the descriptions were very nice.

The romance aspects came up late in the book and were fairly subdued. So subdued in fact that I was actually shipping the wrong couple and was left surprised by the protagonist’s choices near the end.

The book ends in a cliffhanger, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read one of those. It was a very exciting scene so I turned the page in anticipation of the climax only to find the glossary.

It was an engaging story, fast paced with a fair amount of action.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Graphic Novel Review: Averee written by Stephanie Phillips with Dave Johnson, Illustrated by Marika Cresta


Pros: realistic setting and characters, pretty artwork

Cons: ending is simplistic

In a future where your Ranked app scores decide where you can live, what restaurants you can enter, and how ‘cool’ you are at school, being at the bottom sucks. When the app is hacked and the scores of Averee and her mom drop suddenly, Averee faces prejudice at school while her mom’s job is in jeopardy. A friend’s idea to find the app’s founder sounds impossible, but just might be Averee’s only hope.

Averee is a 5 issue, self-contained graphic novel. The artwork is full of colourful pastels and simplistic backgrounds, letting the characters and plot be the focus. It’s easy to grasp the kind of world an app like Ranked would create, so little world-building was required. Having said that, the cattiness of some schoolgirls is very realistic and sells the setting.

I liked the friendship between Averee and Zoe, whose rank has always been low. Their arguments and resolution feel natural for their age. I also liked the budding relationship between Averee and Luke, the awkwardness of trying too hard while hoping it’s not obvious you’re trying too hard.

The plot is well paced across the 5 issues, and while the ending seemed a little simplistic (I feel like the trio would face more consequences for what they did), I did like the resolution.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Book Review: Satan: The Early Christian Tradition by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Pros: detailed analysis, lots of explanation

Cons: lots of necessary repetition

This is the second in a series of books on the evolution of the devil in Christian thought, following The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (reviewed here). There are 8 chapters: The Devil, The Apostolic Fathers, The Apologetic Fathers and the Gnostics, Human Sin and Redemption: Irenaeus and Tertullian, Mercy and Damnation: the Alexandrians, Dualism and the Desert, Satan and Saint Augustine, Conclusion: Satan Today. There is also an essay on the sources used by Russell.

Given that each group of theologians built on what came before, the book contains a lot of repetition. Several later authors expanded on Origen’s theory of the cosmos and redemption before it was declared heretical. Russell does a good job of explaining sometimes convoluted mythologies (like those of the Gnostics and Manicheans) so that you can see how their beliefs coloured that of Orthodox Christians.

Each chapter deals with a stage in the development of Christianity, including how the believers at that period understood Creation, the Fall (of angels and mankind), and Redemption (whether through Christ’s sacrifice or via tricking the Devil). It’s interesting to read the various theories and how they shifted and grew over time into the ideas we’re familiar with today.

While it’s an older book, first published in 1981, the scholarship is solid, with then current references and a lot of page notes explaining certain concepts in more detail.

If you’re interested in the development of the devil and hell, how theological discourse changes over time, or simply in the history of Christianity as a whole, this is an interesting read.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Video: Meet some of the last papyrus makers in Egypt

 I saw papyrus for the first time in 2019 on my trip to Ethiopia. It's a beautiful plant and an important historical skill. I'm glad to hear there are people keeping papyrus paper alive and hope the industry recovers quickly when the pandemic ends.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Book Review: Carved From Stone and Dream by T. Frohock

Links to my review of the novellas & book 1.

Pros: interesting characters, tense, fast paced

Cons: scenes of torture some may find disturbing

It is 1939 and the Spanish Civil War has gone poorly for the Republicans, backed by los Nefilim. With his wife and daughter, heir to his crown, sent to Paris in advance, Don Guillarmo is pursued by Nationalist forces while crossing the Pyrenees. A betrayal alerts him to the existence of a pocket realm where his brother Jordi, backing the Nationalists, is helping the Germans plan an invasion of France.

While this is technically the second in a trilogy (following 3 novellas), the book is designed to stand on its own. There’s enough background information to jump in here, but I do feel you won’t get the same emotional kick if you aren’t aware of the relationship between Diego, Miquel and Raphael.

The book cleverly ties the Nefilim (offspring of angels and demons) into the history of the Spanish Civil War and the coming second world war. There’s a bibliography at the back of the book that shows the author’s done their research regarding the period and how LGBT characters fit in historically, while also allowing readers to expand their own knowledge if they’d like to learn more.

