Silent Nights

Monday, November 30, 2015

Silent Nights
Edited by Martin Edwards, ebook release 2015

New Release! I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Crossposted from Mainlining Christmas

Premise: Another collection of Christmas Mystery stories, this one from the British Library Crime Classics series. Fifteen tales of murder and thievery at the holidays.

I know, you'd think I would be sick of short mysteries after last year's lengthy read of the Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. However, in this book I discovered a well-balanced selection that was of overall enjoyable. I think I may be giving extra credit for being of a manageable length, though.

Here's what you'll find, with stories that I've read previously noted:

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (repeat) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A classic, I would never fault anyone for adding this to a Christmas compilation. It remains charming on whatever number re-read this is.

Parlour Tricks by Ralph Plummer
A cute, simple story of a man amusing a group of guests at a Christmas party that is revealed to be something else at the end. Nothing too special, but not bad.

A Happy Solution by Raymund Allen
A story of a young fiancee accused of theft by prospective in-laws, this had enjoyable prose, though the solution of the mystery was somewhat uninteresting to me.

The Flying Stars (repeat) by G.K. Chesterton
I didn't re-read this one this year. I remember it being enjoyable, but overshadowed by better stories last year.

Stuffing by Edgar Wallace
Cute enough story of connected coincidences, although there's enough repeated plot elements from The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle for me to raise an eyebrow and wonder why this story was included.

The Unknown Murderer by H.C. Bailey
An eerie, well-plotted murder tale involving dark motivations which features a medical doctor detective who ends up solving the case in a rather final manner. I quite enjoyed this one; the winter season just added to the creepy factor.

The Absconding Treasurer by J. Jefferson Farjeon
A sum of money is stolen from a club, but is the treasurer guilty? This story of murder and misdirection follows a solid investigation.

The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy Sayers
I've had this one recommended a few times, and it's a cute little tale of how a clever thief tries to use the trappings and activities of the holidays.

The Case Is Altered by Margery Allingham
A fine little tangled skein of stolen papers and blackmail at a country house, if a bit muddled at times.

Waxworks (repeat)
Cambric Tea (repeat)
The Chinese Apple (repeat)
All three of these tales were in the collection I read last year. They are each atmospheric and uncanny and I liked both Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple much more on a re-read than I did last year.

A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake
I liked the way this story built from a set of strangers sitting in a railway compartment to eventually giving each character a name and personality and a place in a tragic murder tied to a train robbery. The mystery is well built, but this is the only story in which the resolution is not actually part of the story, but rather the reader is encouraged to figure out what happened and then check the answer in the back of the book.

The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin
A locked-room mystery solved at a remove. Not bad.

Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce
This one I really enjoyed, enough that I might seek out more stories about this character. It's a detective and a narrator pairing, but the narrator is a bit of a pretentious sort, while the detective (Sergeant Beef) is a low-class man who is constantly underestimated. He reminds me delightfully of Columbo. This story concerns a man who claims that someone in his family is threatening him because he's spending their potential inheritance in a profligate manner. The entire story was fun to read and the solution clever.

I quite enjoyed reading through this collection, even though I didn't love every story in it. It's a nice variation of styles and stories.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine (Volume One)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine (Volume One)
Kelly Sue Deconnick, Valentine De Landro, 2015

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Collects Bitch Planet #1-5. In a near future world, society is run by the Fathers. Women who don’t abide by the rules - aren’t thin enough, pretty enough, submissive enough, compliant enough - are sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, a prison in space better known as… Bitch Planet.

Oof. I didn’t expect anything less, but reading this book feels somewhere between a punch to the kidneys and the crawly feeling of an effective horror movie. Its masterful blend of tone and style evokes both exploitation filmmaking and old-time comic books and mixes them up into an updated space-age Handmaid’s Tale with a righteous, intersectional feminist rage. I shouldn’t have to say this, but this is for mature readers only. Lots of nudity, violence and language.

The volume opens with a story that mostly sets the tone, telling about one woman’s arrival to Bitch Planet. It’s told in a twisty way that gives only enough exposition to keep the plot flowing along and an ending that makes clear the lack of rights the women have and introduces the key character moving forward.

Kamau Kogo was once an athlete, now she’s an inmate. She’s given a chance to take other women from the prison and make them into a sports team for a popular game called megaton. Three of the remaining issues follow Kam and the other women as they try to decide whether this is a good idea and how to prepare for it. Meanwhile, you also get snippets of the big-money men behind the idea of putting the NCs (Non-Compliants) on TV.

One issue is devoted to another inmate, one of Kam’s cronies, Penny Rolle. Penny’s story is both wonderfully inspiring and heartbreaking. She is a powerhouse, and a fantastic character who is up against so much hate and mistreatment. Her issue gives us a lot more background about the rules and conventions that society is now operating by.

