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Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval FranceThe Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since the new movie adaptation of the real history, with all-star actors and actresses, is all the buzz, I decided to read the book that it was based on. And no, I have not seen the movie (yet).

But either way, I'm glad to have read it. It's the account of the last lawful use of duels in the French court during the Hundred Year's War, and because it was a pretty horrific way to perform law from any way you look at it, it also ended the practice.

Rivalry, rape, rapine, perhaps even a bit of revenge. Of course, the topic is evergreen. How should the law be settled in case of rape accusations? Why, with multiple perjury, likely malfeasance, with women treated as chattel and burned, pregnant, at the stake for simply accusing her rapist, of course. And if that isn't enough, resort to systemized knightly duels because, as we know, might always makes right.

The history is written well and the book is very readable, full of basic explanations and personages and cultural baggage, but the history of this, itself, is aggravating as hell.

Good book, however. And good riddance to the practice.

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Legend (The Drenai Saga, #1)Legend by David Gemmell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't believe I've spent THIS much of my life not reading David Gemmell.

Or perhaps, I can, since I didn't start reading epic fantasy until WoT and even then didn't really get into any OTHER practitioners of this dirty arcane art until a decade later, and by then, Gemmell's work was already two decades old.

So why is this particular work important?

Because it reads just like ALL the modern epic fantasy titles that rely on low or no magic to propel their tales. Okay. Let's reverse that line and make it proper: Gemmell is the father of all our insanely popular epic fantasies. :)

But for me, coming from the other side of this equation, his original work is *not* as brilliant as a number of other works I've already read because THEY already stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Blood, guts, action. The father of grimdark needs to have all the proper props. It's still a great in-your-face adventure and holds up because it IS the standard.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Between Two FiresBetween Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So. That just happened.

I'm putting this book in my unofficial six-star rating because I was blown away.

I mean, after starting it, I was impressed enough with the depictions of the Black Plague in France, during the Hundred-Year's-War, the wealth of details, how religion and ignorance and fear permeated everything, but as I continued on, I was shocked at how much further we would go down the rabbit hole.

It felt like historical fiction, knee-deep in the muck, buboes, pathos, and the horror of reality. But then it got psychological, with nightmares that may or may not have been hallucinations, with fear, deviltry, and ignorance running rampant across the countryside. The empty towns, hucksters, the famine, plague, and death were barely held at bay by faith and willpower and just holding on to one or two pure things in a world that was a truly apocalyptic vision.

And that was just one of the fires.

For anyone who has studied medieval lithographs and descriptions of devils or who have studied the Book of Enoch's descriptions of angels, you know these things are WILD. Just imagine if all these old descriptions (and not our modern versions) were crawling this French apocalypse? Playing with bodies like puppeteers, grotesque visions of torture, hellish playthings, in a nightmare scenario of the end-times and the celestial battle, all right here on Earth? Well, that's another fire.

The details in this book, the depth of the absolutely terrifying scenarios, truly scared me. And I'm an old hand at horror. I am fine with gross-outs and thrillers. This one took me down another path. It gave me no escape and dragged me through hell.

I cannot recommend this enough. Or I can't recommend it at all. I'm pretty certain I'm going to have nightmares.

In other words, it's f***ing brilliant.

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Monday, December 27, 2021

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse #9)Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so good.

I can repeat these words until my jaw drops off or until the elder gods pry open our universe and come slithering through, but I have to assume that saying them once, here, in this review, is sufficient.

Because this book is so damn good.

It's been a long time coming. I've been in awe ever since the first book came out, through the time when I met these two authors and enjoyed them reading excerpts from Cibola Burn, through the tv series, each fantastic book since, and the last trilogy that jumped ahead far enough to see a changed galaxy. Twice. And every single time, I've fallen all the way into the text and lived in it with utter joy, horror, pathos, and laughter.

This is what I consider top-notch SF.

And this particular book is the crown and joy of the series. Some series can't pull off good ends, but this one does it with flying colors. All those great hints and beginnings in Leviathan Wakes, all the nasty surprises, the supreme twists, the deep foundations, it all comes back around and GETS RESOLVED.

Jim, Naomi, Amos, Alex. The originals. Even Miller. All the others that had come and gone throughout the series. They all got a fantastic sendoff.

Notable sendoffs? No spoilers. But, my lordy, Jim and Amos got the chef's kiss.


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Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Toast of Time (Chronicles of St. Mary's)The Toast of Time by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's something about reading St. Mary's at Xmas-time that makes me turn myself around, get all cheery, order a double something on the rocks, and pick up a frozen chicken.

It is, after all, a St. Mary's story. And we are very happy to know what happens to eggs in ze pocketsies. Yes, and what might not have happened had Frodo gone to THIS neighborhood, instead.

I really loved this story. Adventure, humor, a bright thumb in the eye to the cops, the new establishment, and a whole new appreciation for nude gardening.

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Stormdancer (The Lotus Wars, #1)Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a pretty solid YA Japanese Steampunk adventure, offering up a good deal of mythology and explanations (gotta love kitsune) and mixing it pretty hardcore with big revolution steampunk stuff with iron samurai.

It is exactly what you might assume it is. It's a very good example of the YA revolution genre, and it is a good example of what is so common in that YA revolution genre.

Of course, if this is exactly what you're looking for, and you have a big itch for samurai and nine-tailed-foxes and enough great name-dropping to make me jump up and go, Naruto? Naruto? but this book is NOT that. It's still pretty fun, however.

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Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Archer's Tale (The Grail Quest, #1)The Archer's Tale by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I find myself in a funny and odd situation as I read this. I’m a big fan of epic fantasy, and yet, for some reason, I have generally ignored regular historical fiction.



