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Month: May 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 150: The Cosmic Computer (1963) by H. Beam Piper

I have a fondness for old SF paperbacks, and it is very hard for me to pass one by should I see it at a book sale or op shop or similar. This one came in a set of six vintage titles on which I successfully bid at filking convention’s silent auction in Atlanta — “filking” is, essentially, making music about nerd stuff, and I went to a convention of same because I was living in Atlanta at the time and Seanan MGuire told me to — and is the first one of them I have actually read.

Set on a world struggling to lift themselves out of economic collapse, it tells the story of the enterprising Conn Maxwell, who returns from a university stint on Earth and tells his compatriots that a long-rumoured super-computer known as MERLIN does, in fact, exist, and is buried along with much other disused weaponry in the planet’s wastes. He employs some people to help him dig, and more people dig, and all of a sudden the desolate planet with  no hope is buzzing with industry and purpose. It’s very pro-capitalism (there are a lot of ltd. companies created in this book, plus holding companies and shell companies and companies of every kind, really), and also very anti-worker’s rights — they get whipped, if you please — so that’s kind of problematic. I mean, I like capitalism as much as the next business owner, but come on.

Still, it’s a pretty inventive story from a stalwart of SF’s golden age, and as I have not read any of H. Beam Piper’s other works, and given that he wrote dozens of books and short stories, I am just glad to have, at last, sampled his offerings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to read any more of them, however.

There are only so many board of directors’ meetings and formation of LLCs that a sci-fi fan can take, after all.   


TBR DAY 149: The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper
GENRE: Classic SF, SF
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 9 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A filking convention…
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 149: Cousin Phillis (1864) by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve slowly — by which I mean, over several decades — been reading all of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell (known in her lifetime as Mrs. Gaskell), whenever I happen upon one. I was handed probably her best-known novel, Cranford, by a knowing vintage book dealer when I was seventeen, and have searched out her others ever since.

This one is another Victorian delight, a pastoral reflection of country life at the dawn of the steam age that sees young Paul Manning, sent out into the wilds of a bucolic idyll by his bosses at the railroad, and forced to pay a visit on his aunt, who lives nearby.

Said aunt is married to a vicar, and is possessed of a lovely daughter — the eponymous Phillis, and I have literally read that name as “Phyllis” every time until just now, because my brain wants it to be that way — and while the ungainly Paul is not immune to her beauty, he soon settles into a familial relationship with her, acceptable to even modern readers. (Cousins get married all the time in books of this vintage, of course… and it’s never not squicky.) Meanwhile, both Paul and Phillis find themselves deeply admiring Paul’s personable boss…

Lyrical and lovely and sentimental and sad, with occasional leavening by some pointed humour, especially in the dialogue, this is the story of a particular time and place that perhaps never was, but that will live forever in these pages. Bucolic and timeless, the lifestyle this book captures is about to change dramatically, altered inexorably by the tide of progress that is about to spread throughout the land, and world. It’s like reading a book set just before the internet, or before smart phones, but one that sees the change coming and begins to envisage just what the world will be like at the same time the next year (or the next week, in the case of smart phones). 

Which accounts for my sense of melancholy just now. These days, we’re constantly on the brink of a Brave New World. And, like the residents of this sleepy little hamlet, I’m never quite ready when it comes. 


TBR DAY 149: Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell
GENRE: Classics, General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 148: The Vampire’s Photograph (2008) by Kevin Emerson

A middle grade book about a vampire world existing parallel to our own, with a vampire hero who feels different to those of his race — because he is — and the reckless human girl who endangers herself and others with her determination to prove the existence of vampires (because, sure), this book is weirdly addictive, mainly because the mystery surrounding its protagonist is so damned oblique.

Oliver Nocturne — yes, the vampire family name is Nocturne, what of it? — is 83 years old, but appears and acts 12, because that is how vampire biology works. They are not immortal but only slowly ageing, and also, New World vampires like Oliver are born, not made.

Except, what is up with Oliver? Why does he, alone, have to endure annual medical checkups, when the majority of the vampire race are so… well, vampirey? Why does he, in particular, have to fear getting caught on camera, when other vampires show up on film and are even work on TV? What is so special about him?

