The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway

By Rhys Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that this tale of a troubled young man who dresses as a superhero to avoid dealing with trauma in his past isn’t the sort of thing I would normally read. But it got a glowing review in a magazine I usually trust and I’m a sucker for a good romance.

Sam is an average guy with a nice house, some nice friends who are as equally socially awkward as he is, and a decent job. He also dresses up a few times a week to fight crime (well, help old ladies across the street, give young kids a heart to heart, and help drunks out of graves, mostly). And then Sarah walks into his life and things will change forever.

Sam is a likeable guy, probably on the spectrum and some aspects of his life hit a little too close to the mark for me personally. His awkwardness around Sarah felt completely authentic and once they did eventually get together, there’s still a lot of tension because you’re just waiting for the secrets to come out and for things to go horribly wrong.

When I were a lad, romances tended to be built up throughout the book and resolved with the couple getting together in time for the climax (so to speak). Whereas here, and possibly in modern romance more generally (like I say, it’s not usually my genre), they get together by the middle of the book, and then things fall apart. In that sense, it reminds me of the film La La Land, although it has a very different thematic ending to that film.

The characterisation of Sam is excellent, although his two friends, with the somewhat unlikely nicknames of Tango and Blotchy, are much less well served. Even Sarah feels like she could have had a better treatment. Of all people, I was surprised that Sam’s boss, Mr Okamatsu, got a lot of attention.

This is a powerful story about grief, loneliness, kindness and love. It’s a very quick read and left me with a number of emotions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hug my nephlings.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472248145
Publisher: Wildfire
Year of publication: 2018

Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly enjoyed the stories in this collection. It pulls together five longer stories, more or less of novella length, along with introductions for each one. As I say, the stories are generally quite enjoyable, but the introductions are another matter. They seem to lack the discipline and editing that goes into the stories, feeling bloated and self-indulgent. The exception to this is the introduction to my favourite story in the collection, Orphans of the Helix, a story set in the universe of the Hyperion Cantos. Set some years after the end of Rise of Endymion, it was nice to return to that universe, following a group of colonists of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix, looking for a planet to settle well outside existing human space who encounter a distress signal en-route.

Of the other stories, I probably enjoyed On K2 with Kanakaredes the most, about a small group of mountain climbers who climb the world’s second-highest mountain with an alien, even if a lot of the actual mountain-climbing bits left me cold. I felt there was lots of context in The Ninth of Av that I wasn’t getting. It’s a story about the end of the world, as the post-humans get ready to put the remaining old-fashioned humans into suspended animation while they clean up the Earth. Or possibly it’s about genocide of the Jews. I think there were hints in the text, but possibly ones you need to be familiar with Judeo-Christian mythology to understand.

Looking for Kelly Dahl was interesting, about a suicidal former school teacher who has to track down one of his former pupils. And finally, The End of Gravity was possibly the least interesting to me. You know that cliché about Lit Fic being all about 50-something straight white writers who have affairs with young, pretty women? This felt sort of like that. The protagonist is an older straight white male writer, and there’s an attraction to a younger woman, and possibly some sort of metaphor involving the International Space Station that I didn’t really get. I think I found the protagonist too irritating to really pay that much attention to his internal monologue.

So a decent hit rate with stories that have a bit more room to breathe than your normal shorts. But I would mostly skip the introductions (although YMMV, as always).

Book details

ISBN: 9780060506049
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2002

Space Opera

By Catherynne M. Valente

Rating: 4 stars

I have very definite feelings about this book. I feel that I need to read it again before I come to any solid conclusions. This book was sold to me as a lightweight Eurovision-in-space. Instead, it starts as slightly poor Douglas Adams pastiche, settles into something very readable but occasionally not just punches you in the feels, but gives them wedgies and steals their lunch money.

Okay, so, yes, it is Space-Eurovision, with an annual galactic song contest to relieve tensions in the galactic community, with the added twist that to avoid recurrence of the sentience wars (in which we, who are People, want to kill you and take your stuff because we think that you are Meat) any newly discovered apparently sentient species has to prove their sentience by not coming last in the Galactic Grand Prix. That in itself is a fascinating idea, giving species the chance to prove themselves by moving the watching fans enough to not come last: to prove that you have and can create empathy.

