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Novella Review: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS

This novella marks the return of a great secondary figure from the Newsflesh trilogy, Dr. Shannon Abbey, a rogue virologist who keeps experimenting in search of a cure for the Kellis-Amberlee virus outside of the CDC-established parameters.  Abbey is a wonderful character, brash, hard-nosed and harshly practical: she describes herself as an “annoyed scientist” as opposed to the “mad scientist” label pinned on her by detractors, and she works out of semi-clandestine labs that she must abandon, from time to time, due to security reasons. This has taught her the hard lesson of cutting your losses and starting again, and shares this attitude with her closest assistants, the ones that have stayed with her the longest and constitute the core of her little outlaw family.

The story is somewhat light-hearted in comparison with other offerings in the Rise collection, and even though it’s not a humorous tale by a long shot, it’s also a welcome respite from the more dramatic presentations in this anthology. In short, Shannon Abbey is continuing her work after the breakthrough offered by a chance discovery following Shaun Mason’s visit to the lab with his team, and she rules over her little domain with firmness and a few well-placed dramatics (like the use of her huge dog Joe, a formidable deterrent if there ever was one). One day Dr. Abbey finds, in the woods surrounding the lab, a badly malnourished woman on the verge of collapse and she takes her inside, only to discover that her guest is part of a trap devised by a neighbor, the same ruler of the little underground kingdom we see in Feedback, ex-military turned despot Clive. He’s not the only connection to Mira Grant’s previous work, since in the course of the story we find out the real identity of the woman Abbey brought inside, someone we met in the novella The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, and this discovery leads to an exploration of post-traumatic stress and the ways to cope with dramatic loss.

The best feature of Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus, however, remains Dr. Abbey: I quite liked her in Deadline and Blackout, but here she is both point of view and narrating voice – and what a voice she has, indeed.  Sarcastic and pragmatic, she also feels deeply for the people entrusted to her authority and the creatures in the lab – the scenes with the titular octopus are among the best, and helped me a great deal in metabolizing the dread and sadness that hit me after revisiting The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.  There is a good measure of pain and loss in Dr. Abbey’s past, and the small flashbacks help us understand how she came to be the person she is now, but the main emotion that information prompts is not so much pity as admiration for her strength and her willingness to fight back: that’s why I ‘m not surprised to learn that she is one of the author’s favorite characters.  She is now also mine, as well.

My Rating: 

Novella Review: SAN DIEGO 2014 – THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of SAN DIEGO 2014: THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS

This is the most terrifying and at the same time the most poignant of the stories about the Rising, and if anything it was more difficult to bear on re-reading than it was the first time – not because I already knew what was going to happen, but because knowing that, I was able to focus on other details, the ones where human frailty and courage took center stage.

Here Mira Grant imagines what would happen at the start of the zombie apocalypse in a place as crowded as a sci-fi convention (in the specific case, San Diego’s Comic Con), and she aptly terms it “the perfect recipe for chaos”.  The title takes inspiration from a very real group of people, the California Browncoats (from the delightful, unfortunate tv show Firefly), a non-profit organization that promotes charity fundraising at Comic-Con.  My own sole experience of a sci-fi convention – and a very small one at that – helped me visualize the scenes in this story, and that made it even more harrowing…   

In the summer of 2014, when the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts running rampant, killing people and bringing back the dead, all seems normal for the people attending the annual Comic Con convention in San Diego: little do they know that hell will break loose and in a matter of hours the convention center will transform into a slaughterhouse.  This story runs on two time tracks, one following the events at the convention as they happen, and one from 30 years in the future, when Mahir Gowda (a welcome return from the Newsflesh trilogy) interviews the only survivor of the carnage.  It’s mostly a story of ordinary people forced to face extraordinary events and doing their best to cope with a situation no one would ever have imagined, and there are acts of true heroism standing side by side with the inevitable terror and panic following on the heels of the outbreak.

It’s a very powerful account, one that employs with great success the image of a huge, enclosed space plunged in semi-darkness, where the living and the undead move among the stalls – some of them transformed into makeshift barricades – in a sort of modern transposition of Dante’s Inferno. The story does not only mark the beginning of the end for the world as we know it, but also underlines the loss of the most precious commodity humanity can enjoy: innocence.  In Mira Grant’s own words: “We are incapable of imagining a return to a world where we could abandon all care and spend a week living in a fantasy.”

