Friday, June 30, 2023

Wylding Hall

Elizabeth Hand
Completed 6/30/2023, Reviewed 6/30/2023
3 stars

I was not enamored with this book.  It took a while for me to get into it, and with it being a short novel/long novella, the story was almost over when I felt it got engrossing.  I’ve only read two other books by hand, Winterlong and Waking the Moon.  I liked the first and loved the second.  I really like how Hand writes, but the story itself is sometimes a little lacking.  That’s how I felt about this book.  Told in an interview format with the surviving members of a British folk-rock band that spent a summer in a haunted house, the writing was very good, but the buildup was lacking.  Nonetheless, it won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Novella (a horror award), and was nominated for a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.  

In the ‘70’s when folk was king, a band named Windhollow Faire is sent to a countryside manor to focus on creating a second album.  As you would expect, there’s a lot of sex, drugs, and music.  Everything seems normal until strange things start happening, like hearing ethereal music, seeing thousands of wrens cover the sun, and an apparition of an androgynous girl with two rows of teeth.  Julian, the creative genius of the band, finds books on the supernatural and the occult.  And while this inspires him to make incredible acid-folk songs, it also causes his disappearance.  Years later, after the band has attained a retro-cult status, a documentarian interviews the surviving band members, their producer, a rock critic, and several others on the events of that summer.  

The buildup of the haunting is very slow.  As much as I love music and have loved fantasy books about musicians, I was wasn’t drawn into the creative process of developing an album.  Of course, the process involves the egos, relationships, in-fighting, pot and acid, and booze.  Here, it also involves Julian’s obsession with the occult.  I didn’t find these elements to had much oomph to them.  Hand’s writing kept me reading though, and I was rewarded with the disappearance of Julian. That’s what finally reeled me in.

While I found it boring, the first half of the book is clearly necessary to paint the characters for the reader.  When Julian disappears, the rest of the book details everyone’s fear, confusion, and horror at the event.  And without understanding the band members, you won’t appreciate this. Worth noting is the only American in the band, Lesley, the amazing singer who is in somewhat of a relationship with Julian.  She was both a very mature and very immature seventeen-year-old at the time who went on to have her own successful career in music.  She is the first to notice the disappearance.  Another character of note is Tom, the driven producer/manager who sets up this retreat to the countryside manor.  I liked his perspective and his belief in the band.  

With each of Hand’s books, I’m always surprised at how well written they are.  I was in this case as well.  At first I balked at the interview style with constant cuts between the interviewees.  But it told the story fairly linearly and was easy to follow.  I particularly liked two scenes: one where the band is having an outdoor spontaneous jam session that becomes their second album, and their night performing at a pub for the locals in the small town in which the manor is located.  Both scenes are very alive and vivid.  I could feel the joy of the band as they get to do what they do best.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  That’s sort of an average of my not caring for the first half and then being engrossed in the second half.  I’ll probably read one more book by Hand this year, as I created a reading challenge on Worlds Without End that features the three prominent Elizabeths in genre fiction:  Hand, Moon, and Bear.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern
Completed 6/25/2023, Reviewed 6/25/2023
4 stars

Another circus themed book, this one was a book club selection.  It was fantasy based, whereas The Circus Infinite was science fiction.  I really liked this book, though I had trouble following the timelines and the multitude of characters in the beginning.  By the end, I was hooked and stayed up until four in the morning finishing the last hundred pages.  I thought this book was very creative.  The only thing I didn’t like about it was the time period.  The late 1800’s is not my favorite.  I generally don’t like the stuffiness of Victorian stories and often find the prose to be cold because of that.  Fortunately, the book finished with a lot of expressed emotions.  I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic, always looking for some kind of passion I can empathize with.  This book won the 2012 Locus First Novel Award and was nominated for several others. 

The book follows Celia and Marco, two magic wielders apprenticed to different master magicians.  At a very early age, their masters lock them into a contest whose rules and setting are not revealed, though the stakes are their very lives.  When they grow into adulthood, they both become involved in a magical circus which becomes the venue for the competition.  After a time, they fall in love, find out the stakes, and must deal with the implications as it not only affects them, but the other performers and customers alike.

I found most of the characters to be interesting, but none of them really drew me in until about halfway through the book.  That’s when Celia and Marco start becoming angry at their master over the lack of information.  Their feelings start to come out and they become more fleshed out as real people.  My favorite characters, though, were Poppet and Widget, twins born on the grand opening day of the circus, and Bailey, an American boy infatuated with the circus who wants to go to Harvard but is being forced to take over the family farm.  As children, they were much easier to warm up to, and as they grew, they remained three-dimensional.  

