Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Wicked and the Willing

Lianyu Tan
Completed 5/28/2023, Reviewed 5/28/2023
4 stars

Steamy dark gothic lesbian vampire romance is not my usual cup of tea.  I read this book because it is a 2023 Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Speculative Fiction.  So I was very surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did.  Tan is a wonderful writer who makes beautiful sentences, crisp dialogue, and intriguing characters.  I’ve been trying to read all the Lammy Spec Fic nominees for several years now, and this is definitely one of the better ones.  My only complaint with the book was that it had two endings to choose from (and a third located in another book).  I felt one ending was better written than the other.  And I’m not too keen on the concept of the pick your own ending, but in this case, I can see why Tan might choose to do this. 

The plot is straight forward.  Verity Edevane is a British vampire in 1927 Singapore.  Po Lam is the chief steward of Verity’s estate.  She is gender fluid.  Besides her usual duties to the household, she lures young women for Verity’s meals and disposes of their bodies in the bay.  She lives with the guilt of her obedience to her mistress.  Gean Choo, whom Verity calls Pearl, is a poor young woman whose remaining parent has just died.  She gets a job in Verity’s household as an amah, or personal maid.  Verity seduces Gean Choo sexually, mentally, and emotionally, making Gean Choo believe she loves her mistress.  Verity also believes she loves Gean Choo, but their relationship is anything but normal or healthy.  Po Lam tries to subtly and not so subtly to protect Gean Choo from Verity.  In the process Po Lam and Gean Choo seem to fall in love as well.  In the meantime, Singapore has a new Vampire liaison to the British rulers of Singapore who tries to convince Verity to marry him to strengthen their vampire bloodline.  

Gean Choo is the heroine of the story.  I had mixed feelings about her character because she is so damaged.  She was abused as a child, raised in poverty, and her only choice is to take this well-paying job for a mysterious mistress.  But even as Verity’s secret is revealed, Gean Choo remains, despite Verity’s narcissistic control over her.  I had to remember that this is 1927 British-ruled Singapore and not some contemporary urban Vampire story.  Gean Choo is not a kick-ass modern heroine.  She is a product of her times and place.  For what she is dealt, I found myself rooting for her through all the crap that happens to her.

Yes, Verity is a narcissistic and abusive lover.  She uses all the trappings to convince Gean Choo that they love each other despite the abuse, including the “you made me do this to you” excuse.  Sometimes, the scenes are very hard to read.  Just when you think she’s changing, she does something to make you wretch.  

I think the real romance is the slow burn between Gean Choo and Po Lam.  You want this to work out.  But the two walk so delicately around each other that it seems they will never get together.  They each have tons of baggage.  However, I kept rooting for them despite their trepidatious dance.  

I give this book a careful four out of five stars.  My only real complaint is the two endings.  I read both, and one seems less well crafted than the other.  I don’t want to give away either, so no spoilers.  However, I feel that regardless of the which ending she chose, if Tan had stuck to one or the other, it would have made a solid book.  Be aware that this book comes with warnings from the author.  She points out that it contains adult content, including sexually explicit scenes, rape, and torture.  There’s a particularly rough scene with holy water.  That is why the book is so dark.  It’s not just the tone, but the content.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Space Between Worlds

Micaiah Johnson
Completed 5/23/2023, Reviewed 5/25/2023
3 stars

This was one of those books where I could recognize that it is well done, but I just couldn’t get into it.  Time travel and dimension traveling can be difficult tropes to write about, keeping everything coherent, especially when you’re dimension traveling between very similar universes.  Johnson executed it very well.  The beginning is kind of tough, but when you figure out what’s going on, you realize it was all part of a master plan of storytelling.  Still, the plot would grab me, then release me, then grab me, then release me.  It was a book club read, and the majority of people liked it better than me.  It also won the 2020 Golden Tentacle Kitschy Award for debut novel that fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining.  

The story revolves around Cara, a dimension traverser.  She was from the wastelands outside a walled city.  She got this job in the city because most of her doppelgangers in other dimensions have died.  That’s a prerequisite for traversers because if they go to a dimension where their counterpart still exists, it will kill them.  By having this job, she is on the way to citizenship and security.  However, when Cara is sent to a world where her doppelganger has supposedly died, she is nearly killed.  Her doppelganger is apparently alive.  Fortunately, she is saved, but is confronted with massive challenge, one where she knows all the players, but they have different roles, being in a different dimension.  This leads to crazy politics in her own dimension where she must keep her wits about her to survive the brutal head of the Institute which houses the traversing technology.  

