September in Retrospect

September ended up being a slower month than I’d intended, blog-wise. I still did my usual amount of reading, but didn’t do much posting, and ended up taking a bit of a hiatus to catch up on my reading to begin with. I blame work, really. Too many days of having to get up at 5:30 AM to get to training on time. Hopefully things should balance out a bit better, now that my shifts aren’t so early.

But enough about what I didn’t do. Let’s look at what little I actually managed to do!

Reviews

Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress
Iron Night, by M L Brennan
My Real Children, by Jo Walton
The Broken Road, by Teresa Frohock
Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

Guest Posts

Lian Hearn on the Blackguards anthology.

Other Stuff

In a Reviewer’s Dilemma post, I discussed the pros and cons of accepting money in exchange for reviews. I also did another On the Watchlist post to highlight a few bo0ks that are currently on my radar.

I discussed why diversity in books, especially YA books, is important, and why I wish I could have been exposed to greater diversity in my youth. It’s not just important to give a wider variety of people a voice and a presence in media, but it’s also important to tear down the ignorance of people who, like me, were startlingly unaware of racism and prejudice for a long time, and who made that ignorance known publically and painfully.

I was also privileged to be part of a Mind Meld on SF Signal, joining a bunch of others in talking about books that just make us shake our heads at other readers. This was inspired, apparently, by an older Reviewer’s Dilemma post that I did: Did I Miss Something?

Upcoming

I may have only reviewed 5 books here last month, but I did get 8 read, and I’m surprised I managed to get that many, all things considered. I have 3 that are currently in need of reviewing still, and 1 more which will be appearing shortly as a guest review over at Bookworm Blues. There’s also a good chance I’ll be participating in another SF Signal Mind Meld, which is going to be a lot of fun!

No guest posts scheduled at the moment, nor giveaways, though I’m always open to the idea. :p

I’ve settled into a comfortable routine whereby I read on my Kindle at home and a hardcopy book at work and on the commute, which is allowing me to get about 2 books read a week, so I think I should be able to keep up with my reviewing schedule a bit better in October. But since there are so many amazing books being released this month, and I know I’m not even going to be able to read half of the ones I’ve got my eye on, I’m also planning to do a Release Day post or two, to bring attention to the books I don’t currently have time to read but that definitely deserve some publicity!

So, that’s my lackluster September in a nutshell. How did yours go? Was it as slow as my blog posts implied, hectic like my work schedule implied, or did you manage to find a better balance than I did?

Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 25, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Alexandra Belarus is a struggling artist living in New York City, even though her family is rich in real estate, including a towering Gothic Gramercy Park building built by her great-great-grandfather. But the truth of her bloodline is revealed when she is attacked on the street and saved by an inhumanly powerful winged figure. A figure who knows the Belarus name…

Lexi’s great-great-grandfather was a Spellmason—an artisan who could work magic on stone. But in his day, dark forces conspired against him and his, so he left a spell of protection on his family. Now that Lexi is in danger, the spell has awoken her ancestor’s most trusted and fearsome creation: a gargoyle named Stanis.

Lexi and Stanis are equally surprised to find themselves bound to each other. But as they learn to work together, they realize that only united can they save the city they both love…

Thoughts: Lexi, an artist from an affluent New York family finds herself in a difficult situation after her brother is killed and she finds herself thrust into an unwanted world of real estate when she’d rather be pursuing her art. But then she discovers that her family has a generations-old secret; her great-great-grandfather was a Spellmason, a mage who could work his will on stone, and Lexi has inherited the talent. With her friends Rory and Marshall, and an awakened gargoyle named Stanis, Lexi must master Spellmasonry, track down her brother’s killer, and reveal the secrets behind a long-kept grudge at the heart of it all.

Urban fantasy novels can be really hit-or-miss with me. I often find them too full of romance that I’m uninterested in, which overshadows and buries UF books that I would otherwise enjoy, because I’m too used to expecting to not like them that I don’t even give them a chance. But the Spellmason Chronicles were starting to sound like a pretty good bet for me, as I was hearing about them from sources that also weren’t that big on overlarge romantic subplots, so I decided to give them a chance.

And it was worth it. The idea of magic shaping stone was an interesting one to play with, especially with a character who was trying to figure out her talents through trial and error and decades-old notes from a dead ancestor. Seeing Lexi struggle with mastering her craft, and trying to balance responsibility with enjoyment was very well done, and something that often gets overlooked in stories. You often either have a character whose biggest struggle is to hide what they’re doing from others, but rarely does it happen that you see them in the early stages and trying to keep a mundane life going at the same time. The day-to-day grind gets forgotten, because it’s not as interesting. In theory. I actually found it quite realistic to see Lexi get frustrated by having to do a job she resented, while she’d rather be doing something she found much more worthwhile, even if it was arcane and obscure.

