Feb 18 2020

Light of Impossible Stars (Embers of War #3) by Gareth L. Powell

And so the Embers Of War series closes in the bright glow of conflict and its aftermath, a truly terrific, action-packed space opera that ponders as well what it means to be human, in all our splendor and sordidness.

As Light Of Impossible Stars begins, the sentient warship Trouble Dog is desperate for fuel and on the run from the Fleet Of Knives headed by war criminal Ona Sudak, who’s gleefully re-embracing her megalomaniacal past. Trouble Dog’s captain, Sal Konstanz, is still coming to grips with what Sudak’s dreadful plans have already wrought for civilization as they know it. However, Sal and the rest of her traumatized crew understand that worse still lies in the threat of the dragon-like creatures lurking at the edges of hyperspace. The one thing both the Fleet Of Knives and the hyperspace dragons seem to fear is the rent in reality known as the Intrusion, so it’s in that direction that the Trouble Dog and her passengers go in search of supplies and answers.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Cordelia Pa is coming to terms with her own upbringing on the Plates, an artificial set of habitats layered in space a short distance from the Intrusion. She and her brother Michael had grown up scavenging for ancient artifacts to survive, but a surprise visitor turned her world upside down, offering her a chance at a life less limited. When she discovers the bargain that was made in order to shape her, she begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her connection to the alien technology she grew up surrounded by. Inevitably, her path and the Trouble Dog’s must converge if either of them has any hope of saving humanity from the twin threats of Sudak and the space dragons (ooh, cool band name!)

There’s honestly not much else I can tell you about what happens here, because it would lessen the emotional impact of the book/trilogy. I can tell you that I cried buckets at the Penitence’s last conversation (Johnny!!!) and that I desperately want to read more books in this setting! I have a feeling that Gareth L Powell is done with Sal’s story, and possibly with Trouble Dog’s too, but I’m hoping there’ll be more in future regarding Cordelia and the Plates (slightly less cool band name.) I also want to know what happened to Sofia in all that time! There’s some really inventive stuff on display here, plus Mr Powell completely sidesteps the many pitfalls endemic to having a diverse cast. Small, happy spoiler: no gays were buried in the plotting of this book.

Splendidly satisfying space opera trilogy that builds off the promise of its first installment, through its terrific second, to tell a sweeping tale that interrogates the need for preemptive warfare while emphasizing a greater acceptance of the identity and inherent nobility of others. Also, idk how Julia Lloyd manages to make each book cover even more beautiful than the last: it’s truly astonishing.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/18/light-of-impossible-stars-embers-of-war-3-by-gareth-l-powell/

Feb 17 2020

The Golden Key by Marian Womack

If you’re looking for a book with atmosphere, The Golden Key has it in peat-filled, gas-lit spadefuls. Set just after the end of Queen Victoria’s death, it travels from the fenlands of England to the spiritualist parlors of London, where seances are once more all the rage. Samuel Moncrieff is a young man adrift after a devastating loss, trying to drown his sorrows in the excesses available to those of his station. Thus, he’s drunkenly backstage at a music hall when he first encounters Helena Walton-Cisneros, a detective who masquerades as a medium, one of the few socially acceptable ways a woman can earn an independent living in those times. Their meeting is awkward, to say the least.

Shortly thereafter, Helena is hired by Lady Matthews, a close friend of Samuel’s godfather, Charles Bale, a confirmed spiritualist himself. Twenty years ago, Lady Matthews’ three young stepdaughters disappeared without a trace. Still wracked with guilt, she wants to make one last go of finding them, and charges Helena with the task of doing so. But both Lady Matthews and Charles have secrets they’d rather not give up, even when Helena finds herself imperiled in her pursuit of the truth. When signs point to Samuel being involved not only in the decades-old disappearances of the girls, but also in the contemporary vanishing of young children in London, Helena must ask herself how far she’s willing to go and whom she can trust as she struggles to bring the lost children home.

