2016 pick & mix


I joined Worlds Without End’s Pick & Mix reading challenge for 40 books and managed to complete it.

Initially, I thought I’d use only books from my physical TBR piles but I ended up adding ebooks and audio books, too. But for every one of the audio and ebooks, I read a book from my physical TBR pile, so I did end up reducing my mountains of books by 40!

Hopefully, I can continue the trend next year.

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The third book in the Keeper chronicles. This time with two talking cats.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Page count: 415
Publisher: Daw

Diana Hanson is a Keeper, person with witch-like powers who guards the world from forces of evil. Today is her last day in high school and she notices a source of evil, an ugly bracelet. Soon enough, she’s Summoned to her first work: Erlking’s Emporium a gift shop in a Kingston mall. It seems that someone is changing the whole mall into an Otherside spot and so trying to take over the world. Otherside is a place where people’s conscious and subconscious desires and fears take physical form. Diana realizes that she needs help from her older sister Claire. Together the sisters, and Diana’s talking cat Sam, head into the Otherside to fight evil right at the source. This means that Claire’s hunky boyfriend and her talking cat Austin stay at the guest house to entertain all comers, including a professor of archeology and his walking mummy.

This was a fun and funny book but not as good as the previous one. Most the elements I enjoyed in the previous books are here such as Austin’s snarkiness, the pop culture references, and jokes. Austin and Dean are fun together, too.

However, I didn’t really get the Australian jokes and at time the story is fractured to too many different places. Unfortunately, the book has lots of new characters whom we don’t really get to know and so it’s hard for me to really care about the budding romance.

If you enjoyed the previous books, I think you’ll enjoy this one too. Unless you don’t like arrogant teenaged Diana, of course.

The first in a science fiction series but can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 1985
Format: print
Page count: 346
Publisher: Baen

This series is set far into the future where humanity’s Dominion of Man has spread to several planets. But they’re at war with an alien race, the Trofts, who have just invaded two human planets at the start of the story.

Jonny Moreau is young man who wants to help people and he thinks that the best way to do it, during a wartime, is to enlist to Army. His parents are concerned but allow him to do that. He’s one of the few who are selected to be a new kind of soldier, a Cobra. Cobras undergo a lot of surgeries which make their bones unbreakable, put in servos, and even a nanocomputer which gives them far better reflexes and ready responses to dangerous situations. These enhancements can’t be seen so the Cobras are sent to the occupied worlds, to blend in with the civilians already there and to lead the resistance. For years, they do just that and some of them die there, too.
When the war finally ends, the government is wondering what to do with these new kinds of humans. Some of them want to leave the army and return to civilian life, but not all of their enhancements can be taken out. Jonny returns home, too. While his family is welcoming, almost everyone else seems to be afraid of him or at least wary of him. He can’t find a job, except as a laborer using his enhanced strength which other men resent. Both he and the government are looking for a solution.

While parts of the book are action adventure, underneath are more serious themes like how humans will treat people different from themselves and just who should have power over other people. Most of the book follows Jonny but we get small flashes of the government workings, as well. The storyline jumps ahead from time to so we get to see Jonny at different times in his life and in different roles, as well. The secondary characters change, too, quite a lot.

This turned out to be quite a different, and more thoughtful read than I anticipated, which is good. We don’t really get to know the Troft, though.

First in a science fiction series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 232 + an excerpt of Spiral Labyrinth
Publisher: Night Shade books

Henghis Hapthorn is a discriminator, a private detective in a world thousands of years in the future when humanity has spread far into space. The nobility is so far removed from the ordinary people that the nobles are literally unable to see them, unless the ordinary people, like Henghis, put on certain items and make certain gestures.

Lord Afre hires Henghis to find out just who is Hobart Lascalliot. Lascalliot has become a constant companion to Afre’s daughter and yet it appears that the young man isn’t anyone of significance. Henghis takes on the job and has to travel to several planets until he discovers the humiliating plot centered on the daughter. Just after Henghis has returned home, a man in an invisibility suit calls on him. As a famous, and apparently (at least according to himself) the most successful discriminator, Henghis has more than a few enemies so as a precaution he attacks the man and renders him unconscious. Only afterwards he realizes that the mystery man is the ruler of humanity, the Archon. Fortunately, the Archon has a problem that he needs Henghis to unravel and doesn’t throw Henghis to a deep dank cell for assault.

