Category: Reading

Filtered – G.K. Lamb

filteredWhen I read the opening pages of Filtered, I expected to find the book clichéd. A teenaged girl in an oppressive, gas-mask wearing society begins to question the structures that surround her. She deals with broken parents with a broken marriage, and frightening images of death by painful asphyxiation all around her. Will she be the chosen one? What unique power will manifest, turning her into a superheroine that cleans the toxic, ashen air?

I was being superficial, and I regret my initial write-off of G.K. Lamb’s first novel as “just another” YA-targeted story. Filtered was engaging and well-crafted, and at the end of the day it was simply a good read.

It hit me with particular intensity through vivid descriptions of waiting in line to enter and exit buildings—the heads-down shuffling, seeing only the legs and feet of the person in front of you, the weight of your skull and brain pulling painfully at the muscles in your neck. It was a powerful way to show an oppressed society. But it was also directly relevant to an experience I began having shortly after starting the book. I changed my commuting pattern, and I now get on and off the train at one of the busiest stations in San Francisco. For more than a little while, the escalators were out of service, and the vast numbers of commuters clogging the platform had to walk up thin staircases, in single file, to get out of the station. Everyone looking down at their phones, shuffling slowly, waiting for their turn to lift a foot to the first step.

Here I was, reading about the psychological torment caused by the kind of waiting I was doing in my daily life.

But it’s not just that I was having an analogous experience to the protagonist. It’s that this notion of waiting, and others like it in Filtered, are eminently relatable. Even if we don’t have to wear gas masks to keep toxic air out, we can understand oppressive figures in schools, the shame and boredom and inanity of waiting in what feels like a senseless line,  the confusion of adolescence, and the pain of solitude. These are the things Evelyn Brennan (the protagonist) is dealing with, but they’re all punctuated by—and indeed caused by, in a sense—the setting of Filtered, which plays a key role in the story.

Filtered presents Evelyn in peril, using her wits to investigate the un-investigable. Where Lamb departs from conventional thinking, however, is in punishing her, immediately and very harshly, for her actions. The injustice of it is stunning, and you’re left feeling her shame alongside her as she watches the torment meant for her delivered to an innocent creature. It’s far more powerful than if she’d been punished herself.

That moment foreshadows the climax of the story, in which our determined protagonist learns the secret of the Great Society’s founding (oppressive empire figure in Filtered) and galvanizes a heretofore-unknown radical group to action, resulting in catastrophe.

Filtered does what it does well, but the climactic action rises a little quickly given the pacing of the first 60% of the book. I enjoyed the pacing of the first half, but I think the book would have been greatly helped by more hints at revolutionaries throughout, laying foundation for Evelyn’s personal rebellion.

Filtered is available on Amazon.

These Are My Friends on Politics – Billy O’Keefe

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It’s possible to summarize 2016 with a single meme. I know. That’s what the world has come to. Here it is:

I don't want to live on this planet anymore

(It works on so many levels! Let’s talk about it over coffee or a beer, depending on time and place.)

We’ve faced the deaths of cultural icons, widespread ideological violence, the overwhelming reality of our changing climate, and the disintegration of any semblance of civility in global politics. We have had to contend with the growing polarization of dialogue from every side of every argument. Today, we watch, holding our breath during a historic election: we will either elect the first woman, who represents a holding to the status quo, or the first rotten overripe tangerine who also happens to be a rampant misogynist, racist, and serial molester. To me, it seems like a really easy choice. But this has been the most contentious election season in my life, and quite possibly in the lives of my parents and grandparents.

Which brings me to These Are My Friends on Politics, by Billy O’Keefe, published last week by Inkshares. It’s a delightful little book presented as a children’s book for “adults who act like children.” How appropriate.

O’Keefe makes the bold statement that everyone knows to be true, but often ignores, especially during contentious political seasons: we become absolutely awful to each other, largely because of heavily polarized representation of the state of things, but when we aren’t talking politics, we are all reasonably nice people with the same overall desires. Controversial indeed.

Billy’s drawings suit the tone of the writing well—they grow increasingly chaotic, violent, and absurd. They depict what I feel myself becoming as I argue about politics: a monster.

I have had a difficult time with this election season, as I’m sure many of us have. I’m tired, angry, sad, confused, hopeful, and disheartened. Vitriol feels like its at an all-time high. That’s why it was a pleasure to read Billy’s book; it was a moment of levity in a time that is fraught with stress. When I read his book, I smiled at the absurdity of it all. It was therapeutic.