Marian Womack weaves a rich tapestry of historical fact with spooky, Gothic atmosphere to tell her weird tale of unearthly realms and the people who communicate between them. Feminist and smart, the novel brings a much needed new perspective to the early 20th century’s fascination with spiritualism and fairies. I wish more attention had been paid to the actual plot, tho. The setting is so lushly imagined, but we only get glimpses of what our main characters do, outside of conversations and the occasional seance. The most action-filled parts of the story belong to Lady Matthews, who is a minor character: I really wish we’d been given more detail as to what Helena, Samuel and the redoubtable Eliza were up to when they were working with magic. We get so much lead up and information as to what everyone is thinking and experiencing beforehand, that to have the most crucial bits just barely described, mentioned instead of shown, feels like being cheated out of the meat of the plot. That said, I did enjoy the attempts to apply scientific reasoning to certain of the phenomena. Like Helena, I prefer to apply facts first before considering the possibility of the supernatural.

The Golden Key is Ms Womack’s debut novel (out tomorrow from Titan Books!) and I’m very much looking forward to more. Her characters are unique and the settings both beautifully rendered and unsettling. With a little more action, a little more showing instead of telling, I’m confident that her future novels, hopefully featuring more Helena, will continue to amuse and enlighten.

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to interview Ms Womack about The Golden Key, writing and some terrific new books she’s looking forward to, so come back on the 20th to see our discussion. In the meantime, check out some of the other blog stops on the book tour!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/17/the-golden-key-by-marian-womack/

Feb 14 2020

Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London #7) by Ben Aaronovitch

I have a weird confession to make: I’ve loved every single one of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers Of London novels but I’ll be darned if I could, today, explain the plot of even just one of the first six books to anybody who asked. Okay, maybe Midnight Riot since that was the foundational text, and then there’s a book with an FBI agent and a book about Isengard and then stuff with fairies? Like, I have a general sense of what’s happened so far but I can barely even recapitulate, much less explain it all. Part of this is because the novels are so darn dense, with Mr Aaronovitch throwing big meaty ideas into the mix as our hero DC Peter Grant runs around London mostly, trying to investigate and stop magical crimes. Another is that details relevant to the overarching plot/world are included in non-book format, whether via comics or short stories (maddening, but understandable: an author’s got to make money. Mr Aaronovitch claims that you don’t have to read the extra stuff to enjoy the mains, but on this one thing I refuse to believe him.) But honestly, the main reason I can’t quite grok everything that’s going on is because lots of things tend to remain unexplained, and it is to Mr Aaronovitch’s unending credit that that is perfectly acceptable to me as a reader. He just gives you so much to think about, to be entertained by, with such confidence and skill and, frankly, realism, that it seems almost churlish to demand explanations given that our first person narrator, Peter, barely knows what’s going on half the time himself.

And THEN comes the seventh book in the series, which neatly ties everything up and finally, finally, tells you who the eff Mr Punch really is. This was a really great arc ender, dealing with the bad guy(s), tying up a bunch of loose ends but also pointing to a fresh direction forward for the series. By no means read this if you haven’t already enjoyed the first six books. I’m lucky enough to be reading this while holding an advance copy of book 8, False Value, so even my sieve-like memory won’t lose too much detail while segueing from one to the next. Is this review really just me boasting about already owning a copy of the next book in the series? Not entirely, tho I will say that readers should by all means binge books 1-7 to get a complete, satisfying story. Also, it’s rather hard to describe without giving away details. Lies Sleeping is basically about bells and ancient rituals, but honestly about so much more. If you haven’t already, start at Midnight Riot and settle in to enjoy a witty, magical police procedural set in a modern-day London that actually feels modern-day. You can thank me later.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/14/lies-sleeping-rivers-of-london-7-by-ben-aaronovitch/

Feb 12 2020

The Story of Flamenca: The First Modern Novel, Arranged from the Provencal Original of the Thirteenth Century by William Aspenwall Bradley

What a delightful thing to read in the lead up to Valentine’s Day.