I nearly didn’t get that far though. The first couple of chapters nearly put me right off. On a first read, they felt like the book was trying (and trying too hard) to be Hitchhikers, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The tone settled down after Decibel Jones, former Brit-pop glamgrinder and the one chosen, along with his band, to be the Last Best Hope for Earth, was introduced and I started to enjoy it a lot more. I get the feeling though, that upon rereading, those first chapters would probably resonate a lot more.

Neither Decibel, nor his bandmate, Oort St Ultraviolet, are particular likeable, but that’s sort of the point. They’ve been through the system, have been chewed up and spat out the other end. They’re damaged goods, struggling to cope without the third member of of the band, Mira Wonderful Star. They make the sort of mistakes and arguments that two people who love/hate each other would do and try their best not to get killed before the main event starts (Rule 20, it’s all about Rule 20).

And between all the glam, and the silliness and really weird alien species, Valante has a lot to say about us. About whether we deserve that last shot at all, about the sort of people we can be at our best, and at our worst.

So, what did I think? I think I need to read the book again. But until then, it left me with a lot to think about and a whole bunch of slightly bruised feels.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472115072
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2018

Discount Armageddon (InCryptid, #1)

By Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 stars

The Price family have been cryptozoologists for generations, studying and protecting mythical creatures — cryptids — from humans (and sometimes vice versa). But Verity Price wants to be more, she wants to be a ballroom dancer! But when cryptids start disappearing, and the Prices’ old enemy, the Covenant, reappears, it’s up to Verity to protect her city. If she can do it backwards and in high heels, so much the better.

This was such a fun book. Verity is a great protagonist and narrator. The story bounces along at a good pace and you’re never far from a decent action scene. It’s moderately predictable and when tall, dark and brooding turns up, you won’t have to work hard to guess a) who he is and b) that they’ll end up doing the horizontal tango. But it’s an enjoyable romance and he’s a decent character, who’s given room to evolve. Verity does sometimes feel like she auditioned for Buffy, but has enough of her own personality and the twist of the Prices wanting to protect the cryptids from humans keeps it from feeling too familiar.

This is a book that’s made much easier to read in the age of the Internet, where if I don’t recognise what a therianthrope is, I can just google it (humans who can shapeshift into an animal, so a more general sort of werewolf), but McGuire keeps such interruptions limited, so it’s not something that ever becomes frustrating.

There are plenty more books in the series, which is fine by me. The world is big and interesting enough to make more visits welcome.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472113139
Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2012

Rivers of London Volume 6: Water Weed

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

I don’t think that I’ve got much comment to make on the 6th Rivers of London graphic novel. This one concerns a cannabis operation, one that has worrying vestigia attached to the final product. It’s practically a Peter one-hander; Nightingale is in some scenes, but doesn’t do much, Beverley and her two younger sisters get a bit more screen time, but poor Molly gets practically nothing, and Guleed doesn’t appear at all.

The art is consistent, and has been since the start of the graphic novel series. This is the first one that I’ve seen with Aaronovitch credited only as ‘creator’ while Andrew Cartmel is the sole writer. I don’t think it made a difference, I always find Peter’s narrative voice somewhat muted in the graphic novels anyway.

So a fun, if short, read that’s enjoyable but doesn’t offer any more insight into the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785865459
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2018

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 4 stars

In the second of the Athena Club’s intrepid adventures, they receive a message from a Miss Van Helsing asking for help as her father, a member of the Society of Alchemists, has been experimenting on her and her mother.

I don’t think this book was quite as engaging as The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. It’s a big book and I don’t think it was as tight as its predecessor. Some scenes could have been cut with minimal effort and, I think, to the benefit of the overall story.

We encounter many more fictional characters in this book, as well as the return of several from the previous. The most notable new characters are the cast of Dracula, although in very different roles to what Stoker’s book portrays with Abraham Van Helsing very much cast as chief villain. Some other characters, especially in the hook for the next in the series, were pretty obscure. I had to google the Raymonds (apparently from a novella I’ve never heard of called The Great God Pan) and that will be important to the next one. I missed Holmes in this one, and kept expecting minor characters who turn up to be him in disguise, and disappointed when they weren’t.