The book gets very tense at times, with depictions of torture. Though horrible things happen, it never felt gratuitous. The story is fast paced, with several point of view characters, so the horror is never overpowering.

The book really shines with its family relationships. The love Diego and Miquel have for each other, and their desire to help each other through difficult circumstances shines through. I also liked seeing Raphael become a young man, making mistakes and learning hard lessons.

The Grigori was horrifying and I can’t wait to learn more about it and the other fallen angels.

I’m really enjoying this series and look forward to the final volume.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Books Received in March, 2021

 Many thanks to the publisher and agent who sent me review copies this month.

Averee written by Stephanie Phillips with Dave Johnson, Illustrated by Marika Cresta - The politics of the past few years made me less inclined to read dystopian literature, but this graphic novel (and less stressful politics) means I'm ready to engage the subgenre again. Out April 20th.

Averee is a typical high schooler living in the near future where social media status has real world consequences. The app, Ranked, determines everyone’s status, not just online, but in real life; who you can hang out with, what places you have access to, what schools you can get into, and what jobs you can get. And Pretty Kitty, the virtual pop star, is the spokesperson for it all, letting everyone know what products they should buy and hangout spots they should frequent in order to increase their rank.

Averee’s rank is just high enough for an enjoyable life. Unlike her best friend, Zoe, who has no rank, Averee is able to eat lunch where she chooses and to have a boyfriend of a high rank. That is, until one day when her rank mysteriously drops all the way down to Zoe’s level.

With nothing left to lose, Averee and Zoe hatch to kidnap Pretty Kitty and hold her ransom. They embark on a quest that takes them to the corporate underbelly of Ranked, and discover how the technology was originally developed with good intentions but was twisted in order to fuel corporate greed and control people’s lives.

They team up with the scientist who originally developed the app in order to expose the dangers of Ranked, and restore proper order and control over their own lives.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn - The cover for this book is gorgeous and it sounds very interesting. Out in September.

In just over a year’s time, Ryia Cautella has already earned herself a reputation as the quickest, deadliest blade in the dockside city of Carrowwick—not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name.

For the past six years, a deadly secret has kept her in hiding, running from town to town, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster—the sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms of Thamorr. No matter how far or fast she travels, his servants never fail to track her down...but even the most powerful men can be defeated.

Ryia’s path now leads directly into the heart of the Guildmaster’s stronghold, and against every instinct she has, it’s not a path she can walk alone. Forced to team up with a crew of assorted miscreants, smugglers, and thieves, Ryia must plan her next moves very carefully. If she succeeds, her freedom is won once and for all…but unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are nearly as selfish as she is, and they all have plans of their own.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Book Review: The Survival of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

*NOTE: this review contains spoilers for book 1 of the series.*

Pros: interesting concept, explores mental trauma

Cons: some gross descriptions

Picking up immediately where The Murders of Molly Southbourne left off, the molly who survives the fire tries to find out who she is, and how she can live, a copy of the original. The memories and ghosts of Molly Prime and all the doppelgangers the prime killed, bring the surviving molly to the brink of madness. When a new enemy points to more answers about her origins she discovers there may be a better way of surviving.

A lot of time is spent in molly’s head, reliving her traumas and trying to overcome what her prime did. This causes her several psychotic breaks, which involve time in a mental hospital. I appreciated that molly realized her condition would probably require anti-psychotic medication for her to manage it properly. Some of the scenes involved may be disturbing to certain readers though.

Whenever I started to get annoyed with how molly was acting the story shifted gears and something new forced her to change. I liked seeing her develop over time, learning as she went and becoming an individual rather than an extension of Molly Prime.

Having said that, this is a horror novella, and there are several scenes of violence and descriptions of bodily fluids.

It touches on more of the mystery surrounding Molly’s origins, which was great. It was very interesting meeting another person with the same ‘condition’.

It’s a quick, interesting read.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Book Review: The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

Pros: interesting premise, compelling protagonist

Cons:

Every time Molly Southbourne bleeds, she creates doppelgangers that try to kill her.

The novella takes this fascinating premise and explains how Molly grew up, how her parents taught her to kill her doppelgangers, and how she survives into adulthood. It’s a weird and horrifying story that’s hard to look away from.

Molly goes through a series of emotional ups and downs as she grows, finally becoming mostly emotionless as an adult as the reality of constantly fighting herself takes its toll. The stages she goes through, of rebellion and trauma, fit her circumstances and make her compelling even if it’s hard to see yourself in her place.

