Monday, January 11, 2021

Space Virus Cult

I've mentioned that I'm terrible about advance copies. In an effort to be less terrible, I'm reading books that came out last year that were given to me for early review. Retroactive responsibility for the win!

One that I'd been really excited about was Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace. The cover just screamed "space action movie" and the premise--"A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller"--promised the same. And it delivered very precisely on that promise.

In addition to "space action movie," we also get a layer of "heist" and "cult" in the plotting--again, all in space. Just catnip. Our two narrators are both on a shuttle that is hijacked in an attempt to board a floating relic--an enormous research ship that has been adrift in the solar system for a decade, since everyone aboard succumbed quickly to a virus believed to have been released by an angry, discredited scientist. One was the lone survivor of the virus as a child; the other is leading the hijacking on behalf of the Family, a group of outsiders searching for a permanent home.

This book would make an amazing movie. The flashbacks to Jas's memories of his childhood trauma; Zahra's determined loyalty to the wrong cause and moral struggles; the dorky tech nerd, the creepy, haunted ship. A lot of the strokes in the story are a little broad, especially the characterization of the other members of the Family, but in my mind, Zahra in many ways makes up for that. So many books about people in cults are about them being full of doubt, but Zahra believes in her mission. She's had a hard life, and the Family has genuinely saved her. But she's also smart, and when things start happening that require her to improvise, she starts thinking faster and faster. 

Jas was raised by his very powerful aunt and lives a life of privilege, but his relationship with his best friend, whose immigrant family suffered a great deal to get him everything he has gives Jas important perspective. He's got a lot of suppressed issues around, you know, his parents dying horribly. Being back on the House of Wisdom is bad news, especially when it looks like the virus didn't die with the crew.

This is all backstory, but I think the richness of all the details as they unfold really makes the story. It's fast paced, with chasing and hacking and fighting and parasites and explosions. The entire backstory unfolds as the plot does, which keeps the pacing from being too breakneck or too info-dumpy. There are some very cool action set pieces, and the virus is super creepy, but I think that the character and history unfolding are really what make this an above-average read.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Hogwarts Was a Dangerous Place

 I read a Tumblr post back when school started up in person that said something like "I used to that people sending kids to a school where they're likely to be eaten by a giant snake was implausible, but now I see it." 

I'm reading Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, about a school of magic where your job is just to survive while the school spends four years or so trying to kill you. Or rather, the beasties try to kill you while you're stuck in the school; "graduation" is just survival, and the rates are dismal.

This book is making me so happy I can't even tell you. I keep having to put it down because I like the cranky, grouchy, snarky narrator so much and every time she has a warm feeling she grouses about it and my heart explodes. 

It's one of my favorite kinds of books, which is a detailed, systematic look at how to go about living in a difficult situation. A big part of what I love is just the exposition, the ethnographic detail of how 1,000 teenagers do everything from negotiate status to use the bathroom without getting eaten by something out of the drain. There is so much worldbuilding and every bit of it is fascinating in both its creativity and its mundanity.

El, the main character, is a very gifted magician with a natural affinity for enormous acts of death and destruction. But she refuses to be a malificer. Unfortunately, that means working against her own magical affinity, and everything is twice as hard for her, and everyone still looks at her like she just might kill them in their sleep. Her whole life has been this way; she's used to it.

Then she meets Orion Lake, who is Not Harry Potter but is prone to wandering around the school saving random lives. He saves her life at an inopportune moment, and she snarks at him. Thus begins a friendship that is entirely incomprehensible to everyone at school, including El. 

El is an angry, brilliant delight. She is unlikable and knows it and has worked around it all her life, but god she's tired. She's very good at the strategy and tactics that are involved in the elaborate political and survival machinations in the school hierarchy, even though she's near the bottom of the pecking order. And as people start to really see her--for better or worse--she stays determinedly herself.

In the larger sense, the book is about power and privilege, and the parts of the power structure that you can only see from the outside. It's also about what makes a person a good person, or a worthy person, especially when driven to extremes. And it's about deprivation, and human contact, and friendship and strength and my heart is in a puddle on the floor again. I'm going to die because of how much I love this book. Five stars. All the stars. I might have to read it again.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Year In Review

2020, man, right? Whoa boy. 

 One of my goals coming back here is selfish: I like getting prepub books from Netgalley and they like when you review the books that they give you. So I've got a list of books that I got advance copies of--many from several years ago--that I did read and form opinions on. I'd like to post those opinions to get partial credit, even if it's way overdue.

I'd also like to start blogging what I'm in the middle of again, because within a few hours of finishing a book it becomes hard to talk about. I need to be right in the guts of it to really do that; I want to try it.

But let's take a moment to talk about 2020 as a reading year! I can't pick apart this year from other years, but I can tell you that I'm reading a lot more romance than I used to, that I have library books that are overdue by MONTHS, and that my book count would be significantly higher if I counted book-length works of fanfiction, but I'm far too reliant on Goodreads to pull that off.