It’s quite an elaborate setup, with lots of twists and turns, surprising the reader throughout the book.  It is a bit difficult to keep track of all the characters, because they have different personalities in the different dimensions.  The ones close to home, Earth 0, are more similar than the farther ones.  In particular, she traverses to Earth 175.  It’s about halfway to the farthest Earth traversed to, but it still holds many surprises.  

Cara is an interesting character.  She’s had a hard life, surviving abuse and difficult situations.  I was impressed by her survival skills.  Now free of some of the crap of her past, she can be more authentic.  However, she has an unrequited crush on Dell, her traversing engineer.  The feeling is mutual, but there’s something in the way that keeps them apart.  It creates a nice sexual tension that is handled well throughout the book.  It doesn’t get old or tedious, and the resolution is one of the neat twists that happens in the middle of the book.  Even though I never remained fully engrossed in the book, I did empathize with her, especially as she makes bold decisions about her future with the Institute.

The world building was good.  It wasn’t fantastic I think because you never spend a whole lot of time in any one dimension, except for Earth 0.  And there, you mostly stay in the walled city.  There isn’t much outside of it, besides the wastelands, and apparently, other walled cities.  Johnson gives you enough information to satisfy the scenes without going overboard in describing everything.  Related to that, the prose was pretty good, not too overwhelming, since we weren’t getting a lot of information at any one time.  The book overall was pretty readable.  

I kind of wish I had different circumstances reading this book.  I think I would have liked it better if I could have sat down and read it all in one or two sittings.  Maybe, maybe not.  I give it three stars out of five because it’s good.  Is it excellent?  A lot of people think so. But since I didn’t feel completely engaged in it, I knocked off a star.  The best thing about this book is that the author delved into the dimension hopping and doppelganger tropes with a fresh perspective, making it feel pretty original.  

Sunday, May 14, 2023

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol 39

Jody Lynn Nye & Dean Wesley Smith, eds.
Completed 5/13/2023, Reviewed 5/14/2023
4 stars

I received a copy of this book before publication date from an illustrator friend whose first published art piece appears in this book.  Chris Binns signed it (page 13) for me.  I was so honored.  His piece is awesome as are all the art pieces in this book.  Little did I realize that it was also Illustrators of the Future as well.  As for the anthology itself, it’s really good.  I like or love almost all the pieces in it.  Interestingly, I didn’t care for the three pieces by established authors. But the stories by the “future” writers are full of great imagination with twists on existing tropes and wonderful prose.  I never quite know how to write a review of a collection or anthology, so I’ll mention the stories that really stood out for me plus a few others.

“The Fall of Crodendra M.” by T.J. Knight tore at my heartstrings.  In this futuristic world, networks televise galactic events, especially cataclysmic ones.  Hank Enos, a network tuner, finds a planet that will be demolished by an asteroid.  This will score great ratings.  But when Hank zooms in on the planet, he sees a local human-like boy looking back at him.  Filled with empathy, he’s determined to somehow alert the boy of his coming doom.    This story is fast paced with intrigue from competing networks.  Most of all, it calls us to examine our own morality and mortality when dealing with the forces of the universe.  

Another morality tale is “Timelines and Bloodlines” by L.H. Davis.  A time travel team is sent to the past to kill an 11th century Earl in England whose distant ancestor threatens London with a nuclear weapon.  If the team can kill the Earl, they’ll stop the terrorist.  But what other effects will this assassination have?  This story was full of mind-bending time travel twists and paradoxes.  It may have been done before, but I thought it was well written and complex, but didn’t leave me scratching my head.  

In another time travel piece, “A Trickle in History” by Elaine Micdoh tackles the question of traveling back in time to stop Hitler.  It doesn’t mess with your brain as much as “Timelines” but it does offer an interesting alternative to the more common responses to this question.  

I liked “White Elephant” by David K. Henrickson because it plays on the trope of an alien invasion, but in this case, the aliens seem peaceful.  The question is, can we handle peaceful contact?  This story was reminiscent of “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke in that we get a detailed view of alien technology.