The book is the perfect length to tell her story. There’s enough detail to give it weight and the ending is punchy. I’m curious where the sequel takes the story.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Book Review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Pros: fantastic worldbuilding, three magic systems, interesting characters, engaging plot

Cons:

Hetty and Benjy Rhodes both escaped slavery in 1858. They became Conductors with the Underground Railway as a way of locating Hetty’s missing sister. Their motto: never leave people behind. With the war over, the pair solve crimes affecting the black community in Philidelphia that police ignore. When one of their friends turns up dead, the case becomes much more personal as they learn more about their friends - and each other.

The worldbuilding is fantastic. The setting is often gritty and harsh, especially the flashbacks. The author really captures the complexity of the world, with various laws, good and bad areas of town, economics and politics. I especially loved the friendship connections surround Hetty and Benjy. Community is hugely important in this book, and I loved seeing the variety of interactions and how Benjy and Hetty helped and were helped in turn by their friends.

There are three magic systems: sorcery using a wand, restricted to white practitioners; celestial magic, a mixture of practices from Africa, the West Indies, and Native Americans, which uses sigils for power; and alchemy or potion magic, created by brewing herbs. While you see less sorcery than the other two, I loved how magic was integrated into the world.

The pacing was great. So much is going on here and the setting and characters were so interesting that I never felt the book slow or drag.

It was fun reading about a couple who married for convenience. It’s great seeing a different kind of marital relationship and I loved seeing the couple’s interactions. They don’t always get along, but it was cool watching people in a strong marriage make up after fights and work together towards their goals.

This is a fantastic book. In many ways it reminds me of Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow. If you like historical fantasy with great characters, fun magic systems, and an interesting mystery, pick this up.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Book Received in February 2021

Many thanks to Saga Press for sending me the following:

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones - The Only Good Indians was quite terrifying, so I'm curious what Jones' next book has to offer.

In her quickly gentrifying rural lake town Jade sees recent events only her encyclopedic knowledge of horror films could have prepared her for in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.

Jade feels like she’s trapped in a slasher film as tourists go missing and the tension between her community and the celebrity newcomers to the Indian Lake shore heads towards a tipping point, when she feels the killer will rise. Jade watches as the small town she knows and loves begins to head towards catastrophe as yachts compete with canoes and the celebrity rich change the landscape of what was designated park lands to develop what they call Terra Nova.

This new novel from the acclaimed author of The Only Good Indians and “literary master” (Tananarive Due, author of The Good House) Stephen Graham Jones, is a must-read, exploring the changing landscape of the West through his particular voice of sharp humor and prophetic violence that will have you cheering for the American heroine we need.



Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Book Review: Machinehood by S. B. Divya

Pros: brilliant worldbuilding, interesting characters, thought-provoking, international setting

Cons:

Olga (Welga) Ramirez only has a few months of shield work left before she ages out of it, which is why she’s ready to ignore the tremors her zips (enhancement drugs) seem to be causing. To placate her boyfriend, she asks her sister-in-law, Nithya, a biogeneticist, to look into it.

Protecting drug manufacturing funders from protesters as a shield is a semi-dangerous but rewarding and steady job in a world where most people can only find gig work. When a new protest group, the Machinehood, ignores the established ‘rules’ and kills the funder, leaving a manifesto behind, Ramirez realizes the world is about to change.

I really liked the two main point of view characters. Welga’s a bad ass former soldier who loves to cook. Her side of the story deals with the physical aspects of modifications. Nithya is the primary wage earner in her family which makes things a challenge when she discovers she’s pregnant and has to stop using the drugs that allow her to work. Her story is about juggling family and work. Her story also deals more with ethical problems. The book also has a minor non-binary character which was cool to see. And while the story shows that racism isn’t dead, this character faces no in text negativity, so maybe humanity in this future has progressed in that respect.

The worldbuilding was incredible. The amount of history the author created is mind boggling, especially given its detail with regards to politics, conflict, ethics, and most importantly science (with the development of mech technology, then bots, then zips and veemods). I also appreciated the differences in attitude shown by people of various ages with regards to the technology (as it changed) and privacy issues. Also the mixing of technologies - static and moldable items - was really cool, and showed that people adapt new technologies at different speeds depending on their wealth and rural vs urban positioning.

There’s a large emphasis on the gig economy and how having machines take over most physical work makes employment difficult for humans. Global warming also shows up in the form of climactic shifts in regions of the world (like Arizona being subject to repeated dust storms).