These Are My Friends on Politics is available on Amazon and Inkshares.

Motive For Massacre – Chris Philbrook

51fvpa-gojlThe sequel to Wrath of the Orphans is, incidentally, much less wrathful than its predecessor. Motive for Massacre might sound like it gets hairy—and it certainly does—the plot of Motive follows the Everwalk twins along the path to discovering who orchestrated the destruction of their home and the slaughter of its two hundred-or-so citizens, and why.

It’s a much tighter story than Wrath, owing to the fact that it didn’t have to do much world building, allowing Chris Philbrook to immediately focus on the characters and their challenges. It is also stronger as a result.

I listened to Motive on Audible at double-speed, which rendered the problems I mentioned in my Wrath review obsolete. Kevin T. Collins’s narration is strong, if still a little one-dimensional.

Motive spends considerably less time traveling, which contributes to its sense is focus, and lingers on description only long enough to give you a sense of place, except when locations are relevant later in the story. As I said above, this one is really about the characters.

Malwynn and Umaryn find themselves in situations where their thirst for bloody revenge takes a backseat to other desires. Umaryn is quickly realizing that her abilities as an artificer are extraordinary, and Malwynn is falling in love.

The twins are challenged by their individual and collective needs, which drives the first half of the book well. And just before that world have become irksome, the story switches gear and the central arc of the trilogy, discovering who was responsible for the destruction of their home, and why they did it.

Their adventure takes them back on the rails, and they learn much more than they’d anticipated about their family’s past and present. Adventure ensues, but it is in many ways subdued when compared to the explosive and violent action in Wrath.

Motive is a more enjoyable book through and through, though it would be impossible to read without making it through Wrath first. That being said, if your want to commit to (probably) more than forty hours of listening to a dark fantasy and steampunk crossover, you could do much worse than dig in to the Kinless Trilogy.

Motive for Massacre is available from Amazon and Audible.

Simone – André Brun

André Brun must be some kind of masochist. The author of Lies and Deception (to be published by Inkshares some time next year), knowing the difficulty of crowdfunding a book, has gone back for more on multiple occasions.

For the currently-running horror contest, he’s entered a book of connected short stories, Arcadia, the first of which he sent me for review.

Simone is very short, and in a pretty rough state, but what it lacks in polish doesn’t detract from the content of the tale.

Secret cults, monsters, and true fear creep into the periphery, seeding curiosity in the reader about what’s to come in the stories that follow.

Though it might frustrate some readers, there’s a moment in Simone that I found greatly appealing. The character—presumably Simone—states that, while she was traveling, she came upon a pillar in a jungle cave.

There’s something delightful about not knowing the details there. The omission builds character. Simone, in the telling of her tale, doesn’t think that her being alone in the jungle at seventeen is important to the story; it’s just a detail that informs the listener of time and place.

Thing is, there has to be a story about why she was in the jungle at such a young age, alone, seeking shelter in a cave. It could be a story all on its own. But she glosses over it.
That simple absence of detail reminds me of stories from the golden age of science fiction, stories that opted for dense statements that can span millennia as opposed to the modern world of genre fiction, which is detail-oriented and strives to break presses worth strength of word count alone.

Though Arcadia will no doubt need polish, the substance is there. I look forward to reading it someday, whether it’s a winner in the contest or otherwise.

The Show – Filip Syta

theshowcoverfinal-1I read Filip Syta’s The Show (published by Inkshares) a few weeks ago, and it was the final nail in a coffin that’s been long in the making. I knew that I couldn’t review the book with any kind of honesty until I’d given it some time to marinate, and waited for certain changes in my life (detailed below) to take place.

To be frank, I’m still not even sure if I liked the book. The writing didn’t pull me in, though it’s mechanically good, and the protagonist is, for most of the book, a patently shitty person.

But the book does one thing exceptionally well, which earns it a high rating in my opinion: it is deeply—almost painfully—honest about the experience of working in the tech world.

Vic, the star of The Show, picks up and moves to San Francisco, a gleam in his eye as he considers his future with “Show”—a company which is never explicitly called, but probably is, Google. He knows he’s going to work at one of the coolest companies in the world, and that the name alone is enough to cast a halo over his head. He’s part of the Biggest Thing On Earth(TM).