For all its silliness — and this book is very, very silly — I have to admit that I really, really wanted to find out. And when Book 1 ended, and this question was only partially ended, you better believe I was torn about embarking straight away on Book 2, also in my possession, because, whatever will happen next? Can Emalie ever forgive Oliver? Can Oliver ever forgive himself? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?

But then I discovered that there are six Oliver Nocturne novels, and since I only own two of them, I would have to go out of my way to find the remaining four to get to the end of the story — and I’m not sure how committed I am to this vampire kid-lit world for me to go that far. You know how it is with series. Book 2 could very well resolve some of these dangling plot threads, but it will assuredly hint at more, and then where will I be? A grown woman desperately hunting for sequels to a middle-grade vampire tale. (And I am already a grown woman desperately hunting for sequels to a kids’ book — and I found one, Penny Pollard’s Passpport, in an op shop yesterday, for a dollar, by the way! That that, eBay!)

So Book 2 will remain on the shelf for a while. But in the meantime, I really am beset with lingering questions over this utterly unbelievable, outlandish, illogical and at times even flat-out stupid novel. Again, and as always, this says way more about me than about the book itself. But I can live with that.   


TBR DAY 138: The Vampire’s Photograph (Oliver Nocturne #1) by Kevin Emerson
GENRE: YA, Vampires
TIME ON THE TBR: ~3 years.  
KEEP: Maybe? Let’s wait till I read the whole series to make that determination…

READING THE TBR, DAY 147: Damnation Alley (1968) by Roger Zelazny

I have long loved Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, a sci-fi/fantasy series of depth and breadth and significant scope. But strangely, those ten books are the only Zelazny I have ever read, probably because I once attempted reading Lord of Light, another of his works, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. (It really is awful.)

But many years back I found this post-apocalyptic tale of his, and since I have something of a collection of those, I could not pass it by. And while it has its flaws — it’s a bit abrupt, and sometimes opaque, and its treatment of women is pretty lacking, of course — I am nevertheless very pleased to have it on my shelves.

The story: In a land blighted by nuclear war, with society in tatters and with a plague on the loose, convict Hell Tanner is given a pardon from all his many crimes if he will ferry a load of serum from Los Angeles to Boston – the oly two remaining functional major cities. The only way to get there is along Damnation Alley, a route laden with outlaws, the occasional hopeful township, the increasingly virulent plague, and giant monsters out of the worst radiation-based “When Animals Attack!” B-movie. Action-packed, but seeded with no little philosophy (and sexism), Tanner’s epic journey is a compelling series of near-disasters, proves him to be a pretty fascinating anti-hero in this future world where true heroes are few and far between.

The book was turned into a film in 1977 (starring Jan-Michael Vincent, who pretty much is the 70s), which I shall now be looking up. And, not long before, UK band Hawkwind delivered themselves of this:



TBR DAY 146: Damnation Alley  by Roger Zelazny
GENRE: Science Fiction, Apocalypse
TIME ON THE TBR: ~8 years. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 146: Warbreaker (2009) by Brandon Sanderson

This book so, so, so long for me to get into it. And it particularly confused me as I read, because I felt like I knew the world in which it lay, or at least kind of did, but I was certain I’d not read this book before, and it was most assuredly a standalone novel.

After a few chapters I realized that it reminded me of other Sanderson works, specifically the two novellas he wrote based on the iOS video game Infinity Blade. Not having played the game, I have no idea how much of its mythology is manufactured by Sanderson in those stories, but it was certainly disconcerting to me, for a while at least, that so much of the book felt so familiar.

Once I got past that feeling I then had to contend with just how slow everything was, and how generally confusing. But eventually, painstakingly, the world began to captivate, and by about the 30% mark I was inhaling it, swept away on a current of magic and mayhem.

It is a tale of politics and magic and people coming back from the dead. In a divided kingdom, long-ago taken over by the “gods” who are those returned to life after death (for no discernible reason, so it must be because they are divine), two princesses and daughters of the One True King become embroiled in the difficult politics of a capital city, the gods who rule it and the priests who actually rule it. Eldest princess Vivenna has the hardest road, and learns the most, while Siri (this book predates the iPhone assistant; it was actually self-published on-line by Sanderson, one chapter at a time, in 2006) goes from much-despised sacrificial youngster to revolutionary queen with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.