So that aspect of the story was good. So, too, were some of the characters. Stanis especially. He went from a blank slate (no stone pun intended), a family guardian with rules to follow but litter personality, to a person struggling not only to regain his memories, but also struggling with regaining his memories and what they meant for him, as he gradually turns from stone-come-to-life to a man made of stone.

The only character I wasn’t that fond of was Marshall. I found him unpleasantly stereotypical of the socially-inept geek. Despite knowing that neither Rory nor Lexi really was interested in role-playing, fantasy and sci-fi, or any of that stuff, he proceeded to make just about every conversation incorporate some element of genre into it, right down to mentioning how in Lord of the Rings, Sam regretted not bringing rope. I normally like geeky references in my fiction, but this was, at times, just painful to read, since there seemed to be little to Marshall’s character except for geeky references. It was like Rory making mention of dancing in every conversation she had, or Lexi bringing up art every time she commented on something. I wanted to like him more than I did, and I’m hoping that in future installments of the series, he gets a bit more character development and grows beyond what little I saw of him here.

The only other complaint I have about this book is the sheer leaps of logic required for plot advancement. And the leaps were always accurate. No false leads, no mistaken assumptions. Every time, complete accuracy. Which was impressive when you consider that some of the leaps of logic were along the lines of, “This thing we’re looking for is supposed to be in Tartarus, which is part of the Greek underworld where people got punished. If I were to go somewhere in New York City to be punished, it would totally be the subway system!” And of course, that was correct, despite only a few paragraphs later Lexi mentioning that back in her great-great-grandfather’s day, some subway stations were a marvel of architecture and were incredible to behold. It took a lot of tension away from the story and the discovery process, knowing that every time they had a puzzle to solve, it would be solved without error and that the solution wouldn’t always make sense anyway.

But for the most part, the story was crafted well enough that it was still enjoyable to read, despite its flaws. Most of the characters are interesting enough that I want to read more about them, and the story begun in Alchemystic has the potential to go far, and I want to see where the journey is going to take me as I follow along. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, and I have high hopes for the series to keep entertaining me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Broken Road, by Teresa Frohock

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website |
Publication date – September 21, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The world of Lehbet is under siege. The threads that divide Lehbet from the mirror world of Heled are fraying, opening the way for an invasion by an alien enemy that feeds on human flesh.

Travys, the youngest of the queen’s twin sons, was born mute. He is a prince of the Chanteuse, nobles who channel their magic through their voices. Their purpose is to monitor the threads and close the paths between the worlds, but the Chanteuse have given themselves over to decadence. They disregard their responsibilities to the people they protect—all but Travys, who fears he’ll fail to wake the Chanteuse to Heled’s threat in time to prevent the destruction of Lehbet.

Within the palace, intrigue creates illusions of love where there is none, and when Travys’ own brother turns against him, he is forced to flee all that he has known and enter the mirror world of Heled where the enemy has already won. In Heled, he must find his true voice and close the threads, or lose everyone that he loves.

Thoughts: Normally, I say I’m not much for novellas. For years I overlooked them, arrogantly figuring that they were somehow less good than a novel because they contained fewer words. (By that logic, short stories must be entirely without redeeming quality…) But recently I’ve come to appreciate them for what they are; whole and complete self-contained stories crammed into a smaller space than a novel, and that takes no small degree of skill to pull off well.

And an excellent example of this would be Teresa Frohock’s The Broken Road.

The story centres around Travys, born mute in a society where the keepers and users of magic do so through song. Not being one to just sit back and accept that he’d never live up o the legacy of his mother or be the equal of his twin, Travys forged his own path to magic and learned to channel fragments of ambient sound around him into a voice he could use. The magic-users, known as the Chanteuse, are tasked with holding together the threads of the world, but now the threads are fraying and horrific destruction is upon Aquitania as twisted insectoid invaders from another reality, the Teraphim, seek to break through and seize the world as their own.

And if that concept doesn’t pique your interest, nothing will.

Twice now Frohock has written something involving multiple planes of existence and a twisted take on magic and religion, and I’ve loved both things. I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with a multiverse, so I was predisposed to liking it right from the get-go, but in saying that, I would be fawning over this story even if that wasn’t a particular interest of mine. The Broken Road is intelligent, thought-provoking, and doesn’t cling to convention for convention’s sake. Like Travys, this dark fantasy tale carves its own path and strikes a beautful balance between the grotesque and the enlightening, destructive darkness and hope. If you’re a fan of nightmare imagery that manages to be disturbing without being reliant on an abundance of blood and guts, then this is the novella you should be reading.