Being both thrifty and impatient, I actually read the online copy for free at The Hathi Trust digital library, as the original came out in 1922 and is yet unavailable for e-reader. Since I’ve been listening to Rosalia’s El Mal Querer on constant repeat these past few weeks, I wanted to experience the text that had inspired this terrific flamenco-fusion album, or at least the most conveniently accessible English translation.

After reading the quite short novel(la?) I was genuinely surprised it isn’t more widely known. Perhaps because it was originally written in Occitan and is thus less accessible than other, more famous romances. Of course, it isn’t devoid, at least in this somewhat abridged translation by William Aspenwall Bradley, of the problems that plague other stories of the time. But even writers of our era trade in insta-love and in the diminishing of the seriousness of sexual assault. Flaws like these are almost easier to forgive in older works, because the choices of the authors and translators can be more clearly viewed through the lens of the intervening years.

Anyway, this is the story of the beautiful Flamenca, whose father, Count Guy of Nemours, would rather she live as a nearby chatelaine rather than become the monarch of a far-flung court. So he decides to marry her to Archambaut, lord of Bourbon and one of the best knights of the age. Flamenca and Archambaut meet and are impressed by what they see, so consent to marry. After a days-long wedding feast in Nemours, Archambaut rushes to Bourbon to prepare another feast to welcome his new bride home. He asks the King and Queen of France themselves the honour of escorting, with their many knights, Flamenca on her journey to him.

Unfortunately, the King proceeds to show a little too much favour to Flamenca, and by the time the royal party have left Bourbon, Archambaut has worked himself into a right fervor of jealousy. Over the next few weeks, anything she does or says is fuel for his paranoia. Soon, he has her cloistered in a tower with her two ladies-in-waiting, Alis and Margarida, letting them out only for church services. The years pass and no one does anything to help her or her ladies (thanks, Dad!) till a young knight named Guillem learns of her plight. Struck by the idea of Love, he travels to Bourbon and puts in motion a plan to meet her and win her love.

This version of the tale ends with the lovers happily fooling the awful husband. The original text in verse continues a little longer before petering out abruptly, though not before granting Flamenca a little more freedom. I understand Mr Bradley’s choice to end his adaptation cleanly, tho I still rather wish I had greater access to the original. Fortunately, Mr Bradley’s introduction is quite good, explaining his choices and scholarship, as is the story overall. The problematic bits actually stand out less than the progressive bits, with at least one really terrific part considering the nature of Fear, Shame and Love. I was honestly prepared for something much more depressing, given the themes of Rosalia’s album, but each work of art is good, and deeply satisfying, in its own way. You could do much, much worse than to check out either.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/12/the-story-of-flamenca-the-first-modern-novel-arranged-from-the-provencal-original-of-the-thirteenth-century-by-william-aspenwall-bradley/

Feb 11 2020

M Train by Patti Smith

I loved Just Kids — it was one of my very favorite books of 2015 — so why didn’t M Train do much for me?

Smith gives a bit of a warning in the book’s very first line, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” (p. 3) The speaker is a cowpoke who is in a dream of Smith’s that she relates. They converse a bit more about writing and whose dream it actually is before she wanders out of the dusty café and wakes up. Is M Train really about nothing? An ornery cowpoke could surely make the case. After that first dream café, Smith visits many more cafés over the course of the book, and she drinks a lot of coffee. She relates mundane details of her life, notably including a tendency to lose material objects, when she feeds her cats, and dreams she has. She also goes on quite a bit about the detective shows she likes to watch on TV.

