Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World – by Joan Druett (Review)

Standalone

Non-Fiction, History, Adventure

Algonquin Books; June 8, 2007
Tantor Audio; April 5, 2016

272 pages (ebook)
8hr 35m (audiobook)

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7 / 10 ✪

Auckland Island is a godforsaken island in the South Pacific, located 285 miles south of New Zealand. With deep inlets and soaring pillars, this rugged and mountainous isle is currently designated an Important Bird Area, and as such is uninhabited except for a transient science monitoring station. But once, the island was inhabited.

The Polynesians were the first to settle the island around 700 years ago, but by the time Europeans visited the islands they had already withdrawn. A whaling and sealing settlement upon the islands was established at Hardwicke in 1849, only to be abandoned three years later.

And then, 258 years ago, Thomas Musgrave and his crew of four aboard the schooner Grafton ran aground on the island’s southern rocks. Over the next 18 months, these four survivors remained, alone, before their eventual rescue. While the crew didn’t exactly thrive upon the islands, they lived comfortably enough, surviving the harsh and ofttimes inhospitable climate that had driven many others to an early grave.

In fact, only four months after the Grafton ran aground on the islands, the much larger Invercauld also wrecked on Auckland Island, albeit upon the island’s far northern point, amidst the cluster of the three smaller Rose, Enderby, and Ewing isles. Here, the crew of 25 (reduced to 19 by the wreck), camped in the remains of Hardwicke, before apathy, disease, and dissent drove them apart. Unlike the crew of the Grafton which remained together, those of the Invercauld splintered—as disease, dissent, starvation, and even cannibalism whittled them down. When the crew was rescued one year later, only three remained.

But of the two, it’s unclear which group experienced the greater trauma. Perhaps this is why the crew of the Invercauld, upon being rescued, neglected to search for other survivors, in doing so leaving those of the Grafton alone on the islands for a further few months before—concluding that no ship had been dispatched to find them—set out on their own in search of rescue.

It’s an incredible tale of two very different yet similar experiences. Two shipwrecks on the same island group at the same time; one that fragments and wastes away before being rescued; while the other thrives enough to survive twice as long, before constructing a skiff and sailing nearly 300 miles to safety.

So, here’s my nonfiction read for the year.

Two tales of adventure, survival, and hardship. Both of which go in very different directions. In fact, one would argue that if it wasn’t for a particular seaman on the Invercauld, the survival rate would’ve been much lower. Like, a party of one.

Like any other book of this type, Island of the Lost was written as a reconstruction of journal entries, further testimony, and newspaper articles following the crews’ rescues. Fortunately, at least one member of each crew kept a journal while stranded, and saw fit to live long enough to author books about their experiences, including Musgrave and Raynal from the Grafton and Holding and Dalgarno from the Invercauld. Although while the formers’ narratives generally match, the latter’s leave a bit to be desired (Dalgarno, as captain, took credit for everything; Holding, as a peon, was belittled, though he probably kept the other two alive). Addressing the language used in this book: it’s a bit dated. A bit flowery. And a bit long-winded (often like my reviews;). Makes perfect sense, as this was very much the style of the time. Especially among the officers. Just a note—it will take some getting used to. And even then it’s often frustrating to pick through, especially when needing to read between the lines.

TL;DR

Overall, I found these opposing tales of survival amazing, though they were brought down by florid language and odd pacing—often including every minuscule detail of some events while leaving others out entirely. The tale of Musgrave and Raynal being so much in-sync while those of Holding and Dalgarno often contradict one another being just another example of history being written by the victor. Or whichever victor was higher class. Robert Holding’s perspective by itself would’ve been enough of a reason to read this, or that of the Grafton crew on its own. But telling them together is a great example of those that lost it and those that kept it together. It’s a story of survival I’d very much recommend, either as a physical or audio book.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #2

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; July 12, 2022

160 pages (ebook)
3hr 53m (audiobook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, MacMillan & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The second installment of Monk & Robot finds Sibling Dex and Mosscap wrapping up their tour of rural Panga, before setting their collective sights on the city. While Mosscap has been sent as an envoy from the robots, carrying a very important question to the humans, Sibling Dex is after something more. Right now, they have their wagon, their tea set, and a traveling companion, but once Mosscap has finished its mission—well, what will they be left with.

