2019 Mount TBR


A multigenre short story collection.

Publication year: 2016
Format: ebook
Publisher: WMG Publishing

This collection has even more genres than usual. There are stories with no SF/F elements at all, a couple of fantasy stories, an epic fantasy story, a post-apocalyptic story, some science fiction, and a tale of near future mixed with humor. The last story mixes humor and horror. As is appropriate for the theme, many are rather grim. The theme of “last stand” has been interpreted quite broadly, which is evident from the very first story. This time three stories didn’t work for me at all. But I enjoyed the others.

“The Great Ice Cream War of Grover’s Hollow” by Annie Reed: Pooter McKinnon and his friends love ice cream and they especially love Mr. Hurley’s ice cream truck. Mr. Hurley never smiles and the kids are a little afraid of them but they love the ice cream. Then one day, another ice cream truck shows on the same street. It belongs to a large chain.

“Slow Motion” by Eric Kent Edstrom: A baseball story.

“Do Not Resuscitate” by Dory Crowe: Rosemary used to be a teacher but after a stroke, she can’t talk and can’t even feed herself. One night, she sees something awful. Can she somehow communicate what she saw?

“Sunset, Fall, Home” by Dan C. Duval: Gary has a horse farm but the surrounding developments are squeezing it. His youngest son has returned home to ask him to sell the place and for once in his life, Gary is honest with his son.

“’Til Death Do Us Part” by Kerrie L. Hughes & John Helfers: In 1896, Jacob and Clara Troyers have moved to the wilds of America, to settle there. They live alone but near a fort. One night, Jacob is overdue from his hunting trip and a half-wolf, half-man attacks Clara biting her. She shoots it, but to her horror, it turns into Jacob. She must do whatever she can to protect their six-month-old son.

“Circle ’Round” by M. L. Buchman: Lola Mahoney is the new commander of a very tough US army squad. She and her team are sent to a very dangerous mission.

“Unto the Ether” by M. E. Owen: Aliens have come to Earth’s orbit and they’re not communicating, at least with the humans. Instead, they’re following their own protocol which disrupts all the nations on Earth. One scientist has dragged her teenage daughter to a safe bunker on Easter Island and she’s bored out of her mind. The story is told in aliens’ reports and the daughter’s letters to her best friend.

“Bury My Son at Home” by Angela Penrose: The Legion and the Confederation have brought their war to this planet. They recruited all men to their war and now the men are dead. Women are searching desperately for their loved ones’ bodies through the battlefields, to bring them home for decent burial. The battlefields are vast and then they find out that their time has ran out.

“The Flare” by Laura Ware: Ten days ago a huge solar flare hit Earth and everything electrical died. Sue and her husband Dan and their two children happen to live near a grouchy survivalist. Grudgingly, he helps them. But then a teenager staggers to Sue. He was short by a man insists that everyone follow him. And that man is coming for Sue’s small community.

“What’s Left of Me” by Bonnie Elizabeth: a woman battling multiple cases of cancer.

“The Counter” by Rob Vagle: Lane lives in a world where his worth is measured in coins inside him. Today, the Counter is coming to count and weight them, to see if Lane will live or die. Lane knows that he will fall short but he has a plan.

“The Toymaker of Kelsium Rye” by Chuck Heintzelman: Alger Dolling is the only toymaker in Kelsium Rye. By law, he can’t sell the toys; he must give them away. When one toymaker is becoming too old, he vanishes mysteriously. Now, it’s Alger’s turn to face the Destroyer.

“Magic and Sacrifice” by Felicia Fredlund: Tribald has been at war with Soar for three generations. Once again the spring has come and with it a brutal assault through the pass at Fire Mountain. Brave men and woman have died on both sides. Maora and her husband are determined to stop that.

“Lady Elizabeth’s Betrothal Ball” by Anthea Sharp: Most young women are thrilled at their betrothal ball. But princess Elizabeth isn’t like most young women. She already has a lover but because her lover is a poor commoner and a woman, they can’t be together. However, Elizabeth can’t just run away because the British Empire has spread even to the furthers star systems. So, she must do something far more drastic.