One of the things I liked best about this book is the magic system, which is all colour-based, and while I don’t really understand it, I don’t need to, because it’s magic and that is all I need to know, as long it is consistent. (Which, here, it is.) There is also one particular pair — two “gods” of this odd earthly pantheon — whose banter is top-notch, and that really added to my enjoyment of the book, as well.

Warbreaker is far from my favourite Sanderson novel, and may actually be one of his worst, but when you’re dealing with a writer of his calibre, his worst outstrips most people’s bests by a long, long way.

Incidentally, my copy bears the legend “A Sci-Fi Essential Book”, which is weird, since a) it’s pretty obviously a Fantasy, and b) it’s not.

The reasons for this? a) Sanderson has long contended that all his works take place on different planets in the same universe, or “Cosmere”, and thus are inherently SF even if they are very much just F in their presentation; and b) it refers not to science fiction at large but to the then-Sci-Fi Channel, since between 2005 and 2010, the channel had a weird cross-promotion thing with Tor Books, which included this puzzling branding.

The more you know! 


TBR DAY 146: Warbreaker  by Brandon Sanderson
GENRE: Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 10 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne.
KEEP: Yes…

READING THE TBR, DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe (2000) by Rodman Philbrick

My stepmother Angela gave this book to me for Christmas several years back, and it is a mark of how well she knows me that it is exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia, told through the eyes of the ickily-named Spaz, who ekes out an existence in the slums and fights to save the life of his one-time foster sister with the help of the elderly Ryter, an adorable orphan child, and a privileged scion of the utopian Eden.

This book could have been written specifically for me.

It’s compulsively readable, even with — or perhaps even because of — all he future slang and determined classism. It’s hard to quite understand the economy of this world, especially in the halcyon “proov” enclave in which everyone is genetically engineered and disdainful of the “normals” struggling for life outside the radiation-proof dome of Eden, but that doesn’t really matter when the message of the novel, of equality and conscience how politically active youth can change the world, is so powerful.

There are tears, of course, and not many laughs, but it is a thoroughly immersive experience, both heart-breaking and hopeful, and one I shall not soon forget. 

Thanks, Angela!


TBR DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
GENRE: YA, Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 144: Turned (2011) by Morgan Rice

In YA fiction, often there is a tendency to make all adults be terrible, and this one takes that to its most extreme, giving us terrible:

a) mother

b) mother’s boyfriend

c) multiple teachers

d) security guards

e) police detectives

f) thousand-year-old vampires

Then again, our new-vampire heroine Caitlin is also terrible. The whole book is terrible.

And it is so much fun.

For me, anyway. Because I love a B-movie. Hell, I love Z-movies, all those Syfy Channel like Megashark vs. Giant Octopus and Sharknado and DinoShark – basically, anything with improbable sharks. This book is the YA vampire equivalent of those movies, and sure, there might be some who would contend that all YA vampire novels are the equivalent of those movies, but they are wrong. I love YA vampire novels. And this one, if seen as an Asylym-style parody, is hilarious.

I mean, I’m not going to read more of this series. There are twelve damn instalments, and good lord, that is too much, even for me. But I enjoyed this wildly ludicrous story of super-specialness and insta-love, and it will always make me chuckle, every time I think of it.

Which won’t be very often though, it must be said.


TBR DAY 144: Turned (Turned #1) by Morgan Rice
GENRE: YA Urban Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years. 
KEEP: Oh, probably.

READING THE TBR, DAY 143: The Magician’s Guild (2001) by Trudi Canavan

This is just the kind of unchallenging and easy-going Fantasy that is sometimes exactly what you need when you’re looking for a break from too much density of worldbuilding and complex magical systems. I think that’s actually why I initially bought it — I was deep in Glen Cook’s Black Company books at the time, and felt like I needed something still in the same genre, but a little lighter. The fact that Trudi Canavan is a fellow Melbournian, and I found this book on the shelves of a New York bookstore, sealed the deal.

I’m pleased to report that I was so right about this book. It is a simple Rightful Heir/Secretly Powerful story, in which low-class slum-dweller Sonea is revealed to harbour reserves of magical power — which, in her caste-ridden land of Imardin, is unusual in the extreme.

She spends the first half of the book attempting to evade the omnipotent Magician’s Guild (which we know she’s going to join, because it’s the title of the damn book) but is eventually caught and becomes apprentice to the kindly Rothen, learning super-fast and impressing him, because of course she does.