The book has a fascinating setting. In this universe, there are seasons for when magic is ascendant and seasons when reason is ascendant. Currently, reason rules but the time of magic is rapidly approaching. Henghis is a man of reason and loathes and distrusts magic. He uses reason to unravel conundrums, pick apart puzzles, and uncover enigmas. This world has space travel and high technology, all built on laws of nature. At least the wealthier people have all AI assistants called integrators which have access to an internet which spans all the known planets. Yet, magic is starting to seep back in to the cosmos.

Henghis knows intimately that magic is coming. He has encountered it before and in that encounter he and his assistant (whom he has built, so I assume it’s an artificial intelligence in a tiny, robotic body) were changed. Now, Henghis’ intuitive self is a separate persona inside his skull. That intuitive self is the part of him which will rise to the surface when the age of magic starts. But that earlier encounter apparently triggered its self-awareness prematurely. Henghis knows that the other is a part of him but still he resents and distrusts him. Also, his assistant has apparently come to life. Previously, it didn’t need to eat or sleep – now it does both and often at inconvenient times.

Other reviews compared Henghis with Sherlock Holmes and I can see the resemblance: Henghis is conceited, arrogant, and very intelligent. He also has a temper when things don’t go his way. The book is written in first person from his POV.

Unfortunately, the writing style didn’t agree with me. That’s too bad because the universe was interesting and so were Henghis and his other self.

A collection of science fiction short stories by very influential women writers. The oldest was written in 1933 and the newest 1989.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 267
Publisher: Baen

Lots of people are saying the women don’t write, and publish, science fiction. That’s simply not true. As Rusch shows us in her “Introduction: Invisible Women” women have been writing SF since the beginning of the genre attracting readers and winning awards. But readers and critics, both men and women, have many, many ways of marginalizing and outright forgetting women. They write in wrong subgenre, have wrong themes, the science is outdated etc. etc. ad nasaum. Well, Rusch and Baen are now bringing back some of the ignored women whom the younger generation of readers, and writers!, don’t know.

Much to my surprise this collection has only one writer I haven’t heard of before: Zenna Henderson. Actually, I’ve read only one story from these before: Bujold’s Aftermaths. So, I was delighted to read these stories and I dearly hope there will be more.

The stories are in a variety of styles and sub genres from horror to pulp fiction to time travel. I liked the introductions, too, because Rusch tells us the awards and honors these writers have won and the way they’ve influenced each other and the whole genre.

“The Indelible Kind” by Zenna Henderson (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1968): Miss Murcher is a teacher in a small school and Vincent comes to her school. Vincent is eight but he can’t read much. Otherwise, he’s very bright boy and perhaps something more.
This is one of the quieter stories, with the Other as its theme.

“The Smallest Dragonboy” by Anne McCaffrey (Science Fiction Tales, 1973): Keevan is barely twelve and the smallest of the boys who want to be dragonriders. But the more he’s bullied and teased by the oldest boy, the more he’s determined to impress a dragon hatchling.
It’s been decades since I read Pern books but this story brought the setting right back and made me want to read some of the Pern books I haven’t read.

“Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March, 1985): Sally works in a diner. The US government has contact with aliens but Sally and her friends have only seen them on TV. Until one walks into the diner.

“Angel” by Pat Cadigan (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1987): Angel is the main character’s (MC) friend. He communicates with the MC without words and do all sorts of little tricks. Then Angel sees a strange woman he clearly fears.

“Cassandra” by C.J. Cherryh (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1978): One of my favorite authors but I don’t think I’ve read her short fiction before.
The people call her Crazy Alis because to her only she is a solid person. Other people are grey ghosts walking around in a town which is in flames and crumbling down. Medicines take away her nightmares and allow her to sleep, but they don’t take away the things she sees when she’s awake.