I don’t believe I will be able to ever attend any convention without thinking about this story….

My Rating: 

Novella Review: EVERGLADES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore

EVERGLADES

Short and brutal and sad: these are the words that best describe this story, one of those that are new to me.  Each of these short tales comes with an introduction by Mira Grant, a way to set it in the bigger picture if you want – and I find these just as fascinating as the stories themselves.  In here, the author delves into the mindset of those people facing the end of the world as they know it and choosing to be “a statistic”, one of the “soft costs” of a dramatic chain of events.

Everglades is set in the early days of the Rising, in a California campus besieged by the walking dead and seen through the eyes of Debbie, one of the students attending summer semester.  The harsh reality of the zombie apocalypse alternates with Debbie’s recollection of one perfect summer in Florida, visiting her grandparents and going on an excursion in the Everglades with her grandfather.  The man had taken Debbie to the swamp, showing her that what looked like logs in the waters were, in truth, alligators lying in wait:

“Always remember that Nature can be cruel, little girl,”said Grandpa.  “Sometimes it’s what looks most harmless that hurts you the most.”

Debbie is remembering that lesson now, as the number of survivors in the campus keeps dwindling alongside their hopes of rescue: knowing, as we readers know, that salvation will not come, not in the chaotic days of the Rising, it’s not difficult to understand these people’s mindset, the uneasy mix of hope and despair, of doubt and terror.  When she realizes that the alligators, like other predators out there, are more tailored for survival than human beings, that intelligence and progress and science can amount to nothing in the face of the unspeakable horror that is being visited upon the world.

These stories are not easy to read – the subject matter sees to that in no uncertain way – but at the same time they show the whole range of human emotions, of strength and frailties, that can be seen in exceptional circumstance: and Mira Grant truly excels in depicting those in her deceptively plain, but powerful, way.

My Rating: 

Movie Review: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016.  I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.

The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”.  In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality.  These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy.  The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.

Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.

And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.

What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection.    The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.

The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.

The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.

My Rating:


Novella Review: COUNTDOWN, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered two short stories that acted as a prequel to the events described in Feed: one was Countdown – the story of how two independent viral researches combined into the infection that caused the dead to rise; and the other was San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats – a look on the first few days of the outbreak from the point of view of the participants to a sci-fi convention.

With time, these two stories were joined by a couple of novellas, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea – set in a post-outbreak Australia, and The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell – a tale of the post-Rising world focused on a group of school children and their teachers.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories I did not review at the time, or enjoying the new ones.

COUNTDOWN

Countdown is indeed the tale about how it all began, how the seeds for the end of the world as we know it were sown, marrying human desire to cure both big and small ailments and the equally human stupidity of acting without thinking about consequences.

In Denver, Colorado, Dr. Wells is satisfactorily progressing with his experimental cure for cancer that uses a mutated strain of the Marburg virus to attack cancer cells and truly give a second lease on life to his patients. He’s checking in on one of his youngest patients, 18-year old Amanda Amberlee, who’s looking forward to her prom night and finally enjoying the freedom of simply being alive.

In Reston, Virginia, Dr. Alexander Kellis is conducting experiments on monkeys and guinea pigs with his miracle cure for the common cold: it might not look as ground-breaking as his colleague’s research into cancer, but alleviating even something as banal as a cold would greatly improve mankind’s living conditions.

In New York, journalist Robert Stalnaker writes an inflaming editorial concerning Dr. Kellis’ work, claiming that the cure will be available only to people with means, and calls the scientist’s efforts a “money scam”, reveling in the huge response – both positive and negative – the article receives.

And finally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Brandon Majors, “self-proclaimed savior of mankind” decides to start a crusade that will result in the destruction of Dr. Kellis’ lab, the dispersal of his as yet not-fully-tested cure in the atmosphere, and its interaction with the Marburg-Amberlee cancer-fighting strain.

Countdown does not only lay the basis for the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath, but also shows the failure of institutions and media in keeping the public informed about what is really happening, in a last-ditch effort of containing the inevitable by burying everyone’s heads under the sand.  This is the point from which independent bloggers will take up the slack and fill the niche left vacant by more traditional information channels: one of the more interesting narrative threads concerns indeed Georgia and Shaun Mason’s adoptive parents, both teachers at the time of the Rising – they are pictured as normal people having to face extraordinary circumstances, showing the first glimmers of what they will become in the immediate future.

