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review 2016-07-12 07:57
"A fate four point two degrees worse than death."
The Nightmare Stacks (A Laundry Files Novel) - Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7)


by Charles Stross


When Alex Schwartz took a lucrative job developing high frequency trading algorithms, he had no idea how literal his transformation into a bloodsucking vampire was going to be. In the world that Stross creates, higher mathematics open a gateway to Other Dimensions haunted by Lovecraftian beasties, including the V-symbiotes that invaded Alex's brain and gave him PHANG Syndrome (Person of Hemophagic Autocombusting Nocturnal Glamour), which, sadly, isn't yet covered by the Equality Act.

Acclimatizing to his new job in the Laundry, the super-secret magical equivalent to MI5, is never easy, but Alex entered the trade at a particularly difficult time: as the number of humans and computers increases, intrusions into the Dungeon Dimensions become increasingly common. As Alex learns,

"Training for the end of the world is an ongoing part of the job."

Right now, most of the Laundry is focused on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the apocalyptic eventuality where magical saturation causes Cthulhu and Azathoth and all their friends to converge upon Planet Earth. However, The Nightmare Stacks takes a break from the looming threat of GREEN to focus on a NIGHTMARE of quite a different colour. While the previous book took on superheroes, this one combines James-Bond-style shenanigans with yet another geeky fandom. I can't tell you which--spoilers--but I can say that the results are vastly entertaining.

The Nightmare Stacks is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series because it has barely a mention of Bob Howard, arcane sysadmin and protagonist of most of the rest of the books. Personally, I was thrilled to get a new protagonist. Alex is a bit of a passive nebbish nonentity, but I found him rather more likeable than the Bob of recent books. The protagonist-- and NIGHTMARE-- switch makes this an ideal starting book for anyone interested in the series. (Apparently it depends heavily on The Rhesus Chart, but as I've not read it--it's the only Laundry book I skipped--and I got along fine, I think this would be entirely readable without the context of the rest of the series.) I did find the narrative style a bit odd, however; we're told this is Alex's journal, yet most of the story, including the Alex-POV sections, are told in third person. I admit to being a bit mystified by that.

Alex, our hapless protagonist, has more on his mind than PHANG Syndrome. His new employers are sending him to the last place on earth he wants to be: Leeds, his childhood home, where he's

Doomed to be dragged back into the infantilizing maw of his family's expectations."

Alex's interactions with his family are so utterly cringingly awkward that they induced sympathetic winces from me, as did his amusing attempts to flirt with his love interest, who takes the MPDG thing to a whole new level.

"Alex's experience of dating is similar to his experience of string theory: abstract, intense, and entirely theoretical due to the absence of time and opportunities for probing such high-energy phenomena."

I thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on the amusing mundanities of Alex's life, but like many of Stross's book, at some point, the content switched over to extremely graphic and disturbing scenes of battle and slaughter. I've never quite figured out if all the gore was intended to be funny. I certainly don't find them so, but the scenes are liberally swathed in dramatic irony and Stross is peculiarly detached from the slaughter. I suspect the familial scenes and war scenes will appeal to vastly different audiences, and that plenty of other reviews will be complaining about the aspects of the book that I adored.

I find Stross reliably hilarious and The Nightmare Stacks was no exception. I adore urban fantasy and the way it mashes together the banalities of life with a genre-savvy take on traditional fantasy. Along with explaining how a salt circle traps mages and describing the intricacies of governmental PLAN PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, this book involves perhaps the most unique usage of a selfie stick I've come across. If you find Stross's unique combination of magic, maths geekery, Rube-Goldbergian bureaucracy, and bumbling spycraft as entertaining as I do, The Nightmare Stacks is definitely worth checking out.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. (Thanks!) Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-05-21 18:51
"Do you want to destroy Perfection?"
The Sudden Appearance of Hope - Gillian Burke,Hachette Audio UK,Claire North

The Sudden Appearance of Hope

by Claire North


Given the circumstances, perhaps it's not surprising that Hope Arden's disability never made it into the DSM: while she can interact with the world, from everyone else's perspective, it is always for the first time. As soon as people are distracted from her presence, they forget her, their minds conveniently substituting new Hope-less memories and explanations. And then Hope gets to meet them all over again. As she puts it:

First impressions-- my life is about making a good first impression. When one attempt fails, I will go away, and reinvent myself, and return to try again. Though first impressions may be the only thing I have, at least I get to practise until they're right.