As is often the case, my main complaint with The Broken Road is that it isn’t a full-length novel. The worlds that Frohock has built are fascinating, realistic, and combining the best parts of dark fantasy and post-apocalyptic modernity. I would love to read something longer set here, or just a more in-depth version of Travys’s story as it’s presented here already. But I find myself thinking that about just about every novella I’ve read lately, and I don’t hold that against the story or the author. What’s already here is a tightly-woven tapestry where no word is wasted and no moment passes idle. It’s a beautiful story with characters both sympathetic and enigmatic.

And there are unanswered questions and speculation about certain events, which makes me wonder if frohock has plans to revisit the world later on and expand a little bit further. I certainly hope so. There’s something about the way that she writes a dark world with glimmers of light speckled throughout that really appeals to me, on an almost visceral level. It’s entirely a matter of personal taste, so your mileage may vary, but I really enjoy the atmosphere and tone of this novella. Not one of the fantasy worlds I’d like to live in (I can do without reality decaying around me, thanks), but one that’s definitely worth taking a literary vacation to.

Long story short, if you like dark fantasy and haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Frohock’s writing yet, then start with this. It gives you a taste of the magic she can work with words, and will leave you craving more. The Broken Road leaves my hands highly recommended, and more certain than ever that Teresa Frohock is an author worth keeping an eye on.

(Received for review from the author.)

Why I Needed Diverse Books.

When I was in high school, I wrote an article for my school paper about how unfair it was that a person’s race was taken into account when applying for a job. It seemed ridiculous to me that, if 2 people were equally qualified, and 1 was white and the other black, that the black guy should get the job just because the company had a quota to meet.

I wince when I think about writing this. I wince because even though I didn’t say that black people were stealing white jobs, or that white people were somehow more qualified to bag groceries or something, I was still buying into the kind of subtle racism that makes life hell for so many people and is so hard to break down because there are so many excuses that can be made. Look, I said “equally qualified,” not that the black person is less qualified but gets the job anyway. I’m not being racist. I don’t think race should count for anything! Someone shouldn’t get or not get anything based on skin colour or ethnicity.

I wince, because I was an arrogant teenager, so assured that they were right and were not, in fact, deeply sheltered and ignorant.

I wince because now I know that I probably offended people that day. I wince because nobody, not even the teacher who was in charge of the journalism class, thought that there was anything wrong with me writing this and having it be part of the paper.

I grew up in a city that couldn’t get much whiter if it was founded by Whitey McWhiterson. I went to a high school that had about 40 non-white students out of a student body of… I don’t know, probably around 500, maybe? Give or take. I spent entire classes seeing nobody but white people, and I didn’t think anything of it, because that’s how it had always been for me.

But I knew without a doubt that racism wasn’t a problem. How could it be? It was illegal to discriminate based on race, after all, so who would dare do it? Maybe some really really bigoted stupid people, but certainly not the vast majority of people. And racism was always overt. It was racist to deny someone a job or an education because they were black. It was wrong to use racial slurs. This stuff was pretty blatant. And I never saw racism happening, so therefore it must not happen.

The reason this is on my mind is because I’ve been following Diversity in YA lately, and seeing them work to enhance visibility for minorities in YA fiction is inspiring. And I wanted to tell this story because it highlights their point quite well, I think. It’s similar to We Need Diverse Books. They exist not just so that minorities can get greater agency and representation in fiction. They also exist so that dumbass teens like me no longer can have quite as ready an excuse for thinking that the world is white and white.

I think back to the books that I read in high school. The ones that were mandatory reading for the curriculum were books or plays written by white guys about white guys, and the most diversity you can say they had is that they were written by people who weren’t North American. The books I read for fun? let’s just say that I can remember a single example of a non-white character. A side character, best friend of the beautiful white female lead. Any other books I may have read that had non-white characters were books where the entire point was about how non-white they were. They were books about the struggles of a black girl growing up in the American South in the 1800s, for instance, or a Chinese boy working on the railroads out west. Which are good stories to tell, but what they leave is the overwhelming impression that racial inequality is a thing of the past, cruel and overt and currently nonexistent.

I didn’t think such deep thoughts back then. I’m sure I thought I did. But as I said, I was pretty ignorant, and sheltered from how things tended to actually work. I, like just about every other discontent teenager, thought I was experienced and smart and observant and that the system was just holding me back from being taken seriously. Look what could happen if you let people like me have a say!

The problem is that people like me had a say for far too long. And they wouldn’t shut up.

Representation was an echo chamber, with white people making media for other white people, and our words just bounce right back at us and all we hear is that this is exactly what people want to see. Sure, you’ve got to be inclusive, so let’s throw a black guy in the mix to balance things out. Now we’re cooking with diversity! Still not inclusive enough? Ugh, fine, I’ll make this girl be stuck in a wheelchair. Geez, what do you people want? Not many people are black or disabled, you know. There’s no reason to give minorities this much visibility, since there are so few of them. They’re minorities!

