Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.”

Okay, first question: WHY HAVE I NOT READ ANYTHING BY JOHN SCALZI BEFORE?!

By which I mean, oh boy did I enjoy this book! It’s not perfect, but it was a LOT of fun!

In the far-flung future, mankind has expanded far beyond the Earth – and subsequently lost touch with its home planet. This happens after the ‘Flow’ to Earth – the path that allows for travel between vastly remote locations within a sensible time span – collapses. Without that pathway, the journey could take millenia.

So, civilisation now consists of what is called the Interdependency: a highly structured, convoluted system of guild-owning families, each with a set of monopolies on certain trade items. The theory being, if everyone absolutely needs to rely on everyone else, peace and prosperity will reign. Well, it’s a nice theory…!

The Collapsing Empire is a fast-paced story following several characters, including the woman who has just discovered she’s unexpectedly about to become the new Emperox, or supreme ruler. The action takes place between her home, Hub, and the most remote planet in the Interdependency, End. With trouble in the Flow, and scheming nobles on both worlds, the new Emperoxy is certainly going to be an interesting time.

What I loved about this book was the cast of characters, particularly the thoroughly amoral, self-serving, foul-mouthed Lady Kiva. She seems incapable of not using the f-word in every sentence, so do be warned – about that, and also her obsession with having sex with anyone who wanders into view! This might not be to everyone’s taste, but the absolute hedonism (or, actually, sybaritism– hedonism is a little bit less self-centred ;)) with which she lives her life is kind of refreshing.

Tales of the future are so often dark and miserable these days. In fairness, we’re only seeing the higher echelons of society here, but while lives are not perfect at least it feels like society has made some improvements. Like, the utter irrelevance of gender, it would appear – loved that! Although it might be said that the author possibly drove these views just a little, whereas just having that the reality would have been enough and more subtle.

Talking of, there is a very obvious correlation between the events unfolded in the story, and a real-world analogy. It’s not rammed down anyone’s throat, but some people do find that sort of thing annoying. And no, as the author’s note at the end is at pains to point out, it isn’t the title linking to any political landscape of the past 12 months!

Back to the story, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the romp of a read, I did find it a little, hmm – shall I say, unsurprising? I’m not sure if there was meant to be a twist, or revelation, but it felt just a teenie bit flat for lacking that, which felt odd given the story coming from several different aspects. I’d also suggest the opening is a bit off, starting with characters who subsequently aren’t that important, although the snippet of their story is sort of background to events much further along.

I was wondering as I approached the end if there was actually a good case for a sequel, let alone a series, but the last few lines do add an intriguing hook – and I can’t wait for volume 2! I just have to hope that the author’s back catalogue – shamefully overlooked in my reading to date – is half as much fun as this 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 24th March 2017
Series: The Collapsing Empire book 1
Read from 17th-21st March 2017

My rating: 8/10

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – various

There’s something entirely enticing about a themed short story collection, especially when the theme is one as intriguing as djinn (or jinn, or genies). Although I’m not overly familiar with most of the authors included here – bar Neil Gaiman, with an American Gods excerpt, Claire North, and KJ Parker – the range of approaches towards this shared theme would itself be worthy of the read. Luckily, you also get a bunch of really great stories!

My one complaint (let’s get it over with!) would be the limitations of the short story format: on more than one occasion I wanted the story to continue, or felt that it ended just a little too abruptly.

Otherwise, I loved the range here, from the very traditional through to myriad modern and even a sci-fi futurist twist on the old rub-a-lamp, get-three-wishes story. My favourite, Sami Shah’s Reap, was actually very dark, combining the Middle Eastern myths with the more familiar modern view we tend to be shown by the media of the region, i.e. spy drones and terrorist surveillance. Not necessarily two things you might have put together, which makes for quite a gripping tale.

Not all of the stories are set in ‘traditional’ locales, but most are which gives a lovely exoticness (from my chilly Northern European perspective!) to the proceedings. I also really enjoyed the stories told from the djinn’s point of view – and more so when it wasn’t always obvious from the get-go. Djinn are eternal tricksters, after all!

Word of warning: this is not for children! At least two of the stories feature sexual content I’d suggest was at least 15+.