For let me put this very clearly: all the action, characterization, siege warfare, interpersonal conflicts, lords, ladies, general grunts, and the clergy are all heavily represented in BOTH genres. Indeed, both historical fiction and epic fantasies are separated ONLY by the author’s willingness to add a little magic (not even necessary in most books) or make worldbuilding that is created out of whole cloth.

In this case, I’m just pointing my finger at events in here that is reminiscent, happily so, of a previous trilogy that sets up the events of the current trilogy, as if I were reading a long Epic Fantasy work, but in this case, it’s just my knowledge of England’s History. Hey now! It’s the Black Prince and the start of the Hundred Year’s War! I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s Edward II and Richard the II and all the class warfare and the heavy reliance on Long Bows to turn the tide of battles and just how F**ked the French were.

And for me, it’s JUST like reading a huge, complicated Epic Fantasy.

Like I said, it’s odd. Or rather, I’m odd. And I’m really liking this. It’s great Epic Fantasy, people… even if it is a meticulously researched and accurate accounting of ACTUAL HISTORY.

Maybe that ought to count for something, too. :)

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Friday, December 24, 2021

Long Shadows (Elizabeth Cage #3)Long Shadows by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well now! This was rather surprising. I mean, we did get a few hints and the OP moments from the previous books almost spell it out... but not quite. However, the big reveal...

I can't say ANYTHING.

The calm housewife that always seems to get in over her head, seeing auras and fixing problems both ghostly or mythological, is a pretty fun UF on the surface. The love interest is pretty wholesome. The Fae side characters are fascinating, as is the long shadow that is cast over the entire series, taunting us with great things.

Of course, that great thing, the sleeper within, is just a *tad* bigger than anything I had previously thought.

Very cool. I like the oddities and the progression, but that end? Truly aggravating. Good grief.

Taylor does it again.

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Dark Light (Elizabeth Cage, #2)Dark Light by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surprisingly enough, I think I liked this next Elizabeth Cage book better than the first. Reading auras is fun and all but the rest of the plot was somewhat meh and the baddies were pretty much the same. The one redeeming virtue was that it was written by Jodi Talyor and I've pretty much always loved the pacing and humor in all her books.

Then comes the second book in the series and all of a sudden I love the new direction it takes. Witch stones, old fertility rites, fae magic, and lost swords -- all thrown into the mix of the unscrupulous bastards from the first. And you know what? It worked. This unpresuming housewife who just wanted to be left alone and not use her aura-reading (or reality shifting) abilities really does have a nasty knack at getting into the worst kind of trouble.

Quite amusing and it goes full circle in a very cool way. I love the fae.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Voice of the FireVoice of the Fire by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To be entirely honest, I cannot truly describe this book. What themes it has is threaded so deftly and lost so deep in a massive mound of history and characterizations and the only thing that I can point at is the similarity of PLACE.

Northampton. Of course, I have to wonder about that, too when it came to the Crusades period, but it could very well have been there, too, considering.

So. Six thousand years of Northampton, perhaps. Short stories that are firmly placed not only in time and place but in VOICE. The cave boy's survival, discovery, and love are shocking not for the basic idea, but for the depth and complexity and the downright interesting diction. Moving forward through time, Moore shows just how much research he had put into all this, writing very careful historical fiction with all the feel, ugliness, and passion of the periods. Hundreds of years' hop every time, finding messages of deep magic, disillusionment, and terror, Moore is at his best.

Fun to note: Jerusalem shares almost every aspect of this novel. Amazing writing, nearly confounding, so RICH that it would take years to plumb its depths kind of writing. Voice of the Fire is slightly more accessible and really presages his later work.

But overall, there's only one word that describes either: Brilliant. (Even if I feel like I have no idea what I just read. ;) The journey through so many people is the thing.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

OgresOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And all of a sudden, we've got ourselves a political treatise, a medieval fairy tale, and a Red Rising hardcore high-tech revolution all rolled into one tiny novella.

Can you say Adrian Tchaikovsky?

I thought it was funny as hell right at the very beginning that our main character would be named Tocqueville, as in comte de Tocqueville, the French Aristo that argued for the decent treatment of the lower end of the class struggle, who was so essential to the formation of the United States of America.

And I found it equally hilarious how we jumped right from Robin Hood to education to revolution and a great little twist at the end. Class warfare, you know? And it's almost as if we're channeling a little taste of Attack on Titan, too, with a pretty fantastic turn of the knife on vegetarianism.

Delicious. Yum Yum. :)

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Monday, December 20, 2021

The World of Ptavvs (Known Space)The World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it's really worth it to revisit some of the old SF to see how it holds up to modern, or whether it sits the youngster down on the steps and smartly slaps the hell out of the newcomers.

In this case, it's a fascinating mix of great ideas condensed down to an extremely short novel's length of action, 1966 style, visiting massive telepathic powers, slave races, a huge mix of alien species with vast histories, dolphins, ice worlds, laser-shooting sunflowers, and a burning Pluto amid a politically-tangled Solar System.

It's packed with great stuff.

It's also a bit lacking in the character build-up (understandable because of the length) and a bit light (due to the lack of plot darkness). If this novel had been written for today's audiences, it would have been twice or even three times the length, given a lot of extra goodies in the tech and literal world-building, and we would have been blessed with cleverly changing and changed characters.

It is what it is. Likely pretty classic for the time. What I liked best were the many, many interesting alien races. Of course, this is Niven, who is widely known for his awesome alien races, so that isn't really a big surprise. :)

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Desert Prince (Nightfall Saga #1)The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This spin-off of the Demon Cycle should come with a fairly strong warning: Read the original Cycle first. My opinion, of course.

While it might very well be possible to read and enjoy this on its own, the depth and revelations of the first serve us in excellent stead.

