Reporting from Mount TBR (March Edition)

I always start my reading year with very specific goals. By March, I tend to know whether or not it’s going well or not. In regards to my TBR reading project, I’m happy to report an ongoing commitment. Books are disappearing from my shelves—even though I’m not reading as much as I usually do.

I’ve been trying to read less for two years now. Not because I don’t have time or I don’t enjoy reading. After reading close to 250 books a year for the past five or six years in what I can only describe as a feverish attempt to read everything ever published before I die, I’m tired. Also, I have found I sometimes don’t remember what I’ve read, even though I track every book. In the past year alone, I went to add two books only to discover they were already there.

I think, in part, Goodreads was to blame for my race to the end. Setting a numeric goal every year and watching the status bar inch toward completion was satisfying. But if I fell behind, I’d have mini panic attacks and start looking for shorter reads to make up the numbers. Last year was the most ridiculous yet. I set a goal of only 100 books (only 100?) to try to alleviate this pressure. Once I passed 100, I watched the overage percent rise, meaning I was still counting and still (sort of) panicking about this arbitrary goal.

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

Review: Undertow by Michael Buckley

Undertow (Undertow #1)

Undertow by Michael Buckley tells an ugly story. Three years ago, the Alpha arrived on the beach of Coney Island, New York. They’re made up of mixed races of sea dwelling creatures – many of whom appear to be plucked for our very own myths and legends. Calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Sirena, Triton, Nix, and so on, the Alpha set up camp on the beach and begin to intermingle with humanity. The results are as predictable as they are disheartening. Humanity rejects the castaways – forcing them to remain on the beach where a tent city soon overtakes the coastline. It is another slum on the edge of a city already rife with racial tension.

Three years on, a program is devised to integrate the Alpha children into local schools. It is hoped this will foster a relationship between the younger generation that will filter back through both sides of the not so cold war. This is where Lyric Walker comes in. From the beginning, we know she is different. She professes to be a wild thing, but the arrival of the Alpha has tamed her teenaged rebellion. Still she is far from a model student, and holds the respect of the kids she used to run with. For this reason, she is chosen to partner one of the Alpha kids. She and Fathom – the prince of the Alpha – are supposed to meet for an hour each day and get to know one another. The notion to show one of the cool kids taking the first steps toward equanimity is hopelessly naïve – so much so, even Lyric thinks it’s a bad idea. But the arbiter of this farce is a government agent, and he knows all the Walker family secrets.

For weeks, Lyric and her friends brave the picket line to attend school. Violence erupts almost daily – human against Alpha and human against anyone who might show the slightest sympathy for the people from the sea. The Alpha, with their rigidly stratified society and warped ideas of honour, are just as antagonistic. The violence escalates toward outright horror. Students are bullied for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any willing contact with the Alpha is an unforgiveable sin. A new gang gives rise to an abusive order until school is finally closed due to a gunman gaining access and running rampant through the halls.

In the midst of this ugly representation of our society, attraction blooms between Lyric and Fathom – which is the hinge upon which the rest of the book balances for the space of a couple of chapters. Then the door slams shut – in the wrong direction. What was ugly becomes foul.

I found the last third of Undertow increasingly difficult to read. Not because it isn’t well written – it is. Michael Buckley’s prose draws you quickly into the story and carries you effortlessly forward. From the beginning, the pacing matches the rhythm of our teenaged protagonist, Lyric Walker, as she flips from obsessing about her wardrobe to worrying concepts larger than herself – her family and their fate, her neighbourhood and the unclear picture she has of a future that includes both humanity and the Alpha. But when I wanted more outrage on her behalf regarding the way her friends and counterparts treat the Alpha, what I got instead was factual reportage of the horror unfolding before her young eyes. Some scenes are very visceral, but without Lyric’s emotional subtext, they didn’t carry quite the punch they might have. There is one incident in particular that shows a severe lack of compassion on her part – the thought is there, but not enough time is given for those seeds to take root.

The other fault of the last third manifests at around the same time as the pacing suddenly switches into overdrive with hours and days passing in a matter of sentences – if they’re referenced at all. It’s clear the book is racing toward a climax, and it is exciting. Unfortunately, I still needed time to recover from the event that is clearly the beginning of the end. I understand that war doesn’t allow that time, and this is – if nothing else – a novel of war. But this turning point is vastly important, and it ends up feeling almost meaningless.