He sees the world around him as his new plaything. He is intoxicated by his newfound wealth, and the ostentation of his industry and company. He sees, but doesn’t acknowledge, the gross and growing wealth disparity in San Francisco. He is fed, liquored up, and paid handsomely. And for a time, he works hard for it.

But for the most part, he fritters away his time getting wasted, chasing casual sex, and generally being a cocky asshole. Eventually, he just spends his time drunk between hangovers and lying to his clients and supervisors.

I’ve worked with Vic. I’ve worked with many Vics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to launch into a diatribe against everyone I used to work with, or millennials, or anything like that. I’m going to talk about the way working in tech changed me.

In tech, as in anywhere in the world, there are good and bad people. But my observations tell me that a higher percentage of cutthroat sociopaths chase the “easy” money in tech than want to, say, fix a cup of coffee or wait tables. I could be wrong. Grass is always greener, I suppose.

I started working in tech due to a stroke of luck. A close friend opened the door, and I gladly walked through it. I vibrated with excitement at the prospect of being gainfully employed, making more money than I could honestly believe, at one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, at twenty-one. I drank deeply of the kool-aid; practically swore allegiance to the company.

Slowly, my idea of the company began to fade. That vision was shattered into dust by my first Vegas conference.

I watched obscenely wealthy people mingle with their much-poorer paid associates from around the country, getting belligerent drunk, exposing their gross misogyny and brutishness, cloaked in the false twilight of casino floors, glowing with liquor and fake attention from paid hyper-sexualized women.

I watched people cheat on their spouses, or at least try. I dragged a nearly-unconscious executive, her dress torn well above her waist, to her room, lest she be set upon by less-than-savory, lecherous creeps who likely disregarded her words at meetings. A married co-worker tried wrapping her leg around me at the bar we’d rented out for the opening night drinkfest. I escaped to my room to read a book with a dragon on the cover.

I watched the jaws of a trap spring shut around my mind. I felt like I was careening hopelessly toward becoming what I saw, drawn in by the enormous gravity well that forms from trying to buy your way out of bone-deep dissatisfaction.

That isn’t to say that the entirety of my tech life was bad. I made great friends, worked diligently, and learned a great many things. I do not consider these last seven years wasted.

But in reading The Show, I realized that it was past time for me to leave that life and try to make it some other way. I want to create. To write. To read. To listen. To explore. To exercise. The exhaustion, mental and physical, that was the result of day-in-day-out rat racery stifled my creative mind. It made me a poorer listener. It made me lazy. It also made me deeply depressed, a condition for which I’m now medicated.

There are moments in The Show that remind me so much of my own experience, that resonate so truthfully with the things I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) time in tech that I reeled as I read. As the plot thickened and Vic realized that his life was falling apart despite appearances to the contrary, I saw myself reflected in the pages.

The whole book encapsulates the zeitgeist of silicone valley tech so accurately that it is difficult to point to one passage call it an exemplar of techbro life.

But if I had to choose, I’d pick this one:

“The next day, I was back at work and was in a meeting that was about a previous meeting, which we had had to discuss another meeting that we’d had in response to a meeting someone had had with someone else. Almost everyone in the room was sitting with their laptops open browsing the internet, reopening the same websites over and over again to see if anything new had happened during the twenty seconds since they’d last checked.”

I’ve been in those meetings.

There’s one other moment in the book that comes to mind as particularly resonant. Shortly after one member of the crew says that he feels like his mind is putrefying on the job, during another moment of vulnerability, a colleague tells Vic that he went to seek help at the on-site mental health services clinic.

“’You know what they said when I wanted to sign up for an appointment?’

‘That you should do some cocaine and you’ll be fine?’ I smiled.

‘Wouldn’t surprise me. No, that there is a waiting list of two thousand employees, and the first available appointment is in eight weeks. Aren’t we supposed to work at the best place in the world? How can there be so many of us in need of a shrink?…’”

Why indeed.

Yesterday was my last day at the big tech company. Today, I start something entirely new.

The Show is available from Inkshares and Amazon.com

WarblerChat — An Interview with G. Derek Adams

When I read G. Derek Adams’s Asteroid Made of Dragons, I became infected with a new love of fantasy. You can read all about how much I loved Asteroid as well as his first novel, Spell/Sword, in the linked reviews. What I’m sharing below is the content of our delightful conversation last weekend. Talking with Derek was a delight, and I hope to interview him again when he has a fantasy novel empire.

