book review: annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the story of a scientific expedition, where the scientists have no names because they’ll all be dead soon enough anyway. It was a creepy story of the psychology of people who are better off alone, the observers of nature, and how they are manipulated. It was deeply creepy and compelling, reminding me of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris or Peter Watts’ Starfish

Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy.

book review: company town

Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.

Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.

Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.

book review: hammers on bone

Hammers on Bone is a monstery noir story by Cassandra Khaw. The 100 or so pages was exactly the right length for this kind of detective tale. A PI gets a job, to kill this kid’s father, who’s doing monstrous things. The PI is a mythos creature wearing a human skin. The PI investigates. The scenes are all exactly the right length and the straightforwardness of the plot allows the language to evoke a weird world. I especially enjoyed Khaw’s use of Lovecraftian mythos to tell a story that had a different feel from, say a Delta Green technothriller. It’s got a lighter touch, without being silly.

One of my colleagues thought this might be the first in a series (and research indicates the series is called Persons Non Grata) but it looks like this is the only one out so far. I will keep my eyes open for the next.

book review: countdown city

It’s 77 days until an asteroid hits earth, and Henry Palace’s long-ago babysitter’s husband has gone missing. Henry Palace isn’t a police officer any more, but he agrees to help. This is the story of Countdown City, sequel to Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman.

It’s a good little mystery novel. Even though the asteroid is more imminent than in the previous book, it feels like it means less. You can tell the world has changed. Fewer people are trying to hold things together so though Palace’s investigation has smaller stakes there’s more danger to it.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the very end of the book, but that’s probably because I am very far from being true police. It’s a good story but not as Wow-inducing as the previous one. C’est la vie.

book review: the case of the team spirit (bad machinery vol. 1)

The Case of the Team Spirit (by John Allison) is the comic I’m most looking forward to booktalking for middle-school students next year. It’s about a group of six 11-year-olds (three boys, three girls) in Tackleford England (a made-up place) who solve mysteries. This mystery is about the hex that’s been put on their local football (soccer) team. This gets right to the heart of one investigator, while the rest are, well, less into football, but they do like their friend.

These characters are funny, and all of them are clever. The supporting characters, also great. I have a special affinity for Mr. Beckwith the young teacher who has this exchange with one of our detectives:

Charlotte: Sir how come you got rid of your beard?

Mr. Beckwith: My wife said it was scratching her.

Charlotte: Worr sir you are married?

Mr. Beckwith: Yeah I got a wife… am I giving away too much? Maybe I just have a piano. I didn’t want to scratch the piano with my chin.

Charlotte:Sir can I sit down on account of being confused?

Mr. Beckwith: Yes Charlotte.

Though Bad Machinery is a webcomic which you can read for free on a screen, the book is a beautiful widescreen kind of thing about the same size (and orientation) as a laptop screen. But it is batteryless.

So yes. Great stuff, and you will learn Britishisms.

book review: the invisible ones

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is another murder mystery with no science fictional elements to it at all. I know! How crazy for me. This one is set in England in the 1980s but not very obviously. Ray Lovell is the private detective who’s hired to find a Romany woman who disappeared 6 years ago after her wedding. He has some of “the strong black blood” in him himself, which is, in the mind of his client, supposed to give him an edge in finding her.

The other point of view character is a young Romany boy who lives in a group of trailers with his mom and extended family, including his uncle, who was the missing girl’s husband and the father to their sickly young boy.

It’s a good story, with a protagonist who is his own enemy (but not worst) and some interesting investigation goes on. There’s sort of a framing device of Ray being in the hospital after a car crash, but I don’t know how necessary it really was.

All in all, not a bad story, and I quite enjoyed the conclusion, even though it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be clever. Hard to hold that against a whodunnit though.

book review: maigret and the death of a harbor-master

In my days shelving books as a page I knew Simenon’s Maigret books by their profusion of little spines. This is the first time I’ve ever read one. It was an old-style mystery wherein Maigret smokes a pipe and figures out what’s happened in a small French town in the 1940s. Maigret seems to have few jurisdictional problems despite being a Parisian police officer. There wasn’t much to it do delight me, but it didn’t make me angry either. It felt very much like the kind of thing Jessica Fletcher would have written.

The weirder part of this book is how I came to read it. I was at a local farmer’s market and one of the owners of the used book stall asked what I was reading. Always curious about other people’s reader’s advisory techniques I said I was between books and looking for something new. She asked if I was “a sophisticated reader” which struck me as odd. Maybe “sophisticated” doesn’t actually have a value judgment inherent in the word, but it still seems a loaded thing to ask a reader to identify as. And then, even using my humble disavowal of any pretensions towards especial sophistication, this was the book she recommended.

I can’t see anything terribly special about this book that would require someone to self identify as sophisticated in order to read it. It didn’t require any special knowledge or the ability to deal with complicated narrative forms or anything. I mean, if something requires a “sophisticated” reader I’d expect it to be something more complicated and have a bit more oomph to it than a knotty whodunnit.