Archives for category: Fiction

Sanford Greenberg – Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (audio) – Memoir

Confucius – The Analects (translated by James Legge) – Philosophy

Travis Baldacre – Legends and Lattes – Fantasy

Lina Rather – Sisters of the Forsaken Stars – SF

P. Djeli Clark – A Master of Djinn – Steampunk/Detective

Lina Rather – Sisters of the Vast Black – Very good novella of nuns in space in a sentient organic spaceship. This does not do it any justice. Definitely for fans of Becky Chambers, MR Kowal and the like. Looking forward to sequel Sisters of the Forsaken Stars.

Gertrude Bell – The Desert and the Sown – Gracious, but this took me ages to finish. I’m pretty sure I started reading it about eight months ago. Bell’s travels in 1903 Palestine and Syria are fascinating. She tells of her meetings with the members of various tribes with the eyes and ears of an archeologist, linguist and historian. (Bell is namechecked in a book I read last year by Vita Sackville-West and I had to find out who she was. Often referred to as the female Lawrence of Arabia, she led a fascinating life. And was recently portrayed by Nicole Kidman (Queen of the Desert which is on my to-see list).

John Doe, et al – Under the Big Black Sun (audio) – Gorgeous evocations of the late 70s Los Angeles punk scene as told by members of the various acts who made it happen including (but not limited to) Doe, Henry Rollins, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, and the man who later became El Vez. I was just a little too young at the time, I remember the acts and the times with greatly renewed fondness.

Joshua Winning – The Shadow Glass – Written for all the fans of gorgeous 80s fantasy movies. A beautiful homage to the ones who’ve kept the fandom going. Follows the estranged son of the recently deceased creator of a perfect movie that stands alongside Labyrinth and The Neverending Story who doesn’t quite know what to do when his father’s creations come to life. The fandom come to his aid.

Jessica Khoury – The Mystwick School of Musicraft (audio)
Jessica Khoury – The Midnight Orchestra (audio) – These two middle-grade (9-12 year old target audience) stories are absolutely charming and I recommend them highly. Khoury was interviewed on the Exolore podcast about cartography and mentioned these books in closing. The narrator earns a spot in the the titular Mystwick school and adventures ensue with new friends and new adversaries. Extra shout-outs for inclusivity and fantastic sound design. (These are also free if you have an Audible subscription.)

Last year I signed up for Audible for the sole purpose of listening to the new audio version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. And I enjoyed it greatly, even though it comprised only a small portion of the 75-issue comic that ran between 1989 and 1996. I think there must have been a selection process to determine whether there was sufficient interest to cover the whole thing. The first release included Morpheus’ first trip into hell, the brutal Collectors episode, Calliope, Facade, The Dream of a Thousand Cats, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But wait! What about Orpheus, Augustus, and The World’s End? Well, fast forward to a few months ago when Audible released Sandman Act II.

Ah, there we find some more of my beloved favourite stories. It seems like they’re working around to doing the whole thing. Eventually. In Act II, we meet Orpheus (in the French Revolution-set Thermidor – Where do you hide a severed head?) and having met his mother in Act I.

In general, they’re doing a good job of telling the essential stories – there are so many characters and there’s so much rich storytelling in Gaiman’s original material (not to mention in Gaiman’s own source material, which includes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, science, fiction, and the mythologies that make up a lot of history) that planning this out required a lot of choices regarding order and the transition from illustrated storytelling to audio. When the original run of Gaiman’s Sandman concluded in 1996, it was obvious that its conclusions had been in mind from very nearly the beginning (this remains a spoiler-free zone, note). Almost everyone we meet has a role.

My main issue, has to do with that very transition. When you read a graphic novel, there’s no reason to describe all the characters – we can see them. What we get in the audio drama is a lot more exposition than perhaps the story needs. We know what Dream and Death, Desire and Despair look like from their first descriptions. There’s no need, usually, to repeat. And it’s okay for the listener to fill things in that are left out of the text. These stories are especially strong and, mellifluous as Gaiman’s voice is, this kind of exposition could have been trimmed in favour of more showing. (I’ll note that being familiar with the source material, I can picture a lot of the story based in the original illustrations. I do wonder what listeners coming to this without the prior experience think.)

Having finished the last couple chapters (The Hunt, Soft Places, The Parliament of Rooks, and Ramadan), I’m overall very pleased with the production values, the acting, and the script. My gripes regarding exposition are minor. I think a lot depends on the story. I didn’t feel the descriptions were problematic or overtaking the stories as the audiobook progressed.

It’s interesting how the people working on this have balanced the overarching story with pieces that are one-offs in context. The framing of Three Septembers, for example, provide some background on the conflict between Dream and Desire. The last four stories are all self-contained, but provide more context about who Dream is. Weirdly, Act II’s centerpiece, A Game of You, only has a couple of scenes with Dream at the very end. And it can be hard to see how it fits into the greater narrative. (In this moment it comes to me that it bears a structural affinity to The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Sherlock Holmes only shows up at the very end.)

In considering the stories not yet shared in audiobook form, I wonder if a forthcoming Act III or Act IV will cover The World’s End which had some insanely good artwork and at least two wordless two-page spreads that will be hard to describe. As the series progressed, the art got more and more interesting (and even the earliest issues weren’t slouching in this department). This might also be why the audio exposition is so detailed sometimes.

