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The first book in the SF series Mickey7.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 9 hours, 15 minutes
Narrator: John Pirhalla, Katherine Chin

Mickey7 is an Expendable, an employee whose consciousness is downloaded to a new clone body after he dies. So, he does all the most dangerous jobs and especially those where he is sure to be killed. There can only be one version of an Expendable at a time. Also, it’s easier to grow a new body than replace an expensive drone or other equipment, so that’s why people who have space-age technology use expendable humans.

He and the rest of the crew are colonists on Niflheim, a planet that was supposed to be able to support life easily. When the ship arrived, they saw that the planet was ice and snow. It also has dangerous animals which were dubbed creepers. The colony is struggling and resources are low.

On a routine mission, Mickey7 falls down a ravine and is left for dead. That doesn’t surprise him. However, he manages to return to the base, and to his astonishment and dismay, Mickey8 is already in his bed.

This was a fun and quick romp. Every other chapter is present day and the other chapters are either from Mickey’s past or he tells us some significant piece of history. The book is about space colonization and cloning.

Mickey has a girlfriend but only one close friend on the base. The commander is a religious man who thinks that cloning is an abomination, so he uses any excuse to punish Mickey. While the parts of the story are pretty dark, the overall tone is light and humorous.

The first book in Legendborn YA fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 18 hours, 54 minutes
Narrator: Joniece Abbott-Pratt

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Bree Matthews lost her mother a few months ago and she can’t get over it. She hates living in a house where everything reminds her of her mother. She has applied to a residential program for bright high schoolers at a university and both she and her best friend Alice are accepted. Despite her father’s misgivings, Bree and Alice attend.

But during the first night, Bree and Alice participate in a party that is outside the campus. Bree sees something unexpected: a supernatural creature attacking. Some of the other students use bows and arrows and swords to take it down. Bree hides.

This was an entertaining read and a new twist on the King Arthur legend. It has the descendants of various knights who belong to a secret order. It also points out that all the descendants and members are white. Some of them have been slave owners. And Bree is black.

The main themes of the book are grief and racism. Bree’s grief over her mother was beautifully and realistically described. Her reactions, too. When she realizes that she might not have died in a simple car accident, she won’t allow anything to stop her from finding out what really happened. She’s brave and determined and also wants to protect her friends and dad. She does have flaws, as well. Also, she’s only 16.

While racism is shown through some people’s actions and words, there are also heartbreaking scenes where Bree realizes that she always feels out of place. For example, because buildings and places aren’t for her (race) even though most likely black workmen (or slaves) have built them, but for white people. Or because she doesn’t know her family history. There are also a couple of flashbacks to her foremothers who were slaves.

Themes are more important than the plot. So the plot has a leisurely pace.

Despite the strong themes, the story succumbs to some YA tropes. The love interests and the love triangle. I didn’t care for the triangle. I kind of like the love interests as characters, though.

Bree doesn’t know anything about the magic at the start of the book. When people tell her about it, there are quite a few info dumps, which I didn’t mind. The Arthurian stuff comes up later, so I don’t want to spoil it. I enjoyed most of it but was dubious about some things.

A stand-alone SF novella.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Tor

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 201

Lynnesse Fourth Daughter is the youngest of the daughters of the Queen of Lannesite and the last one to believe in fairy tales of demons and wizards. When frightened people flee to Lannesite from the forest kingdoms with tales of a demon ravaging the forests and the people, the Queen and Lyn’s sisters dismiss the stories and are convinced that the smaller countries are fighting amongst themselves. Nothing for the Queen to be concerned about. But Lyn is convinced that a real demon is at work. She and her best friend Esha Free Mark make the long journey to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last of the great wizards of the Elder Race. Nyrgoth helped Lyn’s great-grandmother and promised to return if he was needed again. Lyn begs the strange-looking wizard for help.

Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class, lightyears away from home. He and his two friends were sent to observe this alien planet where Earth sent a colony thousands of years ago. But when messages from Earth didn’t arrive, his friends chose to return to find out what happened. Nyr chose to stay, waiting for contact. He has been in suspended animation and is now rudely awakened. He expects that a new message woke him but that’s not the case. He didn’t expect two native women in his home, begging him to leave with them.