“Suppose They Gave a Ragnarok and Nobody Came?” by Lee Allred: Tyr, god of war has been asleep for a long time. When he senses that Ragnarok is near and finds Thor Thorsson, Thor isn’t what he expected. For one, this Thor was adopted so he’s black and for another, he’s a computer programmer, not a warrior. But Tyr must try to carry out Odin’s plan: to find Balder and stop Loki from killing him. However, that plan doesn’t succeed so Tyr and Thor must find some allies to fight the Ragnarok.

“Death Bunnies of Toxic Island” by Travis Heermann: Bunny Boo-Boo was the only thing Haley cared about. Since a hawk killed it, Haley has been inconsolable. But when she hears about a whole island full of rabbits in Japan, she knows she must go there. Of course, nobody tells the tourists that a dangerous opening has been found on the Rabbit Island.

Some of these stories have very interesting premise and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the world, such as Heintzelman’s and Vagle’s stories. Owen’s story which is told from the aliens’ reports to their superiors and a scientist’s daughter’s letters worked surprisingly well. Over all, this was a good collection.

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The first book in an urban fantasy series.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Publisher: Roc
Page count: 341

Harper Blaine is a private investigator in Seattle. The book starts when her current client’s step-father attacks her and beats her very badly. She sees, hears, and smells things, people, and places which aren’t there. A doctor tells her that she had been dead for two minutes but brought back. He gives her the address of a couple of friends who might be able to help her. They are Ben and Mara Danziger.

When she’s released from the hospital, she tries to dive back to work, to pay the bills. She gets a missing person’s case through her lawyer contact and a strange sounding man contacts her on the phone, asking her to retrieve a missing heirloom, a parlor organ. But her office is also burgled.

But she still hears and sees strange things, so reluctantly she goes to meet the Danzigers. They tell her that because she died, she can now see, hear, and smell the Grey, as they call the misty, desperate place between life and death. The people she’s seen are mostly ghosts but can also be vampires or other paranormal creatures. Harper is called a Graywalker now. However, she refuses to believe it. But when people and stranger things attack her, she must at least know more to survive.

While this book came out in 2006, the tech level feels much older. Harper doesn’t have a cell phone, she uses a pager. Only one person in the book has a cell phone. Similarly, only one person uses a laptop others use desk top computers. I found this quite refreshing and it added to the overall atmosphere.

Harper is the book’s first-person narrator. In the first half of the book, Harper tries to reject the Grey and focuses on investigating her two cases. But in the second part, she dives into the vampire world of Seattle. She’s very down-to-earth woman and finding out that the paranormal is real is a shock to her so of course she resists at first. She owns a gun and must use it a couple of times but otherwise, she’s not great in battle. She’s also a loner; she doesn’t seem to have any friends or life outside her work. However, she has a pet ferret, Chaos. There are also two men who could be considered love interests but they don’t take over the book which was nice. Mostly, she actually does her job by investigating the cases she has.

I really enjoyed the Danzigers. Ben is a part-time teacher at the local university and a magic theorist. His wife Mara is a witch. They try to help Harper but their own experiences with the Grey are limited and they aren’t right all the time. Ben has a tendency to lecture and they both are sources of info-dumps but I found them quite interesting. Mara is the more practical person. Apparently her Irish accent is not Irish at all.

The vampires aren’t alluring in this book. They’re inhuman monsters. They probably have some powers to enchant humans but Harper can see what they really are. That adds to the atmosphere which isn’t horror but leans toward that more than most UF.

I quite liked the story and the characters. Its world-building is interestingly different. However, some of things were left open at the end, such as why Harper was such a special case. Surely, she can’t be the only person who has been dead for a few minutes but brought back. Yet, that was the only explanation for her abilities and why some characters are interested in her.

The second book in the alternate history Lady Astronaut duology.

Publication year: 2018
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 384 including the historical note and bibliography

This book starts a couple of years after the end of the previous book, Calculating Stars. It’s 1961 and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a moon base where astronauts go regularly, they have Lunette on orbit, and planning the first manned Mars mission. However, the space program has still many obstacles. One of them is funding. While the most radical people on the Earth First movement are considered terrorists, their sentiments are echoed by a lot of powerful people. Elma is one of the pilots ferrying people around on the Moon. Unfortunately, she’s parted from her beloved husband for months at a time while she’s on the Moon.

