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Mid-year reading reviews

At the beginning of 2017 I set myself these reading goals:

  • Read 12 novels (one per month)
  • Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)

Mid-way through the year, I’m tracking ahead for the first one with 8 titles completed and a 9th about 50% done (on the proviso that one accepts novellas in place of novels–more on that later). I’m a long way behind on the second.

What I have read though has been of an excellent standard. I’m really enjoying the novellas I’ve read. The novella, as a form, has been undervalued in recent years (decades), and there are fewer markets publishing novellas, but there’s something really pleasant (for me at least) about having a slimmer story which I can get to and complete with less ongoing time commitment. Novellas are more binge-able, and when there are breaks between reading opportunities or I have to step away from my reading for a length of time I find it’s easier to come back to the novella. The start is still recently enough in my mind that it’s not lost to the fog of time and distractions.

The books I’ve read (with brief reviews) are:

Gemina (Book 2 of the Illuminae Files) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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This book follows the same structure and style of the previous in the series (Illuminae, which I also loved). This time we have two new protagonists but there are a lot of parallels: boy/girl, separated from one another, smouldering coals of a possible romance… all of which keeps the book familiar, but Hanna and Nik are their own characters with well-developed identities and personalities, so the material is still fresh.

The action has moved from the fleeing fleet of rescue ships of the first book to the space station which was due to provide our erstwhile heroes an escape route. The same nefarious corporate forces which set everything in motion are back again, looking to cover up and save face (and legal consequences).

Kaufmann and Kristoff play off each other’s strength and the banter between the characters sizzles along. There’s a lot of moving parts at play here, some established in the previous book but a lot brand new. The threads of the narrative are interwoven throughout and only start tying in as we approach the climax. There’s a little narrative cheat in there, near the end, but it was well foreshadowed and probably earnt.

Would recommend this series to anyone but especially mid to upper teens.

Half Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba #1) by Daniel Jose Older

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I had been meaning to read Older’s longer work for a while now, ever since I read a good short story of his (‘Anyway Angie’, from Tor), found him on Twitter, and appreciated some of the writing advice and cultural representation thoughts he shared.

This novel was a good intro to his world and his style. The New Yorker setting came through with a strong sense of authenticity and Older’s affection for the place was obvious on the page. The people too. In many ways this is a tribute to the grimier parts of NY’s boroughs, the alleys and bodegas, the clusters of community, the street celebrations, the hidden bars and the sense of having tourists and others intrude on your place like it’s some sort of urban cultural safari.

The plot was solid, taking a few turns at speed without ever really giving you the feeling that you’d lose a sense of where it was all going. In that regard there was a sense of safety or familiarity at work. Carlos’ half-resurrection was a cool concept, as was the ghostly world overlaid on the living world. Older introduces some cool concepts and gets creative with some of the tropes and cliches that the genre offers. He controls the tension well, and the climactic battle(s) fought almost simultaneously in different worlds are well-handled.

If you’re looking for some urban fantasy with ghosts, sword-fights, otherworldly conspiracy and world-saving that starts local, this is for you.

Home (Binti #2) by Nnedi Okorafor

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The sequel to ‘Binti’ (which I read and enjoyed last year) picks up almost immediately after the end of its predecessor. Binti is settled into the University now, but things haven’t been easy and she hasn’t integrated as well as she would have liked. Okorafor treats the trauma Binti carries with respect and she fleshes-out and realises that sense of dislocation, of homesickness. As someone who left a rural home to come to a large metropolitan university, that resonated with me. Binti, of course, first of her kind and survivor of the horrors in Book 1, has more to deal with and decides to head home and reconnect with her roots.

This novella gives much more depth to Binti’s world (galaxy?) and to her character. She is changing, and those changes add to her but also strip away parts of her foundation. She is desperate to reconnect with her family and the life she once had, but struggles to return to things as they once were, because they are no longer like that, and she is no longer as she was.

An unexpected quest leads her deeper into self-discovery and reveals secrets of her parentage and ancestry, challenges assumptions she had made about her world and her place in it. Throughout the story, Okorafor keeps the focus tightly on Binti and her inner struggles, even as the world around her unfolds. She also elevates to role of culture and spirituality, and allows these elements of Binti to co-exit with her scientific and mathematical strengths, indeed for these different world views to be complementary and mutually-beneficial.

I’d recommend this to anyone interested in seeing where modern Sci-Fi is heading.

