Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Book Review: Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren

Pros: interesting story, really captures the high school atmosphere

Cons: really captures the high school atmosphere, takes a while to get to the mystery aspects

Fourteen year old Freddy has enough problems in life - a neglectful mother and step-father, a deaf step-brother she resents, a genius little sister - the last thing she needs are crazy neighbours, Josiah and Cuerva Lachance. She’s worked hard to maintain social invisibility at school, but when Josiah starts talking to her, she becomes a target for abuse. She and her sister are convinced there’s a mystery with the neighbours, and intend to solve it, even as their step-brother warns them away from the pair.

This is a hard book to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll try. There’s a slow burn on the mystery of what’s up with the neighbours and you don’t really get more than hints until the half way point. Having said that, it’s a quick read (took me two days), so you’re not frustrated trying to figure things out.

There are some very realistic depictions of high school. I personally didn’t enjoy high school so that’s kind of a negative for me, especially since I straddled the not cool but not outcast social position Freddy’s in.

I really liked Freddy. She’s got some real issues and has a coming of age where she realizes that some of the things she did in the past weren’t that great. Her interactions with her step-brother felt honest given her circumstances.

I liked seeing a deaf character in an important role. I’d be interested in seeing what readers with more experience with this issue have to say about the portrayal.

It’s a fun, quirky, story.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Faras Frescoes

In 1959 prior to the construction of Aswan dam, UNESCO appealed to governments and archaeologists to help save historic sites that would be flooded by the lake the dam created.  There was a concerted effort to save as much as they could

Polish archaeologist,Professor Kazimierz Michałowski’s team uncovered a buried Nubian Christian cathedral. Conservators from the National Museum in Warsaw along with the professor’s team managed to detach numerous walls, saving 150 paintings (tempura painted on dry mud plaster, called the Faras frescoes) as well as other artifacts from the remains of the buildings surrounding the church.

As previously agreed, the findings were divided between Poland and Sudan. In 2014 the National Museum of Warsaw reopened the Faras gallery, now designed to evoke the look and feel of the church the artefacts were from.

This google culture online exhibit explains the story and shows several images as well as a few videos. For more information, check out the Faras gallery website.

(image) National Museum of Warsaw Faras Gallery - St Anne fragment

I've seen some readers complain in the past about the number of science fiction books that uncover previous societies. What these readers fail to consider is the fact that all societies - unless you're talking about a new colony on a world without any sort of previous intelligent species - is built on the ruins of the past, often quite literally. Many important European cities have layers and layers of older cities beneath them. So it makes sense for characters in books to stumble across ruins, depending on the circumstances of the story. if nothing else, it shows that the world/universe has a history. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Shout-Out: The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Somewhere away from the cities and towns, in the Valley of the Rocks, a society of men and boys gather around the fire each night to listen to their history recounted by Nate, the storyteller. Requested most often by the group is the tale of the death of all women.

They are the last generation.

One evening, Nate brings back new secrets from the woods; peculiar mushrooms are growing from the ground where the women’s bodies lie buried. These are the first signs of a strange and insidious presence unlike anything ever known before…

Discover the Beauty.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Video: Dimensional Meltdown

A short but interesting time travel piece. It was directed by Ofer Perdut in 2009 as his final movie for his first year of film school.

Sometime in the near future. Three parallel universe, the girlfriend dies in each one, the guys cant take the loss. With an unsecured technology that accidentally made its way to the wide public, They decide to go for a ride to another parallel universe - our universe, in which the girl is still alive...