The circus itself is basically a character as well.  It has a magical life breathed into it which makes it incredibly popular.  The Cirque des Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams, is only open at night and no one ever sees it come into a city, be erected, taken down, or leave.  It has one tent for each feature, like the magic of Celia, the Wishing Tree, the Tarot reader, the Hall of Mirrors, the Labyrinth, and the garden made of ice.  I really loved the descriptions of each tent.  Morgenstern breathed life into each one with her prose.  The circus seems to be tied to Marco and Celia, not just as a venue for their competition.  Their emotions, their very lives, in fact, have a direct effect on the stability of the circus.  

I was impressed by the prose.  It was good without being pretentious, which I feel happens so easily with Victorian era stories.  And the world building, or in this case, circus building, was stunning.  I was worried this would be a Cirque de Soliel rip off, but it was so much more than that. It’s not a traditional circus, but the imagination that went into crafting it was excellent.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I’m interested in how the book club will react to this book.  Already, some comments have been posted that the book is ponderous and pretentious.  Occasionally, I felt it dragged, especially towards the beginning.  It could have shed maybe fifty pages.  But I thought it was great.  

Monday, June 19, 2023

In the Lives of Puppets

TJ Klune
Completed 6/17/2023, Reviewed 6/19/2023
5 stars

Another incredible book by TJ Klune.  I adored it.  It’s a sweet story about a chosen family, inspired primarily by the original story of Pinnochio (as opposed to the Disney-fied version), as well The Swiss Family Robinson and the Wizard of Oz.  I even found a little Frankenstein in there as well.  It features an asexual young man, shedding light on what it feels like to be ace, and what it means for an ace person to be in love.  It’s also a story about robots in the future that have exterminated most of the humans.  It’s a scary look at what could come of AI.  I just love Klune’s books.  There is always a warmth, a humanness to them that is often lacking in other science fiction and fantasy, even though this is primarily about robots.  This book is no exception.  It’s a worthy successor to The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door.  

The plot is pretty straightforward.  Gio Lawson is a creator robot.  He invents and repairs many items, whether it’s other robots or non-robotic mechanical devices.  He lives in the forest with his human son, Victor, who also becomes a creator and repairs things.  In their little family, there are also two robots, an old Roomba-like robot named Rambo, and a sweetly sadistic medical device named Nurse Ratched (yes, as in Cuckoo’s Nest).  Life is fine until Victor finds a scrapped android in the nearby scrap yard.  He restores the android, giving it a mechanical heart tainted with his blood, like Gio has.  HAP (for Hysterically Angry Puppet) comes back to life, but has no memory of its former life.  Soon, Victor finds out that HAP and Gio have a shared past, that of hunting and killing humans.  As he’s coming to grips with that, the robot Authority finds Gio, captures him, and takes him back to the City of Electric Dreams.  Victor decides he must find Gio at all costs to restore his family, travelling with HAP, Rambo, and Nurse Ratched to the City in search of the Blue Fairy, the only robot that might be able to help him.  

Victor is a wonderfully developed character.  He doesn’t speak until he’s five or six, and his only role model is his robot father.  Despite being a robot, Gio is very human.  He found himself becoming lonely, aching for the love of another.  So with the help of the Blue Fairy, he escaped the City and genetically engineered Victor.  With the help of Rambo and Nurse Ratched, the four of them become a little family.  Then when HAP comes onto the scene, Victor experiences the first inklings of love.  It’s all very sweet, but also very complicated.  

Rambo and Nurse Ratched are great for comic relief.  Rambo can’t stop talking and Nurse Ratched wants to constantly perform autopsies on things to study them better.  But they are also part of this weird and wonderful little family of Victor’s.  They would do anything for him as he would do anything for them.  

HAP is an amazing character.  At once terrifying and lovable, he is more of a Frankenstein’s monster than Pinnochio.  Despite having a violent nature, he’s imprinted on Victor and would go to any lengths to protect him.  But he’s still basically a puppet, whom Victor clearly wishes were a real boy.  

I loved the ending.  It could have been completely schmaltzy.  Instead, it carefully stepped around the easy saccharine tropes and became a slow, deliberate, yet hopeful ending.  Everything doesn’t turn out perfectly for Victor and his family, but it’s a start.  And it’s enough of a start to make your eyes leak.  