Nyr’s instructions forbid all influence with the natives. But he has broken the orders before, with Lyn’s great-grandmother. And Lyn looks so much like her great-grandmother that against his better judgment Nyr agrees. But customs have changed and so has the language.

This novella had two POV characters. Lyn (third person POV) is young and eager to be a hero, somebody her mother will acknowledge. Her worldview has magic and demons. Nyr (first person POV) is a scientist with a scientific worldview. He also struggles with guilt from his previous transgression and he’s very lonely and depressed. He has a Dissociative Cognition System that will suppress his emotions so that he can think clearly and make logical decisions. However, the system can’t work all the time.

The two POV characters complement each other. The local culture is very customs bound and hierarchical. Nyr’s society clearly isn’t and he struggles to make himself understood. The themes of the story are culture clashes and depression. They worked surprisingly well.

The first book in a historical fantasy series the Radient Emperor set in China in the 14th century.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: TOR

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 416

The story covers years 1345 to 1356 and is broken into three parts.

The first part follows our protagonist, a nameless second daughter of a destitute Zhu family. Almost all of her family has died of hunger, just she and her brother, and their father are left. Her brother and father call her a “useless girl”. She has learned to fend for herself, hunting with traps and hiding part of what she catches. Otherwise, she would have starved to death, too.

One day, the father takes the children to a fortune-teller. The old man prophesies that her brother, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness. The father and brother are happy and determined to survive. But for the girl, the fortune-teller says just ”Nothing”. The usual fate of girls in China.

But the girl is also determined to survive. A group of bandits robs them, but they don’t have much. So, the cruel men kick the father to death and the brother also dies the next day. The girl buries them, wondering why her brother has died when he was destined for greatness. She realizes that she can take up her brother’s name and greatness for herself. She remembers that her father arranged for the brother to go to a monastery. And so she walks to the monastery and sits outside for days until the abbot takes pity on her and lets her in.

She’s two years younger than the other novices and can’t read. She also has to keep her sex a secret. But she’s determined to succeed.

The second part introduces a handful of new POV characters. General Ouyang comes from the conquered Nanren people but he serves the Mongol Emperor who rules China with an iron fist. Ouyang’s father and the rest of the family were executed as traitors and Ouyang were the only one to survive. He was made a eunuch and a slave. Still, he clawed his way up, even though almost everyone despises him. He has, of course, plans of his own.

Ma Xiuyuing is the beautiful daughter of the rebel Red Turbans’ general. Recently he died in battle. Ma is betrothed to a young and foolishly arrogant rebel general. She feels that she has no control over her life. She’s a more gentle character than any of the rest. The other POV characters include a high-born Mongol man and a young thief who joins the rebels out of self-preservation.

The book has a couple of minor fantasy elements but you can almost read it as alternate history.

Zhu and Ouyang are mirrors of each other. They both have a destiny that they’re striving for ruthlessly. However, Zhu takes on her brother’s promised greatness to escape her fate of nothingness. She thinks that she has deluded heaven into believing she is her brother and she must do everything just like her brother would have. On the other hand, Ouyang has infiltrated his enemies to avenge his family. Except that he has grown to love his former master, lord Esen. Esen in turn thinks Ouyang as his best and most trusted friend. Ouyang is competent, of course, but must constantly endure the Mongols’ disdain both for being a eunuch and a Nanren.

Zhu and Ma are also mirrors of each other, as women. Ma has no desires of her own and hasn’t even realized she could have them. Zhu has a very strong desire and bends herself and the people around her to her will.

This society is misogynistic. It devalues women and deforms them and puts them in a tiny little box of either a dutiful, chaste daughter or a dutiful wife. Women do most of the domestic work and are still called useless to their faces. But I don’t think the narrative is misogynistic. While Zhu is clearly the exception who constantly hides her femininity, there are a couple of rather powerful women we see briefly. Ouyang despises women. The society also elevates warriors above other men. Without bureaucrats, the Emperor couldn’t rule but they are also constantly put down, as we see with lord Esen’s brother who is a bitter disappointment to their father.