And the situation I saw around me, my day-to-day life, backed this up. There were very few non-white students at my school. I extrapolated, and concluded that there were just very few non-white people. Media backed me up on this. TV shows and books and movies all confirmed that I was right.

This is why groups like Diversity in YA need to exist. So that people get exposed to a greater slice of the world than their tiny crumb. So that people know that there are more shades than white. And so they learn it early on, before they have as much chance to start running their mouths and talking about how affirmative action plans are just stupid and unfair because they make race a qualification, and it’s not my fault that I wasn’t born with darker skin.

I didn’t know, at the time, that as much as it’s technically illegal to discriminate based on race, that doesn’t really stop people. I didn’t know that sometimes those quotas exist because otherwise people would, either consciously or unconsciously, not hire black people simply because they’re black people. I didn’t know that other people were still making race a qualification by telling me, in a hundred and one tiny ways, every day, that being white was better. That being white was normal, was default, was the status quo.

I remember, back when I was really young, around 9 or so, being only enough aware of race to think that if I were black, people wouldn’t try to beat me up so much or make fun of me, and that if they did, I’d have recourse to complain because then and only then would people pay attention. A white kid beating up a white kid was normal. A white kid beating up a black kid was wrong. As wrong as a boy hitting a girl. People take it seriously, then. I wished I was black. I was angry that I wasn’t. I thought it would have made so many things so much easier.

I want to cry, knowing what I know now and having thought that. It was so naive. I can handwave some of that because I was a kid, and kids are supposed to be naive, but there’s only so much I can justify, even to myself. All I saw was that minorities get special treatment, and that by being common, I get nothing.

No matter how much awesome representation minorities get, thoughts like this are still going to cross a kid’s mind, because kids are kids and have very little concept of what lies beyond themselves. But as a person grows up and learns more about the world, these thoughts are supposed to change. They’re supposed to grow smaller, not bigger, because you’re supposed to learn that there’s more than just you and that diversity is great and there’s a crap-ton out there that’s worth seeing and learning about and exposing yourself to, and that all of these people are just like you and have the same thoughts and feelings and are worthy of just as much respect that you want for yourself. And that’s why we need greater diversity, all over the place but especially early on, so that the toxic naivite shrinks a little quicker, or maybe never gets as large to begin with.
Maybe it isn’t fair that race gets taken into account when filling out a job application. But it does. Even if you don’t see it, it does. It gets taken into account whether you put a check in a ticky-box saying that you’re of east Asian descent, and it gets taken into account if you were born in the UK and are as white as white can be. The thing of it is, it’s the white folk who get most of the advantages in life, many of them so subtle that you don’t notice it because nobody’s saying, “You get this because you’re white.” So until we can actually start discounting race, entirely throwing it out the window and breaking down centuries of reinforced ideas, it’s got to keep mattering. On all sides of the die. It matters. And it’s cruel to pretend otherwise.

We need diverse books so that people don’t have to keep putting up with the same arrogant rhetoric that I spouted back in high school. We need diverse books so that more people are aware that there’s more to life than just what they see in the mirror, and so that others can see something in the mirror that society isn’t telling them is shameful. We need diverse books to reduce ignorance and increase tolerance. We need diverse books because diversity is reality, no matter how much some try to deny it.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Thoughts: I fell in love with Walton’s work way back in early 2011, with Among Others, which quickly rose to be a book I knew I was going to reread at least once a year (that’s holding true so far). That love has endured to this day, and I kind of want to devour any of her books that I can get my hands on, especially after having my heart utterly broken by the beautiful parallel stories in My Real Children.

Walton straddles the genre lines in My Real Children, keeping balance flawlessly as she tells a set of stories that are very much contemporary, the stories of a person’s life from childhood to adulthood, with all the mundanities and excitement of regular life (birth, marriage, divorce, war, history marching on), and only in context do you really see how it’s all brilliant speculative fiction. The whole point is that Patricia is remembering 2 different lives, which diverged from each other at a single decision point, something which led to an entirely different world springing up around her. Her decision whether or not to marry Mark should, by all logic, have only influenced her own life and what happens immediately around her, things that she directly influences. But in the world where she has a happy marriage, nuclear bombs are dropped on various places after Hiroshima, different wars happen, the world develops differently, and it’s difficult to trace nuclear events to a woman who becomes a travel writer and gets romantically involved with another woman.

And yet, you can’t help but read this book and wonder about the chains of coincidence that might have led to it all. A different decision, characters in different states of mind depending on the timeline drop a word in someone’s ear, a someone who takes the idea and runs with it and that idea reaches people in power whose decisions change from what they may have done otherwise, all traced back to whether one woman agrees to marry one man. No direct causal link is ever explicitly stated, and Patricia herself wonders how it could have all happened, but I think more important is that it gets the reader thinking about the dozens, hundreds of different ways life could have gone had someone made a different decision in their lives.