Tea?

Sibling Dex isn’t sure they want more tea just yet.

Mosscap is struggling with a problem of its own. It has carried its question to the humans—and has asked many of them what they need, and how it can help, but has begun to notice a trend. These people don’t want for much, and what they do want can generally be easily provided. So then, what should Mosscap do now?

In a world where people have what they want, what more can it offer them?

I generally enjoyed the first Monk & Robot—A Psalm for the Well-Built—as it seemed to deliver the questions (and occasionally even answers) lacking in a post-Wayfarers world, while not getting quite as in-depth or existential as that same world turned out to be in its first several installments (pretty much every one but four). A light, interesting read that nonetheless raised questions about sentience, worth, and humanity—confronting the tough questions while still maintaining an air of lightheartedness and humor.

While I’m glad to report that Book #2 continues this theme, it doesn’t try much anything else, leaving the series still a bit short of perfection.

The questions are still there. Within Mosscap and Sibling Dex’s own can we find ourselves. Maybe we’re unsure. Lost. Questioning. Or even just struggling to understand. Regardless of the cause, the reason, these questions find us—as they find our protagonists in the tale. It is thus that Becky Chambers confronts these questions: by raising them as part of a story, a tale with a very clear (and yet very unclear) message. What do you want?

The main problem with this story is, well, the whole “story” part. There’s not a lot going on. In terms of the overarching plot. Sibling Dex and Mosscap are just wandering on their way, tackling themselves as much as they do their rather vague quest. Such was the way in the first story (the wandering, at least), though it certainly had a discernible plot: robots haven’t been seen in centuries, now one is, and they come with a question for humanity. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy simply carries this over from the previous story, adding nothing of note on its own. While this runs its course, the plot is content to wander amiably along, letting the protagonists guide it as they may. This strategy has worked quite well for Chambers before—as she’s really very good at it—and this time is no different. Except.

Except that this format doesn’t really relate very well to a wandering adventure. I’m not sure why a novel-length story of the same type works better—it just does. Maybe it’s because there’s more space to grow, more time to ask, more room to fit everything in. This novella doesn’t have much time to spare. At 160 pages, it can’t bring up the important questions, issues, and possible solutions, while still providing a complete adventure. Instead, it just ends up feeling… incomplete.

Still, there’s more than enough here for me to recommend. For the questions she raises; the real sense of being, of living, of wondering and wandering she instills—I’d pretty much read anything Becky Chambers wants to write on the matter, be it in a full-length science fiction novel or a haiku scrawled on a restaurant napkin. And everything in-between. It’s not the perfection that I found from Closed and Common Orbit or Spaceborn Few, but neither is it of the quality as Galaxy and the Ground Within. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is something else entirely, while retaining the format that you know and love. Just don’t expect it to be something it’s not—nor to have all the answers. It’s just a scifi novel, not a sentient grimoire of power.

As before, I thought Em Grosland did an exceptional job bringing this story to life. In fact, even better than in the first installment! They nailed the intonation and tone, while still imparting a certain worth and substance into their narration. While I’m not entirely sold that they’d make any book more enjoyable, I’d listen to any Chambers book they decided to read in a heartbeat!

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

416 pages (ebook)
12hr 50m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Welcome to Titanshade, an oil boomtown grown up, struggling to find its identity in a new era, lest it collapse in on itself, just another footnote on the path of history. Cater is Titanshade’s native son, a local become homicide cop, one who knows his way around the sleazy, corrupt underside of the city that makes up his beat. But the city is so much more than that, as he is soon to learn.

Looming over the sleazy, corrupt underside exist the sleazy, corrupt businessmen and politicians that run it all. Men, women, creatures Carter has known of his whole life, but were always far too high profile for him to concern himself with.