Elma is again the first-person POV narrator and the Mars mission is the center of the book. Once again, Elma and the other women (especially the non-white women) must fight for their places. Even then, Elma and the other women are mostly seen as a good publicity stunt. However, without modern computer technology, all the computing has to be done by hand and all the computers are women. They do have some mechanical computers but everything must be keyed in by hand so they’re actually slower than a human computer.

Sexism and racism are again addressed and shown. South Africa is a large economic contributor to the IAC and their astronauts are very racist. Elma must also confront her own privileges. Most of the characters from the first book return and we get more insight to some of them. There are a couple of things I had a problem with but they would be considered spoilers.

Also, this isn’t glamourous or easy space travel, but more realistic

Over all, this was a great continuation of the duology and I enjoyed it just as much as the first book. Definitely read the Calculating Stars first.

The first book in the alternate history Lady Astronaut series.

Publication year: 2018
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 431 including historical note and bibliography

This is my first Kowal book. I love her work as the narrator of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye audiobooks. Happily, I clicked with her writing style or Elma’s voice.

It’s fall 1952 and a huge meteorite strikes us destroying most of the Eastern coast. Elma and her husband Nathaniel are taking a small holiday and they’re in the mountains. That’s why they’re still alive. They manage to escape to the nearest surviving Air Force base because they have a small plane and Elma is a great pilot. Nathaniel is the lead engineer of International Aerospace Coalition and he goes to work – persuading the AF base commander that this was not a Soviet attack. Except for her brother who lives in California, Elma’s whole family is dead. She’s a pilot but the AF won’t give her a chance to rescue refugees. But she must work so she volunteers at the local hospital.

But soon enough, her husband needs her particular skills. Elma has a PhD in Mathematics. But because this is 1952, she works as a computer – one of the very best at calculating anything. She finds out the chilling truth: the meteorite has changed world’s climate catastrophically and if humanity is going to survive, it must happen in space.

But only white men are approved to train as astronauts.

Kowal shows the pervasive, casual, and smug sexism against Elma and all the other women who are just casually dismissed all the time. Just as chilling is the casual racism and undervaluing of black people; how the white men don’t even see either, until it’s pointed out and yet the targets must constantly live with it. Elma doesn’t initially realize her own racism but slowly her awareness grows. Sadly, both attitudes still exist, if not so blatantly.

The book is written from Elma’s first-person POV. I loved her voice. But she constantly undervalues herself and what she’s capable of. Also, she hears her mother’s voice telling her to mind “what will others think”. She has an anxiety disorder and when she almost accidentally becomes the famous “Lady Astronaut” and people want her to speak in front of large crowds, it’s almost impossible for her. But only almost.

She and Nathaniel are happily married and Nathaniel is a wonderful, supportive husband. They both love their work and work long hours but they also find time to support each other. Neither of them talks about starting a family, though. I guess they’re too focused on their work, especially knowing that the end of the world is literally approaching.

There was also no talk about what happens to the billions of people who are on Earth. Are the colonies going to take all of them? It seems that just a select few are going to get off Earth and continue the species in colonies. Of course, a lot of people don’t believe that the Earth is going become unhabitable.

The changes in the timeline are pretty subtle at first and also the change in climate isn’t sudden but gradual. That’s why so many powerful white men have difficulty in believing that the change will come. They’d much rather pour money into their own agendas than the space program. However, we don’t see much of the world outside IAC except through newspaper clippings at the beginning of each chapter. IAC has international staff but they don’t talk much beside work (and sexism).

This isn’t an adventure book: Elma isn’t kidnapped or fighting for her own survival. Also, this is just the beginning of the road off Earth.

It’s the first book in a duology so the ending is wide open.

The first book in the Star Trek: Discovery series.

Publication year: 2018
Format: print
Publisher: Gallery Books
Page count: 370

The book is set a year before the events in the Discovery’s pilot. It’s set mostly on the USS Shenzhou. It starts with Shenzhou’s second and first officer leaving for other posts. Captain Georgiou must promote people to fill in the gaps. She chooses Lieutenant Burnham for first officer and Lieutenant Saru for second officer. She knows that the two are fierce rivals and don’t have the best working relationship. She makes the posts temporary, to see how they will adjust to the change.

