A Basket of Reviews: Shorts & Anthologies, July 2021

A selection of short stories, anthologies and novellas wot I has been reading recently.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built – Becky Chambers (Monk & Robot Bk 1)

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend. One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honour the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of ‘what do people need?’ is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

The first in what sounds like a new series of novellas, set in an Earth where the robots gained consciousness and – left us, heading out into the wilderness. The world left behind sounds adorable, actually – craftspeople and families, and tea-monks who travel around with their kettles & cups & blends, offering a cup of tea and listening ear to anyone who needs one. (I definitely want a little pedal-powered caravan to travel in, even if it does end up hung with a whole variety of drying herbs and stuffed to the gills with tea blends.) But then the tea monk decides to go off the beaten track, and meets a robot, coming to check on humanity…

There’s a lot of talk in the novella; a lot of philosophical musing, and explanations of misunderstandings, and dialogue between two cultures that have diverged, but want to learn. It’s very sweet and very cute, and it’s going to be interesting to see where the next one goes!

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler (novella)

Kas is a junior academic on a research mission to old Earth. When a con-artist tricks her into wagering a huge sum of money she doesn’t have on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth politics and state-sponsored battledroid prize fights.

I really enjoyed this! It sounds like it was originally going to be a short story, but I’m glad he expanded it into a novella. I loved the characters, the mix of cultural backgrounds, the misunderstandings, the GIANT ROBOT FIGHTS – and it’s wrapped up in a cute romance. Who could want more?

Beyond the Dragon Gate by Yoon Ha Lee

Former Academician Anna Kim’s research into AI cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet.

This is a novella from Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit and Phoenix Extravagant (and, disclaimer, a Rebellion author.) I loved Ninefox – once I got past the “what the hell is happening” feeling of the first three chapters – and also enjoyed Phoenix, so I picked this up on a “let’s give it a try!”

It was… ok. It feels like a proof-of-concept, almost; a short story that’s somehow novella length, and I really wanted more to happen, or to see more of the world, or… well, just something more. So – a good short, but not really worth the read.

Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory by Martha Wells

Set just after Exit Strategy, the fourth novella in the series. It’s a cute, short story from the perspective of Dr. Mensah, who is one of the key players in the first novella (and now someone who is… well, isn’t exactly friends with Murderbot, because Murderbot doesn’t have friends: friends involve Feelings and having to pause the latest downloaded drama) and who is currently trying to sort out her emotions around the events of the first few novellas. Murderbot is assisting by asking for assorted ridiculous weaponry, which… actually seems like quite a good coping mechanism! Cute and sweet, but very short, and definitely only to be read in the context of the series.

Alias Space by Kelly Robson

This is a lovely, varied collection of speculative fiction short stories by award-winning writer Kelly Robson – and the collection has the added bonus of a short passage by Robson after each story, giving more background on the story and adding interesting context to each. The stories range from sci-fi to horror to historical fiction to fantasy, and all have an interesting thread to them; there’s certainly nothing here that’s boring!

The collection starts with Two-Year Man, a world where those allowed to fight for longer are the higher-ranking (hence two-year man; a lowly janitor). But the titular janitor cleans a genetics lab, and finds unwanted babies in the trash – those thrown out because they’re wrong, or broken, or defective – and he takes them home. Intervention, later in the anthology, also deals with the theme of children – the lovely idea of childminding taken up by those who really want to, and how a creche would work with worlds spread across the solar system. How do you mix the latest child-minding science and psychology with the fact you’re raising new people, with all their foilibles and flaws? And what happens to a society that hates children, but then realises that they need them? I’d actually read this before as part of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity’s End anthology, but it’s just as good the second (or third, or fifth) time around.

The titular story, Alias Space, is one of three loosely-connected stories. In the first, The Desperate Flesh, the manager of a retirement home for lesbians is trying to stop it being demolished by the city, but there’s the small issue of the residents’ penchant for strip tease… and in the second, Alias Space, strip tease dancers elbow themselves room in a city festival. The third, Skin City, puts a futuristic spin on the strip-tease concept; an artist breaks copyright law in an effort to get their forbidden love to talk to them! It’s a fun interlinked trio, all exploring different aspects of a common theme.