“Shambleau” by C.L. Moore (Weird Tales, November, 1933): The oldest story in the collection mixes pulp fiction and horror.
Northwest Smith is an intergalactic smuggler and not the most gallant of men. But when he sees a girl running from a murderous crowd, he rescues her and even gives her a place to sleep. However, the girl isn’t human and then his real troubles begin.

“The Last Days of Shandakor” by Leigh Brackett (Startling Stories, April 1952): Another pulp story but this time with the subject of lost city. Set in Mars in Brackett’s Eric John Stark universe where Mars, Venus, and some of the other planets are habitable and have their own humanlike people.
John Ross in a man from Earth but he lives on Mars. He studies the local peoples and places. Then he sees a man who doesn’t look like anyone else John has ever seen. He calls himself Corin and at first he refuses to take John to his city, which is apparently dying. But reluctantly he agrees and the two set into a desert on the road to Shandakor.

“All Cats Are Gray” by Andre Norton (Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953): Cliff Moran is a down-of-his-luck captain. Steena of the Spaceways, and her gray cat Bat, are a legend among the spacefarers. When she says that the legendary haunted luxury liner Empress of Mars is drifting close by, Cliff believes her and they head out to capture it.

“Aftermaths” by Lois McMaster Bujold (Far Frontiers: The Paperback Magazine of Science Fiction and Speculative Fact, Volume V, Spring 1986): Bujold is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read this little gem several times.

Falco Ferrell is a pilot and new to the Personnel Retrieval and Identification branch of the Escobaran space military. He and his new partner, MedTech Tersa Boni, have been assigned the rubble of space battle. Their task is to retrieve the bodies, identify them, and send them home. But soon, Falco starts to suspect that Tersa has been in the service for too long.

“The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Galaxy, March 1969): Doctor Ain travels around the world and everywhere he goes, people fall sick.

“Sur” by Ursula K. Le Guin (The New Yorker, February 1, 1982): This story is alternate history without any SF elements.
Since she was a little girl, the main character has been fascinated by the reports and books by men who have gone to the South Pole. But the dream of going there herself has seen unattainable, until she gathers a group of determined women who share her dream.

“Fire Watch” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February 15, 1982): A story about the time traveling historians! I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this one.

Time traveling to the past is hard. But it’s even harder when you’ve been preparing to walk with Saint Paul himself – and are sent instead to St. Paul’s in the middle of air raids. The main character tries to prepare as well as possible, but it might not be enough.

Not all of these stories worked for me but most of them are strong and some of them are real gems.

Rusch has a related website: http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com/

By the way, some of Leigh Brackett’s work is available on Audible.com if you like audio books.

A stand-alone speculative fiction detective story.

Finnish name: Toiset (the others)
Publication year: 2009
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2011
Translator: J. Pekka Mäkelä
Format: print
Page count: 367
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Karisto

Beszel is a divided city but not in a physical way. Inside and beside it is another city, Ul Qoma, which is different legally, culturally, and especially in the minds of the citizens of both city states. Daily, they see the buildings and people of the other city but must ignore and unsee them. If they don’t, they are guilty of a breach which the most heinous crime either city has. Breaches are governed by the mysterious organization called the Breach. They are the bogie men making sure that the citizens of two cities keep apart from each other. This book is really a hard-broiled detective story but in fantastical cities.

Detective Inspector Tyador Borlú works for the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad and the story begins when he’s called to a murder scene. A young woman has been found dead. At first, the police suspect that she’s a prostitute. But soon Borlú gets a mysterious phone call which tells him otherwise. The call comes from Ul Qoma which is, of course, almost a breach.

Borlú recruits a young constable to help him. Lizbyet Corwi knows the streets better than the inspector and acts as a back-up and a sounding boards too. Together they suspect the unificationists, who want to unite the two cities, and nationalists who want to keep the cities apart. But their investigation leads inexorably towards the other city Ul Qoma.