Saru is bitter that Burnham was promoted ahead of him. After all, he went through Starfleet Academy while Burnham didn’t. He also resent the time and attention that the captain lavishes on her and feels neglected. Burnham is eager to show her worth to her captain.

But sinister things are happening. An independent colony is in danger, when a drilling rig has woken an ancient alien construct, dubbed the Juggernaut. It sends flying drones to attack the cities. The governor and her citizens don’t want Starfleet protection (I guess they want to own slaves or something, I wasn’t really clear on why) but they aren’t armed so they must call for help. However, when Starfleet Command hears about the situation, they send in also USS Enterprise, captained by Christopher Pike. Pike has strict orders that the alien construct isn’t allowed to leave the planet or it will destroy other colonies nearby. The starships must destroy the thing, even if it means destroying the planet – and the colony on it.

This is what I wanted when Discovery started so I very must enjoyed the book. We get to know the crew of the Shenzhou, somewhat at least, and get to see captain Georgiou in action with Burnham as her first officer. However, the focus of the book isn’t so much on Georgiou and Burnham’s relationship. Instead, we witness the rivalry between Saru and Burnham and when the Enterprise arrives, the focus shifts to the relationship between Burnham and young Spock who is Pike’s science officer.

The book has lots of POV characters on Shenzhou, Enterprise, and among the colonists. I’m afraid that I don’t have much sympathy for the colonists; they seemed very self-centered and stupid (which doesn’t make them unrealistic characters – quite the opposite, unfortunately).

The story line pits Pike’s devotion to duty against Georgiou’s principles. I found SC’s orders more than a bit unbelievable; Picard would never have followed them, either. I also had some trouble putting together the aesthetics of Discovery and TOS. Mack does try to explain away the differences between the uniforms, the technology, and ships. Shenzhou is the old warhorse while Enterprise is one of the newest ships, which doesn’t really work for me. There was also some quite unnecessary explanations, perhaps to drive up the word count. Otherwise, I quite enjoyed the book.

It’s quite possible that the details in the book, especially about the background of the central characters, will be made non-canon by Discovery’s later seasons. I’ve only watched the first one.

A stand-alone fantasy book.

Publication year: 1988
Format: print
Publisher: Baen
Page count: 345

This is apparently Kate Elliott’s first book.

Sanjay Mukerji and Chryse Lissagaray are newly wed. They’re surprised to find a beautiful deck of tarot cards as one of their wedding gifts. They’re even more surprised when the cards transport them to a fantasy land.

Anglia is troubled. The ruler is Regent, Princess Blessa, the aunt to the 15-year old Heir, Princess Georgianna. Also, many of the rich exploit the poor people ruthlessly and many of the poor people are rising up for their rights, because they’re too desperate to do anything else. They also loath the Regent and many assume that she’s going to do anything she can to stay in power. And they’re right: the Regent is a gifted mage and she uses her own deck of tarot cards, her connections, and her ability to manipulate people to get rid of the Heir in a way that she can’t be implicated.

But Chryse and Sanjay have more immediate problems because they’re trying to find a way back to home. However, while fleeing rioters, they stumble upon Julian and his dear old friend Kate. Both are drunk but agree to help the couple. At the Vole house, Chryse and Sanjay meet Lady Trent who takes an interest in them. Lady Trent is Julian’s grandaunt and she knows many people. She advises the couple to seek an appointment with a famous seer. When they finally meet with the seer, she gives them a task: to find her the treasure from the mythical Labyrinth.

But others are also after the treasure. The Regent is one them and another is the infamous Earl of Elen. He’s arrogant, cold, and has a terrible reputation for abusing everyone he can. Another is Professor Farr. He’s an elderly archaeology professor obsessed with the Labyrinth and it’s history.

This is a mystery fantasy and I quite enjoyed it. It’s not a thriller. It does have a lot of characters. Chryse is the main POV character but there a lot of others, such as the Regent and Maretha who is the only daughter of Professor Farr. Earl of Elen demands that Maretha marries him and she has no choice.

This book has a lot of things I really liked. Of course, Chryse and Sanjay are already an established couple and lovely together. Archaeology is another: most of the book is an excavation trip to the ancient city where the Labyrinth is supposed to be. Tarot cards used as magic is a third.

