Reporting from Mount TBR (May Edition)

My plan to read less in 2021 is coming along nicely. Normally, by the end of May, I’d have put down a hundred or so books. Last time I “noticed” the number of books I’ve read this year, it was 50-something. This noticing was incidental, by the way. A part of my desire to reduce the number of books I read was my desire not to keep track of the numbers, but I still occasionally play with the data in Notion, sorting by author and subject, and the number of titles pops up at the bottom of the chart. I look. It’s hard not to look. I really do love data.

My plan to climb Mount TBR is also coming along nicely. I read three titles from my teetering backlog—although two of them were audiobooks, so there was no teetering involved. Still, it was nice to sort two digital files from Not Started to Finished.

Continue reading “Reporting from Mount TBR (May Edition)”

Review: 14 by Peter Clines

14Mysteries of the ages! Apocalypses! Steampunk doomsday devices! Tentacles!

14 is definitely my favourite of Peter Clines’s books—and I almost didn’t read it. I found a copy at the library sale a couple of years ago, shortly after I read The Junkie Quatrain. I’d liked Clines’ take on zombies and had enjoyed his characters. They fairly leapt off the page and though the stories were short, there was an incredible depth to them, as if I was reading about people I knew, or had known.

Earlier this year I was offered a copy of The Fold to read for review. Snapped it up, read it, loved it, reviewed it. 14 continued to languish on my TBR bookcase, largely ignored. Although the cover had first caught my attention, it also sort of put me off. It looked like a horror novel and I don’t really read horror.

Ex-Heroes was an Audible Daily Deal. I bought it, listened to it and quite liked it. Not as much as Clines’ other stuff, but it had all the good parts—relatable characters and deep story lines. But…zombies. I dunno. Clines’ zombies are cool. They’re different. And I really liked the hero aspect, but at the time of reading, I didn’t love the book. Might have been zombie overload.

Looking back after having read 14, I like it better. Why? Because I more clearly see what it is about Clines’ work that pulls me in so quickly and keeps me reading long after my bedtime. It’s that sense of otherness. The lost and hidden worlds. Not a new concept, and in the afterword for 14, Clines talks about how this book in particular has been knocking around in his head since he saw The Lost World at age eight. His discomfort in how and why these other dimensions and lost places manage to stay hidden. And his thoughts on just who does the hiding.

Now, I don’t follow every prophesy of apocalyptic doom, but hidden dimensions? Oh, they’re there and I’ve believed in them since I was eight years old and digging in my neighbour’s back yard for fossils after seeing Journey to the Center of the Earth. I don’t believe in ghosts or magic and I’m not even sure ESP is a thing, but I can comfortably fit the X-Men into my world view and I spent a lot of time opening the doors of perception in my twenties. 😉

Anyway, I’m reviewing a book, one I almost didn’t read. So, 14 was gathering dust on the shelf when Audible offered it up as a daily deal. Or on sale. Something. As I often do with books I want to read, but haven’t quite found the wherewithal or energy to crack the spine, I bought it and added it to my queue. I started listening a couple of days ago and quickly fell into the pattern that grabs me when listening to an exceptionally entertaining audio book. I stop engaging with real life. I walk around, finding things to keep my hands busy while my ears are plugged with story. People talk to me and I nod and smile and keep moving. I can’t sit and listen, you see. I must remain mobile or partly engaged, or my mind will wander. Whatever.

Soon I ran out of things to do and occasionally I am called upon to be a parent. So I unplugged, performed a few requisite chores and picked up the book from the shelf. I then lost the rest of the day to the couch.

It’s difficult to talk about the actual plot of 14 without giving away the magic, so I’ll be circumspect. Nathan Tucker hears about a building with unusually low rent and makes an appointment to check out an apartment. The apartment is small, but the view is amazing. The rent is ludicrous. As in, super cheap. He takes the apartment and moves in.

The building is old and quirky and small mysteries pop out at him on the very first day. A tenant moving out at the same time—of another apartment—and complains that he’d never quite felt right in the building. Thinking back, that reminds me of the time 14 sat on my bookshelf. I wanted to read it, but kept hesitating for some reason. Another mystery is the black light in Nate’s kitchen. Whatever bulb he puts in there, he gets only black light. Then there is the missing handle on the door of apartment 23 and all the padlocks fastened across the door of apartment 14. The overly large machine room on the roof for the elevator that hasn’t worked in at least 20 years. The brass plaques in the mail closet. The chained and padlocked doors near the laundry room. The green cockroaches with extra legs.

As Nate meets his neighbours, the mysteries of the building deepen. Turns out most of his neighbours aren’t oblivious to the weirdness, either. Some have cultivated a careful ignorance. Others chalk it up to the building’s age. But as they start comparing notes, the weirdness multiplies.