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia McKillip

mckillipdreamsofdistantshores

Tachyon Publications has a knack for putting out excellent collections of short stories—in fact, it seems to be their specialty. This week’s “flavor” is Patricia Mckillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores, an excellent anthology that spans modern fiction, slipstream, and urban fantasy.

Dreams of Distant Shores contains five short stories and two novellas, and while you should certainly read the whole collection, I’d like to focus on the novellas in this review.

The first, The Gorgon in the Cupboard, is emblematic of Mckillip’s strengths at imbuing characters with tremendous reality and honesty. The cast is made up of artists and their many models and muses, principal among them a painter pining for another painter’s wife, and a peasant who has undergone the deepest of personal tragedies—the loss of a child.

Oh, and there’s a talking painting of Medusa, too.

The flow of The Gorgon in the Cupboard is fantastic. It maintains many threads effortlessly, while transmitting real emotion through believable characters using surreal moments and wavering sanity. The Gorgon in question, the Medusa on the protagonist’s painting, is nothing more than a par of eyes and a mouth, imbued with life—whether as a figment of his imagination or by some magical intervention—and a keen and biting wit that she uses to motivate him to look in different places for the muse he seeks.

The way McKillip uses painting, color, and the struggle to express the moving, sometimes ephemeral nature of the subject, is phenomenal. It puts you right there with the artists as they paint and cavort around town and the countryside. The introduction of Jo, the muse, is done in heartbreaking contrast—a rainy night finds her huddled with vagrants under the awning of a butcher’s shop, where she reminisces about the death of her infant child and aged mother. All she has to remember them by is her scarf. Once, she had been a model for the protagonist, but the manner of her initial departure was such that she wouldn’t dare return to his studio.

Things twist and turn, the Gorgon whispering encouragements and distractions into the painter’s unwilling ear, and the plot resolves nicely. All told, it’s a fabulous story.

But the story that shines brightest in the anthology is, without a doubt, Something Rich and Strange. Here, McKillip enters a Haruki Murakami-esque state, building a world and a “normal” life for her characters, then blurring the edges of reality slowly, until you’re plunged alongside the characters into the surreal and mythological. It’s a magnificent story, truly wonderful, and even if the rest of the stories were mediocre—they aren’t, the whole anthology is great—this story would be well worth picking up the whole book for.

Something Rich and Strange takes its name and much of its symbolism from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, dealing with sea-gods, temptation, betrayal, love, trust, and bravery. It’s a whirlwind story that buffeted me like a hurricane. The transition into surreality was so smoothly done that I looked at the world around me, confused and unsure of whether I, too, was falling into some kind of fey. Something Rich and Strange is brilliant. That’s the long and the short of it.

Dreams of Distant Shores is available on Amazon and Tachyon.com.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

binti-nnedi-okoraforNnedi Okorafor’s Binti just won best novella at the 2016 Hugo Awards, after having won the Nebula Award in the same category. I had no idea what the book was about, but based on the cover art alone, I knew I wanted to read it. It’s part of Tor’s new effort to publish shorter fiction through their Tor.com imprint, and they’d been advertising heavily on sites I frequent, so I’d seen the cover of Binti a few hundred times before I finally picked it up. It was a bit serendipitous, actually. I walked into a bookstore I’d never seen before near my house while my parents—who were visiting—explored shops nearby.

I love going to local bookstores and scoping out their genre fiction sections. More often than not, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are poorly represented, but Diesel books in Oakland had a lovely section in the back with a great selection. I pursued the section slowly and the cover I’d seen so many times caught my eye. I felt like I had to have it. I’m very, very glad I bought it.

Binti is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written, complex, and vibrant. It’s imaginative, human, and challenging. I hesitate to be so hyperbolic, but I think it’s a masterpiece. It certainly deserved its wins at the Hugos and Nebulas.

I enjoyed everything about Binti, from the living cephalopod spaceships to the rich cultural traditions, to the interfacing of the technological and the spiritual. So often science fiction falls into familiar trappings of external technologies, pale humans, cold hulls, and a deliberate disconnection from basic biological self. Okorafor integrates everything together with grace, while illustrating a fantastically large-scale universe from bits and pieces sprinkled throughout Binti.

But more than beautiful words and a beautiful message, Binti is a great story. The plot takes a hard right turn halfway through, which took me by complete surprise, yet ties up elegantly, leaving the eponymous protagonist, Binti, stronger and wiser. I felt stronger and wiser too, when I finished it.

Binti is absolutely brilliant. It’s about 90 pages long, and you should take the hour or two to read it. I imagine it’ll be used in short fiction master classes for years to come.