Naturally, Hope's career and relationship options are somewhat limited. As she notes:

Things that are difficult, when the world forgets you:
  • Dating
  • Getting a job
  • Receiving consistent medical attention
  • Getting a loan
  • Certificated education
  • Getting a reference
  • Getting service at restaurants
Things that are easy, when the world forgets you:
  • Assassination
  • Theft
  • Espionage
  • Casual cruelty
  • Angst-free one-night stands (w/condoms)
  • Not tipping

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she ends up embracing a career as a thief, drifting through life, choosing score after score, often to settle some petty spite of her own. No matter how incompetent her heists, she never gets caught because all she needs to do is distract her captors for a few minutes to erase her presence. But then Hope encounters Perfection, and her unmemorable life is irrevocably changed.


Perfection: a brand new lifestyle app. Give it your schedule, your access, your health stats, your bank accounts, your total attention, and in return it will optimize your life, shaping a new perfect you. Touched by the tragedy of a woman who fails to satisfy Perfection, Hope finds herself set on a course to destroy it.


The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book out of left field. As the names may have indicated, subtle the book is not, but it makes up for its directness in pure passion. I suspect that reader enjoyment will be heavily predicated on tolerance for pretty anvilicious "message" books. Plus, I had to love the gleeful mileage North got out of double entendres with Hope, Perfection, and more. I'm already a fan of Kate Griffin/Claire North, so perhaps unsurprisingly, I found North's heavily descriptive, almost stream-of-consciousness style utterly captivating. At moments, it's also just plain funny, particularly in the lists that Hope continually writes for herself.


For me, the book's major weakness was the characters. I never really felt connected to any of them, which may have been something of a blessing, as North is as casually brutal to them as she is to the sidekicks in the Matthew Swift series. Perhaps some of my sense of alienation came from Hope's condition. As one character says of her,

It's a peculiar thing, but I find emotion, when it comes to you, rather hard to engage with [...] Instead of feelings, I find with you there are only facts.

She is, naturally, a drifter, herself oddly disconnected from the world. Despite her many heists, she spends most of her time simply drifting, and more often reacts to situations with blind flailing rather than planning. As she puts it:

Having no one to define the limits of me, I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing [...] I don't know what my destination is, but I keep on travelling, surrounded by other people's stories, absorbing them, and in their way, though they are not me, they become me. I am just… travelling.

This was clearest in her efforts to stop Perfection and Byron. What on earth was her plan? She disagreed with Byron and sought to stop her, but had no plan of her own except, apparently, blindly hoping for the best. And that also seemed to be the sum of her plan to stop Byron.

(spoiler show)

With a character who cannot be remembered, development of relationships is effectively impossible, and for me, this led to a sense of alienation from the other characters, a perspective that Hope seemed to share. As she says towards the end of the story of one of the major characters: "How strange to think of her as something human."


Unsubtle it may be, but my favourite part of the book was the way North uses Perfection and Hope's condition as a lens to examine the feedback loop that is human interaction with the world. Some of the more memorable quotes:

Perfection is derived by a consensus of society, Perfect-- to perfectly fit the mould.

Alone, you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both.

Shall we break down the truth, the bitter, unloved, bloody-nosed truth? Tell me, in a world where wealth is power, and power is the only freedom, what would desperate men not do to be heard? [...] The internet gave us all the power of speech, and what did we discover? That victory goes to he who shouts the loudest, and that reason does not sell.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a unique story, and I'd have a hard time describing its perfect audience. However, if you're intrigued by an unusual character and a thought-provoking dialogue about the way society shapes us, Hope is well worth a look. As she says,

I think there has to be a moment when you turn round and permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.

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review 2016-03-21 05:23
"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too."
Fellside - M.V. Carey


by M. R. Carey


Mike Carey has a real genius for making me care about characters that I don't want to care about. No matter how unprincipled or corrupt they are, no matter how destructive their decisions, no matter how foreordained their fates, I end up empathizing with them despite myself. In Fellside, he exploits this talent more ruthlessly than ever before.

Fellside is a very different book than anything else I've read by Carey. Yes, like 90% of his other books, it involves ghosts. Yes, like several of his most recent books, it's in some ways a story about stories, with the narrative woven in and around the life stories of the characters. But Fellside is darker, grittier, and grimmer than any book that came before. Much of this has to do with the cast of characters. The narrative switches between the perspectives of a convicted childkiller, a corrupt guard, a viciously sanctimonious nurse, a pliable and defeated doctor, and more. And the worst of all of it is that I ended up caring about almost all of them, aching as they made destructive choice after destructive choice. <i>Fellside</i> deals punch after punch to the gut, then somehow transforms itself into something heartwrenching but also bittersweet and oddly beautiful. 