Along with the jerky pace and lack of emotional depth, the last third of the book delivers a number of plot conveniences, many of which could have been powerful tools in the reader’s kit if delivered sooner. Had we known the reason the Alpha arrived, we might have had more sympathy for them. Maybe. With the super late delivery of the big outstanding “why”, however, I couldn’t help wondering if the author only figured out a compelling enough reason at the same time he delivered it.

Ultimately, I did not dislike the book. In fact, I enjoyed the first three quarters, despite the uncomfortable itch in my head, the one that refused to believe humanity could be so petty and cruel, and that we’re raising our children to be intolerant. That we can be as thoughtless as a herd of pack animals goaded onto action single, outraged voice. Regardless of my horror, I gave Mr. Buckley his due for having the wherewithal to cast us in such an ugly light. But when I looked for the flipside – the brightness I believe is within all of us – I found it tarnished and dull. I wanted the relationship between Lyric and Fathom, that hinge, to open the door again. To allow the light in. But the lack of emotional punch meant I didn’t truly believe in the relationship. To reuse my odd metaphor, the hinge wasn’t strong enough.

Despite this, I would recommend Undertow to readers of Young Adult fiction. It might not end up necessary conversation starter about bullying and intolerance, but it does deliver a unique story, lots of action, and a young heroine who has some admirable qualities. Lyric is unflinchingly loyal to her family and friends, and has a true moral compass. It will be interesting to see what direction this takes her in in the follow up novel, Raging Sea, due out February 2016.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Liesmith by Alis Franklin

Liesmith: Book 1 of The Wyrd

Sigmund Sussman is your stereotypical nerd. At twenty-two, he still lives at home. When not working tech-support, he plays games – handheld, console and MMOs. He has a Dungeons and Dragons group and the walls of his bedroom are papered with Star Wars posters and pictures of dragons. He’s a bit plain, a bit overweight, wears glasses and is still a virgin. So, perhaps no one is more surprised than Sigmund when the new guy in IT, the painfully hip and casually gorgeous Lain Laufeyjarson flirts with him. Sigmund has kissed a girl. Twice. Beyond that, he’s never considered is sexuality. Lain radiates the sort of confidence that encourages everyone to act now and think later, however, and so Sigmund flirts back. Clumsily.

Shortly after bucking the expectations the tech-support department, his two closest friends and his father by dating the hot new guy, Sigmund figures out the meaning of Lain’s last name. The fact that every story Lain tells is filled with lies sort of makes sense if he’s actually a deceased Norse god, right? When Lain sprouts horns and a tail, Sigmund’s suspicions are confirmed. He’s actually dating the Liesmith, more commonly known as Loki. Continue reading “Review: Liesmith by Alis Franklin”

Review: Universes

Universes by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter has been on the periphery of my awareness for years. I have read one of his stories, only one, a novella called Starfall. I enjoyed it and meant to read more. When he published Flood and Ark, I added them to my wish list. Both were exactly the sort of novel I love: post-apocalyptic adventure followed by an exodus to new planets with all the inherent science and problems. Shamefully, I have yet to read either.

When given the opportunity to read Universes, a collection of short fiction from three of Baxter’s universes, I noted that three of the stories were set in the Flood/Ark universe, and subsequently snapped it up. Short stories are a great way to taste the flavour of an author and sample one of their universes. In addition to three stories set in the Flood/Ark universe—one previously unpublished—there are two stories in the Jones & Bennet universe and another three in the Anti-Ice universe. All universes involve hard science and characters devoted to investigating it—which appears to be a trademark of Baxter’s writing. Given he has degrees in mathematics and engineering, it’s hardly surprising.

For the uninitiated, the Jones & Bennet stories are during the cold war era. Chapman Jones and Thelma Bennet work for an organisation known as DS8, or the UK Ministry of Defence Secretariat 8. They investigate un-catalogued phenomena and unusual life forms. Myths and legends. Anti-Ice is an alternate history setting where nineteenth century Earth receives a gift from the stars—a comet bearing anti-matter and alien life forms. The discovery and exploitation of these powers a new industrial revolution and steam powered rockets!

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