The ripple effect, the butterfly effect, call it what you like, but ultimately it means that small things can have huge unintended consequences.

More than that, it all comes so wonderfully full circle. Early in the book Patricia muses that she’s known famous people before they were famous, and you’d never be able to guess who they’d become later on in their lives. And then we see, piece by piece, how Patricia’s small decision, something that by all rights shouldn’t have such consequences, might have made all the difference to the world. The circle also is complete by the ambiguous ending. After chapters of your heart breaking as you watch Patricia slowly lose her memory, from the small things to the big, her life leads her to the same place in the end and she thinks that if she had a choice as to which timeline to pick, to eliminate one or the other, she’d pick… And it breaks off. It’s never said which she picks, or if she picks, or if that thought made a difference at all. Maybe she forgot it in the next moment.

It really is heartbreaking to see Patricia lose herself as dementia takes hold. Seeing it from her perspective, her frustration with herself at forgetting things she should know, seeing her children get frustrated and angry at her for it. You get to see both sides of the coin, and it’s raw and powerful difficult to read, as it should be. It examines just how much our memories make us who we are, and how there are some things that are written so deep in our minds and hearts that they can’t be forgotten even when we wish they could be.

This is a difficult book to review. Most incredible books are. My Real Children is the kind of book that a mere review can’t do justice. It’s not just a book, not just a story, but an experience. Jo Walton is a storyteller of the highest order, able to write profound and nuanced books and cross genre lines in a way that few others can aspire to. I can’t heap enough praise on this book or its author, and nothing I say can really prepare you for reading it. Just know that it’s amazing, that it will break your heart, and it will stimulate your mind to look at the world in different ways. Walton’s powers of observation, her ability to tell a glorious intelligent story, and her ability to bring history to vivid life will forever ensure that I eagerly read whatever she writes. Fans of speculative fiction looking for something that breaks the mold, as well as fans of contemporary fiction with a twist, will likely adore My Real Children just as much as I did.

Time for a mini-break.

You wouldn’t believe how much reading I managed to not get done this past week. It’s funny, but unemployment spoiled me a little, when it came to reading. I had entire days in which I had nothing to do but read. Now that I’m back at work, I have considerably less spare time, and I feel like I’ve barely been reading at all.

I keep wondering how I managed to read so much last time I worked. I mean, I still managed to read  8 books a month while working full time. Surelythat much couldn’t have changed! Now I haven’t even read 4, and September is almost half over. There have barely been any posts here!

It hit me yesterday what the difference was. In my last job, I wasn’t in training. Here, I am.

And it may not seem like that big a difference. But between a big test last week, another test this week, and a third coming the week after that… My schedule’s changed so that I’m now awake at 5:30 AM, which, let me tell you, is a truly evil time of day. I’m not used to that yet. At my previous job, people knew I was a loner and left me alone to read over breaks and lunches. Here people have this wacky notion that they have to be sociable to me or something, so I don’t really get reading time unless I skip lunch and stay in the training room when everyone else is gone.

That explains the general lack of reading. The lack of posts hinges around the fact that 2 out of the 3 books I’ve read so far this month aren’t books I can review just yet. 1 is owed to someone as a guest post, the other is one that won’t get reviewed until next month. So even what I have read isn’t much good for post-fodder.

Thus, at the end of this ramble, I’m taking a week off from blogging. Call it a mini-break. I need to have a little time in which I can catch up on some reading and not feel like I’m freaking out because argh, I can only post a single review next week and that’s not enough and I feel like I’m falling behind, panic panic panic!

(Ignore that I’m the one who determines my own post schedule here. Anxiety rarely listens to logic.)

So for the next week, no posts from me. Just reading, relaxing, and trying to not fail tests at work. On the 22nd, I’ll be back into my regular schedule for posts, and everything should be right as rain again!

See you all in a week!

On the Watchlist

Gemsigns, by Stephanie Saulter

Humanity stands on the brink. Again.

Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically modifying almost every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic.

After a century of servitude, freedom has come at last for the gems, and not everyone’s happy about it. The gemtechs want to turn them back into property. The godgangs want them dead. The norm majority is scared and suspicious, and doesn’t know what it wants.

Eli Walker is the scientist charged with deciding whether gems are truly human, and as extremists on both sides raise the stakes, the conflict descends into violence. He’s running out of time, and with advanced prototypes on the loose, not everyone is who or what they seem. Torn between the intrigues of ruthless executive Zavcka Klist and brilliant, badly deformed gem leader Aryel Morningstar, Eli finds himself searching for a truth that might stop a war.

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

 

 

Scale-Bright, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.

Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

 

 

 

Tainted Blood, by ML Brennan

Former film student Fortitude Scott is finally gainfully employed. Unfortunately, said employment happens to be with a group of sociopathic vampires—his family. And as much as Fort is loath to get too deep into the family business, when his brother, Chivalry, is temporarily unable to run the territory, it’s up to Fort to keep things under control.

So when the leader of a powerful faction of shifters turns up murdered, Fort finds himself tracking down a killer while navigating dangerous rivalries, longtime grudges, and hidden agendas. Even with the help of his foxy kitsune sidekick, Suzume, he’ll need to pull out all the stops to hunt for the paranormal assassin.

But as he calls on fairies, witches, and ghouls for help, he discovers that the problem is much bigger than a single dead werebear. The supernatural community is preparing for a massive shift in power within the Scott family leadership—and Fort has landed right in the middle of the gathering storm…

I Am the Mission, by Allen Zadoff

He was the perfect assassin. No name. No past. No remorse. Perfect, that is, until he began to ask questions and challenge his orders. Now The Program is worried that their valuable soldier has become a liability.

And so Boy Nobody is given a new mission. A test of sorts. A chance to prove his loyalty.

His objective: Take out Eugene Moore, the owner of an extremist military training camp for teenagers. It sounds like a simple task, but a previous operative couldn’t do it. He lost the mission and is presumed dead. Now Boy Nobody is confident he can finish the job. Quickly.

But when things go awry, Boy Nobody finds himself lost in a mission where nothing is as it seems: not The Program, his allegiances, nor the truth.

The riveting second book in Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody series delivers heart-pounding action and a shocking new twist that makes Boy Nobody question everything he has believed.

Iron Night, by M L Brennan

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 7, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Underachieving film theory graduate and vampire Fortitude Scott may be waiting tables at a snooty restaurant run by a tyrannical chef who hates him, but the other parts of his life finally seem to be stabilizing. He’s learning how to rule the Scott family territory, hanging out more with his shapeshifting friend Suzume Hollis, and has actually found a decent roommate for once.

Until he finds his roommate’s dead body.

The Scott family cover-up machine swings into gear, but Fort is the only person trying to figure out who (or what) actually killed his friend. His hunt for a murderer leads to a creature that scares even his sociopathic family, and puts them all in deadly peril.

Keeping secrets, killing monsters, and still having to make it to work on time? Sometimes being a vampire really sucks.

Thoughts: I have an unpleasant track record with this series. I waited for ages to read the first book. Then I loved it. Then I waited for ages to read the second book. And I loved it too! I’m going to try to break my habit and not wait far too long to read the third book, because this series is so incredibly entertaining, well-paced and filled with characters that you want to spend time with. It’s not worth it to wait.

Fort is coming more to grips with his vampire nature, and even though he’s not entirely happy about it, he does use his abilities more to his advantage instead of constantly denying them, as he did in Generation V. Rather than going from angst to superpowered celebration, this causes some interesting tension in Fort’s character, where years of habit and uncertainty still cause him to view his vampirism in an unpleasant and sometimes frightening light but he not only needs the strength it gives him but also begins to crave both power and blood. Occasionally at inopportune times. In addition to this, Fort is taking on more responsibility within the Scott family, from making sure the bridge trolls get their shipment of goats to eat, to tracking down and bringing to justice a vicious murderer that has made its way into Scott territory.

Fort’s geekiness is brought more to light here, and not just film geekery, either. It’s offset, as before, by Suzume’s sarcasm, wit, and unending ability to pull pranks on Fort in ways that are more annoying than outright malicious, which was good to see. Pranking, in books as in real life, is one of those things that can quickly cross the line to cruelty, and I’m glad to see that things were kept on the comfortable side of the line. Suzume is one of those characters I could read about from now until the end of time. She’s funny, she’s intelligent, self-assured, and, as I said in my review of the previous novel in the series, incredibly competent.

The murder mystery in Iron Night starts with Fort coming home to find his roommate murdered, mutilated, and dumped through the apartment window. As the investigation deepens, it’s revealed that local elves are at the core of it all, and involved in a sinister plot involving blood sacrifice and breeding projects. It’s quite twisted, which is what makes Brennan’s plots so much fun to read. Things are rarely as they appear on the surface, new information is constantly coming to light, and the whole thing works quite seamlessly. I love the way Brennan plays with mythology, tweaks lore in ways that give everything a fresh new feel while still staying familiar to readers who grew up on classical fantasy and supernatural stories.