Enter the Squib—a squat, amphibian being—a political delegate involved in funding a project aimed to save the city from itself, providing alternative energy to the dwindling oil business. While such a high-profile case would normally have been above Carter’s station, it’s all-hands on deck, as the more than just the city turns its gaze to the murder. Because in addition to being a high-profile political target, the fact that the delegate was a Squib could have dire consequences to inter-species relations. See, when a Squib bleeds, it releases a highly odorous pheromone along with its cinnamon-scented blood—the combination more than enough to drive many a human mad with lust. Many such Squibs have been killed before, but none in so gruesome a fashion or so bright a spotlight.

To make matters worse, the police already have a suspect: Carter’s adopted daughter Talena, who was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And with such a high-profile murder already filling the news, tensions between the races of Titanshade at their highest point—the pressure is on to tie everything up as quickly as possible.

And so Carter has only a short amount of time to prove Talena’s innocence, find the true killer, and do it all before the city tears itself apart. Throw in a rookie Mollenkampi (named Ajax) assigned to keep an eye on the wildcard Carter; a second Mollenkampi, Angus, who’s essentially Carter’s nemesis while still managing to be a good cop in his own right; gritty commissioner Bryyh, Carter’s boss; and the feeling even before the mystery starts, that he’s already missing something vital.

Even if he manages to pull everything together in the nick of time, Carter may still alienate everyone and everything important to him, and end up eating his gun in the process. It’s just that kind of day in Titanshade.

I’d heard good things, yet Titanshade still managed to exceed my expectations. Instead of the underwhelming mashup between a high urban fantasy and a detective/mystery, I got a thought out mystery/detective urban fantasy not unlike the Dresden Files, but one set in its own fantasy world—one with its own rules and fantastical beings and creatures and magicks. Now, this is quite an Earth-like world, but still there are key and unique differences. The different races of beings are one; Mollenkampi alongside Squibs (which are called something different that I can’t remember right now) alongside Humans alongside still others, all packed together into the same society.

Honestly, I expected this to go together a bit like the SyFy show Defiance: a unique and interesting idea, but one where all the classes of humanoids basically blend into one when you get right down to it. Instead, the author has them written and designed his creations well—with their own diets and characteristics and languages and ideals. So much so that I’ll say it again: I’m surprised that this went together so well.

The story itself is a gritty detective one, full of morally ambiguous characters and two-faced diplomats, politicians, cops, witnesses, and more. And Carter is just the gritty, hard-nosed detective to handle it. For a guy that most people seem to hate (and everyone seems to be annoyed by), Carter makes a pretty good lead. I was pretty much in his corner from the outset—though if I’d hated him too (being the sole POV), I’d’ve probably quit reading. Twists and turns affect everyone in the plot differently and this is where Carter’s interactions with his new partner, Ajax, take center stage. Carter is a hard-nose detective who’s set in his ways and doesn’t play by the rules. Ajax is a bit fresh faced, but not enough to put up with his partner’s bullshit. He bends at times, stands firm at others, but never really breaks one way or the other. This pairing actually works quite well—and makes the story.

I’d like to see where the story goes next (and if the 2nd installment is just as solid), and will hopefully get to it later in the year. While I listened to Titanshade as an audiobook—and while Books #2 & 3 are out in print—it is thus far the only book in the series that’s been professionally narrated. Not that that’s an issue. I just decided to take a wee break before switching from audio to print. I’d definitely recommend this in either format, really, but I really enjoyed the audiobook. Mikael Naramore does an excellent job bringing both Carter and the world around him to life—complete with its gritty feel and moral ambiguity. If you were after more of him, you’re in luck! I hear Book #2, Titan’s Day, is due to be recorded and/or released sometime soon; just COVID went and delayed its production. Whether or not you enjoy this via audio, print, or digitally, I’d certainly recommend its reading. Especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy or mystery, or even gritty cop dramas.

A Mirror Mended – by Alix E. Harrow (Review)

Fractured Fables #2

Fantasy, Retelling

Tor.com; June 14, 2022
Macmillan Audio; June 14, 2022

176 pages (ebook)
3hr 48m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, Macmillan, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

• Review of A Spindle Splintered •

Zinnia Grey—professional fairy-taler and knight in shining armor—has a problem. The problem is not that there aren’t enough princesses to rescue, but too many. Once you’ve made out with 20 princesses, offed 40 evil stepmothers, or gotten drunk with two or three huntsmen and dwarves, everything just starts to run together. So much so that Zinnia is beginning to wish some of the princesses might take initiative and solve their own problems.