In any event, I definitely recommend it, whether you’ve read the graphic novels or not.

I read Raybearer, the first book of this duology over the summer and immediately preordered the sequel which arrived a few weeks later on my e-reader. In the afterward Ifueko notes that she spent twelve years creating the first book and nine months, as the pandemic was beginning, on the second. It came in such a rush that she says that she didn’t recall writing swaths of it. With a score of great characters ready to take on the task described at the end of Raybearer, she knew where it was going, I think.

There’s a lot to be said for this work and its intricate world. The blends of magic and mythology and world building are effective (and mind bending, sometimes). There’s a lot in the first book that grounds you in the world. Pretty early on she explains all the kingdoms that make up the empire and the very interesting ways in which power is passed between generations. We then meet the Abiko, demons who, under treaty, take hundreds of children each year into the underworld as the price of not overrunning the empire. The trick is that some early emperor agreed that only children of one kingdom, Songland, would receive the mark indicating they were to go into the breach between the worlds.

I don’t want to give away any of the key plot points. Our narrator, Tarisai, is set up by her mother in the first book to join the prince’s council to undermine the empire. She’s able to subvert her mother’s will but finds that she’s the only one who wants to change the way the redemptors are chosen (from only one kingdom), and later who wants to change the way the empire as a whole is run. No one else seems to find the traditions of court life so repugnant that they’d even examine how to change them.

Ifueko makes Tarisai’s struggles and emotions real, and we feel a three-dimensional character experiencing them. And she’s created a hero who looks like the people fighting today’s battles against establishment oppression. The fantasy world’s elites bear strong resemblances to those of our world.

If there’s a downside in the story, and I’m not sure this isn’t just the nature of such heroes – the ones who take on the big tasks that no one else can do (or, in the words of Norton Juster, will do), she doesn’t tell anyone of the one thing that’s driving her to distraction. The nature of the council she sits on is that the members have psychic bonds with one another, if they open themselves to the connection. So Tarisai’s reticence to share her experience moves the plot along, but it turns the conflict into Tarisai versus herself, rather than against external forces.

This is a trope of this kind of fiction, I think. In a world where the hero’s bond is a major plot point, and her establishment of a greater number of such connections is one of the drivers of the second book, her refusal to engage feels false. Not false, but an easy way out of creating a way through in which the character relies on the thing that the story hangs from as a whole. On the other hand, she’s the one with the insurmountable goal that almost no one else will take on.

On their own merits, Raybearer and Redemptor succeed admirably. My quibble doesn’t obviate my joy in Tarisai’s various successes, and in the beauty and terror of the worlds Ifueko has opened.

Learn more here: https://www.jordanifueko.com/books (and dig how gorgeous those covers are!)

The Infinite Noise is a slightly supernatural queer YA something that includes romance, but mostly not. I don’t read a lot of YA, so I’m not sure how to characterize it. The story follows two neurodivergent high school boys. Caleb is an empath – he can be overwhelmed by the emotions of others. He’s also on the football team. Adam suffers depression and is one of the stars of the debate team.

One thing that grabbed me about this book was the alternating first person narratives. Caleb and Adam are very different but have an endearing quality to their differentness. Adam’s depression has been known to lead to self-harm – it’s nice to read of a boy in this position because this is thought to be mostly a girl’s issue. We meet Caleb before a fight he has after which he blacks out. The fight is the impetus to put him in therapy. There are no spoilers in that – we learn these things about both boys in the first couple of chapters.

Note that this is released as a ‘Bright Sessions Novel’, Dr. Bright being Caleb’s therapist. I’m not sure how I came to this book – my guess is that it was a Tor.com freebie, but it might have been some other special offer. That said, it wasn’t until I read the afterward that I learned that The Bright Sessions started out as an audio drama podcast. This gives the book (and its place in a series that has two more books, both of which have different protagonists) more sense. Because the voices came out of audio drama, they had to be unique. Shippen succeeds admirably in bringing these differences to the page.

I also love the fact that the main characters are queer and that their varieties of neurodivergence are normalized in the context of the story. The parents are concerned, but their concerns are mostly for the health and safety of their kids, not any kind of homophobia.

Even the bully doesn’t have an issue with the fact that the two main characters are dating. It’s a little utopic, but I love how Shippen normalizes the nature of queer love – the focus on all the things they’re dealing with (including all the heavy emotions of the protagonists’ internal states, the emotions of just being adolescent, and some schoolyard violence) isn’t compounded by the fact that they’re queer. The queerness is simply adjacent. But the parents, who are most definitely issue-laden, are cool with the fact that their sons are boys in love.

As the story progresses, what we experience is a courtship and burgeoning relationship that captures adolescent angst about these things in a way that feels especially accurate. It certainly brought to mind the ups and downs of my own adolescence, in a bittersweet way.

The trick with stories like this, comprised of first-person internal monologues, is that you have to want to be in the characters’ heads, even when they don’t want to be in their own heads. It’s a feat to make that emotional rollercoaster attractive and inviting and Shippen makes it work.

I really like Caleb and Adam, so I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the other books in the series. I’m curious about the original audio drama that gave birth to the stories. A couple of episodes of The Bright Sessions are waiting on my phone.