And yes, I’ll admit it, I was rooting for Suzume and Fort to get together by the end. Previously I gave the series praise for not falling prey to the old “lead male and lead female must hook up” dynamic, and in many ways, I still stand by that. While it was clear that there was a growing attraction between then as the story went on, it didn’t interfere with the story. It added to it, complemented it, but didn’t detract from it the way I find many romances do. I could really feel for the characters, and the romance didn’t feel shoehorned in out of some misunderstanding that characters need romance to be complete. Fort and Suzume are complete, whole and realized. And it’s partly because of this that they make such a good team, both professionally and romantically. This is what stands them apart from many other urban fantasy pairings I’ve come across. Not all, but many. And I like it!

When all is said and done, I want more. I spent the entire time reading this book kicking myself for not reading it sooner, much as I’d done for Generation V, and everything I liked about the previous book is still here in spades. The lore, the characters, the brilliant writing and Brennan’s flair for realism in observation and dialogue. It’s a well-crafted urban fantasy than stands head and shoulders above the competition, and if you haven’t given yourself over to the series yet, you ought to think about changing that, pronto!

(Received for review from the author.)

GUEST POST: Lian Hearn on “Blackguards”

Blackguards has been gathering quite a nice bit of hype lately, or so I’ve seen on social media, and I’m pleased to be able to host a guest post by one of the contributors. Please welcome Lian Hearn as she talks about the project!


Ragnarok’s Blackguards Anthology is the first time I’ve been invited to join a project like this. It came at good moment. I’d just returned to the Eight Islands, the fantasy world of Tales of the Otori, to write two more books which are set around three hundred years earlier than Across the Nightingale Floor. In this I look at the lives of the legendary hero, Takeyoshi, the founder of the Otori Clan, and of the five children from whom the five families of the Tribe are descended. So I’d been rereading my own books – not something I do often – and had come to an incident in Brilliance of the Moon which I’d always felt was a bit underwritten. It takes place when Takeo has come to Maruyama and confronts the Tribe families living there. He disposes of them rather quickly, though sorrowfully, in three paragraphs. One sentence stood out at me: I hoped to spare the lives of the young ones but the Tribe poisoned their own children rather than give them to me.

I am interested in this level of extremism, all too common in headlines these days. I wanted to write a story from the point of view of these young people of the Tribe who would choose death rather than compromise with someone they have been taught to hate. One of the (countless) things in Japanese culture that interests me greatly is the traditional attitude to death. From infancy, children of the bushi class were taught not to fear death. Even today testing your courage by visiting graveyards at night is a summer pastime. Japanese history, epics, tales and plays are full of characters, usually in the prime of life, who commit suicide in various ways, often by ripping their bellies, a method of death both painful and undignified. Women cut their throats or throw themselves into wells. This is invariably admired, if in a rather sombre fashion. Not to commit suicide is a greater crime, worthy of contempt.

Blackguards_front-coverVillains in Japanese history tend to be, above all, cowards. Strong men of courage are admired, no matter how conventionally ‘bad’ their actions might be. Characters like sengokujidai warlords, Hideyoshi’s generals in the brutal invasions of Korea, for example Kato Kiyomasa, Ishikawa Goemon, who was boiled alive and hence gave his name to a type of bath, or wicked Iemon in the kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan, have always been fantastically popular. There is less emphasis on personal responsibility or personal sin, rather a profound empathy for beings caught up innatural disasters, of which war is but one. And from Yoshitsune to the Byakkotai, failure, as long as it is heroic, is as deeply admired and as highly valued as success.

My story didn’t quite fit the description of blackguards (an iredeemably European word for me though I really like the two comparable Japanese words, akutô and gorotsuki). It is about people who live by their own laws, not those of the greater society. Within the Tribe families it is unthinkable to break these laws. No one escapes the Tribe forever. But for a moment we hope it will be possible, that the young will be set free from the darkness and allowed to live.

We all have our shadow side that we try to suppress, that when we see it in other people arouses hate and fear in us. But what is the shadow side of of those already on the dark side? Why do they hate and fear compassion and goodness in others? It is their own shadow side that they refuse to recognise, seeing it as weakness. The conflict between these is neverending and fascinating to me.

Lian Hearn is the bestselling author of the Tales of the Otori. Her most recent book, The Storyteller and His Three Daughters is available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about her at www.lianhearn.com

Can I just take a moment to say how much I not only want to read Blackguards, but how much I now want to read Hearn’s other works now too?

The Reviewer’s Dilemma: Show Me the Money!

What I’m going to talk about today may seem like a no-brainer for just about everybody reading this. Previously I’ve talked about a couple of things that are parts of an unwritten ethical code among reviewers, but this one has been written down, in dozens of places, and is pretty much a standard practice: Thou shalt neither charge nor accept money for reviews.

We pretty much all cling to this. To the point where many of us get angry when we find that someone did take money in exchange for their reviews. It’s seen as a betrayal of our code of conduct, a blemish on the face of amateur reviewing. It’s one thing to be doing this as a job, and getting paid from a magazine or newspaper or something similar, as part of legitimate business matters. But it’s another thing entirely to take money from someone when reviewing isn’t your job, when it’s a hobby.