This is another five stars from me for Klune.  I really tried to guard against being too easy on the book and the author.  I did happen to see him at Powell’s Books a few weeks ago and found him a delightful speaker.  He was also very gracious during the signing, even though I was towards the end of the massive line and he was clearly getting tired.   No, I’m giving this book five stars because I love Klune’s prose.  It’s not pretentious, but gently descriptive.  And I felt here that Klune wrote action remarkably well.  And of course, I had a few tears at the end.  But most of all, Klune really knows how to write queer, genre-defying tales that make you think hard and feel deeply.  

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Legends and Lattes

Travis Baldree
Completed 6/10/2023, Reviewed 6/11/2023
5 stars

I’m realizing that I love sweet stories.  This is one of them.  A female orc gives up a life of dangerous adventure to open a coffee shop and falls in love with her succubus barista.  I think this one was extra special because I worked in a coffeeshop when the IT bubble burst some twenty years ago.  I loved that job.  In this book, you follow the progress of the orc as she expands her coffee shop to include pastries and music.  It may sound dull, but her discovery of new things and burgeoning trust in others is just so spot on and sweet.  I just wish coffee still cost ½ a bit.  This book was nominated for a 2022 Nebula award.  And the cover illustration is awesome.

Viv comes to a small town with her savings from all her plundering and adventures and buys a run-down livery.  She finds a hob (hobgoblin I’m thinking) named Cal building a boat and offers him a job renovating the livery.  Then she hires a succubus barista named Tandri.  Together they build a coffee shop.  The trouble is, no one knows what coffee is.  The only coffee Viv has had was at a gnome’s shop in a town where her last adventure was.  So Tandri helps her advertise.  They name the store Legends and Lattes.  Soon they are joined by a rattkin (a mouse-like person) named Thimble who bakes the most amazing cinnamon rolls.  She attributes her success to a magic stone she recovered on her last adventure.  All goes well until the local organized crime comes around requiring a monthly fee for “protection”.

I loved Viv.  She’s a worldly orc, but a little naïve about business.  Thank goodness for Cal and Tandri.  She is very sweet and sincere.  Viv has a deep desire to never go back to her previous way of life.  However, between the threat of the not having mob protection and other issues that pop up, she’s tempted to resolve her problems with violence.  Tandri convince her not to.

Tandri is just one of the colorful characters who show up to help Viv.  I liked her as I did the others on the crew: Cal, Thimble, Pendry the lute player, and Amity, a giant cat who appears and disappears at will. Everyone is genuine and helpful.  It’s the beginnings of a chosen family.  And it’s about nurturing community.  When tragedy does befall the coffee shop, everyone come to help.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  When tragedy struck, I felt it in my stomach.  When the community rallied to Viv’s side, I got warm all over.  I didn’t want the story to end.  I was grateful that there was a neat short story added to this edition.  It recounts the adventure Viv was on when she discovered the gnomish coffeeshop.  Another book is coming out in November, “Bookshops and Bonedust”, which I’ll have to read.  It takes place in the same universe and I’m hoping Viv and Tandri show up at least for a while.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Into the Riverlands

Nghi Vo
Completed 6/4/2023, Reviewed 6/4/2023
4 stars

The third novella in the Singing Hills series.  I loved it as much as the second.  With each installment, I get a little more info that I missed in the first.  In this case, I finally figured out that the talking bird that was in the first book but absent in the second book because she was waiting for a clutch to hatch, is actually a special creature that has an indelible memory.  The bird, a neixin named Almost Brilliant, accompanies the cleric Chih to help remember the stories they hear.  This book didn’t have a single story being told within the story.  Rather there were several stories, one of Chih experiences first hand.  This book is the last book nominated for a 2023 Lambda Literary Award for Speculative Fiction.  The winner is going to be announced the weekend after this review is published.

Chih and Almost Brilliant make their way into the Riverlands to gather stories about the near-immortal superhero-like martial artists who battled the group of powerful bandits called the Hollow Hand.  At an inn, the two meet two young women named Wei Jintai and Mac Sang. Jintai helps stop a muscle-bound raging miner who tries to rough up the waitress and Chih.  Then they meet a straight couple, Lao Bingyi and her husband Mac Khanh.  They end up traveling together to Betony Docks deep in the Riverlands.  And yes, Khanh tries to figure out if he and Sang are related.  The stories featured within this story deal with women considered “ugly” but end up being unsung heroes.  One such ugly woman goes on to fight the evil Hollow Hand into extermination.  Back in the main story, Chih and their companions come across a resurgence of the Hollow Hand and some of our group are a lot more than they seem.

