Cat Valente

Book Reviews: Stross, Valente, and Snyder

Jennifer Morgue CoverI’ve fallen behind in my book reviewing again, so this is my attempt to catch back up, starting with The Jennifer Morgue [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Charles Stross.

This is part of Stross’ Laundry Files, about magic and computers and government employees. In this one, “Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker for The Laundry, must stop a ruthless billionaire from unleashing an eldritch horror, codenamed ‘Jennifer Morgue’ from the ocean’s depths for the purpose of ruling the world…”

This was another fun read, similar in tone to The Atrocity Archives (which I enjoyed, and reviewed here). Only there’s an added twist. Without getting into details, Stross has found a clever way to write a tribute/parody of a certain other subgenre, one which fits perfectly with the rules of the world he’s created. It felt a little forced in one or two places, but for the most part, I enjoyed watching Stross play with the tropes and structures of those other books, while occasionally smiling and thinking, I see what you did there.

The character of Ramona was fascinating, and representative of the real darkness Stross gets into with these books, beneath the humorous surface. People have talked to me about feeling uncomfortable with Lena Greenwood’s character, with her nature and the way I chose to write her. Ramona created similar discomfort as I read–she’s possessed by a succubus, meaning she has a physical need for sex, as well as using sex as a weapon of assassination. While I’m not sure Stross handles this perfectly, neither do I, and I give him credit for not ignoring the problematic aspects of Ramona’s character.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first book, you’ll almost certainly like this one as well. They’re smart, different, and bring enough humor and darkness and action to keep things moving.

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Fairyland CoverNext up is Catherynne Valente’s award-winning YA book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], about a 12-year-old girl named September who leaves Omaha during WWI to travel with the Green Wind to Fairyland, where she befriends a wyvern who’s part library (only A through L), meets witches, rustles wild bicycles, confronts a queen, and so much more.

Valente’s imagination shines through from every page, presented in lush language by a narrator who offers their own commentary throughout the book. It felt like I was reading an old-fashioned tale of young, fantastic adventure, with shades of Wonderland and Narnia and more. I enjoyed it, but I could also see reading this one to my 9-year-old. I suspect he’d get a kick out of it.

My guess is that a lot will depend on whether or not you like Valente’s style in this book. I’d definitely recommend checking out the excerpt on the publisher’s website.

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Finally, there’s Lucy A. Snyder’s Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (and Other Oddities) [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], a collection of “12 humor stories about computers and the forces of evil.” I received a review copy of this one in audio book format, as read by Mary Bertke, and listened to it while driving to and from ConFusion earlier this month.

The collection starts with step-by-step instructions for installing Linux on a dead badger, but this is only the start. From there, the stories begin to explore the implications of a world where you can reanimate the dead with the right hardware and operating system. Many of the stories take the form of news reports, exploring everything from the implications of zombie call centers to the special Kung Fu mode you can activate in your dead badger.

The first story went on a little long for my taste, but I liked the larger picture Snyder created as the collection progressed in its satirical exploration of a world — particularly the corporate world — that’s gotten its hands on magic. As someone who’s worked both in tech support and in the land of cubicle bureaucracy, many of Snyder’s ideas felt just familiar and plausible enough to be funny. (And also depressing, now that I think about it … how many of us could be replaced with zombies at our day jobs?)

Three of the stories are available on Strange Horizons:

Hugo Novellas, Part 1

I’m splitting my Hugo Novella reading into two parts, on account of novellas are long, so it’s taking me more time to get through them.

My other Hugo reviews/thoughts so far:

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Kiss me Twice, by Mary Robinette Kowal – Reading this story made me think of Asimov’s Robot Detective books with Elijah Bailey and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. Both present interesting mysteries. Both explore the relationship between human and artificial intelligence. Both question the implications and possibilities of artificial life, the rules and the loopholes.

I liked the Asimov books, but I like Kowal’s story even better. Much of this is due to the character of Metta, the police department’s A.I. I love how Kowal developed this character, the way Metta adopts a different persona for every police officer (much as a human might change clothes depending on the situation), the Mae West quotes she uses to joke with Huang, the way she’s simultaneously supercompetent and aware in the way only a computer can be, but also vulnerable and, if you’ll forgive the conceit, human.

Detective Huang is a good protagonist, too. A decent, determined, well-developed character who treats Metta more like a partner than a machine, which means he’s invested on all levels when something happens to her.

This is a fun, well-paced story which asks interesting questions, presents various nifty and shiny SFnal ideas, and made me blow off several things I needed to get done so I could find out how it ended. I’ve told Mary that 1) she should turn this into a book and 2) I want to write a blurb for that book.

Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne Valente – I’ll be honest, Valente’s skill with language and imagery made me question whether I was a good enough writer to review this one. (I decided to do it anyway!) This is a wonderfully layered story. It’s retold fairy tales and romance and tragedy and poetry and the power of story/myth and post-singularity science fiction all woven together.

Like Kowal’s story, “Silently and Very Fast” deals in part with the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Elefsis is a program who started as the virtual keeper of a house, but grew into so much more thanks to the love and attention of a child, Ceno. It’s a relationship that can’t be forced into human terms. Ceno is Elefsis’ parent and lover and sibling and so much more. Thanks to the neural hardware, they’re literally a part of one another.

Over the years we see Elefsis grow and pass from one family member to another as the humans age and die. We learn how the world has evolved during this time, and the lengths they’ve gone to in order to protect Elefsis.

There were parts I didn’t understand at first. Only as I kept reading did some of those earlier scenes and stories slip so beautifully into place. I strongly recommend reading this one twice, because the parts become that much more gorgeous and powerful once you’ve seen the whole.

Countdown ($2.99), by Mira Grant – “Countdown” is a prequel to Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (including her Hugo-nominated novel Deadline). Having read the first two books of that trilogy, I enjoyed getting all of the background information on how the zombie uprising began, and seeing characters who until now had just been mentioned in a historical context.

I think, if you’ve read and enjoyed the books, then this will be a good, powerful story, one you should definitely check out. The pacing and voice are similar to Grant’s other books, but the structure is different: “Countdown” is broken into lots of smaller segments from various characters’ perspectives as the inevitable undead uprising unfolds.

If you haven’t read the books, I don’t know if this will work as well. (Or if you read the books but they weren’t to your liking.) Some of the power of the story comes from knowing what happens later on. For example, seeing the Masons as good, determined, loving people and knowing what’s about to happen and the kind of people it turns them into was simply tragic. On the other hand, much of it works just as well in isolation–like the stories and fates of those involved in creating the original viruses.

Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire is up for four Hugos, but I think this one might be a long shot. While “Countdown” does stand alone, I think it will be more powerful and effective to fans of the books.

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Comments and discussion are very much welcome, as usual.

First Book Friday: Catherynne M. Valente

Welcome to First Book Friday.

Today I am delighted to welcome Catherynne M. Valente (yuki-onna on LJ) to the blog. I’ve been trying to figure out how best to introduce her here, and have come up with the following. Cat is a beautiful person who writes beautiful stories, and our world would be a poorer place without her.

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These days, most people think The Orphan’s Tales [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was my first book.

Not so.

I suppose in a technical sense it was my second book–I started The Orphan’s Tales right after finishing my actual first novel, The Labyrinth [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], in the same tiny Rhode Island apartment, ricocheting between the table in that little kitchen to the opulent local Starbucks to the gothic tower where I was working as a fortune teller. But in publication order OT is my fourth baby, the first one to get into a really good New York school and win a few blue ribbons.

But my first was The Labyrinth. This is how it came to be.

I had just graduated from college and was in that purgatory between the diploma and what-are-you-actually-going-to-do-with-your-life. I’d been writing poetry for years but beyond a short story in undergrad, I’d never tried fiction. A friend of mine linked me to a little website called Nanowrimo, which was then just a baby itself. Well, that seemed like a great idea to me, and before I tell you what happened next you must remember that I was 22, and being 22 I was full of piss and vinegar and not knowing what I could and couldn’t do. A big part of that space after college is figuring out what you can and can’t do–and this was where I figured it out.

I said: It’s October. I don’t want to wait til November. Also, 30 days is way long. I’m going to do it in 10.

And I did. Everything I’d been keeping inside me for years while I learned Greek and Latin and got my varsity on the sailing team–and struggled with depression and a wholly crap childhood came out in a flood. It helps to be an insomniac already, and to have a job where I could pull out my laptop between Tarot clients. And at the end of that I had a (very short) surreal novel that I was reasonably sure I could never sell to anyone. Sure, I started writing that weird fairy tale thing, but I didn’t think I’d sell that either. It was just a Christmas present for my niece.

Fast forward a year and I’m in grad school, and very tentatively submitting The Labyrinth around. Around is a relative word, though–I knew absolutely nothing about the SFF world. Less than nothing. I got a few notes from editors saying it was so beautiful and they were definitely not buying it. (I still get those.) I ended up selling it to a small realist press just before I moved to Japan. A few weeks after arrival I was informed that they were pulling the contract, and it seemed reasonably clear to me that this had occurred not because the book had suddenly gone bad in the fridge but because I had declined the editor’s request to sleep with him before departing the US.