Dimensional Meltdown from Ofer Pedut on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Book Review: An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating diverse characters, interesting premise

Cons: can get very emotionally heavy at times 

The China of this future has a Bounty of unmarried men. Lee Wei-guo is a 44 year old gym owner and coach and the general of the Strategic Games army Middle Kingdom. He’s finally saved enough money for a dowry, but only as a maximum - a third husband. His matchmaker has only found one interested family. The Wus looks good on paper, but Wei-guo’s two dads aren’t convinced. And they’re right. May-ling’s first husband is an undeclared Willfully Sterile, a gay man who, if outed, would lose contact with his son among other punishments. His brother and May-ling’s second husband, Xiong-Xin (who prefers to be called XX), is a potential Lost Boy. He’s an autistic computer security genius with whom May-ling is terrified of having a child through their mandated weekly conjugal sessions, because if their child is also a Lost Boy, the child would be taken from them. As Wei-guo gets to know the family and decides he wants to join it, politics and their personal problems make that outcome less and less likely.

The book shows four points of view, starting with Wei-guo’s and extending to May-ling and her husbands. It’s great seeing the four people, how they interact, why they act the ways they do, what they believe and feel. There’s so much complexity to the situations presented in the book that it’s great seeing the same problems from various viewpoints. It allows you to sympathize with everyone, even as they annoy, betray, anger, and love each other. 

The world-building in the book is top notch. I was impressed with how carefully the author approached this potential future. The government is integrated into so many aspects of regular life, in ways that make public dissension difficult to impossible. Maintaining an aura of party support is second nature to all of the characters, as is reading between the lines of what is acceptable to say/do to understand what people actually mean. It’s a world that becomes more terrifying the more you learn about it. I was glad there was a section explaining how the Helpmates (the women who meet once a week with men to work off sexual tensions) were organized. There isn’t much mention of life outside of China, though the China First party line does frown on foreign wives, if not state sanctioned foreign sex workers. No issue is clear cut. While homosexuality is treated like a genetically inherited disease, those who declare themselves Willfully Sterile and get sterilized have a place in society. The book shows that many gay men hide their status, not willing to leave families or be seen as other by society. It’s a complex issue and it’s handled with the recognition that there are many sides to all difficult issues (even if some of those sides are abhorrent to us and the protagonists). 

I was also impressed by the clarity of language used to explain the thoughts that went unspoken and the acts that went undone. There are no pulled punches over how emotions work and the difficulties encountered when people with different ways of interacting are forced into close relationships. XX’s annoyance at being second guessed by his brother and wife, the difficult choices May-ling must make with regards to her marital vows when considering having XX’s child, Hann’s being a pawn in the games of his company partners, create three dimensional people with problems that seem simple from the outside, but have no easy solutions.

There is a sex scene between May-ling and XX that’s very uncomfortable to read. While it’s graphic, it is also important for understanding a lot of the interpersonal problems the family has.

Elements that I thought were window dressing for the purpose of world-building, for example the strategic games Wei-guo plays, turned out to have a major impact on the story later on, so read carefully.

Obviously I can’t speak to how accurately the author grasped the modern Chinese mindset.

This is a brilliant book.

Friday, 12 January 2018

How To Request a Review (And How Not To)

While I won’t be accepting many review requests again this year, I still get quite a few. Most are well written and professional, but occasionally I get requests that.. could be improved. So with that in mind, here are a few suggestions of what to do, and what NOT to do, when requesting a review of your novel.

Do Include:
  • Your book cover if you have one. A picture really is worth a thousand words and a good cover sells. If you don’t have one yet that’s ok, but I’m surprised by the number of authors who decide not to include their gorgeous covers.
  • A synopsis of your book. I cannot stress this enough. While I will check your website (if you have one) or Amazon to figure out what your book is about, it’s much easier for me (and gives me more good will towards you) if the information I need is in the email you’ve sent me. And please make sure that your synopsis mentions the book’s actual plot. I’ve seen a few where the synopsis was all back story or setting and I was left with no idea of the plot or characters (or at times even the subgenre it’s in).
  • A link your website (if you have one) and the on sale date of your book (including if the book is already published). This helps me plan my reading schedule. I personally prefer getting books 1-3 months before publication (different reviewers have different lead times).
  • What genre/sub-genre this is. Not strictly necessary, but helpful (especially if you didn’t include a synopsis).  