“Piracy for Beginners” by J. R. Johnson was a fun romp.  This action-packed story has a former war hero who pilots a shuttle between Earth and the Moon that is attacked by pirates who aren’t quite so smart.  The story ended in such a way that you can see this becoming a series of popular novels.

“Death and the Taxman” by David Hankins was a lot of fun.  A tax auditor uses an ancient Sumarian body exchange spell to swap with the Grim Reaper.  Chaos ensues and the Grim Reaper must get his body back before he himself is reaped and judged for his own sins.  

The last story I’ll note is “The Withering Sky” by Arthur H. Manner.  It’s a dark tale of a group of people taken to a non-reflective spacecraft in Neptune’s orbit.  They are told to wait for the research team to come after them.  But no one comes and the crew finds themselves struggling to keep their sanity and their lives.  The tension in this story is intense and the ending is surprising.  It’s a mix of science fiction and horror and I think it would make a terrific film.

Even though I don’t mention the other stories by newly discovered authors, I did enjoy them.  I’d recommend reading this anthology yourself to develop your own opinions.  And don’t let the full title fool you.  Even though it is “L. Ron Hubbard Presents”, it is not a platform for Scientology.  It’s an annual contest that has given rise to some well-known authors writing today.  I give this anthology four stars out of five.  It has many terrific moments and only a few that are, well, not terrific.  I really enjoyed the artwork.  It’s of the type that we just don’t see much in modern book covers these days. I’d like to thank Chris for giving me this signed copy.  I was glad to read it and expand my horizons to authors I hope to see produce some novels in the futures and some illustrators who will find success in the various visual arts like book covers, graphic novels, and video games.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Paradox Hotel

Rob Hart
Completed 5/7/2023, Reviewed 5/7/2023
3 stars

Very complicated noir thriller about a lesbian chief of security of a hotel which features time travel who has become unstuck in time during the hosting of a summit of potential buyers during a snowstorm.  Yeah, kinda sounds like disaster porn.  There are a ton of characters which makes following the plot even more complex.  But the author does a decent job of holding it together as the mystery progresses and the main character falls deeper into her time disease. The writing is pretty fast paced, but with all the characters and time traveling, it was often hard to follow what was going on.  This book is a 2023 nominee for the Lambda Literary Award for Speculative Fiction.

January Cole is the chief of security.  Her partner died a few weeks ago in a gas explosion and Jan is not dealing with it well.  She covers up her feelings in dark, off-putting humor, alienating the family she built with the other employees of the hotel.  In addition, she is in stage 2 unstuck-edness.  During the present, she sees things from the past and what may happen in the future.  She doesn’t tell anyone about her being in stage 2 because that would get her permanently retired.  But now it’s interfering with her ability to control a summit of trillionaires looking to bid on purchasing the hotel.  Its attraction is that it features time travel excursions for the rich.  However, it is exactly this time travel that has caused Jan’s unstuck problem.  Of course, there are attempted and successful unsolved murders as the trillionaires come to the hotel with their entourages.  And the government is involved to boot, since it is the current owner of the hotel.  Jan’s job is to find who’s trying to murder everyone before she enters a stage 3 coma.  

Jan is the narrator.  She’s a complicated mess who constantly disparages her friends and refuses to listen to their pleas to get help to deal with her partner’s death.  She believes she is using humor to cope, but she is only alienating everyone.  Her Stage 2 condition makes matters worse, but in this case, it gives her clues into the intrigue going on at the summit.  This being a thriller, you know she’s going to figure out who the bad guys are, so it’s her journey that is important.  That being the case, this thriller is pretty innovative, with mysterious ripples in time-space that only Jan can see, prehistoric raptors that have been brought back from the past illegally, and a kick-ass, snarky sidekick AI drone that helps Jan along the way.  But with all this wacky science fiction, it didn’t help me really empathize with Jan.  She just becomes irritating after a while as she fights tooth and nail against getting help.  It was the sci fi and the mystery that kept this book going for me.

It was pretty cool that Jan was a lesbian.  This is a near future story and her identity and past relationship are done matter of fact, with a supportive diverse staff which also includes a non-binary person.  It was refreshing to have these characters in the book, done well and without any pomp.  I love this trend in science fiction, having LGBTQ+ characters where their sexuality is not an issue.   I just wish that with Jan being the main character, I could have liked her better.  