That being said, I honestly loved everything about this book. I was a little worried about how an intersex MC might play in these books, considering some of the relatively atrocious crap that had happened to whole armies in the original Cycle, but not only was it handled deftly, with care and empathy. This needs a little explaining: Olive is rightfully worried, is brought up both as a Princess, and then, later, as a Prince. There is no handwavium here. All the expected problems exist, including the ones that anyone might expect for Main Characters who are only fifteen years old. There is no coddling, either. There is no sympathy for being different or praise. There is only survival and respect for what he/she accomplishes. It was a tightrope in the story and I think Peter V. Brett pulled it off wonderfully.

It is all about merit, and in this world, where so many people can die so damn easily in the wake of demon hoards, we have to respect that.

How did I like the story? I loved it. Caught between two worlds, Olive found and took strength in all the ways that matter. Darin finally stopped hiding and came into his own, too. The children of the greatest heroes didn't have an easy time of it, but the story is so rich and they grew so much that I have nothing bad to say about it.

And let's face it, the magic in this book, as in the others, is to die for. As are the fight scenes. And the baddies are truly fascinating.

The series, including this one, still remains one of my favorite epic fantasies. This is a strong continuation.

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Friday, December 17, 2021

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive BakingA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit that I thought T. Kingfisher (U. Vernon)'s other works were anywhere between pretty good and pretty okay. Before I began this one, I only really knew the title and liked the idea of it, but I didn't know what to really expect.

Fortunately, the proof is in the baking, and the baking, indeed, was really good. YA, light magical effects (at first), and a real love of baking and making her gingerbread men. So far, so good, but with the evil wizard hunting down ALL the mages, no matter how quirky, it becomes a matter of survival.

And that's where it gets really good. Food can, after all, defeat an army. Muahahahaha

Very cute, delightful.

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The Big SleepThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For someone who professes to love Noir in general, I find it particularly funny that I had never read Chandler, who is, now that I've read one of his works, a bonafide master.

Or, you know, the original master, the genre-defining master, the mean man of the mean streets, himself.

Okay. So. I fell in love with it. Not only an easy read with charming language and manly man stuff and dangerous broads but a classy, twisty plot full of intrigue and bruises.

Sound like the genre? Through and through? Well, it's never entirely about the subject matter. It's about the execution. It's a murder. Or multiple murders.

It's how the author kills us that matters, see?

I am thrilled. So good.
I am murdered.

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Thursday, December 16, 2021

Cytonic (Skyward, #3)Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an enjoyable addition to Sanderson's YA space opera, picking up where Spensa escapes and having a brand new adventure with mostly new characters.

Solid prose and pacing, mostly light-hearted adventure and space battles, AI friendship, slightly below-par alien partnerships, and facing up against the big fleet once again. Some pretty cool reveals, too, but what I got out of this was mostly just a basic, enjoyable, read. Not my favorite Sanderson by a long shot, but I think we all agree that Sanderson made a deal with the devil and he can't write a bad book.

Maybe this isn't a ringing endorsement, but it is an honest one. :)

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Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King (The Guardians, #1)Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King by William Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unfortunately, I've read a number of weak Santa-origin tales in the past, so I guess I wasn't really expecting all that much from this.

Boy, was I surprised. Not only was I hooked on the prose, the strange, gentle directions it took, but I was thrilled by the story. Aye, not only me, but my daughter as well. We read it together and both of us enjoyed it so much that we excitedly planned to read all five books to match the seasons.

I'll just say that this book is rich, fantastical, magical, and full of wonder.

For someone as jaded as me, this is a wonderful and happy occasion that left me gobsmacked.

I totally recommend this.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World (The Siege #3)A Practical Guide to Conquering the World by K.J. Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Getting through all three of these Siege books has been a real pleasure. In each of these, we get to see a different aspect of life and profession but even though the times aren't the same, the wider world is.

Above all, the main first-person characters are nicely droll and ironic. Their meteoric rise from truly humble beginnings is a delight. The way each of them gains their fame is both quirky and amusing.

In this particular book, we get away from a humble engineer or a poverty-ridden stage actor and live a life of a lucky, but minor translator for a distant embassy who just happens to survive his nation's ruin and his boss's suicide.

From there, it just gets wacky cool, jumping from an impossible situation to a life of book-reading pleasure to being welcomed by cannibals to becoming a prophet and then the supreme leader. You know, normal, obvious stuff that happens to all us academic types. :)

I had a great time. It's light epic fantasy, with all the humor AND the twisty plots and huge battles, wrapped into one.

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The Body in the Library (Miss Marple, #2)The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to nosy neighbors, gossip, country intrigue, and truly sinister dancing, I think the English have the whole market locked down.

I know, I know, gossip is something of a universal FACT, but when it comes to Christie's writing, I swear I simply cannot see it in any other way. Not really. She and her observations got to me first and everything else is just a pale imitation.

Or maybe I'm full of it. Maybe I'm just feeling melodramatic after watching all these melodramatic peeps sighing and woe-betiding themselves over seeing such a promising young girl get popped off in a library.

Is it all about the money? The rage? *gasp* These people are all Good people, they'd never...

So timeless. :)

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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

4:50 from Paddington (Miss Marple, #7)4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mystery re-read just in time for Xmas. Because, as you well know, cozy murder mysteries SCREAM "the holidays". Tell me I'm wrong. Go on.

This one isn't one of my favorites, but it's quite fun and has a bit more plot and movement than most, and the characters are a hoot. Gotta love families. Or don't. Just poison them or do a bit of strangling. It's all about the SPIRIT of the thing.

Christie is a classic, no doubt, and Miss Marple is one hell of a sassy old lady. Good team up, too.

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Monday, December 13, 2021

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It (The Siege #2)How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K.J. Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If anything, this one might be a better read than the first, but only because I fell in love with the different characters a bit more. The first was a very engineering kind of novel. This one takes place in the same city, but years apart, and the focus is quite amusing.