  • Mock or insult the genre you’re writing in or other authors’ books. I read these genres because I love them. I won’t read your book if you talk smack about books I’ve loved in the past or the genre I support now. Negging isn’t a good tactic in this or any other relationship.
  • Tell me this is the first/only/best book to do X. Often I’ll read those comments and immediately think of 2 or 3 books that did exactly what you’re trying. Comments like this make me want to re/read those books instead.
  • Compare your book to bestsellers that don’t relate to your book. Comparison books can be helpful but only if they’re done right. Telling me your book is like 4 unrelated bestselling kids books won’t make me believe your adult sci-fi//horror/mystery mash-up is good. Agents want comparison titles. I’m more interested in what your book is - rather than what other books your book is like. 
  • Be unprofessional. I treat reviewing as an unpaid job. My time is precious to me and you’re asking me to spend a week or more of it reading your book. Treat me with respect and I’ll treat you the same way.
  • Take rejection personally. Different books are for different readers. There are a lot of reasons I reject books, the biggest simply being time. I don’t have as much time for reading as I used to and I already own more unread books than I can read in my remaining lifetime. My preferences have also changed over the years and I’ve become pickier about what I’ll try. One of my policies is to email the author/publicist where I stopped reading if the book doesn’t work for me. I don’t enjoy doing this, so if I’m on the fence about a book I’ll usually say no upfront (and sometimes get it myself later). Also, to keep things in perspective, I’ve said no to books I desperately wanted to read but knew I couldn’t finish by the publication date, as well as books by bestselling authors. 
  • Query about your draft or work in progress. Have a finished novel. If I’m devoting time to your book I don’t want my review to become defunct because you’ve drastically changed it.  

Final notes:

I like to showcase new authors and the first book in a series. If you’re querying a sequel, check to see if I’ve reviewed the first book. If I haven’t, I’m more likely to review book 1 and mention that the sequel is out/coming soon rather than read two+ books.

My current reading preferences include the following. I like unconventional fantasy (for setting, characters, plot). Some examples of books I’ve loved to give you an idea of what I mean: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, Transformation by Carol Berg, Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw…

I’m no longer interested in quests, portals to fantasy worlds (or vice versa), grimdark (I read fantasy for the sense of hope when the good side wins. Grimdark brings the dread of the real world into fantasy, and if I want to feel crappy about life I’d watch the news). I don’t read much urban fantasy and you’ll need a very original idea to make me consider it.

I prefer psychological horror to slasher fiction.

Because I read a lot less science fiction growing up I’m more lenient with this category. I enjoy young adult dystopian (I read a lot of adult dystopian as well, though I’ve found I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I’m continually fascinated by it), post-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, space opera, etc. I’m less interested in near future SF. I still like superhero fiction, though the market seems to be becoming saturated with them.

I like romance as side plots but only rarely as the main story. I especially like romance when coupled with comedy (or snarky back and forths). A few examples of romance I’ve enjoyed: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn. 

In all cases I’m looking for diverse casts, well-rounded characters, interesting, well-constructed worlds, and thought-provoking stories. I also like books with political intrigue.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Shout-Out: The Bees by Laline Paull

Born into the lowest class of an ancient hierarchical society, Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, an Untouchable, whose labour is at her ancient orchard hive's command. As part of the collective, she is taught to accept, obey and serve. Altruism is the highest virtue, and worship of her beloved Queen, the only religion. Her society is governed by the priestess class, questions are forbidden and all thoughts belong to the Hive Mind.

But Flora is not like other bees. Her curiosity is a dangerous flaw, especially once she is exposed to the mysteries of the Queen's Library. But her courage and strength are assets, and Flora finds herself promoted up the social echelons. From sanitation to feeding the newborns in the royal nursery to becoming an elite forager, Flora revels in service to her hive.

When Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen's fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses who are jealously wed to power. Her deepest instinct to serve and sacrifice is now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart and her society, and lead her to commit unthinkable deeds . . .