Overall, while a lot of fun to read, I think I appreciated this even more for the insight into writing styles and ideas. Recommended for both readers and writers!

NetGalley eARC: ~356 pages / 21 short stories (curated by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin)
First published: 14th March 2017
Series: none
Read from 7th- March 2017

My rating: 8/10

Logan (2017)

By 2029 there are almost no mutants left. None have been born in the past 25 years, and those that were left… well, bad things happened. Even the legendary Wolverine, whose healing powers may or may not have once had him considered all but immortal, is sickening. Dying.

Perhaps the one thing keeping him going is caring for the frail Professor Charles Xavier, hidden away in the desert and force-drugged to try to suppress the effects of dementia on the most powerfully psychic brain on the planet. Like I said, bad things happened.

And then something shocking: a young mutant, a child. She’s in terrible danger – but can Logan be persuaded to help… and will that be enough?

I’ve seen and enjoyed all the X-Men movies over the years, but this is a beast of an entirely different colour. The moody tone of the trailers was spot on in preparing viewers for a dark, often emotional, final part of the Wolverine trilogy (although there is no requirement to have seen either X-Men Origins: Wolverine or The Wolverine, or indeed, any of the other X-Men movies, really, as long as you have a vague notion about the character) – and I’m going to say that this is the movie the character has deserved all along.

What’s different? That emotional content. The serious tone and added ‘reality’ of the struggles of aging, even as a ‘superhero’. It’s admittedly a less ‘fun’ movie than its predecessors, but wow it hits in the feels (as the young people say ;)).

There’s still a lot of action, of course, and the use of a 15 certificate ups the blood and gore factor significantly – again, that (and the profuse swearing) probably add to the realism of the piece: there’s nothing coy about those famous claws going through a man’s skull, splattering brain about the place.

The story is also surprisingly satisfying, I felt. There are thematic similarities to previous installments, perhaps.

Overall, this swaps cheerful for powerful, but man what a way to end an era of X-Men movies!

Released: 1st March 2017
Viewed: 3rd March 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8.5/10

Traitor to the Throne – Alwyn Hamilton

“Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was a young prince who wanted his father’s throne.”

I hadn’t been desperately impressed with the first book in this trilogy, Rebel of the Sands, feeling it could have been much better with a bit more adventure and a bit less slush. Thankfully, this middle instalment is everything I’d hoped that first volume could be: high on adventure and danger and magic!

*sort of spoiler warning: this book is a sequel, so merely the mention of characters who appear could give away info of events in the previous volume*

The better part of a year has passed since the events of book 1. In fact, rather a lot has happened in that time, including separating a few of the main characters, wins and losses for the rebellion, and some life-threatening injuries. I think this is the first thing that improves this book for me: the idea that the story has continued between the books adds a certain richness. Likewise, the characters have had months of familiarity and changing relationships, giving everything a much more interesting mood than the we’ve-just-met limitations of the opening.

This slice of the story also changes the pace quite dramatically, largely taking place inside the palace (which, as a result, is much more fully-formed than most locations in book 1), as Amani finds herself imprisoned within the Sultan’s harem. Stripped of her powers, she’s still shackled with the inability to lie. Can she keep her – and the rebellion’s – biggest secrets, while she tries to survive the interests of both the Sultan and his heir, and the less than friendly power system in the women’s quarters?

As she’s forced to spend more time with the desert’s ruler, doubts start to rise about the rebellion she’s struggling to get back to. What exactly is the Sultan’s plan – and could it be not quite what everyone thought?

I was really pleased with the new direction of this trilogy, and felt the various elements – plot, characterisation, tension – all worked much better. I have huge hopes now for the final slice of the trilogy – and a whole year to wait, argh!!

NetGalley eARC: 528 pages / 51 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Rebel of the Sands book 2
Read from 6th-14th February 2017

My rating: 8/10

Indite: a notebook crafted for writers – Adam Simone, Helen Savore

I love notebooks. I mean – LOVE notebooks. I have a huge stash and best intentions to use some before I buy any more, but that would go out of the window in a heartbeat for a physical copy of Indite.

The word means ‘write or compose’, in case you’re wondering, which is exactly what this book is for: custom made for writers, this “notebook with a purpose” is intended to be a “work in progress guide and historical record for your work’s progress”.

