Wednesday, 21 October 2020

#OcTBRChallenge: books 34 to 66

Pretty much on target to finish reading a hundred of my short books and quick reads this month as part of #OcTBRChallenge. Some of these books were very quick reads, so reading 66 of them hasn't really been a challenge, but it's still been fun.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (JABberwocky Literary Agency): Hundreds of years after our time, in a world still trying to recover from the damage we've been doing to it, a relatively small number of humans survive in isolated communities. Mai gets a message from an old flame who lives far away, asking for her help. The tone of this seemed much more sincere than the other Lavie Tidhar books I've read, with none of the usual ironic detachment, but I found it all very interesting. It left me with two questions: which of his other books take place in decaying time vaults (it would explain a lot!), and why do ants let us live? ****

The Alliance of the Curious, Vol. 1: Sapiens, Philippe Riche (Humanoids): An ancient relic gets everyone running around in a tizzy while the son of its erstwhile owner wanders the city, dazed and confused. This took a little while to get going, but I was getting quite interested by the end, when the Alliance of the Curious was officially formed. ***

Spider-Gwen, Vol. 4: Predators, Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez and Hannah Blumenreich (Marvel Comics): A dimension where Gwen Stacey was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. In this book she's trying to get her powers back by working for an apparently evil Matt Murdoch and chasing the Lizard to Madripoor. I didn't really enioy any of this, except for when Mary-Jane beat up a creep. **

Getting Even, Woody Allen (Audible): Not quite as funny as Without Feathers, which I listened to recently. It's humorous rather than hilarious. But the epistolary chess game was superb, anticipating online life better than any science fiction novel I've read. ***

Flywires, Book 1, Chuck Austen (Humanoids): An ex-cop, called a frywire because his link to his Dyson sphere's neural net is permanently busted, gets drawn back into the action when hoodlums blow a hole in his apartment's wall, a kidnapped little kid in their hands. Nothing massively original, but there are worse ways to spend half an hour. ***

Nevertheless, She Persisted, Diana M. Pho (ed.) (Tor Books): A mostly female group of writers respond to Mitch McConnell's infamous words about Elizabeth Warren during the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearings, with very short stories that take his words as their launchpad. I didn't think they were very good, on the whole, but Catherynne Valente's story pulled it up from a two-star rating and I liked the bit in the Charlie Jane Anders story where a man made of ice climbed out of the freezer. One or two of the stories seemed to advise against persisting, if anything. ***

Conscientious Inconsistencies, Nancy Jane Moore (PS Publishing): A short collection of five stories in an expensive format, which made some careless errors stand out: people paying £25 for a 66pp book would expect a bit better. I quite enjoyed "A Mere Escutcheon", a Three Musketeers pastiche. The hero of "Homesteading" was admirable, and "Three O'Clock in the Morning" was interestingly nightmarish. ***

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, read by Laural Merlington (Canongate Books): A pointed interrogation of the Odyssey, from the point of view of Penelope, married to Odysseus at fifteen and left behind during his adventures, as well as that of her maids, murdered upon his return. Penelope's rivalry with Helen of Troy, which continues beyond the grave, was amusing, and the book does a good job of persuading us to read between the lines of The Odyssey. Well read by Laural Merlington, but the recording is from 2005 and the sound effect used for the chanting maids sounds very odd, as if they were aliens in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. ****

Daughters of Passion, Julia O'Faolain (Faber & Faber): A terrorist on hunger strike thinks back to her childhood, the friends she had then, and how reconnecting with them as an adult led her to this situation. ***

Solid State Tank Girl, Alan C. Martin (Titan Comics): Her kangaroo boyfriend gets sick so Tank Girl and friends go on a fantastic voyage to his gentlemanly area. Extracting the source of the illness just leads to even more trouble. The story was okay, but I haven't found any of the Tank Girl books very funny, so I think I'm missing out on one of the main things people seem to like about them. My first reaction to the art was not particularly positive, but it grew on me a lot: it's highly expressive and full of character. ***

Side Effects, Woody Allen (Audible): Another very enjoyable book of short stories and humour pieces, with the usual literary, philosophical, romantic and criminal themes. I especially enjoyed his take on UFOs, the death of Socrates, and falling in love with his partner's mother. I'm surprised the latter did not become a film. ****

A River in Egypt, David Means (Faber & Faber): An assistant art director, recently fired from what sounds like a terrible science fiction film, tries to keep his son from crying during a test for cystic fibrosis, and a nurse enters the room at a point where the father seems to have lost control. I liked this a lot. I liked the way he read acres of thought into each expression on the nurse's face, it being part of his job to encourage film viewers to read actors' faces in the same way. I also liked the title: it's not about a river in Egypt, but it is about denial. ****

By The Numbers, Book 1: Traffic in Indochina, Laurent Rullier and Stanislas (Humanoids): An accountant gets dragged into a shady deal and, what's worse, the money he was meant to hand over gets stolen. Rather than doing the sensible thing, he follows the money to French-occupied Vietnam and tries to get it back. A good story with excellent art. ****