The two cities’ relationship is fascinating and Miéville spends a lot of time clarifying it to us. In the end, the book is about how people’s perceptions and thoughts shape our reality. How what we’ve been taught (from birth) shapes the way we see other people and buildings around us. In this story, if the house next door to you belongs to the other city, you aren’t allowed to see it, or the people walking beside you if you think that they belong to the other city.

Borlú is a pretty typical detective. He’s a good cop and very soon he starts to care about the dead woman and her life, putting even his own career in jeopardy in order to find out what happened to her. Corwi trusts him and backs him up all the way, even though they don’t seem to have any special relationship before the story. There’s very little character development and the vast majority of the story is Borlú and his companion interviewing people and making deductions.

While Miéville follows many of the definitions for a hard-boiled detective story, one refreshing element for me was the lack of misogyny. Yes, some of the women are victims but Corwi is a fellow police officer and Borlú clearly needs and depends on her. However, personally I could have done without the constant swearing.

The story doesn’t have fantasy or science fiction elements beyond the two cities. It’s set during our time with people using cell phones and email. But Beszel is a poor city so the cops don’t have newest equipment, the streets have litter and run-down houses, cars are old. Ul Qoma is more modern with newer buildings and richer people. They seem to be somewhere in Eastern Europe which was a pleasant surprise because a lot of fantasy/sci-fi books which aren’t set in a secondary world or off planet are set in USA.

The concept of the two cities was far more fascinating to me than the plot or the characters.

I read the Finnish translation and for a while I thought Ul Qoma was the translator’s choice, translating whatever the English word had been for the other city. That’s because a Finn pronounces the city’s name close to what in Finnish would mean “Foreign land” (ulkomaat). But I see that Ul Qoma is the city’s original name. Funny coincidence.

The second book in a humorous fantasy series.

Publication year: 2001
Format: print
Page count: 416
Publisher: DAW

The book starts a week after the first one ended. Claire Hansen is Keeper who has to close down portals to Hell. Dean McIsaak is a Bystander, a normal human. But they’re in love. However, Claire soon realizes that she doesn’t want to put Dean in danger and just tells him that she’s leaving. And once Claire has made up her mind, nobody can change it.

But apart, they’re both miserable. Claire is so distracted that she’s even a danger to herself. Luckily, her younger sister Diana, who is still a teenager, conspires to get them back together again.

However, the plot kicks in higher gear, when an angel manifests unexpectedly – to a teenaged girl’s bedroom, naked. Enraged father kicks him out and the confused angel realizes that he has now a fully functioning human body, genitals included. Usually, angels are biologically sexless. Additionally, the angel doesn’t have a mission, which is also unusual. Still, he tries to help people around him and doesn’t understand why they don’t like discussing their private lives with strangers. And then there are the… extra bits which seem to have a life all their own.

Meanwhile, a demon manifests as well. Demons are also usually sexless but this demon is the exact opposite of the angel. So, a teenaged girl who’s actually a demon is walking around Canada.

Claire is her stubborn, more-Keeper-than-thou self and Dean is just as polite and cleaning obsessed as in the previous book. Austin, the talking cat, is also a big part of the book. Diana is ten years younger than Claire and they don’t get along well, especially since both think that they’re always right. But in the end, they support each other.

Lots of sex jokes, lots of other humor and sibling rivalry. This was a fun and funny read. It’s set around Christmas. I recommend reading the first book first though.

I liked this book more than the first one because it has more coherent plot and because the unsatisfied sexual tension goes away pretty quickly. And because of the angel and the demon, who become increasingly human during the story. The angel particularly has problems with his unexpected maleness.

“The constant low levels of sharp-edged irritation would have poked multiple holes through the fabric of the universe had government officiousness not cancelled it out by denying that anything was possible outside their very narrow parameters. As a result, most border crossings between U.S, and Canada were so metaphysically stable, unnatural phenomenon had to cross them just like everyone else – although it wasn’t always easy for them to find a photo ID.
Later, they’d swap stories about how custom official had no sense of humor, how someone – or possibly something – had been strip searched for no good reason, and how they’d triumphantly smuggled through half a dozen toaster ovens, duty-free.”

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