M Train by Patti Smith

But Smith is enough of an artist that she can’t stick to the mundane. Despite considerable effort, she can’t make her life seem boring. Odd, distant, maybe even disconnected, but not boring, though at times I wondered how much she realized how different her life was from most people’s. Early in the book, she is catching up on her mail and discovers that one of the items that she has let sit idle for several weeks is an invitation to give a talk on a subject of her choice in Berlin at a meeting of a slightly eccentric club that she is a member of. She had been invited to join because she had wanted to photograph the boots of a particular Arctic explorer, whom the club commemorates. At the group’s 2007 meeting, in Reykjavik, she winds up having a clandestine midnight meeting with Bobby Fischer, at which they sing Buddy Holly songs until just before dawn. Late in the book, she decides she wants to visit Tokyo again, so she takes up what had been a standing invitation from her Japanese publisher. I suppose when you are the person Bob Dylan chooses to accept the Nobel Prize in his stead, you may view going to Tokyo on just a little more than a whim with the same equanimity as you do going to the corner café. Or perhaps the causality runs in the other direction. Who knows?

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/11/m-train-by-patti-smith/

Feb 08 2020

Shatter the Night (Detective Gemma Monroe #4) by Emily Littlejohn

All that Cedar Valley Police Detective Gemma Monroe wants to do is enjoy her infant daughter’s first Halloween, but a trick-or-treating stop at an old friend’s place of business soon brings work back to the fore. Retired judge Caleb Montgomery has been receiving threatening letters for five months now but has only just decided to report them to the authorities. Gemma is immediately concerned and promises to make investigating the threats a priority, but figures she can start doing that in the morning. She and her family have only gone a short distance away from Caleb’s law offices, however, when a bomb explodes, shattering the night.

At first, the mountain of suspects looks overwhelming: it’s hard not to make enemies during a lifetime of overseeing criminal cases, after all. Gemma and her team think they’re narrowing the field down, following leads involving the questionable conviction of a serial killer as well as the vandalism of a local theater, when another shocking murder takes place. There seems to be no connection with Caleb’s death, until Gemma finds a crucial piece of evidence linking the two. Further digging indicates that the homicides might have their roots in her town’s murky past. Does she have a copycat killer on her hands? Worse, will the murderer continue a pattern of slayings that will surely take more lives?

This novel had some of the best foreshadowing and red herring management I’ve ever seen! I spent a lot of time worrying that the plot would zig, only to have it zag in thrilling new directions. I was also impressed with Emily Littlejohn’s willingness to explore some of Colorado’s near-lawless history, as the past comes back to haunt even law-abiding citizens like Gemma’s grandfather Bull, here in conversation with our heroine:

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/08/shatter-the-night-detective-gemma-monroe-4-by-emily-littlejohn/

Feb 04 2020

Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front by Serhii Plokhy

With Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front Serhii Plokhy delivers on his subtitle, “An Untold Story of World War II.” Not literally untold of course, but one that lived on mainly in the archived files, official histories, and small print runs of participants’ memoirs. Plokhy’s most useful source from a major publisher was The Strange Alliance: The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Cooperation with Russia, which was put out by Viking in 1947 and can stand as a reminder that a wider variety of works and perspectives were printed in the war’s immediate aftermath than is present in popular memory.

Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front

What is this tale that has been ignored down through the decades? For a short time in 1944 and 1945, there were American air bases inside the Soviet Union. Hundreds of B-17s flew in and out of Soviet Ukraine on missions to bomb targets in Germany and in Axis-occupied (or Axis-allied) Central Europe. These targets would have been out of reach if the planes had had to return to their bases in Britain or Italy, and striking them effectively was beyond the abilities of Soviet air forces, which never built much of a strategic bombing capability. A series of missions under the code name Frantic started in England or Italy, attacked targets in Central Europe, and landed at airfields near Poltava, Ukraine. They then refueled, reloaded, and attacked Nazi-held targets on the way back to their home bases in Western Europe.

The plan was conceived when Stalin was keen to see commitment by the Western Allies to opening a second front in Europe. Lend-Lease was crucial to the Soviet war effort, but Stalin wanted a firmer commitment and feared that the Western powers might be content to let Nazism and Bolshevism bleed each other. The Americans looked past the defeat of Germany and wanted eventual Soviet assistance in defeating Imperial Japan. Despite the Axis Pact, and the US-UK-USSR alliance, Japan and the Soviet Union were not at war. Indeed, Plokhy describes American envoys’ shock at encountering Japanese diplomats in wartime Moscow. The Soviets wanted a demonstration of earnestness by the Western Allies, the Americans wanted a basis for future cooperation in the Far East, and all of the Allies wanted the ability to hit parts of the Nazi war machine that would otherwise have been out of reach. Win-win-win, right?