La Vitesse is the first of the fantasy stories: what if dragons started invading, and became a nuisance species? And if you’re a school bus driver, that means trying to figure out how to escape a fire-breathing terror that wants to rip your bus open… and that also means figuring out how to connect with your grumpy fourteen-year-old who’s definitely got her own opinions on how to drive a bus, and what good ice cream is. The other major fantasy story is a longer novelette, Waters of Versailles, and is set in eighteenth-century France; an inventor is enchanting the Court with new water closets, but the secret to how he does it is closely guarded – and his problems expand from how to keep his courtly patrons happy to how to keep the water-controlling nixie happy!

Plunging back into sci-fi is Two Watersheds, a scientist in VR exploring how invasive lichen can be managed while dealing with her own personal problems. A Study In Oils is probably my favourite in the book, and is a really interesting exploration of art, murder and intent; an athlete accused of murder (despite murder being semi-legal during a game…) goes to a remote village to try to escape people hurting him as a punishment; he loves creating art, and the story explores what art means to him, especially in the context of his actions and their own context of the game and society. The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill is also a very hard-hitting story about choices; a raped & murdered girl ends up being saved by an alien parasite, and has to explore the consequences of both of those. (Robson’s note on this story is particularly interesting as well!) And We Who Live In The Heart is another hard-hitting story that deals with choices and murder; humans have made habitats in huge, whale-like creatures… but they are still learning the biology, still learning how to live, and when you add human choices & relationships into the mix (and in particular, love and revenge) then it gets complicated – and interesting.

There are a number of mixed genre stories, too, which mix into the scifi. What Gentle Women Dare strays into historical fiction, with a street walker’s life, and her choice when she’s offered a devil’s bargain… So You Want To Be A Honeypot is a slightly-unfocused, very fun spy thriller, following a cohort of trainee spies as they take their first assignments and get used to life, and get used to being able to make their own choices. And the final story in the collection, A Human Stain, is a wonderful gothic horror: a governess comes to remote castle to look after a child, but there are many mysteries surrounding it… and she finds it is more terrifying – and beguiling – than she had thought…

A very mixed and very interesting collection, and well worth a read.

Five Happy Things: July 2021

Happy things! Happy things! All of the happy things!

1.Sitting in our neighbour’s garden with a fire globe & wine & fish and chips

We were over near our definitely-not-local fish shop (there is a local one, which isn’t yet open… progress on that is a matter of fierce anticipation for everyone in the area!) and picked up some for our neighbour as well as ourselves – perfect social distancing food, as everyone can just eat out of their own boxes! We had old fence wood to get rid of, too, and so we got to use said neighbour’s fire globe… and the wine, well, you gotta have a glass of something. It was a nice, quiet evening, and was very much a balm to the soul – plus we got some cat company, which is always a pleasure. (The fish may have had something to do with that, I admit!)

2.The weight is lifting…

I’m not doing a whole bunch of stressful admin for an old house (it’s been handed over to a lovely agent, who will definitely be better than me at remembering when to get new certificates for everything, and trying to fix everything that’s gone wrong this month) and it just feels so much better. I’m a bit frustrated at myself that I didn’t ask for help earlier (to be fair, I didn’t realise that I could) but better late than never, I guess.

I also saw some ex-work friends for lunch (which was lovely – I really do miss the people!) and everything’s still generally on fire there, and IT IS NOT MY PROBLEM! It’s such a great feeling. I knew it was all heavy, but didn’t realise quite how much it had dragged me down until it wasn’t any more, and I’m in a job that doesn’t demand my heart&soul and spend every working hour reminding me that however much I do, it will never be enough. I’m still absolutely fucking angry about that whole thing, but I’m also aware that there’s nothing more I can do, and it’ll just drag me down again to be thinking about it – so I’m trying not to. But it is lovely to hear about the rolling chaos and know that I don’t have to give a single fuck any more.

3.Travel? (UK… and further?)

I’ve been booking bits for December – we’re going to Chester – and London in October, and it’s been very satisfying to be able to think about travel again… even if it does get cancelled, which is fine, and we have contingency, but it’s a nice possibility! We’re also thinking about Canada and Antwerp for next year, but that one’s a bit more of a “let’s just see how the next few months go…”

We’re also starting to do more in the local area, too – Otter & I have been trying to find things that are nicely distanced, so we’re going kayaking next week sometime, and hopefully trundling out for some walks that we’ve wanted to try for a bit. Wytham Woods is first on our agenda!

4.The Garden

Having spent the last year or so with zero energy and zero spoons and absolutely no desire to go into our garden (our neighbour’s garden has been the saving grace for getting outside, as they are a keen gardener and so if we wanted beautiful flowers, there’s always something there), I finally have more energy and a desire to do something, and we did a Garden!