Then they start investigating.

This phase of the book would be my favourite. The neighbours all have distinct personalities and Clines uses them to build each character from the floor upward so that they’re living, breathing people. We don’t need to know their backstory because we know them. I don’t know how he does this, but it’s a hallmark of his work. Every book, his characters grab me this way. Maybe it’s the way they interact with one another and the consistency throughout those interactions. But you know how when you pick at a corner of loose paint and a whole piece loosens and you become obsessed with pulling it back in one big sheet? You fail, but are compelled to try again, and before you know it, you’ve stripped the wall? That’s this book. Those are these characters and their need to find out about the building they live in.

It’s utterly addictive and the answers, when they arrive are just…creepy and cool. Think H.P. Lovecraft—who gets several nods here—and Nikola Tesla (ala The Prestige, which also gets a nod). Mysteries of the ages! Apocalypses! Steampunk doomsday devices! Tentacles! (Okay, copying that line to paste at the top of this review.)

Finally, I really liked the idea we’ve visited places like these with Clines before. Or, given the publishing order of his books, that he’s revisited these places (and ideas) again, in other novels. It’s as if he’s circling something. Waiting for the story of that hidden dimension. The story that will need to be written from the inside out.

Review: East of West Volume 3: There is No Us

East of West, Vol. 3: There Is No UsEast Of West Volume 3: There Is No Us’ collects issues 11-15 of the comic ‘East Of West’. It’s tempting to babble senselessly about how good this comic is, urge you to go out and buy all available issues right away, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t explain my fascination. I’ll start with a little back story.

Loosely based on the ‘Book Of Revelations’, ‘East Of West’ tells the story of impending apocalypse. It’s clear from the very first issue that the world has been destroyed and revived before in what might be an endless cycle. What’s not clear is the role to be taken by the very recognisable symbols of a biblical apocalypse. The Four Horsemen are missing one of their number, Death. The Seven Seals have been replaced by seven nations. The Beast is…difficult to explain without spoiling some of the surprises of the story. Then there is the Message, which is presented as a constraint upon the actions of all. A dictate on how the world will end. Mixed into this over-arching story are the lives of the people within each nation. The leaders and their friends and foes. Continue reading “Review: East of West Volume 3: There is No Us”

Review: Defenders by Will McIntosh


A few of my reviewing friends had very good things to say about Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. So when Orbit dropped the price of McIntosh’s newest release, ‘Defenders’, to $1.99 (ebook only, courtesy of the Orbital Drop newsletter), I figured it was a good time to take the author for a test drive. It was an exhilarating ride.

Defenders is a near-future, near-apocalypse science fiction novel. The aliens have landed and they look like big, killer starfish. They call themselves Luyten. Employing weapons of gruesome destruction, they run rampant across our planet, melting ground troops into horrific lumps of gore and searing air support from the sky. If the Luyten seem to always be one step ahead of the allied forces of humanity, that’s because they are. They can read minds, which proves to be their most insidious weapon of all.

How does one fight an enemy who knows the plan in advance, who can sense the hidden and hidden agendas and can trounce any ambush? One creates a soldier with a mind that cannot be read, of course.

It is determined that the lack of serotonin in a human mind would render our thoughts inscrutable to the Luyten and so the Defenders are created. Seventeen feet tall, with three legs and detachable limbs bristling with armaments, the Defenders are engineered for one purpose: to kill. They are highly intelligent, but lack human emotional response. Apparently, that’s the cost of no serotonin. No one considers the implications of a soldier without emotions until after the Defenders win the war…and teach humanity an extreme lesson in humility.

The novel follows a handful of interrelated characters over the course of twenty years, from the depths of the Human-Luyten war forward. Scientists and soldiers, both, all caught in the tumble of events. It is the experience of each of these characters that tells the story. Lila Easterlin’s affinity and affection for the Defenders actually shows more clearly than any other perspective just how monstrous are these creations. Being the first to engage in two-way telepathic communication with the Luyten, Kai Zhou has a unique understanding of their purpose and motivations. Oliver Bowen is one of those characters who is plucked from obscurity and thrust through heroics. Dominique Wiewall created the Defenders.

Like most apocalyptic novels, Defenders is a cautionary tale and it’s not subtle in the telling, but it is extremely enjoyable in its exploration of an interesting set of ‘what ifs’. There are some obvious messages, such as a two-time examination of humanity’s tendency to shoot first and ask questions later (kill them all and let God sort them out!) and a more disturbing suggestion that even while we might ally against a superior (alien) force, we’re still a bunch of racists. The Defenders and the Luyten are both given (exiled) to Australia. Out of sight, out of mind?