(Recent side note: another of Okorafor’s novels, ‘Who Fears Death’, recently picked up for TV with an Executive Producer who is famous for some show about thrones and games).

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

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This novel has been getting a little buzz (and will get more in coming months) as a Hollywood film version is being made. In part I wanted to read this before the film came out, but I didn’t really need that excuse. I read ‘Finch’ some time ago and since then have been meaning to dive deeper into VanderMeer’s worlds.

This is sufficiently ‘Weird’ and VanderMeer handles the weirdness with relish. The characters are kept anonymous, including the protagonist whom we know only as The Biologist. She guides us through her entry to the Southern Reach as best that she can, given the shifting sense of the place and the uncertainty and unreliability of her own senses, the influence of hypnosis and other less explicable factors.

VanderMeer doesn’t explicate too much, which is a welcome decision. The reader is left to piece things together, decide who to trust and how much. It’s a book in which you, as reader, must be an active participant. Making meaning from the fragments and clues and hints. As anyone familiar with VanderMeer’s work might expect, the novel delivers fungi, dysmorphic bodies, impossible mysteries and the central (unresolved) question of what it means to be human and how the line between the Human and the Other might be blurred.

I’d recommend this to anyone willing to walk a few steps through the darkness and investigate the strange things they find as their eyes adjust.

All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells

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This Tor novella was a great advertisement for the strengths of the form. Wells gives us our narrator in first person very quickly, building an amazing amount of world- and character-building into an economical opening without expository dump. She hints at a much larger world and a rich history for the character, but is very disciplined in keeping her focus on the story she is here to tell.

That story is great. A self-described ‘Murderbot’ (possibly a reprogrammed human, possibly a cyborg more machine than flesh), overcomes its control protocols and discovers a love of soap operas and personal freedom. The Murderbot is a sympathetic, snarky, and very enjoyable character.

Wells handles the action elements well, with sparse but evocative description which doesn’t bog down in the minutiae. She is also able to reveal her human characters slowly through the Murderbot’s narrative lens. The agency of the Murderbot is the crucial question here, and Wells maintains that agency right through to a very satisfying end.

River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1) by Sarah Gailey

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This Alt-History Adventure/Heist has one of the best set-ups I’ve come across in a long time. It’s the early-20th Century in the southern states of the young US of A and some enterprising types have taken to importing African Hippopotamuses and farming them along the Mississippi River and the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. Of course, the life of a Hippo (‘Hop’) Rancher is a hard-scrabble one and former-rancher turned general ne’er-do-well Winslow Remington Houndstooth has a scheme (“It’s not a scheme!”) to make some money moving on some feral Hops. A side-order of revenge is quite the motivator too.

This is another Tor novella, and Gailey has great fun with its premise, playing up the familiar tropes of the American frontier all while a semi-submerged hippo waits to rise out of the water and change everything. At times that happens, but overall I found the hippos became too peripheral. They were more than background colour, more than a quirk to the setting, but sometimes not much more.

The human focus is good, and the characters full of colour and movement. They’re a proudly diverse crowd in terms of gender and sexuality and melanin, and that’s a strength of the narrative. Houndstooth’s relationship with Hero is sometimes touching and beautiful; his relationship with Archie hints at a deeper history and mutual respect (along with mutual wariness). But ultimately there didn’t seem enough time to invest in these relationships to the extent that they deserved and sometimes the ‘team’ Houndstooth assembles feels paper-thin, the antagonist likewise a silhouette threat rather than an actual villain: the long shadow cast around the corner but the anticlimactic arsehole in the full light.

I’d recommend this for a quick, fun read for those who liked old westerns, heist films and hippos (but never expected to see them all in the same place).

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

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If you go poking around this blog for a while you’ll soon see that I hold Mieville in high regard. He’s one of my favourite authors. Having read other reviews of this novella, I’m left to wonder whether my fanboying may be lending a rose-tint to my reading glasses (metaphorically speaking), but…

I liked this a lot.

Even more after reading it than while reading it, I find my mind returning to its images, to the central conundrum of it all, to the problems and passages and moments of it. This novella wormed its way into my brain and was leeching its influence through my thoughts for weeks after I set it down. It’s beautiful and stark and confusing and contradictory and strange. Often weird, always uncanny, sometimes fantastical.