We’ve taken out the over-enthusiastic goose grass, put in purple wisteria (not in the same quantities…), added two raised beds, cleared the path, encouraged the tomatoes, planted some more veg, got to the gooseberries before the birds (TAKE THAT, YOU THIEVING BASTARDS – we got TWO last year. TWO!) and some raspberries, took a bunch of old wood over to our neighbour for burning, added some trellis for various things, restrained some rather enthusiastic growers, and generally Tidied.

We’ve got a few more plans, too, which feels nice (and like they might actually get done!) – dig in the path, sort the patio, add some plants to the fence (we have some small flexible plant pots, so we want some climbers/smellies/herbs in the pallet holes), tidy the shed, and sort the compost. But it feels like a nicer area to be in, and that’s really satisfying.

The wild meadow in the centre is growing nicely, too – we put yellow rattle in last autumn to fight back against the grass and that’s flowered nicely this summer, plus there’s been a bunch of other odd things popping up from the wildflowers I scattered in October. The bees are definitely enjoying it!

5.WOE (and also WOE, and more WOE, and have some extra WOE)

There has been the standard amount of very vocal woe from a small black furry Woe Machine, but there have also been purrs – so many purrs! I picked him up the other day and he was just rumbling away in my arms. He’s been DEMANDING cuddles in the morning (me) and evening (my partner) and enjoying belly rubs (!!!!!! – only my partner is brave enough for this, I haven’t dared yet.) In short, he’s being absolutely spoiled rotten, and is enjoying it thoroughly – despite the ever-present wailing and claims that he is Starved and Neglected and How Very Dare We. Dare I say, he is actually quite happy (especially when there are biscuits.)

And generally…

As you can probably hear, I’m doing better; there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not on fire! I’m definitely still grey, and have occasional bad moments, but they’re nothing like as bad as they were. I’m slowly coming out of a pit of no-energy too, but it’s translating at the moment into something that feels almost manic; I’m keeping going and keeping going and somehow it doesn’t really feel like my brain’s involved in that! But if it means I can get out into the garden and not either immediately feel horribly overwhelmed or need to spend a day recovering from the small amount of work I do manage, then I’ll take it.

I have to admit, I’m actually worse with motivation now; I’m able to feel slightly enthusiastic about some things, so it’s making everything that I’m not enthusiastic about that much harder. I’m also still finding people hard; I don’t know what to say! I’m doing my best to keep going and also respond to people who have contacted me, and start to repair some of the missed communication threads, but it’s going to be a slow process. (As one of my ex-colleagues said: you send someone an email, and then they email back – and expect you to reply again?! I already did the email thing!!)

I’m also now having to deal with some Actual Feelings, and that has meant a few breakdowns – the nice thing about not caring is that, y’know, zero fucks, but now… but hey ho, I have coping mechanisms, and I just gotta get the practise in again! It does also mean that I’ve got to actually deal with/work through/get out a bunch of stuff, so that’s going to be fun – especially if this is only the start of everything lifting. But again, if it means I’m actually feeling instead of just being numb, then I’ll take that as progress.

So overall: doing better, and cats.

Death with a kitten. "Cats are nice."
Unfortunately via Pinterest, so no source

A Kate Update: June 2021

Update of Kate things! Happy things!
 
New job (as of almost two weeks) at Elsevier, doing journals admin; it doesn’t require me pouring my heart&soul into anything, but does require boatloads of organisation and being left alone to do said organisation, and is therefore AMAZING. I am very much picking everything up, and will be for the next year, but it’s been good so far and they’re all lovely. I am also still doing freelance work, which has been good & steady, and I’m enjoying all the random books I get to format.
 
New therapy! As of… three weeks? I think? Good so far, mostly just talking, but I think it’s helping. She does keep telling me that I’ve been through a lot and I’m just sort of “well… it’s life, y’know? Everyone has. We all kinda… cope.” But the rest is useful, I think.
 
BOOKS! I have been reading and will shortly spew out a heap of reviews so I can gush over all the things at all you book people. I also got to read a draft of a continuation of one of my favourite series and it’s SO GOOD and also I did have to message the author to yell at him… it’s the small things that make it.
 
CAT! Grumpy. Cute. Fixated on biscuits. Managed to tread perfectly in his own poop, which… is actually quite impressive for a creature that’s supposed to be an apex predator. (Thankfully he cleaned his own paw off from said poop incident, although I won’t share the method. Safe to say I’m not going to be going with the Cat Method of Cleaning anytime soon.)
 