As a native Australian, I did take humorous exception to the use of my country as place to put undesirables. But, as my husband pointed out, it’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. I would like to note that the displaced Australians would NOT be happy in North Dakota, however. That would be like putting a lizard in Antarctica. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t revolt. Then again, we can be a lazy bunch.

Then there is the examination of the Defenders, themselves, who are ultimately more alien than even the race from beyond the stars. Yet, we designed and built them. This is the heart of the story and at times shockingly brutal. I liked that McIntosh pulled no punches when it came to demonstrating our folly. At times, he managed to draw an extremely thin line between absurdity and horror and I wasn’t sure which side of the line I was on.

Defenders isn’t really an ‘All’s well that ends well’ novel, neither. By the end, the tally of losses is significant. But I don’t think the story could have been told any other way, not with the same impact. My only complaint would be that while McIntosh managed to pack a lot of story into the novel, he did skim of the more human aspects, such as the relationships between Lila and Kai and other pairings. Considering his subject, that might have been on purpose. Either way, he certainly managed to convey the fact the Defenders were not at all human. Highly recommended for fans of Science Fiction – military, near-future and otherwise and readers with a super-soldier fetish and those who enjoy a good apocalypse.

The version I reviewed had an excerpt of Love Minus Eighty at the end, which has only whet my appetite for more Will McIntosh. I’ve already bought it and plan to read it over the summer. Consider that review pending.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: East of West Vol. 2: We Are All One

 “There’s Horsemen on the plains, the sky’s red as blood, and only the blind can see a better end.”

Fate was always going to put ‘East Of West’ in my path. I devour post-apocalyptic stories with unholy glee and have done since I discovered the ‘Book Of Revelation’, which is probably why I enjoy ‘East Of West’ so much. There is history here, a lot of it. Creators Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have pulled snippets of story from several well-known legends and have fused the pieces together with their own imagination. I really love their take on the end of the world. I love this comic series. Now I’m going to continue to enthuse while I talk a little bit about ‘Vol. 2: We Are All One’.

The title is very appropriate. Throughout this collection, issues 6-10 of the comic, the back story widens to include and link several of our main characters. Many of them were involved in the past, willingly or unwillingly. Wittingly or unwittingly! They’re all connected, throughout history and time. There is a sense they are as fated to be together as me and this series.

On to the story. Accused of being a traitor, Bel escapes the conclave and goes to find Justice. We get our first delicious slice of back story here and a promise from Justice to serve just that, saving Bel for last, of course. Meanwhile on, Death is looking for his son. Insert another glimpse of back story, this time for Ezra Orion, who was caught up in Bel’s escape and is now paying a terrible price. My heart wrenched and my gut clenched for this one. It’s the story and the art. This is a partnership that breathes hyper-realistic life into every frame.

Back at the white tower, the city is on fire. Presidency is not an easy task, particularly under the constraint of the Message and the Word. Here, the reader gains a sense of both the urgency and the futility the seven must feel while the world races toward the end. They have to keep it together for just that long and then give it up. Talk about anti-motivation. Then again, I’m not the disciple type.

Death confronts the Oracle and she extracts a terrible price for information about the whereabouts of his son. These panels are suitably grisly. On to John Freeman, who receives a lesson in history from his father. This is another chunk of back story that shows timeless connection between many of the characters. The lessons from his father help glue the story together while reinforcing the fact it is huge.

‘East Of West’ has always had the depth of a novel. That’s why I enjoy it so much. The issues don’t feel episodic in the traditional comicbook sense, even if each serves a purpose. Rather, each issue is a chapter of a larger and ever-growing tale. I love the combination of back story, plot and hints of possible futures. For me, each issue is another building block, I suppose. Separately, they serve a need. Together, they are so much more.

The last chapter has Death meeting the man who can tell him where his son is. Unfortunately, for all involved, the Ranger has also caught up with his prey. Cue epic battle and denouement. Of course, the story doesn’t end here. In fact, there is much left to tell.

Before the end, we check in with the Beast. I’m not going to detail this scene much except to say it had my skin crawling. Really and truly.

So, to reiterate, this is a fantastic story done justice by volume two. The art continues to be amazing and the writing is top notch. There are no characters underserved by the collaboration of Hickman and Dragotta. I don’t want to discourage those who like to read their comics issue by issue, but I really love the way multiple issues work together in this series, as if designed to hang between two covers as a single unit. Unlike some collected comics, these graphic novels work well. They have a beginning and an ending, which only leads me to praise, once again, the scope of the project, and the imagination of its creators.

The next collection, ‘East Of West Vol. 3: There Is No Us’, is not due out until October. I might have to break down and collect the single issues before then, despite my desire to read them as a unit. Thankfully, the story stands up well to several readings.

Written for SFCrowsnest.