The next mirror Zinnia looks in has a face looking right back at her.

Only this face isn’t the young, naïve visage of a princess, but a more mature evil staring back. The more mature, ATTRACTIVE, GORGEOUS, face of evil. But this evil queen isn’t looking to stop Zinnia, she’s after her help. Because she’s learned how her story ends and wants to escape it before the inevitable comes to pass. But should Zinnia decide to help her, the lines of good and evil may blur, and narratives may become irrevocably damaged. Plus, she might just fall in love.

Okay, so it’s $11 for the ebook, or $7.30 for the audiobook version. Please tell me how that makes sense. Normally, I’d just say that the ebook is too expensive and leave it at that. But I’m legitimately confused. I understand that recorded books are more expensive because the author, the narrator, and the publisher all need their cut instead of just the two—but how does it work the other way around?

Anyway, the story. The story is good. I even enjoyed it more than the first one.

See, Zinnia is on a princess-rescuing-bender. It’s been too much, too fast, too long. She has a problem, and the path between right and wrong has begun to blur a little. In the beginning, there’s no way that she’d have considered doing this, but after dozens of weeping princesses and blushing brides she is just looking for a bit of backbone. Or an attractive evil queen that shows some spine (and maybe a hint of cleavage).

No problem with the characters or romance this time around—even I found it a bit refreshing. It did take me a bit to get into, and experienced a bit of a lag in the middle (which was disconcerting since it’s only three hours), though that could’ve boiled down to what I had going on versus how well the narrative was selling itself. So am I really going to criticize this for failing to blow me away? Apparently so, but not much.

The simple fact is that there’s a really good story here, or retelling, at and above the level of what we were previously presented. It’s certainly a good read—or listen, if that’s what you’re into. I quite enjoyed the audio version, as once again Amy Landon brings Zinnia Grey to life in a way I failed to experience from just the text. I’d whole-heartedly recommend A Mirror Mended, particularly as an audiobook—and not just because it’s less expensive.

Now, will there be another, or is this the last we’ve seen of Zinnia Grey? Obviously I can’t get too much into this because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that the conclusion is adequately open-ended to allow for more adventures, but the ending itself was magical enough in its own right to provide the series a proper ending. So… I dunno? Maybe? Either way it was a good ending, one that you’re sure to love whether or not it’s the end of the line for Zinnia.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – by P. Djèlí Clark (Review)

Dead Djinn Universe #0.3

Steampunk, Fantasy, Novella

Tor.com; February 19, 2019

96 pages (ebook)
3hr 22m (audiobook)

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7 / 10 ✪

Cairo, 1912

The case seemed simple enough at first: simply handling the exorcism of a possessed tram car. Only… why would anything want to possess a tram car? Agent Hamed Nasr can’t remember such a thing ever happening before. Yet upon visiting the scene, he cannot argue with the facts. The tram car is certainly possessed.

So he and his new partner Onsi Youssef set out to clear up the whole mess. Though of course it’s never that simple.

For while Cairo is the center of the civilized world, the society is not as placid as one might believe. A burgeoning suffrage movement led by the city’s women; the idea that machines are sentient beings held as slaves; secret societies worshipping forgotten gods—magic and society have coexisted til now due to necessity, but any one of these issues threatens to tear the city apart. All of them at once… Hamed and Onsi need to exorcise this entity as quickly as possible, or else.

This was my first peek at P. Djèlí Clark—and it was pretty good. Interesting, entertaining. Not too heavy, not too light. The detective angle works (mostly), until it doesn’t. It begins well, but eventually feels like its bitten off more than it can chew. So when it wraps up, it feels very sudden. And then it’s over. And… doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

The best thing about a good novella is that it can make you want to explore the entire world to the fullest. Just a glimpse is often enough to make me go and binge the entire series. While the Haunting of Tram Car 015 was interesting and entertaining, it didn’t leave me needing more. I’m not saying that it instantly forgettable, nor did it leave a bad aftertaste, just… it doesn’t leave much of an impression. Not a lasting one, at least. It was a good read, and I remember that it was a decently good read—just no specifics. Nothing that I especially liked or disliked. It was just a little… thin, like someone stuck up some cardboard cutouts to set the scene and called it a day. Again, it’s quite a good read—so long as you don’t dig too deep.