Binti is available at Tor.com and Amazon.

 

Wrath of the Orphans – Chris Philbrook

Wrath of the Orphans coverA book that lives up to its name, Wrath of the Orphans is intense, gruesome—wrathful, even—and it stars a pair of orphans. Snark aside, It’s an intense ride. The pair endure the unthinkable: losing family, loved ones, home, and future in a single night. Truth be told, it was a bit cliché.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. I’ll admit to a bit of groaning when the first act of the story took me down such a familiar path; I was ready to be bored by the story at that point. But given that this was an audiobook (from the kind folks at Audible) and that I had many a chore to complete, I kept listening.

And I’m glad I did. After the methodical destruction of their entire lives, the orphans don’t go down the path of traditional heroes. Rather, they go pretty much berserk and vote violent revenge upon those who took everything from them.

It’s at this point in the audiobook that Kevin T. Collins, the narrator, imbues every single word with a boiling anger that obscures—eclipses, really—the content of the story. It’s reasonable, of course, that these things would drive the twins to an blind rage, but as a far as the listening experience is concerned, it was a bit distracting.

All of that being said, though, I found the book and narration totally compelling. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea (it’s gory and features explicit language), but it works for me in the same way Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy worked for me.

The “choreography” in Chris Philbrook’s writing is excellent. He paints his scenes with vivid clarity that makes the reading (or listening, in my case) particularly good. The fights are intense and visceral, and the stakes are raised at consistent enough clips to pull the reader along the path to darkness that the twins follow in pursuit of revenge.

By and large, I enjoyed Wrath of the Orphans, in spite of my initial misgivings and what was (for a good portion of the book, at least) a too-wrathful reading.  I turned the speed of the reading to 2X (the Audible app is great, by the way), and blew through the book, feeling very satisfied at the end, and curious enough to follow the loose ends in the next book in the series.

Wrath of the Orphans is available on Amazon.com

Falling in Love with Hominids – Nalo Hopkinson

tumblr_inline_o1d3hgmGfs1s0669x_1280I’ve been fortunate, over the last year or so, to have had my horizons expanded as a reader. For a while, my bread and butter were long-form fantasy epics, or space operas dealing with political games and good-versus-evil as a central theme. Don’t get me wrong; I love those books still, and they can get plenty “deep” to satisfy any curious soul. But the more I read short fiction and speculative fiction like Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids (published by Tachyon), the more convinced I feel of the power of science fiction and fantasy to tell deeply human stories with the capacity to elicit change.

The term “visionary fiction,” introduced by the editors of Octavia’s Brood, has stuck with me, and it’s appropriate that I followed up that collection with the spectacular fiction of Nalo Hopkinson. It shares many of the visionary qualities of the stories in Octavia’s Brood, and Hopkinson’s writing is outstanding.

The title of Falling in Love with Hominids is a nod to Cordwainer Smith, a sci-fi author from the Golden Age of Bradbury whose works were an inspiration to Hopkinson and many other authors. The title is also personal to Hopkinson, which she outlines in her introduction to the collection. As a child, she was not the biggest fan of humanity—a sentiment many of us share when we’re confronted by the tremendous darkness and evil our species is capable of—but as she grew older, she began to appreciate (and even love) humans for our boundless creativity and capacity for good.

As such, the stories in Hominids occupy varied spaces on the spectrum of human goodness and darkness. There’s the pain and alienation of the transition into adolescence, the odd biology of beginning relationships as told by orchids, the magic of belief, the desire to fly away from bullies. They’re beautifully written, and as different from each other as can be—which makes sense, since all but one of the stories was published over the last decade-or-so. It’s a testament to Hopkinson’s raw skill with words; a few of the stories, in particular one dealing with “The Elephant in the Room” (you’ll get the joke when you read it, which you absolutely should), were sparked by a challenge, the desire to take a reader by surprise, or to not allow them the time to recover from an oddity too outrageous to believe.

Falling in Love With Hominids is yet another extraordinary collection of short stories that is well worth your time and rapt attention. The writing is beautiful, the message important, and its delivery is page-turning. Not only that, but as with all short fiction collections, it’s perfect for those of you who are only able to read a bit here and there. Do yourself a favor and pick up Falling in Love with Hominids. You won’t regret it.

Falling in Love is Hominids is available from Tachyon and Amazon. (Using the Amazon link helps support the Warbler!)