As for the mysteries that are resolved, I did have an inkling as to who was behind everything.  So I don’t know if this book was as successful a thriller as it could have been.  And the snowstorm reminded me of the movie “Airport.”  This would make a good disaster film.  So I give this book a three star rating out of five.  It wasn’t excellent, but it was pretty good.  It takes some effort to trudge through it, but it didn’t hurt my brain that much.  As for winning the Lammy?  I wouldn’t vote for it, but it was a decent nomination.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Kafka on the Shore

Haruki Murakami
Completed 5/2/2023, Reviewed 5/2/2023
5 stars

This novel was a lot less complicated than I thought based on some of the reviews I read.  It’s a modern fantasy which takes place in Japan.  Not really urban fantasy, it might be thought of as magical realism, or simply, a non-traditional fantasy.  It has some elements of Oedipus Rex, plus a simpleton who can talk to cats, and a mythical being that appears as Colonel Sanders.  The beginning is a little tough to figure out what’s going on, but it eventually makes sense.  It leaves some questions unanswered in the end, but still delivers a satisfying finish.  Despite the confusing beginning, I read the second half of this book voraciously.  This book won the 2006 World Fantasy Award.

Kafka is a fifteen-year-old boy who runs away from home, leaving his single-parent indifferent father who is a famous sculptor.  He makes his way to a distant town, living off some money he stole from his father.  He eventually finds himself apprenticing at a private library run by the elusive Miss Saeki and her only librarian, Mr. Oshima.  On another plotline, Mr. Nakata is an old simple man who cannot read or write, but he can talk to cats and knows when it’s going to storm, especially if it will rain fish or leeches.  After killing a man who has been capturing and beheading stray cats, he tries to tell the police, but they think he is a crazy fool.  The next day, he leaves town not really knowing where he’s going because it hasn’t been revealed to him yet.  On the way, he meets a benevolent trucker named Hoshino who helps him complete his esoteric mission.  Eventually, the two plots intertwine through magic and coincidence without Kafka and Nakata ever meeting.  

The story is definitely weird.  It’s basically about finding one’s self in a confusing world at a confusing time in life, the teen years.  The Kafka narrative is first person.  I didn’t really like him at first, but grew to really care about him, worrying about the decisions he was making.  He runs away because he gets no warmth from his famous father.  His mother left with his older sister when he was four.  He doesn’t remember much about her.  In fact, when he found his birth certificate, no mother was listed.  His father once told Kafka he was cursed to kill him and sleep with his mother and sister.  During the course of the story, he seems to fulfill this prophesy, or does he?  It’s times like these that you wonder how reliable Kafka is as narrator.  Still he’s so endearing and lost that you can’t help come to care for him.

Mr. Nakata is loveable from the start, from the way he expresses himself to his belief in the messages revealed to him.  He is so gentle and childlike you just want to take him in and protect him.  That’s basically what draws in Hoshino after offering him a ride over a big bridge.  Hoshino cares for him like he’s his grandfather, but slowly experiences his own metanoia through knowing and helping Nakata.  In fact, Hoshino became my favorite character through the second half of the book.  His transformation is fun and tender.

A special note should be made for Oshima.  He’s an LGBTQ+ character that becomes a protector and mentor to Kafka.  He is warm, gentle, and complicated himself.  I don’t want to go into more detail because it gives away some plot elements.  But he was my favorite character from the time Kafka meets him until Hoshino begins his transformation.

Based on the three paragraphs above, the characterization and development is simply marvelous, and I didn’t even delve into the female characters, Sakura and Miss Saeki, who are also wonderfully done.  The prose is perfect, that is, lovely without being overwhelmingly flowery.  The dialogue is realistic, especially for the quirky Kafka, who sometimes sounds like an adult, and sometimes like the kid he still is.  And the magic involved is weird, but delightful.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I read about two hundred pages through the wee morning hours last night and finished the last seventy before going to work today.  I became obsessed with how it was going to all tie together.  And I wanted to see what decisions Kafka was going to make.  My stomach dropped a few times with some of the twists and turns, and my heart warmed at the end.  I guess I had quite the visceral reaction to this book, which is why I gave this excellent book the fifth star.