There is a sense of inevitable doom hanging over this story, of an unstoppable chain of events that will lead to an explosive climax, and knowing beforehand what’s going to happen only enhances the power of this tale of how the Rising came to be.

My Rating:


Review: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT, by S.C. Flynn

29864261I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: unlike other submissions I accepted in the past, this one took a different path. The author is also a fellow blogger, and he built some anticipation for his book by sharing first an excerpt and then the cover art, an interesting – if puzzling, at the time – image that further piqued my curiosity.

Children of the Different is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with the aftermath of the Great Madness, a wave of murderous, virus-driven insanity that swept the globe some twenty years previously, whose victims fell prey to an unstoppable killing instinct.  Apart from a number of people who proved to be immune – as it often happens with any kind of plague – the only ones to avoid the Madness’ effects were those who had previously exhibited mental problems of various gravity: they not only survived the infection, but their afflictions were cured. Those who did not fall into either category became Ferals: as the name suggests, they are little more than beasts attacking other people, killing them and feasting on their flesh.

Now, all children born after the Madness undergo, once they reach puberty, a process called “the Changing”: they enter a comatose state in which they experience the Dreamland, a place of the mind capable of affecting the body as well, so that an injury sustained there shows in all its painful tangibility in the waking world. The Changing can bestow unique powers on those youths, or transform them into Ferals, who are driven away from the communities where they grew up.

As the novel opens, young Arika just started her Changing, observed with huge trepidation by her twin brother Narrah, who is alternately worried for his sister and for the ordeal that will shortly claim him as well. The story unfolds following the twins’ experiences – both in the Changeland and in reality – while they slowly discover more about the world they live in, as it once was and as it is now: until their Changing they lived a very sheltered life in an isolated settlement, the only information about the outside provided by the elders of the community, and therefore lacking many important details that they need to complete the puzzle.

Arika and Narrah’s path is both a coming-of-age journey and a quest, and a fascinating one at that, since it develops on several planes, due to the intermingling of reality and dream-state, without forgetting the peculiar powers that both of them gain from their Changing: here is where I finally comprehended the full meaning of the cover image, and where I understood my feelings of dread when I observed the figure of the echidna, the Ant-eater that keeps plaguing the young protagonists both in the material world and the dream state. The malevolent countenance and the red eyes of this creature struck me as totally evil on the cover, so that when it appeared in the Changeland, threatening the twins, it appeared even more of a danger than it would have from description alone.

As far as dystopian novels go, this one was quite unlike my previous experiences, and it was a very welcome change: for starters, the Australian setting is unusual for the genre, and it adds a further dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape, imbued as it is with some Aboriginal wisdom and customs, which give it a distinctive flavor in respect of similarly set novels.  Then there are the main characters: forget the much-used (and abused) tropes of angsty youngsters, whining about the unfairness of the world or dealing with the equally ubiquitous love triangles – Arika and Narrah feel like real, flesh-and-blood teenagers, eager to take their place in the world and at the same time plagued with doubts and uncertainties, but strong enough to want to face any obstacle before them. Their courage comes from the awareness of the responsibilities they carry toward each other first, and then toward their community and, later on, the wider world; the love and the strong bond they share is the power that drives them forward through hardships and terror, and it’s a delightful and very real emotion to behold.   

The interweaving of reality and mind-scape is another fascinating side of this story, because it helps focus on the changes that the Great Madness brought to what remains of humankind: if the real world is scary enough, what with the constant threat of Ferals, or other humans preying on the weak, the Changeland is much worse, if nothing else because of its unpredictability and the opportunity for other, stronger minds, to affect it and create nightmarish dangers.  Following the twins during their Changings, or the later visits they are compelled to pay to this dream-state, can be a disturbing experience, one that personally made me hold my breath more than once, such was the power of the images I found there.

This is a novel primarily directed at a young audience, and as such it suffers a bit from the need of detailed exposition and the reiteration of a few basic concepts – both instances probably aimed at strengthening the understanding and attention span of its intended target, though slightly jarring for a more… mature reader. That notwithstanding, the story is a fascinating one, and the characters very easy to relate to and care about, so that I feel perfectly comfortable in recommending this novel to everyone who wants to hear a new voice in the speculative fiction panorama.