Vardoger, Stephen Volk (Gray Friar Press): Sean and Ali check into a luxury hotel but everyone seems to think Sean was there already on his own the previous week, and he didn't behave well at all. He soon becomes convinced that he has an evil twin, one who wears a smart suit and mistreats women, and frustration turns to horror when he sees his wife leaving the hotel on that double's arm. As with the same author's The Little Gift, I'm baffled that this was nominated for a British Fantasy Award; neither feature any fantastical elements. I found the plot fairly interesting – it would have made a good episode of Inside No. 9 – and could share Sean's anguish, but he is an unpleasant character from the off, grabbing female staff by the arm and such, and it's narrated in an artless, blunt style that may reflect the way Sean sees the world but didn't make it enjoyable to read. One mystery remains at the end: what was the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song playing at the wedding party? ***

So Long, Lollipops, Sarah Lyons Fleming, read by Julia Whelan (Podium Publishing): Having, he thinks, sacrificed himself to let the rest of his group escape a zombie attack, Peter is pleasantly surprised to be rescued by a young girl. After spending some time with her group, he sets off to find his own people. It's a fairly bog-standard zombie story, and an awful lot of it is spent telling us how Peter feels about people who aren't in it. He's very sentimental about children. The reading is fairly good. ***

Stumptown, Vol. 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left her Mini), Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press): A private eye in Portland gets herself shot, beaten up, cold-cocked and generally mistreated in the course of trying to find and protect a casino owner's missing granddaughter. Pretty good. ***

Fantastic Four by Dan Slott, Vol. 1: Fourever, Dan Slott, Sara Pichelli, Stefano Caselli, Nico Leon and Simone Bianchi (Marvel): Reed Richards and Sue Storm and a bunch of brainy kids are travelling through the dimensions created by their son, while The Thing and the Human Torch are noodling around on Earth and missing them. Felt like a contrived way of ageing up the children without breaking Marvel time, as much as anything. The eventual reunion is nicely done, though. ***

Muse, Vol. 1: Celia, Denis-Pierre Filippi and Terry Dodson (Humanoids): Coraline, a highly attractive woman with a tendency to clotheslessness, takes a job as a governess to a young boy. He turns out to be a steampunk inventor, who (although this is not confirmed by the end of the book) appears to be creating various fantasy scenarios at night in an attempt to seduce her. Overall it's rather like Beauty and the Beast if the Beast were a child. Very weird and deeply iffy. No idea why the book is called Celia. ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume I, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish): Not, I think, an audio adaptation of the old BBC print anthology, but a set of new stories, one for each of the first eight Doctors. One about the Doctor and his friends encountering a civilisation for whom time passes more quickly was well done, though very similar to the Star Trek: Voyager episode with the same plot. In the second story a sculptor makes a version of Zoe out of memory meat to help the Doctor. The third Doctor repairs a bicycle. Leela gets herself killed. The story about the fifth Doctor, where Nyssa tries to fix the chameleon circuit and inadvertently creates a new species of giant whale, has a nice Hitch-Hiker's reference and was my favourite in the collection. Colin Baker writes his own story, which involves the Doctor making even more of a muddle of time than usual. Sophie Aldred narrates a story featuring Ace, and India Fisher reads one about a disastrous adventure for the eighth Doctor. I enjoyed this audiobook a lot. It had the exuberance of the old annuals. ***

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, Zen Cho (self-published): A young female writer of Chinese descent, originally from British Malaya, is now living in 1920s London. She writes a scathing review that leads her into a relationship with the book's irritatingly handsome author, but is that what she really wants? This novella was self-published, which may explain a slight inelegance in the ebook (a line of space between each paragraph, and two unspaced hyphens instead of dashes throughout), but that's the only way in which it is below par. Geok Huay (or Jade Yeo as she is known to the English) is a highly amusing protagonist, especially in her frustration with her own feelings: she's a wind-up merchant who has wound herself up. The dialogue is funny, the romance romantic. It's a film waiting to be made. ****

Sole Survivor, Vol. 1: Atlanta–Miami, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jorge Miguel (Humanoids): Max, the only survivor of a coach crash in which his girlfriend died, has been persuaded to board an aeroplane. He recognises the pilot as the drunk driver who caused the coach to crash, and believes it is his mission to deliver justice, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. It's a fairly bog-standard madman on an aeroplane story. We never really understand why Max acts in such a demented way, and the ending seems to be predestined so it's hard to invest in what's happening. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 2: Bossa Nova Club, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The sole survivor of the disaster that capped the first volume is even more demented than Max. Convinced that she has been saved for a purpose, she latches onto a pregnant girl and makes it her mission to stop the girl getting an abortion at all costs – with disastrous consequences, this time reaching their crescendo in a night club. It's rather like Final Destination, except that it's the survivor who causes all the additional deaths, rather than death's pursuit of them. ***

Sole Survivor, Vol. 3: Rex Antarctica, Stephane Louis, Thomas Martinetti, Christophe Martinolli and Jose Malaga (Humanoids): The third volume is a bit different to the first two, in that here the sole survivor of the last book's climactic disaster is deliberately trying to avoid the curse (as he sees it), rather than leaning into it. Calculating that the curse will only strike when it can kill more people than died in previous events, he only agrees to go on a boat trip since there will only be a handful of people on board. But before too much time has gone, they run into difficulties and are rescued by a cruise ship. And so the curse perks up its ears… This was probably the best of the three books. ***