This dejected me in a big way–I couldn’t believe such things still happened, and I was afraid that no one would buy my book who wasn’t motivated by other and uglier considerations. I sat on it. I worked on the fairy tale thing which was getting longer and longer. I wrote another book, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. I learned how to navigate the Tokyo subway system.

And I started a Livejournal.

I’d been blogging for years on Diaryland, the Ur-LJ, but Livejournal was where I really started to make friends and find an online home. After a few months clicking around and doing what LJers do, I came across nihilistic_kid (Nick Mamatas), who had just had his first novel, Move Under Ground, published. I left him a comment and said that I wasn’t asking him to look at my chapters, as that is awful and gross from a stranger, but only a few suggestions as to small presses I should submit to if I have a wildly uncommercial bizarro book. He obliged, and I sadly discovered that I had already submitted to all but one of them and been rejected. The one remaining was Prime Books–which, according to their website, was closed to submissions.

In an act of kindness that I certainly did not deserve and poor Nick should not be pressured to repeat[1. Editor’s Note: if I hear that someone has e-mailed Nick saying “Hey, I saw on Jim’s journal that you looked at Catherynne Valente’s novel, so will you read mine?” I’ll feed you to the goblins.], Nick said he’d look at my chapters and send them to Prime if he liked them. He did, and Prime accepted The Labyrinth within the week. I got an email from Jeff VanderMeer asking to write the introduction, and a little while later a box full of wonderful indie press SFF books from Jeff with a note that said: “Welcome to the Family.” It remains one of the dearest gestures anyone has ever made to me.

Nick and Jeff and the kids at Prime were the first people to believe in me, and think that I had something to offer. Everything else came later, Bantam and Tor and S.J. Tucker and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and, yes, some book with a bunch of nested fairy tales in it. But that’s where it started. With a Livejournal and a lost kid in Japan trying to figure out how to write a book.

After I got that email telling me, in effect, that my life was changing right now, I closed my computer very gently. I was happy, of course I was happy. But my overwhelming feeling was: Oh. Oh. I get it. Publication isn’t the point. It’s just the beginning. I have so much more work to do now. I can’t slow down, not even a little. Now comes the part where I will work as hard as I can as long as I’m alive, to be able to keep doing this. I’d better get started.

New Books!

No First Book Friday post this week, I’m afraid. So I figured we could do New Book Friday instead.

Oof. As it turns out, I know an awful lot of people who write books! I know this list is incomplete, too. I got in trouble for that the last time I posted a new books list, so if you have a book out and I didn’t include you, I’m not being deliberately exclusive. My brain cannot keep track of all the books.

So, anyone read any of these yet? Any you’re particularly looking forward to? And of course, feel free to add more new book suggestions in the comments!

Clicking the covers will take you to an excerpt/preview of the book, where available. (Making this one of the most link-heavy posts I’ve done in ages. I hope y’all appreciate how much work I do for you!)

Deathless [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Catherynne M. Valente.

The Shattered City [Harper Collins Australia] by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

The Woods [Amazon | B&N], an e-book from Stephen Leigh. (Also, B&N really needs to work on their search algorithms!!!)

Con and Conjure [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Lisa Shearin.

Faerie Winter [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Janni Lee Simner.

Fury of the Phoenix [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Cindy Pon.

Kat, Incorrigible [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Stephanie Burgis.

Rage [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Jackie Morse Kessler.

Shady Lady [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] by Ann Aguirre.

Nascence (17 stories that failed and what they taught me) [Amazon | B&N], an e-book by Tobias Buckell.

Friday Five

1) After spending all that time working on Red Hood’s Revenge, it’s amazing how quickly the short fiction goes.  One week from short story seed to finished first draft?  I could get used to this!  Now to go back and make the whole thing coherent and cohesive.  (Right now it’s 3700 words of themeless mess, but that’s okay.  It’ll get better.)

2) A lot of you have already seen this, but author Cat Valente is writing a book-in-a-book as a way to help get through some tough financial times.  Cat’s a great author and human being.  Please check out her announcement for details, or visit the adopting cat community which has been set up in LiveJournal.

3) I try not to obsess.  I really do.  But I want to know who stole one of the Amazon reviews for The Stepsister Scheme!  14 reviews last week.  13 today.  Amazon’s just doing this to mess with my head, aren’t they*?

4) There is no four.  Or is there?

5) Apropos of yesterday’s post on weight issues, what are some SF/F books that deal with the issue in a decent fashion, whether that means addressing it head on or simply including non-supermodel characters who are portrayed well and not just as villains (fat=evil) or comic relief?  The first one I think of is the Such a Pretty Face anthology Lee Martindale did almost a decade back.  What else is out there?

Have a great weekend, all!

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*A brand-new 14th review popped up literally minutes before I posted this.  Amazon is totally messing with me!  Jerks.

Jim C. Hines