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/04/forgotten-bastards-of-the-eastern-front-by-serhii-plokhy/

Feb 02 2020

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll

So now I want to read all of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I want to start with Death of a Naturalist and see what set him apart from other poets getting started. I want to follow him up North to see how he both did and did not address the Troubles of his native Northern Ireland. I want to see the sets of sonnets that seemingly sent themselves, hear how he took up a longer story of Sweeney, make out the light of The Haw Lantern, travel a new line with District and Circle, and all of the others before, after and in between.

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

It will be a sideways entry to his poems. I read and loved his Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry, when it was new, and I have gone back to it again and again through the years. I have also read and enjoyed his Beowulf, yet I have never read a volume of his original poems. That will soon change.

Stepping Stones is a book-length set of interviews between Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, a fellow Irish poet who was 15 years Heaney’s junior. They were conducted over a series of years and, at Heaney’s request, “principally in writing and by post.” (p. viii) Some items from 2003 and 2006 originate from conversations that O’Driscoll and Heaney had in person, the latter before an audience in London. Stepping Stones is also the closest that Heaney came to leaving an autobiography. After two introductory chapters about Heaney’s early life, O’Driscoll organizes the rest of the conversations around published collections of Heaney’s poetry. “I wanted to avoid a slavishly chronological approach; collection-centred questions fostered variety and flexibility, allowing for a blend of contemporaneous commentary and retrospective recollection.” (P. ix) O’Driscoll and Heaney work through the collections chronologically, but within the chapters they range back and forth through time, and across many different themes.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/02/02/stepping-stones-interviews-with-seamus-heaney-by-dennis-odriscoll/

Jan 31 2020

The Bride Test (The Kiss Quotient #2) by Helen Hoang

Some books are like a long cool drink of water on a hot day: to be consumed greedily because it just feels so good going down. Obviously, since I brought it up, one of these books is Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test, which has just dethroned its predecessor, The Kiss Quotient, as my favorite contemporary romance novel, shoot maybe even favorite romance novel, of all time.

The Bride Test follows My, a half-Vietnamese half-American hotel cleaner who dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with her beloved daughter, to the dismay of her ultimately supportive single mom and grandmother. It’s while cleaning a hotel bathroom that she runs into Nga, a Vietnamese-American who’s come back to the motherland in search of a bride for her autistic son, Khai. Nga thinks that My would be the perfect candidate for daughter-in-law. My isn’t as into the idea but her mother persuades her that a no-strings summer in America getting to know a handsome if aloof single dude will also give her time to look for her father, who left Vietnam before My was even born. And so My reinvents herself as Esme and prepares for three months in a brand new world.

Khai, of course, is completely horrified when his mother tells him what she’s done. It isn’t so much that he protests the idea of an arranged marriage as that he hates the idea of marriage altogether, not out of any absurd hatred of the institution but because he’s convinced that he’s incapable of love. So he’s completely thrown for a loop when he meets the delightful Esme and finds himself increasingly drawn to her. Guys like him, who’ve been accused of being stone-hearted all their lives because they don’t display emotions the same way neurotypical people do, can’t fall in love… can they?

This book, about the romance between an autistic Asian-American man and a Vietnamese immigrant determined to prove herself, was just about perfect on every level. Whether describing the interior life of someone with autism or the emotional and financial struggles of the recently immigrated, it’s sensitive and smart, and I cried and laughed and absolutely swallowed this book up in a single evening. I’d been concerned when I read the preview at the end of The Kiss Quotient that there would be an obvious missing heiress connection here, and I’m glad that that didn’t pan out, tho there was a smidge of the dreaded dxm towards the end. But that’s sometimes what you need for a satisfying Happily Ever After, and The Bride Test delivers on that last in spadefuls.