Jess was the worst. She made so many stupid decisions, from going with the armed guard to failing to shut Devlin into the prison. I was shocked by the ending, partly because I thought life would, for Jess, be harder than death, and a more bittersweet ending. I was also a bit fascinated by Alex: although he is at the center of the story, in some ways, he's the eye of the maelstrom: we end up knowing no more about him than we did at the opening of the story.

(spoiler show)

I can't describe much of the plot; I don't want to even give my usual blurb for fear that details will lessen the book's impact. While there is an overall mystery, it isn't the driving force behind the plot. Instead, the story is composed of smaller arcs and the slow complex entangling of the characters' lives. While I did guess the solution to the mystery, the ending took me utterly by surprise. Most of the narrative is an exploration of morality through the microcosm of Fellside prison. Some of my favourite quotes:

“The facts are in the outside world. You can verify them with your senses or with objective tests. The truth is something that people build inside their heads, using the facts as raw materials. And sometimes the facts get bent or broken in the process. [...]
Justice? Justice is even more problematic than truth. It’s an emergent property of a very complicated system. [...] It’s neither an ingredient in the pie nor the pie itself. It’s the smell that rises up out of the pie if you’ve cooked it right. We don’t aim for justice, Ms Moulson. We perform our roles and justice happens."

"Doing time, she thought inconsequentially. As though time were a drug. If it was, she might have dosed herself more carefully."

"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too. Another time for that."

Fellside itself is startlingly different than Carey's other works. While I'm not quite sure its audience is a perfect match for fans of The Girl with All the Gifts or The Steel Seraglio, if you're in the mood for a uniquely dark, peculiarly gripping story, Fellside is well worth a look.

~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

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review 2016-01-03 01:50
"It's not in the facts we live, but in the memories."
The House of War and Witness - Mike Carey,Linda Carey,Louise Carey

The House of War and Witness

by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey


House of War and Witness was suspenseful in a unique way: from the outset, I could predict how the story would end, who would live and who would die, yet even so, I found myself thoroughly engrossed, the plot made no less suspenseful by an outcome foreseen.

The ghosts, Magda in particular, make Drozde's eventual fate clear from the outcome, when they talk about what she always says and say it's so good to see her "like this...this is a special time, and it's so short."

(spoiler show)

While the setting is very different, thematically, it reminded me strongly of Steel Seraglio: like Seraglio, it is a story about storytelling, the greater plot fueled by smaller tales.


The story starts gently enough. A regiment of Austrian soldiers is sent to a rural village on the border of Austria, ostensibly to shore up support for Archduchess Maria Theresa, but also to ensure that the village does not change its allegiances. Another regiment had been posted to the village, but had disappeared, and the frail and rather ineffective Lieutenant Klaes is tasked with discovering unearthing the secrets that the village is concealing. Drozde, a camp follower and mistress of the regiment's quartermaster, Sergeant Molebacher, sets out to make the old mansion that the regiment will use as a home base livable. Although Drozde is used to ghosts--she has seen them all her life-- she is shocked by the number and vividness of the spirits inhabiting the old house. As the ghosts begin to share their stories with her, tensions between the regiment and the village begin to mount, and the true natures of the characters are revealed.


The larger plot naturally wraps itself around the stories of the town, for Drozde's very business is stories. While she receives protection and legitimacy by selling her body, most of her earnings come from the daring and raunchy puppet shows she puts on for the regiment. As she thinks:

"Of all the stories she told, the most important was the story that her stories were indispensable. Without that, she was just a grown woman who'd never put away her dolls."

Chapters told by ghosts and townsfolk intersperse sections told from the perspectives of Drozde and Klaes, and these tales both break up and propel the main plot. Not all of the storytellers are good people; as one puts it:

"This is a story about choices, and I'll never know whether the choices that were made were right or wrong."

All of the stories are vivid and varied, ranging widely over time and tone, yet many are unified by a common theme: that of violence stemming from possessiveness and control. The repetition of choking fear, of victimization, of violence against women, can make for a difficult narrative, and I was often frustrated by the obtuseness of the characters and their inability to realize the dire and damaging nature of their situations.