I want to stay spoiler free, so by way of setting things up this opens with a boy coming down from his isolated home high on a rocky mountaintop to the villagers who live a little further downslope. He come with a horrifying tale of having witnessed a murder: his mother has killed his father… or did his father kill his mother? He can’t recall exactly and there’s some doubt anyone died at all. The boy is unreliable as a witness and as a narrator, a point Mieville reinforces throughout with sudden shifts of narrative perspective, person and tense.

This is full of high ideas and beneath its surface you get the sense of a vast and urgent backstory, a history to this world beyond the relatively small tale of the boy on the mountainside. Mieville handles this expertly, but expect to do some work. There’s not a wasted word here (though if you’ve read much of Mieville you’ll know there will be a few which will have you reaching for the dictionary), and even the tangents and digressions come back around to aid what understanding the reader might be able to draw from the novel. It doesn’t move quickly. It’s more atmosphere than plot. It feels much more dense than its length suggests.

I’d recommend this to fans of Mieville, of weird mysteries and creepy, unsettling horror.

Thunderbird (the 4th Miriam Black book) by Chuck Wendig

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Miriam Black is back and she’s on a health-kick… of sorts. She’s jogging. She’s quit smoking. She’s on a path of self-improvement. The good news is she’s still cantankerous and nasty and if anything the ‘nic-fits’ she’s getting from quitting only make things worse.

She’s also dragging around the guilt and wreckage of her various past adventures. While this does give a sense of building consequence for the character (she can’t just fuck things up and then move on to the next episode. Things don’t reset for the people she’s collided with through her travels) it also means that a good memory of the previous three books is required. I don’t know how much you’d lose picking this up as your first Miriam read, but I suspect a lot.

Despite her best efforts, she’s drawn back in, perhaps by fate, or her Trespasser, or her own much-beaten but unwavering sense of decency. As much as she might deny that such a thing exits. She can still see the deaths of those she touches, and her connection to bird-life is only growing stronger and more powerful. But Wendig here populates Miriam’s world with others who also have ‘powers’, as he has started to do in previous volumes, and I felt that detracted a bit from what made the first book (especially) great. There, Miriam was a one-off–an anomaly in a very ‘real’ world for the reader. Here the balance of the scales has tipped, so that she’s not really operating in our world any more, but in a Fantasy setting which is like our world, but not.

Wendig’s taken a lot of heat from certain internet denizens for the politics in his novels, especially in his Star Wars novels. It’s never bothered me (perhaps because I think our politics probably coincide more than they contradict). In this novel, the rise of a Trumpian Far Right in America comes through in Wendig’s antagonists, but really that just made me barrack for Miriam all the more.

I’d recommend this to fans of tough, sweary, angry chicks who kick arse and talk back, who are stubbornly good despite many temptations to go bad.

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So that’s it for the mid-year novels. I’ve read some great short fiction too, but not on track for the 50 for the year so will have to get my head down and get to work.

Might be a review post for the top five I’ve read so far coming soon.

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Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
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.
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The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.

2014 reading: Short Stories.

I fell well short of my goal to read 100 short stories in 2014. Two stories a week, every week, sounded manageable. It wasn’t. This year I’m going for 52 shorts stories: One a week.

My reviews of (most of) the 2014 stories I read are here, with links to the stories where they’re available online.

January:

“A Letter from Your Mother” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley in Daily Science Fiction (DSF) was a good little flash fiction in epistolary form that used one voice to develop two well realised characters and the relationship between them.

“The night my Dad became English” by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Independent was a reflective piece from a son to his father, which touched on issues of family, identity, nation-hood and those decisions we make in our lives which shape who we are to be.

“In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert inLightspeed Magazine mixed a lot of stylistic and genre ingredients – some quite new, others a little cliched – into an interesting near-future sci-fi about our place in the universe.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge in the Lightspeed Magazine was a Fantasy piece exploring the meaning of divinity and the role of the deity in societies. It had a number of imaginative elements in its world, and was stylistically like a parable or myth more so than a modern narrative.

“After the Trains Stopped” by J Kyle Turner in DSF was a great story about an Artificially Intelligent (and empathetic) factory.  It developed its central premise (and character) well, but for me its greatest strength was the creeping Horror element.

“The Next Generation” by Michael Adam Robson in DSF was a short sci-fi in the old-school sense of a scientist struggling with the moral implications of his invention. It runs along a relatively predictable path where the creation surpasses its creator, and the last line lays on the moral a little thick.

