Monday 31 August 2020

Short Story Review: The Last Conversation by Paul Tremlay, narrated by Stevan Strait

The Last Conversation The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Totally compelling read, straighforwardly (no pun intended) narrated by Stevan Strait, who some will know as the lead in The Expanse series. I'm not usually a reader of horror and so have never read anything from this author before, but I was impressed by his ability to deliver a grand hook of a tale. Yes I've read books and seen movies which deal with a single person in a room. Waking up,not seeing, not knowing how you got there and not remembering much, if anything, is where he starts his second person narrative. The protagonist is unnamed, ungendered and is being cared for by Dr Kuhn, or Annie as we come to know her, who initially our protagonist only hears as she is not in the room . *****SPOILER ALERT **** we gradually become aware, alongwith our protagonist, thatshe appears, ominously to be seeding him with memories. The reader's imagination runs riot trying to ensigage why this woudl be, and maybe some readers will work it out, but although I had many thoughts about this whilst reading it I didn't, surprisingly, get the correct one. We know there has been a pandemic, and that the protagonist is in isolation till his immune system stabilises. I'm not going to say any more about how the plot line develops as this really would spoil it big time. Suffice to say that in many ways this story, whilst ostensibly focused on the protangonist, is about Annie, and leaves the reader pondering her predicament at the end of the novella. The writing builds up beautifully and it is an addictive read. Trembley writes some thought provoking moments eg "how could one lose something as expansive as an ocean in a dusty crner of one's mind? What if, instead, to forget is to open a door to a void; the memory is not retrievable because it is not there, was never there" what a horrid thought!

This is another one of the stories from Amazon's Forward Collection, the more I read of these the more I am impressed by the selection curator Blake Crouch has put together. Highly recommend.

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Saturday 29 August 2020

Short Story Review: You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles

You Have Arrived at Your Destination You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story is part of Amazon's Forward Collection which according to its curator was devise as a collection of stories about pivotal technological moments. In this story Amor Towles as chosen the subject of designer babies.

***SPOILER ALERT ***Sam is a successfull, moneyed, mortgage free 45 year old who is visiting Vitek a fertility clinic with a difference, not only can you pick boy/girl, blue/brown eyes etc but you can influence the intelligence and temperament of you future child. His wife Annie has done a lot of the legwork and when he gets to the clinic he is presented with her three options. These are presented as three short video montages of what each child's live would be like.

The first projection, Daniel One has " from the day he was born, Daniel had a smile on his face"; Daniel Two "marches to the beat of his own drum" and for Daniel Three "everything came easy". These are shown to Sam in a 15 seat movie theatre by MT Owens of Vitek, who sees these as mini movies and talks about each life as if it were a three act play. Seeing these potential lives acted out makes Sam reflect on his own life and his marriage. He takes exception to MTs talk about classic "second-act setbacks" during which people come face to face with their own limitations and there being "no point in pushing our personalities uphill". This is made all the more personal and cutting when MT remarks that Annie is still in her second-act, but Sam is already in his third and has been there for 15 years already. This prompts Sam to leave the building.

He ends up in a down at heels bar on a bypassed side road off the highway, where things get a little tense as Sam gets very drunk in conversation with Beezer and the barkeep Nick. More about Sam's upbringing is revealed and about the history of Vitek which Beezer reckons is an offshot of the previous occupants of that building the defense contractor Raytheon "because genetics is the fuure of defense". Sam goes back to Vitek to retrieve his DNA "sample" and returns to his new friends in the bar.

This story flows along really well, Towles paints three different characters as the potential children, and wonderfully interspaces their screening with Sam's own reflections, his concerns about his own life, about Annie's, about his father's impact on his childhood. The character of MT is perfectly OTT salesman, and the seed of a conspiracy theory which is dropp in towards the end by Beezer leaves a bitter taste not just with Sam but leaves the reader with a sense of dread.
It is very well structured, well ended and well written. It is just the type of short story which makes a great movie. I loved it and couldn't fault it, hence the 5*

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Short Story Review: This World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer

This World is Full of Monsters This World is Full of Monsters by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Jeff VanderMeer is like experience a surreal rollercoaster ride through a hallucinatory world of strange fleetings images drenched in nature and the unreal, perhaps a bit like a Salvador Dali painting where everything is familiar and unfaniliar at the same time. I keep reading more of his writing in a hope of figuring it and him out, I'm still trying.

All I can say about this story is at times I thought I caught onto what he was actually writing about and meaning and then it would slip from my grasp only to be replaced by something else to tackle. The story sees a man, a writer taken over by "a story creature" and I could stretch to interpreting this as what happens when a writer is struggling wiht his writing, becomes so into his emerging story that it takes over his life. The story creature sprouts and the narrator feels "some thing growing through me.....I was awash in dreams of chlorophyll and photosynthesis" and doesn't wake for a hundred years.