In the opening pages, Drozde's coquette puppet is damaged, her face scratched and nose broken. Molebacher tells her she should be more careful with her things, and yet she doesn't pick up on the obvious threat.

(spoiler show)

For me, the true stifling agony of the book was the invasive sense of powerlessness shared by the protagonists. As one character thinks,

"That was life, in small [...] you spent it grubbing desperately for the physical things that would prolong it. For food mainly, and then if you were lucky enough to be fed, for shelter. And all the time in between you spent dreaming of places you couldn't go and things you could never have. You used it up trying to fit yourself into the spaces that would work, instead of unfolding yourself into the space that was yours and then seeing where that took you."

Even though many of story's scenes are comic, the other overarching themes are often dark and intense. Apart from the choking aspects of possessiveness and powerlessness, it deals with the corruption of authority, the construction of an enemy, and the definition of duty. Yet even here, the characters' lack of agency reverberates. Within the hierarchical structure of the military, there are stringent limits to what one man--or woman-- can achieve. As one character tries to explain to another who seeks to choose "the path that leads to the least bloodshed":

"That's not in your power to choose."

Yet despite poignancy and tragedy, the story is ultimately uplifting: their agency may be limited, but indirectly, they have the power to change the world. Even when all choices appear to be blocked, the characters find a way to move the world around them instead. The House of War and Witness is a story that glories in the power of stories, and I was utterly captivated.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Diamond Book Distributors, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

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review 2015-12-16 07:23
"We are change."
Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor


by Nnedi Okorafor


I really wish I could say that I loved this book.
It started out so well. A mysterious sonic boom in Lagos, Nigeria? A rushing wave that swallows three strangers brought together by fear? An alien presence that has arrived upon the shore? I was hooked from the first page.
But all too soon, my enthusiasm had disintegrated.


I can't decide if the core of my issues with the book was the plot or the characters. Okorafor set up a diverse cast. I particularly appreciated the subplot involving Black Nexus, a LGBTIA group. However, all too many of the characters fell back on tired tropes, such as the evil, scheming, prideful, wife-beating Christian minister who serves as one of the major antagonists. The main characters, in particular, felt like little more than ciphers who served to push the plot along. Adaora, Anthony, and Agu felt particularly wooden to me, a set of ill-defined catalysts rather than full-blown characters. Okorafor tended to spell out their reactions and actions first, then explain their reasoning with a bit of backhistory that wasn't provided until after the reaction, increasing my sense of disconnect from the characters. It was fortunate that their emotions were spelled with an "X loves Y" level of directness, because I honestly wouldn't have predicted their emotions or reactions from any intrinsic understanding of the characters themselves. I am hard pressed to think of a romance that involved less chemistry between the characters, either in friendship or love.


I think that the core problem is that there are so many ideas in this book, so many different paths for the plot to take, that none of them are given full justice. Social justice is a theme throughout the book, yet the plot threads supporting it quickly divert into another story before petering out altogether. Domestic abuse also makes an appearance, yet I found the resolution not only disatisfying but thoroughly distasteful. I found some of the events in the book really creepy, yet no one actually in the story simply accepted the offered explanation--if any-- and moved forward without question or analysis. With an impending alien invasion, I'd expect an interesting exploration of morality and imperialism, particularly given some of the aliens' actions that I found to be disconcerting and morally questionable. With characters given supernatural powers, I'd expect some sort of backstory that explains how the supernatural can touch reality. With sentient roads eating cars and figures from Nigerian myth, folktale, and religion stepping into the scene, I'd expect a deeper grounding and backstory of the mythopoetic, and the ways in which it interacts with the aliens. Unfortunately, these types of events simply happen in the book, stripped of explanation and exploration of consequences and causes. The overarching theme of the book is change, yet the causes and ramifications of change are barely explored.


In the end, I think the moment that really stuck in my mind was a scene where a bunch of African-American college students discuss events in Nigeria, trying to determine if they're real or not. They conclude:

"You think it's some Orwellian shit? [...] Look at the 'stars' of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon' spend they money to put somethin' together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And then set it in Africa?" He guffawed with glee and shook his head. "Naw, man, not gonna happen. This shit real. That's the more likely scenario."

Lagoon is a promising story with a lot of interesting and powerful ideas. I just wish that Okarafor had limited her scope to a few of them and given them the time and attention they deserve.

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