I loved that the book had an international setting with one major point of view character in India, major mentions of North Africa and Singapore, nods to China and Europe in addition to a fair amount of action taking place in the United States.

This book would be fantastic for book club meetings as there are a lot of interesting discussion possibilities, specifically around ethics, but also with regards to technological advancements and how things like privacy and the gig economy will change in the future.

I noticed in a few places the author gave the same information twice, in one case using almost the same language both times. This isn’t really a problem beyond the fact that the repetition was unnecessary and therefore a little distracting.

The ending felt a little simplistic given the complexity of the problems the characters are dealing with, but it did wrap things up well.

This is a fantastic book, alternating fast paced action scenes with slower paced visions of life. There’s a lot to think about in this complex possible future.

Out March 2nd.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Movie Review: Space Sweepers (Seungriho)

Directed by Sung-hee Jo, 2021
IMDb listing

Pros: good special effects, lots of action, quirky characters

Cons: some info dumps that were so quick I didn’t catch all the information

A misfit crew of space sweepers always low on cash, salvage a ship with a young girl on board. A girl the news reports say is actually a robot carrying a hydrogen bomb. Recognizing her value, one crew member suggests a risky venture.

This is a Korean film being distributed by Netflix. I absolutely loved how they handled language, with instant translators for the characters and subtitles for the viewers. It was great seeing a film that acknowledged the variety of human language and allowed that to be a feature.

The special effects were surprisingly good for a non Hollywood film. There’s a lot of action, and ideas brought up early in the film come back as important elements towards the end.

There’s very little down time to get to know the characters though. There was a scene where quick backstory for the crew was told in what I thought was a propaganda TV report so I didn’t pay close attention, but turned out to be legitimate histories. The information was also conveyed so quickly that even once I started paying close attention I still couldn’t catch everything. That wasn’t the only time in the film where I felt I was missing crucial information.

The characters were all quirky though I didn’t particularly like any of them until the end. I liked seeing a Korean crew and I thought they handled the robot’s quest for skin well.

The story wasn’t entirely original but it was told in an engaging way.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Book Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Pros: fascinating worldbuilding, thought provoking, interesting characters

Cons: could have used more explanation at times

Seske Kaleigh is fond of breaking the rules, dragging her best friend, Adalla, a beastworker, with her on adventures. Their society has recently moved to a new beast, and Seske wants to see the preparation work she’d normally sleep through. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s something wrong with this beast, but class concerns keep her away from Adalla, despite their feelings for each other, and politics keeps things in their society the same, despite the realization that they’re killing the beast, and through that act, themselves.

The worldbuilding is unique. The descendants of those who fled Earth centuries ago have learned to live on space faring beasts, twisting the insides into homes and stores, feeding on the creatures living inside it. There’s a lot of blood and ichor, so if body horror isn’t your thing you may want to pass on this. The closest comparison I can make is with Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion, though beyond the setting there’s no other horror elements here.

There’s a lot of vocabulary and cultural information to learn in the first few chapters but the author does an excellent job of introducing things naturally and at a good pace so you can really begin to understand what’s going on in this strange beast-ship. This world was so different and unique that I’d have been ok with an info dump or two (though I am honestly impressed at how well integrated the information was on the whole).

The family relationship organization is fascinating. Because the protagonists are younger, we only see this from their perspective, so there are 3 fathers and 6 mothers who make up a unit, and they are allowed 1 child between them. There are lines of who’s allowed to sleep with whom, but the book doesn’t go too deep into that. It’s such an interesting dynamic and I didn’t feel like I fully understood how it worked. There was one scene in particular where I felt like I was missing a crucial piece of information. It was clear that the character just learned something that changed how they viewed their parents, but I was left confused by what was meant by the conversation. A later scene seemed to clarify it a bit, but I feel that a bit more explanation would have been helpful at times.

The story is told through the points of view of two characters. Seske, next in line to rule their people, and Adalla, Seske’s best friend from a lower social class. Their friendship and attraction, and Seske’s desire to break the rules, gets them both in trouble and they never seem to get out of trouble. I really liked both of them at the start. I started to really dislike Seske as the book went on, as she’s fairly self-centered, and I wasn’t a fan of how she treated Doka. It quickly becomes clear that she’s not the best successor though she fights hard to maintain her position. I liked her again towards the end when she started making better decisions. Adalla’s journey was challenging but she remained a hard worker who cared deeply for others. Seeing her pain was unpleasant and I desperately wanted things to turn out good for her in the end.