This book was a bit of a deviation from the first two.  Chih plays a much larger role than just storyteller and story-gatherer.  The non-binary cleric does not fight, but has more interaction with the two couples on their journey, giving us a better sense of who they are.  I really liked Chih, whether they were brave or terrified.  They are basically a gentle soul who does their best with each situation at hand.  I also liked Sang, the young woman who wants to tell ugly woman stories to counteract all the beautiful damsel stories that dominate the culture.  Jintai and Bingyi were also great as the kick-ass women who may or may not be the martial arts masters of legend.  

Once again, the prose is just lovely.  The writing is just descriptive enough to make you feel immersed in the travels of the companions.  And the stories within the story help keep the book going while waiting for the main plot’s action to begin.  The book is definitely more action packed than the first two.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  I have a feeling this one is going to win the Lammy since the first two books, The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came down the Mountain, were overlooked and this series has a huge following.  However, I’m often shocked at what the Lammy judges pick, so who’s to say.  While I have my favorite of the five nominees, I would be happy if this book won.  And oh yeah, it turns out there’s a fourth book in this series.  Guess I’ll have to read that one too.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Nghi Vo
Completed 6/4/2023, Reviewed 6/4/2023
4 stars

I was so glad this second novella wasn’t as complexly constructed as the first.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  I understood a few more things about the cleric, Chih, too.  The prose is wonderful and the story within the story was fascinating as it was told from two perspectives.  This one has talking and shapeshifting tigers and a mammoth that the main characters ride through the mountains.  It’s a little like A Thousand and One Nights, but unique in its pseudo-Chinese setting and magical elements.

Chih, the non-binary cleric, continues on their journey to collect the history of the region from the stories of people.  They need to get over a pass.  Their guide over the pass is Si-Yu, a woman with a lance and a mammoth.  The journey should only take two days if a storm doesn’t come in early.  When they get near the way station they find a naked woman over the body of a near-dead man.  Si-Yu and Chih rush to save the man, chasing the naked woman away.  Suddenly, they are chased by three tigers and hide in a barn.  The tigers, of course, can talk and change into women.  But as tigers, they want to eat our companions.  Chih makes a deal with the tigers to tell them his version of the story of the love between a famous tiger, Ho Thi Thao, and the scholar Dieu.  It is a delay tactic in hopes they will be rescued by Si-Yu’s mammoth riding people.  But also, it is an opportunity for Chih to get the tiger’s perspective of this story.  The tigers agree but warn that if the story is very wrong, the deal is off.  

Chih is a little more fleshed out in this tale, where they are the narrator and primary negotiator with the tigers.  Si-Yu, not as much, but through her comments, we get some insight into the mammoth riding culture of the north.  Then in the story within the story, Ho Thi Thao and Dieu are very well developed.  One of the things I liked the best was the differences between Chih’s version of the story and the tiger’s version.  At times the differences are subtle, but they emphasize what is important to humans vs. tigers.  I also liked it is that it is a thinly veiled allegory of two women in love.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I found it much more accessible than The Empress of Salt and Fortune.  The slow-burn romance between Ho Thi Thao and Dieu was engrossing.  And the tension between Chih and the tigers wanting to eat them is riveting.  Now on to the third book in the series…

Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo
Completed 6/3/2023, Reviewed 6/3/2023
3 stars

I read this book because it is the first of a series of novellas of which the third was nominated for a 2023 Lambda Literary Award.  It is a much loved story with a big fan base.  Well, I didn’t care for it.  I found it gorgeously written, but hard to follow.  In fact, I was lost through most of it until the end.  It’s told in a series of flashbacks by a handmaiden of an empress in a pseudo-China empire.  Fortunately, the other books are not direct sequels, though it follows the journey of Cleric Chih, to whom in this book the flashbacks are relayed.

Chih is walking through the forest with their trusty talking bird and come upon a small house.  It is inhabited by an old woman nicknamed Rabbit.  Over the following days, Rabbit tells stories of her time with In-yo, the girl brought from the north to marry the emperor for political reasons.  After bearing an heir, she is exiled and the emperor invades her homeland.  Rabbit comforts her in despair and plays games with her as well, as she waits for liberation and revenge.