If you aren’t a comics reader, you may not know how fervently this book has been embraced. “Non-Compliant” is quickly becoming a rallying cry for comic-loving women who are fed up with society/media/other people telling us to be prettier, thinner, less athletic, less ambitious, less prudish, less sexual, less. More info:

All this, plus there’s an intriguing story and some great action.

It’s not an easy read or a light one, but for emotional impact it’s definitely

5 Stars

Startide Rising (Uplift Series)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Startide Rising (Uplift Series)
David Brin, 1983

Hugo Winner - 1984

Premise: Streaker is in trouble. The ship from Earth was only supposed to be doing some routine investigation of little-traveled star systems while the mostly-neofin crew gained in experience. They weren't supposed to find a lost fleet of unknown origin, then be chased by hostile galactic fleets who each want to be the sole recipient of whatever knowledge is there to be gained. Now the crew is hidden on an unknown planet, hoping to find a way to get through the massive space battle nearby and get home with their discoveries.

Dolphins! In! SPAAAAACE! Yes, the book is a serious exploration of sentience and morality as well as an ensemble survival adventure. But seriously. I'm here for the space dolphins.

There are a lot of interesting concepts here. There is a huge, complicated, mostly hostile galactic society based on the idea of Uplift. Uplift is racism, slavery/indentured service and colonialism mixed with genetic engineering on an interstellar scale, as existing species modify 'younger' species into space-faring races in return for service. The existence of humanity challenges the idea of Uplift, as they apparently made it to the stars initially alone. Of course, humans are lifting up chimps and dolphins into fully sentient races in turn, which requires a complicated combination of responsibility and caution.

So: intelligent space dolphins. Most of the crew of Streaker are dolphins, including the captain. The dolphin culture is really interesting. I find it reasonable, given what I know of cetaceans, and beautifully conveyed through their own language and conventions.

The plot mostly follows the crew's efforts to repair their ship and find a way out of their situation, although there is danger from within the crew as well as without. It's complicated further by discoveries made on the supposedly-uninhabited planet they are hiding on. You also get snippets of the races fighting nearby for the right to capture and interrogate the Earth ship.

I found the book a bit slow on occasion, as there are so many characters and interlocking pieces of the plot. However, it was terrifically inventive throughout, and the pace meant that there was also an extended climax as each character's struggles came to a head.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

Sandman: Overture

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sandman: Overture
Neil Gaiman, J. H. Williams III, Dave Stewart, 2015

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: At the start of Preludes and Nocturnes, Dream is imprisoned. What could have brought the Lord of the Dreaming so low as to be trapped by a minor occultist? The answers are held in this prequel volume.


Wow, wow, wow, wow. This should have been terrible. It’s a prequel to one of the seminal graphic novel series of the modern era, written almost 20 years after the release of the last issue. The last stories Gaiman penned in this world (Endless Nights, in 2003) I found mediocre at best. This should have been a cash-grab with maybe a few redeeming qualities.

But it was brilliant. It was brilliant both in that it was smart and complicated, and that it was hard to look too closely, the light might hurt your eyes.

All of the Endless have wonderful moments here, and Desire particularly gets some intriguing and poignant time to shine. But the story is about Dream, his origins, the depth and breadth of his power at its height, and the complexity inherent in being the lord of ALL dreaming.

The art is gorgeous and perfectly matched to the tone here. Williams’ style is always detailed and lush, but I haven’t always enjoyed his work, because I don’t always think it’s suited to, say, Batman. But it’s perfect here.

If there’s any nitpick I have about this volume, it’s that I want to loop immediately back to the beginning of Sandman and re-read it with this story in mind. However, I cringe thinking about the clash in style and technique between how great this book is, and how rough around the edges and not-quite-found-its-tone-yet Preludes and Nocturnes is. (In my opinion, that book is hard to make it through unless enough people have convinced you: no, really, it gets much better and is never this gross again.)

The extra material in the deluxe collected volume is generous (50 pages!) and varied: not just a cover gallery, but interviews with the whole creative team, notes from Gaiman to the publisher, Williams’ sketches of the Endless from before this project even started, and more. There’s even an interesting piece about how the unique lettering was created for the whole Sandman series.

No question in my mind: if you loved Sandman, you’ll love this.

5 Stars - An Amazing Book

Buy on Amazon

Foundation's Edge (Foundation Series, Book 4)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Foundation's Edge (Foundation Series, Book 4)
Isaac Asimov, 1982

Hugo Award Winner - 1983

Premise: The Foundation has worked for five hundred years to ensure that an era of prosperity and relative peace will arise with a Second Galactic Empire in another five hundred years. The only threat to the technological supremacy of the Foundation were the telepaths of the Second Foundation, but they were defeated two hundred years earlier. Councilman Golan Trevize of the Foundation believes that the Second Foundation still exists. Speaker Stor Gendibal of the Second Foundation believes that some unknown force in the universe is also working toward shaping the future of the galaxy for its own ends.