For a one hundred page novella, this is kinda steep. Which fits the Tor.com model, I guess. Rather than complain about it (again), I’ll just note that it’s $8 for an ebook / $10 for an audiobook and (in my opinion) probably not good enough to warrant the cost. So, find this on sale, from the library, or some streaming service. Heck, if you’re a fan of the series you might not care about the cost at all. Generally I’d recommend it, but not at full price.

The Jasmine Throne – by Tasha Suri (Review)

Burning Kingdoms #1

Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 8, 2021

533 pages (ebook)
19hr 43m (audiobook)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

The Empire was born in sacrifice wreathed in flame. Lifetimes before, the Yaksa nearly swallowed the world in darkness. and their devoted followers the Ahiranyi In the end, it was the Mothers sacrifice which saved the world. If the Mothers had not given themselves willingly to the flames, the Age of Flowers would never have ended.

Malini is a princess of the Empire. Years before, she was to be given to the eternal flames in order to purify herself and all women, so that the Mothers continuing sacrifice would not be in vain. However, Malini refused to ascend to the fires and was exiled, imprisoned atop the Hirana by her brother, the Emperor. Now she spends her days in isolation in her foe’s ancient sanctuary, temple to the deathless waters that once served as their most powerful magics.

When Priya was young, the temple atop the Hirana burned. A gutter-rat turned maidservant, Priya is satisfied with a life of drudgery lived in the shadows, terrified that anyone learn her secrets. So terrified that she even hides them from herself. Once a maid to the regent’s wife, Priya reluctantly accepts a job tending to the temple rooms atop the Hirana, now occupied by the exiled princess. The job pays more in a day than she makes in a week, as maids must ascend and descend the deadly path to Hirana each day, careful not only to survive the journey but more so to never cross paths with the princess herself.

Well, somewhat careful.

When the inevitable does come to pass, however, Malini not only discovers Priya but also stumbles upon her true nature. Both are women cast from their true path; both would give up everything to find their way again. And together, they very well may.

It may have taken me a bit to get lost in the Jasmine Throne, but once I did I was well and truly gone. The world passed by while Priya and Malini and Akosh weaved their webs and sang their stories, and the tide of the Deathless Waters carried me away.

Full disclosure: I listened to (read) this while playing Cyberpunk, only stopping when I was exhausted or had to go to work. It was truly a surreal experience—for a good chunk of its 20+ hours—so much so that I completely lost myself to the story, and often ended up wandering aimlessly around Night City doing nothing but listening to the adventure unfold.

The Jasmine Throne is truly a story built for and driven by its characters. So much so that the setting took quite a while to permeate the story. It took me the longest time to discover just what the Hirana was, how it related to the plot, or just why it was so dangerous. It just seemed that the plot had taken a backseat to its characters. At least for a time. I really only noticed the setting when Rao’s POV rolled around. I don’t know whether that was because he’s a weaker character than Priya or Malini or Ashok (which he is), or because his chapters are just more oriented toward the setting than others.

Once the everything gets set up and the story (particularly that between Priya and Malini) gets interesting, there’s not much else to steal the focus away from them. This means that though it’s quite hard to put down, the characters that aren’t the big four—of Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika—seem to detract from the plot rather than add anything to it. It’s not that I don’t care about their input, it’s just… they distract from what’s going on. I realize that their contribution pays some dividends in the end, but I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the albeit slight distraction they provide.

I guess it’s a good thing that these characters don’t get a ton of time in the spotlight. Priya has more chapters to her name than everyone else (excluding Malini) combined. And with the these two pretty much controlling the story… well, it turns out quite nicely.