My Rating:


TEASER TUESDAY #11

Teaser Tuesday is an intriguing meme started by Miz B over at Books and a Beat.

All you have to do is:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Teaser Tuesday

This week I’m very pleased about sharing a quote – or rather, the very beginning – of a book I read very recently, the first book of a writer who’s also a fellow blogger: I’m talking about Children of the Different, by S.C. Flynn.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario and a coming-of-age story set in Australia, and depicts a world dramatically changed by a terrible epidemic. But it’s also a story about bonds of love, about courage and determination, and the hope for the future.

The group were getting ready to go on a Wrecking when Arika’s Changing started. Narrah heard the strangled choke in Arika’s throat and spun around. Arika was lying on the wooden floor of the hut, her limbs tense. Her green eyes turned up in her head and then closed. Narrah gulped. His mouth was dry and his heart was racing as he watched his twin sister turn pale and shiver like rippling water.

I urge you to check out the amazing cover as well, and I just learned that there is an official publication date as well: September 10th. Here you will find all the information you need (including an animated version of the cover!)

Review: HELL DIVERS, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

28464896I received this book from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

I have no trouble admitting my weakness for post-apocalyptic scenarios (I can lay the blame on Stephen King’s The Stand for this…), so when I saw the synopsis for this novel I was immediately interested: the Earth surface has become uninhabitable after being ravaged by nuclear explosions in World War III, and what remains of humanity dwells on huge airships that have been transformed from instruments of death into arks in which the last survivors barely hang on through increasing difficulties.  The ships are old, overcrowded; supplies and foodstuffs are never enough to satisfy everyone’s needs; and the vessels require constant maintenance, achieved through scavenging runs operated by the titular Hell Divers.

These are men and women who dare the dangerous descent toward the radiation-riddled surface in search of spare parts or fuel cells in the abandoned pre-war depots: first they glide down to the surface braving constant electrical storms generated by the massive nuclear explosions of the war, then they have to scour the land for the needed supplies, trying to avoid the dangers and pitfalls on the ravaged ground, the broken-down cities and the hot zones where radiation still runs rampant.  As the story opens, a new threat is added to an already terrifying scenario: nightmarish creatures, the result of radiation-induced mutations, prey on the Hell Divers and their already dwindling numbers, adding a new level of hazard to a mortally dangerous profession.

The average life expectancy for a Hell Diver is fifteen runs, but the main character Xavier Rodriguez (simply called “X”) is a veteran with almost a hundred drops under his belt: disillusioned and despondent, he lives only for the scavenging missions, knowing that each one can be his last but apparently not caring either way. He lost his wife to cancer – a common occurrence on the ships, since the residual radiation cannot be shielded with one-hundred percent success, even far above ground – and he feels no anchor to the pitiful remnant of humanity living aboard the Hive, his days spent, like most of his fellow divers, on scavenging missions and the wild drinking bouts in-between each one.

With only two ships remaining afloat – Xavier’s own Hive and the Ares – humanity stands on the brink of extinction, and when Ares suffers a terminal breakdown and crashes to the ground, only X and the remaining Hell Divers stand between this same fate for Hive and the remote possibility of finally finding a landing place where try and rebuild some sort of civilization.

The picture painted in this premise is quite grim, and the most riveting part of the novel resides in the bleakness of the situation and the way in which human society – or what’s left of it – has adapted to the new living conditions: space aboard the ships is at a premium, and a good portion of it is devoted to raising crops and livestock to feed the survivors. Social differences have transcended color and gender and veered toward usefulness to the ship: engineers and farmers are among the privileged, right after the crew members and the Hell Divers, of course.  All the others are relegated to the cramped spaces of Below Deck, where illness, malnutrition and resentment run rampant, and where the more industrious manage to eke out a slightly better life through the sale of black market goods or straightforward crime.

Conditions on the ground are even worse: under the constant cover of roiling black clouds, where electrical storms rage in waves and the sun never shines through, the land is covered by the ice of nuclear winter; rubble and the remnants of once-proud skyscrapers dot the landscape and offer a perfect breeding and hiding ground to the Sirens: blind and hungry creatures gifted with razor teeth and an unerring sense for prey – the evolution of some hardy animal or perhaps of those humans who did non perish immediately after the holocaust.