Aftermath, Vol. 1: Ares, James D. Hudnall and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids): A group of artifically-enhanced teenagers fought a successful war against alien invaders. Years later, one of them, known as Ares, is trying to write a book about it all. When a former comrade he meets is then murdered, Ares is accused of the crime. This only deepens his determination to bring the truth to light. This book wasn't helped by the kind of computer-effects colouring that made 2000 AD look so plastic a decade or two ago, and the plot feels very similar, so far, to Watchmen. None of the characters really jumped off the page. But it was an okay read. Can't really complain for 79p. ***

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Penguin Classics): It took me three and a half years to finish this 64pp book, so it won't be a surprise to say I didn't enjoy it much. My only way into it was to pretend that it was the work of a pretentious poet character in a Jack Vance book. I did like this line, though, which gets to the root of why we like social media so much: "What no one with us shares, seems scarce our own." ***

Doctor Who: Short Trips, Volume II, Xanna Eve Chown (ed.) (Big Finish Productions): Another set of stories for the first eight Doctors. Barbara and her Tardis crew get stuck in a bubble of frozen 1963, and we learn that Barbara had a lesbian aunt. The second Doctor and Victoria investigate a boy who has reinvented time travel for a science fair. The Brigadier forces the third Doctor to take a break from work, and a visit to the zoo gives Liz Shaw an insight into the Doctor's feelings about being trapped on Earth. Louise Jameson reads a fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith story, where he watches a pound coin roll around on its way to destiny. Peter Davison reads a story about a depressed widow who finds a dancing horse in her home; she quite likes it but it's a sign of a serious problem. A post-Peri sixth Doctor loses his coat, but, unfortunately, finds it again. Sophie Aldred reads a seventh Doctor and Ace adventure, where they try to stop a deadly weapon from being unleashed; she often sounds like Susan Calman when she does the Doctor's voice. Charley and the eighth Doctor visit the family left behind by someone who died during an adventure. This is a more downbeat collection than the first volume, but still enjoyable, and well-read throughout, with era-appropriate incidental music. ***

They Are Really Molluscs, Anna Cathenka (Salo Press): A chapbook of clever, amusing poetry drawing inspiration and sometimes the actual words from The Observer's Book of Sea and Seashore and its brethren. ****

The Girl With The Horizontal Walk, Andrew Hook (Salo Press): A nice little chapbook. Not sure what the title means (is it her hips swaying? or is it that Marilyn Monroe is laid out for her autopsy?), but this was an interesting story that seemed to be about an actor losing her identity through playing the role of a character who lost her identity. ***

The Book of Chaos, Vol. 1: Ante Genesem, Xavier Dorison and Mathieu Lauffray (Humanoids): After losing a colleague in the midst of making a remarkable archaeological discovery, an adventurer writes a book about his experiences. Warned to keep everything secret, he ignores the advice and New York is plunged into a nightmare. It is all very Lovecraftian, like Hellboy without the heft. ***

Warlord Of Io and Other Stories, James Turner (Slave Labor Graphics): A book reviewer asked on Twitter recently if it was a good idea to include the publisher's synopsis in their review. I said no, it's lazy and they aren't always accurate. This is a good example of that. The book's description claims that it's "the story of Jon Jett, a hero in the mold of Flash Gordon who is unstoppable and unopposable", but he doesn't appear in the book at all, except when the lead character of the main story plays a video game he stars in. It's actually the story (or the beginning of the story, since it doesn't get very far) of a young prince who gets the job of emperor when his dad retires to a brothel, told with black and white computer-generated artwork. A second story is about grumbling demons in hell, a third is about a guy who tells the truth at a job interview, and the last is about a chair complaining about the weight of its users and then getting depressed when no one else wants to sit on them. Has the feel of a book that's been scraped together from unfinished projects. **

Retina Vol. 1: Just Another Day, Benoit Riviere and Philippe Scoffoni (Humanoids): A woman is killed on the street; retina scans bring up two matches. Two sets of crooks were planning to kill her. A criminagent sees the shooting and takes the case. ***

Open Earth, Sarah Mirk, Eva Cabrera and Claudia Aguirre (Limerence Press): Scientists sent up into space twenty years ago decided to stay there, because things were getting so bad on Earth. A young woman from the first space-born generation wants to move in with a boyfriend, but is at pains to reassure everyone else that she will remain sexually available to them afterwards. That's basically it. It's really quite appalling how some of the young men respond to her. They treat her as public property, and sound like cult members, but the book seems to regard this behaviour as normal. Sexually explicit. Creepy. Not very good. **

Black Science, Vol. 2: Welcome, Nowhere, Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White (Image Comics): A bunch of dimension-hoppers are in a world ruled by giant bugs, and trying to stay alive until the pillar that brought them there is ready to go again. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who hasn't read the previous volume – I had, and I was still quite lost as to who was who for most of it. The art was beautiful, striking and dynamic, but often quite hard to parse. ***

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