February:

“Baby Feet” by Rene Sears in DSF was a sci-fi invasion story told from an interesting perspective. I really engaged with the character and her circumstances. Unfortunately the ending came in thick lumps of expository dialogue.

“Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey in DSF was an alternative world fantasy with an interesting central concept. The world was nicely built and the main character realised. It was well crafted and structured, right until the final sentence, which I think dropped with a clunk and robbed the ending of some of its power.

“Mermaid” by Jonathan Schneeweis in DSF was the second mermaid-related story I have read in the last few weeks, and I think the better of the two, despite – or perhaps because of – being less complex. There is some foreshadowing which is a little too obvious, but the turn in the narrative was good and the recurring motif of the counting of ribs was a nice way to tie it all together.

“The Seventeen Executions of Signore Don Vashta” by Peter M Ballin DSF was an excellent tale of an unlikely friendship between a man who would not stay dead and the man who was once his executioner. In the interests of full disclosure, I know Peter through a friend. The quality of this story though should speak for itself. The narrative voice is engaging and the development of the relationship between the characters very well handled.

“The Devil as a White Swan” by Jane Ormond in Machines Will Not Give Change (a print anthology produced by Cardigan Press) is a more Lit-fic flash fiction about a gift given by an insensitive man and the relationship break-up that precipitates. It’s a flash fiction piece, at about 500 words, and opens with a strong tone, but I found the first person subjective a little suffocating and the inner monologue was hard for me to relate to.

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M. Wanak in Strange Horizons was a story about the ways we can change our lives. The central premise seemed initially to be quite limited, but Wanak took it into such interesting dimensions. The narrator, and the narrator’s mother, worked well together to give opposing perspectives on the phenomenon of the spiral staircases, and the style made palatable what might otherwise have been heavy-handed symbolism. It took me a few false starts, but I really enjoyed this one.

March:

“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons was amazing. The story is kinda NSFW, tracing the life of the narrator through her sexual encounters, but not graphic. Machado allows the back-story to come through gradually, seeping into the tale and growing – dare I say spreading – until it overwhelms. I sat a moment after reading this and just appreciated it. Really a great piece of writing.

“Walking Home” by Catherine Krahe in DSF had a well-realised protagonist whom it was easy to empathise with. The fantasy elements were minimal and had little direct influence on the plot, but there was a sense of the setting being second-world and the world building was revealed gradually to have depth and texture. It seemed to take a while to get going, and to end abruptly, but I enjoyed it.

“Litany of the Family Bean” by Gemma Files in Strange Horizons is not actually a short story, it being filed under poetry, but I include it here because it did feel as if it had narrative qualities and the setting and characters I found fascinating. The use of language early in the piece was evocative and drew me in. The shock value of the opening  fell away quickly, replaced by a curiosity which wasn’t quite sated. Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