I mean, sure, we've got this cool little commonplace trope going on here where an actor takes over for whatever supreme ruler has just kicked, right, and we love it because it's absurd and full of absolute peril and we hope to see the little squirt get away with it and perhaps even do a better job of being Emperor than the original. RIGHT? Or is that just me? Nah. I think there are a lot of us who wish our supreme leaders would just get swapped out with an actor who then grows into his/her role and fixes the things that are so obviously wrong. :)

But yes, there's still a Siege going on here. And therefore it is still a good Xmas book. Who do we want to see swapped?

Not the author. This is too fun. And now that I know that K. J. Parker is just another name for Tom Holt, it looks like I have a growing list of books I need to read.

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Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City (The Siege #1)Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit I was hook-line-and-sinkered with the title. Anything that logical and/or methodical tied to an epic fantasy title just screams niche-cool.

And I wasn't disappointed. Engineer-turned-hero tales, turning a hopeless situation (a dead army, useless leaders, and a bunch of screwed-over normal people) into something resembling hope is, I admit, all kinds of awesome. Don't we like McGuiver for the same reason?

Well, this isn't a small-scale adventure even if the voice of our dour, slightly sarcastic hero downplays his own achievements in the narration. Indeed, this has all the hallmarks of a grand low-fantasy turnaround. Impossible stakes with very little to work with but a whole city of scared people with nothing left to lose? Got it. It's time for the normals to pull off a miracle.

And they do. I really enjoyed this.

Of course, I read it just in time for Xmas because aren't most family visits kinda like siege warfare? Yep. So, merry Xmas!

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Starborn and GodsonsStarborn and Godsons by Larry Niven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is easily the best of the series. It's true by almost every metric you might want to make.

Alien colony world with vicious aliens that may or may not be intelligent, with a major focus on survival. Give them a few generations to adapt and defend themselves from the locals, even doing their part to develop an uneasy, unspoken truce with the monsters. Live, even as their ability to reach the stars gives out.

Then add ANOTHER factor, more humans from Earth on their own grander-than-themselves mission, involving themselves in the original colony's business, devolving to a bunch of grievances and misunderstandings and cultural misfirings.

It's pretty great. I'm immediately reminded of Cherryh's Foreigner series, but with one major alteration: the aliens aren't to be reasoned with by normal standards. There is no official, modern civilization, even if there ARE signs of an older one. And there's more violence, here, too. It's a great counterpoint.

It's definitely great fun, too.

Those problem areas I had with the other books (social/sexual stuff) were pretty much missing from this one, thankfully, and it was replaced with great a plot.

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Saturday, December 11, 2021

Beowulf's Children (Heorot, #2)Beowulf's Children by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For what should be a fairly interesting multi-generational survival adventure on an alien world, with changing social structures and the need to shoot REALLY fast to take down the extremely dangerous locals, I was kinda saddened to see a LOT of the page-space devoted to some rather cringe-worthy sex and social mores that aren't really... right for today. :)

It was pretty okay, otherwise. The world and the beasties and everything else was interesting and not at all dated.

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Friday, December 10, 2021

The Secret of Black Ship Island (Heorot #1.5)The Secret of Black Ship Island by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kind of interesting in-betweener that is, by the author's own admission, more of a side-colony horror story than something a part of the main story, it fulfills its mission admirably.

In actual fact, it feels like an early 60's teenager beach creature feature with full B-Movie sensibilities.

Is it brilliant? No. But is it still fairly interesting and fun? Yes. Don't expect much and enjoy the fur as it flies.

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Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Agatha Christie's most acclaimed novels and people say so for a damn good reason. It's sharp, logical, methodical, and it's deadly.

Oh, yeah, and so was the murder.

Merry Xmas! Nothing brings in the Xmas cheer like a good cozy murder mystery, after all, and this particular one is ALL about family. No spoilers. Unless you know. And then, (view spoiler). It's damned heartwarming.

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Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Legacy of Heorot (Heorot #1)The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read this, years ago, I thought it was a middling colonist-survival novel with a fairly interesting beastie tearing them up. Not bad, not brilliant.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I may have given it a bad rap, so I decided to revisit it and read through the later novels since there were a few I never got around to. I mean, what could go wrong? I've always been a pretty solid fan of Larry Niven.

So, the really good: if you're a fan of Beowulf, you'll like all the references. The action setup and further sequences are pretty first-rate. We even get to enjoy the beastie's PoV, and I really like that glimpse into their psychology.

The meh: mostly it's the casual acceptance of misogyny. But to be fair, it's not so much bad as its 'EH?' Consenting adults, etc, so, whatever.

Interestingly enough, I'm a fan of comparing this, fairly favorably, against any number of modern SF reliant on colonies and beasties. It more than holds its own, so if any of you peeps just want something pretty light and full of alien action on an isolated planet, then there's much worse you could choose. :)

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The Expert System's Brother (Expert System, #1)The Expert System's Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More of a 3.5 for the rating, I'd just put this novella on the shelf that I'd name "a light-touch fish-out-of-water SF".

It's a voyage of self-discovery that reads like a fantasy novel even though there are some rather strong SFnal ties just below the surface that are pretty easy to follow as a reader, but not so much for the MC.

Honestly tho, I didn't really get into it all that much despite being an otherwise rabid fan of Tchaikovsky. Others might enjoy it more than I did.

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Around the World in Eighty DaysAround the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-Read 12/9/21:

This read was again just as enjoyable as the first. :)

Update! 20,000 Pounds back then, adjusted by inflation and converted to today's American Dollar, would come out to be $16,593,290.

Isn't that FASCINATING? To think, to take trains, boats, or an elephant, would STILL cost 16 million dollars today.