It’s split into three sections: craft, scratch, and productivity.

‘Craft’ is about building the foundations of your novel (if it’s a novel you’re planning; I’ll assume!), the plot and characters and so forth. You’re prompted to write your ‘Big Idea’ (a few examples are given, e.g. “a self-aware dog”), ‘Pitch’ (one sentence – go!), and explore your ‘what’ – what is the unknown you’re exploring in your story? What kind of structure and/or device are you using – here’s some blank space to ‘brainstorm’.

At first I thought putting these upfront was a little too soon – especially for the pitch – but the end of the section does have sections for query, hook, basic info etc – so actually I see why the split. You might prefer to fill these sections in later, but actually it’s really useful to have an idea – and written down, not just in your head – of what you intend the story to be. Referring back to this when you get a bit lost in the ‘saggy middle’ is invaluable! Besides, you can always change it later, right?!

Next comes several blank form pages for character sheets and ‘interview’ prompts, and settings sheets – all excellent things to think about, and have as a reference for later. There’s also a blank graph to ‘visualise momentum’ – i.e. plot narrative flow against pacing, looking for anyplace your story drags. To be honest, I felt this page needed a lot more explanation – it’s nice to have it there, but I would have to go look up how to make use out of it.

The middle section (‘Scratch’) is largely a collection of blank pages, several lined and then several dotted. A few of these have prompts, e.g. “Your character opens a door and…”, “Write a story in 100 words or less including these four words…”, “Draw a map that would be relevant to your character”, etc.

The final ‘Productivity’ section includes some writing session logs, space for a to-do list, and asks you to answer some important questions, e.g.: why are you working on this project? What parts of your craft do you want to improve? I really like this: it’s not just plotting or examining your characters, it’s about YOU, the writer, too. I have a feeling reading the answers to these would be highly motivational once the initial shiny glamour has worn off, and the going gets tougher.

I was initially a bit cynical about this book, given it’s 90% white space, really. I’d also have to suggest that it really doesn’t work so well in eBook/electronic format. However, even just reading through (rather than filling it in), I completely came around to the idea of having this kind of log for a writing project. It asks some really great questions, reminds you of several important areas to consider for a project, and generally just felt kind of exciting – a blank map to be filled out, as you start on your writer’s journey!

Very glad I got to have a look, thanks to NetGalley, and looking forward to getting my hands on a physical copy.

NetGalley eARC: ~206 pages
First published: 2017 (expected in May)
Series: Notebooks with a Purpose (www.atomandink.com)
Read from 3rd-10th February 2017

My rating: 8/10

Moana (2016)

Many many years ago, the demi-god Maui stole the heart of the Mother Island, Ti Fiti, starting a plague of death and decay. Legends say that one day a hero will travel beyond the lagoon, find Maui, and force him to return the heart, thus breaking the curse and saving mankind.

Moana grows up hearing such stories from her grandmother (the self-proclaimed “village crazy lady” :)) and it leaves her with an urge to explore the giant, unknowable blue beyond their paradise island lagoon’s safe barrier. Unfortunately, not crossing that barrier is the one rule of the island – and given that Moana is being primed to take over from her father as the island’s chief, breaking the rules isn’t really an option.

Faced with a choice between her head and her heart, what can Moana choose?

I always go into animated movies with slight trepidation: even if the reviews are good, are they kid-movie good, or movie-movie good? I’m pleased to report that Moana was the latter, and I got exactly what I was looking for: some light-hearted fun, lots of giggles, and minimal saccharine.

First off, I really loved that we’re getting a legend from a different culture rather than yet another European Grimm rehash. Moana is very much in the ‘new’ Disney princess mold: strong, opinionated, and not the size of a twig. And Polynesian.

I also really liked the humour. Maui is voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who does a wonderful job of sending himself up by making the character ridiculously full of himself. And then there’s the chicken. Seriously. Loved that chicken! 🙂

The story doesn’t stray too far from what you’d expected, with themes of finding your inner strength, self-belief, etc, but all done nicely with next to no saccharine. I’d very happily watch this again – and there is no higher praise for an animated movie, I think!

Released: 2nd December 2016
Viewed: 17th January 2017
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 8/10