I look back at the list of books I read and I literally can't believe this was all this year. This was the year I started reading The Innkeeper Chronicles? But...but that was in the Before Times! It was just in January? I am relying entirely on Goodreads for these records; if it tells me that I read The Rules and gave it five stars, I'm going to have to believe it, I guess.

Some exciting bests this year! The aforementioned Innkeeper books, which Sarah K. has been pushing at me for years and I resisted because the covers are pretty darned cheesy. But then my book club friends got into it and I gave it a try and now I am desperately waiting for Ilona Andrews to write the next book about Maud and I have a whole new breed of warlike spacefaring vampires to be weirdly fascinated by.

The Rules for Vanishing was one of the scariest books I've ever read; it is like someone took Tim Burton and stripped all the candyfloss and gave the script to, I don't know, Ridley Scott maybe to film. 

I already posted about Catfishing on Catnet and am absolutely chuffed to bits (as my son says in imitation of his favorite YouTubers) to have an ARC for the next one, which you'll hear about as soon as I read it. 

No real "worst" books of the year; a few 2-star outings, but none that I had high hopes for. Nothing unfinished and nothing hate-read, which is really for the best.

Oh, my book club is new this year! Or at least from the very end of last year. It's really quite the best. It was all over Zoom from the get-go, because the three of us live in different states, but we vacation together most summers (sigh) and we have nicely dovetailing taste in books. It's the first book club that so rarely feels like a chore, because we only pick books we're all excited to read, and our to-read lists have enough overlap that we'll never get through it all. 

And we chat about what else we're reading, which is usually things we all want to read, too. Sometimes we throw out two books just because we are all excited about them. It's just great to talk to L and E every two or three weeks. 

So 2020 was rough, but it was also the year of the book fairy and Camp Book Club, and the year I read three Penric & Desdemona novellas, reread the whole Murderbot series, and discovered the Innkeeper Chronicles. Whatever else is going on in the world, book-wise I can't complain.

Happy new year, everyone.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Over My Head

You know the thing where you're reading a book out loud to a kid and you start doing a bit--an accent, silly voice, or funny face for a certain character--but as the book goes on, you realize how much trouble you've gotten yourself in by starting this? Like you start reading the Batman comics with the Batman voice, but realize on page 3 that you're going to lose your voice before the end of the first issue if you keep trying this?

I knew I was stretching when I decided that the first person narrator of Mars Evacuees should have an authentic (lol) English accent. But hey, I can do a bad English accent for half an hour a night for a few weeks. It's easy!

It wasn't very far into the book, though, when the titular evacuees are gathered together from all over Earth and sent to Mars. And since I'm doing our narrator Alice's voice, I pretty much have to do the Australian accent that Carl and Noel have. Other main characters started flying at me--the Scottish scientist, the Swedish snob, several robots. 

But I've got in under control. Sure, switching from the Midlands to the outback repeatedly in a conversation is tricky, but I am an artist!

I even managed when we threw in an alien race whose language is mostly vowels and who extend all the vowel words in English. I'm pretty proud of that one, actually.

By the beginning of the sequel, Space Hostages, I'm an expert. Dr. Muldoon can talk about terraforming with Mr. Rasmussen (I'll admit, my Swedish accent leans a little German; luckily my kid doesn't know the difference), Thsaaa can develop a French accent (yes, this is canonical, they moved to the Alps) and I am PULLING IT OFF. 

And yes, they have introduced another alien race, who speak through mandibles in a language of mostly clacking. They call themselves the Krakkiluks, and that is actually very fun to say in an Australian accent.

I really thought I had hit Peak Readaloud Complexity. 

Today, we got a new species. They're kind of bat-people, and they speak a tonal language that appears to be a cross between birdsong and yodeling.

Can anyone recommend an online voice coach?

Monday, December 14, 2020

Your Friendly Neighborhood Book Fairy

I think I've found my calling.

It is my ultimate goal in life to drive around town leaving random piles of books on the porches of the good people of Medford, Massachusetts. That's right, I'm the book fairy.

It started when the Friends of the Library did an online book sale--we post bundles of books on Facebook every Thursday morning; first person to comment can buy the item, (offbrand) PayPal us the money, and either pick their books up at a central location or, for a purchase of $10 or more, have them dropped on your front doorstep. On Fridays, I drive all over town and drop off the books.

Then came the grab bags. Tell us who your reader is and what they like, and for $10 you get a pile of used books. Most of them are for kids--a 4 year old boy who loves vehicles and taking things apart; a 7 year old girl who's reading chapter books already, a 12 year old who likes history and adventure. 

Occasionally, though, I get my favorite--an adult who wants funny memoirs, smart romance, thrillers and sci-fi and YA and I get to pick out all my favorites, make a big pile of books I wish I could read again for the first time, or the ones I can't wait to read because all the reviews are SO GOOD. 