This book certainly has an epic scope, with a large cast of characters and spanning decades. However, there aren’t many detailed battle descriptions. It’s far more focused on intrigue. The rebel Red Turbans have few leaders but they’re constantly fighting amongst themselves. The men under the Emperor are also undercutting each other.

The story was entertaining, if on the grim side. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger but Zhu’s journey hasn’t reached the end.

A stand-alone science fantasy book.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Tor

Format: ebook
Page count in GoodReads: 372

Shizuka Satomi is a legendary violin teacher who made a deal with a demon to deliver seven souls to Hell and she’s trained six exceptional musicians and delivered them to Hell. She has a year to get the seventh, but she hasn’t found a suitable student. Until she hears Katrina play in the park. Shizuka wants to train her, but Katrina doesn’t trust Shizuka.

Katrina Nguyen is a young transwoman on the run from her abusive father. Her only real passion is the violin. Her father has forbidden it because “it going to make her a faggot”. She has practiced in secret. She thinks she can stay with her friend Evan, whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Once she meets him, she realizes he has changed. Evan suggests she take up sex work to help with the rent. Katrina thinks she has no choice and does so. On the day she arrives in Los Angeles, she plays her violin in the park and Shizuka hears her. Shizuka offers to train her, but Katrina thinks she can’t be serious and wants just sex.

However, when Evan’s roommates take Katrina’s violin and pawn it, she’s had enough and leaves. In desperation, she goes to Shizuka’s place. Shizuka takes her as a student, but Katrina is terrified that Shizuka will reject her when she realizes Katrina is trans.

Meanwhile, the local Starrgate Donut is actually a home to interstellar alien refugees, who have human disguises. Lan Tran and her family/crew have fled from the Endplague and are building a stargate. Lan’s almost adult son, 12-year-old twins, a hologram daughter, and aunt are the crew. They analyzed the donuts and are making them with their replicator. When Shizuka steps into the donut shop, Lan and Shizuka are immediately attracted to each other. Shizuka doesn’t have time for a crush, and Lan has her hands full keeping her crew safe. Yet, they see each other more and more often.

Later in the book, there’s a subplot with Lucy Matia, who comes from a long line of violin repairers. But that work is not for girls or women. Lucy’s brothers hated the job and left after their father died. Lucy is now continuing as best she can, but she knows that as a woman she can never be equal to her father or grandfather, be a master. Then one day Shizuka asks her to repair Katrina’s violin.

The writing is lush and detailed, making me, at least, crave donuts and the various foods the characters eat. The descriptions of the music are also wonderful. Mostly, the tone is kind and soothing and the other main characters accept Katrina easily. When other people hurt Katrina through words or actions, it’s a jarring contrast, which is no doubt the point. There’s also a minor character who cuts herself.

Katrina is always on her guard and the awful comments people have said to her, especially his father’s words, are often playing in her mind. She thinks she’s worthless. Shizuka is very confident, knowledgeable and skillful but she’s also a teacher, trying to be sensitive to her student’s needs. However, she’s used to teaching divas and Katrina is very different. Lan just wants her family to be safe. Lucy is trying to keep the family business going and tries to coax her adult son to learn the family trade.

The pace of the book is leisurely, focused very much on the characters. However, there are some minor characters we only glimpse for a little while and their stories don’t get any resolution. Also, Aoki’s changes viewpoints almost on every page, sometimes in the middle of conversation. The style was a bit difficult at first, but I grew used to it. It feels choppy, especially in the beginning.

Still, this was an entertaining read with very interesting characters.

A fantasy retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. A novella.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Tor

Format: ebook
Page count in GoodReads: 128

Zinnia Gray was born with a disease that kills the inflicted shortly after their 21st birthday. Her parents have, of course, tried to find a cure and she’s treated often, but nobody has cured it. All her life, she knows that she’s a dying girl. On her sixth birthday, she reads a fairy tale book with gorgeous Arthur Rackham illustrations and immediately loves Sleeping Beauty. She becomes obsessed with the story.

Today is Zinnia’s 21st birthday. Her best, and only, friend Charm invites Zinnia to their favorite place so that Zinnia can have one last princess birthday. But things go weird.