Most of the way through this 120 page novella, I felt like I missed the point of the stories about In-yo and Rabbit.  These vignettes were very short and were followed by Rabbit asking Chih if they understood it.  Whether Chih did or not, I didn’t.  Based on reading other reviews, there’s a lot of female rage and condemnation of patriarchal monarchy in the vignettes, but I simply missed it.  I’m hoping the next two books in the series are not quite as esoteric as this one.  I give this book three stars out of five because the prose is wonderful.  I just wish the story was more accessible.

Friday, June 2, 2023

The Circus Infinite

Khan Wong
Completed 6/2/2023, Reviewed 6/2/2023
5 stars

I loved this story about a psychically powerful young man coming into his own with the help of a modern circus troupe.  The story is equally sweet and dark.  It tackles a lot of topics including racial prejudices and ace-phobia.  The book has some some flaws, like development of some characters who should have been more prominent, but in the end, I didn’t want it to end.  This book is a 2023 Lammy nominee, and would have my vote, although I haven’t read the fifth nominee yet. 

Jes is an asexual mixed species escapee from an Institute where he was being studied for having the apparently never before seen ability to manipulate gravity.  There he was treated like a lab rat, controlled and tortured for the sake of science.  He finds his way onto a moon that one could call a new Las Vegas.  Sex, drugs, and debauchery abounds.  He finds his way to a moderately successful circus where he gets a job as a grunt.  Besides manipulating gravity, he has the usual gift of being able to read other people’s emotions, called sussing.  Through sussing, he finds himself able to share his other talent with a few key people.  Soon he helps transform the circus into something akin to a super-Cirque du Soliel.  Things are going well until the big boss of the casino that houses the circus discovers his talents, discovers the bounty on Jes from the institute, and uses it to manipulate him to do his dirty work.  Can Jes break free of this new indentured servitude to live in peace with the community he’s longed for his whole life?

Jes is simply a wonderful character.  Through him, we learn what it means to be asexual and accompany him on his first journey of falling in love.  I thought this was done brilliantly, giving voice to an orientation about which I know little.  We learn tons about him through his sussing gift.  Yes, we learn what the other characters are thinking, but in turn, we get a complete picture of how Jes responds to it all, very clearly informing us of who he is.  The story is told in two timelines.  One is the present where he finds his way to the moon with the circus.  The other is a journey through his past, revealing his disinterested parents and the horrors of his treatment at the institute.  All this made me so sympathetic to him that, well, yes, I was leaking a few tears at the end of the book.

Racism/Species-ism is a big topic through the book.  Jes is a mixed species person who gets poor treatment from both sides of his parentage.  One of the reasons he goes to this moon is that it is one of the few places in the nine species alliance where he has more of a chance to acceptance than on either his home planet of that of his mother.  The cast of the circus is complete with the representatives of the nine united intelligent species.  We learn a little about some of them, a lot about a few others.  It makes for great reading and is a great mirror into our own society today.  

The world building is interesting.  It doesn’t go into detail about all the different worlds visited in this book, but it gives you enough of the main ones that you feel like you’ve been there.  Along the same lines, the prose is nice but not overly flowery.  It gives you enough description to make you feel cozy or uncomfortable in this universe, but doesn’t rely so much on it that it loses momentum.  There’s enough action and believable dialogue to keep the book moving. 

I think my biggest disappointment with the book was that there wasn’t enough development of Jes’ love interest, Bo.  Through the sussing, we get a decent amount of information about him.  In particular, he’s very respectful of Jes’ asexuality.  But I felt there was something missing with Bo.  It may have just been time.  Perhaps if the two had more and longer interactions, I would have felt like I knew him better.  Instead we learned a lot about a few of the other circus people who get close to Jes.  I’m not knocking that, as there is good character development with the others.  I just wish there was more about Bo.  

I’ve spent a lot of time describing why this book is so sweet, with Jes’ journey, but it has a lot of dark moments, too.  The torture he receives at the institute is pretty horrifying.  The fate of some of the other young people there are gruesome as well.  Jes’ gravity manipulation not only can make the triplet contortionists float during their act, it can be used as a weapon and as a tool for its own torture and murder.  That’s what big boss Dax gets Jes to perform through blackmail and manipulation.  It can be hard to read as Jes tries to stay true to his morality but then allows himself to be controlled by Dax.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  It met my requirement of moving me deeply in some way.  It was my affection for Jes that did it for me.  Sometimes I think I’m a sucker for a sweet story, like the recent works of TJ Klune (The House in the Cerulean Sea and his next book on my TBR pile, “In the Lives of Puppets”).  I like a lot of different types of stories, but I will always have a place in my heart for books like these.