By Lucius Shepard

Rating: 3 stars

Barnett is an expat Briton living in Kalimantan, in Indonesia. A momentary act of kindness from him sends Curtis MacKinnon to a trading post deep in the jungle. After a while, Barnett gets alarming correspondence from the trading post that sends him to confront MacKinnon.

I’m not familiar with Shepard and from reading this, I assumed he was a literary writer, dipping his toe into the SF genre, but Wikipedia describes him as an SF author, albeit one with “an awareness of literary antecedents.” There is definitely a literary tone to this novella and the island land of Kalimantan is lovingly described.

The story straddles the line between SF and fantasy with talk of the spirit of the land, but also crashed alien spaceships on parallel worlds. The story is a bit of a character study, with MacKinnon and Barnett both being examined in some depth.

An interesting story, with a lot of pleasure to be had from the language and descriptions. While there is some action late in the story, this isn’t a book to read for that. It’s one for introspection and to delve into the landscape. Worth it, but be prepared to have to do a bit of work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780712636735
Year of publication: 1990

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 3 of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel sees the young Kamala Khan have to deal with a force more terrifying than supervillains: feelings. The opening story doesn’t really do an awful lot for me, as it brings Loki, trickster of the gods down to visit for Valentine’s Day. Apparently Loki is now working for the good guys but a hilarious misunderstanding leads to a punch-up with everyone’s favourite puncher. It was okay, but I didn’t think it was the strongest of Kamala’s stories.

Fortunately, the one that follows it makes up for it. In this one, Kamala falls for Kamran, the son of some of her parents’ friends. And falls hard. Unfortunately, things don’t go well, and Kamala has to learn how to cope the hard way. There’s also a surprisingly touching scene between Kamala’s older brother Aamir and her best friend Bruno which touched a few chords with me. This story leaves a lot lying open, some of which, I assume, will be covered in future volumes.

The final story is a crossover with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Jemma Simmons and Phil Coulson making an appearance. It’s fairly lightweight, and the likenesses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to the TV show aren’t great but it’s a fun way to end the collection, with a message about family thrown in for good measure.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785192275
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Year of publication: 2015

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 4 stars

Generation Why continues the story of Kamala Khan from where No Normal left off. The Inventor is still loose and Kamala needs to find and stop him before more young people go missing. On the way, she meets Wolverine (and somewhat fails to not squee all over him) who she impresses enough that he contacts the Inhumans, the part-alien group of which it turns out that she is a member.

The main thread of the story here is one of being disassociated from society, of barriers between the generations, and ways to overcome them and continue to work for the good of society. These are great themes and it’s good to see a relatable character coming out and telling young people that they’re not worthless or parasitical upon society. That’s something that needs to be said, when the opposite is often heard from mainstream media.

Kamala is a fun character and her world is interesting and growing as she grows and develops as a character. She’s realising that superhero-ing alongside just being a teenager (not to mention an immigrant teenager) is difficult. I look forward to more of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785190226
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2015

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Software billionaire Ellis Billington is trying to acquire a Soviet Cold War relic and use it to raise a Cthuloid horror from the deeps and Laundry syadmin and sometime agent Bob Howard is all that’s standing in his way. This time Bob is paired with an beautiful agent from the Black Chamber – the American equivalent of his agency – and finds himself playing baccarat in the Caribbean with a pistol under his tuxedo jacket instead of his trusty smartphone and the oddest desire for a martini.

I really enjoyed the second in Charles Stross’s ‘Laundry’ novels. Bob Howard is an engaging protagonist and you feel for him all the way through as everyone around him seems to know more than he does and he stumbles from one apparent disaster to the next trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing and then doing it. And it’s certainly nice to see a systems admin type geek getting the front and centre role!

This seems to be Stross’s love-letter to the spy genre, with lots of Bond references and high-tech gadgets thrown in, all with a Lovecraftian undercurrent and some neat twists. Not to mention with the addition of a suite of hacking tools in a USB stick hidden in his bow-tie and a keyboard in his cummerbund. Although Stross left the software world behind as the dot-com bubble burst, his knowledge of the subject is up-to-date enough and fond enough to pass muster.

The bonus short story at the end takes us away from the high-flying spy world and back to the back-biting inter-departmental rivalries within the Laundry (sometimes literally) for a humorous story of an all too real experience with an MMORPG. The afterword in which Stross analyses and pays tribute to Bond and the spy genre is the icing on the cake.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495705
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2006

All the Birds in the Sky

By Charlie Jane Anders

Rating: 3 stars

Patricia can (sometimes) talk to animals and (sometimes) leave her body. Lawrence has built a time machine that can jump you into the future by two seconds and an AI in his bedroom. These two outsiders become friends as much to protect them from loneliness and bullies at school, but life gets in the way. They encounter each other again as adults when Patricia is a powerful witch and Lawrence is a tech genius trying to live up to the role.