True, many reviewers put in as much work on their blogs as they do on their dayjob. But we’re not paid by the hour, or the article, and we just accept that going in. It’s nice to dream about someday making money from ad revenue or affiliate links, and that’s typically accepted as okay even by those who choose not to do that themselves. But straight-up compensation in the manner of, “Hey, if you review my book, I’ll give you a free copy plus $20,” is just crass.

So where’s the dilemma part of this Reviewer’s Dilemma? Oddly enough, it was an author who recently got me thinking a little bit differently about this, who said that they have no real problem compensating people for their time because they know how much time reviewing actually takes.

Put that way, accepting a little cash now and then doesn’t seem so bad.

The problem arises, of course, when you consider that money is a great swayer of opinions. If someone pays us money to write a review, it isn’t that we’re likely to be more favourable toward the book. It’s that we’re likely to feel guilty if the book isn’t to our standards. How do you tell someone their book wasn’t that great when they just gave you enough money to pay your phone bill? (My phone bill is $29 a month, because I’m not all fancypants and pay for data or anything like all you crazy kids.) You feel like you ought to give them their money’s worth. Maybe the dialogue wasn’t that realistic or compelling, so you don’t mention that in the review. Maybe, if you rate on a 5-star system, the book warranted 3 stars, but you could add a line saying that some piddly little issue rubbed you the wrong way and that you think most others would rate it 4 stars. The bad becomes less bad when you feel guilty for saying it, so we seek to relieve some of our guilt by beefing the book up a little bit.

It doesn’t really hurt anyone. But it isn’t entirely honest, either.

Nobody has to know what you got in exchange for a review, if anything. Some of us get review copies, some of us just grab whatever looks interesting from the library, some do a mixture of both. We’re typically upfront about whether or not a book was a review copy, and in some places it’s required by law to state so because it counts as compensation for a service. But really, who’s to say? If you got a review copy but didn’t review the book until after it hits the bookstores, who’s to say you didn’t just go out and buy it? Similarly, who’s to say whether someone put money in your bank account?

But then we come to problem 2. If someone finds out you accepted money for a review, it practically destroys you. What you say becomes suspect. It doesn’t matter if a positive review would have been positive even if you hadn’t been paid, suddenly your words are called into doubt. You can say you’re honest, but you’d say that if you were dishonest, and people will point that out. Each word you wrote is now seen as less than truthful, bought and paid for, and the assumption is that you only said what you said because someone told you to say it. You sold out.


(Dammit, Supernatural, you really DO have a gif for everything!)

The problem, weirdly, comes down to perception. The change in perception within yourself when guilt may influence what you say, and the change in public perception when people find out you’ve done something that most of them won’t. It’s a standard practice because we all imposed the guideline upon ourselves, submitted ourselves to being held to that ideal by those around us. We may see the no-cash-compensation guideline as moral, but morality is often subjective to begin with.

I’m not advocating we start charging for reviews. I’ll never be doing that. I do happily accept review copies, and I consider that to be pretty much the same thing, given that a lot of the books I receive are books I probably would have bought anyway, so it’s the similar to just handing me the exact retail cost of a book and letting me get it myself. Only before it’s in stores. And with the bonus chance to discover books I might otherwise have passed over had I been left to my own devices. This is more acceptable than straight-up cash, even though logically, what it mostly does is cut out the middle man. But being subject to the social norms of reviewing the way I’ve chosen to be, I can’t deny that accepting a book seems better than accepting money, even if what I did with the money was go out and buy the book. Morality is weird sometimes.

But the author I mentioned earlier (who I’ve left nameless because if there’s backlash, I want none of it to hit them) does have something of a point. What we do as reviewers is work, and it is time-consuming. The public side of what we do, with reviewing and publicity on social media, that takes up enough time. But mostly it’s a fraction of the time it takes to actually read a book. Time isn’t the most important factor, though, since I think I can speak for everyone who reviews when I say that we’d be reading these books anyway even if we didn’t take time out of our days to write reviews and interact online. Reading is the source of our hobby. Nobody paid us to read books before, and I figure there’s no reason they should start now. It’s nice to think about being compensated for what we do, and it’s also nice that someone thinks enough of us to say we may deserve it, but I think the standard practice is the way it is for good reason. There are too many obstacles of perception to overcome, for one thing. And for another, logistically, if we didn’t write reviews unless someone paid us to do so… Well, let’s just say the vast majority of us wouldn’t be writing reviews. I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing, keep on reading and writing about it and learning more things than I can keep track of and not paying my bills with my compensation (the grocery store doesn’t accept books as payment, sad to say), than not doing it at all because nobody’s willing to hand me a $20.