Oh. Wait. It probably does.

Original Review:

The original steampunk adventure! Written while it was still called modern!

Fascinating! :)

Seriously, though... Jules Verne knows how to write a fast-paced adventure with French tomfoolery and English sprats. They're buckling down to show other multi-millionaires (price adjusted) what a *real* wager is, using nothing more than a very keen mind and a talent for reading multiple departures in the paper. (You had to be there. And you also have to enjoy a period piece, too!)

But that's not all, folks! The Indian Princess gets saved by the Bully Englishman! Awwww... I've almost got a picture in my head of Tarzan swinging Jane through the jungle. :)

It really is a fun novel, all told. Light fun, adventure, theft, mistaken identity, and even a moral to tuck in the end of the story to send us off to dreamland. Awww.

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The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni, #2)The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like the first book, this one is truly excellent.

These are lush characters, complicated, subtle, and both are so aware of the pulls that threaten to tear them apart. Their nature versus the pull of humanity, just trying to live and survive and perhaps find a little love in this pre-WWI human world.

No kind of review can truly explain this. The details, the immersion, and the depth of emotion are what make this a great book. It's magical realism done right. I truly cared and got torn apart by all the pulls.

A little bit of brutal honesty here: I've never been much of a fan of Magical Realism. I can count on only two hands the number of MR books that I thought were truly great. The rest either felt pretentious or vapid or an excuse to write a banal book and slap a little bit of magic in there to have it slide into the specific genre like an evil-ass bird egg-bombing another species' nest.

But Helene Wecker's two novels are the real deal. Genuine and heartfelt. They came alive for me and this is why I'm so impressed.

This might be one of my favorite fantasies of the year and it's not even close to being my preferred subgenre. :)

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The White DevilThe White Devil by John Webster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A startling classic play from London, 1612. ‘‘Tis better to be fortunate than wise.

Of course, no one in this play is either fortunate or wise, caught in the passions of jealousy as good as Shakespeare and as bloody and dramatic, as well.

For a modern reader with modern sensibilities, I’m shocked and amazed how this play goes from being an instant cancelable trope to a deeply heartfelt condemnation of the roles of both sexes.

And, even better, it’s a rousingly good tragedy.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

MachinehoodMachinehood by S.B. Divya
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I was pretty enthusiastic about the SF concepts in this book, hitting the intersections between normal humans, drug enhancements, human-machine hybrids, and artificial intelligence, I was unfortunately not as enthusiastic about the characters or the dark political landscape.

Mind you, I don't mind futuristic dystopias at all. I just happen to prefer them to wrapped up in slightly more interesting plots and characters and the fight for machine rights is obviously subtext. If I am to be at all honest about it, I prefer such things to be a bit more subtle and layered. The core of it was fine, but in the end, it was a bit too plain and on the nose.

I saw a lot of similarities between this and Ramez Naam's trilogy. A focus on Buddhism and getting along, class warfare, and obviously, the tech, but in the end, I much preferred Naam's trilogy.

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Monday, December 6, 2021

Winter's OrbitWinter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With distinct YA vibes even if it isn't precisely YA, this SF M/M romance is perfectly fine for those who prefer this kind of thing. It's full of royals, light political intrigue, slow-burn romance with a galactic empire on the verge of war.

As for me, personally, I think it was light on the SF and worldbuilding and the characters were fine if not brilliant. This kinda hits a middle-of-the-road read for me and it isn't anything near my actual preference, but it matches a lot of the kinds of SF that are published these days and it didn't actually suck. It just didn't ring any bells for me.

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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Near the BoneNear the Bone by Christina Henry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maybe it's unpopular opinion time.

I mean, if you compare this with a lot of the other self-pub stuff out there in the horror market, it falls in that line. You've got a monster in the mountains, a tragic perma-victim abused by a kidnapper for 8 years, and a chance encounter with a group of modern yahoos. Stir, shake up, and let the blood fly. If this is all you're looking for, then go for it.

But, me, well, I've been reading an average of 500 books a year, going on 6 years now. Before then, I was averaging about 300 a year. I have the freedom to pick up tons of randoms and indulge in "what is popular" at any particular moment. I'm able to pick up on trends that may not bother perhaps a large segment of the population, but when I happen to pick up 50-100 books a year, all new ones, that all share a common theme, I feel honor-bound to mention it, especially if it's rather dark and ugly.

More and more and more books, whether Horror, SF, or Fantasy (for these are the ones I focus on) are nothing more than female victimization novels with single-dimensional male characters that either A: are massively abusive, or B: are useless tools.

Let me just say something. I'm a man, and I'm a huge reader, and I have a very sensitive soul. If so much of the f**king market is designed to try to convince me that my entire sex, and by extension, me, are this f**king evil, then the most natural thing in the world would be for me to actually kill myself or stop reading altogether. I don't want to be a self-hating man. None of these stories come close to accurately describing myself or anyone I know. And while I am not excusing actual bastards in reality, I have to be clear about this:

I don't see the point of allowing this little butt-nugget of misandry to keep defining the whole industry any further than it already has. It's hateful. It's inaccurate. And women are just as likely to abuse people as men. But no, the new stereotype has gone off the deep end and it's disgusting.

But wait, aren't you a huge fan of Horror, Brad?

I am. But I'm a bigger fan of good writing, with characters of both sexes being delightfully complicated, rich, and full. I don't have a problem with massively nasty situations so long as it's not some kind of cardboard cutout or an obvious political agenda to smear a whole sex in the mud when the grand majority of them are innocent.

Is this book the worst offender? No. Not at all. I mean, William was a right nasty piece of work that would have belonged in the nastiest, isolated parts of the world over a hundred years ago. But no, he lived in modern times. When it's very unlikely he would have gotten away with even a third of what he did, even in his most misogynic throwback moments. He was a true monster.