Friends & family! In the last month or so I’ve seen an old friend (after three years!!) and we got welcomed by a blackbird family too, which was adorable. I have also been enjoying the sunshine with a neighbour, met another friend and had a very long and excellent grumble at The State Of The World, trundled over to see a good friend in Swindon (we had distanced pizza, which rocked) and I also got to see my family, which was great. It feels like I’ve used a lot of spoons but it has also been lovely. (Yes, suitable precautions were taken for all of these instances.)
I think that’s it? I’ve been slowly getting rid of a few pressures, the absence of which is gradually making itself felt. I’m feeling manically cheerful, with occasional dips, but I’ll take that over thoroughly depressed. I’ve got something of a life plan back; my task list has slowly been going down; and I’ve actually joined a very nice local yoga class so that I get out in the fresh air once a week. (Well, I usually get out more, but I can’t claim that having a glass of wine with my neighbour is in any way exercise.) So slowly, steadily, I’m rebuilding.
I shall leave you with a really good app if you’re anti-food-waste or pro-good-cheap-food: Too Good To Go. I was recommended it by an amazing friend, and you can basically book in to collect going-out-of-date-that-day food in your local area for cheap – ours has Greggs, M&S, Paul, Le Pain Quotidien and Costa as part of the scheme, amongst others! It’s been really good both for getting me out of the house and for obtaining us bags of random food items for not much money, all of which have been fab. (The M&S ones in particular are AMAZING.) Definitely worth a look for your local area!

Reading: Classic Crime

I’ve been retreating into the world of comfort reads recently, and it’s been classic crime season! Most of these are ones I’ve read and re-read, but it’s always fun to find a few new things.

First up is Sexton Blake – a cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes – that was new to me! There’s over 4 million words and thousands of stories dating from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. Rebellion have done five collections (disclaimer, I got to read them first!) and while some are definitely Of Their Time, they’re a really good a mix of action, heroics, detective and mystery. The first is Sexton Blake & The Great War, but I think my favourite story is in Sexton Blake’s New Order – I can’t remember what it’s called (typical me) but it’s a wonderful heist that gets double- and triple- crossed!

I’ve also gone back to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I read quite a few growing up, but I’d forgotten which – so I’ve had to read them again! They are very 1920’s in flavour (although without being too racist! I was impressed) but Wimsey is intelligent, amusing and the mysteries are all brilliantly constructed – I admit that I really enjoy the style of these, so they are nice reads. If you like Miss Marple or Tuppence, or Poirot without the arrogance, you’ll probably get on well with Wimsey. The Nine Tailors was the first one I picked up in this batch, as I remembered it vaguely; it’s a murder mystery with some really interesting characters (and a lot of bell-ringing), and even though I had read it before, I didn’t remember the end, so that made for a good read. Wimsey & his manservant, Bunter, are star of that one, and also of Strong Poison, which is the first novel to introduce Harriet Vane, Wimsey’s will-they-won’t-they romance partner. Gaudy Night focuses on Harriet, with a mystery set in the Oxford colleges, and Busman’s Honeymoon features Wimsey & Harriet trying to solve the mystery of the seemingly unexpected death of a very disliked man… and I think my favourite so far, Murder Must Advertise, is Wimsey going undercover in an advertising agency – it’s full of ridiculously wonderful characters! (I think it was Sayers’ favourite too, as she worked in an advertising agency – and the sheer joy of getting to gently rib everything about it comes through in spades.) There are 15 in the series, I think (at some point it was taken over by Jill Patterson Walsh), and the latest one I’ve picked up is Whose Body? – which is actually the first in the series, but there you go.

Speaking of Miss Marple, I was unexpectedly reminded of her short story Sanctuary, and picked up the collection Miss Marple & Mystery, which is (I think all?) her short stories. Sanctuary is one of them, and as good as I remembered – but it’s a lot of fun to read the little snippets of mystery, and a good book to dip in & out of.

Heading more into modern stories, but still with the classic crime feel; I was recommended the first in Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter series, A Nice Class of Corpse. It’s a mystery set in a hotel, filled with Gentlemen (and Women) In Decline – who all have their routine, their likes, their little ways… and then comes Mrs Pargeter, with her own opinions and lots of interesting skills that she learned from her dearly beloved late husband. And when there’s a suspicious death, she’s right in there to investigate… the story was amusing and interesting, and a good whodunnit – very silly, as the recommender said, but you somehow end up picking up the next one! (Which I admit I haven’t yet, but I did get distracted by Wimsey.)

