Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

CITIES AND THRONES by Carrie Patel

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Cities and Thrones
Recoletta Series #2
By Carrie Patel
Angry Robot Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780857665539 – 444 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


I purchased Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life in anticipation of an advanced reading copy of this sequel, and after reading that first volume set-up of Recoletta I was intrigued enough in the story and invested enough in the characters to continue. Yet, I also hoped for some changes. The Buried Life is a combination of post-apocalyptic steampunk with a police procedural. The procedural, or mystery, component to that novel appears dominant as the novel begins, but any expectations for the narrative to continue in that traditional genre vein become shifted as machinations in the background shift the protagonist from trying to solve a mystery/crime to something far larger, sudden political shifts.
The Buried Life introduced the post-apocalyptic setting of a deteriorating, underground city named Recoletta. Inspector Liesl Malone and her partner Rafe Sundar go against an antagonistic city bureaucracy to investigate the murder of a renowned historian. Probing into the lives of the city elite, Malone catches the interest of mysterious Roman Arnault, a complex man whose allegiances and intentions remain guarded. Meanwhile, events draw Jane Lin, a laundress who serves the upper class, into the investigation and she in turn draws involvement of her reporter friend Fredrick Anders. This investigation unravels, or blows up, to toss these characters into a turmoil that picks up here in Cities and Thrones. While Malone remains in a new Recoletta to try and maintain order amid the chaos of political change, Jane and Fredrick flee the city for the world above, a Communes that operates far differently than the existence they’ve known.
The twist in the dominant flavor of that first book from procedural mystery to larger scale political intrigue and conflict was unexpected enough to be jarring, awkward even though my brain told me that I should appreciate subversion of a reader’s comfortable expectations. Even accepting that twist however, I felt so much of the ‘screen time’ had been wasted on setting up what now seemed to be Patel’s real story for Recoletta, the events that would continue in the second volume. I would have favored less of the mystery set up for more of the conflict and intrigue that bursts to the surface. For that reason I enjoyed this second volume, Cities and Thrones, more than its predecessor. It spends its entire time on the characters within the political intrigues of their post-apocalyptic world. The characters still evolve, the story still holds surprises, but unlike with The Buried Life, the kind of story you feel Patel is telling here doesn’t change on you midway.
Not all readers of the Recoletta series will agree with me completely on this of course. Some I know really liked the mystery element to the first novel. I originally had planned on reviewing Cities and Thrones for Skiffy and Fanty. With my delay in being able to writing something up, my reviewing colleague Paul Weimer beat me to the punch. I could offer an alternate view there in theory, but I really have to agree with much of Paul’s reaction to the novel, which he seems to have enjoyed about as much as I. I encourage you to read it here. His only significant criticism with Cities and Thrones is summed up with this:
“For better or worse, the murder mystery in The Buried Life gave the novel a skeleton and a roadmap of a plot on which the author hung her worldbuilding, politics and everything else. That skeleton was sometimes too thick, and the things hung on it too thin for my taste sometimes, but it was an effective template nevertheless. Without that murder mystery as a skeleton, this novel has something of a structure problem.”
I won’t disagree with these perceptions of structure and pacing in Patel’s sequel vis à vis the first novel. But for me the sense of chaos within the plot’s structure and pacing here actually enhanced the novel. It seemed to perfectly fit with the uncertainty at all levels of the character’s predicaments and society.
As in the first novel, Cities and Thrones is mostly concerned with political and economic power, with class structure and divisions. Without a murder investigation surrounding it all, Patel seems more free here to explore these themes. Malone struggles with moral ambiguities between freedom and order, while Jane in particular tries to navigate an entirely new world and way of surviving. They discover truths and strengths, and some personal weaknesses. Patel excels best with forming these two female characters. The males who hold their interest, Roman and Fredrick respectively, are both also complex, but as more expected ‘types’: a mysterious rogue, and the loyal friend. Jane and Malone both show more diversity and unique shift in what ‘type’ their character inhabits as the story continues.
I am looking forward to the next volume in this series, mostly because I find the characters exceptionally fascinating from their ambiguities and imperfections. I don’t know as I’m that invested in what particularly ends up happening to their world or society, as much as I want to see what choices they make, where they go next. With the second novel I felt that Patel has gained surer footing in her construction of the novel, though others may disagree. But for either side of opinions on that, I think that most readers have still enjoyed her building story of Recoletta and its environs.

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

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
ASIN: B00FO80TPE
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2013
Source: NetGalley

Kage Baker is a name I was familiar with, but I had only read one of her stories in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine years ago. Interested in experiencing more of her work I was excited at the opportunity to read this collection, but ended up feeling ambivalent during most of the time reading it. Yet for fans of Baker I am sure this will be a welcome and highly enjoyed volume, particularly in the absence of further works following her unfortunate death from cancer at a relatively young age.