Also, the book has a wonderful wealth of interesting and different women characters. Kate is a tomboy who dresses in men’s clothing and isn’t afraid to say what she means. She’s an aristocrat but has been disinherited by her parents. Lady Trent is in her eighties and has seen a lot of life. Chryse is a musician and a composer. Maretha is devoted to her father. She’s a very capable archaeologist in her own right but is in her father’s shadow. Maretha’s orphan cousin Charity is living with the Farrs. She’s demure but also vain about her looks and we find quite interesting things about her at the end. And of course the Regent who manipulates everyone around her. Basically, where a more common fantasy book would have male characters, we get woman. Which was great.

On the other hand, the world-building was more common. The world has other creatures than humans, such as ogres and fairies, but we saw them only briefly. Mostly, we got street urchins who don’t look like humans. While most of the magic is done through the cards, there are other magical forces in the world, too. The Earl uses them quite casually. In place of great men, we again got women. For example, Shakespeare and Mozart where both women in this world and so were most of the rulers of Anglia. Also, I couldn’t puzzle the religion together: people talked of the Bible but seemed to revere Queen of Heaven who has both a Son and a Daughter. The Daughter is the Queen of the Underworld who is also called the Sinner. Fascinating but not enough details.

The third book in the Pellucidar (science) fantasy series.

Publication year: 1929
Format: print
Publisher: Tandem
Page count: 219

I read the first two Pellucidar books decades ago and clearly they’ve (also) left an impression because I remembered surprising much about them.

Burroughs himself and a young man Jason Gridley, who is wealthy and a radio enthusiast, receives a strange radio signal. It turns out to come from the underground world of Pellucidar and from Perry, one of the two first Western man to find Pellucidar. He sends them the strange tale of Tanar.

Tanar is the young son of a chief who is allied with David Innes who has declared himself the emperor of Pellucidar. However, Tanar was caught when the cruel Korsars raided David’s lands and when the Korsars sailed away, they took Tanar with them.

The Korsar chief The Cid spares Tanars’ life because he believes that Tanar can show the Korsars how to make the more effective weapons that David’s men use. Tanar doesn’t know how to make them but plays along, hoping for a chance to escape from the ship. He meets The Cid’s lovely daughter Stellara who is destined to be the mate of The Cid’s second-in-command, an ugly but very strong man. She loathes him.

However, a terrible storm drives all of the Korsars from the ship, leaving Tanar and Stellara behind. Stellara tells him that her mother was a captive from another island and that she’s really not The Cid’s daughter but that her mother’s original mate is her father. The ship drifts to an island which turns out to be Stellara’s mother’s home. However, the people there don’t believe Stellara and the two are again captured. By chance they are able to flee and Tanar tried to find a way home through dangerous country with hostile people.

The book is mostly action/adventure although it does have Burroughs-style romance. That means jealousy, misunderstandings, and rivals. No less that three women declare their love for Tanar and Stellara, too, has four other suitors in addition to Tanar (most of them brutish louts). Almost the moment Tanar realizes that he loves Stellara, she’s kidnapped.

Tanar’s people are cavemen but David has brought them better weapons. Still, Tanar mostly uses spears and bow and arrows. Many of the animals are prehistorical, such as saber-tooth tigers. In addition, we’re introduced to the Buried People, the terrible Coripies who live underground and have no eyes. They live very unhappy lives, filled with violence, just like another tribe of humans which Tanar meets. Yet, a woman are able to rise above her abusive culture and Tanara credits her blood for that; her mother was captured from another culture. Similarly, Tanar notes that Stellara doesn’t behave like the brutish Korsars because of her parents’ blood.

Tanar is a native Pellacidarian and knows how to live in that world, of course. He’s mostly driven by desire to survive and later to find Stellara. He’s not eager to help other people, except when it’s in his own best interests. In that way, he’s different from most of Burroughs’ heroes. Stellara is a typical Burroughs heroine: proud and stubborn. She isn’t afraid to tell her opinions but she’s also liable to jump to conclusions, when given half a chance. She’s more compassionate than the Korsars which attracts Tanar to her in the first place. Yet, she’s helpless to fight against any of her kidnappers.

Pretty standard Burroughs tale. It’s ends in a cliffhanger, but not for Tanar and Stellara. Poor David is left as a captive at the end of the book.

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