Mrs Pargeter also reminded me of Robert Pimm’s Seven Hotel Stories, and the ever-resourceful Mrs N – I can highly recommend that one, as the stories are great fun and all completely ridiculous. I’ve got my fingers crossed for more of these in the future!

And I’ve also picked up an Imogen Quy Investigates mystery – A Piece of Justice by Jill Paton Walsh. It’s tending towards Morse (although, thankfully, without the insufferable arrogance) and I like the mix of cosiness and intelligence of Imogen! It’s set in Oxford, too, so it’s been amusing to figure out if I know places.

And, in a return to classics, I’ve also been reading some of Arsène Lupin. I hadn’t come across this at all (like Sexton Blake!) and picked up a collection of them, so there’s a wide mix of stories. They’re a fun mix of “this can’t be possible” and “Lupin’s pulled it off again!”, and I was definitely enjoying them until I hit the parody of Herlock Sholmes, at which point… eh. I’m sure it was amusing at the time (and it is quite funny for a bit – poor Watson is a bit of a hard-done-by-hound, so there’s some not-entirely-good-natured ribbing to be had…) but after three stories I’m finding it a little tedious. I may have to skip on to find some more of the derring-do stories!

A Bundle of Reviews: June 2021

Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but it’s passing Casiopea Tun by. She’s too busy scrubbing floors in her wealthy grandfather’s house to do anything more than dream of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she could call her own.

This dream is impossible, distant as the stars – until the day Casiopea opens a curious chest in her grandfather’s room and accidentally frees an ancient Mayan god of death. He offers her a deal: if Casiopea helps him recover his throne from his treacherous brother, he will grant her whatever she desires. Success will make her every dream come true, but failure will see her lost, for ever.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed only with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey, from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City and deep into the darkness of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

Described as “For fans of Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik and Helene Wecker” – definitely agree! It feels like a mix of The Golem & The Djinn crossed with American Gods; it’s a Mexican-inspired road trip, if your idea of a good road trip is alongside a God of Death, picking up chopped-off fingers & odd magic at random points, and bumping into your crass, oblivious cousin at every stop. I love the way that Cassandra’s character develops – and how she goes from accidental rescuer to an actual player, with her confidence growing as she does so.

A beautifully-written and enchanting story with a wonderful dose of magic and culture.

The Galaxy, And The Ground Within by Becky Chambers

When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with seemingly nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation.

Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another.

Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.

The final, fourth book in the Wayfarers series, which started with A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and continued with A Closed And Common Orbit. I didn’t really get into the third book, Record Of A Spaceborn Few, and I admit that I nearly didn’t pick this one up… but I’m so glad that I did!

It’s adorable. It’s got the charm and wonderful characters and odd encounters and thoughtfulness of the first, coupled with the wonderful mix of cultures and tense situations of the second. It’s sprinkled with things that make you think, and reflect, and we get to follow Pei again!! Wheee! Plus a few other odd ends are wrapped up, which is lovely – and some new ones introduced, which is also lovely, because things don’t just get resolved into nice neat bundles.

If you liked the first ones – or you like character-driven fiction where nothing really happens (which is THE POINT, Mister Smart-Ass Critic) – then you will love this one. It can be read as a stand-alone, too, so if you aren’t sure – try it and see!

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crew mates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Straight off: I loved The Martian (both book and film.) I admit I didn’t get on with Artemis – the setting was pretty cool, but Jax just felt… off, and I put it down after two chapters. And while Project Hail Mary is definitely, thankfully, trending more towards the awesomeness of The Martian, it’s still… well, not as good. It’s a good story, yes. A good read. But… eh.

A friend put into words how I was feeling: “With The Martian, you always felt like he could die at any time. With this, there’s lots of danger, but he’s not in any danger.”

There’s also a butt-load of science info-dumps, and it often feels like they’re in there more for the sheer desire to put a cool science info-dump in than because we actually need to know. Again, The Martian… but he was actually using the science in the course of the work, and using it as a tool. This feels more like science because I MUST EXPLAIN THE SCIENCE.

But it’s a good read. It’s fun, and chaotic, and I really liked the current-problem-then-flashback structure and the way things unfold. It’s a very well-told story, and I really like the unexpected travelling companion that turns up – very cute, if a heap of rock can be described as cute?

In short: worth a read if you like Very Danger Space Mission and scientific info-dumps.