The narrator also encounters a "school-creature" and is "set loose as a history lesson". Then he encounters a "single celled creature" which acts as a life-presever in the ocean, but which is battered by the narrator as he struggles to disentangle himself from it.

He is given a brother by the story creature an dsees his life though the brother's eyes but when this brother dies he leaves "a residue that was an anti-story....(which) would grow and accumulate...until it was too late to do anything but turn to the left and change and change again" On reading that part I was thinking about 'false-news' especially when he writes "...more peope spread the anti-story until eventually it was the story not the anti-story and there had never been an anti-story at all, or any other story to rule the Earth".

His next embodiment is the "dead-shell creature" when the narrator feels he "was his own fish" experiencing what it is like "to be other than human" Shedding this body his final encounter is with the "story-sea" which ultimately disgorges the narrator into the cosmos where he tells of being "flung into the stratoshpere" as if from a "mighty trampoline", acheiveing "escape velocity" and being expulsed "through light and dark into dark and weightlessness....tumbling end ove end though vaccuum" as he and his fellow travllers were "dispersed farther and farther...headed to other become story-creatures" There's a circulatory sensation about this part, it is almost like a rebirthing much like a 'bigbang' as particales are flung out to 'populate' worlds and indeed one does feel as sense of having read an epic and is filled with a sense of optimism at the end of the piece.

JeffVanderMeer is for me a very strange, yet very compelling, read.

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Friday 28 August 2020

Short Story Review: Randomize By Andy Weir

Randomize Randomize by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short story is part of Amazon Forward Collection which according to the sleeve notes from its curator are from authors ask to explore "the resounding effects of a pivotal technological moment".
With this story Andy Weir chose quantum computing. According to wikipedia "Quantum computing is the use of quantum phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation" and therein to me lies the problem with this story - I didn't become entangled in the storyline.

The plot is a simple one, an external one, made into many stories and movies about Las Vegas Casino-land heists, brilliant minds powerd by greed think they can outwit the casino to win big. But add something as unfathomable as quantum computing into this mix and a lot of explanation has to take place to woo the average reader. We know Weir can do this from his brilliant The Martian and his explanation here of "agreement in advance" using the example of two drivers at cross directional traffic lights is clear, but ****SPOILER ALERT ***having the criminal mastermind explain it all to reassure her hsuband of their plan is for me a bit too obviously explanation for the reader.

Moreover the plot fails for me at three points,
(1) when the installer of the casino's new quantum computer says to its IT guy "remember it's only as good as the security on this computer" - dead giveaway;
(2) when the installer says to his wife "It was easy enough to sneak it (the computer) here for you to prepare" - really!!!
(3) bending a casino manager into the plan - athough perhaps it is credible that a person in this position would also be greedy, wouldn't he also have people background checking, monitoring and 'putting the fears' on him? - it was just too convenient an ending for me.

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Thursday 27 August 2020

Book Review: The Black God's Drums by P Djèlí Clarke narrated by Channie Waites

The Black God's Drums The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Continuing my reading of this author's works.

This is set in an alternative history where the 18/19 century Haitain slave rebellion's reach was much greater impacting the whole Caribbean, but the US civil war continued and a free and independent New Orleans was created.

It is here that street kid "Creeper" comes into possession of some important and sellable information about the whereabouts of a kidnapped Haitian scientist who invented a new and terrible weapon "The Black God's Drums" and who is now in the hands of a smuggler who is making a deal to hand him over with Confederates.

Whereas in A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 PDC interwove Arabic culture and folklore here he uses Yoruba dieties from Nigeria to infuse spirit into his female lead characters who carry the goddess Oya and Oshun's within them as per his dedication on the book's opening page "To those who survived the crossing, and who carried their Black gods with them". It is this melding of cultures that appeals to me in his work.

I loved the character of teenager Creeper, strong with the spirit of Oya the goddess of wind, streetwise, knows what she wants - to see the world. The information she uncoveres about the scientist offers her a means of becoming crew on the famous airship Midnight Robber whose captain is also endowed with the spirit of Oshun the goddess of water. How these two women save scientist, stop the use of the weapon and save the day for New Orleans and the world is a classic story but the scene where the goddesses come into action is well done and highly visual.

The audible version is read by a naarator called Channie Waites who does a great job making PDC's often weird sentance structures transform into a vibrant dialect and thus his characters become real and leap of the page with life, particular Creeper.