Once upon a time (about a decade back?) I read the first two (or three?) books in the Foundation series. I liked them, but never read the next one. I honestly can't remember why...maybe the second wasn't as good as the first?

I was able to pick right up with this entry in the series. This makes sense, though, as it was written many years after the first three. It helps to know the basic premise of the Foundation books: it is possible to predict mathematically the large-scale movement of society, and the Foundation exists to implement a plan that uses this math to steer society in order to prevent thousands of years of dark age after the fall of the galactic empire. That's all explained in this book, but it's easier to go in knowing.

I very much enjoyed this entry - I like how complicated the plot becomes. Nearly every character has an open agenda, a hidden agenda, perhaps an implanted agenda that they are unaware of... it's tricky, with telepaths. The characters aren't tremendously compelling individually, but they are at least interesting and amusing.

Trevize's search becomes intertwined with research about the sources of humanity in the galaxy: speculation and myths about Earth. Some possible answers are given that I thought were intriguing, and I liked that there were little ties back to other books/series by Asimov. This felt a little like... not a magnum opus, but a nexus-book, something that loops together themes from many different previous works.

Unfortunately, I found the ending a little less satisfying than the build-up, and there was a bit of stuff left annoyingly hanging for a sequel. Also in the last section of the book we run into the character Bliss, and while she isn't terrible, the frequent discussion of her attractiveness made me weary.

It was still a solid read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

Jem and the Holograms: Showtime (Volume 1)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Jem and the Holograms: Showtime (Volume 1)
Kelly Thompson, Sophie Campbell, 2015

New Release! I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Jerrica Benton and her sisters dream of a music career. An online video contest seems like a great way to make a splash, but first Jerrica will need a way around her stage fright, and then they’ll meet the competition…Collects Jem and the Holograms Issues #1-6

Up front, I need to admit: I never watched Jem as a kid. I knew that there were dolls in shiny outfits, but it wasn’t a show I was ever into. Today, I think I’ve maybe seen at most one episode, watched on Youtube years back when I was curious. I was told the premise at some point.

So unlike many people who are going to read this book, I don’t care about Jem the show.

I love Jem the comic book.

I love the bouncy, sprightly dialogue, the silly situations. I love the good-hearted characters and the fledgling romances. I love that the antagonists can be BOTH over-the-top-ridiculous and complex and interesting.

It’s a wonderful balance between surreality of setting and premise and reality of story and feeling. But most of all I love the art.

Sophie Campbell does an amazing job with bright, beautiful designs that leap off the page. Gravity-defying hairstyles, candy-coated color and imaginative layouts to evoke music. The diversity of body types is wonderful to see, but even more than that I love the kinetic sense to her art. The characters are always moving or leaning or sitting or crouching in a way that says something about the character, the scene, and feels completely reasonable. No talking heads to be found here.

There were a few aspects of the plot/premise that go back to the original show that I found a bit grating, particularly Jerrica’s attempts to keep the true identity of Jem a secret. But overall this was a ridiculous amount of fun.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Penryn & the End of Days (Angelfall, World After, End of Days)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Penryn & the End of Days (Angelfall, World After, End of Days)
Susan Ee, 2012, 2013, 2015

Premise: Six weeks ago, the world ended. Or, at least, a series of catastrophes and an army of angels decimated the human race, which amounts to about the same thing. Penryn is 17. She only wants to keep her little sister safe, and her schizophrenic mom alive. When her family is separated, she will do anything to get them back. Even make a deal with an angel.

For a series that, if you emphasize certain parts of the plot, falls squarely into many Paranormal YA tropes, this had some serious bite. The action was fast and furious, the story fascinating in its twists and turns.

I'll say up front that there is a romance and I didn't hate it by the end, because it ended up tying into the plot in a really interesting way. If it had ended up being a romance for the sake of angst or for the sake of romance itself it might have driven me crazy, but I actually think all the relationships are purposeful and build the backbone of the story here. It did frustrate me some in the first and second book, though.

I really liked the slow reveal on the world. It's very bleak, but not without moments of hope. You get the general idea of how bad things are right away, but what happened, and why, is strung out in pieces as new facts come to light. The technology, while not described in depth, is really interesting. The angels have a magic-esque level of science, and also maybe magic? Even they don't seem to fully understand it.

A lot of this series ended up being about the nature of humanity, and the nature of societies. How far will you go to protect one person? All people? Other sentient, non-human races? What happens to sentient races when civilizations fall? If horrible things happen to us, must we become horrible in turn? How do you choose who to listen to? Who to follow? There's actually a lot to unpack here.

By book three, the angels pick up a lot more nuance as well, raising questions of whether they are right to follow their leaders. Interesting stuff for dystopian YA to play with. It doesn't really delve as deeply or as intelligently as I might really love, but there's interesting stuff here.

All three books are short, I read them very quickly and enjoyed them.

3 Stars - Good Books.