“How to Become a Robot” by A.Merc Rustad in Scigentasy used a variety of story-telling forms and techniques to assemble an interesting narrative which explored gender and identity and belonging. Strong characterization and surprisingly effective use of 1st and 2nd person shifts.
“Like Bread” by Patricia Russo in SQ Mag was character focused with a sense of otherworldliness. Interesting structure which allowed for foreshadowing and a building of tension/suspense.
“The Church of Asag” by Cameron Trost in SQ Ma was built on a good concept, with interesting use of setting. At times overly direct in exposition. Rushed/unsatisfying ending.
“Codename Delphi” by Linda Nagata in Lightspeed was Sci-Fi (ish). Near future with a focus on remote and drone warfare. Well structured and communicated the frenetic balancing act well. Simple, linear plot.
April :
“The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin in Strange Horizons was a good meta-horror piece, reminiscent both of Freddy Kruger and Whedon’s Cabin.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Childrenby Gabriel Garcia Marquez was just wonderful. Utterly wonderful.
“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick  inLightspeed has a really fascinating opening, but then let’s fall away some of its most original images and concepts and almost – thankfully never entirely – reverts to familiar tropes. Some cliche moments drop in with a thud, but engaging and interesting throughout.
“Select Mode” by Mark Lawrence and available for free on his websiteprovides a good example of Jorg’s voice and Lawrence’s style, and of the fusion of Fantasy and SciFi typical in his work.
“Alsiso” by KJ Bishop in Lightspeed was a narrative without a protagonist, unless a lexeme can be protagonist. Tracing the history of a word through elevation, deterioration, semantic shift and all manner of reclassifications and transmutations, the author gives an insight into an evolving culture that makes it’s way from foreign to familiar. Cleverly written and enjoyable to read.
May:
“Zombie” by Chuck Palahniuk in Playboy (link is sfw) was a thought provoking story of dissatisfaction and confusion. It wades full into the despair of modernity, lashes celebrity, consumerist culture, and yet finds some hope in modern hyper-connectivity. Written with a beautifully direct, conversationalist style.
“Abomination Rises of Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky in Apex Magazine was a very difficult story to read. A trigger warning is given, with cause. Apparently written to show that a domestic/relationship revenge fantasy could be readable, the result is genuinely disturbing. The mix of sexual dominion and the domesticity of the violence was horrific, as was the brutality and contempt, unhidden behind a gossamer-thin veil of the supernatural. A compelling but difficult story: undeniably well-written but not enjoyable.
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson in Lightspeed was a good exploration of PTSD in some alt-history, alt-Earth that is disturbingly familiar and yet suffuses with novelty. The Russian ethnicity adds a sense of the other, but ultimately is tangential. The story never quite fulfills the promise of its title and opening line, undercutting the fantastic element for metaphor.
“Paperclips and Memories and Things That Won’t be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim in Apex Magazine was a beautiful, touching story. At times almost horror, at times melancholy, at times strangely beatific. I keep wanting to use the word ‘haunting’, which would be accurate but rather trite.
“Schrödinger’s Outlaw” by Matthew W Baugh in DSF was a very short short. The opening paragraphs had a well set scene, conveyed economically and without the exposition seeming too lumpy. The protag’s voice was clear. From there it fell into a sadly predictable path. The most harmful thing, for me was that it fundamentally misunderstood its central premise. Schrödinger’s cat is not ‘dead or alive’, but ‘dead-and-alive’ – the whole paradox hinges on the superposition of two simultaneous, yet contradictory states. By then end this seemed a bad pun that went too far.
June:
“Mephisto” by Alan Baxter in DSF was a well-contained tale. Tight and lean.  Baxter uses the dichotomies well, the crowd’s adoration and the magician’s hatred in return. The showmanship and pretense serves well to orient and then disorient the reader. It’s a creeping horror, more apprehension than fear, really. Baxter shows his hand artfully at the end, the exposition delivered but not dropped upon the reader, revealed but not ruined.
“Days Like These” by Erica L Satifka in DSF was a good Sc-Fi concept well handled. The protagonist was vividly drawn, as was the world in which he lived. The uncertainty was maintained well throughout, and the reliability of the narrator gradually questioned.
It is more a back-handed compliment than a criticism to say that it left me wanting more, but the ending was a little dissatisfying.
“Anyway Angie” by Daniel Jose Older, published by Tor, was a case of a good character and great atmospheric prose. The first person worked, the characterization and exposition of back-story was smoothly given without chunks. I found my way to this via Kameron Hurley, whose novel I am reading. It shares a bug motif, which here is used effectively for horror. The story did feel dislocated though, perhaps I wanted it to be an excerpt of some larger work, or perhaps that balance of what the reader was given and what the reader had to infer was ever-so-slightly awry. A good story though. I’d read more.
“Trigger Warning Breakfast” was published in various places (I read ithere). This anonymous story is a punch in the guts. Perhaps a webcomic, perhaps an illustrated narrative, it is told with short, stark sentences, crudely but effectively illustrated. A very powerful and personal piece.
July
“Polynia” (available to read through Tor) is familiar in China Mieville’s oeuvre. Weird and fantastic, a London familiar and yet changed, the narrator slightly distant from their own narration, hints of politics, a cameo from a rail-road, clever wordplay, impressive prose. The vocabulary is accessible, the core concept visually arresting and ultimately unresolved. The changes in the world are accepted because there’s nothing else to do than to accept them.

August

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” appeared in Strange Horizons and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It is a mix of the modern working class domestic narrative and ancient myth/fairytale. It’s told cleverly, through narrative denial and breadcrumbs of exposition. At times the short segments felt a little too isolated from each other, and only in re-reading could they be more comfortably pieced together. That’s a minor quibble on a well told story though.