It’s on this unforgiving background that the story develops, starting without preamble with a fateful dive and from there expanding the focus to humanity’s overall situation: it’s a quick, immersive story that captures your attention and keeps it there, with almost no space for a breather. This is more of an action-driven novel, which means that deeper characterization is sacrificed on the altar of pacing and narrative speed: on the plus side, this allows for an almost cinematic quality to the storytelling – and this would indeed make for a great movie with breath-taking visuals, where the Hell Divers’ descent through the cloud layer could work as an amazing opener, and the scenes of the attacking Sirens offer several nerve-wracking moments. Still, I would have liked something more from the characters, that at times tend to be more tropes than people: the disillusioned veteran, the beleaguered captain, the former thief-turned-diver who finds a new meaning in life, and so on. A few events seem a little too convenient as well, like the young orphan who finds himself in Xavier’s care and goes from grieving, sullen silence to affectionate acceptance almost overnight with no visible progression.

Nonetheless, these are simply personal issues and the fact remains that Hell Divers is an engaging story that holds one’s attention from start to finish and will certainly satisfy the readers’ need for adventure in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The kind of book that can keep you awake till the small hours…

 

My Rating:

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

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This week’s subject is: Books with “hard” topics

When I discuss my reading preferences with people who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, they often complain that the genre does not deal with “real” issues and they could not be more wrong, as testified by these few examples:

The Detainee by Peter Liney:

In this dystopian future, society relegates unwanted citizens on an island that is also a huge garbage dump. Among these rejects the most unwanted of all are the old: left there to die of deprivation, of the pollutants brewing among the garbage piles, and of neglect. But what’s worse is that the youngsters who have been marooned to the island with them are taught that their plight is the old people’s fault, so bands of angry teenagers hunt the old and defenseless as a bloody sport.  Science fiction? Not really: merely the extrapolation of the many small incidents we can observe in our everyday life…

Lock In by John Scalzi:

In this novel, the author postulates that a vicious form of flu has left many of the victims prisoners of their own bodies: their minds are fully functional, but the bodies don’t respond to the brain impulses any more. After a while the affected people are able to interact with society once more by connecting to a sort of android bodies called “threeps” and have a semblance of normal life but after the initial wave of social awareness, the general public starts to turn against the threeps, the most vocal maintaining that too many resources are being employed for the locked in, resources that could be better spent elsewhere. It does sound frighteningly familiar, indeed.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee:

When eight-year old Jos’ ship is attacked by pirates who kill the adults and take the children prisoners to turn them into slaves, the young protagonist starts a nightmarish descent into Hell, one made of fear, terror and abuse that will forever scar him, even when he will find the strength to escape from his tormentors.  I usually avoid stories that contain this kind of theme because I believe that there is nothing more terrible than stealing a child’s innocence, robbing them of what should be the most carefree years in a person’s life, but in this case the author described young Jos’ journey with such a light hand, through suggestion more than outright detail, that I had to stay until the very end. This is a book that will leave its mark on you, but it will be worth the pain.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

No need to describe this story, the one that opened the road to so much YA dystopian narrative – both for the good and for the bad. What I found truly horrifying in the whole scenario was not only the cruelty of pitting young people against each other in a ruthless battle that would see only one survivor, but the fact that the whole scenario was used as both a bloody spectator sport and as admonition against rebellion. I remember thinking, as I read through the book, that we are not so far from the Capitol citizen watching teenagers die horribly: after all there seems to be a huge audience for those so-called reality shows where people face dangerous or harrowing situations. What it says about us, as human beings, is something I prefer not to dwell upon too much.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy:

In a post-apocalyptic landscape a man and his son travel over a wasted land, where the few survivors are more beasts than men, toward the coast and the sea in the hope of finding something better – or maybe just to give themselves a reason to go on.  It’s a hard, harsh story that at the same time lights the darkness with the love binding the two of them: it’s an understated kind of love, but it shines through and makes the nightmarish scenes almost bearable. Almost.

Review: DANGEROUS WOMEN – Various Authors

17279560In my new-found interest for short stories’ collections I ran across this one that promised interesting female characters and sported several names of authors I either already appreciate or I’m curious about, so I thought it would be a good starting point for new discoveries.  While the journey was a good one, in several cases I wondered where the danger represented by these ladies was: most of them are strong, capable women, but not exactly threatening, and in one particular instance there was no woman, dangerous or otherwise, carrying the tale – so that I suspected, at times that the anthology title was more of a sales pitch than anything else.  I have no reason to complain, though, because the ones that were interesting, or downright intriguing, kept their own stories flowing smoothly.