And I drop them on someone's porch. Can you imagine, a big bag of fun books just appearing on your porch? Even though you ordered them, even though you paid for them, it's still the dream, right?

I'm the book fairy; I'm getting my business cards made up tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Touch of Romance

After an intense book club read (if anyone would like to discuss Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, I have almost too many thoughts to organize coherently), it was time to downshift into something fluffy and fun.

My waiting ARC of The Boyfriend Project, by Farrah Rochon, was the perfect choice. Beautiful, competent people meet and are wildly attracted to each other, pursue a relationship despite obstacles, overcome pitfalls, and kiss on a lovely fade to black.

The best parts about this book are around Samiah and her awesomeness. She kicks butt and takes name, owns it at work, has goals and meets them. At the beginning of the book she's involved in a viral video with a couple of strangers who quickly become the friends she's been missing as she focused on her work. This new friendship is delightful and charming and I can't wait for the inevitable books about Taylor and London that I certainly hope are coming.

The workplace stuff is also great--watching Samiah navigate idea-stealers and potential promotions is competence at its finest, but watching this company be full of competent, happy people who are treated well by their managers and enjoy their work. I've had a job like that and it was brilliant, and this very much captures that feeling of excitement and teamwork that goes along with that. It's very much a story about a fantasy workplace.

Daniel is also very hot and delightful, and their mutual attraction is full of delightful flirting banter and longing looks.

The reasons Samiah had for not wanting to get serious (because isn't a romance mostly about why they can't just fall for each other smoothly) are pretty thin, but she's a person who's all about control, so it made sense for her character, if not strictly necessary.

Daniel's reasons to resist their attraction are clearer; he's taken his new job as part of a government investigation, and he's here to get the information he needs and get out. Falling for one of his new coworkers was not part of the plan, and the lies he has to tell to sustain his cover story make him uncomfortable, even as he is being his sincere self in falling in love.

This book has an admirable sense of the difference between privacy and lying, because Samiah is a pretty private person, and doesn't expect all Daniel's details. It could be much worse. But the fact is that there are a lot of lies throughout the book, and then at the end, when the reckoning comes, while the apologies are believable, there is maybe not quite enough groveling for me. I feel like some of the angles of his deception that bothered me were not the ones that bothered Samiah, nor the ones Daniel was apologizing for. I wanted a little more nuance in his apology.

BUT: he remains charming and hot and brilliant and nerdy, and a book where the capitalists are not all evil and the "police" presence is after white collar crimes was just the light touch I needed right now. I definitely recommend this one; if you like the cover, this book will definitely deliver.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Catfishing on CatNet

The first thing I need to acknowledge is that the title and cover of this book are pretty awful. I would have had ZERO urge to pick this up based on either of those, and they do not really give you any hint of the facts or feeling of the story you're getting into.

Ignore that.

I book talked this one so aggressively at work that all the YA librarians have read it and are spreading the gospel of Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet. This is a book for people who love heartwarming stories about finding friends and family who will take care of you when the world gets scary.

You might have heard of Naomi Kritzer recently because she wrote a pandemic story a few years ago that was so prescient it's been getting a lot of notice--"So Much Cooking." But what I first read by her was the story "Cat Pictures Please," which is the story on which this novel is based. Go ahead and read it first, if you want--it doesn't give anything away. It's just about the character; the book introduces a bunch of people and problems.

The main character and heart of the story is a sentient AI that knows all about you. It knows everything about everyone--it is basically comprised of all the information on the internet. Mostly what it loves and wants are cat pictures, so it started a chat room for people to post cute animal pictures. It acts as a mod and calls itself CheshireCat, and it chats with friends, reposts pics, and studies human nature.

One of CheshireCat's friends is Steph, a teenager on the chatroom. Steph and her mom live a life in hiding, running from her scary dad. She's finally making IRL friends in the new town they've come to, though, so she'd really like to not have to run again. But when Steph's problems start getting bigger, the AI and her friends might need to save Steph from IRL dangers that might be over their heads.

Ugh, I'm not a blurb writer. Two big selling points here: one, everyone in this story is lovely. Well, not everyone. There are bad guys. But the big group of online friends and friends at Steph's new school are just all great. The show up for each other, and trust and respect and believe in each other. They roll with each others' weird home situations, changing pronouns, romantic confusions, and new attempts to understand humanity. Some of the bad guys are scary, and those bad guys come after them, but this story is full of people taking good care of each other, without being perfect.

Point two: watching an AI figure out how people work will never not be fun. CheshireCat is sweet and well-meaning, but only knows the internet parts of life--which is a lot, but not everything. Watching it navigate interactions with a combination of expertise and bafflement is just so heartwarming and charming and funny.

I loved this book. And the Amazon page says there will be more CatNet books, about which I am super excited. So please ignore the cover and give it a try.

(Welcome to post 2 of my dreck writing. I apologize. I make no quality promises for at least a month.)

Thank you Netgalley for sending me an advance review copy of this book before it came out months and months ago.