TL;DR

The Jasmine Throne is very much a story driven by its characters. Though some of the bit characters (other, less involved POVs) are immediately forgettable, the main characters (Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika) make up for them easily enough. And since these control around three-quarters of the book… let’s just say they more than make up for it. In classic fantasy form, it takes its time setting the scene, introducing its world—not to mention the characters therein—before getting down to the plot, the romance, and the world at large. And to be fair, this works quite well. While it took me a little to get into the tale, once I did it was a lovely time. Even the romance, which is usually not my favorite. All in all, the Jasmine Throne proves an entertaining start to a new series! One I’ll be more than happy to continue.

The Burning Kingdoms continue with The Oleander Sword, out in August of 2022.

The Tindalos Asset – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #3

Horror, Novella, Scifi

Tor.com; October 13, 2020

176 pages (ebook)
4hr 35m (audiobook)

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3.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for… actually, amazingly I don’t think there are any spoilers for the previous books in the series. Take from that what you will.

The Signalman reprises his role from Agents of Dreamland. He’s joined by a fresh-faced partner. Ellison Nicodemo also returns in what just may be her swan song. But I suppose the same could be said of mankind.

A series of paranormal events plagues the Earth, portent of the looming apocalypse. Squid are born to human mothers. Planes fill with water while in flight. Whales are discovered beached thousands of miles inland.

The time has come for this motley team to face the end of the world.

…I think. It’s kinda hard to tell.

The Tindalos Asset gets excellent ratings and reviews on Goodreads, but I think I know why. Anyone that made it through Black Helicopters and was excited to continue the series is bound to love the Book #3 more. I mean, even I loved the Tindalos Asset waaay more than the one that came before it. Though that’s not to say it’s any good. I’m the kind of person that made it through Black Helicopters and thought “well, #3 can’t possibly be any worse”—which isn’t really the best reason to continue a series, I know.

The Tindalos Asset is like Fringe meets… whatever Book #2 was about. I’d say it’s a motley start to a new series, but unfortunately it’s the final one. So, as the conclusion to a series, well, it sucks. Bonus points for the Fringe connection though. I know what happened at the end. It just didn’t make any sense why or how.

There’s a romance, kinda. But it doesn’t make any more sense than anything else in this series. I mean, weren’t there aliens at some point? What happened to them? They’re… really not in this installment. There are hints, yes—but nothing concrete; nothing even remotely approaching clear. Of the romance however: no hints. There’s some sex between the Signalman and his partner, but it’s more raw, less romantic. Does little more than peg him as human—something the other entries just left as a open question. As a romance it’s really lacking, but the only thing I felt indicative of the term. That said, this isn’t who the romance is really between (the Signalman and his partner, I mean), so I don’t know what to tell you. I really hope that this isn’t how the author thinks people flirt.

So, do I recommend this? Nope. I mean, it’s better than Black Helicopters, but that’s a really low bar. The ending was an adequate conclusion to the series, but I’ve no idea how we got to that point, and I read the damned things. But again, it’s better than what directly preceded it. There’s a (mostly) coherent plot. It actually connects to events and characters from Agents of Dreamland. There’s actually some character development, which was a complete surprise. Some of it even makes sense. But yeah, there is no lasting sense of completion or achievement. Sad to say, but the best part of this book—no, this entire series—is likely the end. When it ended.

By the way, did I mention this is $8 for an ebook? Totally not worth it.

Black Helicopters – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #2

Horror, Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 1, 2018

202 pages (ebook)
4hr 11m (audiobook)

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1 / 10 ✪

The idea of a “story” is to give an account or description of events, not randomly spout prose and leave it up to the reader to decide what the fuck you’re talking about. I mean, for Book #2 in a series, at the very least.

Enter Black Helicopters. I don’t understand what this is about. And I don’t understand why I don’t understand what this is about. In Agents of Dreamland, we learned that there was an an impending apocalypse, which only Ptolema might prevent, so I thought maybe this would be a continuation of that. And, yeah, Ptolema’s got a POV within, but it’s only one of three. The other two are SOMEONE, who lives in the post-apocalyptic city of Sanctuary (I think) and writes daily letters to her sister, and Johnson, who crews aboard the Argyle Shoelace, a ship at some pre-apocalyptic time that is probably important for some reason that’s not immediately clear. The Signalman makes an appearance, but even he can’t seem to tell us what the fuck is going on. Maybe he doesn’t know.