“The Turing Test” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. I liked the subject matter, but to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the concept of the Turing Test the ‘twist’ was easily picked (perhaps at fault here is the title?), and the second part seemed unnecessary. The dialogue was very good, and the prose flowed smoothly. Didn’t seem to do very much with its length though.
“Resurrection Points” appeared in Strange Horizons and attracted deserved acclaim. It was beautifully written. An insight into my own world through a different lens. Terrifying in the banality of violence and death, and in the sense of hopelessness or inevitability. The ending was a touch bathetic, but that’s a minor quibble on an outstanding story.
“Stone Hunger” appeared in Clarkesworld. I struggled with this one early. It felt like I was flailing for meaning, no foundation to build on. The tense was a barrier for me. Once we were in the city though things got very good, very quickly. I loved many of the concepts, clashing powers as taste sensations, the stone-eater turned sentient statue, the city of monsters. Once into it, I really enjoyed it. Very descriptive and with a strong narrative voice.
September:
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal was publishedby Tor.com. It’s a beautiful story. An alt-history retro-futurist Sci-Fi. A return to a more classical Sci-Fi, where space faring and punch-card programmes and the mystery of Mars loomed large. It’s a story infused with dying and departing, concerned with what legacy each generation leaves to the next. As mid20thC sci-fi has left its legacy on this generation. An atypical protagonist – past middle-aged and female – is drawn with tender realism, and the difficulty of her dilemmas is frankly, honestly drawn. The ending ties the threads together in a satisfying, if somewhat convenient, solution.
“Wikihistory” was also from Tor.com. A clever little story told as a series of forum posts and dealing with tropes of time travel and determinism. It tests out Godwin’s Law, and presents us with an alternative view of cultural assumptions. The plot-premise is familiar, but this is a fresh approach.
“Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee was published by Apex (and part of their Military Sci-Fi anthology) It was an epistolary narrative, and frequently told in the second person. I found that it shifted in time in curious ways, sometimes in ways hard to follow.
It did have moments of beauty, both in terms of its attention to detail and in its prose. The central relationship was finely drawn, a romantic-tragedy set against the backdrop of an interstellar war.
“We are the Cloud” was an excellent story by Sam J Miller, published in Lightspeed. I really enjoyed it. A near-future sci-fi. The technology is plausible and integral and its significance mounts as the story progresses. The wounded, vulnerable protagonist is taken down some dark paths, and us with him, but he never loses our sympathy.
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a story by Holly Black that also appeared in Lightspeed. I almost didn’t read it all. What a mistake that would have been.
I don’t generally like the 2nd person. I don’t generally like lists as narrative scaffolds (and Rule 1 annoyed me from the start). The exposition on several occasions came in thick dumps. This had so much going against it that I nearly bailed before the end of the second ‘rule’.
But for all of that the story turned me fully around. The characterization, the rich and deep world-building, the twisting plot, the moments of genuine emotion. This packs a lot into a story that could have been so much less. Excellent. This is the sort of story for which I undertook this project. This taught me a lot about being a better story teller.
“As Good as New” was in Tor.com, a story by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a mash-up of apocalypse, genie wish cliche, and post-modernist theatre.
I’m at a bit of a loss for this. I don’t know how it worked so well, but it worked really, really well.
Wonderfully relatable protag. The ennui of a western millennial middle class. Patient plotting that allowed the story to meander pleasantly without ever getting lost.
October:
“Tomorrow is waiting” by Holli Mintzer appeared in Strange Horizonsback in 2011. I only just found it and read it through some aggregator site (I forget which) listing good short stories about AI. This is a nice story about an AI muppet kind if accidentally achieving sentience. The writing is stark, quite bare of description, but it has warmth and a beating heart. Anji’s not a strong protag, but she’s relatable. The conflict leaks from the piece in the final third, but the effect of this is a positive ending note and a view of sentient AI which is optimistic, rather than fearful.
November:
“Brain, Brain, Brain” By Puneet Dutt appeared in Apex. It’s a very cool little poem, clearly aware of tropes and prepared to flirt with them before twisting to the zombie POV. The imploring insistence of ‘we’re not the bad guys.’ Some beautiful use of language.

“The City & The City” Review

“The City & The City” Review

My first contribution to “Disinformed”


“Disinformed”

I’ve recently accepted an invitation to become a contributing reviewer at “Disinformed”.

It’s a collaborative blog, and whilst I haven’t posted any reviews yet I plan to do so very soon., so if you’d like to read my opinions on the writing (or film-making) of professionals, or if you’d like to read some reviews from my fellow contributors others then come on over for a look.