I found the interjections from the various members of the club into the book somewhat more irritating this time around. Nearer the start, it was quite frequent and distracting from the story. Later on, the frequency of the interjections dropped and they became enjoyable again – sometimes interjecting with snarky comments and sometimes dropping in some exposition in without being too clunky. But at the start, they are overused and irritating (and the repeated ‘adverts’ for the previous book soon become wearing, after the first couple of times).

That all feels a bit negative, so it’s important to be clear that I still enjoyed this book a lot and will look forward to the next volume. The members of the Athena Club are all really interesting and fun characters, whose distinct personalities all shine. I very definitely care about all of them (yes, even Diana).

— UPDATE JULY 2021 —

Rereading the series again, I feel I was definitely too harsh on this book. The interjections from the cast were never less than charming, and the adverts for the previous book were many fewer than I remembered, and not nearly as annoying as I remembered. I can’t remember why I felt that it was looser than its predecessor. Although I can still imagine it being cut into two books, this time round, I think the two sections work well together, flowing from one into the other. No hesitation in upgrading the score from 3 to 4 stars.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534437258
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year of publication: 2018

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

By James Alan Gardner

Rating: 4 stars

I loved All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault and timed it such that I finished it just as the sequel was released. This book focuses on Jools, another of the four housemates who get caught in a lab explosion and gained superpowers. She’s the jock of the group, and the one who’s struggling most with her studies. This combination ends her up with immediate knowledge of anything that’s part of the corpus of public knowledge and Olympic-level mastery of any human skill.

Despite these skills, Gardner paints a skilful picture of a young woman who’s good at giving the appearance of confidence and having it together but who is actually a bit of a wreck and is now struggling with a degree of inferiority compared to her superpowered teammates. Oh, and she’s also afraid that she’s turning into a Mad Genius who will stop caring about the devastation that her potential inventions could wreak. And that she’s got a drink problem.

The Darkling siblings Nick and Elaine return in this book, albeit more for an extended cameo than anything else. The blood bond between Elaine and Kim (now just K, having moved further toward the non-binary part of the spectrum) is used to drive the plot forward, and there is, of course, the eponymous gun. Believed to be created by Mad Genius Diamond from the first book, it’s very much the definition of a macguffin.

The Spark world is expanded as well. In addition to Grandfather and Invie, this book introduces us to the Aussie All-Stars and Robin Hood and his gang of Merry Men, a group of outlaw Sparks who rob the rich (Darklings) and (allegedly) give to the poor. Jools gets caught up with them and struggles to keep herself right.

The whole potential mind rape thing is rather disturbing, even if nothing happens to Jools. The idea that not only does Robin do this to other women, but that it’s facilitated by Marion is icky. Those were the most intense chapters of the book for me, when Jools is beset all round and separated from her teammates, having to rely entirely on her own resources (which are more than she gives herself credit for). I almost punched the air when Zircon finally turned up.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and a quick tweet to the author assures me that he’s already at work on the next one (Miranda’s book). This one is perhaps slightly not as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a highly enjoyable read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765398789
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2018

Daddy-Long-Legs (Daddy-Long-Legs, #1)

By Jean Webster

Rating: 5 stars

This is a short little novel from the early part of the 20th century that takes the form of a series of letters from Judy, a young orphan woman, to her benefactor. She knows nothing about this man, other than that an essay of hers amused him enough for him to put her through college on the condition that she write him regular letters without expecting anything in return.

It’s short, but Judy’s voice is clear and a whole lot of fun. It’s lovely to see her develop during the course of the letters that she sends, from a shy, reserved girl into a confident woman who is happy to take her benefactor (who she calls Daddy Long Legs, due to the only sight that she’s ever had of him being a distorted shadow from a car’s headlight) to task. The twist is fairly easy to spot, but that’s not really the point of the book. Webster gives us a very clear portrait of an orphan, and the various insecurities that brings. She’s a lovely character and her portrait of her new, expanded world, along with her roommates is delightful to read.

Book details

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 1912

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