I realize that Ptolema is out to save the world, but I only know this entirely from the last book, as this one never makes any real sense whatsoever.

• Okay, so a quarter of the way through: I’ve no fucking idea what is going on in this stupid book. I know what it’s SUPPOSED to be—another entry in the Tinfoil Dossier, an alien invasion story happening in the future, unless Ptolema can stop it. But… so far, we just rambled on for 6 chapters (an hour and a half in), and I’ve no idea what’s happening.

• There’s something in the near-future that’s caused the end of the world, but we knew that in the last novella, so this isn’t super informative. There’s a place called Sanctuary, where someone and 66 live. And they hunt alien monsters.

And that’s it.

That could’ve been covered in a letter. Like the ones she writes her sister. Like ONE of the letters she writes.

• We just took 10 minutes and a full chapter saying that aliens landed somewhere at sometime because something and then ended it. The next chapter spouted a prophecy amidst a fountain of nonsense. And now we’re speaking in French (a lot of French) with no translation offered. Helpfully I never learned any French.

• So we’re on a ship—the Argyle Shoestring—that has what to do with what? I can’t make heads or tails of any of the threads of this story. Or what they have to do with the apocalypse and/or preventing it.

I could complain about this one all day, but instead I’ll leave off with a quote I feel sums up the consistency of the text.

“Gentlemen, we have arrived at the oneness of allness, a single cosmic flow. You would label disorder, unreality, inequilibrium, ugliness, discord, inconsistency.

“Checkmate. Because this is the meaning. Black queen white, white queen black. A game of chess played in the temples of Erss, the halls of Discordia. There will be murders on La Manzanna de la Discordia. You know, or may learn of, Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst—not his real name, but let that slide. The gods were not pleased, hence of course all were turned into birds. Even the birds will rain down upon the bay and upon the island. Erss tosses the golden apple and the sea heaves up her judgment upon us all. Watch for the Egyptian, and the arrival of the Twins, and my daughter’s daughter. Watch for Strife, who—warns Homer—is relentless. She is the sister and companion of murderous Ares. She, who was only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows, until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurls down bitterness, equally between both sides, as she walks through the onslaught, making men’s pain heavier. The Calla Lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. Be still—the chaos reigns around you now.”

Normally, I do a summary, then put a quote, then discuss how I feel about the book, the plot, the characters, whatever. But since there’s no way I could’ve done a coherent summary of any plot—mostly because the “story” didn’t seem to have one—I guess I’ll just skip to the end.

TL;DR

If you didn’t read this review, I wouldn’t read the book. Yeah, it was that bad. Nope, it didn’t make any sense. Yup, it even got me to swear in my review of it. And it’s usually got to be pretty fucking bad to do that. The best part of Black Helicopters was the narration. Justine Eyre somehow managed to make parts of this sound pretty good, almost coherent. Too bad none of it was.

I’m actually planning on reading Book #3 of the Tinfoil Dossier, mostly because I can’t believe it can be any worse than #2.

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

The Harbor – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #3

Mystery, Nordic Noir

Gallery/Scout Press; February 22, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
9hr 38m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Scout/Gallery Books for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

He looked around and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free.

So ends the first and only clue in the disappearance of fifteen year-old Oscar Dreyer-Hoff. As clues go, this one’s shit, but Anette Werner and Jeppe Kørner are used to much worse. Odds are the missing teen is no more than a runaway, but as he’s from an influential family—one used to kidnapping and threats before—the Copenhagen Police are taking it seriously. Thus the inclusion of detectives Kørner and Werner.

But as each hour passes, and the potential for finding the boy alive grows ever more slim, the case itself changes to match. Patterns form and fade, relationships appear and vanish, and the mindset of a trouble teen slowly begins to reveal itself. But rather than helping the case, these revelations instead push the search into murkier waters still.

A possible sexual relationship between Oscar’s brother Viktor and his only real friend, Iben. A family bed. Something shared between Oscar and his teacher. A banished sister, a middle child, a shared secret. Another disappearance. A love of boating, of the water. Everyone has something to hide, everyone has something to lose—though some more than others. Clues come and go—but which relate to the disappearance and which are just there to distract? Will Kørner and Werner be able to locate the missing teen while he yet lives, or will the inevitable finally come to pass?


