INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone
(The Great Library #1)
By Rachel Caine
NAL – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780451472397 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


Imagine if the Royal Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed in flames.
My latest review is now up at Skiffy & Fanty on Ink and Bone, the first book in Rachel Caine’s new series: The Great Library. Read the review here!

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher as part of the Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

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LINESMAN, by S.K. Dunstall

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Linesman
By S.K. Dunstall
Ace Books – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780425279526 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


I keep going back and forth on how I feel about Linesman, the debut novel of a series written by Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall. It has some issues, which of course I’ll get to, but ultimately it is a solid, entertaining space opera, with a protagonist I found interesting. And balancing each problem I saw with the work, the Dunstall pair did something else really well that I appreciated.
Ean Lambert is a Linesman, rated at the highest level of ten. But he is also a pariah, self-taught and from a disadvantaged background, with odd behaviors and views of the lines that every conventionally trained Linesman considers quetionable, bordering on a sign of insanity.
The problem is that though the lines have been used for centuries, no one really knows what they are, or what exactly they could be capable of. The lines have allowed humanity to travel the stars as never before. Apparent remnants of some alien technology, the lines form an intimate connection with ships, powering them to safely travel through the Void, effectively giving humans faster-than-light travel technology. Through the centuries humans manage to figure out what most of the lines seem to do, and come to a rough understanding how some people have the power to control them. Humanity has spread out among the stars into an empire. But politically organized business interests and others stand in opposition to the Empire, near war. A strange confluence of lines and the discovery of a dangerous derelict alien vessel propel competing political factions into a race to capture potential new line technology, and a powerful weapon.
By happenstance Ean is thrust into the center of this building conflict, but members of the empire begin to realize that Ean’s unique approach to the lines may be the key to everything. Ean doesn’t just fix lines and use them, he sings to them, he hears their music. As his powers and abilities build he finds that he can communicate with them, and that the lines may be far more than ever suspected, and the mysterious alien race that once used them could one day represent a grave danger for humanity.
One of the best aspects of Linesman is how well the Dunstalls relate this universe to their readers. Things are explained as thoroughly as the characters understand, and the info dump of material blends in rather seamlessly. However, they do a bit too much in trying to make sure readers have gotten things straight. For instance, I began getting tired of reading how ‘no one knows what lines seven and eight do’. This sticks out in mind, but there were other aspects to plot and character that became repetitively pointed out.
Cutting that repetitiveness would’ve been a good start, but I also did feel it could have used some larger trimming, particularly chapters from the point of view of another Linesman, Rossi. Ean has a rather unconfident personality – which makes sense given who he is, where he is from. But I still found him endearing, I like rooting for underdogs and the under-appreciated. But Rossi is just a complete ass. And like most of the characters in the novel, he doesn’t really change. (I hope characters can go through more development in the follow up to this). Rossi is from the other side, the enemy of those Ean Lambert works for. So Rossi’s sections are here to give us some of that perspective, but also to relate plot details that Ean isn’t present for. For the most part I didn’t find those necessary though. And with so few redeeming qualities it is hard to see him other than as a sneering character ‘type’.
Despite this weakness of Linesman, its otherwise careful construction, excellent dialogue, and tremendously entertaining action/shifting plot made it a real enjoyable read throughout. (And Rossi’s chapters are at least mostly short). The Dunstalls relate the action of a scene well, I could follow what was going on easily. By making the exact nature of the lines (and their origin) a bit of a mystery the novel also helped keep my attention through curiosity to find out more on how all these things worked – and the authors seriously tease the reader’s curiosity with the novel’s last line!
Linesman is a fun space opera and the authors show a lot of potential – as does the series itself for going interesting places. I’ve read a cluster of ‘first-in-a-series’ recently and this one seems to be set up to go in interesting new directions. At the same time this novel has a clear resolution to work well enough, satisfyingly, on its own should one choose not to keep reading future volumes.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

I AM CRYING INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES by Clifford D. Simak

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I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories
The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume I
By Clifford D. Simak
(with Introductions by David W. Wixon, Editor)
Open Road Media – 20th October 2015
ISBN 9781504012652) – 332 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


UPDATE: The release date for this was marked incorrectly on NetGalley and Goodreads, so I ended up publishing this WAY earlier than I would otherwise have. I’ve now updated the date here and on Goodreads based on the information on Amazon.com and the publisher’s website.

CONTENTS:
“Installment Plan”
“I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air”
“Small Deer”
“Ogre”
“Gleaners”
“Madness From Mars”
“Gunsmoke Interlude”
“I Am Crying All Inside”
“The Call From Beyond”
“All the Traps of Earth”