Just like in his Cairo works PDC creates a novel landscape in which to play out his story. Not great literature but another great piece of rollicking good storytelling.

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Wednesday 26 August 2020

Book Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djèlí Clarke

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm gobbbling up PDC's writings at the moment like they are a sweet tray of chocolates with cream to dip them in.

This is a novella length story set in his incredible fantastical steampunk , djinn filled world of an alternative 1912 Cairo. I love the blend of East and West, of detective drama and spirit world fantasy, of folklore and myth, "boilerplate eunuchs"and alternative sociopolitical histories.

In this story we meet more agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, Hamad Nasr a man trying to be a modern man, and his youthful rookie sidekick Onsi as they deal with the haunting of the title.

I love the way PDC brings related everyday things into this world - budget problems within the department, Suffragettes, the rookie reciting the legislation to everyone's boredom yet in the end his skills shine through and the older inspector warms to his new buddy, and the bug of detectives everywhere, paperwork.

Along with his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo this is a tour de force in world building which I am so pleased it looks like he is going to continue with in A Master of Djinn set for release in 2021. PDC definitely has an eye for the ridiculous, the comic, and for telling a great story, a master of balance. I hope this world continues to grow. A rollicking read.

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Saturday 22 August 2020

Short Story Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo By P Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in Cairo

A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long story or novelette,  depending on your terminology, but above all a squashbuckling detective thriller of a steampunk story. It is available online

The author has created a fantastic world, set in an alternative early 1900s Cairo which has been opened up to magic and djinns and possibly angelic beings from another world. The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities now investigates disturbances between the mortal and the divine.

Our adventure is led by special investigator Fatma el-Sha'arawi, a dashing precence with her black bowler hat, light gray Englishman's suit, matching vest, chartreuse tie, red-on-white pinstriped shirt and black steel walking cane capped by a lion's head silver pommel. The call out of this night's work for her is to a dead djinn found dead in his home, apparently a suicide. But that cannot be. So begins a tour of the world the author has begun to create, to the old Khedive’s summer palace, to the fortune teller at the House of the Lady of the Stars, to the murky underworld where the beings meet, hints at the backstory of al-Jahiz who 40 yrs earlier had opened the hole to the Kaf, the realm of the djinn.

This is the second piece in two days that I have read by this P Djèlí Clark and I will be reading more. I listened to Audible's version, very well narrated by actress Suehyla El-Attar who I hope continues to be the voice of Fatma if Clark writes more about this world, which I sincerely hope he does.

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Friday 21 August 2020

Short Story Review: The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P Djèlí Clark

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story won the Nebula Best Short Story 2018 Prize. It tells the 9 stories behind the 9 teeth which are the subject of an entry (I suppose real entry) in a plantation account book. Each is a fantastical tale of their owner's life. Each is embued with magic, sorcery, and two words I had to look up 'thaumturgical' (Having, brought about by, or relating to supernatural powers or magic) and 'obeah' (a kind of sorcery practised especially in the Caribbean). Each tooth has a mysterious effect on its purchaser, one George Washington.
First thing I have read by this author, and am now on the hunt for more.

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Thursday 20 August 2020

Book Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slow and gentle story of friendship. It is subtle, full of brush strokes worthy of a grandmaster of the floating world - simple yet complex, seemingly light yet heavy with meaning. Just after finishing this story I watched the first episode of a BBC series entitled The Art of Japanese Life and was struck with so many similarities between the style of many modern Japanese novels and what the documentary was saying about the role of Nature , Zen and Shinto in Japan. I also watched the movie of this book directed by Naomi Kawase in intimate close up, perfect for the sentiment of the novel.

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Short Story Review: The City Born Great by NK Jemison , narrated by Landon Woodson

The City Born Great The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
Loved the narration (4*) by Landon Woodson who captivated this listener with his voicing of the street wise, down at heel, graffitti painting, birth mother of the city of New York in this intriguing fantastical prequel to the new NK Jemison book The City We Became. I'll have to add it to my to be read list now. Jemisin never disappoints as a storyteller

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Short Story Review: Emergency Skin by NK Jemisin, narrated by Jason Issacs

Emergency Skin

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliantly narrated by Jason Isaacs, this is just the best speculative short I've read in ages! It is witty, political, fully of social commentary, speculative yet highly relevant today. The voice of the AI inside the head of the bodyless soldier sent back to Earth to get cell cultures necassary for the survival of the elitist regime is the voice of the brainwashed, the fooled by dogma and false news and rewitten histories, the voice of oppression, the voice of enslavement. 

ashramblings verdict 5* Quite simply a brilliant way to spend an hour. Highly recommended

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