Eroticism has many faces.

This was an intricate, murky case set on the Øresund between Zealand and Scania, between Copenhagen and Sweden. The Sound gives the whole book an overcast, grey feel—much like the cover itself. Though not all the case and its avenues take place or have anything to do with the waters, they certainly feel like the focus for the book.

I want to make this clear up front: I really enjoyed this one. The murky, grey, confusing feel to the case, with all the clues that may or may not relate, the leads that sped off on tangents or eventually wormed their way back to the heart of it all—it all worked quite well for me. And when everything came together in the end: oh, it was magnificent! The thing is, however, that when you have a story with so many false-starts, with so much deception, it doesn’t help to add other, less… related aspects to an already twisting tale.

While I enjoyed the initial release, the Tenant, I definitely liked the second book better due in no small part to its inclusion of the detectives’ lives. Anette and her baby; Jeppe and his search for love. Both main characters return in the Harbor and once again their personal lives take center stage, but this time it’s all about love. Jeppe and Sarah have taken their relationship to the next level (Sarah has introduced her boyfriend to her daughters, Jeppe has pretty much moved in with the three), but things could be going better. Anette is having problems of her own at home, as her husband Sven hasn’t appeared interested in her anymore. And so she’s been letting her mind wander at work, envisioning sex with all kinds—colleague or suspect alike. Jeppe’s best friend Johannes returns to play a bit part, and while I loved having him (after not seeing him at all in the Butterfly House), I would’ve liked even more from him still. Well, maybe next time. The thing I still cannot fathom is Esther de Laurenti’s (and Gregor’s) inclusion. I complained about it in Book #2—as it didn’t really feel tied to any part of the story, or the main characters within—and I’m going to roast it even more now. Esther, a literature major, is consulted briefly about the opening quote, which is apparently a passage by Oscar Wilde. Full stop. Nevertheless, despite being out of the story after this brief interlude, we continue to share her POVs. In a book of false-leads and tangents, where the story toes an ever-murky line, her inclusion does little other than to distract from an already confusing story, something that is as nonsensical as it is infuriating. “So, we’re going to take a break from this twisting, confusing, but immersive case to go check in on Esther, who really has nothing to do with anything.” While I love developing more backstory on the leads, visiting their lives and seeing their problems and how it all affects their jobs—I don’t understand checking in on someone who barely relates at all to the case, to the detectives, or to the story at all.

As with other Engberg mysteries, or some Nordic Noir, don’t expect a happy ending. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t one. Just that Nordic Noir is so-named for a reason. It’s not grimdark, but it’s not “and they all lived happily ever after”. I mean, there’s certainly a conclusion—which I quite liked, in fact—and it’s definitely enjoyable to the reader, as it ties up any loose ends quite nicely, just: it might not be the happiest. Think of it as “some of them lived, some were happy, and there was some measure of after”.

TL;DR

All in all, the Harbor is probably Katrine Engberg’s most ambitious mystery to date. It’s certainly the most intricate, thrilling, and entirely plausible one. Reality aside, not every mystery can end with a mountain of corpses and a serial killer behind bars. A murky, twisting tale set out over the Øresund and its isles in the Copenhagen harbor, the Harbor chooses an already dark and overcast setting to stage its latest tale, one that replaces a world of greys with that of blues instead. And while it delves even more into the lives of its characters than any release before it, the inclusion of previous characters and their lives—which don’t seem to relate to the case at all—is a mystifying choice, and one that holds the story back from being something truly special. Because at no time during your already twisting and intricate, highly immersive investigation should you take a break to visit someone who has nothing to do with anything, and talk for a while about their lives. This aside, I’d thoroughly recommend the Harbor, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Kørner and Werner, and where the series goes from here!

Audio Note: Once again, I loved Graeme Malcolm’s narration! It brought the story to life and helped sell the characters not just as individuals, but as part of a whole, interconnected to each other and the world around them A great read, all around. Thoroughly recommended!

Review of The Tenant (Kørner & Werner #1)

Review of the Butterfly House (Kørner & Werner #2)