This is a wonderful, twisty retelling of the story. Zinnia struggles with the suffocating love of her parents who want to protect her while she wants to live as much as she can. Despite her gloomy circumstances, she and Charm have sarcastic humor. She also knows a lot about pop culture and makes a lot of references.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I loved the twists Harrow put to the fairy tale, but I won’t spoil them here. I’m looking forward to the next novella, A Mirror Mended. Happily, the Finnish library system has a few of her books. I need to check them out.

The second book in the Bernie Rhodenbarr humorous mystery series.

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Publishing year: 1987 (originally 1978)

Format: Print

Finnish translator: Pasi Junna

Page count: 223

Finnish publisher: Viihdeviikarit

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. He enjoys breaking into other people’s homes and taking their stuff. However, burglars usually work alone, just as Bernie does. So when his dentist, Dr. Sheldrake, talks about how his ex-wife has lots of expensive jewelry and doesn’t really deserve them, Bernie gets nervous. But in the end, Bernie agrees to break into Crystal Sheldrake’s apartment and steal the goods.

Bernie plans carefully and takes his time in the apartment. A bit too much, even. Because when he has gathered the jewels up neatly, Crystal returns. Desperately, Bernie hides in a closet and Crystal locks him in. Before Bernie can get out, someone else comes in and murders her. Bernie doesn’t hear or see the murderer who leaves, taking the case with the jewels with them.

This was a fun, quick read written in a humorous style. Bernie is in a lot of trouble: the dentist is arrested right away and he quickly points a finger at Bernie. Bernie and the dentist’s nurse try to figure out the murderer. One corrupt cop also tries to blackmail Bernie for half the jewels.

The murdered woman has several boyfriends and her ex-husband hates her, so there are several suspects.

The book is written in Bernie’s first-person POV. While he has no problem stealing, he’s very careful. He’s already been in prison and doesn’t want to return there. He has his own code of honor. The other characters are quite entertaining, too.

A stand-alone science fiction thriller.

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Publishing year: 2015

Format: Print

Publisher: Del Ray

Page count: 445 + a novella set in the writer’s other world, the Dire Earth

Peter Caswell is a very capable assassin who never remembers his work. He has an implant that not only gives him a huge edge in a fight but also makes him forget his missions so that his conscience is clear. However, he doesn’t control the forgetting aspect of the implant. That part is controlled by Monique, his partner whom he’s never met face-to-face. The implant speeds up his thinking, giving him ample time to plan and execute his moves in a fight. It also enhances his senses and suppresses pain, hunger, thirst, and emotions. All of these abilities work only for a limited time.

Now, Monique has sent him on a mission that doesn’t require a memory wipe. A spaceship that was lost a couple of decades ago has been found again. Peter needs to infiltrate the salvage crew. However, once inside the old ship, Monique tells Peter that the ship holds such sensitive information that this now becomes a mission Peter will later forget. Usually, he only forgets a couple of days. Now, he will have a time window of two weeks to find and kill the only surviving crew member of the old ship. But the catch is that the survivor is not on the ship nor on Earth. She’s on a parallel Earth, a world Peter knows nothing about. But he has no choice; the mission has already begun.

The other Earth has its own history and politics. Our other point-to-view character is Melni who was born and raised on that other Earth. She’s a member of a minority race and also a spy in a culture she didn’t grow up in.

This was a very entertaining book with lots of action. Melni and Peter are very different. They’re thrown together and must work together to survive. While Peter is very good at his job, he doesn’t know the world and he can’t even eat the food. As much as he hates it, he needs Melni. Melni doesn’t know him but realizes that he’s very peculiar and strangely similar to the genius she’s spying on.

I really enjoyed the alternate world, even though we are thrown in without explanations and need to figure out who is who. The differences in culture were fascinating, such as that the doorknobs are near the ground and used with toes, not hands. This world’s technology is behind Earth’s.

I guess the biggest problem I had with Peter is that we don’t really know him. What is the company he’s working for? Why is he an assassin if he doesn’t want to remember killing? Why does he trust Monique? We do get an explanation for the latter questions near the end. Melni seems a very capable undercover agent, but she was too trusting with Peter.