Neighbors – By Megan Lindholm aka Robin Hobb

Sarah, an elderly widowed lady living by herself, shows the first symptoms of a failing mind, and therefore keeps to herself the amazing things she witnesses on foggy nights…

The main character in this story is indeed an unreliable narrator due to her problems, and yet there are extreme clarity and realism in the everyday occurrences she goes trough, both on her own and while dealing with concerned family members: what she sees through her windows has all the marks of reality, and yet we readers cannot avoid wondering if it’s all the product of her progressively deteriorating mind – probably picking that up from the echoes of Sarah’s own inner doubts. But after a while it all ceases to be important, since all that matters is the poignant story and the excellent way it’s told, clear-cut and with no need for excess sentimentalism. One of the best offerings in the whole anthology.

Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell – By Brandon Sanderson

Silence Fontaine runs a inn at the edge of the dangerous Forest, where shadows hunt the living and prey on them. When her way of life and the safety of her family are threatened, she will do anything to protect them…

I have to confess I never read anything by Sanderson before, and this story showed me I’ve been missing out on a good author – a situation I must correct as soon as possible.  Despite the shorter form, the world building is solid and convincing, and the characters stand out quite clearly, but what took hold of my imagination is the story itself: the creepy, not-fully-explained danger lurking in the forest is much more terrifying because of its indetermination, not in spite of it. The characters’ dangerous journey through that forest is one of the most adrenaline-laden stories I ever read, the fear of the unknown and the unseen becoming almost tangible. After this sample of Mr. Sanderson’s work, I’m certain I will enjoy his novels quite a bit.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly – By Nancy Kress

In a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has made most of humanity sterile, people run in packs for protection: an aging woman with nursing skills, attached to one of these packs, inadvertently shows to two members a glimpse of past beauty through old ballet videos.

Easily my favorite story in the whole book, and another discovery of an author I never read before.

There is a poignant dichotomy in the world as it is in Nurse’s times, long after the collapse, and her recollections of better times passed on in the words of her grandmother, so that Nurse sees both things as they are, but also imagines them as they were in happier times. Yet even more poignant is the discovery of beauty and grace by the two young pack members, who are so overtaken by what they see in the old video, that they are ready to flaunt the pack’s rules in pursuit of something they didn’t even suspect could exist, also convincing others of the rightness of their path.  I’ve always been partial to ballet, so this story had one more reason to resonate with me, but the contrast between the world’s stark, brutal reality and the glimpses of a better past is more than enough to reach a reader’s soul. Very moving.

Pronouncing Doom – By S.M. Stirling

Another post-apocalyptic Earth, where what remains of humanity, gathered in clans, must re-learn the old ways of living to survive. Unfortunately, some people seem quite attached to the old world’s worst sins…

When the world as we know it collapses, what do we do to keep a semblance of civilization? And better yet, how far are we ready to go? This is the dilemma that Juniper McKenzie faces when she needs to mete out justice on the wolf hiding among her flock, and the interesting part of the story comes from the decision she takes and the way she arrives at that decision. Unfortunately, the “flavor” of the story was marred by the little voice whispering in my ear that such huge changes in social customs, complete with neologisms, were a little too fast for a world that’s only one year away from the big catastrophe. But it was not enough to prevent me from enjoying the tale.

The Princess and the Queen – By George R.R. Martin

A few centuries before the time in which ASOIAF takes place, a brutal war for power is waged between branches of the Targaryen family, and takes the name of “Dance of the Dragons” because the fiery creatures play a major role in it.

In truth, this story was disappointing: I expected more from GRR Martin, some story that would expand my knowledge and understanding of the rich tapestry of Westeros, and the same satisfying characterization I’ve come to enjoy in his ASOIAF saga. Sadly, I found none of this: this looks more like an outline for a story, with an almost endless list of characters and deeds (mostly bloody and ruthless, but that’s Martin for you) and no perception of depth. It’s entirely possible that the author’s choice of relaying the events from an historian’s point of view robbed the narrative of any human interest, preventing me from feeling any attachment for the various figures depicted there. If I had come across this before taking up the first ASOIAF book, I don’t believe I would have given the saga a second thought.

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