This is a story of love, betrayal and the apocalypse as we track Patricia and Lawrence through their journey as the world seems to be falling apart around them. It’s an odd one. You can tell that it’s a first novel, with the pacing and feel veering wildly. The first half or so is quiet and whimsical, even as it encompasses the helplessness and unfairness of childhood. I enjoyed that a lot. The second, as we catch up with our protagonists as adults, is less even. It will annoy some people, being set in the more hipster parts of San Francisco, with people going out for overpriced coffee and locally sourced, organic burritos and agonising over their lives. If that doesn’t bother you (and it doesn’t bother me that much), then trying to figure out the rules of Patricia’s magic, and trying to figure out Lawrence’s place in a larger masterplan to save the human race is enjoyable, with some good sex thrown in for good measure.

But (and you knew that was coming) the ending. The ending just sort of threw me. I suspect it’s the sort of thing some people will adore, but I must confess that it lost me. There’s a lot left unsaid and a lot left undone, and I found that unsatisfying. Most of the characters, other than the protagonists, seem to mostly exist for plot exposition too, they don’t get much in the way of development (and it felt like Lawrence’s girlfriend, Serafina, gets quite short-changed).

Anders obviously has a lot of potential. I’ve enjoyed some of her short fiction and this was a decent first novel. I’ll keep reading them, I suspect, as I’ll love to see what she’s like in full flow.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785650550
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2016

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (Jeeves, #11)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

I was slightly disappointed by the last Jeeves book, Ring for Jeeves, and I’m glad to say that with this one, Wodehouse is back on form. Although it’s still post-war and there are rumblings of social change, this time they’re just on the edge of the story and sort of fit better into Uncle Tom’s mouth (the long-suffering husband of the marvellous Aunt Dahlia).

This time round, ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright finds himself unable to beat Bertie to a pulp, as he’s drawn him in the annual Drones darts tournament, for which Bertie is a shoe-in. As usual, there are fiancées involved, while someone’s trying to poach the wonder-chef Anatole from Aunt Dahlia and there’s trouble in the household as Bertie grows a moustache, much to Jeeves’ disapproval.

This is an incredibly fun story that had me laughing out loud quite frequently. If you’re a fan, you’ll lap this one up, if not, you’ll enjoy it, although I’d probably start with one of the earlier ones as there are references to earlier escapades that Bertie found himself in.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513933
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1954

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve not read much of Joanne Harris’s work but I’ve enjoyed what I have read. This collection of short stories has some great ones in it. There are ghost stories, horror stories, stories about little old ladies with attitude, something for all tastes. Some of them take a turn for the deeply disturbing, like Cookie, about a very strange pregnancy, while others leave you indignant at the indignities that Man heaps upon Man (the two Faith and Hope stories in this collection are great examples of that, about two old ladies in a care home). The hit to miss ratio is good and it’s good for both dipping into and for binge-reading. Recommended both for established Harris fans, and newcomers wanting a taste of her style.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552778794
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2012

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

By Liu Cixin

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this story mathematics, computer science and first contact. It felt quite old-school, with maths and science to the fore, and the characters being not as well developed – not that I have any major problem with that (I am, after all, a fan of golden age SF). In the midst of China’s cultural revolution, a young woman watches as her father is killed for his beliefs. Forty plus years later, a young scientist called Wang Miao is asked by Beijing police to investigate a secretive organisation of scientists known as the Frontiers of Science. His investigations lead to a virtual reality computer game, and beyond into something that may threaten the entire human race.

My favourite scene in the book, I think, was the first in the present day. After everything that went on in the Cultural Revolution period that immediately preceded it, it was a shock to see a scientist “giving lip” to the authorities, and that very nicely showed the passage of time and that things had changed immensely in China in the intervening period.

Although Wang is our main protagonist, he doesn’t get much in the way of character development. We know he has a wife and child, but they get exactly one scene and we see little of his life. The character who gets the most development is probably Ye Wenjie, the young woman from the start, whose life dovetails with Wang’s in important ways.

The translation by Ken Liu is excellent, with the narrative flowing without much in the way of awkwardness. And it’s very interesting to read SF from a different cultural point of view. Liu’s take on first contact is unusual and worth reading.

One thing I didn’t realise when I started this book was that it was part of a trilogy. The story doesn’t really come to any neat conclusion at the end of the book, so be aware of that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781784971571
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Year of publication: 2008

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