I don’t think any review could do justice to just how unique this novel is, showcasing the under-represented in contemporary romance with empathy and wit. It deserves all the acclaim.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/31/the-bride-test-the-kiss-quotient-2-by-helen-hoang/

Jan 28 2020

Diamond City (Diamond City #1) by Francesca Flores

Man, I dig a morally ambiguous lead character as much as the next person (V. E. Schwab’s Villains series, the badass coven of Hannah Capin’s upcoming Foul Is Fair) but this was waaaaay not that. Aina Solis is an orphan whose parents were killed for practicing their pacifist religion in Kosin, the titular Diamond City. After years of living on the streets and sniffing glue, she’s recruited by the Blood King, Kohl Pavel, to became a member of his crew, more specifically an assassin known as a Blade. Fast forward six years and Aina has become Kohl’s right hand. He promises her permission to open her own tradehouse (basically, her own gang) if she completes one last lucrative job for him: assassinate Kouta Hirai, one of the richest men in the city.

Naturally, things go wrong, and Aina soon finds herself discarded and worse by the man she’s always looked to as a role model and object of affection. Determined to prove herself to him, she enters into a treacherous alliance with Ryuu, Kouta’s youngest brother, to fulfill her mission and regain Kohl’s trust and the future he’s promised her.

I mean, if this is meant to be a book about not trusting people who promise you whatever you want in some hazy future so long as you accept abuse in the present, then I guess it’s job well done (tho it legit boggles my mind that she thinks he’s going to allow her to set up a rival shop in the same city. Maybe in another city, but in the same one? There’s just no way.) And there are moments of reflection that are truly insightful, into the welter of teenage emotion and romance and class consciousness. But oof, the lack of rigor that went into building, well, everything else.

First, Aina is a terrible assassin. She’s hyped up as this super badass but all you see in this book is her botching mission after mission while Kohl’s often conflicting advice plays in her head. But she’s given incredibly stupid opponents to make her look better, like the guy who comes looking for her in the bar. No way in hell would a guy who runs a gambling den a) do his own dirty work, especially if b) he doesn’t even know how to use the gun he’s waving around. We keep being told she’s awesome despite evidence to the contrary, which is just as annoying as her constant musing over whether her “life is sacred” parents would be proud of her work as an assassin. I’m gonna guess that’s a hard no, Aina!

And she wears a scarf that she constantly dyes in the blood of her victims like that isn’t super disgusting, both stink- and hideous brown-grey color-wise. She wanders around in it and no one gags and points at her all “wtf?!” Instead, she actually gets compliments over the color, which is mind-boggling to anyone who’s ever had to stress over period stains. Actually, a lot of the attitude to dress here makes no goddamn sense, as she pretty much swans around in the same outfit whether crawling through sewers or attending a high-class ball, all in the same night, and no one fucking says anything! The world-building details also make no goddamn sense, especially in the technology: photography is rare but used for cleaning crew ID (but not security guard ID?!) and plastics are used primarily to make the bags that addicts use to sniff glue. Oh, and she can dodge bullets. No bog-standard human, no matter what setting, can dodge bullets, not without some sort of physical augmentation. The world-building is entirely one of convenience for the protagonist’s journey, and it makes me livid. Just because it’s a fantasy novel doesn’t mean the laws of logic don’t apply.

Also? I found Aina’s sense of tribalism incredibly off-putting. She kills dozens of people, innocent or otherwise, in this book but the only time she shows mercy is when her intended victim either shares a background or religion with her. That is literally as gross as a mass shooter not wanting to hurt someone because they’re also white.

Diamond City tries for edgy but just ends up flat and unbelievable, to the point of ludicrous. The writing itself isn’t terrible, and there are some decent ideas in there, but someone really needs to hold Francesca Flores to a minimum standard of sense-making.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/28/diamond-city-diamond-city-1-by-francesca-flores/