Sorry, I guess I just get sick of this cookie-cutter kind of portrayal of men because it feels like every other modern book I pick up that is either up for nomination for some kind of award or is shouted about all over the place all wind up having the same damn theme. Men hating women.

In actuality, these are all women writers, promoted by female-dominated agencies, for publishers that are taking a hit for not having women at the very top of their pyramid, and there's a PR problem.

On top of this, they scream that men aren't reading anymore.

I wonder if there is a connection.

There's a thing called manufactured consent. One of the most common tactics is to keep repeating a thing over and over and over until all the people believe it.

It doesn't even matter whether it is done on purpose or not. If all you readers keep reading the same kinds of talking points over and over and over, you'll start believing it. It's human nature. It's also propaganda.

Stop the hate.

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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Light from Uncommon StarsLight from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was surprisingly good. I wouldn't really call it a Good Omens replacement or a cookie-cutter Chambers, but here's something about it that was uncommonly good: it takes three wildly different genre scenarios and successfully blends them together in a way that REALLY shouldn't work but DOES.

Three characters, three wildly different situations. Katrina Nguyen is a transgender violin prodigy that takes a ton of hits in the tale, really describing a ton of prejudice and hate while also being picked out of a crowd for her talent, and then is groomed for the same.

Shizuka Satomi is the brilliant violin teacher who helps her, but she is cursed by a demon. She is forced to allow a demon to take the souls of her students.

And then there is Lan Tran, a donut shop owner who also happens to be a refugee from a vast alien galactic war with her ship and crew hiding out on Earth. She happens to fall in love with Shizuka.

I personally loved all the plot points surrounding the violins, from playing to fixing them up to everything.

But I also thought Katrina's plot arc was kinda cringe. I know it's supposed to make us feel loads of pity but it just went on and on, a total victim mindset which was even more cringe when we see how Shizuka just capitalized on it, luring her in with all the nice stuff and support while Katrina's past just predicted her future.

Fortunately, the writing was interesting enough that it didn't ruin the novel for me. The rest dovetailed nicely together, especially the almost out-of-nowhere inclusion of a true outsider (alien) being absurdly grateful for and learning to recapture the joy of living (with donuts) without fear.

All three characters were pretty great counterpoints to each other.

This is a book that happens to be greater than the sum of its parts. I had some smaller issues here and there and there wasn't nearly as much humor in this as I could have expected from the comps in the blurb, but on its own, the whole novel did add up to a lot more than its smaller pieces.

I was more than satisfied.

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Friday, December 3, 2021

Saving Time (The Time Police, #3)Saving Time by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think it's safe to say that these and the St. Mary's books (all interwoven) will continue to be my go-to feel-good comedy/SF adventure books for years more to come. There's no sign of anything slowing down. When some characters get older, fantastic new ones always come to fill in all the very best gaps.

Team weird, no longer probationary, are free to get into the wildest trouble in the timestreams as they take down the baddie time-travelers, corporate greedsters, con men, and terrorists. Of course, sometimes the worst enemy is their own department. Or themselves.

This is firmly the kind of book that is the definition of, "oh, god, you just had to BE there to believe this..."

Fortunately, as readers, we're RIGHT in the thick of it. :)

Still fantastic.

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Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market ReturnsThe Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns by John C. Bogle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a funny little book. It starts out very fun, making a strong case to attach itself to Thomas Paine's Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings, the book that led to the American Revolution.

While the idea doesn't exactly feature all throughout this piece of good advice, it does underscore the obvious idiocies and point to a classy, simple solution. Kinda like the causes for the Revolution.

So, what, we need to overthrow the stock market? Um.. no. The actual idea is pretty damn simple and backed up with massive proof in the massive pudding.

*Buy* *Hold*

It outperforms almost everything. Second-guessing, day trading, money managers, almost everything else performs worse. It's pretty simple. Don't pay for middlemen, diversify for yourself, and have it rock out with compound interest.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book is just a lot of repeating the same good idea, always pushing for the value of ETFs, and it highlights how the system OUGHT to work, without interference or bad actors. All good, as far as that goes. So, if we live in a perfect world, this is just about perfect. And maybe it'll work fine for most, even so, but the point is to get going EARLY so the compound works FOR you.

Honestly, the book could have been even shorter but what is here is still good. I've seen most of these ideas many times before, even so.

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Light of the Jedi (Star Wars: The High Republic)Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a surprisingly original and fascinating entry into the SW canon, avoiding much of the trap of old character pressure by simply giving us a rip-roaring space adventure during the height of the Republic, 200 years before Phantom Menace.

But wait, no fall of the republic? How could that be interesting?

Trust me, bro. It is. Mass tragedy suddenly brings out the best in people, and the ones who answer that biggest call are the Jedi, and they're smart heroes. You know, a bright and optimistic answer to a horribly dark time. Almost like this book was kinda made for us, here and now, to address something that we lack.

Better than all that, however, is the fact that the plot remains unique, its villains interesting, its MCs memorable. In short, it was better-than movie-worthy, with all the bigger-than-life events and heroism.

If you're looking for a bit of optimism in your reading diet, I totally recommend this.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the LawFuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Roach has been well-known for giving a zinger-twist on non-fiction topics for years, and this book is no different.

Let's frame a whole bunch of nature events in terms of how it pisses off us, Homo Sapiens, and put a spotlight on how to deal with those troublesome pests.

All told, it was fun, sometimes gruesome (bears), annoying and deadly (monkeys in cities), annoying and annoying (gulls), and all the possible solutions we've come up with to deal with these, and more. Birds, in particular, are a real menace -- and trying to figure out ways to scare them off or relocate them can sometimes be a real nightmare. Some, however, require some nightmares in order to scare them off. A particularly interesting example is strewing corpse effigies in a gruesome tableau where crows gather.