There is an immediate enemy, yes, and he is one of the more obvious, evil-for-no-reason examples of such I have read in a very long time, but there is enough elsewhere in the book that is opaque and puzzling that I am quite intrigued, and reasonably keen to discover what comes next.  

In short, this isn’t great Fantasy, but it’s certainly good enough for me.


TBR DAY 143: The Magician’s Guild (The Black Magician #1) by Trudi Canavan
GENRE: Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 12 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Barnes and Noble.
KEEP: Yes…

READING THE TBR, DAY 142: Catch of the Day (2007) by Kristan Higgans

I should have hated this book. There are so many things in it I simply cannot bear. A woman desperate for a husband. Horrible cruelty forgiven far too easily. And public humiliation so profound I had to stop reading several times, because second-hand embarrassment is just painful and the worst and why, world, why?

However, romance phenomenon Kristan Higgins has become a mainstay of the genre over the past decade or so for a reason, it turns out — I am very into Romance, I even cover it for a living, and yet I had never read any of her books before now, which is more an indication of just how many romance authors there are than of this particular author’s appeal — and I somehow completely adored this book, despite everything in it that I usually cannot abide.

The whole really is much greater than the sum of its parts, in this case. Very much more.

This first person narrative (another thing I don’t usually love in romance) gives us the lovelorn Maggie, diner owner and twin, who longs to have what her sister has: a husband and a kid and approval from their uptight mother. Unfortunately, she’s in love with the local priest — and he’s a piece of work, especially in his orthodox attitudes to divorce, deliberate charm offensives and general obliviousness — but gets over it when she becomes strangely attracted to taciturn fisherman Malone, who takes the strong silent thing to a whole new level. (He won’t even tell her his first name, even after they are sleeping together. Damn, Malone, that is cold.)

Side note: I LOVED that they slept together, but that Higgins maintained a strict closed door policy, telling us that it was good and stuff, but never showing it. That’s my favourite.

Anyway. Their small Maine town soon knows all their — and others’ — business, mostly because Maggie can’t keep her mouth shut, and yeah, my discomfort levels were constantly raised due to her penchant for constantly being the town laughingstock. (JUST SHUT UP, MAGGIE!) But for all that Malone acted like an outright jerk for most of the book, and Maggie acted like a needy, high maintenance stalker for most of the book (breaking into a guy’s house to make him dinner? Not cool), I still really enjoyed their addled path to love and have certainly added Kristan Higgins to my autobuy list, should I happen upon any more of her books. I’ll especially be on the lookout for the others set in this same town, for which I now have an odd affection, despite the busybody nature of everyone, and how glad it makes me that I live in the big, anonymous city.

Speaking of which? There was a time when I would never have read this book in public, unless on my Kindle, because I wouldn’t want people — strangers — to judge me by my reading material, and the cover of this book clearly declares its genre for all to see. But I have grown past such petty concerns, I am happy to report, and reading this book on the tram today, I was approached by two separate people (both women, it must be said) who wanted to talk about it and their love of either Higgins or Romance at large. This made me very, very happy.

Because, love what you love, you know?   


TBR DAY 142: Catch of the Day (Gideon’s Cove #1) by Kristan Higgins
GENRE: Romance, Women’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 141: Life & Laughing: My Story (2010) by Michael McIntyre

Michael McIntyre is such a stalwart of UK stand up that it is hard to remember that there was a time when your Newsfeed wasn’t flooded with his clips. But this memoir takes us back to his beginning, to a privileged but disjointed childhood, to his attempts at higher education and decision to pursue comedy (like his father) and his early failures at open mics and small gigs.

In his signature chatty, genial, humorously ironical style, McIntyre reveals a lot about his life — though, as with all autobiography, and all comedians, there can be no doubt that there is some exaggeration and careful excision, because that is what autobiographers (and comedians) do — and it is a very enjoyable read throughout. The story of the long wooing of his wife Kitty is adorable, his account of Edinburgh Festivals, successful and not, is fascinating, and for anyone who only associates him with arena shows and comedy road shows, it is a timely reminder that everyone starts somewhere.


TBR DAY 141: Life & Laughing: My Story by Michael McIntyre
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Humour
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
KEEP: Sure, why not?