Aside from Isaac Asimov novels and the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, I haven’t really read much classic science fiction. I feel there is something worthwhile in expanding horizons, also into the historical context of the past, so I was pleased to have a chance to check out the start to this collection of the complete short fiction by Golden Age author Clifford D. Simak.
As you might expect for something written over half-a-century ago some of Simak’s stories are a bit dated in terms of both the science and culturally. But they aren’t particularly offensive to modern sensibilities and there is still a lot to be enjoyed within these stories. It should appeal to anyone wanting more exposure to classic tales of the genre from an author whose stories age relatively well and people who want to revisit beloved Simak tales.
This first volume of a planned fourteen in the collection doesn’t seem to have any particular scheme to its organization, but the tales do span a range of the types of stories and themes that I gather Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Simak is best known for. Each story is preceded by a short introduction from editor and executor of Simak’s writing estate, David W. Dixon.
I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories begins with a longer story that features Simak’s repeated exploration of robotic intelligence and emotion. Robots are obviously a frequently visited topic in SF, not new even in Simak’s time. Despite the familiarity of the types of questions/dilemmas regarding robots that Simak delves into, his take still doesn’t come off as cliched now, or dull. While I find the opening story “Installment Plan” to be overly long, it did resonate with how human the robots were it in, not mere automatons, but created instruments that had emotions and personalities. Simak’s robots seem more alive and human than many of his human protagonists. The concluding story “All the Traps of Earth” returns to the robot themes in a far more powerful story where a robot who has escaped mandatory memory erasure finds a home and purpose elsewhere beyond, but not completely divorced from, humanity.
“Small Deer” and “Gleaners” are two representatives of Simak time-travel stories. The latter is about a group that goes back in time to retrieve objects of value and felt like an early version of a story that I’ve seen crop up often in recent years still. Simak’s seems less about the cleverness of the time-travel setup as about the intrigue of the story and characters. “Small Deer” on the other hand is more about the idea than the particular adventure of the plot. In it a man goes back in time to witness the extinction of the dinosaurs and discovers what killed them may be back again for humankind. I enjoyed the story for its “Twilight Zone” type vibe, and it is an example of a Simak tale that includes some elements of horror.
Simak, who won a Stoker achievement award in its first year of being offered, does employ light horror in some of his stories, most evident here with “Madness from Mars” and “The Call from Beyond”. The latter can be accurately described as Simak trying some Lovecraft flavors. Both stories feature humanity discovering something unsettling and strange as a result of space exploration. These weren’t my favorite stories here, and the science in “Madness from Mars” is particularly dated, but they are fairly good.
The titular “I Am Crying All Inside” and “Gunsmoke Interlude” were the stories I least enjoyed. The latter is straight up pulp Western, a genre I simply could care less about. “I Am Crying All Inside” is one of the most emotionally resonant stories here, the most touching. While Simak made his robots larger-than-life, it seems he usually made his humans more salt-of-the-Earth. Wixon quotes Simak in the intro to this story as responding to criticism of his human protagonists as ‘losers’ with the explanation: “I like losers”. The folksy nature and regional dialect of the voice in the story ruined it for me.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air” and “Ogre” were my favorite stories of the bunch. I largely liked both of these stories because of the biological elements they contained and their shared theme of anti-exploitation.
The former story though is weakened by going on far too long for what it is, and with a fair amount of repetition. In it a man arrives on another planet intent on stripping it of its resources for his own economic benefit, with nothing but contempt and disregard for the planet’s ‘simple’, ‘uncultured’ inhabitants. But after an ‘accident’ leaving him dead, the planet’s lifeforms resurrect him in a body more suitable for the environment and he learns the hard way that his preconceptions are way off, and his greed abhorred. Actually, the guy never really ‘learns’ the errors of his way as much as the reader is given a cautionary tale. I loved the biological alien detail here linked to the planet’s properties, and for a time at least I read with an interpretation that the planet itself was a sentient life guiding these events.
“Ogre” is another fairly long story, but this time rightly so. It features wonderful biological speculation of sentient plant life and plant life adopted to give photosynthetic capabilities to humans through symbiosis. Interesting stuff, and coupled with it we get a plot again warning against the dangers of exploiting another culture and resources. In this story, members of exploration group try to prevent another human from harvesting sentient trees (that are also musical) and taking them back to Earth. Another notable aspect to the story is that it features a set of space exploration rules very much akin to what years later would form the ‘Prime Directive’ of Star Trek‘s Federation.
Overall I’m looking forward to seeing the other volumes collecting Simak’s fiction, and this reaffirms to me the use of at least trying out some classic Golden Age SFF. It is impossible now to read everything that has gone before to form the genre field and still keep up with the exciting directions it is going today to evolve from that past. But dipping into the historical perspective is valuable not just in showing what has been done well, but also what mistakes to not make or move on from. And it is reassuring – though simultaneously slightly depressing – to see social themes still explored today already brought up so many decades ago in that Golden Age of SF.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-Reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

DISCOVERING TUBERCULOSIS, by Christian W. McMillen

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Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to Present
By Christian W. McMillen
Yale University Press – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780300190298 – 352 Pages – Hardback
Source: NetGalley


For now, just a short posting review of this, as I will be writing a more complete review soon for incorporation into a Small Things Considered piece on the topic of current tuberculosis vaccine research, addressing some of the science behind what this book addresses from a primarily historical perspective.
While the author of this is a historian and the realm of history is the primary focus of this book, it obviously contains some medical and scientific details. But it should be easily accessible for any lay reader. As a microbiologist familiar more with the bacteria than the disease and its treatment history I found a lot in this that I hadn’t been aware of, particularly in the earlier periods when Tb was frequently thought to be more easily contracted by non-white groups of people, such as the American Indians.
The book covers these early views steeped in racism and colonialism through the data that argued against such interpretations. It then covers the development of the Tb vaccine and consistent questions/uncertainties of its effectiveness. Finally the book covers the more modern – but at this point hardly new – threat of Tb infection in the face of HIV. Throughout, McMillen addresses the question of why Tb continues to be a scourge despite a century of global health efforts.
Overall McMillen provides a good historical coverage of the topic. At times I was annoyed at repetitiveness in the text, and I would have appreciated both more coverage of  future prospects for Tb vaccines, and more of a scientific discussion of the issues behind this whole history in general. I would recommend this for a general audience with interest in history, medicine, and/or global humanitarian health efforts. I will post a link to what I write for Small Things Considered after its publication.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.