I suppose I'd be slightly off-put if I found someone hung upside-down with their organs hanging out, outside of my residence. Funnily enough, appealing to the head-on-spike method seems to work with a lot of different species. Who'd have thunk? ;)

A lot of valuable information, entertainingly presented. Well worth the read.

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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Personal LibrarianThe Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a historical fiction that centered on Belle de Costa Greene and her time as the personal librarian of the private, later to become public library of JP Morgan. From being a smart negotiator and rather ruthless in securing rare and valuable texts for her employer to the full establishment of the renowned library, with her in charge, I loved every aspect.

What really made this particular novel stand out is the fact that she was not only female, rising to such an esteemed position, but the fact that she was, in fact, black. Light enough in skin color to pass as white, perhaps, but she was forced to hide that fact, changing her name and being very careful due to the time period.

It's several decades since the Reconstruction and the heady period of hope had become one of disgust for the Jim Crow laws, the street justice of casual, brutal racism, and a fairly vast backlash against all black folk. Of course, there were always a few bright communities and a great number of new highly educated and hopeful people, and Belle came from that background thanks to her father.

This was real history with a massive lean-in to what it would have been like to hide in plain sight from some of the worst racism in America.

The only thing I didn't really care for, honestly, was the romance angle. Give me books, give me a spotlight on injustice, but if the romance was ... not all that great, then I just wish the novel had focused only on its strengths. That's my opinion, of course.

Overall, it was pretty good, somewhat heartbreaking, but still a thing of hope... even if it was built entirely on a lie. Ability and intelligence SHOULD have been enough.

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

FirebreakFirebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an honestly fun, if not brilliant, near-future dystopia where corporations have fully consumed one another to the point where every necessity of life, especially expensive water, is now under the company store.

Sound familiar? Well, yes, it does rather resemble our world. And the more of an oligarchy this novel becomes, with the burdens and the problems of maintaining life and sanity, the more it looks like ours.

And the story, after the all-powerful clamp down on even the smallest voices that might expose an injustice -- such as the little issue of sweeping up lost children to turn them into gaming superstars in the equivalent of a never-ending war, pretending that they are mere digital avatars, and controlling all related narratives -- the novel quickly becomes one that graduates from a cyberpunk corporate greed novel to become a full riot of rebellion. In one way or another, the core is also familiar, I'm sure. Many a YA novel has this little quirk.

So what did I think of it, overall?

It started out really well and I was quite invested. The developments later had their moments, but never quite lived up to the overall solid opening. I think I will be interested in seeing where this will go. There were simply a few areas where I lost interest in the second half, but it wasn't bad. I tend to enjoy novels like this. Gamers, cyberpunk, and rebellion.

It's worth the read.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Chasing the BoogeymanChasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not a big reader of True Crime books, but from what I understand, this particular book is something of a perfect storm of pure horror fiction written AS IF it was a highly documented True Crime tell-all, complete with author asides, pictures, proof, and including first-person accounting.

In how it's written and the subject matter that dates back to the '80s, it SHOULD have hit me square in the gut. When I read the blurb to pick this up, I assumed it was also right up my alley for the name-dropping comparisons that were made.

In reality, I thought it was just fine. It was on the same level of my personal enjoyment as when I watched Zodiac a few years ago. You've got that serial murderer vibe, great actors, and intense realism within the investigations. It SHOULD have been a knockout. But all I felt was mild interest and a pretty heavy appreciation for the style and the hybrid nature of the storytelling. Especially the personal reflections.

It was more than okay, but unfortunately, I may not be the best fan for this particular subgenre.

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Termination ShockTermination Shock by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neal Stephenson writes Cli-Fi! Of course, what this means in layman's terms is that an author with a penchant for a LOT of research and a brave heart just slammed a close-to-home ecological disaster onto our table and has said, read it and weep.

It's very valid to compare this novel to KSR's The Ministry for the Future, too, in that it has not only an interesting and deep cast of characters over a relatively decent amount of time, near-future, but that the science comes out as a character of its own.

Not as bleak as KSR's recent novel, this one still shows the horrors of rising water levels, human displacement, border clashes, and some real technological solutions that are generally dismissed now because mass-scale geoengineering projects are SCARY. Politically, socially, militarily, it's all going to be a massive mess.

But Neal Stephenson pulls a lot of neat tricks here. From making one of the main characters the young Queen of the Netherlands (Dutch Shell Company), we are given a fascinating look at all this from a different viewpoint. The same goes for the Pig Ahab character in Texas, or the Squeegie Ninja who spends a lot of his time on the Indian/China border doing performative (Cherokee head games) maneuvers since no one wants to go so far as to start using bullets.

I really enjoyed these characters. A lot. Interesting, somewhat weird, but utterly essential to the overall plot that is very much Neal's bailiwick. I'm reminded of the things he accomplished in Reamde. The quality, as well.

This is easily one of the better Cli-Fi SF's I've read, and that's not simply because I have immense respect for the author.

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Thursday, November 25, 2021

Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture, #1)Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, fanboy here. I've gotta sit down for a moment and tell you something rather important.

This is a freaking awesome space opera, ya'll.

It starts out with an amazing bang-up interstellar battle and ends with one, and every step of the way, in-between, is a gloriously fascinating tale that is parts Becky Chambers-quality characterization, part David Brin Uplift War worldbuilding, and every bit as exciting and vast as Christopher Paolini's To Sleep In a Sea of Stars.

High praise? Indeed. And it comes from an author who consistently writes some of the very best, most original SF in the past decade, without even counting THIS book.

So, is he a superstar? Well, to me, he is. That's why I've sat you down for this little talk to add one little extra bit:

If you haven't read this guy, then WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

'Nuff said.