And the ending. Not a fan of it. While this is technically a stand-alone book, that ending pretty much requires a sequel.

A stand-alone M/M science fiction romance.

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Publication year: 2021

Format: Audio

Running time: 15 hours, 24 minutes
Narrator: Raphael Corkhill

I’m not a romance reader. I got this book because Audible recommended it to me for some reason. It’s pretty fun and has decent world-building, but it’s solidly grounded in the romance.

Kiem is a prince in the galactic empire of Iskat. He’s a friendly and open-hearted man in his twenties and has a reputation for having wild parties and many willing partners of both sexes. So, it comes as a shock to him when the Emperor summons him and promptly informs him that he’s going to be married in three days so that a very important galactic trade and military treaty can be ratified. His partner-to-be is Count Jainan from a minor world, Thea. Jainan’s previous partner, Taam, was also an Iskat prince and Kiem’s cousin, but firmly a military man. There was also an arranged marriage. Taam died in an accident only a month ago. Kiem feels that it’s too soon for Jainan because the couple must keep up appearances, for the treaty’s sake, and pretend to be in love. However, Kiem must obey the emperor and so they are married.

To Kiem, Taam and Jainan’s marriage was a perfect match and he tries to make things as easy for Jainan as possible. However, Jainan is a very aloof man, who thinks before he says or acts. He’s also a consummate diplomat who will do (almost) anything to make the treaty happen. So the two men’s personalities are very different, which means that the beginning of their relationship is full of misunderstandings and problems. But then they find out that Thaam’s death might not be an accident and that affects the treaty, as well.

Since this is a romance book, it has quite a few romance tropes, but thankfully not really any of the toxic ones. The misunderstands were the most annoying ones to me. Jainan and Kiem are attracted to each other, but think the other isn’t attracted. Kiem thinks that Jainan is in mourning for a partner he loved, and Jainan thinks Kiem has been saddled with an unpalatable partner. Most of the plot could have been solved if they just sat down and honestly talked about it for ten minutes. Their personalities played off each other quite nicely, though.

The world is based on historical arranged marriages to seal off treaties. It has quite a few interesting things, but all of them serve the romance plot. One side character also got some pretty interesting secrets.

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A stand-alone thriller that was the inspiration for Hitchcock’s film starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.

Publisher: Guernsey Press

Publishing year: 1953

Format: Print

Page count: 199

I think I’ve seen the movie To Catch a Thief many years ago but I don’t remember much about it. I didn’t even remember the ending.

John Robie used to be the famous jewel thief Le Chat. He was caught and sent to prison, but during the German occupation during WWII, the Germans let out a lot of prisoners, John among them. He joined the French resistance, the maquis, and was a guerilla. After the war, the maquis got unofficial pardons and John retired to a villa in France. One of the local policemen is even a friend of his.

To John’s dismay, someone else is now robbing jewels, using his style. He knows that it won’t be long before the police are after him again, especially his police friend Oriol.

So, when the police arrive, John makes a daring escape. He goes to his former fence and current friend Bellini who has lots of contacts, criminal and otherwise. He was also in the maquis. He convinces John that the only way John can clear his name is to catch the thief. Also, the police are now after all of John’s former friends trying to blame them for the thefts. Reluctantly, John agrees. He knows that the most tempting jewels are in the Riviera nightclubs and casinos. He invents a pseudonym Mr. Burns, disguises himself, and goes to the casinoes.

There he intends to use all his former skills as a thief to figure out where the copycat thief will strike next and trap him. Also, he meets a couple of very interesting characters.

This was an entertaining read set in the glamorous Riviera. John is loyal to his friends and doesn’t see stealing as immoral. He still has his remarkable agility and strength. He’s worried that Oriol and one other close friend feel that John has betrayed them and he can’t explain things. He’s mostly a loner, choosing to live alone except for his elderly housekeeper/cook. Now, he must rely on Bellini and a couple of his criminal friends to help him. Also, he meets an interesting woman or rather a couple of interesting women.

John is the main third-person point-of-view character. There are brief POVs from other, all male, characters.

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