There were a few times when it seemed like important plot developments were passed over too quickly or left without a full resolution. I was left with questions regarding Sisterkin at the end of the book. Similarly one of Adalla’s projects got a major plot beat and then was never mentioned again.

The author touches on class divisions and how people from one class don’t really see people from the others as human - like themselves. This goes for the ruling women of the upper class towards men and lower classes, but we see the men, despite recognizing their own discrimination, do this with the lower classes. Even among the working classes, the people section themselves off based on what organs they work with, scorning the others.

The book wraps up the main threads, but a sequel is coming soon that will hopefully deal with the fallout of the major decisions made in this book.

On the whole the book dealt with some heavy ethical issues and took place in a fascinating and unique world. I hope the sequel fleshes the family relationships out more.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

History Book Review: A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Journal of Master Franz Schmidt, Public Executioner of Nuremberg, 1573-1617

Translated by C. V. Calvert and A. W. Gruner

Edited and with an Introduction by Albrecht Keller and an essay “A Brief Account of Criminal Procedure in Germany in the Middle Ages”, by C. V. Calvert

This is a diary of the executioner of the city of Nuremberg in Germany. It begins with an essay by C. V. Calvert followed by a brief introduction to the diary itself. If you’re interested in medieval justice, the essay is invaluable, explaining the various people who worked at the prison, what a cell looked like, the various punishments meted out and for what crimes. The language used is occasionally archaic, for example the translator uses ‘incendiary’ where we would be more familiar with the term ‘arsonist’. The introduction goes over some information about the city of Nuremberg and the text itself.

The journal is edited, with occasional notes in brackets explaining that information has been cut (generally items in lists, for example with thieves, where 2 or 3 thefts are given details and others left out for space). There are also some notes referring the reader to other passages (when someone is let off and is later executed or if two people are accused and executed on different days).

The diary entries alternate between terse single lines, “A thief hanged” and long passages giving tantalizing details of the crimes for which people were punished. The diary is a bit frustrating in that you’re never given motivations for the crimes, and in some places I dearly wanted to know more of what went on.

On the whole it was a quick, interesting read.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Movie Review: Train to Busan

Directed by Sang-ho Yeon, 2016
IMDb listing

Pros: great acting, fast paced, tense

Cons:

Passengers on a train from Seoul to Busan try to survive a zombie outbreak.

This is a fantastic horror movie. The acting is spot on with a good mixture of people you’re rooting for and a few you’re hoping die quickly. There’s very little introduction to the main group of initial survivors on the train, but among them are a pregnant woman, two older women, several high school baseball players, and a number of business men.

The film focuses on two principle characters: a father and daughter heading to Busan for the girl’s birthday. While he loves his daughter the father is a distant figure in her life, working long hours and hardly aware of what she’s up to. As the movie progresses, so does his relationship with his daughter and the world at large.

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a wonderful shot when the zombie first infect the train and people are starting to realize something is wrong when the camera zooms in on one zombie and then follows it in a close-up as it starts attacking people. With pulse pounding music it’s a terrifying scene, showing the chaos of infection and confusion.

The movie is hyper focused on the train but you do get occasional glimpses of what’s happening in the cities they pass, through news broadcasts, texts, phone calls and scenery as the train passes.

If you haven’t see this and enjoy zombie movies, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Book Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Pros: great characters, excellent world-building

Cons: I’d have liked a longer epilogue

Ten year old Regan Lewis strives to be normal, so when she notices that puberty isn’t hitting her like the other girls she starts asking questions. Walking home from school after a rough day of bad choices, she finds a strange door and stumbles into another world, a world populated by various equine races. Her presence means their world needs saving, but Regan doesn’t believe in destiny, and doesn’t want to be a hero.

This is the 6th book in the Wayward Children series, but is a complete standalone novella. Regan has not been in any of the other books and the story is completely self-contained.

I loved Regan as a character and enjoyed seeing her start to question the world and her place in it. I thought the Hooflands were wonderful, with a well developed culture between the various hooved races (which includes centaurs, kelpies, satyrs and more).

While I’d have liked a longer epilogue showing some of the fallout of Regan’s adventure I understand why McGuire ended this novella where she did. It wraps up this particular story nicely, though I’m hopeful there’s a follow-up novella that continues Regan’s story.

The copy of the book I reviewed was an advance reader copy, so it didn’t have the illustrations by Rovina Cai. I’ve seen a few of them on the Tor.com website and they’re quite nice and I can imagine they help add to the fairytale quality of the story.

If you love horses and character development, this one’s for you.