Prepare yourself for a massive head-trip across the stars, dealing with massively incomprehensible god-like aliens that are only partially in our 3D space, who like to transform civilized worlds into ART PROJECTS.


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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2)The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really can't overstate this: I love this book. I loved the one preceding it, too, but I REALLY loved this book.


Because it was fun all the way down to the deepest levels, with all the eldritch horrors clawing their way into the school, with only a reasonable expectation of 1 in 4 kids making it out alive.

Because it had all the magical charm of Hogwarts without any of the sappy sweet. It was a fight and die with every last bit of your strength, casting the most deadly, mana-consuming spells non-stop whether you're trying to sleep, go to the restroom, trying to eat monster-infested slop, or trying to read in a library that had books that could eat you -- or consume your soul.

So wait, these books are horror? Action? With so much blood and gore slopping down the gymnasium that you can reasonably expect to go on a date AFTER killing hell-worms, and have a picnic in the fleshy ruins?

Well, yes. But it's also TRAINING. Magic use calls the evil. Puberty is when the magic comes strong and when the highest death count happens among the youth. The school DOES make the survival rate BETTER. Nominally. In a walled-off dimension of its own, surrounded by shivering horrors in the void. :)

Suffice to say, this next book takes the next step and shows us what GRADUATION is all about, with some surprising twists, an absolutely jaw-dropping action sequence, and an end that made me scream and want to throw the book across the room.

Ahem. Am I slightly upset? Maybe. But that doesn't diminish my utter enjoyment.

Easily one of the best fantasies I've read this year.

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Monday, November 22, 2021

Jack FourJack Four by Neal Asher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's a pretty easy bet that whenever I see that there's a new Neal Asher book, I'm going to be all over it like Jain tech and the Spatterjay virus with a side-dose of an ancient galactic war machine.

And you know what? My FANBOY REACTIONS ARE UNKILLABLE. -- Kinda like what happens to us when we get infected with the Spatterjay virus or when we get altered by Jain tech.

So here are the killer bits: All you folks who have been curious about Neal Asher's massively wicked future filled with all these nasties doing their things in wonderfully creative combinations but have been too overwhelmed by the sheer weight of everything that came before to actually TRY IT? Well, I'd point to this book.

It's self-contained, has a lot of REALLY interesting worldbuilding, has a great adventure, and if my reaction is anything to go by, it'll make you shiver with pure imaginative delight. I would also point out that there's a LOT of great body-horror stuff in this Hard SF.

We get a taste of everything. The Graveyard, the Prador King, Spatterjay, the AI Polity, and even Masada. But since this is self-contained and shows the worlds AFTER so much has happened, and he's just as clueless as a new reader would be, it hits that sweet spot.

For old fans, it's just like coming home and getting a gorge full of alien parasites. In other words, FUN. :)

Say hello to my little frieeeeend.

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Comfort Me With ApplesComfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a surprising little read. From the very first few paragraphs, I was already hooked by the most horrific concept of all: GATED COMMUNITIES.

*shudder* *double shudder*

The whole Stepford Wife thing made me shiver with fear, too, but it wasn't until the whole (view spoiler) reveal that I really started to freak out. After that, of course, was delicious. As delicious as a certain apple in a certain garden.

The full scope of this Gated Community Horror is nicely mythic, sitting right on the edge of Fae and the Bible, and I thought it was deliciously evil.

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Saturday, November 20, 2021

Foundation and Earth (Foundation #5)Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-reading the Foundation series has been an interesting trip, with some really great ups and a few downs. But overall, I have to place the original Foundation trilogy in the brilliant category, with Prelude and Foundation and Earth in the above-average category, with Edge being fine and Forward trailing rather far behind. Alas. And I suppose it would be best to ignore the Second Foundation Trilogy that wasn't even penned by Asimov himself.

Here's the strange bit: Foundation and Earth is something of a rather huge departure from the spirit of the Foundation trilogy in that it recognizes many of its faults and proactively attempts to re-structure the course of Human History (as was seen in Edge).

Did I really fall in line with the whole Gaia argument? Well, sort of. It feels like a Deus Ex Machina and way too powerful without all the subtleties that would truly make up such a social structure, but even so, I do like the idea and have liked it by many other authors.

But apparently, even Asimov has his reservations and turns this novel into a rather happy, fun romp through the galaxy in an archeological adventure, diving down memory (and future history) lane, unraveling his own books all the way back to the Robots, the Spacer worlds, and, as the title suggests, Earth.

Every kind of human type gets a say in this adventure, commenting from their own unique viewpoints, as they unravel time. It was really fun and an easy read and it was extremely enjoyable when it comes to nostalgia.

And, honestly, since I read all these books in chronological order this last time, it actually FEELS like a great place to end the series, too.

The first time I read all these, it was by publication order, and that ended with Brin's sendoff of Hari Seldon. I really feel the similarities between F and E and Foundation's Triumph quite strongly, but between the two, I think F and E is the proper send-off.

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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Fairhaven Rising (The Saga of Recluce, #22)Fairhaven Rising by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating! It looks like L.E. Modesitt Jr. is breaking out of his mold. Some of these novels are standalone but the majority are duos. So when we get to Beltur and he gets THREE books for himself and the founding of Fairhaven, I'm pretty impressed.

More than that, we get to this book, with Beltur again, but from the PoV and action of the young mage he trains, now 16 years older, when she's required to help out the greater official ruler of this kingdom.

Suffice to say, her adventure is fraught with betrayal, extremely difficult positions, and a war she wants nothing to do with, let alone be the spear of a freaking invasion.

Quite enjoyable. I like the more traditional feel of chronological development. It's unusual to arrive here after so many books that jumped back and forward through the timeline and across the map.

And, as always, the core balance is delightful.

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