Part of my difficulty of appreciating these stories likely stemmed from my ignorance about this “Company” universe that her stories mostly fit into. This is probably not an ideal book to start out for an introduction to Baker’s works. Oddly, the last story in the collection, written by Baker’s sister from notes and fragments that Baker left prior to her death, does the best job at imparting a background to this universe and the rules that defines its characters and their abilities. Sadly this comes at the end, and is written in a very stated fashion rather than anything particularly literary.

The second hurdle inherently facing these stories is their length, primarily novellas. The novella is a tricky beast, too long for the artistry and impact of a short story, too short to develop complexities and overall meditative themes that a novel can afford. Really it fits best stories that are pulpish, prolonged, multi-staged adventures that mix lightheartedness with bits of excitements and thrills. For me most of the stories here dragged, and simply wore out my interest, perhaps because I just don’t have an appreciation for Baker’s style of humor.

Nonetheless, there were a couple of high points to the collection that I enjoyed. The opening story, “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” was engaging and sublime, and succeeds in part because it maintains an appropriate length. Rather than going for word count the story stays on point and has a profound hook in its investigation of a character with characteristics of autism who is immortal and is exploited for his unique abilities. “The Women of Nell Gwynnes” was the most enjoyable of the novella length pieces, really a combination of two intriguing stories. First it covers the history and recruitment of a srong-willed independent woman into a secretive organization and then for the second portion goes into her first ‘mission’ with this group. Here the story is exciting and the additional portions of text and background that fill out the main ‘action’ are of note for Baker’s no nonsense tackling of the feminine.

Two-and-Half Stars out of Five

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738461
224 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.” – publisher description

A quick read that surprised me in how much I enjoyed the ride. “Odd Men Out” largely works positively because Betts appears to have had so much fun writing it, and such an endearment for fun pieces of genre fiction from sci fi to horror. Mention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the introduction to the novel got me excited and hopeful; entering into the story fulfilled those emotions, Betts manages to keep the story serious enough in tone while still having a lot of fun poking at troupes and throwing in amusing references. One lovely pun in reference to “Jaws” made me chuckle for a while.

As others note, the novel is a hodgepodge mix of genre elements from apocalyptic to alt history, to steampunk, to B movie monster movies, and on and on. What makes this work is that Betts keeps the same tone throughout and above all the same style. Despite many elements, the book at heart is a simple adventure story, full of action and crisp writing. The story, and its execution are just simply fun.

What disappointed me about the novel was firstly that it is too short. Some portions seem rushed, with action taking place off-screen that I would’ve been curious to ‘see’. Betts could have also used some more room to get in better characterization (without losing the story’s pace and pulse). At the end of this I have a vague sense of who the characters were – as in their ‘role’ to the story. Their identities, however… What really makes them tick and unique… not so much. In addition their interactions – particularly in the romance aspect – is predictable, clichéd, and thus kind of lifeless. Obviously though, these sorts of issues aren’t what’s at the forefront of a book like this, so while I could imagine it being better, these disappointments didn’t seriously detract from the entertainment at its core.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, this isn’t the type of book I’d normally first go to and pick up cold without knowing the author or trusted reviews. I had entered a previous giveaway from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title I actually was more interested in from the blurb. Failed to win that, but at the time I had looked into the publisher and their entire independent catalog I was intrigued. When I saw this from the same publisher I signed up more to see one of their titles moreso than this particular novel. I’ll gladly seek out future works by Betts though, hoping they’ll keep the fun and magic with improvements to boot.

I could never afford to get lots of their releases, (being independent small press, they aren’t likely to be easy to find second-hand) but I would also be willing now to try ones at full price that did look good. Normally I wouldn’t comment on price and construction like this, but this book is also one of the sturdiest and nicest paperbacks (trade) that I’ve had, and for once I’d consider the full price of a trade paperback to be worth it. I carry books around all the time, on the bus reading to work, etc, and usually they become bent, scarred, creased, despite my best attempts at keeping them pristine. This kept its corners rigid, had no easy creasing, etc. I was so impressed I thought I should say something.

It should be easy to tell if you like this kind of book: the genres, the easy reading, etc. If you do, definitely try getting ahold of a copy. Then watch some MST3K, you’ll be in the mood assuredly.

Four  Stars out of Five

While merging this review from Goodreads and adding a publisher link I noticed that Odd Men Out has garnered some award nominations. Check out the news here.